When I asked Steve Schankman to describe himself in one sentence, he answered, “I’m the music man of St. Louis.” It seemed it would have been difficult for Schankman to narrow it down to just one sentence. He is not a man of few words—and neither are his accomplishments. Music has always been at the center of his life. His father played in the Symphony, his grandfather was a musician, and so is Schankman’s son. Schankman would probably be OK if people knew him only as a trumpet player in the Fabulous Motown Revue, but of course, he is so much more.
Schankman built an empire and made millions as an event and concert producer and promoter. He’s worked with everyone from Mick Jagger to Pope John Paul II. He built Contemporary Productions into one of the largest entertainment producers in the nation before he sold it for a reported $90 million. Since then, he re-launched a new Contemporary with more a focused agenda. He still finds himself working with some of the biggest names in the business, but his new role and new company give him more time for important things, like playing his horn at charity fundraisers and producing other events that raise money for good causes. “We’re still booking entertainment,” he says. “But most of what we do today are events with a purpose.” In addition to helping charities and institutions raise millions, Schankman has donated millions himself, including personally writing the check that paid for the enormous, one-of-a-kind, metal animal sculpture that frames a corner of the Saint Louis Zoo.
At 64 years old, Schankman isn’t slowing down a bit; and if you ask him what he has in the works, he could talk for hours. He also still loves to talk about the long road that brought him to where he is today. He started his own band when he was 13, but soon started making money booking gigs for other local bands. Before he graduated from University City High School in 1966, he was making a name as a promoter. “I had a company called Sound Productions, and I worked out of my parent’s house,” he recalls. “I had a desk in the living room, with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, some files and a telephone.” In 1968, he took his game to a new level. He had gotten his band, called The Impact Soul Review, a gig as the warm-up act for The Temptations at Kiel Auditorium. He says that night, it all clicked for him. “I was standing on the stage and looking out and seeing 10,000 people. The tickets were $5. So I figured with 10,000 people, that’s 50-grand,” he notes. “I knew The Temptations were getting about $15,000, so I figured that even with all the expenses, somebody was making a lot of money. The next year, I brought in the Grateful Dead at the Fox Theatre.” Schankman and business partner Irv Zuckerman somehow pulled it off, avoiding disaster when the Dead were arrested just before their planned stop in St. Louis. “The band was in New Orleans and got busted for drugs. All of the band’s equipment was shipped to us by cargo, so a few of us set it up at the Fox,” he recalls. “But the band didn’t get there until 6 o’clock, right before the concert, because they had just gotten out of jail.”
Later, Contemporary caught the attention of a New York agent named Frank Barcelona who represented all the big English bands. Schankman says that led to another turning point. “In ’71, we did Yes at Kiel. We sold out two shows,” he says. “Barcelona gave us all of his acts, giving us our first big break.” Not long after that, they booked The Rolling Stones to play before an intimate audience at Kiel Opera House. “Here they were, playing in a 3,500-seat theater, grossing only $35,000, but Mick Jagger loved it because it was so small and they had been playing in stadiums all this time.”
Contemporary also became the nation’s biggest producer of comedy shows, launching the careers of Cedric the Entertainer, Roseanne Barr and many others. “We gave Tim Allen his start right here in St. Louis,” Schankman notes. “He had gone to prison for selling cocaine, but we booked him at the American Theatre, and the rest is history. We did all of his live dates before he went to TV.”
Schankman literally has thousands of stories about the shows and the countless stars he’s worked with for the past 40-plus years. His 2008 book, Produced by Contemporary, details much of his work. But he says among his most memorable moments came in 1999, when he was asked to be the lead event coordinator for the historic St. Louis visit of the Pope. “It was the two most special days of my life,” he says. Schankman adds that he introduced himself to the pontiff by saying, “Shalom,” and the Pope was pleased by the greeting.
To say his career has been an incredible success would be an understatement, but Schankman says it all comes back to the music. “You gotta be grounded and that’s what the music does for me,” he says. “When I play, I’m just a trumpet player in the Motown Revue—nobody knows who I am.” If you look at Schankman’s high school yearbook, the quote next to his picture says Let the music within us never die. It seems that same legacy still is alive for the ‘Music Man of St. Louis.’