Steve Leber’s last name, spelled backward, is “rebel,” he points out one afternoon.
“That’s what I am: a rebel.”
In a sense, that’s probably true. The 77-year-old entrepreneur, who graduated from Northeastern with a degree in accounting 1964, was the agent for some of the biggest acts in rock music—including the Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Jackson Five, and managed Aerosmith, AC/DC, Joan Jett, and others. He produced the Concert for Bangladesh, a first-of-its-kind charity event, and turned the show Jesus Christ Superstar into a smash hit—all without having filled out a formal job application.
Leber grew up in New York and Virginia, moving around among Brooklyn, Far Rockaway, and Woodmere. He was a working-class kid who always had a couple different jobs going, he recalls.
“I used to peel onions at 5 in the morning before I played football at school,” he says. “I caddied every single weekend and now I have a bad back because I was carrying the heaviest [golf] clubs in America,” he adds in a no-nonsense New York deadpan.
Eventually he saved enough money to go to college, and he chose Northeastern for its co-op program. Leber’s father dropped him off in Boston without much fanfare, and, without knowing it at the time, Leber began a journey that would set the course for the rest of his life.
Leber lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts, while he was enrolled, and on the weekends he would bounce around among the local clubs, listening to music and keeping an eye open for an opportunity. He found it when he found the G-Clefs, a group from Roxbury whose hit, “Ka-Ding-Dong,” made the Billboard Top 100 list in 1956.
When Leber met them in 1960, he “convinced them I’d be the greatest manager in the world,” Leber says, and he got the job. He booked them gigs all over Boston, an experience that only left him wanting more, he says. He was only 18.
Two years later, he was managing other local acts and developed a contest he describes as “American Idol, in 1962,” in which 10 bands from Boston-area colleges competed for a record deal that Leber promised the winner at a time when no record company had shown any interest in the event.
Leber delivered on his promise, though, taking the winning band (from Tufts University) to New York, where the group signed with MGM Records.
“I’ll never forget that because it was the beginning of a real career in the music business,” Leber says. “I proved to myself that I could sell out a building with great, innovative marketing.”
Leber built up a repertoire of local acts during his time at Northeastern. In addition to working with representatives at the William Morris Agency, Leber started booking events for colleges across the country. His company became known as the College Bureau of America, and it was one of William Morris’ biggest clients, Leber says.
So, in 1964, Leber sold the business to his partners, and went to work for the William Morris Agency.
Leber rose through the ranks quickly, and at 23, he was tapped to run the company’s music department—a position that also guaranteed him a seat on the company’s board of directors. He became the company’s youngest member on the board, and the youngest person to run the music department, he says.
“I was just a kid but no one knew how old I was, no one knew I was just 23, because I never filled out an application or anything; they just acquired me,” Leber says, with a laugh all these years later.
That young kid was the agent of record for some of the biggest names in rock, pop, and R&B music while he was there. He managed The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross, the Jackson Five, the Bee Gees, and Dionne Warwick, and describes the eight years he worked at the talent company “a really sensational part of my life.”
At William Morris, Leber signed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The show and the music had fizzled in England, but friends of Leber’s who were talent agents and promoters told him about church groups in the U.S. that were singing the music during services.
Leber suddenly had a radical idea for the show.
“I said ‘Oh my god, this is a religious experience!’” and, rather than take the show along its expected route, to Broadway, he took it to arenas around the country in order to give people that experience, he says.
It worked. The show took off and did, in the end, make it to Broadway.
“I was making Andrew and [manager Robert Stigwood] a net profit of $200,000 a week in 1970, which is like $2 million a week now,” Leber says. (He’s not too far off. Accounting for inflation, $200,000 in 1970 has the same buying power as roughly $1.3 million in 2019.)
In 1971, Leber produced the Concert for Bangladesh, a pair of benefit concerts headlined by the former Beatles guitarist George Harrison. The concerts were designed to fund relief for refugees from the Bangladesh Liberation War.
The concert featured performances by some of the biggest names of the time, including Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Badfinger, as well as Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. It raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief, and paved the way for projects such as Live Aid that followed. All of the proceeds were donated directly to the United Nations Children’s Fund, Leber says.
“It was one of the greatest shows I ever produced,” Leber says. “And you know what? I’m so proud of it.”
As a token of his appreciation, Harrison gave Leber a necklace chain that had a small version of the cover art from the best-selling live album that came after the concert, slung around it, Leber says.
Leber likens his time at William Morris to his own version of graduate school, and eventually felt like he’d learned what he needed to, from it. He says he grew frustrated that the company seemed only to want him to weigh in on music decisions, when he had so many other ideas for his clients. For example, Leber says he wasn’t invited onto the set when Ross was filming her 1972 film, Lady Sings the Blues.
“They pigeon-holed me,” Leber says.
Buoyed by the success of his production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Leber left William Morris and started his own talent company with partner David Krebs, the Contemporary Communications Corp., in 1972.
At the Contemporary Communications Corp., Leber signed the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band, which backed another former Beatle, John Lennon, and his wife Yoko Ono.
Leber sat in on most of the recording sessions with Lennon and Ono, and, he says, “had the wonderful honor of getting stoned with John Lennon.”
“It was the greatest experience in the world,” Leber says with a sly grin.
Leber’s career continued to grow. At the company he created, he managed Aerosmith, AC/DC, Michael Bolton, Def Leppard, Joan Jett, Ted Nugent, Parliament Funkadelic, The Scorpions, and Cameo, among others. Later, he mounted the live show of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and produced a wildly successful North American tour of the Moscow Circus, as well as the multi-media show Beatlemania. He’s currently working on producing a musical about the life of artist Andy Warhol, as well as a medical TV series.
Reflecting on his career, Leber brings it back to his time at Northeastern.
“Northeastern gave me a chance to innovate—a chance to try my ideas and fail at least as many times as I succeeded,” he says. “All I’m really trying to do is to come up with innovative ideas before I’m six feet under, so I can change the world and make it a better place.”