The WMMS Coffee Break Concerts
The Coffee Break Concert debuted in March 1972, well over a year before I got to WMMS. Billy Bass, who was program director, came up with the idea when Elektra Records offered him a live performance by singer-songwriter Carol Hall, who had just released her first album, Beads and Feathers. Bass accepted, and Hall performed in WMMS’s small production studio.
It eventually developed into a weekly feature in a fixed time slot of Wednesday mornings at 11.
Denny Sanders auditioned performers with the patience of Job, often politely sitting through still another young singer’s cover of a Neil Young tune. Though, through it all, he was able to spotlight some true local talent like John Bassette, Alex Bevan, and Jim Glover. Singer-songwriter Marc Cohn appeared on the Coffee Break the day after his eighteenth birthday.
When we moved to the Cleveland Plaza from our 50th & Euclid bunker, we had a larger studio but it was still not conducive to electric performances with multiple instruments. We managed an acoustic performance with Kenny Loggins and his full band.
During the show Loggins said, “You know, this non-electric acoustic performance is pretty cool. Too bad we couldn’t videotape it.” Little did we realize that we would be an influence on MTV for its Unplugged series, which I was told was patterned after the Coffee Break Concerts and was suggested by an MTV staffer with Cleveland roots.
We took the Coffee Break Concert to a live audience show in 1979 when Bobby McGee’s, a club in Playhouse Square, expressed interest in hosting it. The result was a short-lived, largely forgotten experiment. The first one featured Alex Bevan. The second one had Buzzy Linhart. The third never came off: no one showed up to open the club.
Denny was upset but suggested approaching Hank LoConti to move the show there. The only reason we hadn’t gone to him first was that the other club came to us first and it seemed like a long shot that Hank would open up his nighttime club, where we’d had a WMMS Night Out concert the night before, for a daytime show.
The Agora move changed everything. We eventually changed the time of the show from 11 AM to 1 PM to draw the late lunch crowd. Hank was all for it for a number of reasons. Among them, admission was free, but the booze wasn’t and serving alcohol at 1 PM in the afternoon was found money.
The new venue allowed us to go electric, though we offered performers the option of doing an acoustic show. Most chose to be electric though one exception was John Cougar Mellencamp, whose acoustic show stood out as one of the best performance of the series.
Felix Cavaliere, formerly of the Rascals, used the show’s freedom in a different way, doing a solo performance with just keyboards – another amazing show.
Other acts included local and regional favorites, the Michael Stanley Band, American Noise, Wild Horses, the Godz, Lucky Pierre, Love Affair, I-Tal, Breathless, and the Jerry Busch Group.
National artists included U2, INXS, Bryan Adams, the Romantics, Cyndi Lauper, Artful Dodger, Donnie Iris & the Cruisers, the Fixx, Quiet Riot, and Foghat. We booked Alcatraz, a Swedish band featuring then-unknown guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen.
At the time UHF TV stations were carrying per inquiry commercials for a performer named Boxcar Willie. I half-joked about getting Boxcar Willie to do a Coffee Break – but Denny was dead serious, and managed to track him down and got him booked.
Cox Cable videotaped a few Coffee Break Concerts for its local access channel, though its cost couldn’t be justified by the cable company bean counters. One can only imagine what the video from those shows would be worth now.
Every show wasn’t flawless. The Scottish band Big Country walked off stage early in their set when lead singer Stuart Adamson stopped the show and said, “we can’t do this.” Their management claimed Adamson lost his singing voice. In reality, the problem was with bassist Tony Butler, who was suffering from a dagger-pain hangover.
The Coffee Break Concerts came to an abrupt halt in October 1984 when a fire did irreparable damage to the Agora following a WMMS Night Out concert with Blackfoot.
They briefly resurfaced four months later at Peabody’s Down Under in the Flats but by that time we were doing so many free concerts, live remotes, and WMMS Buzzard Appreciation Days that the Coffee Break no longer served the purpose it once had.
Though some performances by INXS, Marc Cohn, Warren Zevon, and Tom Waits turned up on bootlegs, bit torrents, or legitimate releases, nearly all the Coffee Break Concert tapes were lost or destroyed along with most of the other WMMS archival material.
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