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Parnelli Profile: Bobby “Boomer” Thrasher to Accept Lifetime Achievement Honor

by FOH Staff • in
  • Features
  • January 2018
• Created: January 17, 2018
The Parnelli Awards will take place Jan. 26 at the Anaheim Hilton in Anaheim, CA. Bobby 'Boomer' Thrasher, longtime production manager for Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and others, is winner of the 17th Annual Lifetime Achievement Award.

Not even a sudden declaration of war slows down Bobby “Boomer” Thrasher, a “no-problem-only-solutions” kind of guy. In 1990, Billy Joel had done a USO show in Washington D.C., and he wanted to do more overseas. “To make it financially feasible, we tacked on some dates between Japan and Australia,” says Steve Cohen, Lighting/Set Designer for Joel. So in January of 1991, they had a deal that if USO would pick them and their four semis’ worth of gear in Japan and deliver them to the Philippines and then on to Australia, they could do it.

Boomer and crew at Clark Air Force Base in 1991

They played at Clark Air Force base (outside Manila), and the next day they arrived at the runway to load up a C5 to go to the Subic Naval Base, 50 miles away. But at that moment, Operation Desert Storm began, and the C5 was needed elsewhere. As planes, ships and thousands of troops were mobilized around the world, they found themselves stranded. But Thrasher got the USO organizer to get them back on schedule to Australia by acquiring a pair of C-141’s. “After a late night with just two hours’ sleep, we crawled into the cargo bay, laid down on sleeping bags and flew 18 hours to Melbourne, and somehow made it to those shows. It was all Bobby’s doing.”

“There is no one out there like Bobby Thrasher — he never sweats, he just gets the work done,” says promoter Rick Franks, whose longtime clients include both Bruce Springsteen and Joel. “He once did back-to-back stadium dates with [Elton John and Joel] in 1994, and for him that was no big deal — Detroit to Atlanta, just 740 miles — overnight! He is the hardest working man in show business, and a wonderful soul.”

Billy Joel and Bobby celebrate a run of sold-out shows

Thrasher holds the distinction of one of the few who has handled almost every aspect of live events from carpentry, building stages, rigging, running audio, site coordination, stage managing and touring and production duties and more. “Bobby ‘Boomer’ Thrasher runs his backstage with humor and authority,” says Parnelli Awards chairman Marshall Bissett. “Putting together huge outdoor events with Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and other high profile clients takes a lot of talent, patience and a huge network of worldwide contacts.” Thrasher won the Parnelli Award for Production Manager of the Year in 2009, and this year, he is receiving the live event industry’s highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award.

“For those early Billy tours, he basically built every piece of staging, including the rolling stages,” Cohen says. “I would come up with ideas and hand them to Bobby, and he would go out and buy bits and pieces of whatever he needed and just build it. There are a lot of great production managers out there with great pedigrees, but there’s nobody like Bobby Thrasher. He is always the guy who instantly made everything happen and solves every problem that comes up.”

The hatchery truck

‡‡         Canadian Roots

Thrasher was born in 1953 and grew up in Harrow, Ontario, Canada’s most southern city (25 miles south of Detroit). “It was a small town, and not even really Canadian,” he says, pointing out his TV and radio stations were coming in from Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland. He was the fifth of seven children from Ed and Marion Thrasher, and all the sons and lone daughter worked at some point for his father’s chicken hatchery. Nothing about his youth pointed to what would turn out to be a distinguished and enviable career in rock concert touring. “Honestly, I never even listened to rock ‘n’ roll,” he confesses. “It was all jazz and big band stuff for me.” His siblings were drawn to Motown and then the Beatles, and all of them also played musical instruments to varying degrees.

His oldest brother, Harold, would graduate with a degree in theater and become a professor, landing in Montreal. Harold would open the door to brother Ted, who went to work for Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1974. Meanwhile, after high school, Bobby started working for Sellick Equipment, a rough terrain forklift manufacturer. There he started building forklifts, learning welding and hydraulics. He would put a plate underneath them with his signature on it, and to this day, he occasionally finds one on one of his job sites. In 1975, Ted drove home for a visit in his MG Midget. “We didn’t really know each other, as he was much older,” Thrasher says. On this visit, Ted watched the now-19-year-old Bobby fixed the clutch on his car and learned of his little brother’s knowledge of hydraulics. Impressed, Ted asked Bobby to come up to Montreal and got him work as a stagehand.

