He started his career in the music industry as a security guard during concerts at the old Syria Mosque and other venues. Pittsburgh native Joel Peresman knew from a very young age that he wanted to be part of the music world, even learning to play the guitar. From the mail room at the William Morris Talent Agency to CEO and president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, Mr. Peresman attributes his success to hard work and a few breaks. Rich Engler, formerly of DiCesare-Engler, was one of those who gave the young Peresman a break. He will be in Pittsburgh Jan. 23 to honor Mr. Engler as the first inductee into the Pittsburgh Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The celebration begins at 5:45 p.m. at the Hard Rock Cafe, Station Square. For tickets ($200 VIP, $150 general admission), call 412-622-1212. Proceeds benefit the Cancer Caring Center.
You grew up and worked during the heyday of local rock, so was the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll thing wilder then than it is now?
[Laughs.] You know, I have no idea. There are different levels of debauchery, I guess, depending on the age of the group. The artists I grew up with in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s aren’t kids anymore. The things you do when you are 22 or 23 aren’t the things you are going to do when you are 52 or 53. I am not out representing a lot of the younger bands touring today. I am not out on the road like I used to be, so I really don’t honestly know.
If you could, who would you choose to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who isn’t in now?
I can’t really — That’s not a good question for me. There are so many bands that are out there that are eligible who a lot of people think deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The definition of rock and roll is really broad. It means different things to different people. There are people who felt that Madonna should be in, and people who felt Madonna and Donna Summer are not rock and roll. That hip-hop isn’t rock and roll. There are people who say unquestionably it is. Frankly, once you are eligible to be in, you are eligible.
People are very passionate about the subject of who is in and who gets in.
Of course. People are passionate about rock and roll. This is what has fueled this business for the last 50 years. People love it. People have their favorite act. People have their favorite song. People have the moment they remember hearing a song for the first time and where they were and what they were doing.
So do you think it is more difficult doing a hall of fame for an art form versus a sport?
Look, they have the same issues, too. Every year the Baseball Hall of Fame or Football Hall of Fame announces a class and there are always people saying, “How come this one isn’t in? How come that one isn’t in?” Baseball is going through this whole issue now of players who were in the steroid scandal. Should Pete Rose be in? He had the gambling issue, but he was an amazing player. You are going to have those issues no matter what genre of entertainment, and I am looping all this into entertainment. No one is wrong, and no one is always 100 percent right.
What was it about music that sparked your passion?
The songs. It is probably what draws most people in the beginning. You hear a song that is just “Wow, I love that.” You are a little kid and maybe it is a song like “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I had two older sisters, five and 10 years older. I remember my sister watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and going crazy in front of the TV. I remember my mom taking us to the Hollywood Theater in Dormont when “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” came out. I remember being in the theater and seeing these girls go crazy, and the music was just fabulous.
Pittsburgh had such a vibrant music scene and great radio stations, whether it was WYDD or WDVE, and you could pick up the stations from Wheeling and have the country influence. You could pick up the Detroit radio stations so you got some of the Motown sound. It was a real interesting conglomerate of influences that kind of converged on Pittsburgh.
Like many kids at that time, you tried to play the guitar.
It would have been great to be in a band. But I just knew that wasn’t going to happen. But I liked going to buy music. We had a record store, Heads Together, that used to be in Squirrel Hill. I learned so much about music from that record store. You would go buy something you wanted, but they always had this half-off special. You got the one they featured for half off after you bought the one you wanted. It was great because I learned about Journey and Bob Marley and the Wailers and lots of bands by buying that record.
I liked going to concerts. Frankly, it was more of an effort of “How do I get in the concerts for free?” [laughing] That is what inspired me to look in the paper and see who was promoting these concerts. At that point, DiCesare-Engler [Productions] and Danny Kresky were the two promoters in town. I called them and was asked by DiCesare-Engler to come out for a meeting. I got a job as a security guard. You had a crazy mix of great music coming into town. I thought there has to be a way to stay in this business.
It’s great you knew what you wanted to do and went for it.
It just takes … you have got to speak up in any business if you want to do something you like. You have to say something. My parents were always hard-working people. My dad worked at Gimbels [department store] for 35 years, and my mom worked hard raising us. It’s the Pittsburgh work ethic, frankly. Pittsburgh is a fabulous town. People don’t necessarily give you things. You’ve got to take it. But Rich [Engler] was the guy who kind of gave me a shot. He really provided me with a couple of great breaks. Everyone needs a break and a push in the right direction. He was even helpful with me getting the job at William Morris because he gave me a good recommendation.
At one point in your career you were signing acts. Were there any you regret not signing?
There were a lot of acts you went after that you didn’t always get. It was a competitive landscape. You had other agents going after bands. I remember getting a tape from an attorney about this band, Blue Angel. It had a female lead singer. She was fantastic. The songs were great. I went to a club to see the band. I thought they were terrific, but there was this agent named Frank Barsalona — legendary agent, actually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He represented The Beatles and The Who and all these big acts. He showed up that night and loved the band and signed them. They dropped the name, and the lead singer went out on her own. It was Cindy Lauper.
Do you still get excited to meet some of these artists?
Yeah, because I guess the underlying thing is I have an incredible respect for what these people do and how they do it. It takes guts and incredible talent. I just have such admiration and such respect and jealousy, I guess, a little bit. I would have loved to be able to do that. I have been lucky to work with a lot of people that I saw as a kid and got to know and be involved with their shows. I have such admiration for what they do. It’s a gift. It’s truly, truly a gift.
Why is the fan vote such a hot topic concerning the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
They don’t make the entire vote. They get a vote. It is no different than the Heisman Trophy, where fans can vote and their total counts for one ballot that gets added in with all the others. We are in the second year of being able to have the fans get a ballot. It’s only one vote, but one vote can really make a difference.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.