George Travis knows who the real boss is. “You end up being part of this little touring group that can be a tight, dysfunctional family that shares one goal: putting on a good show,” he says. “We have to remember that when the music starts, we have 8,000 to 80,000 bosses who are the audience. The biggest excitement in this business is when the concert starts. Then you have your immediate reward… or you can also have your immediate judgment!”
Well, one judgment is in — and this year’s Parnelli Lifetime Achievement honoree is one of the most respected and beloved in the business. Travis may fly high in the esteem of his colleagues, yet he likes to fly below the radar, so it’ll be a rare sight when on Nov. 23, at the Mirage in Las Vegas, at a gathering of live event industry professionals, he steps on stage to receive the 13th Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award.
A key member of the Bruce Springsteen team since 1978, Travis has also worked over the years for acts including Elvis, Rod Stewart, Queen, Kiss, Boston, Elton John, Madonna, Shania Twain and Ringo Starr. He’s been part of some of the industry’s most audacious events in music, including two US Festivals, the 1988 Amnesty International tour promoting human rights and the recent 12-12-12 concert for Sandy relief. Perhaps most importantly and least known is his passion and energy for his charity and philanthropic work, where he’s been just as efficacious as his day job.
“Bruce [Springsteen] wants a certain atmosphere, knows what he is looking for, and wants people who can make it better,” says producer/manager Jon Landau. “George can run the tour without friction or drama. We’re not interested in production egos. We have a team model. If you come backstage, from load-in to load-out, there’s nothing but positive energy. George is a master of delivering that mandate every night.”
Early in his career, Travis started a long working relationship with Mike Brown. “There aren’t enough superlatives in the world to describe his energy and work ethic,” says Brown, who is retired from the grandstand and staging business. “He might just be the best professional I’ve ever worked with.” (It was Travis who presented Brown with his Lifetime Achievement Award, the second one given, in 2002.)
“Working with George has been life-changing for me, no exaggeration,” says lighting designer Jeff Ravitz. “Here’s why: From Elvis to the famous Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial to Bruce, George has pretty much done it all in our business… he’s been a stagehand, a truck driver, rigger, production manager and even lighting operator. So when he puts together a tour, he does it at a deep level of understanding of what it takes.
“I’ve seen the gears in his head turn as he strives to solve problems on a production, technical, logistic or human resources level. He is imaginative, analytical, and is a ‘let’s get this situation taken care of now’ kind of guy.” Ravitz adds he’s adopted a “What Would George Do?” philosophy in his own approach to problem solving. “If you break things down so the people come first, the nuts and bolts will begin to fall into place.”
“If you do right by him, he’s loyal,” says David Bernstein of Rock-It Cargo. “He and Jon [Landau] have built such an amazing, stable organization. They work together well and they have created a well-oiled machine.”
Travis is not in the business of taking compliments, and with a shrug he states: “What’s fortunate in working with Bruce and Jon is the constant confidence I get from them in hiring the best guys and working with the best tools. From who is working security on the back door to FOH, you get everyone focused on realizing it’s about the show.”
The Second Generation
George Travis was born in 1951 in upstate New York. “Like so many people I fell into this line of work,” he says. “I didn’t try to get into ‘this business’ because in the mid 1970’s, it wasn’t even a ‘business.’”
His first gig was in 1974 when he got a job at the Capital Centre Arena in suburban Washington D.C. In those heady days, different positions were emerging and there was turnover, and if somebody wasn’t there to do something, “you became ‘the guy’,” Travis tells. He dabbled in lighting, and then got involved with rigging on the 1975 Rolling Stones tour.
It was The Stones’ watershed “Tour of the Americas” that proved to be a virtual petri dish of talent, most who would be recognized as the founding fathers of the live event industry. Here, Travis met Michael Ahern, Patrick Stansfield, Roy Bickel, Joe Branam, Mike Grassley, Roy Lamb and Brian Croft — among many others. “Those were the real guys, the first generation. It felt like elementary school, with me as the second grader looking up to the fourth graders.”
