My first recollection of seeing a live band was at a Bar Mitzvah sometime around 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio. I was four years old and fascinated not only by the music coming from the stage but by the microphones & snake looking microphone chords. A few years later I used to watch my cousin Sharon and her teenage girl friends dancing up in her bedroom listening to 45’s of Dion & The Belmont’s, Elvis, The Tokens, The Drifters and other wonderful songs that made everybody happy. I was catching the rock & roll bug.
My parents always had music playing in the house, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and all the latest Broadway musical soundtracks, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Bye Bye Birdie. I was a pretty wild kid and led a small gang of friends called Ballen’s Army. My favorite TV show was The Little Rascals and Spanky was my role model.
My parents wisely wanted to change my focus a bit and in 1960 when was 8 years old they got my first guitar, a 1952 Martin O-15 from one of our neighbors. I started taking guitar lessons and really took a liking to it. I spent less time getting into trouble and more time playing that guitar, my path was set, and I still have that guitar.
In 1961 my family moved to Columbus, Ohio and I started taking guitar lessons, reading music and learning my chords. I started with cowboy songs, Home on the Range, Red River Valley, Clementine and Don’t Fence Me In. When I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, it confirmed what I wanted to do with my life. My sister Wendy and I would sing into our Hoover vacuum cleaner singing all the latest Beatles songs.
I formed a band in elementary school called the Pretzels, my favorite food at the time. There was 4 of us and we all read off the latest sheet music. My parents were very supportive of my playing and singing and always encouraged me.
My junior high was bi-racial and I was introduced to Soul Music through some of my new African American friends, including Robert “Tico Bob” Street. I loved the Temptations, Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and the Supremes. With my love for the the British Invasion and now Motown, my scope was getting wider. My first band in Junior high was called the Nu tones and we played all the current hits of the day, Wooly Bully, Wild Thing, Louie Louie, Do Wha Diddy Diddy and lot’s of Beatles songs.
When I got to High School I helped form a 12 piece half white, half black soul band called The Contemporaries. We had a killer horn section & 4 singers out front. We played all of the local dances and Bar Mitzvah and were very popular. We all wore matching silk and sparkling shirts, silk socks and Stetson shoes. At the same time I was always learning the top songs of the day including Elvis & Frank Sinatra.
In the summer of 1969 I was going into my senior year of high school and I visited my cousin Jerry Heller in Hollywood, California. Jerry was the music agent for Elton John, The Grass Roots, The Guess Who, Van Morrison and Marvin Gaye to name a few. That trip blew my mind, he took me to the Whisky a Go Go and I sat with Eric Burden of The Animals, one of his clients. Jerry lived right off of the Sunset Strip and the scene at that time was surreal. I knew after that trip that someday I would end up in sunny California.
The solo singer /guitar players of the day, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Buffett took over the next stage of my life. I went to college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio and I was a regular playing on the street corners, college green and all the local clubs, it was like a dream come true. I really enjoyed the freedom of not being in a band and playing whatever i wanted whenever i wanted. I had a knack of learning songs quickly and retaining the lyrics & music. It was also great for picking up college girls.
One of my highlights of that time was singing Neal Young’s “Ohio” for 1 hour non-stop until the police dispersed us on campus with Ron Kovic, the anti-war activist that was portrayed by Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July.” I also had the singer of the J Giles band get up and jam with me at Swanky’s, the coolest bar on campus. My college days were filled with going to lots of concerts and playing lots of music.
- While I was living in Athens I was approached by a couple of guys named Cliff Audreth & Phil Traxler. Phil bought the biggest club on the Ohio State campus in Columbus, the Castle. I knew the Castle well, it was a three story building that looked like a castle. It was the bar that me and my buddies would go in high scjhool with fake id’s and drink 3.2 beer. Their idea was to change it from a hard rock club to a country rock club and they wanted me to be the act to start the ball rolling. It was the mid 70’s and Country Rock was starting to get popular with the Eagles, Poco, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Pure Prairie League.
I had a good following and lot’s of friends in Columbus so Tuesday nights turned into a very successful Wine & Cheese night with Gary Ballen & Friends. We would sit on the lighted dance floor in a circle with our legs crossed and I would sing Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Eagles & lots of Beatles.
They put up barn siding inside & outside and changed the name to Zachariah’s Red Eye Saloon. The bar turned into one of the premiere clubs in the Midwest and groups like The Marshall Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Jerry Jeff Walker, Poppa John Creech and many more made stops at Zach’s. It was also the home of the biggest band in Central Ohio, McGuffey Lane.
I was developing a big following and having a great time. At the time I also owned a sound company, merchandising company and a promotion company, promoting Jazz & Folk concerts, bringing in national acts like Sonny Stitt, Mose Allison, Eddie Harris, Yucef Lateef, Dave Van Ronk, Eddie Jefferson and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to name a few. On some of the shows I was the promoter, opening act, and sound man.
