BOOKING AND PROMOTION AGENTS
- Jim Halsey – Booking and promotions agent
- Dorothy “DD” Bray – Booking agent, manager, and personal secretary
JIM HALSEY – Music Impresario
During Hank Thompson’s seven-decade career, he and The Brazos Valley Boys did over 7500 shows and each contract had to be negotiated, booked, and collected. Of course, in the early days he did his own bookings, then he hired John Hirt as his booking agent/manager and John stayed with Hank until they moved the operation to Oklahoma from Texas. In 1951 Hank hired Jim Halsey as his booking agent and manager and Jim was in that job until 1984. The following excerpts taken from Hank’s biography “My Side Of Life” written by Warren Kice illustrates the exceptional job that Jim did and how closely Hank and Jim worked together for over 35 years. They remained very close friends until Hank’s death in 2007.
In 1951, John Hirt informed Hank and Billy Gray (Hank’s band leader) that he was not interested in moving to Oklahoma and he resigned as booking agent/manager. Billy Gray suggested to Hank a young man from Kansas by the name of Jim Halsey who had promoted Hank in several towns throughout Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas who often went along with the Brazos Valley Boys to the jobs. Billy reminded Hank of the good job that he did. Hank agreed, picked up the phone and called Jim.” We’re playing the Trianon Ballroom Saturday Night”, Hank told Jim after laying out the job opening. “Come on down and we’ll get together and talk about it”.
When Jim got the call from Hank, Jim was twenty years old and attending Independence Junior College in Kansas. In addition to booking music acts, he was booking plays and other acts at the local Memorial Hall and had worked a little with a wrestling promoter.
On the Saturday in question, they met at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City, and Hank outlined his vision for himself and the Brazos Valley Boys. He then asked Jim if he would be interested in serving as Hank’s booking agent and manager. Jim answered with a question. “When do I start” and Hank replied, “January one”.
Although neither Hank nor Jim could appreciate it at the time, this began a personal and business relationship between the two men that was one of the most important in each of their respective careers and one that lasted for the next 50 years.
In 1952 after Hank moved to Oklahoma City, Jim Halsey also moved to Oklahoma City, although he kept his previous home and office in Independence. One of his first projects was to buy a large map and systemically plot the areas, states, and cities that he wanted to cover during his first years with Hank. His goal was to book Hank in as many states as practicable. “I read the trade journals (at that time Billboard, Down Beat, and Metronome magazines), and whenever I saw a band or attraction playing I would write the name of the venue in a notebook I carried,” said Jim. “This became the beginning of my database of prospective buyers for Hank. Then I sought out the venues, made the phone calls, put together a press kit, and sent it to each buyer. When I booked a job, I prepared the contracts that were usually typed on my Smith-Corona portable typewriter”. His efforts were aided by the history – albeit short – that Hank had with many of the honky-tonk, club, and dance hall owners in the Southwest and California.
One important thing was that Hank handed me a list of club owners and other buyers that he had already played for, and they turned out to be satisfied customers.
Jim also accompanied Hank and the Brazos Valley Boys on most of their road trips, and it didn’t take long for him to make a positive impression. Hank was delighted with the energy, vision, and aptitude that Jim displayed, and the number and quality of the bookings increased significantly.
- The increase in demand for public appearances as a result of the release of “The Wild Side Of Life” enabled Jim to increase the efficiency of the road maps. For example, when Hank and the Brazos Valley Boys were to appear in Los Angeles for recording sessions and/or appearances, Jim would book several jobs between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.
- Regarding the personal appearances, Jim not only excelled in making the bookings, his effort to attend every job that he booked for Hank paid extra dividends, since he was able to meet and schmooze each club owner or buyer and pave the way for a return engagement. Just as important, he collected the balance due on each contract.
- Two business models emerged which were location-specific. In California, where liquor was sold by the drink, the club owners would make their money on the liquor sales, and therefore could give the band the entire door as long as they brought in a big crowd and worked up their thirst with good dance music., Thus, Jim could usually negotiate the entire door for the band, which, in most instances, was a substantial amount of money. By contrast, in Oklahoma and Texas, where liquor by the drink could not be sold, the patrons brought in their own. Thus, the club owners were limited to the sales of set-ups (and beer in some counties) and food, hardly a big moneymaking proposition, and therefore had to make some money on the door. Jim could usually negotiate about 70% of the door for the band.