Travis proved himself, and became a sought-after hired gun working for the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Boz Skaggs, The Beach Boys and Chicago. He also worked for Elvis Presley alongside the late Bruce Jackson, a Parnelli Audio Innovator honoree and long-time Springsteen FOH engineer. Another learning experience was doing some projects with Chip Monck, another Parnelli Lifetime Achievement honoree, when Monck was also involved in Mike Brown projects.
At the time, Travis says, he didn’t know where it was going, let alone that it would be a “career.” “Like so many other guys in the beginning, you’re doing it because it was work, and the alternative was getting a real job,” he says. “But I loved traveling, rigging and the independence. I loved listening to the older guys too, as they told war stories of earlier tours. Guys like Patrick [Stansfield] had been around the world, and I could listen to those old war stories forever.”
He would be among the many to be influenced by another Parnelli honoree, production manager Gerry Stickells. Travis worked with Stickells and stage manager Nick Pitts for big 1970s-era tours with Elton John and Queen. “Gerry is the model of what people in this profession should be like,” Travis says. “Personally, he was a gentlemen. He was the top-shelf definition of a professional.”
In his travels, Travis met future wife Lenore (nee Gessner) when she was working at Tom Fields Associates. “She would pay zero attention to me because I was just the guy driving the Clair Brothers truck to Elton John’s show in Buffalo,” he says. “Then we met again later when I was rigging, and then again when I was in production. When we first married, I was known by many as the guy who married Lenore!”
Married 31 years, George credits Lenore for… well, everything. “I would not be who I am without her,” he says. “I’m also lucky she totally understands the business, and sometimes I have to take the day to sleep. When she tells me, ‘it’s time to get some sleep,’ I know I better. I’ve been really lucky with my home life.”
Next was work with bigger and more complex rigging gigs with acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and KISS. Then there was a career-changing gig: Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town tour.
Life with Bruce
Jon Landau’s history with Springsteen started in 1978 when the former journalist/record producer was asked by Springsteen to manage him. “So now I’m suddenly his manager, and I flew out to wherever his tour was at the moment,” he says. Once there he walked around talking to crewmembers trying to get a sense of it all. He approached a rigger named George Travis and struck up a conversation. Travis asked Landau if he was going to be manager. When Landau answered in the affirmative, Travis said, “Well, I have a few suggestions, if you want to hear ‘em...”
Travis proceeded to share his view of things. Landau was impressed. “I thought, ‘I like this guy’ — and that was the beginning of our friendship.” Landau adds that Travis taught him a lot about life on the road in those early days.
And it was on that Darkness at the Edge of Town tour where Springsteen told Landau he wanted to replace the production manager. Landau put Travis in that position, and soon it was Travis’ turn to learn from Landau.
“One of George’s many mottos is, ‘If you want it done right, do it yourself,’” Landau laughs. “But I tried to teach him to be an executive, to delegate.” In 1980, on The River tour, Landau showed up to a load-in and witnessed Travis hammering on the set, “having a great ol’ time. I told him if he wanted to be a carpenter, he should be a carpenter — it’s a great profession. But if he wants to be a production manager, he needs to have a bigger vision.”
David Bernstein of Rock-It Cargo has had a long professional and personal relationship with Travis going back to when Travis was transitioning from rigging/doing-it-all to production manager. Bernstein recalls Landau yelling at him to stop rigging, saying, “George, I want you to stay alive!” “Left to his own devices, he’d be like [the musician] Prince, and be playing all the instruments,” Bernstein says. “That he’s done everything — rigging, staging, lighting, driving the truck — is what’s given him such a broad depth of production.”
James “Winky” Fairorth was 19 when he first met Travis, when Springsteen came to Tait Towers to rehearse for the 1986 tour. “We were pioneering a dimmer built into the truss, and Bruce was our first account,” says the Tait Towers president. “I was lucky enough to become the runner/spotlight operator for that tour.”
