Sheldon Kagan: 45 Years in Music and counting

Cover, Dec 16, 2011

Story: Michael E. Williams

Montreal has always been fertile ground for DJ’s, but Sheldon Kagan took it to the next level of business and entrepreneurship. As a testament to this I caught up with the 61 year old DJ/promoter/producer between gigs to talk about his forty-five years in the music business and his dreams for the future.

SK: I am in between parties. This is my 5th day straight of events.
MW: Sheldon when did the music hit you?
SK: I was 15 years old living with my parents in the Snowdon, Cote des Niege area, listening to radio and at that time there was a radio announcer named Dave Boxer on the air.

I was fascinated by him and the music he was playing. I spent all my free time, when not in school, listening to his radio shows Monday to Friday 7-11pm. I became infatuated. He had this contest to win records, shirts and tickets to meet the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I entered and, for all those years, I was the number one contest winner. Even all these years later I can tell you that the contest line number was 279 4568, 276-261.

At that time it was rotary phones so I realized when he would do a contest he would rotate the numbers. I would dial the first three numbers and listen, then dial the rest, and I always won. That is how I got my first 45’s and albums in the early to mid-60’s listening to Dave Boxer. I went to Toronto to see the Rolling Stones and meet the Beatles. I was a little music groupie at that point and I knew that I wanted to be an entertainer and a disc jockey but my parents, rightfully so, had different ideas.

Sheldon and Dionne WarwickSheldon and Dionne WarwickMy uncle was president of the Canadian Dental Society and one day he dropped a hint to my parents that he had no sons at that time and if I wanted to pursue dentistry he would help me. My father’s eyes lit up, as I had no interest, only music. So, at 15, I decided to leave school and leave home. I found a small apartment blocks from my parents and that is how it started.

What I did was to contact different organizations like the YMCA, YMHA and offered myself as a disc jockey, with two turntables and the records I won from Dave Boxer. I guess I was 16 and did my first gig as a mobile disc jockey. I called myself “Shelly the K”. I had a plastic sign and did really good. Friends helped me out with transport and I charged $75.00. I did good and soon I began hiring and formed Superior Sound Services, I was in business.

Shortly after that I got the idea to take some local bands and started booking bands at school sock hops well into the late 60’s, I was doing 15 dances on a weekend.

MW: Who were the bands?
SK: JB and the Playboys, MG and the Escorts, Bartholomew plus Three. I started working with these bands and became their agent. Schools would have six dances a year. It was great for live music then.

I had an Uncle Irving who kept talking about the big bands Glen Miller, Artie Shaw. In those days research was not quick but I did research and found out that a lot of these big bands were still available.

So on Dec. 12th 1969, I booked Gene Krupa and Dizzy Gillespie for my first show at Place des Arts, and I hold the record for being the youngest promoter/producer to ever do a show there. Tickets were $3.50-$6.50. I did quite well. In January of 1970 I booked the Glen Miller Orchestra with Jackie Mason and I sold out all 2963 tickets again at Place des Arts .

Then I booked Buddy Rich and Woody Herman; the show was well on its way to selling out. Then the shit hit the fan. Buddy Rich was on The Johnny Carson Show the Saturday before my show. He hurt his back and his manager called to cancel the gig.

I am sold out and no headliner. I called an associate in New York who went to Village Gate where he saw a phenomenal guitarist and asked the artist if he would consider playing Montreal the next night for $1500.00. He said sure and did the trek with band. That night I introduced the show saying that we would give refunds but that we had a great substitute act. Only 35% wanted a refund and the rest enjoyed George Benson in Montreal for the first time in 1970.

Buddy Rich came back and did make good.

MW: You seem to know when and who to get at the right time. What about Loggins & Messina?
SK: That was not me who looked for them. In 1972 I had Delany and Bonnie, Billy Preston and John Hammond booked for Montreal, and I got a call from Clive Davis saying he had a new group on Columbia that wanted to break into Canada, using it as a test market, before the U.S. We put Loggins and Messina on the bill for $500. They came in with a seven-piece band and blew everyone away. A year later they were $150,000 plus a percentage.

MW: How important was your research back then?
SK: It was very important but was not easy. They were treating me like you’re calling from Canada, a suburb of Plattsburg, New York. I was a kid at that time 19-21 years old. I didn’t want anyone to know how old I was and this one agency that I was booking most of my bands from at the time wanted me to come to New York to meet. I put it off for awhile. Then the guy from New York called back and said ‘I am sending a ticket and will pick you up at the airport and I want to meet you and go out with you’’. I got the ticket, flew first class to NY, a limo picked me up and took me to the Waldorf Astoria and later that day I went to his office. He was flabbergasted that this 20 year old had been dealing with him and through him I booked everybody including Miles Davis.

Sheldon Kagan, Ravi Shankar and Robert CharleboisSheldon Kagan, Ravi Shankar and Robert CharleboisMW: Does your involvement with jazz predate the Jazz Festival International du Montreal and the Rising Sun Jazz Festival?
SK: Yes, (1969), I remember when I did my first show. Norm Silver, who owned the Esquire show bar, came to see me with Rhassan Roland Kirk. He came and jammed with Dizzy at my first show! These are my $3.50-$6.50 tickets.

MW: What was it about Jazz that you loved?
SK: It was all about the music! The music fascinated me and it was dealing with these incredible performers. 

MW: Why no move to Toronto?
SK: I love Montreal as a city, the people and the quality of life.  We deal in French, English and Spanish too. Language has never been an issue with the company.

MW: You’re back to promoting and producing live shows again?  Dionne Warwick sold out two shows?
SK: When Dionne Warwick came out she received a full three-minute standing ovation before her first song. She was amazed at the reception.

MW: did you think Dj’ing would take you this far?
SK: One hundred percent. I knew I was going to be in music all my life but I didn’t know in what capacity so in 1980 I started the longest running bridal show in North America, Le Salon de La Mariee. It worked to bolster up my DJ business.

MW: What other Salon do you hold throughout the year?
SK: I always include music with these show. For the past 5 years we have been doing the Salon des Boomers Plus, Salon Affaires de Montreal, a business show and the new one is “Le salon de la Famille”

MW: What’s next?
SK: In 2012 I am going back to my roots, trade shows and 12 major concerts, Broadway, country, musicals, jazz. Plus I am representing and touring the Edwards Brothers across Canada. I am also interested in excellent new talent. So, I would love calls from managers and groups at 514 631 2160 or, toll free, 1-888-kagan4u.

MW: So you are going to give yourself time to discover the next big Canadian talent?
SK: Yes. Of all the people I have worked with none of them turned out to be superstars. I would love to end my career by taking someone to superstardom. I am hoping to retire at 65 but as long as I have the passion and am able to come home and say “wow what a day’’, why would I want to do anything else? I think it is important to believe in yourself and no matter what it takes to do what you want to do. Everything is achievable.