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Parnelli Profile: Lifetime Achievement Honoree Chris Adamson

by Kevin M. Mitchell • in
  • Features
  • January 2019
• Created: January 16, 2019

Chris Adamson, 2019 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

He’s worked with our greatest music acts: Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Aerosmith, Bette Midler, John Mayer, Def Leppard — even the chairman himself, Frank Sinatra — and so many more. Impressively, Chris Adamson has also spent two decades-plus with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and more than four decades with Fleetwood Mac. He has a couple of Parnelli Awards on his mantle, having won Production Manager of the Year in 2005 and 2018. His accomplishments, the caliber of artists who sought him out and hired him year after year, and his inspiring leadership style is well-known in the live event industry.

Of course, to the rest of the world, he’s known for saying this: “I’ve been mad for f***ing years — absolutely years” on the opening of Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side of the Moon album. But it’s for his work on the road that he’s receiving the industry’s highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Parnelli Awards Gala on Jan. 25, 2019, at the Anaheim Hilton.

His hair was a bit longer back then…

“His sense of humor, work ethic and drive got us through some challenging gigs,” says Parnelli Awards board chairman Marshall Bissett, who was on a European tour with Adamson in 1976. “He builds teams and lets them get on with it. Chris deserves to be listed with his distinguished predecessors.”

“When I walk into a building with Chris, I know that I can completely rely on him,” says distinguished predecessor Richard Fernandez (recipient of the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement honor in 2016), who worked alongside Adamson for decades as part of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers touring team. “He communicates with everyone, and if there are any booby traps,
he lets me know about them. I could then tell Tom and avoid that ‘WTF’ moment. And if Tom went to turn on the amp, the amp worked. I knew everything the band touched was going to work, and all their stuff was there. And if there was a security issue, I’d all know about it. I always want Chris in my foxhole with me.”

Adamson as a young pup

‡‡         Forging An Unusual “Career”

Adamson was born in 1949 in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire, England. His father was a car dealer and the young boy grew up being mechanically inclined. As a teenager, he took a five-year apprenticeship at an engineering company where his grandfather had worked. Working mainly on a lathe, he saved up enough money to buy a van. In those days, if you had a van, you were immediately befriended by bands. For Adamson, the first of many was Mick Ronson, who at the time was a guitarist in a band called The Rats (Ronson would go on to play with David Bowie during his Spiders from Mars period). Adamson became something of a commodity with a strong reputation for making sure bands got to the gig, and local acts began to call on his services. Like this award’s namesake, Rick “Parnelli” O’Brien, he was known for being able to drive that van fast: “I took the V4 out of my van and put in a V6,” he says proudly.

When the progressive acoustic folk band Amazing Blondel offered him a roadie gig, he took it, and it was his first real taste of full-time production work. But the ebb and flow of that kind of work in that area left his pockets empty at one point, and he followed a call to go south to London. “I had no money. All I had was my fishing gear, which I hocked,” Adamson says. In 1968, he landed in a London flat filled with roadies including Roger “The Hat” Manifold and Fred Muntz and Jerry MacGillicutty (Keith Moon lived around the corner). “Roger and Jerry were working for the blues rock band Juicy Lucy, and after sitting there for two weeks not earning a penny, they needed another roadie, so I went to work for them,” Adamson tells. Around this time, he also did some work with some “big teenybop idol” who turned out to be Peter Frampton, who was playing with The Herd.

Chris with Mark Fenwick who manages roger waters at Roxy Music Concert in France

During these up-and-down beginnings, Adamson often found himself at a pub called Styx, which was a popular hangout for those serving in what would eventually be a business. There he developed a friendship with one Dinky Dawson, who was an audio engineer for a blues band fronted by Peter Green when the earliest version of Fleetwood Mac was formed. “In those days, it was Peter, Danny Kirwan, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood,” he says. It was this configuration of the band that brought him to the U.S. for the first time. Upon returning, a shakeup occurred in 1970: Green left the band, and Adamson was there when he checked himself into a commune and “was never the same again. He left the band and grew his fingernails.” Then it was four challenging years before a new version of the band emerged with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and Adamson would cycle in and out of the band for the next four decades.

In 2003, Adamson worked alongside tour manager Marty Hom on Fleetwood Mac, and the two did many tours together. “Chris never hesitates to tell you what is on his mind, and he’s always true to himself, to me, to the artist,” Hom says. “He’s not the cliché ‘polite Englishman.’ He’s direct and gets things done for the artist. But he’s always outgoing and gregarious and has a big heart.”