Travis is “amazing,” Fairorth adds. “Not many groups have an artist like George running things, and he has earned the freedom to make the decisions. Having said that, he has a great crew who supports him, and he gets incredible loyalty back from them. He tries to keep them working even when Bruce isn’t on tour,” which keeps the team together.
Thom Zimny has been documenting Springsteen’s concert performances and filming his music videos since 2001. “George understands the filmmaking side, just like he understands the road,” Zimny says. Travis was an early advocate for HD video, he adds, and Springsteen was one of the first to use it in concert.
Zimny laughs when recalling Travis’ resourcefulness: “I’ll be standing there in the middle of a shoot and say something like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if that wall didn’t have X, Y, and Z on it,’ and George will say he was thinking the same thing, and next thing I know, it’s gone!
“He’s the kind of guy who is covering a million different details, like the lighting and staging, and someone will come up about a ticketing situation where seats need to be arranged to accommodate the disabled, and he just sees exactly what needs to happen,” Zimny adds. “No pad, pencil — it’s all in his head. He makes the shows flawless.”
Brian Murphy, longtime concert promoter, formerly with Live Nation and currently with AEG’s Goldenvoice, first met Travis when both were working with Rod Stewart’s Faces tour. In the 1980s, he would work with Springsteen.
“He has a single-minded focus — if Bruce has a good show, fans have a great time,” says Murphy. “Whatever he needs to do to make sure the fans have a good time is the most important thing he and his team can do for Bruce.”
One of his favorite stories involves Springsteen’s stance against scalpers. Murphy and Travis worked to make sure the ticket companies were on the up-and-up, and Murphy would even send his wife Judy undercover to buy tickets. If she got good seats, they knew the ticket company wasn’t putting them in the hands of scalpers. On the night of the show, Travis and Murphy would walk outside the arena and approach a group of depressed-looking fans. “We’d walk up to some, nonchalantly, listen to their story of how they couldn’t get tickets, and then present them with great seats. It was a blast! We both had fun making their night.”
Stories of a show going off the rails are few and rare, though Landau has one he likes to tell: In 2003 while on The Rising tour in Australia, Springsteen got on stage while he and Travis sat down to eat in the catering tent. “After about five songs, I noticed I didn’t hear any music, and thought that was a little weird,” Landau laughs. “So we charge off and see Bruce on stage with just a little bit of lighting and nothing else.” A faulty generator was switched out and, after 25 minutes, Springsteen and band starts back on “Badlands,” only to have the second generator fail. “It went out with a boom, and I’m standing there, wondering how fast I can get a flight back to New York!” Travis went to work getting a third generator in place. Some 40 minutes later, Springsteen started back up, rallied the crowd, and the show ended on a typical high note.
“So George and I are standing on the side of the stage, because if Bruce wanted to hit someone, I wanted it to be George,” Landau half-jokes. “Bruce comes off stage grinning ear to ear and says, ‘Guys, I just want to hear one thing: That this will never happen again!’” Travis launched into giving reasons of the why, and Landau stopped him in mid-sentence and said, “Bruce, this will never happen again!”
“I’ll never live that down,” Travis says.
Travis’ work with Bill Graham Presents is legendary, particularly the 1982 US Festival that featured more than 50 top acts including The Police, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, David Bowie and Willie Nelson. It had the tallest LED screen at the time, measuring 100 feet high.
Mike Brown was there for the US Festivals. “George was good at making sure that vendors did what they said they were going to do. He has great expertise in rigging, and a great grasp of the overall picture. He would know just by looking at something what might go wrong and prevent it from going amiss.”
Another of the remarkable feats Travis pulled off involved the 20-show Human Rights Now tour, raising awareness for Amnesty International in 1988. The world tour featured Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour and many special guests. “We played Japan, India, Africa, South America, North America, Europe,” Landau says. The logistical challenges for supporting those shows with crew and gear were enormous, and Landau notes that when all the band’s heads came together, they all looked to Travis to be the leader of the leaders.
