2014 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Benny Collins

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Features

2014 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Benny CollinsIf you don’t want to know the truth about something, don’t ask Benny Collins. Because he will tell you. That trait — at odds with the stereotype of those who get close to the stars — has taken him far in the live event business, a career that started with him hauling a Hammond B-3 in a truck as a teen to circling the world running Michael Jackson’s most audacious tours.

Along the way, Collins has also worked with the likes of Journey, David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Lionel Richie and U2 — among others. In 1985, he took WHAM! to communist China — it was the first western pop to play a stadium-type concert after the thawing of its brutal cultural revolution. “We played the People’s Gym to 15,000 people, and there were four cars and three thousand bicycles in the parking lot,” Collins says. His timing of doing site advance for the Rolling Stones in Berlin was historic too: “I arrived in Berlin just as the wall was coming down in 1989, and I have a piece of it in my house.”

Collins helped pave the way for Michael Jackson's tour in Eastern Europe during the height of the King of Pop's career.“Benny is one of the most honest, most ethical people I know — it’s that simple,” production manager Charlie Hernandez states. “He’s always able to tell the truth, whether it’s to a cab driver or the King of Pop.” Hernandez was working for Billy Squier when he first met Collins when Squire was opening for Journey. “He was the drum tech at the time and he was always the hardest working guy on the crew. Then later he gave me one of the greatest jobs I ever had — site coordinator for Michael Jackson.”

As Hernandez points out, there was seemingly nothing Collins couldn’t do. “He was moving these giant statues around Eastern Europe — he’s crazy! Those Jackson tours were the biggest things ever, and the logistics were mind-boggling.”

Production manager Chris Lamb is another who worked with Collins over the years. “I’ve worked for him, and he’s worked for me, and we’ve bounced back and forth working for Michael [Jackson], Madonna and Lionel Richie,” he says. “He’s an all-around great guy and we both have confidence in each other’s decisions.  When he’s working for me, I don’t have to worry and I don’t have to explain things twice, and that’s the same when I’m working for him. Also, we both like to wear hats!”

Revving it up with Don Fox on the Journey tour, 1983Lamb laughs and adds: “And not everybody knows he’s an amazing forklift driver!”

“Benny can take anything you throw at him, no matter how big,” long time industry player Pat Morrow says. “Nothing gets to him. There’s no pretense, no bullshit — just a rockin’ sockin’ warrior on a quest fighting to do the best job possible.”

The truth is also this: for his achievements so far, he’ll receive the live event industry’s highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, at the annual gala ceremony planned for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas Nov. 22.

“I’m tremendously honored to receive this award,” Collins says. “When I look at the people who got this before me, people for whom I have great affection, I’m blown away. When Patrick Stansfield called me to tell me this, it blew my mind. You get to do what you do, and you don’t think about awards.”

Benny as a boy, age 5 or 6The City By the Bay

Collins hails from Oakland, and was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born to a single mother just 16 years old, he was brought up by his grandmother and an aunt, who later adopted him as her own son. “Everything I learned was from strong, independent women, and one of those things I learned is that you don’t argue with strong independent women!” The women who raised him were from Louisiana, and Collins spent some of his childhood there as well.

Those women instilled a deep sense of values and a respect for all humanity. He recalls once as an eight-year-old walking down the city street, he laughed at a homeless drunk lying on the ground. “My mother smacked me so hard I nearly fell over,” he recalls. “And she said, ‘always remember no matter what they do or who they are, if they are older than you, they’ve earned your respect.’”

Collins' high school graduation photoGrowing up in San Francisco during the 1960’s also made an impression on him. “At the time, you could be one of three things: a surfer, a hippie, or a ‘mun’ [today’s translation: Goth]. All my friends were basically hippies.” By 15, he was making a few bucks driving a delivery truck that his stepfather owned (his mother had remarried). This worked out well for a Hammond B3 playing friend who was playing with a band called the Fabulous Malibus that later became Malo (and later featured a young Carlos Santana).

After high school, he tried the local college, but it didn’t stick — at first. “There were too many of my friends there [to distract me],” he says. Meanwhile, he was hanging out at the local YMCA on San Francisco’s Mission Street, and with a group of them, went to a convention in St. Louis. There, a YMCA director clearly saw Collins’ potential and introduced him to the president of George Williams College, and said, “George Williams College needs Benny.”

His second try at college would take.

The Tight-Knit Hippie Clan

In retrospect, he studied subjects that would prepare him for the rock ‘n’ roll touring lifestyle: psychology, sociology and philosophy.