Adamson with Mike Campbell of Fleetwood Mac

‡‡         To the States and Back, then Back Again

After Green left Fleetwood Mac, Adamson got on with Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1970, which took him to the States for a second time. But this mega tour, with its complicated shows, was a big change for the young man. “I was with ELP for a long period of time, but you can only push the human body so far.” On doctor’s orders, Adamson took a brief respite — or at least took it down a notch. “Dinky was working for the original Byrds in America, married and living in Boston, and I went and lived with him and did some work with that band,” he says. “But then I got a bit homesick.”

Conveniently, Adamson got a call from Steve O’Rourke, manager of Pink Floyd. “He asked if I was available, and I said, ‘Boy, take me home!’” The band was already doing outlandish shows. “They were a cult, but I did a few shows that involved 24 trucks.” And life with Pink Floyd was all-immersive. “In those days, you’d be solely employed by a band, 24/7, doing whatever for the band. I built a pond for Dave Gilmore.” One of those “whatevers” would make him an immortal part of what many still feel is the greatest rock record of all time: Dark Side of the Moon.

“We were on the road playing a lot of the music that would end up on that album before we recorded it,” Adamson explains. “When we finally got into the studio, Alan Parsons was the studio engineer and Chris Thomas, who often doesn’t get enough credit for his work on the recording, was the producer.”
Bass player/co-songwriter Roger Waters was just following his muse when he brought members of the crew into the studio for random, nonsensical “interviews.” The question posed to Adamson was “Do you think you’re mad?” to which Adamson uttered back the now immortal, “I’ve been mad for f**king years — absolutely years.” In addition to Adamson, he pulled in Roger “The Hat” Manifold, Paul and Linda McCartney (who were recording a Wings album next door), and even the recording studio’s doorman. Adamson’s full quote was actually: “I’ve been mad for f**king years — absolutely years from working for too many bands.” Luckily for more than a dozen other bands to come, he was exaggerating about the “too many bands” part.

“The first time I met Chris was at Pink Floyd Show in London at the Crystal Palace,” says Richard Fernandez, who was working with Faces at the time, the band that opened that show. “[Pink Floyd] did something that really surprised me — they built a pond on the stage.” After the Faces did their opening set, Pink Floyd came on stage, and then, “all of a sudden, this giant, inflatable octopus came out of the water. It blew my mind. And there was Chris, in the middle of it all making sure everything was running smoothly.” Shortly after that momentous tour, the band took a break in 1974, and Adamson’s phone rang again. It was Dawson, asking if Adamson wanted to work with a new band called Steely Dan. After they toured Europe, they continued on to America, and Adamson went with them, landing in L.A. He would return to do more work with Pink Floyd all the way through The Wall and messy affairs, broken marriages and eventually the band’s breakup.

Chris Adamson and Dinky Dawson

‡‡         A Decorated “Soldier”

By the 1980s, Adamson seamlessly went from one tour to the next, including two of the biggest acts of all time who toured often: Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “I must admit I’ve been very lucky that I could do so many of those tours over the years and not have conflicts,” he says. Those two acts, plus Aerosmith and some others like Neil Young, kept him very busy. More recently, he’s handled many John Mayer tours, which led to him taking care of Dead & Company.

“The thing about Chris is, he is really able to motivate those around him,” Fernandez adds. “He has a loud voice without having an offending voice — loud without yelling. He gets the whole crew behind him because he builds trust. He’s got the overall vision and makes sure every single member knows they are an important part of it all, and he’s there to make sure they have what they need.”

“He wants people to be better than him,” says John “Schmee” Schmiemeier, a production manager and pyro technician, who worked with Adamson from time to time through the years including on Aerosmith and Fleetwood Mac. “He’ll tell you everything he knows, no matter who you are or where you are. He is absolutely one of the most generous people in the business — a true professional.”

“Chris has probably the most fascinating history of anybody in the business, and the most experience — there’s nothing he comes across that he hasn’t already seen,” says Upstaging’s John Huddleston. “He has all the war badges. If this was the military, he’d be the most decorated [soldier] we have.” Huddleston became close friends with Adamson in the early 1990s when they started working together, and have been ever since. “Chris takes a calmer approach to everything — he doesn’t get rattled. He is an even-tempered person who treats his crew well, and that’s what makes people want to follow him.”

“Getting along” with people has always been key to success stories like Adamson, but even he wasn’t able to make it work with everyone. “I never got on with Luther Vandross,” he admits. “I did work with him out of London at Wembley, and I was a promoter rep when the production guy got fired, and I stepped in.” In a rehearsal heavy on choreography, they ran through a set of 12 songs, and when the crew broke for dinner, Vandross yells “curtain cue.” “I am looking at my notes, and there are no curtain cues, and he went off and freaked out, and starts yelling at me. I looked at him and told him I didn’t need to deal with this and told him he could shove it up his [arse].”

