Live & Learn: Donald Tarlton

The music impresario on his 50 years in show business and partying with the likes of Mick Jagger.

My father was horrified that I didn't go to university. It wasn't his vision for his son developing a career, and he didn't see the future of rock 'n' roll. But he was supportive. He would tell me I was making a mistake, but to take a year to sow my wild oats and then come back and get a real job. Yet, to his friends, I would hear that he was proudly talking about how his son was quite an entrepreneur.

I was a disc jockey and had a radio program in St-Jérôme. There was a disc jockey in New York called Murray the K and another one called Melvin X Melvin, so I married the two together and became Donald K Donald, with the “K” for “king size.”

I never got star struck. I guess because I started in show business at such an early age. The first time I met Mick Jagger it was like, “Hey, Donald, let's go on a club run and have some fun.”

To a degree, the persona that I hatched initially in my career as Donald K Donald the entrepreneur rivalled some of the personas that the artists had. At the beginning of those artists' careers, we were as well-known as they were. To this day, Mick Jagger says, “You can always tell when Donald's working on a concert because his picture's in the paper as much as mine.”

The one time I got tongue-tied I was in Las Vegas a couple of years ago at a Sting concert, and the agent for Sting introduced me to Tiger Woods. I put my hand out and I couldn't say a word. I thought, I have to say something, I look like an imbecile. I think I said something like, “Congratulations on all your good work.”

The biggest problem in music now is too many people are entrenched in the old business model and they won't try to make changes.

It makes me laugh that the model that Terry McBride and a lot of the industry is looking at now as its salvation to deal with technology is the same model that we began 45 years ago. The only difference is, we were the business enterprise 45 years ago, and today the act is the business enterprise. It's not revolutionary. It's the way most people began in this business.

I'm not a musical genius, I don't have the greatest ears in the world, and I'm a fairly decent marketing person.

My biggest asset is that I've been in the business for 50 years and I've built the biggest Rolodex of connections and contacts and people around the world who can help influence the success of an artist.

I was once asked what was my biggest failure as a concert promoter, and I honestly can't remember. I would turn the page so quickly.

I decided to retire as a concert promoter in 1998, take it a little easier, but work for the record company and develop careers. My wife tells a nice story. I announced my retirement on a Friday afternoon, went home Saturday, played golf on Sunday, went to the office Monday morning, and she didn't see me for six months.

Essentially, I made that move too early. I was 53 or 54, and it was too early for me to kick back, so when I got into the office on my first day as a record executive I started to look around for companies that I could buy, that I could work with, or companies where a degree of investment and someone with a lot of connections would be a good partner.

My biggest regret is not being able to have a dialogue with some of these bright creative artists that have just ruled me over the hill before they talk to me. I went through that more in the '80s when the hair bands went out and the modern punk bands came in. When you're 30, you're through. That was a bigger adjustment, challenge and disappointment than today.

Parents and their kids argue and can't agree on anything most of the time. Kids and their grandparents have better communications a lot of times than kids and their parents. I guess I've moved into the grandfather period here, where you get a touch more respect because you've been able to survive that long and have done some interesting things.

My proudest moments of my concert production career were the work I did with Canadian artists. It began with people like Bobby Curtola, Paul Anka when he was a kid, and eventually April Wine, The Stampeders, Lighthouse. I was always a very passionate Canadian and a passionate nationalist and liked to work with Canadian artists.

Ahmet Ertegun once said that if you walk slow enough, every once in a while a genius bumps into you and makes you look like a hero. René Angélil was the genius who bumped into me.

In the early '90s, Céline Dion did a show for me on a floating stage at La Ronde. She didn't speak a word of English, and she was brilliant. She had the audience in tears. I remember talking with René Angélil backstage and saying she was the greatest thing I ever heard, and if she ever plans to record in English and launch an English career, please look me up again.

A couple of years later, René and his buddy came and saw me. They had a Francophone entrepreneur who they were doing business with and he didn't agree with René's decision to do an English album. Foolishly, he told René that if she did an English album, she would do it without him. He didn't want any part of touring an English artist. So René said I'm the manager, I'm the boss, so he came to my office.

René sat across from me, and my tongue was hanging out at the opportunity of working with Céline Dion. René, you know, is a tester. He really put me through the test: “How much do you believe in this girl? What will you do for this girl? What can you do for this girl?” I said, “René, I am ready to take her and work with you on a tour across Canada. We'll have to get Sony to support us a little bit because there will be a significant shortfall, but I'm willing to invest with you in that shortfall because I believe in her, and this record you just played for me is brilliant.”

René said, “Well, you know, there has to be a welcoming fee.” I said, “What's a welcoming fee?” He said, “It's a buy-in,” and I think it was $300,000. It was a pretty outrageous situation. Here was a manager who had a great artist, but someone who was still in the process of learning English. It was a tough decision, but an easy decision. I had a little degree of success in the '80s, and I believed in Céline as an artist, and I thought this was a real shot at being involved with a superstar. I took the bait.