Moving the production from Tokyo to New Delhi and all the other tour stops had their challenges, but one move was seemingly impossible. After the Oct. 12 show in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the next stop was Mendoza, Argentina on Oct. 14. The town of 100,000 is remote, but it was chosen for its proximity to Santiago, Chile, which, at the time was known for flagrant human rights violations. The artists wanted to show their support for the people there.
“The initial idea was that we’d take a smaller portion of the gear up and do a semi-acoustic show,” Landau recalls. But Sting’s and Gabriel’s people said they really need their whole show. Travis got it all there. “When our buses were pulling up, we were literally surrounded by the widows and their children whose father’s had perished under [Chilean dictator] Pinochet. It was a highlight of the tour, and we were all grateful when we realized how important it was to do the whole show for that audience.”
Travis says dealing with the political and production challenge of each country was the biggest part of it. “We had trying days,” he admits, “but it was an amazing group to work with, and it’s one of my proudest achievements.”
Even after all these years, Landau doesn’t cease to be impressed with Travis’ ability to make things happen. Last year, Springsteen wanted to be part of 12-12-12 concert in New York City to raise funds for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, but they were playing on Dec. 10 in Mexico City. Landau says he called Travis, and asked if could get the crew, the band and all the gear from there to New York in what was essentially about 40 hours. Travis paused briefly before saying, “it’ll be fine — don’t worry about it.”
Speaking of 12-12-12, Bernstein tells of sharing a ride with him and seeing him stop and pick up dry cleaning to bring to wardrobe — “Nothing is beneath him,” Bernstein says. “He’ll do anything that needs to be done.”
Mike Brown is among the many who notes that they have never seen Travis get rattled. “He never overreacts. He receives the problem, turns it around in his mind, and then some sort of solution comes out.”
Joanne Bischmann, vice president of communications at Harley-Davidson, agrees. “George Travis just solves problems,” she says. “He wants everything he does to be perfect, and he puts up the best product for everyone.”
For the motorcycle company’s 100th anniversary in 2003, “we wanted to take the anniversary to the people,” Bischmann adds. “We had this vision to celebrate our history with music, and took it on the road to 10 cities around the world.”
Ravitz notes how Travis likes to take on galactic-sized challenges, and this Harley Davidson gig, featuring such musical pack-leaders as Bob Dylan, Alison Krause, Aerosmith and Tim McGraw, was a prime example.
“The event would tour the racetracks of the world. And our footprint was truly racetrack-sized. We had two performance stages and six or so huge tents, with museum-quality exhibits, plus tons of retail. George brought in all his faves from the Springsteen/E Street tour, plus lots of other top pros, and he was at the center of every major production decision.”
“From the second we met I knew George was the perfect person” for that, Bischmann says. And with Travis came his entire team. “They were all one big family, and quickly figured out how to transport it, set it up, tear it down, and they made it all go like clockwork.”
The only thing more important to Travis than his touring family is his other family — wife Lenore and their three children, now grown. With Lenore, Travis stays busy off the road with various projects, including support for political and environmental causes and volunteer efforts such as helping inner city kids gain new experiences, getting acquainted with life on the farm.
As for priorities, “the shows are important, but not as much as Lenore and three kids,” Travis says, noting the impressive achievements of his grown children, within the industry and beyond. Ben Travis is associate lighting designer for Book of Mormon. Matt Travis and his wife Amy are in Kenya operating an orphanage and school, and daughter Kyra is involved in special events and alumni relations for a school in Cambridge. “I’m proud of them — they are all smarter than me!” he says.
Travis has inspired loyalty among his touring family as well. Ravitz first worked with Travis on the Born in the USA tour. He now notes that he hesitated, because of the timing of the tour, but was glad he joined, not only was it a good career move, “it was the start of a very meaningful friendship.”