- With the professional partnership between Hank and Jim Halsey firmly established, they created a five year plan for the promotion of Hank and his music that included several revolutionary concepts.
“Hank was the first to explain to me how important it is to be first because it only happens once “, said Jim. “And it piqued my interest in a couple of ideas I had in the back of my mind. We started planning to do things that nobody else had done and thought were impossible. Our goal was to get a corporate sponsorship.”
In an era in which “corporate sponsorship” and “country artist” were hardly ever used in the same sentence, Jim went to St. Louis and met with the Falstaff Beer people, and hit a home run. Here, in Jim’s written words, is his account of his meeting with the Flagstaff people in 1953.
In thinking about how to expand on the popularity of Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, I was inspired by the television cowboys, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong” Cassidy. They endorsed, commercialized, and appeared before audiences for a host of market Ed products – cereals, dog foods, others. There had to be money there. Why not take my own “cowboy”, Hank Thompson, connect a product with his endorsement, and expand from there.
After a quick study of many of the clubs and ballrooms Hank was playing, it was obvious beer was as big a commodity as selling the tickets. Many of our jobs were judged successful equally by how much beer was sold as to the amount of gate admission.
The obvious was a beer company. One of the biggest beers in the Southwest at that time was Falstaff. It was sold at many of the ballroom and nightclubs we played. Wouldn’t it be great if I could get Falstaff to sponsor Hank Thompson?
As I learned early in life – write it down. This is what I did. I filled several legal pads with ideas and notes I wanted to present to Falstaff. Refining those notes and with the creative genius help from Hank, I perfected a presentation to Falstaff.
Still not knowing for sure what I was doing, I called the president of Falstaff Beer in St. Louis seeking an appointment to make a pitch. I was quickly turned over to the Director of Sales and Marketing. Disappointed and feeling I was given the brush off, I continued the pursuit. I was thrilled and a little bit surprised when I was given an appointment. Traveling to St. Louis for the meeting with great excitement and anticipation, I reviewed my honest but unprofessional presentation. Press kits were provided that included pictures, bio material, reviews form newspapers and trade magazines, photocopies of the Billboard and Cash Box charts, and some letters of praise from fairs and rodeos where we recently had appeared.
Arriving a few minutes early of my appointed time, I spent the time reviewing the proposal and how I would make it. Preparing myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, I took several deep breaths and then it was time to walk in. The Director of Sales and Marketing, Director of Advertising, Director of Public Relations, and a couple of others, all were waiting around a highly polished official looking conference table – and all eyes focused on me. I took another deep breath. I wanted another moment or two, giving time for silence in the room. Then I spoke.
All had copies of my presentation as I talked about Hank, and how important his endorsement of Falstaff would be and how we could tie our appearances in with clubs that would agree to feature Falstaff on the night of the appearance. Our posters that advertised our performances would carry the Falstaff logo. Even the uniforms of Hank’s band would blazingly bear the Falstaff logo embroidered on their shirts (these costumes were created and executed by the famous designer and tailor, Nudie). Falstaff was suggested to buy accompanying radio spots advertising our performance, tagged by Falstaff. Where legal, contests were to be held. The final “piece de resistance”, was a radio series played by Hank on a network.
This was embellished by the enthusiastically-received idea that Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys would appear, sponsored by Falstaff Beer, at the annual State Fair of Texas (entire run of 21 days) on the Magnolia Bandstand at the head of the midway. What a promotion! And talk about impressions! The State Fair of Texas admissions ran over 100,000 people daily.
I was overwhelmed. My presentation was well received. No decision was to be made that day. It took several more trips and on-site visitation of the various sales and marketing decision makers before we made the deal. I didn’t get everything I asked for, nor all the money requested. But it was enough, and that began a relationship that lasted for years. That fateful day changed my inexperience into a successful reality. Understanding the positive belief of making an intelligent presentation, I realized just how important a corporate sponsor could be to an artist’s career (and the bottom line).
