Stephen Starr and Pierre Robert on Music in Philadelphia

Springsteen on South. Bowie at the Tower. Bono at the Ripley. Two Philly giants talk rock ’n’ roll, man.

Photograph by Dustin Fenstermacher

Stephen Starr and Pierre Robert. Photograph by Dustin Fenstermacher

STEPHEN: You know, growing up, my goal was to be a disc jockey.

PIERRE: Really? Wow.

STEPHEN: I got my FCC license when I was 15. I was 16 at a radio station in Vineland, New Jersey. I wanted to be Scott Muni. Same guys that you probably looked up to. I used to love listening to Michael Tearson and Ed Sciaky. Michael was my favorite — that voice. Then I got a job at WMGM in Atlantic City.

PIERRE: That’s so cool. I came to town in ’81 from San Francisco, and the Ripley [Music Hall, Starr’s club] was already established.

STEPHEN: That was on South Street. It opened in ’80, next to what is now my restaurant, Serpico. I knew all the radio guys ’cause we advertised a lot, so we got to know Pierre through that. And then we did a big welcoming of John [DeBella] when he came.

PIERRE: He was amazing. When he walked into the studio, he had a red beret on, and red mirrored sunglasses and a red leather jacket — at six in the morning. I knew the world had changed at ’MMR. … I was floored by how alive the music scene was at that time. There were all these great local bands: Kenn Kweder, the A’s, Beru Revue, and, later, Tommy Conwell, the Hooters, Robert Hazard and the Heroes. I walked down South Street on a Monday night and it was bursting with energy. You wouldn’t find that today.

STEPHEN: South Street was definitely thriving. It was the venues. New York is very hard to live in. Philadelphia was a great place to work on your craft and live reasonably and have plenty of musical outlets.

PIERRE: It also wouldn’t be uncommon for Stephen or Electric Factory [Starr’s concert-promotion competitor, run by Larry Magid] to hire a local band to open for a national act. Where was Stars [Starr’s other club], by the way?

STEPHEN: Second and Bainbridge. The building is still there. Someday, if I can, I’m gonna reopen it. Robert Hazard played for me a lot. I remember telling his manager several times, “I don’t understand what you see in this guy. He sucks!” And he did suck. Then one night, all of a sudden, it happened. He changed. It just took playing over and over. So I saw him go from being in this shitty bar band to what I thought would be, and I think Rolling Stone said would be, the next big thing since Springsteen. And it never quite happened.

PIERRE: Ooh! Ooh! They just re-released Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” with his band Double Trouble — ’MMR hosted the show at the Ripley. They released the whole show.

STEPHEN: I have a bootleg of that. U2 also played Ripley.

PIERRE: They did?

STEPHEN: Yeah. There’s a tape of it, but you can go on the Internet and get it. When the show was over — not that I did this that often — I sat at the bar and got drunk with Bono and their manager, Paul McGuinness. He promised me, “When we’re big, we’re playing for you, mate.” They got big, and I totally got fucked. [laughter]

PIERRE: You could have walked into [JC] Dobbs on one evening and seen Pearl Jam, this little band from Seattle just starting out. Another night, Soundgarden. Another night, Nirvana. The South Street club scene was alive and well for national acts and Philly acts. … Ripley had that beautiful gigantic blue neon sign. Someone told me it had been a clothing store for men and you couldn’t afford to change the name.

STEPHEN: That’s true.

PIERRE: It was a beautiful sign! And then Ripley closed. What came after it? A McDonald’s? No, Tower Records!

STEPHEN: Tower Records. Oh, I got a good story for you. Leslie West, the lead guitarist of Mountain — I booked him, and his drummer doesn’t show. He gets onstage, and in that Long Island accent he says, “We’re trying to play, is there anyone out there who can play the drums?” And this guy raises his hand — it’s Davey from the Hooters.

PIERRE: Davey Uosikkinen? Wow!

STEPHEN: He goes up, and somehow they get through the set.

PIERRE: Clarence Clemons was doing a solo show with his band at the Ripley, and Bruce [Springsteen] showed up and played. I was at that little bar next door, and I look out the window and see this skinny guy in jeans running down the street, and girls running after him. It was Bruce trying to get to his car. He had driven himself!

STEPHEN: Bruce actually came a few times when Clarence played, and we all thought he was gonna play. And you remember [club owner/promoter] David Carroll?

PIERRE: Yes, absolutely.

STEPHEN: So Bruce is there, and he’s going out with a girl from Philly. He’s not playing, and David goes, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” He proceeds to buy Springsteen Long Island iced teas, trying to get him drunk to play. Springsteen never played. I got mad at Springsteen that night for not playing, and I went home. Springsteen stayed till like 2:30 in the morning in the club, just hanging out. I was so heartbroken that I went home instead of hanging out with him. Which is really ridiculous.

PIERRE: But you got to drink with Bono! Who cares?

STEPHEN: Another cool night was James Brown. Some kid came in claiming he was James Brown’s son. He was mad that they didn’t let him in, so they escorted him out, and when he got outside he pulled out a gun. And he shot the sign at the bar next door three times. Was he going in there to try and kill James Brown? I don’t know. It was a crazy night.

PIERRE: Didn’t Ripley fall on hard times toward the end? I remember ’MMR doing a benefit for it. I got a t-shirt from the last night.

