TERRE HAUTE —
As the stage lights came on, Sam Wellington and his cohorts gazed out at an audience of 8,060 Midwesterners.
The scene was familiar for him. Wellington and his country music quartet, The Four Guys, opened shows night after night for fellow RCA Records artists Ronnie Millsap and headliner Charley Pride on tours across North America. “The Pride Show” drew standing-room-only throngs at the Las Vegas Hilton and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. The Country Music Association gave Millsap its 1974 male vocalist of the year award. Early that same year, radio stations regularly played Pride’s latest single, “Amazing Love,” one of his 39 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs.
But this moment, on this night, in Terre Haute, Indiana, gave Wellington and his foursome of melodic crooners their own historic niche.
They were the first musical act to perform in concert inside brand-new Hulman Center. Later that evening, Millsap and Pride entertained those fans who’d paid $4 and $5 for seats. The Four Guys sang first, though.
It was 8 o’clock on Feb. 15, 1974.
“It was our standard format to open all of Charley’s shows, behind the Pridesmen — Charley’s band,” Wellington recalled from his home in Franklin, Tenn. “Millsap would follow us, then the hottest act in country music at the time, Charley Pride, [performed].”
Wellington co-founded The Four Guys in 1967, and appreciates the Terre Haute milestone on their resume.
“That’s quite a distinction to have been the first act to launch such a wonderful venue,” he said.
As the 40th anniversary of that first Hulman Center concert arrives this Saturday, the country flavor of that initial event now seems fitting. During the past decade, country has dominated the building’s concert offerings, with 13 of the last 16 top-of-the-bill acts hailing from that genre. Yet, the variety and scope of the roster of musicians, singers and bands, as well as comedians, that have taken the stage in Hulman Center during its lifetime remain astounding, especially in a town that could put one-sixth of its population in the facility’s seats.
“It’s incredible, when you look back at the people that played in this building, and multiple times in this building,” said Jennifer Cook, assistant director at Hulman Center.
The names are known worldwide — Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bob Hope, Aerosmith, Kiss, Johnny Cash, Alice Cooper, The Doobie Brothers, the Beach Boys, Earth, Wind & Fire, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, John Denver, Steve Martin, Peter Frampton, John Mellencamp, Heart, Motley Crue, Jay Leno, Adam Sandler, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Alan Jackson, Tammy Wynette, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, MC Hammer, Boyz II Men, TLC and Toby Keith. Others were red-hot popular upon arrival in Terre Haute, such as the Marshall Tucker Band, country-rockers who drew 11,143 fans in 1976, and REO Speedwagon, Illinois pop-rockers who played to 10,000-plus crowds twice.
Hulman Center exploded out of the gates, musically, after its official opening (for an Indiana State University basketball game) on Dec. 14, 1973. In its first five years from 1974 through ’78, the venue hosted a mind-boggling 95 concerts. A headline in the 1975 ISU Yearbook quipped, “There Were Almost Too Many Concerts.”
“It was unbelievable,” said Terre Haute resident Paul Ray. “[Hulman Center] was just the entertainment hub of everything that went on around here.”
Ray’s late father, Maurice “Pete” Ray, helped handle the crowds as one of the original Hulman Center ushers. Paul, a 17-year-old in 1974, attended many of those early-years concerts, including Kiss, Boston, Kansas, Sha Na Na, John Denver, Willie Nelson and, yes, “The King” — Elvis.
“Women were throwing their undergarments up there, and he had the big intro, and the place was just packed,” Ray remembered. Ray and 10,243 other people turned out for that Presley show on July 9, 1975.
Mike McCormick, a Terre Haute attorney and historian, was there, too. In fact, for several years, McCormick kept alive a streak of attending every major Hulman Center concert. “The Sinatra concert was terrific, better than his show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas,” he noted. “Elvis was very good. I got a headache at the Bob Dylan concert from the smoke.”
Indeed, Hulman Center concert-goers often encountered marijuana smoke wafting through the air in the 1970s.