I was lucky. I felt I made a decent presentation, and Falstaff was interested in what I had to say – they realized (probably before I ever got there) what a big name like Hank could do for their product.
But, there was even more work on the horizon. Jim Halsey was developing some other concepts for Hank, helped in no small way by the fact that Hank encouraged him to think out of the box and gave him carte blanche on all business dealings.
“In my early years working with Hank,” said Jim, “I was very pleased to learn that he too was a visionary thinker and wanted to expand his cope beyond the norm. Our partnership would become a magical one, and we became pioneers – being first at so many events and opportunities.
To pave the way for implementation of the additional promotional concepts, Jim stepped in and started coordinating the efforts of several team members that Hank already had in place, including Capitol Records, Ken Nelson, and a prominent music attorney. Also, when he was not on the road with Hank, Jim often traveled to New York and Los Angeles for various activities on Hank’s behalf, not the least of which was face-to-face meetings with the Capitol executives.
“Back in those days, nobody associated with country music ever went to New York or Los Angeles to do business,” said Jim.
“Their approach was that if it wasn’t done in Nashville, it wasn’t worth doing. But I was able to book Hank in places that these people didn’t even know about. Also, another vision I had for Hank was the international market. At that time, nobody in country music even thought about this.
Jim Halsey continued to tour the country with Hank and the band as they polished their Western Swing skills at each job. He noticed that they played several classic big-band popular songs, such String of Pearls, Tuxedo Junction, Jersey Bounce, Sunrise Serenade, and the Johnson Rag. He also noticed that this music was not all that far removed from the popular big band versions of the songs that he had enjoyed so much in his youth and which were still being played. Still another thing that he noticed was that the crowds loved this music.
“As a big band enthusiast, I had become a fan of Woody Herman, Glen Miller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, etc.,” said Jim. “I even remembered the names of the ballroom locations where they played. I read about them in Down Beat Magazine, and I heard them broadcasting late at night, from magical locations such as The Prom Ballroom in St. Paul Minnesota; The Terp in Austin, Minnesota; The Trianon Ballroom in Chicago: The Pla-Mor in Kansas City; and the Surf in Clear Lake, Iowa. Granted, these bands did not have steel guitars and fiddles, and the Brazos Valley Boys did not have saxophones and trombones. But the music was essentially the same.
A light went on, and Jim went to Hank.
“Your music will hold it’s own with the big band music now being played in the main-tier ballrooms throughout the country,” said Jim. “The trouble is that never, never, have any of these locations even thought of playing country music, much less the music of Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys.”
He then outlined what will be termed The Halsey Crossover Plan to Hank.
“It was my goal for Hank to become a real crossover artist and play many venues that only booked pop or big band attractions,” said Jim. “The fact that Hank was one of those rare individuals who had a ‘nothing was impossible’ philosophy that coincided with mine was a revelation to me and a strong factor in our achieving the things that we did.
Jim started the initial steps to put The Halsey Crossover Plan into effect.
In July 1953, Down Beat Magazine, which was a prominent jazz publication, sponsored a huge outdoor live music show at Soldier Field in Chicago featuring several jazz and pop artist. Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys played this venue along with 10 other jazz and pop artist.
This came about when Jim Halsey, in an attempt to implement the Jim Halsey Crossover Plan, mustered the courage to go to Chicago and meet with Norman Weiser, the publisher of Down Beat magazine. Jim was extremely nervous when he met Weiser, and even more nervous when he told him of The Brazos Valley Boys’ capabilities with respect to big band popular and jazz music. Then he practically held his breath when he suggested to Weiser that Hank and The Brazos Valley Boys be added to the July 1953 show.
No problem. It turned out that Weiser was a big Hank Thompson fan and Hank was added to the bill despite the fact that Down Beat had never been associated with country music. Hank and the band were well received at Soldier’s Field; and, from that time forward, Weiser became another mentor of Jim and opened a lot of doors for Hank.
Jim Halsey was busy parlaying the success of the Soldier Field gig into bookings at other venues previously confined to big band popular music. One was the Terp Ballroom in Austin, Minnesota. The show was heavily promoted, and everyone was delighted when it broke the attendance record set by Glenn Miller and his orchestra in the late 30’s.