In 1978 I was presented the opportunity of a lifetime. I got a call from my childhood friend Barry Kaye whose band Kid Brother got a major record deal with MCA Records. I played in bands with Barry in Junior High & High School and we went to the same college, Ohio University. His father Big Ed (who I used to sell bagels for) leased the band a big room in an industrial complex in Northridge, California to prepare for a tour. They needed someone to manage their studio and I was the lucky candidate. I had one more gig to perform in downtown Columbus called Rally in the Alley. Every Friday after work the buildings would empty out and everyone would come outside to enjoy various bands and solo acts. My last day in town I played to thousands of people, loaded up my van and headed west to my new life.
I had no idea what to expect as I was driving across the country but I knew someday I would end up California Dreaming. When I got there the first group I worked with was Rufus and Chaka Khan. It was mind blowing, I got to be good friends with them, they introduced me to sushi, and they took me to the Greek Theater for a concert they were headlining. Their guitarist, Tony Maiden even played my 1942 Gibson L7 guitar at the show. Some of the other groups we worked with were Toto, Three Dog Night. The Knack, The Jacksons and many more.
From 1980-1983 I did my first major tour with the up and coming Australian Pop Group Air Supply. My High School friend Robert “Tico Bob” Street had the opportunity to be the Tour Manager for the group and he asked me to come out as the Production Manager. Neither of us had any experience on the road but we both learned quickly and we lasted three years with the group.
My job was to advance all the shows, over see the set up of three semi’s full of sound, stage, lighting and band gear, tear down all the equipment after the show and make sure it all got back in the semi’s safe & sound.
One particular gig in Cleveland, Ohio the opening act, Tom Chapin, got snowed in in Boston and couldn’t make the show. The promoter, Jules Belkin, knew me from Columbus and recommended that I open the show. I went over very well and the group let me open 9 more shows on that tour.
After the Air Supply tour I spent the next 2 years on and off the tour buses with various groups including Heavy Metal guitarist Lita Ford. Lita was in an all girls group in the 70’s called The Runaways. On the tour we opened for Twisted Sister, Iron Maiden and some other big acts. I was her tour Manager for three tours, one tour her boyfriend was Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue and another tour Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath was out on tour with us. Very crazy times.
After the Lita Ford tour I was the Tour Manager for French classical/pop pianist Richard Clayderman. Richard sold more than 150 million albums worldwide. This was the complete opposite of Lita Ford, we wore suits & ties, played classy places like Carnegie Hall and we hired 7 string players from Julliard School of Music as well as 6 musicians from France who spoke no English. Richard was a very talented player and a very pleasant guy. One of the coolest thing about the gig was the Public Relations guy for Richard was Peter Brown. Peter worked for the Beatles and was best man at both John Lennon & Paul McCartney’s first weddings. He also is mentioned in the Beatles’ song Ballad of John & Yoko.
Another memorable tour I did in the mid 80’s was Jazz Fusion Grammy winning artist Jeff Lorber. Jeff was a monster keyboard player with a killer band, these guys were the real deal. The saxophone player on the tour was a wonderful man named Cornelius Bumpus. Cornelius played with The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan and we roomed together on the road. Jeff was also credited with introducing an unknown saxophone player to the world named Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, better known as Kenny G.
When I wasn’t touring on the road I was singing and playing in various clubs and restaurants in the Los Angeles area. In the early 80’s among other clubs I started playing at an English pub in Woodland Hills called Pickwick’s Pub, where I outlasted 3 owners and played non-stop for 25 years till it burned down in 2006. Some of the patrons that watched me play over the years were Ronnie Dio, Air Supply, Pink and David Gilmour who I got to be friends with. I jammed with Jimmy Fallon the night he signed his contract with Saturday Night Live and I did a private party for Lisa Marie Presley (I couldn’t play any Elvis or Michael Jackson). Eazy E, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Ritchie Sambora and countless others frequented the Pub. I also sang for nine years at Adam’s Rib’s, a popular restaurant/nightclub in Encino, Ca.
In 1985 I started my personal management company, Ballen Entertainment, and managed a heavy metal band called Hurricane. We recorded two albums and toured all over the United States opening for groups like Iron Maiden, Quiet Riot, Stryper, and guitar virtuoso Gary Moore. The lead singer Kelly Hansen, joined the group Foreigner in 2005 and the drummer Jay Schellen is the current drummer for the group Yes. The other two members Robert Sarzo & Tony Cavazo are still performing as Hurricane.
