Wired for Sound

Bryn Mawr’s Herb Spivak remembers the Spectrum—and a whole lot more.

Herb Spivak, who brought some of rock’s most legendary acts to the Spectrum. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Rock’s countercultural revolution was well underway when the Spectrum debuted in 1967. Two years later, the masses converged on Max Yasgur’s farm for Woodstock, while Philadelphia’s newest arena hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Rolling Stones.

Riding the audible wave was a young Herb Spivak, an aspiring talent buyer who would soon go on to book acts for “America’s Showplace.”

“The Spectrum was the only new building of its kind in Philly that could accommodate hockey, basketball, concerts and circus-type shows in a comfortable environment,” says the 77-year-old Spivak, who lives in Bryn Mawr. “By default, it was the people’s pride and joy. But like any building, without the shows, sporting and family events, it was only a pile of bricks.”

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Some may be inclined to downplay all the hype surrounding the Spectrum’s imminent demise at the end of the year. (Rock outfit Pearl Jam will perform Oct. 27-31, after which the arena will be razed to make way for a new hotel in conjunction with the Philly Live! complex.) But for Spivak and anyone else booking live music in those days, the Spectrum played a significant role in the rock concert’s evolution from “horse-and-pony show” to meticulously planned spectacle and legitimate commercial force to be reckoned with.

“It takes a team of skilled, caring people to make a show come off seamless—from well before the first ticket holder enters the arena all the way until the last guard leaves,” says Spivak. “Every detail has to be considered: What do we serve the move-in crew? Does the band need sound and lighting design? What time is soundcheck? When and how will a performer get to, enter and leave the building? What can we do in the dressing rooms that will distinguish us from other promoters? Do we need vegetarian food or special drinks—a doctor? Is the security backstage tight enough? The list is endless.”

A year after the Spectrum opened, Spivak and partner Shelly Kaplan countered with their own live music venue in Philadelphia, the storied Electric Factory. With the help of New York booker (and future Clear Channel and Live Nation kingpin) Larry Magid, they lured many of the same big names playing the Spectrum.

The next summer, while driving home from the Shore, Spivak masterminded his own Woodstock-like extravaganza “on a whim and a handshake.” Although less distinguished than its larger, muddier successor, the three-day Atlantic City Pop Festival featured appearances by Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, Three Dog Night, the Moody Blues, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Chicago, Johnny Winter, and many others who went on to play Woodstock two weeks later.

It began with just $50,000 and a guerrilla marketing plan headed by Electric Factory manager Dave Kasanow, who drove around the country handing out fliers and posters, and doing interviews on radio shows. All told, more than 100,000 people found their way to the Atlantic City Racetrack for the festival, solidifying Spivak’s reputation as “the biggest buyer of pop music talent in the city, and one of the biggest anywhere”—or so the Evening Bulletin said at the time.

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First and foremost, the Spectrum was built to accommodate the Flyers, then an NHL expansion team. Its first event, however, was the Quaker City Jazz Festival on Sept. 30, 1967, a two-day event produced by Spivak and Magid. It opened with Dizzy Gillespie playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Along with the Flyers and 76ers, the Spectrum would play host to just about any sort of entertainment that drew a crowd, from the Ice Capades, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and monster truck rallies, to some of the more memorable concerts (and bootleg recordings) in rock history. Among countless others, there were appearances by Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and (in what turned out to be his last live performance) Elvis Presley.
 

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Herb Spivak started out in the entertainment industry working alongside his two brothers, managing the family business: a handful of taprooms scattered around the city. “My dad was an icon in the industry in those days,” Spivak recalls. “He catered to the black community, which was cutting-edge. He recognized that music—even if it wasn’t always live—was good for business.”

Back then, Spivak was a huge jazz fan. One night, after a performance at Center City’s esteemed Showboat club, he and legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis went out for a late-night bite to eat. As they passed the Academy of Music, Lewis commented that he’d like to play there someday. The next morning, Spivak met with the academy’s manager. Lewis played two sold-out concerts there on Mother’s Day 1965.

“That’s how it all began,” says Spivak. “Things happened a lot easier back in those days.”

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Around this time, Spivak met jazz promoter Teddy Powell. He sought counsel on how to be more successful. Powell’s advice: “Control the bricks.”

So he bought the Showboat, changing the name to the Showboat Jazz Theater. Within eight months, seating capacity went from 100 to 200. A few years later, he and his partners purchased the old Goodyear plant at 22nd and Arch streets, site of the original Electric Factory. Its Ben Franklin logo still tops the new version of the Factory on the corner of 7th and Willow streets.

Spivak’s next step may have been his wisest: hiring Larry Magid. “Larry was integral to the Factory,” says Spivak. “He was younger than myself and was a good liaison to the Philly underground community. He worked very hard, and knew the rock talent better than we did. Through the course of our relationship, he became a partner—and a very valuable one at that.”

The original Electric Factory lasted just three years. Among the reasons for its brief lifespan: ever-increasing booking costs, mounting legal expenses incurred while battling city officials trying to shut the place down, and the Spectrum’s skyrocketing popularity.

Still, in its short life, the venue made a serious impression. “The Factory was where the real magic happened,” says Eric Bazilian, co-founder of revered local rock band the Hooters. “Technically, it should’ve sounded awful. But back then, it sounded great. It really became the proving ground for bands on the cusp of reaching arena-sized crowds. And it was how local bands got to the next level.”

Its original namesake may have been gone, but the regional booking and promotion of live music under the Electric Factory Concerts moniker continued for decades. Spivak remained part owner of EFC until 2000, when it was bought by SFX Entertainment (now Live Nation). But his involvement in day-to-day business at the company began to wane in the early 1970s, when he rechristened the ailing Showboat as Chances Are, a singles bar with games to help first-daters break the ice. It closed in 1972, so Spivak decided to move the concept to Front and Chestnut streets.

Rummaging around in the building’s attic one day, he found an old Winston Shipping Company sign. That inspired him to resurrect the name of the property’s original owner, personalizing it with his and his brother’s initials (“A” for Alan).

Looking to keep the menu simple at HA Winston & Co., Spivak set up an open kitchen and started grilling burgers. Practically overnight, the Winston Burger became a hit, along with its French onion soup. Soon enough, three Spivak brothers were running 22 HA Winston restaurants from New York to Florida, an enterprise that spanned 15-plus years. A decade or so later, Spivak joined his daughter for the much-loved Hope’s Cookies out of Rosemont.

His musical heyday well behind him, Spivak still gets a kick out of listening to his eldest grandson rock out on the guitar. He even takes in a concert here and there, though his hearing isn’t what it used to be. “Sometimes that’s a good thing,” he says.

Despite Spivak’s indelible ties to the Electric Factory and the Spectrum, it’s a circa-1971 performance by Joe Cocker at the Academy of Music that stands out the most in his recollections of those heady times. “He snuck out before the show and came back with about 50 kids,” Spivak says. “I have no idea where he found them or how he convinced them to sit on stage, but the fact that he didn’t have that ‘star’ attitude and wanted to connect to the audience and the city stayed in my memory.”

But, in the end, it wasn’t so much about the music. “I was a business person, not a rock person,” admits Spivak. “Whatever I did was a natural evolution, whether it was jazz, rock or pop. Most of the time, I acted spontaneously—some might say, by the seat of my pants.”
 

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