The late promoter Bob Kelley was a Memphis legend responsible for creating a lifetime of memories for those who attended the concerts of the famous bands he brought to Memphis

There are dozens of colorful stories about him, but here’s a favorite: the time when he was in a settlement meeting with the manager of a big-name band.  The concert was a huge success.  There was a lot of money at stake and it needed to be divided.  The meeting grew contentious and tensions – and voices – were rising. 

As the band manager complained that he was being shortchanged, Mr. Kelly responded by reaching back and putting his pistol on the table.  Things wrapped up quickly from there.

Memphis magazine wrote in 1980 about the crazy, pressurized world of the personable, hard-living concert promoter.  The article referred to Jim Holt, vice-president of Mid-South Concerts, Mr. Kelley’s company and now president of Memphis in May.  “Although ‘Vice-President’ is Holt’s official title at Mid-South Concerts, he might better be called ‘Chief Of Protocol and Technical Arrangements’ – a leg man, so to speak,” the magazine wrote.

It was a powerful training ground for the young man, who was 21 years old when he was hired in 1979.  He remained there for 14 years and it was where he developed into a full-fledged music promoter.  Like Mr. Kelley, he is loyal to his friends, he is disapproving to people he sees as enemies, he is single-minded when it comes to the task at hand, particularly if it involves money, and he is a fierce, demanding negotiator.

The Turnaround Artist

Originally from Ohio, Mr. Holt decided after college he wanted to be in the music business and mass mailed his resume to potential employers.  He ended up in Memphis and remained here, except for a few years when he commuted to a job in Nashville. There, for a few years, he promoted Christian artists, organized the highly successful Young Messiah tour, and managed some Christian artists.  However, the commuting took time away from his children in Memphis so he was interested when the president’s job at Memphis in May opened up in 1998. 

It wasn’t like it was a plum gig at the time.  

Memphis in May had $10,000 in the bank and seemed destined for bankruptcy after disastrous decisions by the former president.  A special committee beat back bankruptcy, especially because of financial support from J.R. (Pitt) Hyde Jr., who had also suggested that the Music Festival move to Tom Lee Park from Beale Street.  (Disclosure: I write this post as the longest serving member of Memphis in May’s executive committee, serving proudly as treasurer for many years, and voting to hire Mr. Holt as president.) 

Slowly and methodically, after being hired, Mr. Holt turned things around.  Memphis in May experimented with new events but Memphis did not respond to the innovations, Sunset Symphony was eliminated, and in time, the festival concentrated on its music event and its barbecue contest.

The Mayor is Right

All of this is background.  I thought of the Bob Kelley story about the gun on the negotiating table in the wake of Mr. Holt’s factually-challenged comments at Memphis in May’s annual meeting. 

It was Memphis in May putting a metaphorical political gun on the negotiating table aimed at Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.  However, to his credit, the mayor didn’t blink.

Memphis in May’s attempt to paint him into a political corner and force him to get involved with its negotiations with Memphis River Parks Partnership – and perhaps to provide funding for the festival – went wanting.  The mayor rightly said it’s up to the two parties to reach agreement on the contract for Memphis in May to hold its 2023 edition in the reimagined Tom Lee Park.

It was the right decision.  After all, the mayor can’t be expected to get involved in decisions by private nonprofit organizations.  It’s been tried before.  Years ago, there was an effort to get the city mayor involved in decisions at Memphis Tourism and it was met with the same result. 

Signs of Pressure

Some insiders at Memphis in May chalk up the hyperbolic presentation at the annual meeting to intense budgetary pressures on the festival.  Looking at the festival’s IRS reports, it’s hard to imagine that it is not in serious financial straits.  It’s also impossible not to imagine that Mr. Holt, who is justifiably proud of his legacy to turn Memphis in May from bankruptcy to triumph, will do almost anything to prevent Memphis in May from bankruptcy because that’s precisely where he started with the festival 24 years ago.

There are some Memphis in May insiders who in retrospect think it was a bad business decision to hold the festival at Liberty Park instead of canceling it or scaling it back because of the expectations of a serious decline in attendance and revenues.  Regardless, Memphis in May lost $2.2 million this year, $4 million since 2020, and its reserves are likely depleted.

It’s no secret that Memphis in May did everything it could to kill off the Tom Lee Park concept before the ink had dried on the report by Mayor Strickland’s Riverfront Committee. There was little reason that it didn’t think it could blow up the plans since it had done it with other ideas at least twice before.

