‘Rock This Town’ is photo-filled history of Belkin Productions

No rock concert souvenir is more ubiquitous than the concert T-shirt.

Millions wear them — many who never saw the bands that adorn them.

But there’s a good chance you’ve never seen the shirts in “Rock This Town!” (Fran Projects, $18.95) unless you worked for Cleveland concert promoter Belkin Productions or one of the acts they booked. Belkin produced exclusive swag (T-shirts, jackets, heavy-duty travel bags with embroidered logos) for many of its events, and author Fran Belkin uses those items to illustrate a concise, breezy history of the concert biz in northeast Ohio.

Fran is the wife of Jules Belkin, who founded Belkin Productions with his brother, Mike, in the mid-’60s as a sideline to working in their father’s clothing store. They entered the business just as the concert industry was booming, and they quickly became the region’s biggest promoters, staging massive events at Cleveland Municipal Stadium and the Akron Rubber Bowl, most of the rock concerts at Richfield Coliseum and a host of other venues before being acquired by SFX Entertainment / Live Nation in 2001.

She originally wanted a book that was nothing more than photos of the T-shirts and the stories behind them. Christopher Hixson, who designed “Rock This Town!,” convinced her it needed to be something more.

“I realized this was not just about the shirts or a history of Belkin Productions but a history of a time in Cleveland when the music and a radio station and just everything came together,” she said.

The book is billed as “Backstage in Cleveland: Stories you never heard and swag you never saw,” but it’s no salacious, behind-the-scenes tell all. Except for jazz great Miles Davis bluntly propositioning the author at one of the first concerts her husband promoted, there’s little sex in the book. And there are even fewer drugs.

“When my husband got into the business, he was 31,” Belkin said. “He treated it like a business, that’s why he was successful … I’m sure things went on backstage that I didn’t know about. And everyone was very careful to make sure Jules didn’t know about it.”

Sex and drugs are lacking, but the book is overflowing with rock ‘n’ roll. There are anecdotes about the challenges of trying to put on a concert at a football stadium or a field in the middle of nowhere. There are stories about the bowling parties and other events the promoters staged to keep the bands and their crews happy and coming back. Todd Rundgren’s manager sued Belkin Production (and lost), claiming they set fire to the box office at an outdoor concert to hide the true attendance figures, and Keith Richards helped Belkin’s nephew propose to his girlfriend at a Rolling Stones concert.

It’s illustrated with 465 images — professional concert photography, backstage snapshots, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and those rare T-shirts. It’s like flipping through Belkin’s annotated scrapbook, but her memories are shared by many other concertgoers. They just had worse seats and no backstage pass.

Belkin credited Hixson for the look of “Rock This Town.”

“While I had so many wonderful stories and memories and photographs and shirts, his design and organization made it into something special,” Belkin said. “I know it wouldn’t have been the same book without him.”

The book clearly has struck a chord with music fans. Belkin sold 300 copies at the release party last month. The book currently is at No. 8 on Amazon’s list of best-selling rock music books. Only biographies of Freddie Mercury and Led Zeppelin and memoirs by Roger Daltrey of The Who and Paul Stanley of KISS are in front of it.

“The response has been amazing,” she said. “There’s already talk of a second printing.”

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