If you grew up in Central Arkansas during the 1970s and ’80s and loved going to concerts, Barton Coliseum on the grounds of the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock was really about all you knew. Maybe your mom hauled you to the symphony at Robinson Auditorium, and after you started driving or caught a ride with friends, you might find your way to the Pine Bluff Convention Center, where I saw Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Robert Palmer, Leon Russell, the Allman Brothers and probably more I don’t remember right now.
But mostly I was at Barton. It didn’t strike me as the fanciest place, but it was my place, and I saw concerts there as often as my meager budget would allow. ($2.30 an hour was the minimum wage when I started working; my first job, at St. Vincent, paid $2.31. Woohoo!)
My first concert ever was the Doobie Brothers in December 1973 – mentioned in the accompanying article about the “Play it Loud” exhibit now on display at the Old State House Museum. Scanning the list of concerts by year, which the exhibit showcases, I tallied 190 acts I remember seeing at Barton. I saw the first 16 as a fan (1973-1981) and then 158 as a concert reviewer for the Arkansas Gazette from 1981-1987, then 16 more when I was at Arkansas Times from 1995-1999 … and then four more as a fan before Alltel/Verizon/Simmons Bank Arena opened in 1999. (Commentary on old vs. new: I loved Ray Winder Field, but the moment I first walked into Dickey Stephens Park I realized how much better we all now had it; same for Barton Coliseum and the new Alltel Arena.)
I could generally cobble together enough money for a ticket — I remember the first time I saw Styx, a ticket was $3.50, and rarely were they more than $7. But I had a friend who was either too broke or too unwilling to part with his money to buy a ticket that often, so he often crashed the gate — running through the turnstile just as the lights went down. Barton has a narrow concourse, and it probably wasn’t 20 seconds between when he breached the perimeter until he was safely in the dark on the coliseum floor. I wasn’t nearly that bold — nor fleet afoot.
I have many great memories of concerts at Barton. Thanks to promo copies of records that poured into the Gazette, I was exposed to a lot of music, even be fore covering concerts was in my job description. In high school, I was a copy boy there, a part-time job so far down the food chain that it has evolved into extinction. In 1976, I saw the Blue Oyster Cult (BOC) for the first time at Barton. Billy Squier opened, Rush was the middle band, and BOC headlined. My parents foolishly had left me, a high school senior, in charge of the house when they went to Dallas for their nephew’s wedding. And since I had a 21-year-old friend, that added up to my first keg party. Much beer had been consumed before we ever left for the show, but I made it all the way until the encore — “Last Days of May,” my favorite BOC song ever — before I swooned. But my loyal and hearty friend, Peggy Bailey, was able to basically drag me off the floor into a seat where I could get my second (or third) wind.
After I began reviewing shows for the Gazette, I got a lot of weird looks and off-the-wall comments about my reporter’s notebook and my scrawling into it. Few if any other people standing on the floor at Barton were taking notes. I remember one very high young woman asking me, “Why do you have a notebook?” I answered, “So I can write things down.” She apparently thought that was a very weighty response and pondered for a while before she then asked, “Why are you writing things down?” I said, “So I can remember them later,” which seemed to impress her even more than my first answer. But plenty of other kids must have thought I was taking names, because they typically quickly scattered away from my area.
In those days, the Gazette was committed to turning around concert reviews the night of the show. So, I knew I had to leave and get my article submitted — and the photographer, almost always Art Meripol, (who went on to a stellar 25-year career at Southern Living), had to get his/her film developed and photo printed — by about 10:50 so the story could be edited and placed on the page by the 11:07 p.m. deadline. I usually had only 10-12 column inches of space to fill, so I focused on the headlining act. I remember when the Gap Band was headlining a show that also included the Dazz Band and Franky Beverly and Maze (though I didn’t find that concert in the master list that accompanies this article). I showed up about 9:30, figuring I’d be right on time to see the Gap Band. Turns out the concert hadn’t even started, so I went to a pay phone and called the newsroom to tell the editors that there would be no review submitted that night. I think I got home about 1:30 in the morning.
