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A Look Back at Rick “Parnelli” O’Brien, Namesake for the Parnelli Awards

FOH Staff • News • January 11, 2021

Rick “Parnelli” O’Brien

LAS VEGAS – Back in 2000, Terry Lowe pitched the idea of an award show to production manager Patrick Stansfield. Patrick had to be talked into it, but once he committed, he made one demand: It had to be named after Rick “Parnelli” O’Brien. Thus, the Parnelli Awards were born.

Rick “Parnelli” O’Brien

Rick had passed that year, but fond memories of him live on. Almost every year, and in many of the stories of the lifetime achievement honorees, his name and fond memories of this character are invoked from the Parnelli Awards stage.

Rick was born in Boston, and was headed to graduate school for a political science masters degree when he took a random job that would change his life forever. He could have just as easily gotten a job driving a truck for a bakery or grocery store, but the truck he drove had the name “Tom Field Associates” on it.

TFA was one of the first world-class production houses in these early days of what we now call the live event business. Rick immediatrely stunned and impressed those already working there, because he could somehow get around traffic-clogged Boston faster than anyone had ever witnessed before. This led to the nickname “Parnelli” after the racecar drive, which several believe was given to him by Tom Kipphut, who would become one of Rick’s best friends.

The very first tour he went out on the road with was Tony Orlando & Dawn, then at the zenith of their career. From there he got interested in lighting and then moved into stage managing and finally production and site coordination.

Kate and Rick O’Brien

In 1991 he took an unusual gig and went to Russia as production manager for a 400-piece Peter Max art exhibit. His future wife Kate was working for him at the time and on the flight over, Rick was in first class and Kate and her associate were in coach. “He came out from behind the curtain and asked the guy next to us if he wanted to switch seats with him, and of course that guy said yes,” Kate recalls. “We thought he was nuts to give up a good first-class seat on a long international flight, but he wanted us three to begin ‘as equals’ and make sure we started off as a team. I thought that was pretty decent of him!”

They would marry the following year, and their first daughter, Madeleine soon followed. The two would take their daughter with them when she was two to Rock in Rio, which Rick worked with his mentor, Gerry Stickells. Stickells and Rick worked on many tours, including Queen. He would work with Patrick Stansfield on many small and large shows, including several corporate gigs. (Stickells himself would receive the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement honor in 2007.)

Rick O’Brien with Gerry Stickells

Rick was respected for his ability to get the job done. But he was much more than that. As Patrick would often evoke from the Parnelli Awards stage, Rick was not only a great live event professional, but a great human being. “As a production manager, he was always at the top of his game,” Patrick would say. “As a human being, he personified our ‘four H’s:’ Humanity, Humility, Honesty, and Humor. With this gathering, we remind ourselves of these virtues and hope we can be inspired by the legacy this great guy left behind.”

Kate recently reached out to us with yet another story involving Rick:

A few years ago, a friend of mine in the touring industry was talking to a fellow crew member that was in his 20’s. When my friend mentioned that he knew me, the young crew member exclaimed, “You know Mrs. Parnelli?!” It is strange but marvelous to see the Parnelli Awards grow from something so small into something the next generation of touring professionals recognize as a mark of distinction – something that they may even aspire to.

While much has changed about the Parnelli Awards since its inception 20 years ago, all of –Madeleine, Eve, and Chris – feel the spirit has remained the same. Our family wishes to extend our deep thanks and appreciation to the ongoing support of the Parnelli Awards. Honoring the industry that Rick loved so deeply means the world to us. You were family to Rick and, by extension, to us. Here’s to live music and the people who make it happen.

There’s a wonderful tribute to Rick featuring the time his daughters came to the show that is part of the highlight reel. You do not want to miss that, so mark your calendars.

This “Keep the Torch Lit” special presentation could not be possible with our forward-thinking sponsors: 4 Wall Entertainment, All Access Staging & Productions, Bandit Lites, d&b audiotechnik, Harman, L-Acoustics, Maryland Sound, Meyer Sound, Rock-it Cargo, Sound Image and Strictly FX. Silver Sponsors include Chauvet Professional, Elation Professional, Global Trend Productions, Hemphill Brothers, Solotech and Stageline.

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