Barbara Strauss
Barbara Strauss (Photo courtesy ticketsarasota.com)

Published November 4, 2010

20th Annual Sarasota Blues Festival
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat., Nov. 6, Ed Smith Stadium Complex, Festival Grounds, 2700 12th St., Sarasota, 954-4101 ext. 5454 or sarasotabluesfest.com, $22 advance, $27 day of show.

Way back in 1990, the Sarasota Blues Society decided to give SRQ the blues in a big way by launching the 1st Annual Sarasota Blues Fest at the Sarasota County Fairgrounds. Headliner Little MiltonKenny NealTwinkle Schascle, and a 12-year-old Derek Trucks, kicked off what has now become Sarasota’s premier annual music event. But after moving the festival to downtown Bradenton the following year, the Blues Society fell on hard times and eventually filed for bankruptcy. This would have effectively written the Blues Fest’s requiem, had it not been for a friend of Barbara Strauss who prompted the then-very-green local promoter to pick up the torch.

After Strauss obtained the rights from the SBS, she brought the Blues Fest back to Sarasota for its third installment, which took place on field one of Ed Smith Sports Complex. A fresh promoter at a new location, she started looking for big name artists that would draw out the masses, naively unprepared for the cold shoulder she received from most national booking agents. With a little luck and a lot of begging she was able to land two blues legends on the bill — James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins.

It wasn’t until the day of the show that Strauss realized just how unprepared she actually was: “I didn’t have money for security, so I got friends to come in and they would get drunk and walk away. I didn’t have money for caterers, so I had girlfriends rolling deli trays in my kitchen. I didn’t have an infrastructure to pick up money and do money drops, so I had people walking around with brown paper bags going to beer booths. I didn’t have money trays. The money was coming in too fast and we needed change. I mean it was a freaking free-for-all.”

That first go-around left Strauss and her business partner $1,000 in the hole. Afterward, she called her dad crying telling him how much she had lost. “He said, ‘Oh my God, you did good. You could have lost fifty,’” she recalls. “I now know I could have lost a $100,000 just like that. I was too stupid to know how much was at risk.” Discouraged and broke, Strauss swore off doing any more Blues Fests. And if she did ever put on another event, it would be a solo venture. “I realized then that if your going to do something you should do it yourself, because then you can take all the credit or all the blame.”

For the second time, the Blues Fest found itself with a foot in the grave, until a few months later when Strauss ran into another friend at a now defunct recording studio on 17th Street. That friend was Gregg Allman, who convinced Strauss to not only continue promoting the festival, but to book him as the next headliner. “Now I was extra scared,” she remembers, “because I still didn’t have the money, and now I had personal relationships involved.” Even after a third location switch — with a return to the Fairgrounds — the 4th Annual Blues Fest was a huge success, due primarily to the Allman Brothers’ long-time presence in the Sarasota area. The 10,000 in attendance gave Strauss a much needed confidence boost and a new found willingness to keep Sarasota’s blues train rolling.

Unfortunately, the money problems were far from solved. But Strauss soon figured out a valuable promoting trick to help with funding: “I was reading a magazine one day and I saw these little things at the bottom. I asked somebody, ‘What are these?’ They said, ‘those are sponsors.’ I said, ‘What do they do?’ So the next year Budweiser gave me two kegs of beer. That was my first sponsor.”

Strauss also managed to snag some advertising and a few hotel rooms, but nobody was cutting checks, which always left the festival in limbo right up to show time. “These bands won’t go on until you give them the cash before hand,” she explains. “It would be 3 o’clock and we’d be running around pulling money from the gate and the beer booth and having a banker stacking and counting it. I’d say, ‘How much do we have? Come on! Drink! Drink! How many people are coming in the front gate?’ The tour manager would say, ‘Do you have the money?,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be back with you in a minute.’ This is how my days went for years. It was always horrific.”

Needless to say, Strauss found the role of sole producer, promoter and organizer of the Sarasota Blues Fest far from fun in the beginning. “I didn’t even know what a promoter was,” she admits. “The music business is the music mafia. You don’t mess around and not pay people. So I was always on a wing and a prayer. I was young and inexperienced. I didn’t have the float money. I shouldn’t have been doing it.”

Now with 18 years of experience under the hood and a stellar reputation within the blues community, Strauss has the festival running like a brand new Cadillac. These days the money’s all there, even if nobody shows up. But there’s a reason she hasn’t lost a dime since that first year — it’s a good deal. “If you did hard cost you can’t put a show on of this quality for that money,” says Strauss. “It’s me wheeling and dealing all year long. I want to keep this affordable and that’s why I’m always bugging people, because if I paid real prices for everything the ticket price for the fan would go up. It’s a lot of begging and nagging. That’s what I do.”

A one-woman promoting machine, Strauss spends the vast majority of her year negotiating with contractors, press outlets and booking agents to bring Sarasota the best musical bang for its buck. And the four national acts that come with this year’s $22 ticket are proof that begging works. The line-up isn’t just stocked with big names from yesteryear. Some of these guys are the hottest thing going in the blues world today.

For the baby boomers there’s Elvin Bishop, a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band who scored a solo hit in 1976 with his make-out mantra “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” You’ve got Tommy Castro, who swept this year’s Blues Music Awards taking home best album, best artist, best band and the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year nod. And Moreland and Arbuckle recently hit #3 on the Billboard Music Chart and have played nearly every blues festival in the country this year.

Then there’s Trombone Shorty, probably Strauss’s most impressive Blues Fest booking to date, although she didn’t know it at the time. “Right now, Trombone Shorty, forget about it. Sarasota will never see him again,” says Strauss. “I got him back in May before he blew open — before the NFL Kick-off, before Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman and Leno and Austin City Limits. He’s on Clapton’s new album and Lenny Kravitz’s new album. He’s on tour with Jeff Beck right now and he’s going out with Dave Matthews after [SBF]. It was just timing. The stars are just aligned or something.”

Over the years Strauss has found that her festival has helped to align more than stars: “When I walk down the street people will say, ‘I met my wife at you’re Blues Fest and we’ve been together for 12 years.’ And they’ll say, ‘I got divorced the day of the Blues Fest and it was the best day of my life.’ These things are life experiences for people. When I get up on stage and I see people screaming and singing and happy, I go ‘OK, this is why we do this.’ Music — it’s people’s joy in life. It makes them forget about foreclosures and losing their job and being overworked. We say Blues Fest is the get out of jail free day. No politicians, no religions, no agenda. On this particular day, they’re not allowed to do anything but show up and have a good time. If you look at a piece of art and it gives you a new memory or brings back an old memory. That’s the beauty of what I do, and what these musicians do.”

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