It’s as though one is standing inside his memories while gazing at the walls of his office. Remnants of almost 50 years aboard a metaphorical train that has sped through the years on a mystery track leading him on a journey that most only dream of. As the conductor, this man chose to travel through melodic scenery as well as the darkest recesses to discovery for the destinations only available to those who believe in them enough to board a train to nowhere in hopes of finding everywhere.
Getting Off the Gravy Train
When we left off last, Larry Shaeffer had decided it was time to return home to Tulsa after having spent several years on the road with Hank Williams Jr., promoting his shows. Now a family man with his wife and one-year-old son Jake, it was time for him to evaluate his priorities. As he would soon discover, acting upon those desires would be much more difficult than he initially believed.
Having been in the midst of the fast lane lifestyle since the early 1970s with the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll associated with that scene, becoming family a man was a lifestyle that was on the opposite side of the tracks for Larry. Being in the music business had been all he had known since those early days of flipping cars and selling fireworks and t‑shirts to make a few bucks. Even with a degree from the University of Tulsa, he still only had his music business experience and the desire to keep the music playing in Oklahoma. Fortunately, though, he still owned Cain’s Ballroom and had a hefty bank account from his successful promoting ventures. He believed at that point that there would be “no more big money” but he was okay with that situation.
“One of the reasons I came back to Tulsa was that I thought I had enough money to last forever. I had done very well financially and I had proven to myself that I could do some bigger things than what I had been doing…but, then I got into a marriage that did not last forever…and it took a lot of money,” Larry said. He also felt that he had not really put the effort into Cain’s that he should have and it was time to remedy that. By his own admission, his best years were 1975 to 1995. His focus on Cain’s was paying off and it became a mecca for live music in Tulsa. Yet, even as a family man, he still could not stop chasing the big money and was “scratching and clawing” with the competition to bring in arena shows. His efforts were able to bring Prince, Judas Priest, Tina Turner, Van Halen, Willie Nelson, Kiss, Aerosmith, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne and even the great Frank Sinatra among others in this attempt and desire to continue growing in the business.
He was initially happy to be home and enjoying the absence of travel. But in many ways, he was in uncharted territory. He admits loving the lifestyle and the women who were involved in the music scene as well the wild side of the business. He had never seen himself as married with a normal home life, but there he was, just that. The love for his sons and daughters inspired him to learn how to be a good father, but this alone was not enough for him to keep from dragging the chaos surrounding him into his marriage and home life. It would soon become obvious to him that the train was on a collision course. Yet, he still continued gaining steam to feed what he believed to be chasing the American dream.
Obstacles on the Tracks
He admits that the stress of his home life coupled with the chaos of the business pushed him further into drugs and alcohol.
“I had been warned that drugs and alcohol don’t mix with money. But I just wasn’t listening. So I made a lot of tactical errors. This is where my demise starts,” Larry said. On a more philosophical note and one of retrospect, he explains that when asked if he would do it over differently, the answer is a resounding YES! Perhaps, the best way to describe his response as it relates to this story is looking back at the tracks from where a speeding train had just been. Reviewing what had been on the tracks and decimated by its sheer force and the realization that what had been so close was now gone forever in the distance.
Maybe there were regrets. Maybe even life lessons. Whatever they may have been, it was most certainly a realization that he was destroying what he had so hoped to build by coming back to Tulsa. There would be other obstacles on the track in the near future as well such as a rape accusation and trial before a jury. But those obstacles would be just what he needed to slow down. He would be cleared of the rape charge, but the damage to his reputation and the continuing spiral into drugs and alcohol were enough to almost derail him.
Traveling in the Darkness
“I became my own environment. I woke up in the morning being me and doing the same things I did the day before and hoped that it would work,” Larry said. “I also never thought that the flow of money would quit coming. It was so easy to get. This thought process, along with the substance abuse, would usher in consequences detrimental to his promoting enterprise. He admits that there were show settlements that he closed while high that was not handled as well as they should have been and this caused riffs between he and the artists. Many of these would have long-lasting effects.
“The show may have sold out and we all made good money. But I did not make a good impression with the artists I was working with. There were several instances when I nuked myself because of the drugs and alcohol.” Larry said. One example of this behavior was casually offering Garth Brooks’ manager Bob Doyle cocaine after a show. Doyle was so insulted that he informed Brooks, who then refused to work with Little Wing again. He kept true to his word and has never worked with Larry since.