He returned to the Bay Area and started to make his way into the vital San Francisco music scene. He became friends with Natalie Nielsen, manager of Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station, and began his “official” career as roadie. With that group he went to Europe for the first time in 1972 on a Warner Brothers music show that included The Doobie Brothers and Tower of Power. From there he went to work for Bill Graham.

Collins met tour manager/Nocturne founder Pat Morrow at a show in 1979, who offered him a job as a drum tech with Journey, just as they were starting to dominate the pop charts.

From left, Parnelli Hall of Fame honoree Mo Morrison with Michael Jackson and Benny Collins. Morrison, honored at the 2013 Parnellis, died April 7, 2014.“He was doing a great job with the drums, so the team bumped him up to stage managing,” Morrow says. That team included Scotty Ross, Greg Schaffer, Bob Warren and Chris Lamb. “We were a very tight-knit hippie clan — we did everything together in those days.”

When the production manager at the time was sick for an important Rose Bowl gig, Collins was asked to fill in. Apparently he impressed Journey manager Herbie Herbert and Morrow, among others. At the end of a tour in 1983, Collins found himself with Herbert in Morrow’s office chatting. Both parties confirm some recreational smoking was going on (“If you wanted to get high in those days, you’d just go to Journey’s production office,” Morrow smiles).

At one point Herbert asked Collins was asked if he ever thought of being a production manager. Collins replied, “Why not?”

Collins left the meeting, got in his car, and started heading home. Half way across the Golden Gate Bridge, enjoying the view afforded on that nice sunny day, it hit him: he’s now production manager of the biggest band in America… a black guy is production manager of the biggest white band in America! “I laughed hard,” he recalls. “It was pretty funny.”

For the next tour, he handled the crew with finesse. “I called the guys in for a get together, and let them know I have an open door policy. They can always talk to me about anything. I might not always agree with them, but I always want to hear what they have to say.”

On the matter of race, he acknowledged that there were very few people of color on tours with white rock bands — let alone leading them (2011’s Parnelli Honoree Hernandez was doing it, but that was about it). But he reports that his ride was mostly smooth. “There are one or two stories when we first hit the Deep South,” he admits. “I’d walk into a union house and there’d be an entire white southern crew.” In one instance, working to build a barricade in front of the stage, one local crew leaned over and said, “What’s it feel like to be the HNIC?” [Head N****r In Charge]. Collins, caught off-guard, muttered, “it’s okay,” quietly.

After some thought, he later went back to the guy who asked the question and said: “You know, it feels great to be HNIC,” he said. “If it was 10 years ago, I’d be working for you.” And he never had any problem with them again. “They were just testing me to see if I was going to be sensitive, but they didn’t realize my whole family is originally from Louisiana, and I’ve been through all that — my uncle was one of the first black chiefs of police in my town. I went through segregation.”

John Draper, Frank DeLeo and Benny Collins during the mid-1980s Bad tourJackson, 10 Feet Tall

Collins would impeccably move Journey around the world on tours until the group disbanded in 1985. From there, he immediately went to work for David Bowie on the complicated Glass Spider Tour.

Then the phone rang, and it was Morrow again. This time the question was: “Would you want to work for Michael Jackson?” Of course, the answer was yes, but it got complicated when Bowie extended his tour. There was no daylight between two of the biggest tours that year. “[After Bowie] in Seattle, I got on a plane, flew home, washed my clothes in a day, and then started the Bad tour with Michael.”

There are plenty of stories from that period.

Collins with Bubbles, Michael Jackson's pet chimp.“I’m sitting at a big desk in an office in L.A. when rehearsals were going on, and I hear this smack,” Collins says with a smile. He looks up and it’s Bubbles [Jackson’s chimpanzee], who proceeds to give Collins a big hug. “Then he started walking around with me because he liked me so much.”

Proving once again that everyone likes Collins.

It was a wild ride, one that Collins seems grateful for. “Michael would hold these pre-tour production gatherings, encouraging people to throw out any ideas. He was always looking for the next big idea, no matter how out-of-left-field it was.”

It was technically challenging, too. “At that point, we were using [the new] Vari*Lites, and we had every problem you could think of, though we got lucky and it never held up a show.” But in 1988, one show didn’t go on, though it was because of Jackson. The sold-out crowd was waiting for him at Wembley Stadium when Collins got the word that Jackson was sick and not coming out just as the opening act was finishing up. “You know, sh*t rolls downhill, and somehow it ended up that I was the one who was to break it to the crowd.”

With trepidation, Collins strolled out on the stage knowing he was decidedly not the guy the audience was hoping to see. “I announced that he wasn’t coming, but that we’d be back.” He was surprised (and grateful) when the crowd, while disappointed, was calm while exiting.