Montreal Forum back in the day

With union card in hand, Thrasher went to work on theater shows, operas, symphonies and ballets as local labor. Part of the mix was the touring rock act that came through and he recalls his first being Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth tour. His second rock show was Aerosmith. “I just had to work a curtain, pull it open and shut for the band at certain moments. Steve Tyler came up to me all jacked up, dancing around, and then he just spit in my face. I didn’t move, didn’t say anything. His manager grabbed him and pulled him away.” Ah, rock ‘n’ roll.

In 1976, Thrasher found himself working on the Montreal Summer Olympics. “I was just a followspot operator, but had to move 33 of them to the top rim of the stadium. We rehearsed the opening and closing ceremonies for four weeks.” By 1977, Ted was manager of Emerson, Lake & Palmer that same year, so he took his little brother out on that tour. “My first job was being Greg Lake’s valet,” Bobby says. But he also helped build the stage, which was being handled by John McGraw, then working under the Tom Fields Associate banner. “This was one of the first stages to be taken on the road, and it wasn’t on wheels. But it did go up fast enough, as I built hydraulics lifts for Keith Emerson’s keyboards.” Some of the older and more experienced union guys were blunt to Thrasher, telling him that he didn’t have what it took to make it out on the road. Ironically, it was they who weren’t cut out for the grind, as they all quit within a few months; not Thrasher, who was already on an ascent through the ranks.

Boomer on tour with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1997

That ELP Works tour was large and complicated, and went out with full production — rare in those days, as other bands would just pick up staging, sound, and/or lights wherever they landed. “During that tour, we also had Roy Bickel, George Travis and Mike Grassley as touring riggers, and they taught me a lot,” Thrasher says. “Especially Roy, who hated me at first, because I was a punk kid asking questions and making suggestions. But in the end, I won him over.”

Bickel confirms that Thrasher was indeed new to the business, and that tour was especially grueling, involving a full orchestra of over 70 musicians at every stop. But it wasn’t all work as, at one stop, Bickel and the others had some fun at Thrasher’s expense: “We were in Providence, and Boomer had fallen asleep in the office. So me and some of the others got some magic markers and drew all over his face,” Bickel recalls. “When he woke up, we told him that there were some girls at the barricade asking for him. When he went down, they all just stared at him. He was thinking he must be pretty good lookin’ until we told him to go look in a mirror!” Bickel laughs, but then adds to the chorus of those who say what a good friend Thrasher is: “He’s always been there for me.”

Boomer, center, with wife Susann and ELP band members.

Keith Emerson plays the Wedding March on the church organ for Boomer and Susann

During Thrasher’s work for the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, he got to the know the brothers Peter and Bert Paré, who would go on to start Audio Analysts, partnering with brother Ted. After this ELP tour, he started working with them, and opportunities further opened for Thrasher. The Eagles’ Hotel California tour came up through Canada, and that’s when he met Mike Brown, as it was his staging company supporting that tour. [Brown was the second to receive a Parnelli Lifetime Achievement award, in 2002.] Back then, when an American company crossed the border, they were hit with a high entertainment tax. Audio Analysts partnered with Brown in a subsidiary relationship, with Thrasher taking on the role as the liaison, and Thrasher became the Canadian outdoor staging manager for Brown, working with Loverboy, Foreigner and the Who, among many others. Thrasher even delivered grandstands from Montreal for the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics and beyond.

Boomer on Springsteen's stage, 1981

‡‡         Bruce & Billy

“In the summer of 1980, I was doing a one-off Charlie Daniels show in Trenton for Mike Brown, when George [Travis] drove up,” Thrasher recalls, of the 2013 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement award recipient. “George got out and asked me if I would build a stage for Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t know who Bruce was at the time, and it was funny because later I learned everybody wanted to be on that [The River] tour, but George asked me for some reason.”

Under The Bridge Stage 1988

This would be Thrasher’s first world tour and the start a relationship with the Springsteen family that would go until 2003 (he would return for a 2012 reunion and worked the Wrecking Ball tour). Regarding his first meeting with Springsteen, Thrasher engaged the driver in conversation about Springsteen to later realize that the driver was Springsteen himself. “I embarrassed myself with that one!” he says. After being properly introduced to Springsteen later, both had a laugh over the mistaken identity. “At the time, he was doing his first all-arena tour. He and Clarence would stay around during load out and ride in the trucks or in the buses with the crew.” Thrasher got something else out of that first Springsteen tour too — his nickname. “In either Portland or Seattle, I was tearing down the touring stage, which consisted of Super Scaff scaffolding, and I had a unique way of dismantling it, which created a loud booming sound.” It was longtime friend and fellow live event professional Lyle Centola who coined the “Boomer” moniker, and it stuck.