And then there was the time I reviewed Prince when I was lifestyle editor for the Arkansas Times in 1998. The review ran (a framed copy is included in “Play It Loud,” something I didn’t notice until my wife pointed it out to me on my third visit), and a letter was sent to the editor that basically said, “How can Kelley Bass write a review of a concert he didn’t even attend?” So, the editor — Max Brantley, my brother-in-law — asked me the same thing. Here’s what I told him, and what I wrote in my column the next week: Big John Miller, friend and blues/soul singer extraordinaire, was a Prince fan of the highest magnitude. But he was sick as a dog that day, so he sent his tickets with me to sell. I was attending with Amy Garland (now Angel), another friend and another fine local musician. I knew I’d have two tickets at will call because I was reviewing the show, so I decided to pick up those, see if those tickets or John’s tickets were better seats, and then sell the two worst seats to pay John. I got the tickets at will call, did the comparison, stuck the other two tickets in the air, and they were purchased almost instantly since the show was a sellout. Amy and I then retired to my vehicle to have a beer before going into the show. So, I can see why the guy thought he knew what he was seeing, but that was not what happened.
But perhaps my greatest Barton memory involves the Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion concert in 1987, 10 years after the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant — lead vocalist, primary songwriter and heart/soul of the band — and four others. I’d been getting calls from a guy named Joe Osborne for years. They were long, mostly one-way chats during which he would regale me with tales of being the band’s top roadie. To say he was loquacious is an understatement. I didn’t know if he was all he claimed to be or was blowing smoke, but he certainly was persistent. Once when he called, I asked him if he could turn down the music in the background, because it was too loud. He said, “That’s not a record, that’s Lynyrd Skynyrd rehearsing for the tour.” I remember writing a column and saying, “I HAVE HEARD LYNYRD SKYNYRD!” which no one in the decade since the crash had been able to say — other than Joe and a few others, I guess — because the reunion tour hadn’t started yet.
Well, the Barton show got scheduled, I got tickets, and Joe got me a backstage pass. I was visiting with him right behind the stage when the lights went down, and a huge roar went up in the sold-out coliseum. He grabbed my arm and said, “Come on!” And he hauled me onto the stage and sat me in a chair between a huge stack of Marshall amps. I couldn’t see much of the crowd, but I was on the exact same line of sight as the band members. And all during the show, Allen Collins, one of the triple-lead guitarists, would walk over my way and look at me like, “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing on our stage?!?”
At one point, Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s little brother and the new lead singer, stopped the show and introduced Joe Osborne, roadie deluxe and a Little Rock native. The crowd went wild, and I felt more than a bit sheepish about ever doubting him.
’73 Stands Out
There were some amazing years of concerts at Barton Coliseum, but one could easily argue none were better than 1973, when these 31 acts played there. (That’s almost three concerts a month.)
In chronological order:
• Freddie King
• Grand Funk Railroad
• Ten Years After
• Gentle Giant
• Black Oak Arkansas
• The Allman Brothers Band
• Isaac Hayes
• Humble Pie
• Lee Michaels
• Marshall Tucker Band
• Ray Charles
• Guess Who
• James Brown
And by the way, that last one, the Doobie Brothers on Dec. 5, was my first concert ever. A ninth-grader at Bryant High School, I had bought Captain and Me, the Doobies’ third album and full of great songs, including two huge hits, “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove.” My mom dropped off my good friend, Jimmy Rogers, and me back when you could drive right up to the front steps of Barton.
Thirty-four years later, when I was chair of the Riverfest board of directors, the Doobie Brothers played the pre-fireworks concert that Sunday in North Little Rock, and one perk I got was getting Jimmy and me backstage to meet the band members. I told them we had seen them all those years ago – my first concert but not his; his mom had taken him to see Elvis, also at Barton, in 1972. They basically said, “Man, you are making us feel old,” and I told them, “That’s because you are old.”