The Glory Days of the WMMS Coffee Break Concerts

Ralph DiMatteo

WMMS Coffee Break Concert Series

So, we all know that Cleveland is the Rock & Roll Capital of the World, right? But how many of you know that Cleveland’s heightened music passions were the catalyst in the early 1970s for then-WMMS program director Billy Bass to create the Coffee Break Concert Series that debuted in studio in 1972?

Bass was approached with a live performance opportunity for a little-known artist, Carol Hall, who had just released her first album. Bass quickly accepted and Hall performed in the cramped WMMS production studio - and another piece of Cleveland music history was born.

Everyone saw the potential of this unique afternoon opportunity, and a fixed weekly time slot of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays became a staple of the station, offering fans of a variety of music stylings the opportunity to enjoy their lunch, or a cup of coffee, and listen to a free weekly live, in-studio concert featuring up-and-coming performers. Performances in the tiny WMMS studio were not conducive to complete band performances with full instruments, but that was actually part of the early appeal because you heard performers doing things differently than they ever had before.

A look at past interviews with those at the station in those early stages of the concert series development will tell you it wasn’t always easy lining up performers.  Many of those who auditioned for their chance at stardom just didn’t stand out, but one local “skinny” boy that did, Alex Bevan, remains a Cleveland favorite to this day.

Even a move to larger studios didn’t solve the problem of full band performances, so the first live stage performance became a reality in 1979 the club at Playhouse Square - Bobby McGee’s - that featured, you guessed it, Alex Bevan.

We would love to be able to tell you the concerts were an instant hit, but the project almost became mothballed after two largely ignored shows, and then a third scheduled show that no one bothered to show up and open the club for.

How the WMMS Coffee Break Concerts Finally Became a Hit

Enter Cleveland music icon Hank LoConti, who in a past life in the beer business I got to know myself, when part of my job was managing sponsorships of client shows held at LoConti’s third Agora location at 50th and Euclid. He was amazingly approachable, quick-witted, and full of great stories he was always willing to share.

The rest is now firmly a part of Cleveland’s rich musical history, as the move to the Agora at their second location at 24th and Euclid not only salvaged a concept teetering on being canceled, but set the course for an incredibly successful run of afternoon shows. Most importantly, WMMS now not only had LoConti’s blessing and support, but his name and venue to attract and create bigger and better events. It may also have had a little something to do with the fact that despite admission being free, the Agora did pretty well selling alcohol at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon.

Local artists like Cleveland’s own Michael Stanley and Wild Horses got their chance to shine, and national acts got the freedom of this unique opportunity to do performances their fans had never seen or heard before. Many opted to go acoustic in this setting; John Cougar Mellencamp comes to mind there.

The list of other national artists booked included Cyndi Lauper, Quiet Riot, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, Bryan Adams, Warren Zevon, and the Romantics. We came to find out while researching the Coffee Break Concert phenomena that even infomercial sensation Boxcar Willy performed on the Agora stage.

It seemed for a time that nothing could slow down the juggernaut that these concerts had become. Music fans young and old were gathering together to hear established artists performing music in ways they never heard before, and up-and-comers getting their sound exposed to audiences, in some cases for the very first time.

But sadly, something totally out of WMMS or the Agora’s control did grind things to a halt - a fire in 1994 that did damage to the club that was determined to be irreparable.

Another classic Cleveland music venue, Peabodys Down Under, came to the rescue, but by the time the concerts resurfaced, the station had moved on to a variety of other live performances around town that, for the most part, made the afternoon get-togethers obsolete.

Bootlegs of some of the bigger name performances have occasionally turned up around town, but most of this unique music history has either been lost, or sadly even destroyed. Maybe you are one of those lucky music fans who not only has in your possession the music, but the memories that went along with it. Let us know if you do; we would love to hear from you.

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