The crew for Bruce Springsteen's 1980 The River tour.

In 1982, Thrasher started his relationship with Del Rowe, Ollie Kite and Roy Lamb at the pioneering trucking and transportation company, Edwin Shirley Trucking. Thrasher was part of the team when Shirley brought over the first outdoor roof. “He had asked Mike Brown for the use of his John McGraw-designed Phoenix roof for a string of outdoor shows in Europe, and I went along to show European crew members how to build them.” Neil Young, Genesis, and the first “Rock am Ring” festival in Nürburg, Germany were among the shows Thrasher made happen.

Meanwhile, Cohen was production manager for Simon & Garfunkel’s historic 1982 Central Park concert in New York City and the S&G “Summer Evening Tour” that followed, which Thrasher also worked on. Cohen would then hire Thrasher to be a carpenter for Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man tour in 1984, beginning a four-decade friendship. In what is likely the fastest ascension in concert touring history, Thrasher ended that tour as production manager. “This other production manager had pissed everybody else off, and I instinctively felt Bobby could do the job,” Cohen says. Despite his loud-sounding nickname, “he was soft spoken and humble, too, and I knew he would get along with Billy.” Cohen says that Thrasher shares a love of motorcycles with Joel (Thrasher has been known to build some himself). “Billy is so comfortable with Bobby because Bobby executes everything Billy wants without costing millions of dollars, and he’s able to do anything regardless of what else is going on.”

Springsteen and Joel happened to always tour at different times, and for 22 years, they shared Thrasher and other key crew members.

 Billy Joel on stage

‡‡         Get It Right the First Time

Joel would be noted as one of the first American rockers to play the Soviet Union since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Joel and his team started planning it in 1986 to play outdoor arenas in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Tbilisi (in then-Soviet Georgia). “Bobby flew over to Russia first a couple of times to set it up,” Cohen says. “The first was the indoor stadium in Moscow, which held 120,000 people, and was the largest venue on the planet at the time.” Enormous 100-foot-tall and 250-foot-wide curtains were needed. “Then we took an overnight train to Leningrad in a similar venue, but there was no curtain.” No panic ensued with Thrasher involved. Through a questionably competent interpreter, he got the state authorities to allow him to return to Moscow and borrow that one. “But then there was no way to configure it — there were no bolts or pipes. Bobby started drawing on paper a diagram that included the need for 200 meters of steel pipes.” When they returned the following day, thinking they were doing him a favor, the locals had it all welded together. It was sticking out of the rear of the building they were in, and it wouldn’t fit through the door of the stadium, let alone lift it to the ceiling as was needed. “Our hearts sank, but then Bobby managed to get it all cut up and got it into the stadium and the curtain went up. It’s all part of the ‘Boomer Magic.’”

Cohen has a semi load of examples of Thrasher’s creativity and resourcefulness. For a 1992 tour, Cohen wanted a stage with no piano, and then when Joel walked on it, one came up through the floor. “Any idea I had, he would finish it — he is one of the most artistically creative production managers ever, a true Renaissance man.”

Sean Fox, who has worked with Thrasher often since Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love tour in 1988, recalls the time when several of them were without work, so they went out with the first American Gladiators tour. “This is the tour we talk about,” he laughs. “It was booked so badly that often we’d show up on site just as the local crew was breaking for lunch.” But timing was one of the least of their problems, as setting up and breaking down the obstacle course revealed logistic issues. “Luckily, Bobby is very mechanical, and he made things safer.” Thrasher saw that they needed more air bags to catch falling athletes, and he had six of them sewn together so they could cover the whole floor. “But in setting them up, a crew member could get caught in them and pinched,” Fox says, adding that that’s exactly what happened to him once as he was in the middle getting swallowed up by the expanding bags. “There was just my hand reaching up to signal I was stuck, which I was told later was a pretty funny sight.” Thrasher ran across the airbags to grab him and pull him out. “It was like Boomer was pulling me out of my mother’s vagina,” he laughs. “And of course, the audience was there watching it all, and they were pretty entertained by it.”