“The next month we came back, had the same opening act, and after they were done, I again walked out on stage,” he grins. “Up came this ‘boo’ like you’ve never heard. I just looked out, took a bow, and left.”

Despite all he had done at that point, it was still a thrill to meet “every star I ever dreamed of,” he says. “I was sitting on a case on the side of the stage, as I always did for the first two songs, because if you got through the first two songs, you knew you weren’t going to have trouble. While sitting there, Michael’s security came up and asked if two people could sit with me. I look up and I see Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren and I say, ‘Sure! No problem!’”

On Jackson: “It was my job to tell him we were 20 minutes away from show time, and he’d go warm himself up. During that time, I’d see this five-foot-nine person suddenly [seem to] grow into something 10 feet tall. You could see the switch click from person to performer, and then click off again when he walked off the stage.”

Benny Collins at a Michael Jackson concert in 1993If You Can’t Handle the Truth…

Everyone speaks of Collins’ honesty and ability to tell the truth whether you wanted it or not. For the second tour, when Jackson’s controversial relationship with young boys was getting a lot of media attention, the pop star wanted to recreate a rollercoaster on stage. Collins told him: “That’s ain’t happenin,’ son.”

Not that Collins ever shied away from technical challenges. He tells of another bit they did pull off where they built a stage that recreated a graveyard, going 40 feet deep breaking to ground level. At the end of it he had six seconds to get Michael from below into a casket 20 feet above the stage. “That almost drove me to drink!” he jokes. “We worked 20 hour days to get that to work — going through plans, drawings, schematics, and getting all the designers, engineers and insurance guys to approve. But it happened.”

Jackson and CollinsIn another bit, a stunt double would fly out on a jet pack. The stories like this keep coming, but looking at all this through today’s reality of the accountants running the show, Collins must be stopped and asked: What was it like when money was no object?

“Money was an object,” he corrects. “But it wasn’t a problem when it was something he wanted. We weren’t going crazy, but the tours were costly.”

After Jackson, he did a variety of acts, including Counting Crows, that took him around the world.

Then a different Jackson called: Janet, who shared her brother’s appetite for Big Ideas. Collins’ first tour with her, Rhythm Nation 1814, involved a black panther for her hit song “Black Cat.” Collins found one in Pensacola and brought it and the trainer into rehearsal. The bit involved Jackson being put into a cage by the dancers, and being replaced by the panther via a trap door. During the tour’s premiere night, the kitty apparently thought it a good idea to relieve himself during his stage début. “Have you ever seen a tiger piss?!?” Collins asked. “It’s like a river!” Several of her dances were slipping and falling in the urine. The panther was fired — his rock star career was over.

If the touring life is full of surprises, it can also be hard on relationships. Many would say one of Collins’ most impressive “lifetime achievements” is with his personal life — and impressive 38 years as husband to wife Audrey. “We realized that we had three lives early on,” he says of their relationship, which survived, among other things, her bout with cancer. “One is my life traveling in the music business. Another is her pursuit in the world of arts; the third is ours together. The idea was to make all three work.”

“There’s also no other guy so devoted to his wife,” Morrow says. “And she’s just the best, the greatest lady.” The Collins’ are proud of their two daughters, Saundra and Sharon, and three grandsons.

Anything ever make him mad? “The only way to really piss me off is to mess with my family. Do that and I’ll have you for breakfast.”

Collins embraces the philosophy that it’s not just what you do, but how you do it. “I don’t get angry, and I don’t hold grudges. If we have a problem, let’s talk about it, and after that, it’s over. I also try my best not to say a bad word about anybody.”

“I was a young kid when I first met Benny. He was always large and in charge — I could see then he was a groundbreaker,” Hernandez says. “There weren’t a lot of African Americans in the business back then, but Benny rose to the top quickly because he always told the truth and he really cared. He went out of his way to be fair to everybody, and earned everyone’s trust and loyalty.”

“More importantly than our working relationship is that Benny is a true friend,” Lamb says. “Not many people in this business are friends too.”

“Benny is great at preserving his reputation as someone who can get the job done and balancing that with a good heart,” Morrow adds.

On reflecting on his career so far, Collins says: “I think what hooked me is that immediate reaction when a band hits that stage, that first 30 seconds … that first song stars and the people go nuts. Then, for the next 90 or so minutes, they forget their problems. You’re part of bringing them happiness, joy, and that’s what hooked me. It’s what brought me joy.”

Benny Collins will be honored at the Parnelli Awards gala Nov. 22 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. To reserve your seat (or table), go to www.parnelliawards.com.