Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Larry Farber creates country club for music lovers

Weddings and bar mitzvahs have been Larry Farber’s bread and butter. But he’s also presented legends such as Earth Wind & Fire.

By David Perlmutt

Photos by Donna Bise

Since his boyhood in Charlotte, Larry Farber has savored the art of breathing life into a great idea. Usually he’s got 20 rolling around. They mostly involve music or entertainment, the source of his ravenous passion — and livelihood — since he was 12 playing piano in his first band, The Nightcaps.

Over the years, Farber has performed in many dance bands, even brokering basement gigs for his Nightcaps to make a few bucks. At UNC Chapel Hill in 1972, Farber sold enough $73 round-trip tickets (a discount he wheel-and-dealed with a United Airlines agent) to fill two planes with students to fly to Los Angeles and cheer on the Tar Heels playing in the Final Four that year.

He’s owned a popular Charlotte beach music club, and as president of a Charlotte synagogue, he created a ball that ultimately raised more than $1 million for two synagogues and the Jewish Community Center.

But it’s Farber’s virtuosity of pairing entertainers with audiences that has carved him a musical legacy. In 1986, he opened the Charlotte office of EastCoast Entertainment, and now at 67, he’s a senior partner of the rebranded Charlotte-based ECE Entertainment, the country’s largest regional entertainment agency. The agency books 10,000 acts a year, from bar mitzvahs and high-end weddings or anniversaries, to festivals and corporate and college events — even the opening of a luxury Ethiopian hotel.

Bookings aren’t limited to regional bands, but global stars, too, such as John Legend, Gladys Knight, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Justin Timberlake, Steely Dan and The B-52s.

[/media-credit] Among the acts that East Coast Entertainment has booked are Foreigner, which formed in 1976 and still rocks venues nightly.

In addition to bands, DJs, performance artists and celebrities, ECE recently added comedians in a serious way, acquiring Charlotte-based Comedy Zone Worldwide — another idea that Farber helped nurture. He and Comedy Zone’s Brian “Heff” Heffron had talked for years about merging. The marriage took place in January, with the 60 franchised Comedy Zones continuing to operate under that name but falling under ECE Comedy, a new division that Heffron leads.

Now at year’s end, after 46 years in the entertainment-booking business, Farber plans to sell his shares back to the company and retire from ECE. But not to dawdle. Instead, he’ll pursue more ideas that’ve had to wait.

“I’m always challenged by creating ideas,” Farber says. “When I go to bed, I’m creating. When I wake up, I create. If I’m not doing something different, a little bit of me is dying. It keeps me from suffocating.”

For starters, he and son Adam Farber, his oldest of three, have begun upfitting an uptown Charlotte space for a jazz club — Farber’s dream for a dozen years. Middle C Jazz is scheduled to open in August.

And much of Farber’s newfound time will be devoted to expanding an old idea, perhaps his best — and clearly his favorite.

Country club for music lovers

It spilled onto a table in October 2006 as Farber ate lunch with longtime friend Jeff Davis, a Charlotte lawyer. Thirty years earlier, he had suggested Farber promote concerts at a then-newish concert hall in Charlotte’s downtown Spirit Square. Davis had just seen “American Pie” songsmith Don McLean and was charmed by the theater’s acoustics and intimacy. “First thing Larry told me: ‘I’m not a promoter,’” Davis recalls. “And then he said he didn’t think Charlotte was ready for [such events].”

Tony Bennett and Larry Farber
[/media-credit] Tony Bennett and Aretha Franklin are among the stars featured at Music With Friends concerts, which kicked off in 2007.

At that 2006 lunch, Farber declared Charlotte ready. But he still wasn’t a promoter.

He offered an idea that had been percolating for years: What if the two recruited friends and friends of friends — mostly deep-pocketed baby boomers — to pony up money for three private concerts a year? They’d hire the biggest music legends they could afford and serve up cocktails and heavy hors d’oeuvres, before and post-concert. Their pitch: a real VIP experience for music lovers whose days of going to concerts in stuffy arenas or crowded outside amphitheaters may have passed.

Music With Friends was born, sort of a country club for music lovers. Their clubhouse: Spirit Square’s McGlohon Theater, a repurposed Byzantine-domed Baptist church sanctuary named for Charlotte’s beloved jazz pianist and songwriter Loonis McGlohon, who died in 2002.

Farber and Davis partnered up. Farber contacted agents he knew across the country, seeking stars on tour who could stop in Charlotte for a weeknight concert on their way to the next show.

By April 2007, they’d recruited 400 members. That month, singer Michael McDonald kick-started the club at McGlohon. The next morning, Davis checked on McDonald and his musicians at an uptown hotel. “Michael called me over and said, ‘Jeff, last night was magical. I wanted to play all night long,’” he recalls. “We heard that a lot.”