“Some mistakes you make, you never get through paying for,” Larry said about the Brooks’ incident. He went on to explain that though there were not a large number of those types of mistakes, there were enough to cripple his position in the business. He admits that at the time, he had no idea as to how much damage to his career he was inflicting upon himself. Interestingly though, he knew to some degree that he was going to derail if things didn’t change, but had no clue as to how to get off the speeding train or to stop it.
Running Off the Rails
During this period, he had been arrested on multiple occasions for what he refers to as alcohol offenses and his party lifestyle. To add some perspective about where he was at this point in his life, it should be noted that it was not ego that had landed Larry into this myriad of issues he was battling. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“This level of fatigue had set in and I had managed to keep three balls in the air for many years and I didn’t know how much longer I could do that. I never really thought I was equipped or even qualified to be in the business I was in. I kind of thought I was pulling off a fast one here,” Larry said.
“I also had the false illusion that success was measured by money. I think that is one of the flaws in the American dream…that we all get measured by how much money we make,”. When asked if he had given any thought at this stage of his life as to how much joy and how many memories he had given to music lovers over the years by his efforts, he replied, “absolutely not, I never thought about it”. He felt good about how far he had been able to build Little Wing. But on the simple level of how he had touched so many lives or that what he was doing had significant historical value, he was oblivious. “I am realizing it now, finally” he quipped.
Finding the Breaks
“I finally had an epiphany that my values were wrong and had been for decades. I wanted to get away from it,” he said. And the cost to own such an awakening? Everything I owned. “I had to lose everything! I filed for bankruptcy in 2001 with nothing left. I simply walked away from Cain’s Ballroom. It was not a big sale where I garnered any money. But I finally learned that you can’t buy happiness at all. I had just bought into the idea that too much is never enough,” he said. He went on to say that if losing his wife, everything he owned and almost his children wasn’t enough to wake him up, then he was in a lot more trouble than even he thought possible.
But it was enough. For the first time in his adult life, he had become available to those he loved and cared about. In this action rests the wisdom of how important it is to be there for others during this journey through life. It took the battering of obstacles to finally bring the slowing down of the speeding train he was on. He finally understood what was most important in life had been passing him by while he had been roaring that speeding train through the stations without so much as a thought to see what beauty was around him.
“There was a time after the bottom had fallen out that I had no intention of booking even one more show. I just had no direction at that point. I was done with the business and it was done with me. I was drifting and wondering what my next move was.” Larry said. That next move would come a short time later. An agent in California called him and offered him an opportunity. Knowing that Larry was on a bad roll, he told him point blank that he may as well take the opportunity since he didn’t have anything else better to do. Larry accepted. He began booking shows for Willie Nelson. Within a year, he was making money again and back on the upswing.
A New Train of Thought
He loved it! There were no more big shows to scramble for and no more drugs and alcohol. He was a “handyman” as he calls himself, booking shows for Willie Nelson in the “B markets” between his big arena shows in the larger cities. This led him into doing the same for others such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Don Williams, Gordon Lightfoot and B.B. King. He had found zeal again and was able to work with only those whom he considered to be professional and easy to work with artists. He had found a niche that worked and made him happy. And he was sober to boot.
For the better part of the last 17 years, Larry has maintained his business with these “elder statesmen” of the music business. In recent years though, many of those great performers have passed on and now nearing 70 years of age, he has no desire to add any more performers. He is happy with promoting shows for Willie Nelson and Gordon Lightfoot while enjoying time with his family, 11 stray dogs and a 1961 Cadillac which is often as temperamental as any difficult artist on a bad day.
The days of the speeding train may be over but he is more than okay with this fact. He has finally learned that it’s not about how fast he gets somewhere or the number of cars he has attached behind him; it’s about enjoying the scenery within this world he has created for himself and for countless music fans.
“It’s been one helluva party, hasn’t it?” ~ Larry Shaeffer
C. L. Harmon
C.L. Harmon a journalist and author.
He Has worked for several newspapers as a reporter and was the managing editor for a daily before starting his own paper, The Mannford Reporter in Mannford, Oklahoma.
The Mannford Reporter came with many life lessons and experiences that I may share one day. For now my focus and my love is Uniquelahoma!
C.L. Harmon is a journalist and author of "In The Midst Of Reality". He has worked for several newspapers as a reporter and was the managing editor for a daily before publishing his own paper, The Mannford Reporter in Mannford, OKlahoma. In addition, he has worked as a freelance writer for various magazines writing feature stories on people and events.