When George assembles a team he likes and can trust, he sticks with it — and the loyalty tends to be reciprocal. When Boston was reuniting after 10 years, guitarist/founder Tom Scholz insisted on Travis. “And then George brought a lot of us from the Springsteen/E Street gang on that,” Ravitz says. It was 1986, and Boston’s third album, Third Stage, was selling big. “The tour was booking everywhere and for multiple dates. It was such a great, fun tour.”
Ravitz was also part of Shania Twain tours. “Again, George pulled together the usual suspects,” he says. “The show was so incredibly different in style from the E Street shows, and we really had a great time stretching out. George showed another side of himself as he guided us through the steps of creating a large pop/country show, and Shania, predictably, skyrocketed to fame over the course of that run.”
Peter Daniel of Pete’s Big TVs first worked together on that Shania Twain tour. “He was doing her album release party at the [Bloomington, MN] Mall of America and wanted to know if the local projection company’s recommendation was the right way to go,” Daniel says. “I said that a 15-foot by 20-foot screen for the biggest mall in the world seems a little small. I said 22.5 feet by 30 feet would be a minimum necessary, and the building has a translucent roof so it isn’t going to be really dark in there. The show went off spectacularly, and George asked me about her tour. Well, the original idea was that Shania would play theaters. Then half-house arenas, then arenas — 180°, 240° and, finally, 360°. So we built the first LED screen for her.”
George realized the risk Daniel was taking and asked what he needed. When Daniel asked for the standard two-week deposit, Travis said he thought he should provide four weeks worth. When it came time for Twain to sign the check for a quarter of a million dollars for Daniel, she looked at Travis to confirm if that was really the right amount. When Travis confirmed, she said to him, “I want to meet the guy who needs $250,000 before he shows up!”
Daniel was brought into the Springsteen fold when Travis was in Barcelona when 80,000 fans made Springsteen think maybe it was time for video. “That was 16 years ago, and we’ve been with George and Bruce ever since.”
Last of the Cowboys
“Travis is innately mechanical — he would have been one helluva handyman!” Bernstein laughs. “He’s got the skills of a mechanical engineer, and physical and intellectual dexterity. And he’s got great business sense. He’s able to size up a situation like only a great leader can.”
Travis deflects kudos to his team. “I might have a bit of cowboy stubbornness, and I can comfortably say I have a circle of people with me that can take anything someone throws at them,” he says. “If we need to be somewhere in middle Europe tomorrow, they will be there. We have the resources, and they know how to use them. It’s a different generation, and now, we could be the last of the cowboys,” he adds. “But there is a great group of young people coming in to our world now with even higher standards, bringing new and exciting concepts to the table. Our business will always be a forefront of new technology.”
“George has a calmness about him, a clear and firm way of conducting himself,” Landau says. “I’ve never heard him raise his voice. He wins people over with his professionalism. He’s got the skills to be running Fortune 500 companies.”
Fairorth also notes Travis’ even-keel personality. “We expect disaster [in this business], and what will go wrong will go wrong, so there’s a lot of anticipating what will go wrong. We’re basically selling prototypes in this industry, so you can’t expect things to work right away. Even with the last tour, he sent things back three or four times, yet he never yells at me! [Laughs] … and I’ve probably given him plenty of opportunity!”
Bernstein agrees, noting it’s incredibly rare to see Travis angry. “It drives me crazy — I wish I had that temperament!”
“I’m constantly laughing all the time with him,” Fairorth adds. “We’re always laughing about something. As serious as we have to take things, how serious can you [really] take it? At the end of the day, when your phone lights up and you see its George, you smile because it’s a pleasure to take the call.”
Travis says of the Parnelli Honor: “There’s a long list of people who should be getting this way before me.”
But many disagree. “Honestly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before now,” says Murphy. “George is four notches above us all. He is world class, and everyone else is somewhere below that.” Landau piles on as well: “With all due respect to those before and those who come after in this award, what took you guys so long? Well, you got the right guy now.”
George Travis will be honored at the Parnelli Awards gala Nov. 23 at the Mirage Las Vegas.
To reserve your seat (or table), go to www.parnelliawards.com/reservations.