Elvis Presley items including his ID bracelet, some of his rings and his wallet-size Army induction portrait are going on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
CLEVELAND - It's a Cleveland State University parking lot now. But more than one phenomenal decade, a block of the city on East 24th Street between Chester and Payne avenues was the epicenter of live rock performances in Cleveland.
The Agora Theater and Ballroom started out as a private club for college kids. But in 1970, when founder Hank LoConti turned its second location on East 24th into a concert venue, the influence of the Agora on rock music took off.
In a recent interview, LoConti said, "we were mobbed. We had lines going from our place to Chester and to Payne."
The Agora was influential on several levels. In the 1970s, it became a club that bands absolutely had to playif they wanted to break into this market, even this part of the country. A key part of the equation was FM radio rock powerhouse WMMS. Playing and interviewing artists who appeared at the Agora, and sponsoring "Coffeehouse" concerts, the two entities embarked on a long and mutually beneficial relationship.
Cleveland singer, songwriter and musician Michael Stanley vividly recalls the central role the Agora played for bands of that era, including The Michael Stanley Band.
"The Agora was the pinnacle of the local club scene, the gold standard. I can remember saying, 'Hey, if we can get to the point where we can headline the Agora, we've made it."
It was a stage where a lot of up-and-coming rock stars made it: Bruce Springsteen, The Police, Peter Frampton, Ted Nugent, Grand Funk Railroad and The Raspberries are among those on a very long list. LoConti remembers talking to the manager for a little band out of Texas who understood that "if his band was to make it this side of the Mississippi, they had to play the Agora." The band? ZZ Top. LoConti said to their manager, "never heard of 'em!" They played the Agora, without question a milestone on their rock and roll road.
The Agora also established "house bands" for different nights of the week. For more than a year a band called The Pack was LoConti's Sunday night band. They were later known as Grand Funk Railroad.
With so many bands and musicians coming through the Agora, it became a natural gathering place for area musicians - checking out the competition, and sometimes poaching a key player. LoConti wryly recalls the popularity of the band Circus, which played every Thursday night.
"They were a great band, would draw more than a thousand people on a Thursday night, until some other band guy stole my drummer," LoConti said. That drummer was Tommy Dobeck, who has been playing with Michael Stanley since then.
"It was a great time to be in a band, a great time for radio, a great time for the live music scene in clubs. It all came together, this perfect storm. The Agora was a great place to grow, and he (LoConti) let you grow, and let you grow an audience," Stanley said. "As Cleveland musicians, we were incredibly lucky to have Hank LoConti be at the forefront of the whole thing. The Agora itself just had a great vibe to it. And so much of it had to do with Hank. He was the man behind the curtain."
In 1984, a fire at the Eat 24th Street location lead to the club moving to its current location at 5000 Euclid Avenue in 1985. But the Agora never returned to its former glory. Earlier this year, the LoConti family quietly donated the Agora building to MidTown Cleveland, Inc. In a partnership with Geis Construction, MidTown has embarked on an ambitious redevelopment of a 5-acre parcel that includes the Agora property. The building houses MidTown's offices, The Hipp restaurant and a prep area for the Umami Moto food truck.
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