In 1990, he took on another difficult act: Frank Sinatra’s (first of several) Farewell Tour. “He did three or four nights at the Royal Albert Hall, and I ended up handling two gold SM58s engraved with his name, and I slept with them under my pillow because I was just paranoid about leaving them,” Adamson says. Sinatra used to walk around the mic table and got his hands a little “dirty” and said, “Make sure the table is white” before he came. Also, in the 1990s, Adamson took care of Lenny Kravitz when his career was exploding. Fernandez was enjoying a rare break when the phone rang asking him to come work with Kravitz, and Fernandez was not interested — until he heard Adamson was the PM. If Adamson was working the tour, “then I’ll do it!”

“He has an inspiring willingness to spend time helping others in our industry,” adds Upstaging’s John Bahnick. “Years ago, the LD for Lenny Kravitz couldn’t stay for some added dates, so Chris ‘promoted’ one of our lighting techs to LD. It was the first time he’s run a console, and he was nervous, but Chris said he’d be fine, and he’s still out there pushing buttons today,” Bahnick says of LD Mike Zielinski, most recently out with Counting Crows. “It is these types of actions that have earned him the respect and friendship of the people he’s worked with.”

John Mayer and Chris Adamson

‡‡         Team-Building

The crew of the 2018 Fleetwood Mac tour has a long history with Adamson, some going all the way back to the days when he was a promoter for a few years in the 1970s and 1980s. Bobby Herr was Fleetwood Mac’s stage manager under Adamson until 2009, when Adamson left, leaving it to Herr to step up into the production manager role. “Everything I am is because of Chris,” Herr says. “He hired me and taught me everything I know.” (Herr was one of several to say that, including longtime drum tech Steve Rinkov.) While Herr adds that Adamson has a good sense of humor and doesn’t get riled up easily, he does confirm what Hom said — that his nickname is indeed “Napalm.” Fleetwood Mac’s current stage manager, Larry Yager, who also spent many years with Adamson on various tours, shares an example of Adamson’s can-do resourcefulness: In 2008, they were trying to load in at the old Detroit Palace which only had one garage door, and it was broken. Adamson gave them a deadline to figure it out, and when that deadline passed, he simply had a forklift get in there and opened it up, crinkling the metal like a gum wrapper.

Adamson says there’s no “secret” or “style” to his way of working. “You do the job to the best of your ability, and just get yourself into the situation,” he says. “You do need to have time for all the people on the crew, no matter what their rank. You don’t want to be the aloof guy. The guy sweeping the floor is as important as anybody else, because everybody has their part, and every part is essential. If even a little piece of the picture is not there, it throws the whole thing out of whack.”

Chris Adamson with wife Michelle

‡‡         Respect and Reason

Adamson reflects back on how the business has changed over the years — one aspect is budget, an area he used to be more involved with, but these days, business managers are increasingly taking that over. “With someone like John Mayer, you ask how much he’s looking to spend. At the end of the day, John says, ‘This is what I want,’ and maybe it’s video floors and video walls and those things aren’t cheap and are labor-intensive. But that’s not my problem,” Adamson laughs. “It’s what the boss wants! Trying to make a little balance and work with the powers that be — managers, designers — everybody wants the world, but doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Adamson is always keeping an eye on the schedule of cities to hit, and will be the first to point out if something is going to require a chartered plane that would drive costs to the stratosphere. But he has a great reputation for being reasonable and respectful when it comes to the money. “I have a long association with good people, people who give me the best price out of the box. I don’t like haggling over $500 and have them cut some corner, but then charge to FedEx me something. If you pay the right price, they will be more likely to give you a break when you go back.”

And if not exactly a spendthrift, Adamson is generous in other ways. “Chris isn’t someone that withholds information,” Fernandez says. “Not all production managers are like that — some believe information is power. Down to the lighting tech, the guitar tech, he’s always asking, ‘How can I make your job easier?’”

While he’s open to slowing down a bit, for now, at least, “retirement” appears to be a foreign concept to Adamson. “What would I do? I don’t want to work at the level I have the last few years… with Tom [Petty] passing away, and even [Heartbreaker lighting director] Stan Green passing too, I realize how vulnerable we are. So, you want to spend more time with your wife. You want to do what you do, but within reason.”

Those who know Chris Adamson and have worked with him aren’t surprised that he takes little credit for his success: “I think it’s all about people,” he says of what makes a great tour work. “The right team, the right combination of those who will cover my butt when necessary. When you have the right people, that’s half the battle.”

The fish that didn’t get away

Chris Adamson will receive the Parnelli Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 18th annual ceremony set for the Anaheim Hilton on Jan. 25, 2019. For more information and tickets, go to www.parnelliawards.com.

 

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