The Good Didn’t Last Long

It was obvious to most people that Tom Lee Park needed a serious plan to transform Memphis’ most visible and valuable real estate – and also a major underperforming asset.  Two others – The Pyramid and the Mid-South Fairgrounds – were earlier considered to be in the same category and City of Memphis had leveraged both of them for new uses with major economic impact.

Then, too, the mayor’s riverfront committee was aware that other river cities were spending much, much more on their new riverfront parks, all while the 31 acres of Tom Lee Park remained flat and barren, more pasture than park.

Eventually, Memphis in May’s opposition to a real riverfront park led Mayor Strickland to launch a mediation process that produced an agreement for a new Tom Lee Park signed by the mayor, Memphis in May, and River Parks Partnership.  That mediation agreement is the Bible that’s been followed for development of the riverfront park Memphis deserves.

In the wake of the mediation agreement signing, it was encouraging that Mr. Holt made positive comments. “MIM has been actively engaged with MRPP and Studio Gang over the course of the last year on the Tom Lee Park redesign efforts,” Mr. Holt said. “We look forward to an enhanced downtown riverfront and operational improvements to Tom Lee Park.”

But that was short-lived.  Soon, it was followed by a barrage of complaints although the plan included design specifications submitted by Memphis in May itself.  The festival said it needed 250,000 square feet and it got 250,000 square feet.  In addition to the three expansive lawns requested by Memphis in May, it recognized the multiple revenue-producing options from the new features in the park.

And yet, it now says that the park design forces it to reduce the number of barbecue teams and eliminate the Blues Tent, which begs the question of whether they knew this when it submitted its specifications for the space it said it needed.

Blogging for a Great Park for 12 Years

It also raises the question of whether the hyperbolic presentation at the annual report is a way to set up a scapegoat if the festival’s financials do collapse.  No one who cares about Memphis wants this to happen, and if Memphis in May is in fiscal trouble, it should tell us and give us a chance to help.

But first, Memphis in May needs to return to the negotiating table rather than trying to negotiate in the media, rather than engaging in hyperventilating and misleading rhetoric to enflame the public, rather than trying to force the mayor to intervene, and rather than what appears to be an attempt to stop construction of the park.

For approximately 12 years, eight years before Memphis River Parks Partnership was formed and seven years before the mayor’s special riverfront committee was created, I began to blog that Memphis deserved a great riverfront park.  The present design surpasses all of my expectations.

A great riverfront has been a goal in dozens of city plans that go back almost 100 years.  Because of it, Mayor Strickland deserves commendation for making it finally happen, because the new Tom Lee Park will significantly increase hotel room nights, result in new investments downtown, and broaden the tourism economy, just like major riverfront parks have done in cities across the U.S.   

More important than all of this, it will be a free outdoor recreation and community-building space that will give Memphians an experience that will set the standard for riverfront parks all over the U.S.

Siege Mentality Problems

Back to promoter Bob Kelley.  In 1990, he took charge of Beale Street Music Festival (Mr. Holt was with him for the first few years of this work.) Mr. Kelley handled the Music Festival until 1997 when he and Memphis in May parted ways in an argument about the split of profits. In response, Mr. Kelley put together a rival music festival at the Mid-South Fairgrounds with a better line-up than Memphis in May that had the potential to deal a deadly blow to the festival.  It never took place, because Mr. Kelley took his own life before the musical showdown could take place.   

It’s a story that sheds light on the life and personality of a concert promoter.  It’s all about the money in a world where winning and losing is everything and where the stress can explode into an argument, or even a feud, at any time. 

It’s also often results in siege mentality, a shared feeling that you are under attack, oppressed, or isolated because of a feeling that there are perceived enemies everywhere.  The worst thing about it is that it produces overwhelming stress that results in poor decision-making and destructive groupthink. 

The hardest part of siege mentality is how difficult it is to pull out of it, because the tendency is to double down which contributes to misinterpreting events and comments and to becoming even more demanding and inflexible. When you are in the middle of it, it’s hard to see beyond your immediate challenges, particularly if they are serious financial ones that threaten your organization. 

A board member of Memphis in May said this is the place where Memphis in May finds itself today and the consequences of it were seen in the misleading statements made at last week’s annual meeting. 

MIM’s Choice

Memphis in May is a valued institution and its board and staff often say its only purpose is to contribute to a strong, successful, and better Memphis.  Hopefully, that will be its focus going forward, because today, it is eroding its place in Memphis.

Mayor Strickland’s Friday statement made the seminal point: Negotiations need to take place in a conference room, not through the media or through incendiary presentations aimed at dividing the community and putting pressure on City Hall to interfere or to provide funding for Memphis in May.

Memphis in May has historically been a unifying force in our community.  Hopefully, its goal in the future is to be one again.


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