SOBIESKI, Wis. (WFRV) – Tens of thousands of people have had a good time because of Gerald B. Henley.
“When I look out whether it’s at the PAC and there’s 2,000 people in the building who paid their money and are really into this artist or I’m at Summerfest and there are 4,000-6,000 kids out there at 10 o’clock when the artist starts, my satisfaction is that, ‘Yeah, I did the job that I just love doing and not only is that audience appreciating the artists, but also they’re appreciating my crew and myself and all the work that we put in to get them on stage.”
At Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, Gerald Henley is the go-to guy behind the scenes. He’s been there 17 years, making sure shows happen the way they’re supposed to. Funny thing is – and there’s a lot of humor around Gerald Henley – he’s the voice of the place, too.
At Summerfest in Milwaukee, Gerald Henley is stage manager on the prime stage, the Uline Warehouse Stage. Imagine – 32 years of up-close-and-personal with top musical acts. And that “personal” includes being the guy who gives the acts their checks.
The PAC/Summerfest combination is challenging and sensational in good times. With the coronavirus COVID-19 casting a pall on the entertainment industry, the challenges dominate.
“I tell you, I’m busier now than I’ve ever been in my whole life. I have no staff.”
Gerald Henley spoke by telephone from his home in Sobieski, which is about 230 miles from where he grew up on the south side of Chicago.
As a kid, he was a performer. Get this:
“I was born, reared and educated on the south side of Chicago. My parents got me involved in music to keep me away from gangs and drugs and all those kinds of things on the south side. I grew up right on 51st and Wells.
“I started taking lessons at Lyon & Healey in downtown Chicago when I was nine years old. By the time I was 13, I was fronting a band, The Gents of Soul. We used to play eighth grade graduations, we would play high schools, and I got pretty decent on saxophone. I played a number of different instruments.
“So I started to get invited to sit in with a number of different artists. I was 13, 14, 15 years old, and I would be playing at the speakeasies. And I’m talking about 1967, ’68, ’69, ’70.
“These guys would sneak me into the speakeasies, and I would play with, oh, B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Junior Wells – just a number of black blues artists who were playing on the south side of Chicago at the High Chaparral or at the Club Checkmate or Checkerboard – a number of places that I wasn’t old enough to get into, but I was able to get to the stage and get on stage and play.”
Hmmm, he’s 13 and playing in what he calls speakeasies.
“In those days, because of your age – being underage – the technicality was your feet couldn’t touch the floor of the bar or the floor of the speakeasy. The band I was playing in – The Gents of Soul – they were older. They would carry me in through the kitchen and then prop me up on stage.”
The price of being good?
“I loved playing, let’s just say.”
The music was blues and soul.
“And then I was also playing for the church on Wednesdays and Sundays in the church band, and then a lot on Saturday mornings. I was part of the band for Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), Jessie Jackson’s organization (headquartered on the south side of Chicago).
“Playing there, I got a chance to play with artists like The Stylistics. Every week there was an artist that would come in, and we were the house band. So I would play with The Stylistics (‘Stop, Look, Listen’), The Chi-Lites (‘Have You Seen Her’), Isaac Hayes right after he came out with ‘Shaft.’ I was always busy staying away from drugs and gangs.”
Along with playing saxophone, Gerald Henley played basketball.
“Our high school team was third in state one year. We were always very, very good. I was at Dunbar High School in Chicago.”
The high point playing basketball?
“It’s arguable, but I went to high school with the greatest player to ever play high school basketball in Chicago. His name was Billy ‘The Kid’ Harris (who became a streetball legend). Sitting on the bench watching him play basketball was like watching Picasso paint. It was something else.”
Gerald Henley downplays his ballplaying, but it was a factor.
“I played and played and played (saxophone), and then decided to come away and go to college (first at Mount Senario in Ladysmith, Wisconsin). I was recruited to come to Wisconsin-Stevens Point, played basketball there and just kept playing my horn and ultimately ended up getting a degree in political science pre-law, and I have a minor in music.”
Why that major?
“I was interested in the law. Being on the road with the basketball team afforded me the opportunity to get into the books, reading books, reading law books. It was a lot tougher practicing piano when you’re on the road. By no means am I an accomplished pianist. I never really played piano.”
Gerald Henley doesn’t play saxophone much anymore.
“Not as much as I used to. I haven’t played in a while. The last time I played, I played with Bobby Vinton at the PAC, and that was 10 years ago.”
Has his performance experience helped in how he approaches acts or their agents?
“It’s like a lot of other things that I try to do, not only in entertainment but in my life. I try to walk a mile in that person’s shoes.
“So having been an entertainer, I have a pretty good idea of what their life is like, the hardships and all the things that they’ve gone through to get to the place that they’re at.
“You know (he chuckled) it’s that old been there, did it, had it – I can honestly say that I’ve done that. I really have an understanding of what these artists go through, whether it be on the road or whether it be once you get in the building, living in hotels – those kind of things.”
His high point as a performer?
“I just always had fun. With the band, it was just always fun playing, just having a horn in my hands and not really caring about anything else except the music.
“At the Performing Arts Center, I worked for some shows that I never thought I’d get a chance to really get involved with – Steely Dan. We had them in. We had Harry Connick Jr., Diana Ross. There were a number of opportunities that we were afforded when it comes to artists and bringing artists into the building. Jay Leno.”
Seeing all the acts he has at Fox Cities PAC and Summerfest, does he ever get the itch, “Gee, I could have played on and on…”?
“I never do. It’s like that thing that I figured out I was not going to become an NBA player in basketball. I was pretty decent. I wasn’t great or anything, but I was okay. I was good enough to make the team. But at the same time, I knew I wasn’t going to be an NBA player.
“It’s the same thing where I was okay on saxophone, but I just didn’t really want to pursue that. I wanted to stay in the entertainment business, but I didn’t want to be on stage. I felt better being back stage.”
Tomorrow, Gerald Henley gets into the nitty gritty of what it takes to put on shows at the PAC and what he does as stage manager for Summerfest’s rock stage.