Burgett kept Tahoe rocking through the 60s
Lake Tahoe Action
More than 1,600 rock ‘n’ rollers filled the Fun House on Lake Tahoe Boulevard while another 700 outside tried to push down the doors to see Chuck Berry.
“The fire department was there and the police department was there,” promoter Jim Burgett recalled. “When I got out I said, ‘I think I’ve done this long enough.’ “
It was the Fourth of July, 1971, the day the music died in South Lake Tahoe.
Burgett was Tahoe’s best-known musician in the 1960s, but his greatest achievements came as a promoter for, first, the American Legion Hall, then the Fun House, which was previously called the Sanctuary. What is now the Freemont Mall was originally Nel’s Hardware, and later a Safeway.
Burgett brought to South Lake Tahoe Carlos Santana, Steppenwolf, the Grateful Dead and many others.
“I had just about everybody you could imagine,” the 75-year-old Burgett said from his Las Vegas home. “I used to ask kids at the dances, ‘Who do you want to see?’ Almost every San Francisco act that was happening in the city, that’s who we brought in.”
Burgett, who lived in the San Joaquin Valley, began performing in the American Legion on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in 1958.
“We were the first rock ‘n’ roll band to play in Tahoe – I can guarantee that,” he said.
He moved to South Shore in the early 1960s where he lived until 1972. His children still live nearby, two in the Minden-Gardnerville area and one in Sacramento.
Burgett rented the American Legion and played all week long, sometime serving as the backing band for visiting artists.
“Jim was a good rock ‘n’ roll front man, but he was also a pretty good impresario,” said Brian Williams, who was a DJ for K-HOE Truckee. “He was South Shore’s Bill Graham for a while.”
“Kids would be lined up around the corner and down the block,” Burgett said. “It took 30, 40 minutes to get them all inside. I was looking for a job and I created one. Selfishly, I wouldn’t let anyone else in it for years. Then I got so much work at Harrah’s, I brought in other acts. It was a great time. I’m surprised there’s nothing like that for the kids now.”
The American Legion’s capacity was 1,000, and the Dead filled the place, as did Steppenwolf. One day the Sanctuary manager told Burgett he wasn’t making money off his club and offered to sell him the lease.
The Sanctuary, which held 600 more bodies than the Legion, became the Fun House and Steppenwolf returned, along with the Carlos Santana Blues Band. This was before Santana gained national attention at 1969’s Woodstock Festival.
“Those songs he played, he only had to know about three because they were about 20 minutes a piece,” Burgett said. “It was that old ’60s jam, but it was always great. I always got him every time he was available. And even after he had hit records and I couldn’t afford him, he’d come anyway.”
Harrah’s Director of Entertainment John Packer, who visited Tahoe during the summer as a child, recalled Janis Joplin playing at the Fun House.
Burgett could not confirm the story.
“Somebody told me Janis was in the audience and came up and sat in with us but I didn’t see her,” he said. “I didn’t buy her for that room. Somebody said she came up with the Grateful Dead, but I swear I missed it.”
Tahoeans also recall the story of the American Legion collapsing due to its roof’s heavy snowload just hours before a dance.
Burgett and his wife had suffered injuries in a car accident and were not at the hall when it collapsed. South Tahoe High School graduate Tom Peterson, who worked more than 100 of Burgett’s dance parties, was unloading gear during the collapse. Burgett said he removed a drum kit and while he was outside heard a “creaking sound.” Peterson went back in and moments after taking another load outside, the hall crashed down, “flatter than a pancake.”
Although he had lost a venue, Burgett was plenty busy performing shows at Harrah’s and booking acts for the Fun House. He was pleased to book Berry, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who first inspired Burgett to pick up a guitar. But he was disappointed after he met him and argued about his contract.
“I got a threatening e-mail from Chuck Berry’s fan club saying I was degrading him, but I’ll tell you the exact truth,” Burgett told Lake Tahoe Action.
“I put 50 percent of the money up and he knew he was coming into a facility that would only hold less than 2,000 people. They put guys at the door with counters, so there was no way around that. … Like a lot of things, he didn’t pay any attention to the contract. He signed it and took the money. Then when he shows up he comes back to the office with one other guy. He said to me as I was counting out the cash, ‘What about the percentage?’ “
Burgett reminded him of the limited Fun House capacity and the contract he had signed.
“He didn’t like that,” Burgett said. “He wanted extra money. I said. ‘Look, I’ll pay you for this now.’ He took the money and when he went to sign the check to give me a receipt for it, he shoved it back to me and said, ‘I didn’t see no receipt,’ and he turns to his friend and says, ‘I have an idea this is going to be a real short night.’
“It hit me wrong,” Burgett said. “It ticked me off. I always look at it from the artist’s standpoint but that was just ridiculous to me.”
To make matters worse, the truculent Berry, who was to be backed by Burgett’s band, said he wouldn’t plug his guitar into the Fender twin amp he was provided.
Burgett had had enough. If the speaker was good enough for Jerry Garcia, he thought, it was good enough for Berry.
“I had security there that were football players,” Burgett said. “They were with the 49ers who were here for high-altitude training. I hired them for summer to keep peace in my hall. I said, ‘Walk Mr. Berry to the stage and don’t let him off until he’s done what he’s agreed to do.’ “
Since that show, Chuck Berry fans have told Burgett how great the performance was, maybe Berry’s best ever.
Burgett laughed, “I think some of it was because he had no choice.”
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