He drew up all the papers, and as I handed him the cheque, he said, “Well, Donald, you know it's going to be a little expensive to go across Canada, and we're going to need a little help from CBS, and we're going to lose some money, but I think we should start with a few weeks in Quebec and build up some fund money.” We played eight weeks at the St.-Denis theatre and recouped my welcoming fee in three weeks. He had given me that big test to see how committed I was to him and Céline, and I guess I passed it.

The original bed-in was in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Room 1742. There was a writer at the Montreal Gazette or Star and she called me and said that John Lennon was setting up shop in the Queen E. Hotel and we should go down and say hello. We went down, met John Lennon, and I had enough notoriety at the time to get into the room and sit there. And I was there when he came up with the idea for “Give Peace a Chance.” He was doing an interview with a Boston radio station and he kept saying, “All we're trying to do, man, is give peace a chance. All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Then there was a whole bunch of people talking, and then he said, “Let's do a record.” All of a sudden it was who knows this and who knows that and on and on. John was writing with a marking pen the lyrics to the song. I wasn't there the whole time, but it was a process that happened over a 24-hour period of time. And I got there just as the recording session was on and I played a little tambourine on “Give Peace a Chance.”

It was a great moment in history, but it wasn't a great moment in history until you look back on it years later. At that particular time it just seemed a hopeless situation of people who believed in peace fighting the establishment, and all they wanted to do was arrest us as opposed to talk about it. Talk about a generation gap.

A few years later I was part of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band debut at the Toronto Pop Festival. I was there because the Doors were on at the show and I was putting on the Doors the next day at the Montreal Forum. In walks this guy from the Toronto musician's union and he says, “Mr. Lennon, you can't go on stage because no one filed the union contract.” Allen Klein, the manager, yells out, “Is there a union agent in the house?” I put up my hand. “We need a contract, prepare a contract.” I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a contract with Musicians' Guild of Montreal letterhead, changed it all, made up a contract for the Plastic Ono Band to play that night on the Toronto Pop Festival for $129.80. If I had kept that contract, imagine how much I would have got from some Hard Rock.

After the show, I said to John Lennon, “Why don't you come to Montreal tomorrow night and we can bring this 'Give Peace a Chance' message to Montreal.” John said he'd love to, but Allen Klein said, “No, no, we're on a plane, we're back to England and there's nothing we can do.” So John turns to me and he says, “Donald, I'm going to ask you a favour. Tomorrow night, you go up on stage before the show and you ask everybody to rise, stand, strike a match and say John Lennon has asked you to ask them to chant 'Give peace a chance.'” It was like a message from God. I couldn't sleep all night. I went back to Montreal, and I wrote it up in English and I wrote it up in French. I edited it. I tested it on people. It was the most important message of my life. I forgot about the concert and whether or not I had sold enough tickets to break even; it was secondary.

I went on stage, and I said that last night I had met John Lennon and he had a special message for the people of Montreal. He wants everybody to stand, light a match and chant 'Give peace a chance.' It was such a magical moment. There were 16,000 people in the Montreal Forum chanting “Give peace a chance,” tears were rolling down from my eyes. People clapped, everybody was overwhelmed and it was terrific. The next moment, Juan Rodriguez, the critic at one of the Montreal papers, writes “It all started when promoter Donald K Donald lumbered on stage and asked everybody to light a match and chant 'Give peace a chance.' He counted the matches, multiplied by $7.50 and he didn't even have to go upstairs that night to figure out how much money he had made off the kids.” I was devastated. My moment of glory, my most spiritual moment of life, ruined to counting the number of people in the house.

I once did a doubleheader with Bo Diddley and Fats Domino at the Place des Arts. I remember my girl coming up and saying, “Donald, Donald, we have a problem. Mr. Diddley doesn't want to go on stage.” I go running into the dressing room, “Hey, Bo, we're so happy to have you in Montreal. You're a legend, etc. etc., but I have a problem and I need your co-operation. I need you to go on stage and start the show.” He looked at me with his big, big eyes, riveting eyes, in his paunchy face and he says, “Weelll, Mr. Donald, there's something you've got to know. The Bo don't go until you hit him with the dough.” That's what taught me the business side of show business.

Donald Tarlton
Montreal Born May 12, 1943, in Montreal Canadian music impresario

Starts Donald K Donald (DKD) Productions, which goes on to produce more than 5,000 events for the likes of Kiss and U2.

Establishes Aquarius Records, which eventually issues albums by artists such as April Wine, Corey Hart and Sum 41.

Becomes international tour producer for a young Céline Dion during the release of her first English album.

Redirects focus from promotions to recording executive, specializing in Canadian artist career development.

Receives the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the Junos, recognizing his 40-plus years in the industry.