Another breakthrough venue was Johnny Betera’s Holiday House, which was located about twenty miles outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was a supper club that catered to the biggest pop names of the day – Perry Como, Patti Page and the like – and could not have been further removed from country music. But that was before Jim secured a week’s engagement for Hank and The Brazos Valley Boys.
Jim remembered it well.
“This was really a gamble. We had to make sure the show would be successful. We got Capitol Records solidly behind it and a country DJ in the area to plug it on the radio. Hank did interviews for the newspaper and radio stations, and even did a spot on a Pittsburgh television newscast. It was quite an interesting departure for Holiday House, and it was news.
One of the main frontiers that Jim Halsey wanted to conquer in the Halsey-Thompson five-year plan was a relatively new medium that, in his view, had tremendous potential, and that was television.
“I knew that if I were to succeed with Hank in a big, spectacular way, he had to be exposed to the mass audiences of America on a regular basis.” said Jim “That meant television. Enlisting the help of my acquaintances at Capitol Records, I asked for introductions that would help in booking Hank on some of the most popular network television shows.”
However, he had to look no further than Oklahoma City for a television opportunity. Albeit, on a local level. in 1954, a deal was secured with Channel 9, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City (and, at that time the only television station in Oklahoma City), for hank to do a live, local television show on Saturday afternoons. The format of the show was not a lot different from that of the radio shows. Hank would sing a few songs, The Brazos Valley Boys would do an instrumental and a vocal or two, and a guest artist would do one or two songs. Hank readily adapted to the new medium, and the shows went well.
A few months later, Channel 4 opened in Oklahoma City as an affiliate. They had their own country show entitled The Big Red Shindig, featuring some local musicians and sponsored by a huge furniture store in Oklahoma City, the Big Red Warehouse.
After a few months of the two shows going head-to-head, Halsey engineered a deal whereby Hank was to take over the Big Red Shindig. A deal term was that Hank was to paint his bus with the Big Red Shindig logo. A more important deal term was that he was to be paid more money than he received for the Channel 9 arrangement.
We were able to secure appearances on the Kate Smith show, which opened the door for other national network appearances”, said Jim.
The sponsorship’s that Jim Halsey secured with both Falstaff Beer and Light Crust Flour enabled him to establish valuable relationships with many advertising agencies across the country. As a result, several agencies sent their executives to Oklahoma City to schedule their trips around one of Hank’s appearances at the Trianon.
In the meantime, Jim Halsey continued to meet and deal with many important people in the business.
“I was able to establish a network of contacts in the business,” said Jim. “Not just people we could use, but people we respected and had respect for us. Therefore, we were able to establish relationships that resulted in a mutual benefit for them and us. And this happened time after time.”
For example, Jim was able to secure an engagement for Hank to appear at The Golden Nugget, the famous casino/hotel in Las Vegas, one that was unprecedented in the industry.
Throughout the years, Jim Halsey engineered several investments for Hank and other partners, with the partnership varying in personnel, depending on the deal and the investment. One was the acquisition of radio station KTOW-AM and KGOW-FM in Tulsa. This lead to an affiliation with other stations in Wichita, Omaha, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Kansas City and forming of a mini network, called Proud Country Broadcasting. The group would sponsor contests and special events, key elements in promoting Hank and other clients of Jim.
In 1965, Jim Halsey and Hank put together a new proposed recording contract and presented it to Ken Nelson, who came back with the news that Capitol wouldn’t buy it. Thus, the release of Then I’ll Start Believing In You backed with In The Back Of Your Mind in 1965 turned out to be Hank’s grand finale with Capitol, ending an eighteen-year relationship that started with the release of Humpty Dumpty Heart in 1947 – a relationship that produced over three hundred and twenty recorded songs including seventy-seven charted singles and twenty-five albums.
It was time for Plan B and Jim went into action. He called an executive with Warner Brothers, a man who had been an executive with Capitol during Hank’s tenure. Jim and Hank presented essentially the same proposal that Capitol had turned down. Warner Brothers wanted to establish a country artist roster and wanted Hank to be the flagship act, so they bought the proposal; and the contract was signed.