‘A pretty dime or two’

Within months, the economy tanked. Bank-heavy Charlotte fell on difficult times during the 2007-09 recession. “I was nervous that this idea might run into roadblocks,” Farber says. “But we created such a cool product that people bought in and we survived.”

Twelve years later, Music With Friends has hosted nearly 40 legends for 90-minute concerts, each typically drawing 600 members and guests to the 720-seat McGlohon Theater. That first year, Gladys Knight and Tony Bennett followed McDonald. Entering the theater, Bennett told Farber that Loonis McGlohon had once accompanied him on piano. He sang a few unamplified notes and declared the theater acoustically flawless.

The slate has since included Aretha Franklin, two members of the Eagles (the late Glenn Frey and guitarist Joe Walsh) performing solo shows, Al Jarreau, Steely Dan, a reunion of Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina, ZZ Top, Diana Ross, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Hall & Oates, Willie Nelson, Chicago, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.

The membership nominates and picks the acts. “It works because Larry does everything totally top-notch,” says member Bruce Julian, a Charlotte clothier. “It’s not just a concert where you fill two seats, watch a concert and go home. It’s an experience, with great food and drinks, in a small venue where everyone is close to the stage and the sound is pristine. It’s like having your own concert.

“There’s nothing not to like — except it does cost a pretty dime or two.”

The one-time seat fee is $550; yearly dues total $1,650 per person. Farber and minority partners started clubs in Charleston, S.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Houston. Charleston and Nashville didn’t survive because the venues weren’t large enough. Houston remains active.

Now that he’ll have more time, he and minority partner Clay Boardman of Augusta, Ga., hope to sell the idea in other cities. They’ve already sold licenses to groups in Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J. Farber will guide the upstart and bookings. He owns 70% after buying out Davis and other partners including Charlotte developer Johnny Harris and Charlotte lawyer David Rudolf.

“Music With Friends has turned out to generate little profit but much enjoyment,” he says. “It was never meant to make a lot of money. We’ve tried to make sure it doesn’t become a financial drain, either. So far, it hasn’t.”

‘Practice, damn it! Practice!’

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You can credit famed pianist Peter Nero for inflaming Farber’s musical passions. Farber was 11 when he announced to his parents that he wanted to take piano lessons.

Shortly after his father, Charles, a textile salesman, bought Larry a Wurlitzer upright, Nero performed a concert in Charlotte. The after-party was at the Farbers’ home. Nero autographed the piano, emphatically adding: “Practice, damn it! Practice!”

Young Larry did practice, and he’s never quit. After The Nightcaps, Farber has never been without a band, with names such as Main Street, In the Pocket and Now and Then. At Myers Park High School in Charlotte, he played piano in the popular Rivieras band. Farber couldn’t dance at his prom — he played for it.

“We weren’t the high-school quarterback, but playing in a band was cool,” Farber says. “Our away games weren’t at someone else’s home court, but the Phi Delt house at Chapel Hill or the Sigma Nus at Georgia.”

Those bands caught the ear of Charlotte talent agent Ted Hall of Hit Attractions, who began booking them for dances or weddings or to open for acts like The Temptations and Diana Ross at Charlotte’s Park Center (now Grady Cole Center). Farber didn’t know it, but he was finding his future — just not as a performer.

His weekend performing continued at UNC Chapel Hill, where he studied psychology and music. There, he got a taste of negotiating a deal.

At the Tau Epsilon Phi house in 1972, Farber and a few frat brothers were scheming ways to get to Los Angeles to watch their beloved team play in the NCAA’s Final Four.

Someone suggested chartering an airplane. They all laughed it off. Except Farber, who called a Chapel Hill travel agent, who put him in touch with a United Airlines agent. They negotiated a $73 roundtrip fare if Farber could sign up 140 students, enough to fill a plane. He placed an ad in the campus newspaper, and in no time had 240 students who paid to go, enough to fill two jets.

His parents hoped he’d be a lawyer or doctor, and during his senior year, he applied to several law schools. After earning his bachelor’s degree at UNC in 1973, he was wait-listed at the Chapel Hill law school. He decided to take a year off with plans to reapply, when booking agent Hall offered him a job.

“I graduated on a Saturday and started working at Hit Attractions on Monday,” Farber says. “I found I liked entertainment. I made $150 a week and thought I was rich. I wouldn’t have made a good lawyer.”

Instead, he worked for Hit Attractions for 13 years, learning he was built for the job: affable with high energy and a musician’s sense of what bands need and customers want.

“Because Larry’s a good musician, he understands the bands he represents. He understands what different types of audiences want to hear,” says Bill Bolen, a retired Chapel Hill piano player whose band was represented for many years by Farber and ECE. “He’s a consummate professional.”

