Realizing you don’t have the talent of Pete Townsend, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin can be a sobering moment for many people, except for people like Michael Hester, founder of Beacon Communications and former NSCA president.
Growing up during a period in which some of the greatest rock-and-roll was ever created, Michael Hester worked as a roadie and sound engineer in Texas during the 1960s, helping legendary artists such as The Who, Janis Joplin, and the Beach Boys through their tour stops through the Lone Star State.
Later Hester would take the lessons he learned from his rock-and-roll experiences and apply them to the business he founded back in the late 1990s to build a successful A/V integration business.
Looking back on his days satisfying the needs of Townsend, Keith Moon, Joplin and others, Hester says he appreciates those experiences every day, and explains how they helped him build his business:
How does someone become a roadie, and have the good fortune to work for a major band like The Who?
Michael Hester: I went to high school with the number one band in Houston in the mid- and late 1960s. The name of the band was The Dimensions, and when the 5th Dimension came out as a major act, The Dimensions had to change their name.
At the time AM ruled the radio airwaves, and the number one station held a contest to choose a new name for the band. For the entire summer, they milked the contest and the name that was chosen was The Sound Investment, which the band hated. To continue being promoted, they had to accept the name and then were signed by Laurie Records.
When a national act came to the region, the promoter used local talent to fill the bill out. The lineup for the Beach Boys tour was The Sound Investment as the opening act, then Strawberry Alarm Clock, Buffalo Springfield and then the Beach Boys. The Who lineup was the Sound Investment, Bubble Puppy, and finally the Who. For Janis Joplin, it was The Sound Investment, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
There was also other shows with bands such as Nazz, Electric Prunes, The Standells, The Grass Roots, and The 13th Floor Elevators. We would typically tour with them in cities such as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and New Orleans. I was never involved in a national tour. On a side note, Laurie Records hired a songwriter name Mickey Newbury to write a hit for the Sound Investment. He showed up at the studio and played two songs. The band chose the ballad which was a local hit only, and he then offered the other song “ I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In” to an up and coming band named the First Edition, with their lead singer Kenny Rogers. The rest is history.
During your days with The Who what were your duties, was it simply setting up and breaking down the band’s gear, and loading, and unloading the trucks?
Michael Hester: I would do all of that for The Sound Investment, as well as run the soundboard for their part of the show. I would also support the road crews for the headliners in all of the above-mentioned duties.
Part of the folklore of The Who and Pete Townsend during the 1960s involves his development of the “Marshall stack.” Do you recall his amplifiers, were you the unlucky guy having to lug his Marshall 8×12 cabinets, which were eventually split into 4x12s because they were simply too big to carry?
Michael Hester: The Who’s equipment was a complete mess. The entire corner was broken off of their sound board. They were using a combination of Marshall amps when we toured with them.
Did Townsend really destroy a lot of equipment? Was he destroying guitars and amps after every show?
Michael Hester: He did at all of the shows that we were with them. They had one guy whose job was to replace the speakers and regrille the amps. He also put the guitars back together after the show. One night, Pete broke one of his favorite guitars and accidentally threw it into the crowd. Pete freaked out and we got another guitar, he signed it, and we tracked the guy down in the audience and exchanged it with some coercing.
In the 1960s, particularly in Texas, did you run into Billy Gibbons’ band Moving Sidewalks who were among other things serving as the opening act for Jimi Hendrix?
Michael Hester: Yes, we all ran in the same circles. Their were three major groups in Houston at the time. The Sound Investment, Moving Sidewalks, and Fever Tree. I was at the Hendrix concert when Billy was wearing red velvet pants with suspenders and the pants completely ripped from stem to stern. I was also there the first night Billy played in a public gig with his new band ZZ Top.
Speaking of Hendrix, did you have run into Jimi’s band and his road crew, which included Lemmy Kilmister, who would go on to form the legendary metal band Motorhead?
Michael Hester: I saw Hendrix three times each time in the two front rows. On a side note, one night the opening act was Chicago Transit Authority and though not as novel as the Hendrix Experience, they were actually better that night.
How does a guy who has an obvious love of music launch a company that would successfully serve the Rocky Mountain region’s school systems?
Michael Hester: I don’t just love music, I am actually addicted to it. I have hundreds of thousand of songs and each week I carefully and lovingly scour all of the new music to add to my collection. I have been in the industry for 38 years, and when I started Beacon [Communications] in 1998 the plan was to be a full-service integrator that did schools, health care, A/V and security. Then the Columbine School shooting happened and for many years we were overwhelmed with the school business. We have since evolved into working all of the other disciplines as well.
It seems like a drastic departure to go from a background where you may have been a roadie, a front of house (FOH) engineer, to an executive that’s built a thriving commercial electronics business?
Michael Hester: The service industry has many different faces. When we toured, we had to set up systems that had to work every time. When something did go wrong we had to fix it— and fix it fast. The commercial electronics business is not so different. As the owner, I felt like I worked for and served our customers, as well as all of our team members.
What did you learn from your days as serving for a roadie for the Who that translate to your business endeavors?
Michael Hester: Working as a roadie was really hard work. We had to meet schedules, deliver the results as promised, and many times please emotional, unreasonable and artistic musicians. Back then we managed expectations, which is what we do now.
Leading a business required many of the same skill sets. I also remember many nights working for our company at midnight. The work day was over, everyone was gone, and I still had work left to do. A couple of times it definitely brought back memories of being a roadie and tearing down the equipment after a show when everyone was gone.
Through all those years of being around people like Pete Townsend, Janis Joplin, The Beach Boys, and many others, did you ever pick up an instrument and learn to play yourself?
Michael Hester: I used to play guitar and drums. I still remember standing backstage and watching Pete Townsend and realizing that I would never be that good. It was at that point that I decided that I had to follow other paths to have success. After the army, I went to college for a communications degree with the idea I might be in the entertainment business in another way.
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Looking back, is there any one band that you wish you could have worked for such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, etc.?
If I am going to wish, I am not going to wish that I worked for one of these bands, but actually perform as a musician in one of those bands.
When you reflect back to those days in the 1960s, were there any situations that you took for granted or realize in hindsight, that something had happened that was really special? Do you have more appreciation for those moments now that you are much older?
After our last night on the Beach Boys tour, the drummer for Buffalo Springfield, Dewey Martin left his stage shirt in the dressing room. I realized it was his and ran to the bus with all the musicians going to the hotel to party. Dewey invited me to come aboard to party and talk with them about working for them. I could not as I still had work to do. Of course I have wondered, ‘what if?’
I am so very grateful to have had the experiences and memories that I have had. It has given me a perspective and appreciation for what goes on in the entertainment industry. We have made donations to our local concert venues and we still enjoy going to many concerts. Recently I was backstage at a Beach Boys concert and was talking with Mike Love. I reminded him of the tour that we all were on and his face lit up.
We were talking about the great lineup when he was called away. I remember Janis Joplin’s laugh. I remember sitting and talking with Neil Young. I remember just how crazy it was backstage with the Who. I am not sure if the magnitude of just how amazing what I got to experience hit me then, but it sure has now. I will never forget it.