As the sixties progressed, Jim Halsey steadily increased his stable of artists to include The Oak Ridge Boys, Mel Tillis, Tammy Wynette, Minnie Pearl, Freddy Fender, Donna Fargo, Don Williams, Jimmy Dean, and many others. “I started building my company by signing other acts, hiring other agents, and opening other offices,” said Jim. “But Hank was always the center point of all of it.”
In 1968, after Hank’s severance with Warner Brothers, it was on to Plan C, and Jim engineered a deal where Hank would sing with Dot records. In the meantime Roy Clark, who had been recording with Capitol Records, has also been released by Capitol and was somewhat in limbo. Jim, who still represented Roy, tried to dovetail him in with the deal, but the Dot people were skeptical.
Beginning in 1971 and continuing for several years thereafter, Jim Halsey put together an annual “Tulsa Ranch Party”, held at the twenty-five-hundred acre Circle R Ranch, located south of Tulsa and jointly owned by Jim, Hank, Roy Clark, and others. Once a year, talent buyers, television producers, record company executives and radio personalities from all over the world were invited to spend a three-day weekend at the ranch as guest of the Halsey Agency.
Members of the press from all over the country were also invited. Ralph Emery, the noted DJ from Nashville, broadcast live from the ranch. Also, a taping of Ranch Party highlights was televised every year as a syndicated special.
To further gild the lily, the important sponsors of the radio show on the two above-mentioned Tulsa radio stations were also invited, and the stations booked a lot of heavy advertising dollars for the coming months. “It was a sales event without parallel in the industry, a private showcasing of Halsey Company artist before the most important buyers in the world,” said Jim, “and it upset many of our competitors, because we had the first opportunity to book our acts with fair buyers for the coming year.”
In fulfillment of one of his earlier visions for promoting Hank, Jim Halsey booked jobs for Hank in many foreign venues, including the Netherlands, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Africa, and Asia. He also was a headliner at the first Brazilian country music festival feature artist from the United States; and, for several years during the seventies, he headlined a huge outdoor country festival at the famous arena in Wembley, a suburb of northwest London.
Jim received a lot of criticism from his contemporaries in the booking business, since most of the foreign venues didn’t pay as well as in the United States.
“But what these critics, and even some of the artist that we booked, didn’t realize.” said Jim, was that these tours generated significant record sales in each country. Also, many of the shows were televised, which further increased the artists’ exposure. Some artist balked at the low pay, but Hank was willing to sacrifice for the benefit of record sales and exposure, and it certainly paid off in the long run.
In the mid-seventies, Claremore Junior College in Claremore, Oklahoma, was looking to expand its curriculum. Jim Halsey, who knew some of the people at the schools, had an idea. Why not have a full curriculum based on music, and enlist Hank to design the curriculum and participate as a guest lecturer? Hank met with school officials and outlined what he thought should be covered in the curriculum. In addition, to the radio and television, he suggested including performing, song writing, managing, promoting, and publishing. Thus, the Hank Thompson School of Country Music was founded. The school is now Rogers State University.
Hank and Roy Clark’s contract with Dot (and it’s successor companies) was terminated in 1980, leaving Jim Halsey with two artist without a record label, So he took some fairly dramatic action and founded a new record label, Churchill Records, and signed Hank and Roy. According to the agreement, Churchill fronted the recording expense, did the marketing, and Dot/MCA did the distribution. Hank recorded an album entitled 1000 and One Nighters for Churchill as well as two singles – Rockin’ in the Congo (a re-recording) and Once in a Blue Moon – that landed fairly low on the charts in 1981 and 1983, respectively. Roy also hit the lower echelons of the charts with some of his singles. But neither artist was able to produce a big seller, and the enterprise was a failure.
In 1984, Hank was no longer using Jim Halsey on an exclusive basis. The personal relation- ship between the two men remained on a very high level despite the fact that the business relationship had plateaued. The very simple reason was that the demand for Hank’s personal appearances was not as high as for other artists represented by the Halsey agency.
“There wasn’t any room in the agency for someone like me,” said Hank. “I can’t blame Jim at all. He had to go with what was bringing him the money. Just like a store, he had to push the merchandise that was selling.”
