When the Society of Seven returns to the Aratani (Japan America) Theatre on April 26, it’ll mark the first time they’ve performed at the venue in 24 years — since their string of three shows on April 20 and 21, 1990.
And once again, it’ll be in conjunction with concert promoter/producer Gerald Ishibashi, whose first association with the concert hall came in 1984 when he brought over Hawaii’s Fabulous Krush.
Ishibashi’s musical ambition first manifested itself a year after he learned to play the guitar at the age of 12. While in the 8th grade, he was asked to join a Latino band made up of juniors and seniors in his Imperial Valley high school called Little Paul and the Starlighters. They did school dances and community events, and the Sansei continued singing and playing in different groups until founding his own Stonebridge Band (he met his future wife Lisa when, for a while, she became its lead vocalist).
“And one of my things was to work with all the acts that I admired,” he says. “And some of them have become friends. Larry Ramos [of the Association] became a friend! I just remember this Asian American guy singing. Now, he wasn’t an Asian act from Japan, he was from here singing popular American music. He was an impetus for me. I went to the record stores, I’d see him on the album cover. And a couple months later, ‘Hey, that guy reminds me of you!’ ‘I look like Larry Ramos?!’ Basically they thought, ‘There another Asian guy!’”
Ishibashi didn’t even know Ramos sang co-lead on mega hits like “Windy” and “Never My Love.” “I just knew that he had gotten in the door. He had entered the room. I go, ‘Oh my gosh. Somebody did it!’”
While probably in his second year in junior college, Ishibashi had already set his sights high. After playing at a relative’s wedding, “I was sitting around the table with 10 of us, and [a distant cousin] was my age, and I was real exuberant about it. And I said, ‘Yeah, I love the business! I want to work with the greats. I wanna work with Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat and Tears. I wanna work with the Righteous Brothers, Tower of Power.’ And the guy actually kinda snickered. ‘What’s so funny?’ He says, ‘You and your big dreams!’
“Guess what? Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers is a friend of mind. I knew Bobby Hatfield. I worked with Tower of Power. I promote ’em. I’ve worked with Three Dog Night. I’ve worked with all the acts that I said I was gonna do. And I think part of the fuel was, ‘You think so, buddy? Watch this!’”
Ishibashi first used the name Stonebridge — a translation of his last name — in 1975 when he ran the Stonebridge Music store. For about six years, he installed sound systems in churches, people’s homes, and restaurants like the Santa Ana restaurant/concert space Kona Hawaii. Simultaneously, he graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a business degree with a concentration in marketing.
Ishibashi first got the idea to become a concert producer/promoter in the late ’70s when his mother told him, “Oh, I just ran into so-and-so. We just talked forever, haven’t seen them since camp.”
“So that’s when I said, ‘I’m going to create a musical event and you invite all your friends, and we’re gonna do the music that they like.’”
He got his mother-in-law, Mary Kageyama Nomura — the Songbird of Manzanar — to perform big band music with his Stonebridge Band at Kono Hawaii. When it sold out, he began targeting the Sanseis.
“The economy was tight for selling gear. So I took a hundred bill out of my wallet. I told my salesmen, ‘I’m gonna start Stonebridge Productions with his hundred-dollar bill.’ I wish I had recorded the date. ‘Because,’ I said, ‘from here on I’m gonna start promoting concerts.’ And they looked at me like, ‘You’re crazy! You’re crazy! You’re gonna do what?’”
His New Year’s Eve show at the Biltmore with Mary Wells attracted 1,000 people. Other events followed with Little Anthony, the Platters, the Shirelles, and the Association. But his mother pointed out he was missing another untapped market.
“She would say, ‘You know, this is fun! These are wonderful! [But] why don’t you do some oldies but goodies?’ And I said, ‘I thought I was!’ And then she says, ‘No! Like Harry Babbitt, Andy Russell and Frankie Laine and Connie Haines and Kay Starr. How ’bout Les Brown’s Band of Renown? How ’bout doing that sound?’”
Her son got on it and lined them up. (“I figure you can get anybody on three phone calls.”)
Rather than continue to take the financial risk with promoting events, Ishibashi wanted to start producing shows where companies would pay him. “So I started cold-calling corporate America, and that’s how I started the concert business. I would give them a marketing concept of how to accomplish their goals but with music. Blood Sweat and Tears, Three Dog Night, Tower of Power, Sergio Mendes. And then the other people would call and say, ‘How the hell’d you do this?’ And the ‘Taste of Newport’ (an annual event that attracted 80,000 people for a weekend combining music, wine, and food, which he did for more than 16 years) people called. And I started doing Blondie, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, Kool & the Gang. And then we bought our own concert stage, and then it evolved.”
