Once upon a time, if you wanted to bestow greatness on an artist, you would say they were “the chairman of the board”. It was one of those good old-fashioned phrases journalists used to drag out whenever they were running low on inspiration and desperate to file their story so they could head off to the nearest pub.
For years, the phrase languished in obscurity, mainly due to rampant overuse, but today The Blues can safely say with a clean conscience that Jim Dolan, lead singer of Americana outfit JD & The Straight Shot, really is the chairman of the board. In fact, he’s the chairman of several boards. You might not have heard of him, but you will be familiar with his day job – and it’s quite impressive.
Dolan is the executive chairman of Madison Square Garden in New York, one of the most iconic and successful venues in the world. Yes, that Madison Square Garden. He’s also chief executive officer of one of the largest media and telecommunications companies in the United States, Cablevision Systems, and oversees three sports groups, including the New York Knicks basketball team.
“I don’t actually shoot baskets,” he tells The Blues during a recent visit to London to promote his band’s new album, Ballyhoo!. “Well, I do, but I suck at it! My business life is manipulating very large companies and entities and working them. There are a lot of other businesses that we own and operate, but none where I create a product per se.
“I don’t own a furniture store or a factory, but I do make furniture – beautiful furniture,” he adds, pointing to the rest of the band, who are all sitting in on the interview. “It’s what we do.”
Interviewing highly successful businessmen is not a risk-free venture. A cursory glance at the internet reveals all kinds of subjects that might bring proceedings to a grinding halt, mostly around the sports teams Dolan runs. It’s tempting to ask him if a British team will ever play in the baseball Word Series, but in the end we decide to stick to the music.
Despite wanting to form a band for most of his life, and hanging around with some pretty famous names at Madison Square Garden, Dolan only got really serious about music in 2001. “The first iteration of this band was just a group of buddies from work, messing around,” he recalls. “I had been racing sailboats up until that point but I’ve always kept a guitar with me, wherever I’ve been.”
Dolan actually once won one of the toughest challenges in yachting, the Fastnet, but tells us that those days are over, and the band is now his sole focus, even if they didn’t start off with big ambitions.
“We originally got together to play for a social thing, just for fun. After we were done, I said, ‘I really love this,’ and then it kept going. There have been four or five iterations since then. [Musical director and guitarist] Marc Copely’s been here for at least three of them.”
Copely is sitting across from us and nods. With a CV that reads like a who’s who of Americana and country, including stints with Rosanne Cash, the McCrary Sisters and Billy Squier, he helped put together the current version of JD & The Straight Shot.
We were angling for a Crosby, Stills & Nash sound… there are no burning solos here
Rounding off the line-up is the Kentucky-born bassist Byron House, who has worked with Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris; violinist Erin Slaver, whose résumé features Rod Stewart and Martina McBride; and last but by no means least, guitarist Aidan Dolan, who also happens to be Dolan’s son.
The first line-up was just friends,” adds Dolan Sr. “The second one was friends with a couple of guys who were semi-pros. Then it was all semi-pros. Then Mark came and said, ‘You’ve got to get rid of the semi-pros!’
“For me, the big turning point was about 2005 when I began taking vocal training from a guy in New York called Don Lawrence,” continues Dolan. “Before that, I was more about playing guitar. After I started taking vocal training, I decided to make my voice my instrument and got very serious about that. Don’s a taskmaster. In the last couple of years, the band members have all taken lessons from Don. He was at our last rehearsal, checking out our sound and giving us the thumbs up.
“He’s trained a lot of very famous artists. His biggest success has been Lady Gaga, whom he’s worked with since she was 12 years old. Other famous artists go to him, especially if they’re having trouble. He gets you out of trouble real quick.”
It’s not all about the vocals for Dolan though – he still plays a bit of guitar. He says his favourite instrument is a Martin D-35 from 1963, but he keeps it locked away as “it’s not a road guitar”.
In 2014, JD & The Straight Shot released an album, Where I’ve Been, that was produced by Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. This begs the question: has Dolan ever asked some of his guitar heroes for a music lesson?
“Joe has given me guitar lessons, but other than that…” he pauses and chuckles. “I’m not a good enough guitar player to take lessons from those guys. I would never ask Eric Clapton to help me with the guitar. Vocally though, one or two have helped me. Don Henley has stepped in and given us some constructive criticism.”
Half the room starts giggling, suggesting it may have been a little more than constructive.
“Really great guitar players don’t stop,” adds Dolan. “They don’t sit on their laurels. They keep learning. And Joe Walsh is one of those guys. He plays all the time at home. He loves new things and is constantly honing his craft. I don’t know if it was Aidan or his older brother, but when Eric was playing the Cream reunion shows at the Garden, we stopped in to see him backstage. He had his guitar there and Eric was practising and I looked at the boys and said, ‘See? Even Eric Clapton does this!’ Joe does the same thing. He keeps the guitar in the dressing room and will play before the show to make sure he’s tight.”
“Sometimes really loudly too,” adds Copely. “Joe Walsh bought a new amp one day when we were on tour with him and it was blazing down the hallway. We were like, ‘Someone’s got a new amp!’”
Dolan and his band have opened for the Eagles on numerous occasions, as well as on solo tours for both Walsh and Henley. Having support slots for one of the biggest-selling bands in America is one thing, but as other artists will tell you, the lot of being the first group on in front of an uninterested or largely absent audience can be an unhappy one.
“When we first started opening for the Eagles, their manager Irving Azoff warned us,” says Dolan. “He said the fans are notorious for not necessarily treating the opening act with much respect. I forget who it was, but he said there was a named act opening for them and in the middle of the show, the fans started chanting ‘Eagles! Eagles! Eagles!’ That was the last show for that band.