My other client was Harmonica & Saxophone virtuoso Jimmy Z. Jimmy toured and recorded with Rod Stewart, The Eurythmics, Tom Petty, Steven Stills, Eric Burden and Etta James to name a few. In 1988 I traveled to London with Jimmy who was performing with the Eurythmics for the Nelson Mandela Freedom Festival at Wembley Stadium for 100,000 people and viewed by one half a billion people in 63 countries, it was an amazing experience. Jimmy did an instrumental album for Miles Copeland ‘s No Speak label and later on Jimmy would do an album with Dr. Dre on Ruthless Records called Muzical Madness. Eurythmics Video
I went to work for my first cousin Jerry Heller who managed Eric “Eazy E” Wright and the infamous West Coast Gangsta Rap group NWA. Jerry was also the General Manager of Eazy’s record label, Ruthless Records. Jerry brought me in to be the production manager for the upcoming US tour and help the group develop their staging, sound & lights. After the tour was I over I worked for Jerry & Eazy at Ruthless Records.
The label sold approximately 22 million albums and my responsibilities beside’s organizing all tours ranged from artist development, office management, budgeting and overseeing press, marketing, TV appearances and dealing with lawyers, agents, managers, gangsta’s and Eazy E’s baby’s mamas. Eazy died in 1995 and that was the end of Ruthless Records for me. REST IN PEACE EAZY “MUTHAFUCKIN” E.
In 1996 I picked up two more clients, Flesh-n-Bone and music producer Damon Elliott.
Stanley Howse aka Flesh-n-Bone is a member of the multi- platinum act Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. When the group first came to Los Angeles from Cleveland one of my jobs was to check them in and out of hotels and motels which they would get kicked out of regularly, they were the wildest bunch of guys I ever met. But they were also one of the best rap groups of all time, they won Two American Music Awards, one Soul Train award and one Grammy. I managed his solo career and he recorded one record for Def Jam Records, T.H.U.G.S and 5th Dog Let’s Loose released on Mo Thugs Records/Koch Entertainment. Stanley spent a lot of time in and out of prison and he wasn’t the easiest guy to managed but I liked him a lot. He has been performing with
Damon Elliott (son of Dionne Warwick) is a very talented music producer who has produced tracks for Flesh-n-Bone, Destiny’s Child, Pink, Mya, Jessica Simpson, Old Dirty Bastard and Beyonce to name a few. Damon also worked on the music soundtracks for Austin Powers’ Goldmember, Fat Albert, First Daughter, Malibu’s Most Wanted, Small Soldiers & Fighting Temptations and he discovered and produced multi platinum recording artist Keyshia Cole. We spent a lot of hours in the recording studio’s in Los Angeles and his creativity blew me away. We got to be very good friends and he bought a house right down the street from me in Encino, Ca. Damon also learned how to fly a helicopter and would fly over our neighborhood.
My management company continued into the 2000’s and I started mentoring at-risk kids in South Central LA with various organizations including A Place Called Home, Youth Mentoring Connection, The Rhythm of Autism and Boardinghouse Mentor’s.
I had the opportunity to help organize and be the opening act for a benefit concert with Jackson Browne & Ben Harper at the Canyon Club in Agoura, Ca. My mom was big on volunteering and a lot of that rubbed off on me.
In 2003 I started working with my old high school buddy Ron Anderson as the west coast rep for Anderson Mobile Estates.
We leased the most luxurious and most expensive on-location luxury trailers in the world. Some of our clients were Will Smith, Robert DeNiro, Ben Stiller, Mariah Carey, Jamie Foxx, Ice Cube and Simon Cowell to name a few. Website
In 2006 I helped form a documentary movie production company and began producing a documentary about the Negro Baseball Leagues called “The Untold Truth.” We secured a deal with the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum in Kansas City, brought on Lou Gossett Jr. as a narrator and filmed 15 hours at the museum. My partners and I worked very hard but could not raise the money to get the movie made. I never gave up and kept the web site alive. I realized that the movie business is a different animal than the music business.
One of my neighbors used to walk these huge dogs down the street, pit bulls, mastiffs, rottweilers. We got to be friends and I realized that was Aaron Hall, the lead singer for the New Jack Swing group GUY. GUY sold millions of albums and toured the world, but Aaron’s passion was breeding & training dogs, which he has been doing his whole life. I told him about one of my friends who was having trouble with his labradoodle. Aaron told me he could train any dog in 20 minutes, I thought he was crazy but I saw him do it. We filmed him in action and called it “Aaron Hall’s Dog Rehab” which is still being viewed on YouTube. It has over 200,000 views currently. Watch on YouTube
In 2008 I produced a Beatles tribute band called Fab Forever at the Four Queens Hotel in downtown Las Vegas. I was living in the hotel for a few months and had a lot of fun. The group was really good but we ran into some drama when the guitar players girlfriend fell in love with the bass players girlfriend. I had to fire the bass player who ended up suing me in small claims court for not paying him what he was owed. We ended up on a national TV show called Judge Karen and of course I won the case, check out the show, it’s pretty funny. Watch on YouTube
In 2009 My cousin Jerry Heller hired me to work as a tour manager, production manager and sound man for pop/disco singer Erika Jayne. Erika’s husband was attorney Tom Girardi. His famous case against Pacific Gas & Electric was the inspiration for the movie Erin Brockovich.