In 1990, Jim Halsey sold the booking-agency division of his company to the giant William-Morris Agency. At the time, the Jim Halsey Company, Inc. was the number-one country music agency in the world, representing over forty country and pop acts and employing agents all over the globe. After the sale, Jim continued to represent a few acts, including the Oak Ridge boys, and started lecturing and teaching extensively at colleges, universities, and educational seminars around the world. He also created the music and entertainment business program at Oklahoma City University, which became the first college in the world to offer a bachelor’s degree in the business of entertainment. He also was a co-creator of the Billboard song contest, held annually under the auspices of Billboard magazine, which offered aspiring songwriters a chance for their work to be heard by professional. Jim and Hank continue to be close personal friend and, over the past several years, have worked together on several projects.
In 1994, Jim Halsey was involved in a project that resulted in Hank’s receiving a unique award. Jim described the details as follows: In 1926 General Sarnoff, the head of NBC, was making plans to do the first coast-to-coast live network radio broadcast, and he was rounding up talent for the show,” said Jim. “At the head of the list was Will Rogers; but, on the night in question, Will was performing in Independence Kansas, my home town. Will told Saroff that he would be pleased to perform on the NBC broadcast as long as it was done from Independence.
“I thought it would be a good idea to commemorate the anniversary of the broadcast in Independence each year with a banquet and the presentation of a Will Rogers Commemorative Award to a celebrity. We could even broadcast it nationally. It was a big success and Hank and Roy Clark shared the first award. The program was broadcast on KFDI in Wichita, and I was told it reached an audience of five million that evening, which was probably more people than General Sarnoff had reached with his broadcast sixty-eight years earlier!”
DOROTHY “DD” BRAY
In 1984 after Jim Halsey sold his booking agency Hank began booking his own shows. At the time, DD Bray was working as Hank’s personal secretary and was doing a fantastic job. So Hank decided to carry out an idea he had been entertaining for months, which led to a conversation he had with DD.
“You know” Hank said, I helped make Jim Halsey into a very successful booking agent. How would you like to go into business with me and do the same? asked Hank
“But I don’t have a clue about what a booking agent does” said DD.
“That’s OK, I’ll teach you.” It’s all telephone work, and from home. With your personality and work ethic, you would be good at it.
In January 1985 DD became Hank’s exclusive booking agent. Hank began mentoring her on the business, especially including the pitch to give to the “buyers”, i.e., the club owners, fair and tour promoters, etc. At first she made the calls and Hank would sit at a desk across from her and prompt her. The routine went something like this.
“Hello, Mr. Smith, I’m DD Bray and I’m the agent for Hank Thompson. I would like to book him with you. What does your schedule allow?
Then she would listen to the reply. Early on, in most cases, she would then put her hand over the phone and ask Hank what the reply should be. For example, she might have asked Hank , “How much would you charge to appear with The Brazos Valley Boys in Houston on October 23rd?”
After Hank quoted the figure to DD, she would offer it to the buyer.
“Hank was very patient with me,” said DD.
Soon, as DD kept at it, things started working. DD’s first booking was at the Hank Thompson School Of Music, but her joy in scoring her first first booking was tempered somewhat when she learned that Hank would perform for free. The second booking was from Morey Sullivan, who, in addition to fronting his version of The Brazos Valley Boys, also led a nine-piece Western Swing band called the Oklahoma Legends. (Morey used some of the Legend’s band members as the Brazos Valley Boys when backing Hank).
The bookings gradually increased as DD gained confidence in her new profession. In addition to sending the contracts to the buyers, getting the signed contracts, and collecting the down payments, she also took care of all the logistics related to the job such as hiring the back-up band and making travel and hotel reservations for everyone. She also continued to produce and mail out the fan club newsletter.
Later in the year, a business opportunity came up in Dallas for her husband, Larry, and she and Hank agreed that, after the move, she would continue booking Hank from her Trophy Club home.
A few months after DD and her family settled in Dallas, Hank and Ann came to the realization that also locating close to DFW International Airport was economically a better choice than Sand Springs as most flights originated from there. The decision was made to make the move to Roanoke, a suburb of Dallas/Ft in December of 1986.
DD continued working for Hank and Ann until 2006 when they closed the booking agency. DD passed away in 2009.