“You have to get up there and say, ‘We understand you’re here for the Eagles, but they’re not coming out for a while. You can either sit here and do nothing, or you can listen to us.’ Every third song we’ll remind them, ‘We know you’re waiting for the Eagles and they’ll be out soon.’
“The Eagles shows were wonderful for us because it was a real test of your stage grit,” he adds. “You have to get up there and win the audience over. The places were huge. I think the biggest Eagles audience was in Atlanta, where we walked on stage to 45,000 people. You have to sharpen your showmanship, put on your best show. Getting comfortable with that was important.”
Dolan has been running Madison Square Garden since 1998. Has being a touring musician changed the way he sees the acts that play at his venue?
“Doing this has helped me in as much as understanding what the life of an artist on the road is like,” he explains. “For instance, at the Forum in California, the dressing rooms are set up to make life good for the artist. I’ve learned a lot from that. But I’m like any other fan when I’m in the arena, listening to Fleetwood Mac.”
By now we’re wondering what the chairman of Madison Square Garden actually does. “The Garden is a separate company and it’s my job to tend to the assets, make them grow and increase value for my shareholders. That’s the answer you can get on the quarterly earnings report, but that is the job,” he says with a smile. “I’m just the boss and that’s how everyone knows me.”
Over the years, everyone from U2 to Pope Francis has played the world-famous venue. Clearly picking a favourite or a highlight would be nigh on impossible, but Dolan singles out the 12/12/12 benefit concert, which raised more than $50 million for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and the Concert For New York City, which generated more than $35 million in the aftermath of 9⁄11.
“We didn’t sell it,” he recalls. “We invited all the firemen, policemen et cetera who responded to 9⁄11. We said, ‘If you wear your uniform then we’ll let you in for free.’ We filled the floor with firemen, policemen and ambulance drivers.
“The artists were amazing. We had Eric Clapton, The Who, The Rolling Stones. It was a huge line- up. They all connected with people on the floor. The show was ridiculously long – five and a half hours – but the artists loved it. The performances were unbelievable and I think it was one of the best uses of Madison Square Garden I’ve seen.
“That concert became a focal point for New York to revive itself. It was the first celebration of anything after 9⁄11. The city was in a state of shock. That’s why we put that concert together.”
In September 2014, Dolan helped break the world record for the number of kazoos being played to help raise money for the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge. “I can’t remember who challenged me,” he says. “It might have been [basketball legend] Patrick Ewing. I did the right thing and took a bucket of ice over my head, although I had Joe Walsh pour the ice over me on national television.
“Then it was my turn to challenge three other people. I didn’t want to do that, so I challenged all the fans of the Eagles to break the world kazoo record. So before the Eagles went on at Madison Square Garden, we handed out 10,000 kazoos and we did two songs.”
According to Dolan, the Guinness World Record for the largest kazoo ensemble is around 5,000 musicians. Just to be sure they smashed the record, they called up a few people on stage, including tennis champ John McEnroe.
“We had close to 9,000 players, and just to be sure, because they said you have to play a whole song, we picked somebody out of the audience whose birthday it was that day. We had the entire audience play her Happy Birthday on the kazoo. But they [Guinness World Records] still didn’t credit us because they didn’t have someone there.”
World record or no world record, Dolan still donated $100,000 to the ALS Association after the event.
JD & The Straight Shot are now back on the road with Ballyhoo!, which was recorded in Nashville and New York in August, after they had completed a three-week European tour. “It was the first time the band was able to do a record like that,” says Copely. “We were a super-tight unit and just went straight into the studio.”
The new album is a sophisticated blend of American roots music and makes full use of the band’s newly found love for vocal harmonies. Was this a deliberate nod to the Eagles, given the amount of time they’ve spent touring with them?
“We weren’t going for an Eagles sound,” says Dolan. “If anything, we were angling for a Crosby, Stills & Nash kind of sound. We don’t want to amplify the band. The Eagles do some cool acoustic stuff, but there’s no burning Joe Walsh solo on any of our stuff.”
So how does a group featuring a bunch of Nashville musicians and a very busy media mogul write songs? “A lot of stuff gets thrown,” deadpans Copely. “Knives, forks, people!”
“Come on, give him a real answer!” interrupts Dolan. “In general, these guys come up with the melodies and the choral structures. I take a stab at the lyrics.”
And having completed the album, the band are gearing up to take it on the road, including another visit to the UK. It’s a trip they’re clearly looking forward to, partly because, as Dolan explains, there aren’t a lot of clubs in their native New York for blues bands to play.
“There are some, but it’s not a vibrant scene like Nashville or New Orleans,” he says. “But then there’s a whole classical scene in New York with the philharmonics and Broadway.”
As the interview comes to an end, it’s time to do a Piers Morgan and see if we can get Dolan to do a bit of name-dropping. So, who’s the most famous person stored on his mobile?
“Who isn’t famous on my cellphone?” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “That’s a better question! I know a lot of film stars. I’m doing a film with Katie Holmes. We were out in LA recently and Katie invited us all over to her house and cooked us a pasta dinner.”
Surely he must have met a few US Presidents? Aren’t they all beating a path to his door, demanding free tickets?
“Presidents come and presidents go,” he says. “There’s usually a new one every four to eight years. I shy away from the political arenas. It’s not my thing. It’s more the Harvey Weinsteins that I know better. But all the presidents and government officials are welcome at Madison Square Garden. We try to get along with everybody.”
Ballyhoo! is out now (self-released). For more information, see www.jdandthestraightshot.com