Concerts of the past highlight legends

Jan. 20, 2010

Round-up file-photo
Elton John performing at the Heart O' Texas Coliseum in 1972.

By James Byers

Before he became an icon, Elton John burned through Waco. Present-day Waco may not be a hotbed of live music, but it hasn't always been that way.

Making the first stop of his American tour, a rising Elton John performed at the Heart O' Texas Coliseum in 1972. Although he wasn't allowed to play on the Baylor campus, plenty of Baylor students flocked to see the performer.

Kathy Johnson, who graduated from Baylor in 1976, was one of them.

"That was such a high-energy show," she said. "It was so unexpected for him to be in Waco, Texas, of all places, in all of his weird outfits. We were shell-shocked."

Johnson, who is now the assistant to the dean of the School of Music, recalled that John performed with unusual enthusiasm.

"He was a showman," she said. "He was jumping all around, getting on top of the piano, and then jumping down."

John enthralled the crowd with some of his then new, now iconic songs, including "Tiny Dancer," and "Rocket Man."

John wasn't the first star to rock Waco. Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism, said Waco's proximity to Dallas and Austin drew prominent blues artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s.

Elvis Presley played at the Heart O' Texas Coliseum in 1956. Legendary musician Bo Diddley played in Waco in 1962, and Nina Simone visited in 1965.

John's performance was confined to the Heart O' Texas Coliseum, but plenty of famous musicians have played on the Baylor campus.

The Baylor Student Union organized many concerts in the '60s, '70s, and '80s and was led by Marie Mathis, director of the Student Union from 1953 to 1981.

Audrey Gray worked closely with Mathis on the Student Union staff.

"She really worked hard to bring entertainment to campus, and she didn't want students to have to pay too much," said Gray, who works part time at Moody Memorial Library at the exit desk.

Gray said the Student Union had connections with concert promoters who would bring their artists to Baylor. The promoters would underwrite the performance and take most of the ticket revenue. In this way the Student Union brought artists to campus without spending much money.

"We tried to have something at least once a semester," Gray said. "We never made money. The whole idea was to bring entertainment."

In 1969, folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary played in a packed Rena Marrs McLean Gymnasium to an audience of 3,500. Students lined up an hour before the show to secure good seats. The trio set up on the gym floor underneath a basketball goal, played for three hours, and mingled with the crowd and signed autographs afterward.

Martha Lou Scott, associate vice president for student life and a Baylor graduate, remembers sitting on the floor with her date, four rows from the band.

"This was a big thing for Baylor back then," Scott saidThe Carpenters, the pop duo of siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter, came to Waco twice, first in 1971 and later in 1973.

Kathy Hillman, who graduated from Baylor in 1973 and is now director of special collections for the University Central Libraries, went to both performances.

"Oh, I loved them so much," said Hillman, who also attended the Peter, Paul and Mary concert. "Concerts in Marrs McLean were fun because everyone was squished in there and you were so close to the performers."

A relatively unknown John Denver played to a small Waco Hall audience in 1971. John Hillman, Kathy's husband, remembers being highly impressed with Denver's performance.

"That was when I became a big fan of his," he said.

However, low ticket sales caused the Student Union to lose $1,500. Denver drew a much bigger crowd when he returned in 1973 as an established star.

Chicago, the band, played at Baylor in 1971 and would return again in 1974.

Jimmy Dorrell, a Baylor graduate and the executive director of Mission Waco, went to the performance in 1971.

"I remember a few students stood up and rocked with Chicago in Marrs McLean and we were sure they would be kicked out of Baylor for dancing," Dorrell said.

Other artists who played on the Baylor campus in the 1970s included Don McLean, Waylon Jennings, Randy Newman, Mac Davis, Rare Earth, Bread, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

In the 1980s, the Student Union, with Ruben Santos as director, continued to bring artists to Baylor, including country artist Emmylou Harris and Christian artists Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.

In 1989, the Ferrell Center was opened, giving Baylor an exciting new venue with a capacity of more than 8,000 for concerts. The Beach Boys performed at the Ferrell Center in 1993.

Scott said that the Beach Boys' visit to Baylor was controversial because several members had admitted to past drug use.

Nevertheless, the band played, and Richard Veit, concert and promotion manager of the School of Music, was there to soak in the sunny harmonies with his wife.

"We just jumped at the chance to buy tickets," he said. "They were 25 years past their prime, but they sounded just like they do on their recordings."

Veit said that while the size of the crowd was underwhelming, it was, "not embarrassing, but maybe not quite what they deserved."

The Ferrell Center has also hosted Huey Lewis and the News, Clay Walker, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Newsboys, Hootie and the Blowfish, George Strait, and Keith Urban.