‘Well beyond the East Coast’

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By 1986, he’d grown restless and wanted to strike out on his own. He approached two Richmond, Va., booking agents, Dennis Huber and Steve Thomas, who’d started EastCoast Entertainment in 1976. “They had the infrastructure, and I had strong relationships and some of the strong bands in the Carolinas,” Farber says. The three became partners, with Farber opening a Charlotte office, taking with him his customers and bands he’d cultivated at Hit Attractions.

The first year, the merged EastCoast booked fewer than 1,000 acts. Now, with 16 offices from Palm Beach, Fla., to New York, ECE employs 70 people.

“Our sphere of influence is well beyond the East Coast,” Farber says. “When we first started, what one agent is now booking is probably more than what the whole company used to do.”

Farber says ECE nets $10 million a year in commissions, based on $75 million worth of bookings. The company typically takes 20% of an artist’s pay for each booking. The cost for a good wedding band averages between $8,000 and $20,000 and can reach $30,000 to $40,000 for high-end weddings. Most couples prefer the higher-priced bands, says ECE managing partner Chris McClure.

McClure, who recently booked Justin Timberlake for a wedding anniversary in California, says the agency earns its money. He and his wife, singer Hester Kast-McClure, manage a band called Sol Fusion and line up gigs across the U.S. “The band members ask all the time if it is worth being under the ECE umbrella and the company getting 20% off the top,” he says. “I say ‘absolutely.’ Because Larry’s relationships are worth it. We’d never get booked in Sun Valley, Idaho, without ECE.”

A unique experience

Farber’s music stories are endless, never with bombast — just a part of the job.

One day, he got a call from a woman in Washington, D.C., requesting high-profile entertainment for an Arab sheik opening a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Farber spent months on the project and finally booked soul and funk legends Kool & the Gang. Farber couldn’t attend, so ECE senior partner Ed Duncan flew to Ethiopia to oversee the entertainment.

Farber spent another day squiring N.C.-raised James Taylor around Charlotte looking for a harmonica. He’d booked Taylor for a private party of investment bankers.

Music With Friends generates more memorable stories. Before Jackson Browne played for the club, Farber told him he’d invited Charlotte singer Maurice Williams. In 1960, Williams wrote and recorded the hit song “Stay” that Browne made popular again 17 years later. To the surprise of members, Browne invited Williams to the stage to sing a duet.

Aretha Franklin and Larry Farber
[/media-credit] Aretha Franklin and Larry Farber

Shortly after Aretha Franklin arrived for her Charlotte performance in 2012, she learned that singer Whitney Houston, a close friend, had died. “Aretha was devastated and wasn’t sure she could do the show,” Farber says. “I took her manager to McGlohon and said, ‘You can see this used to be a church. What better place is there for Aretha to grieve?’ She decided to perform.”

On stage, Franklin launched into a tribute to Houston. “She sat at the piano, closed her eyes and just started playing. It wasn’t a song — just words about ‘my sister Whitney is gone,’” Farber says.

As much as he’s a stickler for details, Farber’s a worrier — especially about Music With Friends. At a recent concert with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, Farber arrived three hours early to make sure there were no glitches. Workers from Charlotte caterer Porcupine Provisions had readied white-linen tables for piles of shrimp, prime rib and wine and top-shelf booze.

Inside the theater, Krauss’ band ran through a sound check, as sound engineer Al Smith of Rock Hill, S.C., listened. The sound is tailored to each performer, he says.

“Larry is totally about overall atmosphere,” he says. “This kind of performance and venue is totally unique. The idea that you take acts of this level and put them in a small, intimate venue like McGlohon — where you can almost touch the performers — doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s the way music should be consumed.”

That’s not lost on members Alan Simonini, a Charlotte developer, and wife Libby. “The performers always comment on what a great place it is,” he says. “They feel connected to the audience. It probably reminds them of when they first started out.”

As members arrive, Farber greets as many as he can. They are a cheery and back-slapping crowd, mostly in their 50s and 60s with some 70-somethings.

[/media-credit] Yearly dues for Music With Friends members are $1,650, providing a chance to hear famous musicians in an intimate setting. These club members were cheering for Willie Nelson.

The theater lights dim, and Farber steps on stage with Becky Mitchener, Music With Friends’ membership/development director, to welcome the club’s reconvening and introduce Krauss. Several songs in, Krauss gets chatty, commenting on McGlohon’s beauty with its stained-glass windows. She mentions she’d played there before.

In his balcony seat, Farber can finally relax. “I do get anxious. You’re putting on a party for 600 people, and you want everything to be perfect.” he says. “These people pay a lot of money for this, and there’s a lot that can go wrong.”

He’s clearly satisfied with his club’s response: “I’m just a guy who grew up loving music and who has been able to meet and hear his favorite artists in an acoustically perfect venue — surrounded by friends.

“I hope, when it’s all said and done, I’ve made at least a small mark on the music business.”

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