Over the years, Stonebridge Productions was a family affair with his wife and three daughters all helping out — with everything from ordering food to overseeing VIP passes — from the time they were small. Coincidentally, Brittany (“Political Animals”), Brianna, and Brooke all became actresses.
Thank goodness a teenage Ishibashi didn’t heed the advice of a white aunt who warned him not to become a musician: “It’ll break your mother’s heart.”
“My mom, she told me as a little kid: ‘Gerald, you can do anything you put your mind to.’ And I took it to heart. I still remember looking at her when she said that. She became my biggest supporter in life. She’s passed now but… man, she was there every time. She was there for my kids. And if I’m out promoting my show, man, she’s out there hand-addressing all the envelopes to her friends, stuffing flyers, licking stamps, calling her friends up. And without her, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Even when her son put baby boomer rock acts on the bill, Mrs. Ishibashi would bring her cousins, aunts and uncles, along with picnic baskets, Spam musubi, and Chinese chicken salad and make it a family social event on the lawn. “Maybe it wasn’t from their era, but it was for the experience that really moved them.”
One of Ishibashi’s fondest memories is working with former Temptations singer (the late) Richard Street, with whom he’d do corporate gigs around the country. They improvised a “Sonny and Cher”-type routine where they’d put each other down to howls of laughter from the audience. “I don’t know, for some reason we had this great chemistry, and we just would riff. We didn’t plan anything! And his wife, who’s Filipina, said, ‘Gerald, you guys are so funny. All the people that Richard performed with [including the Temptations], you and he are the best together! You’re just so funny!’”
Ishibashi also got to see many up-and-coming acts from the ground up. In the mid-’90s, his oldest daughter Brittany was at UCLA and friends with Mickey Madden, the bass player for a band called Kara’s Flowers. She convinced Dad to come see them play at the Troubador. “She says, ‘Would you hire them?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but they gotta change their name. I mean…’ She goes, ‘Why?’ ‘It sounds like a sissy hippie name! Who’s Kara?! It’s all guys!’”
Well, eventually, they became Maroon 5. And lead singer Adam Levine’s now one of the judges on NBC’s “The Voice.”
“I think I paid them $550 for ‘A Taste of Newport.’ If I was smart, I would’ve booked ’em for a long time (laughs).”
Then again, there were those that got away. Once, an agent tried to convince Ishibashi to replace his opening act for Lee Greenwood. “‘Gerald, I swear, this is gonna be the hottest act in country music. You gotta hire ’em. They’ll come out to L.A., they’ll drive themselves down. You don’t have to pay [them much], just give us some hotel rooms… Well, it’s a mother/daughter team…’ And I said, ‘Stop right there. I don’t want no mother/daughter team…’ (laughs) It was the Judds!”
In addition to his Stonebridge Band, Ishibashi performs with the Santana tribute band Carlos the Experience, which he formed in 2009. Recently, he created a trio with Hawaii artist Richard Natto called Island Crooners, which honors the work of Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Don Ho, and Nat King Cole.
Now, Ishibashi’s trying to move “into the next stage” by writing and recording his own music with members from CTE. When the group opened for Kalapana last year, Ishibashi debuted a melodic, comforting instrumental to enthusiastic response (full disclosure: Ishibashi has asked me, a songwriter, to supply the lyrics for it).
Since last year, he’s produced and/or promoted a lot of shows for the Japan America Theatre, coining the phrase “Live at the Aratani” to signify not only Japanese artists would play there. He’s worked with the Association, Jackson Browne, Kalapana, Willie K, Janice-Marie Johnson (A Taste of Honey), Lakeside, Tierra, Little Willie G. (Thee Midniters) and Richard Bean (Malo’s “Suavecito”).
“[While] other Asian groups are growing, the Japanese American community really isn’t getting bigger. We’re assimilating faster than the other Asian groups. And so I think in order to create a sustainable model businesswise, we have to branch out. That’s why I did Tierra to reach out to the East L.A. community — you know, the Hispanic American market — to forge a connection. And I think it’s necessary. Otherwise, we don’t have enough people in our community to sustain it.
“I think that’s how we have to position ourselves there. And it’s exciting because I honestly believe we can create a world-class venue there! I really believe it more so than ever before. Because of electronic media, social media, the population has changed, the demographics have changed. And it’s poised if we do the right thing.”
Society of Seven — featuring original members Tony Ruivivar and Bert Sagum along with guest singer Lhey Bella — performs at the Aratani Theatre on Saturday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 and $50. For more info, call (213) 628-2725.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.