Bobby welding something together during the US Festival in 1983.

Special projects Thrasher has worked on include the 1983 US Festival, Liberty Weekend Closing Ceremonies in 1986, Amnesty International Human Rights Now and Radio City Christmas Shows. In 1989, he worked the first of Ringo’s All Starr Band tours, and it was one that was pure rock ‘n’ roll history for him: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, Dr. John and Jim Keltner were in that version of Starr’s band.

Thrasher was, of course, on hand in 1994 for the first of what would be many Billy Joel/Elton John tours. “Everything was equal, and we brought in both crews,” he says. “I have to say, both crews worked well together. No one had their job taken away, and both teams did what was needed to do.”

The two crews for Billy Joel and Elton John worked side by side. Pictured here, the teams from 2002.

In 2003, Thrasher again worked with George Travis on the tour that was part of Harley Davidson’s epic celebration of its 100th anniversary. In 2004, he went out on Britney Spears the Onyx Hotel tour. John Mellencamp, Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Faith Hill and Maroon 5, and others were part of the mix for him throughout the years.

The crew for Billy Joel's 1998-1999 Storm Front Tour

He would return often to work for Paul Simon, including on his South African leg of the “Born at the Right Time,” So Beautiful So What, and Graceland’s 25th Anniversary tours. Fox, who was stage manager for that world tour, says that Thrasher worked off Simon’s easygoing vibe, making that tour yet another pleasant experience. “The overseas component offered logistical challenges, and the band was bigger than usual, with members from so many different countries, but Bobby made it easy,” Fox says. “There’s not a building in the world that you walk in with Bobby and there aren’t people there who are happy to see him,” he adds. More recently, in 2015, Thrasher supported the “Paul Simon and Sting: On Stage Together” tour.


‡‡         A Matter of Trust

“Billy [Joel] is still the same guy he was that first day I met him — he was never a ‘celebrity’ in his own mind,” Thrasher says. “He’s the nicest guy, and he has always been loyal to me, and me to him.” When Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he called out Thrasher by name.

Billy Joel on tour

Max Loubiere, Joel’s tour manager, offers some insight in what makes the Joel touring family unique. In 1989, Joel fired his manager and sued him for $90 million. Artists often have manager and agent problems, but what made this moment unique is, Joel never hired another one. Since that time, he’s relied on the top members of his team, including Cohen, Loubiere and Thrasher, among others, to fill in the gap. So most of the Joel team tackle responsibilities way beyond what their job title might suggest, and they do it with competence and trustworthiness. Today, Thrasher is working as Joel continues to sell out stadiums, including all through last summer. Then there is the monthly gig at Madison Square Garden. “I’m very fortunate to work with an artist who still sells out stadiums after 35 years,” he says. “To get to work with an artist like that makes me very spoiled and very grateful.”

Boomer and SpongeBob, 2015

Thrasher’s personal life is as stable as his professional one. On November 28, 1977, he married his high school sweetheart, Susann in St. Petersburg, FL. (If you were there, you might remember some guy named Keith Emerson playing the organ for them — in fact, the whole ELP band and crew were witnesses to the blessed event.) They had a daughter, Megann, and three boys, who all work on the Joel crew: Ted (Drum percussion tech), Lucas (carpenter/teleprompter) and Jimmy (media tech). In 2010, Thrasher came down with tongue cancer, but he fought through it and got back on the road in under a year.

Bobby with sons on a Billy Joel gig, including, from left, Ted, Lucus and Jimmy

Not surprising to anyone who knows him, Thrasher is at a loss of words over receiving the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very honored … [laughs] and still a little stunned, that’s for sure,” he says of receiving the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Honor. “I’m grateful.” Asked for the “why” of his success, he says, “I think getting along with the local crew is important. From the very beginning, I’ve always had a good rapport with crews. I think that has put me in a better position than others,” he says. “I also try to represent what the audience wants.”

Boomer and Max Loubiere. Photo by Jeff Schock

“I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who dislikes Bobby,” says Loubiere. “He’s the best production manager there ever was.”

Bobby 'Boomer' Thrasher

Bobby “Boomer” Thrasher will receive the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award at the awards ceremony set for Jan. 26, 2018, at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel in Anaheim, CA, during NAMM 2018. For tickets, go to www.parnelliawards.com.

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