At the time I was working for Erika her last seven songs topped the Billboard Dance Club charts. We did gay clubs all over the country and traveled first class everywhere we went. Erika is currently featured on the reality TV series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
In 2010 I started to do volunteer work playing the oldies but goodies at the Veterans Hospital in Westwood, Ca. which led to the Jewish Home for the Aging, The Motion Picture & Television Fund, various convalescent homes and the VA Hospital in the San Fernando Valley. I was never in the service so I thought I would support the vet’s the best way I could, play music for them. I learned songs from the 20’s, 30’s 40’s and lots of patriotic tunes. This was very rewarding for me.
I met 80-year-old Navy Korean War veteran Johnnie Horton in behind the locked doors of the mental ward while I was volunteering at the Los Angeles Veterans Hospital in Westwood, CA. I invited him to come up and sing with me, and he blew me away. This guy was old school soul, a natural talent, the real deal. One day he asked me if I could accompany him on a song that he wrote about Paris Hilton called “Paris Hilton is a Rebel” His lifelong dream was to go into a recording studio so I took him in and we recorded and videoed his original song. We ended up recording 8 more of Johnnie’s original songs over the next 7 years. Unfortunately, Johnnie passed away on 10/10/19, we were good buddies and I miss him. He listed me as his next of kin. Click Here For Video
In 2012 I learned about Kangen Water, and my life changed. I found my true calling and decided to put the music “business” behind me, continue to perform and really focus on sharing Kangen Water with anyone that is interested in drinking the healthiest water in the world. I wrote 4 Kangen Water songs (which are on this web site)and I have performed them at many Kangen events. The owner of the company, Mr. Oshiro loves my songs and has played them around the world when he speaks. I have been a distributor for 8 years and plan on doing this till I die.
My performing continued in the Los Angeles area including singing at various clubs including Harpers, The Rack, Pickwick’s Pub, Red Balls Rock & Roll Pizza and Tipsy Goat, as well as doing many private parties. In 2015 I moved to Oxnard, CA., and played at various clubs in Ventura County including Pirates, Mission Oaks Café, The Lookout Bar & Grill, The Red Tandem Brewery, Ric’s Restaurant, Harbor Cove Café.
It all stopped in mid-March with the Coronavirus. That was the end (for a while) of my live performing but I adjusted quickly and have been performing 4 days a week since then on Facebook Live. The cool thing about this is I do it at home and I have people watching me from all over the world. Friends of mine from kindergarten to high school, college to act’s I’ve worked with and managed have been tuning in. I’m not sure how long this will last but I am enjoying it.
I kept alive the the documentary I started working on in 2006 (The Untold Truth) and it picked up some new energy in 2019. I put together a strong production team including one Oscar winner & 4 Emmy winners. We changed the name of the documentary to SHUT OUT (The Untold Truth About The Negro Baseball Leagues) and we are currently working on funding for the movie. We have a great new web site I feel we will start production within the next year.
Once the pandemic started slowing down and the world started opening again, I went right back to leading my Saturday morning ukulele group called the Cool Hand Ukes.
I also resumed my Sunday afternoon gigs at the Lookout Bar and Grill in the beautiful Channel Island Harbor. The crowds were waiting to get back out from staying home all the time, so the crowds have been big, and the tips have been wonderful. My band (Gary & The Grooves) consists of Donna Eyman on bass & vocals and Helane Freeman on cajon & vocals.
I started working on a book that I’ve been thinking about for years about my cousin Jerry Heller and myself. I’m in the middle of it now and the working title is Cuz (a Ruthless story). I’m interviewing lots of his family, friends and business associates over the years and hope to have this thing finished sometime in 2023.
Recently I started at WONDERHOUSE, an immersive event space in Ventura, California. The Blackbox Theater has aerial rigging options with high ceilings and a stage that is 24 x 20‘but can also be broken down into a smaller size. We can provide sound & lighting packages, creative design and direction, costumes and variety of performers including dancers and aerialist. The 16,000 sq. ft space is perfect for live events, immersive theater, filming, parties, wedding receptions, galas. and productions. www.wonderhouse.space
Gary Ballen Interview 1/4/21
Gary Ballen 2018 Radio Interview