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High Notes

Morty Wiggins is a musician's best friend

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Behind every great rock star, there's a Morty Wiggins.

In a career that spans more than four decades, Wiggins has worked with and for the biggest names in music as an artist and a record company manager, as well as a concert organizer and promoter.

Formerly a VP of Bill Graham Presents and general manager for A&M Records, Wiggins is now the CEO of Sonoma County–based talent management and promotion and booking agency Second Octave, which represents several local bands and hosts the SOMO Concerts series in Rohnert Park.

Working alongside a young and hungry staff at Second Octave, Wiggins revels in sharing his lifetime of experience with a new generation and reflects on how his journey in the industry is tied to the North Bay.

WITNESS TO THE WALTZ

Born in Toronto to a Canadian father and an American mother, Wiggins spent his childhood moving back and forth between Toronto and several spots in New York and New Jersey. There was virtually no music in Wiggins' home, as both his parents were deaf.

"I started working in music more as an offshoot from an original interest that I had for theater," Wiggins says. "I just loved the liveliness of theater."

Coming of age in the early 1970s, Wiggins made the transition from working in live theater to live concerts, seduced and enamored by what he calls "the alchemy that happens in concerts." In New York, Wiggins first hooked up with an organization called the College Coffeehouse Circuit, booking and touring with folk-rock bands on college campuses.

In 1976, at 19, Wiggins joined a band he was working for on a Midwest tour. From there, he hitchhiked to California and landed in Santa Rosa at the suggestion of the band's lead singer, whose brother worked in town for IBM. "That's how I ended up here," he laughs. "It was a series of events that had nothing to do with me."

Shortly after Wiggins arrived in California, legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham produced the Last Waltz at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Wiggins somehow snagged tickets and sat in the cheap seats for the event, which was a farewell show for iconic outfit the Band and featured guest appearances from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and many others.

"I was blown away, just blown away," he says.

From the vibrant atmosphere to the incredible Thanksgiving dinner spread, Wiggins took it all in, including seeing Graham running around with a clipboard and wearing white tuxedo tails and a top hat. "That's when I decided, I've got to work with this guy," says Wiggins. "It took a few years, but I finally got there."

In the North Bay, Wiggins immediately went about organizing shows at the various veterans halls in Sebastopol and Petaluma. A year later, the River Theater in Guerneville became available to lease, and Wiggins brought in acts like John Prine, the Jerry Garcia Band and a young Tom Waits, a big coup for Wiggins.

"He was one of the first people I met when I came up in '79," says Bill Bowker, the longtime on-air personality for the Krush radio station. Bowker had relocated to Sonoma County from Los Angeles and was at KVRE when he first worked with Wiggins in promoting shows at the River Theater.

"My first meeting with him, he was a guy in overalls and extremely long hair," Bowker laughs. "But there was something about him. You could tell right off he knew what he was doing. He had a love for music and for artists, and was knowledgeable and caring about the community. I liked that."

Wiggins found some success in Sonoma County, but the Bay Area was Graham's territory, who enjoyed a near monopoly on booking concerts in the region.

STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM

"I was hitting this glass ceiling, so I applied for a job at Bill Graham Presents, and they hired me," recounts Wiggins. "Somewhere right below the receptionist's position."

Between schlepping in the office and running lunch-order errands, Wiggins started at the bottom and worked his way up through sheer conviction, eventually signing and managing bands for the company. His first signing at Bill Graham Presents was the Neville Brothers in the early 1980s, and he helped usher the New Orleans R&B icons into the decade by landing them a spot on Huey Lewis & the News' massive U.S. tour and brokering a record deal with the Rounder/EMI label. From there, Wiggins' roster of acts over the years would include Gin Blossoms, Sheryl Crow and others. Wiggins credits Graham's unwavering support for helping him succeed.

"First of all, he had incredible musical taste," says Wiggins. "He was definitely one of those larger-than-life guys. In most cases, he was the biggest celebrity in the room."

Professionally, Wiggins describes Graham as a dedicated entrepreneur. "He was very concerned about the customer experience," says Wiggins. "If someone sent a letter in complaining about this or that at a concert, Bill took it seriously and would find out what the cause was."

In addition to managing bands, Wiggins joined Graham on the road for the Amnesty International tour, even bringing the event to Delhi, India. For that concert, Wiggins and the team had to truck gear in from Hungary, some 3,000 miles away. "With all the people at Bill Graham Presents there was definitely a bond," he says.

While working with the company, Wiggins made friends with engineer, producer and longtime Petaluma resident Jim Stern. "Morty was always very professional, very honest, a great heart and a great humanist. He's quite a mover and shaker in the industry, I think," says Stern, whose own 45-year career includes building and running Fantasy Studios in Berkeley in the 1970s and recording artists like Van Morrison, who joins Stern in the studio next month for a new album.

When Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991 at the age of 60, Wiggins was a VP at his company and one of those who bought the company from his estate. Meanwhile, he'd developed a relationship with A&M Record Company through his work with Graham's company. He took a job as an executive with A&M in 1996 and moved to Los Angeles about six months before Bill Graham Presents was sold to SFX Entertainment, which later became Live Nation. Wiggins is still on the board of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation.

Throughout it all, Wiggins eschewed the egomania that often comes with "being in the room," as he describes it, when million-dollar meetings are taking place. "I like to think that I wasn't that identified with power, and that's why I was able to walk away from that aspect of the business," says Wiggins. "But I could see, and I got a little taste of why people hold on to power and why they don't want to give it up."

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