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Behind the Benefit: Inside the Magic

A Profile
by Mariah Fleming
Danny Zelisko

In times of crisis we hope for leadership. As Dante (1265-1321) said: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crises, maintain their neutrality”

After the tragic events at Gabrielle Gifford's outdoor 'town hall' gathering in Tucson on January 8th, the media continues to paint Arizona with a broad and unforgiving brush. But Arizona can take heart.

Long time Arizona concert promoter Danny Zelisko, who is promoting this benefit show, is determined to change that picture. Zelisko's star rose quickly when, as a budding impresario, he put Arizona on the map as a great tour destination almost four decades ago.

His most recent gig was as chairman of Live Nation Southwest, a position he’d held since 2007. Zelisko's contract with Live Nation expired in late February of this year. They couldn't reach an agreement but parted on friendly terms.

That's when he decided to dig his heels in, get back to his roots and create Danny Zelisko Presents, his new venture. And he's christening Danny Zelisko Presents with a benefit for the victims of the Tucson shootings.

100% of net proceeds go to the new Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding through the Community Foundation for Southern AZ. No one is getting paid to do this event. Not even for transportation and hotel expenses. A hotel in Tucson has donated rooms for the performers and their crews. The Tucson Convention Center is donating the venue. "They were right there for us!" Zelisko said. Community Foundation for Southern Arizona

He is happy to see the proceeds donated to the new Fund. "It's important that no one ever get lost in the system and come out like the delusional guy who made this mess to begin with," he stressed. "He was lost in the system. No one could pay attention until it was too late. He needed attention long ago, sadly and terribly. And he committed this dreadful act. Maybe this can help stop that from happening again."

Thursday's four hour music extravaganza features Arizona's own Alice Cooper (slated to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year) as well as Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Nils Lofgren, Jerry Riopelle, Keb' Mo', Sam Moore, Dar Williams and Jennifer Warnes, among others. So far, 3000 tickets have been sold, but you can get yours if you hurry.

The Tucson show is doing more than presenting outstanding music. While Arizona and Arizonans continue to be maligned in the press, it can create a powerful, positive statement about Arizona. It features speakers like Gabrielle Gifford's husband Mark Kelly, shooting victim Ron Barber and Tucson's Mayor Bob Walkup. The show has the potential to turn around some negative press about Arizona.

I asked Zelisko if that is part of what he hopes the show can accomplish. "Absolutely!" he said. "Though the reason for this is to benefit the Fund, if we get some side benefits, all the better," he continued: "this state has taken a lot of blows. So have its people. This is a positive thing for all Arizonans."

Zelisko has high hopes for the event. He says he's looking for all Arizona to join in Thursday's Tucson benefit to help close the book on bad things, while opening great new chapters of Arizona history together. "This show starts a new day in Tucson and Arizona as we come to our 100th Anniversary, being the last mainland state to get into the Union." he explained.

So, what kind of person is able to pull a group of music stars together for a tremendous, cooperative, effort in such a minuscule amount of time? Turns out that relationships are at the heart of Zelisko's success. Alice Cooper and Jackson Browne both have enduring friendships with Zelisko. Browne, Cooper and Zelisko joined together to recruit all the performers on the bill.

Jackson Browne is known for undertaking many philanthropic endeavors during his four-decade career. After the shootings, Browne was contacted by the New Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, whose goal is to promote civility and respect in public discourse, and increase awareness of mental health issues. Alice Cooper is also known for his philanthropic work. So it was not surprising that when the Tucson tragedy occurred he would try to find a way to help. Cooper was pleased to know that Browne was getting involved. He hopes the performers will draw people to the benefit.

Zelisko said of Browne and Cooper's involvement in the benefit: "Jackson and Alice were on Jackson Browneboard and I love them both dearly. I am proud and humbled to be in this with them. They are not afraid or shy to put their own busy lives aside to help and neither am I. Jackson's management and PR agency have worked tirelessly on this as well."

With such an impressive lineup for the benefit, I wondered, why these artists? Jackson Browne said that those who are playing for this benefit are always among the first to respond, whenever the call goes out to try to create change or make something good happen. "We are coming to Arizona together, to honor the first responders to these tragic shootings. We are here to join forces with the community; to lend a hand as it begins to go through the healing process." Browne said.

Jerry Riopelle, who has drawn huge Arizona crowds for decades, was eager to help. He and Zelisko are friends from back in the early days of Zelisko's first Arizona production company, Evening Star. When I asked Riopelle what it was about Zelisko that creates such synergy he said: "Danny is a true 'music man', and unlike many promoters, he has always seen the larger musical picture beyond the immediate dollars and cents. Danny builds lasting relationships. He knows and loves great music and musicians and it shows."

It's about more than the nuts and bolts of promotion, Jerry Riopelle explained: "Danny cares about finding the great new talent out there, nurturing it and building careers. He also cares about bringing the best music to the fans and he will take risks on the talent he believes in. With Danny driving the bus, Arizona is sure to see and hear the best that's out there."Alice Cooper

The genesis of Danny Zelisko's success connects deeply to Arizona. In addition to his other shows, he hasn't hesitated to hold benefits for other worthy causes over the years. When asked why he decided on a new beginning with his own venture he told me: "This is what I do! Live Nation had a change in how they are going to move forward and so did I. It's time to pick up where I left off," he explained. "There are many great events I look forward to presenting to this great musical audience we've developed together here in Phoenix over the last four decades!"

It's obvious that Zelisko is excited about his new venture and about interacting with the people of Arizona. And what can Arizona look forward to in the future from Danny Zelisko Presents? "All different types of shows, playing in the right halls for the act, the audience, all sizes," he enthused; "All kinds, as DZP brings more and more diverse, wonderful entertainment to Arizona."

It's clear that Zelisko cares deeply about Arizona and has been troubled by the bad press. Some artists have boycotted performing in Arizona here since SB 1070 was passed. I asked him if any of the artists booked for the benefit had been hesitant about performing in Arizona prior to being approached for this benefit concert.

"Not for a second!" he exclaimed. "That whole ideology [of boycotting Arizona] is so wrong and misguided. How can you help a state you feel bad for and then refuse to come see the people affected by it? The reality is that many states have these same problems."

"It's all perspective," he continued, "and the perspective on Arizona is changing back to what we have always been; a great place to live with great people." Zelisko said: "Sometimes politics gets in the way of the real deal, which is being lucky enough to be alive and living in such a great place."

I expressed curiosity about whether the national news media would be there to cover the show. Zelisko answered my query with characteristic aplomb. "If they believe in real news stories they will. Here is a large group of concerned citizens from all over the world, coming together to perform in a state that needs help."

"They answered the call for other humans in need," he continued: "If that isn't world news, I don't know what is!!"

WHO: Alice Cooper, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jerry Riopelle, Nils Lofgren, Dar Williams, Jennifer Warnes, Keb' Mo' and more
WHAT: Benefit Concert to aid victims of the Tucson shooting
WHEN: Thursday, March 10, 6pm
WHERE: Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave
ADMISSION: $25-$95
INFO: 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com