Memorable aura, images
The images and atmosphere at several of those shows were captured by the eyes and camera of Harry Strothers, a student photographer for the ISU Yearbook staff and sports-information department in the early ’70s. Strothers, now a physician and chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in East Point, Ga., was a biology major at Indiana State then. Photography was a hobby for Strothers as a high-schooler in Silver Spring, Md. At ISU, the craft gave him a campus job and his first exposure to a big-arena music venue. His first assignment was the Oct. 17, 1975, performance by the British progressive rock band Jethro Tull.
“The crowd was big, they were enthusiastic, and it was the first time I was at an indoor concert in a hall that big,” Strothers said by telephone from Georgia.
The Tull concert topped Strothers’ list of his favorite Hulman Center concerts, along with Earth Wind & Fire, and Al Jarreau. EWF employed a 10-man lineup, pyrotechnics, and a blend of blend of R&B, soul, funk, disco and rock that eventually earned the band 20 Grammys and induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They wowed Strothers “just because of how big the band actually was and how elaborate their show was.”
It may have taken awhile for small-town residents to comprehend the rarity of their mid-’70s concert heyday. “I got the impression, initially, they didn’t,” Strothers said. “It was people from other places that said, ‘They don’t get these kind of shows in Baltimore.’”
The Nov. 7, 1978, show by John Denver is often mentioned as a Hulman Center highlight. Performing in the round — a configuration that boosts the center’s capacity above 11,000 but is seldom used these days — the Colorado singer-songwriter treated 9,039 fans to hits such as “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “John Denver did an amazing show in the round,” said Cook, who attended as a fan then.
Paul Ray agreed. “That guy was extremely talented, really, really good — not only his singing ability, but his ability to play guitar,” he said.
Big turnouts needed
By the 1980s, the “hair band” era brought glitter rockers to town, along with traditional country artists. Estel Grindle began working as a Hulman Center usher in 1987. Though Grindle’s musical tastes lean toward Grand Ole Opry icon Little Jimmy Dickens, he said the rock acts “were real loud, and they really gave the people all they paid for. They treated people good.”
Rockers drew some of the largest Hulman Center audiences in the ’80s and ’90s. Motley Crue pulled in 9,500 in March 1990, and no act has outdrawn them since.
The concert-tour industry has changed since then, though, Cook said. Artists now command guarantees of $225,000, which is out of Hulman Center’s price range, she explained. The days of $5 tickets faded long ago. From 1981 to 2012, the average concert ticket price rose nearly 400 percent, according to USA Today. Last year, the average price hit a record $68.76, according to Pollstar. At those prices, fans’ expectations are higher than those of the 20th century.
“They are not that satisfied to come and watch an artist just stand on the stage and play,” Cook said. “They want lights. They want pyrotechnics. They want special effects.”
In Terre Haute, where unemployment tops the state’s rate and incomes are 70 percent of the national average, many folks simply can’t afford a show. Others get their visual music fix online, Cook said. So crowds are smaller in a “secondary market” like Terre Haute, she added, and that bumps Hulman Center off the radar of many big-draw, touring performers. Last fall, folk rocker Sheryl Crow “went country” and joined Gary Allan on tour, including a stop in Terre Haute. A crowd of 3,475 attended.
The key for Hulman Center to sustain a fuller string of shows is attendance, she said. If big numbers show up, more artists will come. The largest recent crowds were attracted by Jason Aldean (8,625), Eric Church (7,974) and Rascal Flatts (6,899). “Male country singers do well in Terre Haute,” Cook said.
“I know everybody says, ‘We’re tired of country,’” she added, “but country is what sells in Terre Haute.”
Tickets for Aldean’s 2010 gig ranged from $25 to $36. It was a sellout.
Four decades ago, packed houses weren’t so rare for Hulman Center. “It was the center, a social gathering place,” Ray said. “That was a real cool time for the city.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.