Leas on Life

Leas Campbell, the man who ruled Miami's rock scene throughout the Seventies, is bringing it all back home in the Nineties

Mr. Bruno explained to the kid that he knew his father, the hotel man, and that the senior Campbell was respected for his straightness, for not tarnishing Thoroughbred racing with fixes or setups, an attribute in Bruno's eyes because, he explained, one of his gigs was booking horse bets. He was keeping an eye on Mr. Campbell's boy, Bruno went on, and he was also tending to business. It was his beer-distributing company. "And you know what?" Bruno told the nervous young purveyor. "You're moving 500 cases a week. That makes you my third biggest customer, right behind the Philadelphia Phillies and the Navy base." Bruno offered some advice about increasing profits, and also handed over a pack of football-betting slips. "Your customers will love these."

By 1962 Campbell had been booted out of Wharton and had joined the Marines. Two years and three months of service in the armed forces was enough for school officials to allow him to return and complete his education; he graduated in 1965 with a B.A. in economics. After school he did what any Wharton grad might do A he took a job at Colonial Penn, the insurance giant. "I tried the corporate world, but they had these ridiculous rules, like you had to be there at nine in the morning. Every day. Within a year I made it to assistant vice president of marketing. It wasn't fulfilling, but I had a new 'vette, a townhouse, the trappings of success. So I took a leave of absence. This really nice cat was my boss, and he understood that I was lost and aimless. I went out to Haight-Ashbury and never looked back."

In the exotic Bay Area scene of the Sixties, Campbell was exposed to the same sort of thing he'd seen at age nineteen in a Philly club when he caught Lenny Bruce's act. "I was a preppie at Wharton," he says, "and I go down and see Lenny Bruce. I was drunk and I couldn't believe what he was saying. I went back the next night, sober, just to make sure." In San Fran, it was more iconoclasm, more evidence that the revolution was at hand. "I saw Quicksilver Messenger Service, Steve Miller, and Santana, it was the first time I was exposed to psychedelic rock. I loved the message. I mean, peace and love and understanding A it seems so obvious. I had studied the philosophers, the religions. Like Kierkegaard. I'm paraphrasing, but it was basically,'Life is not a problem for solving, it's a mystery for living.' These fucking analytical people waste their lives. It's like you got a big-ass tiger, a 600-pounder, and you're holding its tail, and it's pulling you through things. Or a surfer on a tidal wave. You fall forward and get swamped or you fall back and you're lost. If you don't take your stand now, you might as well be dead. That's why I consider myself a rock and roll warrior."

After ten or twelve weeks of full-bloom flower power, Campbell hit the road with his thumb out, heading back east. From Greenwich Village he caught the pipeline to Coconut Grove, which he'd visited during college. This time he landed in Miami to stay. "It was all cracker atmosphere, except the Grove. I guess the rednecks all live up in Ocala now. I worked as a bellhop in the Beach and saved up $400. A regular Horatio Alger."

He met a singer called Dion, who had just moved here and kicked heroin and was on the way to becoming the hot ticket he'd been in the late Fifties. "Abraham, Martin and John" was shooting up the charts. It was 1968, and Leas Campbell was ready to test his business acumen and his personal ambition. "Dion had, like, ten gold records from the early days," the promoter recalls. "He had major offers from William Morris and the other big agencies. But he didn't want the road scene. I knew him for a year, we had gone to a lot of concerts together, and we had a relationship of trust."

Dion decided to let the neophyte book a Florida tour for him, cold-shouldering the half-dozen area promoters Campbell would compete against for access to the box-office attractions during the next few years. The arrangement gave Campbell an opportunity to try his hand at a new venture, and allowed Dion to downscale, performing without committing to an all-out national tour. "I figured out that colleges and universities have entertainment budgets," says Campbell. "I got a list of all the colleges in Florida and Georgia. Because it was the end of the year, they'd spent their budgets, but this one, Manatee College, the guy says he'll give me a PC deal, an 80-20. I acted interested. 'I'll take it to the artist' A I'd already learned that catch phrase. Actually, I didn't know what a PC deal was. I found out it meant percentage, and I went back and told the guy we needed 90-10, that we never did a show for less. He said okay. We sold out two shows, made a killing. Then I learned about guarantees against percentages. This is all right! I went to all these schools personally, and I came back with twelve bookings. Dion shit. He couldn't believe it."

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