STEPHEN: At the end of the day, those clubs couldn’t really make money. There wasn’t giant profit in owning a live venue, at least not the way I ran it. My motivation was not to make a lot of money from the club. It was to develop new talent at the club, and then hopefully make money with them when they’re bigger.

PIERRE: My favorite Philly show, and one of my favorite concerts of all time, is Live Aid. It was magical.

STEPHEN: Yeah. I was there, backstage.

PIERRE: I was backstage, too, but I had volunteered on the crew for five days and scammed an all-access pass. ’YSP had the rights to the show, and I was doing guerrilla interviews — get Jack Nicholson, come back, get the Beach Boys, Neil Young, come back.

STEPHEN: The most memorable concert I ever saw in Philadelphia was David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was unbelievable. At the Tower.

PIERRE: Oh my God.

STEPHEN: I had never seen anything like it. The theater of it, — the songs were great. I’ll never forget that show. So let me tell you another cool thing that happened. We did a block party with ’MMR at 7th and South. It was Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

PIERRE: I know where you’re going with this! We have a picture of it in our hallway!

STEPHEN: They promoted the shit out of it, and I think like 80,000 people came. Too much for the street. Like, SWAT teams came in … no one got hurt. But that’s when you first felt the power of the new ’MMR. I remember getting there at 6:30 in the morning, and I see people camped out in tents and they’re playing “Shattered.” The kids were all drunk, and I looked at Jeff Pollack [WMMR’s program director] and said, “We’re fucked.” And Jeff’s smiling, and he goes, “Yeah.”

PIERRE: You gotta see this picture. There’s a picture from the stage, looking down the street with Southside on the stage’ and you go, oh my God, what an insurance nightmare, because there’s a little rowhouse that’s on the corner, and people are lined right to the edge, all over the place. And they’re all smashed out of their minds. Any one of them could have fallen off at any time. There was a story — it could have been urban legend — that our listeners smashed a window of a furniture store so that they could sit on the couch in the showroom and drink beers.

STEPHEN: I saw it happen.

PIERRE: You did? It happened?

STEPHEN: Absolutely. It was scary.

PIERRE: South Street wanted nothing to do with ’MMR for the longest time.

STEPHEN: Sadly, I don’t listen to music a lot now. I’m busy … and I’m disenchanted, probably. I sound like an old guy — I’m not hearing enough good stuff. My daughter feeds me new things.

PIERRE: Our afternoon guy, Jaxon, gave me two iPods, and he programmed all of the music. The first, he only put on the Grateful Dead and Frank Sinatra, ’cause I love both of them. But there are some amazing younger bands — Green Day, the Killers.

STEPHEN: You know who I like? Lana Del Rey. You probably hate her.

PIERRE: All I think is, if it moves you, whoever you is, that’s all that counts.

STEPHEN: With a young daughter, I go to concerts to see [Del Rey] and One Direction, whom I do not like. You know what I still yearn for? I yearn for songs with hooks.

PIERRE: There are a number of them out there!

STEPHEN: The ’80s punk or New Wave, it was really just pop music. It was scary to everybody in the beginning, but they were just pop songs disguised with screaming. I booked the Ramones —

PIERRE: You booked the Ramones?

STEPHEN: Three or four times. I did them at the Walnut Street Theatre. The movie Rock ’n’ Roll High School came out — remember that? We did the premiere of it in Philly. The movie ends, and the screen goes up and it’s “One, two, three, four!” and it’s the Ramones. It was so fucking cool.

PIERRE: That’s awesome! I interviewed Bono, and he remembers ’MMR and coming into Philadelphia in a Winnebago. For a young band in that day, to hear their song on the radio was just the most ecstatic thing for them.

STEPHEN: You know the drummer for U2? What’s his name?

PIERRE: Larry Mullen Jr.

STEPHEN: He’s having dinner at Morimoto in New York three years ago. So I go up and introduce myself, and he was very nice. I said, “I booked you once at a club on South Street.” He goes, “Ripley Music Hall!”


STEPHEN: And I said, how do you know that? He goes, “I saved every backstage pass. I have every single one.” Like on a wall somewhere. But he remembered it. That was a big thrill for me.

PIERRE: Bon Jovi may not be the hippest band by critics’ standards, but you won’t find a nicer guy, and that band works their ass off and they have never forgotten what ’MMR did for them. If you treat ’em really well, they’ll never forget.

STEPHEN: You know, there’s not many guys like you left. You’re one of the iconic radio people of this market. I mean, before you — I consider Sciaky before you. …

PIERRE: Tearson.

STEPHEN: Going back before that, guys like Hy Lit, who was very important to Philadelphia radio and progressive music.

PIERRE: Jerry Blavat — we have to give him credit. ’Cause the Geator is still out there on the scene, working his ass off. He works five or six nights a week at record hops, and his fans still follow him. This gets to the analogy of a great radio station being like a restaurant. Why do you come there? For the food or the music. Secondly — very close second — the service, the vibe, the atmosphere. Jerry Blavat has had his listeners follow him all the way from their teens into their 60s and 70s by virtue of how he’s treated them. Just like a band will never forget being treated well, a regular person will never forget being treated well.

An abridged version of this article was originally published as “On Music” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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