Her Heart of Rock ’n’ Roll
A piece of paper changed the trajectory of alumna Mary Beth Medley’s career, and she hasn’t looked back since.
BY Christine McGrath
The Who, Van Morrison and The Allman Brothers Band — what do they all have in common? Besides being amazing rock stars, they all graced the gym stage at Stony Brook University just as they achieved fame.
Many of those shows can be credited to Mary Beth Medley (Olbrych) ’70, who took over as the Student Activities Board (SAB) concert chair when Howie Klein ’69 stepped down.
“Before he left Stony Brook, Howie handed me a piece of paper and told me to call the numbers on it to get the big acts,” she recalled. That piece of paper would kick-start her career in the music industry and guide her to many of her own star-studded acts.
Finding Her Niche
Medley grew up in upstate New York with only 63 students in her high school graduating class. She learned about SBU because her mother worked as a budget analyst for the State University of New York school system. When she took a campus tour, she loved how it felt. “I liked that it was new. And I liked the way it looked. It was on the Island, but still close to New York City,” she said.
She joined a class of more than 1,000 freshmen in 1966 as a Russian history major, planning to become a teacher. At the encouragement of a mutual friend, Medley and her roommate joined the SAB. That decision would change her career path.
The club seemed like a natural fit for Medley, whose upbringing was filled with music, dance and theater. “I wanted to be part of whoever was doing the music,” she explained.
She started planning concerts with Klein, who took her under his wing and showed her the ropes. She made friends, including James “Moyssi” Moyssiadis ’70, Seth Dworken ’71 and Susan Goldin (Luby) ’67.
“Moyssi did the lights and Seth was our sound guy. Susan created many posters and was an adviser to us. I learned so much from Susan and Howie. It was fun working together to put on these great events,” said Medley. “We would all sit around and discuss who we wanted to book. It was never just me deciding.”
And her energy always rubbed off on her friends. “Mary Beth is a highly perceptive, driven genius who loved everything about what we were so naturally doing together,” said Moyssi. “As a result of the positive energies, I lived in creative heaven for my four years at Stony Brook.”
After graduation, Klein founded the record label 415 Records, and Moyssi went on to have a successful lighting career in the music and entertainment industries, so it’s no surprise that Medley did the same.
History in the Making
The first phone number on that paper from Klein was for Frank Barsalona, a top agent with Premier Talent Agency who worked with countless rock performers over the years, including The Who, Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi.
“When I called, I had no idea how big Frank was. I’m surprised that he picked up,” she said. In the end, Barsalona not only took Medley’s call, but he also took her under his wing — sending her some big-name acts and helping her find a job right out of college. “I planned to go to graduate school, but Frank insisted I stay in music. He was my mentor.”
Medley believes some of the best shows in university history took place during her time as concert chair from 1968 to 1970; Blue Öyster Cult (or rather Soft White Underbelly or Stalk-Forrest Group, as they were known at the time); Blood, Sweat & Tears; Joni Mitchell; Miles Davis; James Taylor; Janis Joplin — the list goes on. “There was someone to oversee funds and contracts with the acts, but we could book any concert without university approval, which really made a difference,” she said.
How did she get these big names to Stony Brook? Through her relationships with Barsalona and other agents, and because many big acts booked city venues on weekends. They loved performing at universities like Stony Brook, where they could play on weeknights. It didn’t hurt that Medley would provide snacks for the band and that Stony Brook had its own sound and lighting systems.
“For them, it was just a drive out to the Island,” Medley said. “Booking some acts was easier than others. Richie Havens would come out for a bottle of wine and a train ticket. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, wouldn’t perform unless paid directly in cash.”
Just about everyone on campus attended the concerts. The shows were free for SAB students and a dollar for all others. Faculty and staff paid $2 and visitors outside Stony Brook paid $3. Medley said they allowed students from other campuses but never advertised publicly — except for her very last show.
“When Bill Graham [a rock concert promoter who founded the Fillmore East in New York City] accused me of stealing his acts, Frank pointed out that we never advertised. All the shows took place during the week and were more than 50 miles outside the city,” she said. “For my last concert — Traffic — Frank bought an ad in the Village Voice, framed it, and gave it to Bill with a note saying, ‘She’s graduated. This is the last one.’ I will never forget that.”
Medley said it’s hard for her to pick her favorite act. She loved bringing The Who to campus and even offered the basketball coach “two tickets and a bottle of scotch” to change
the team schedule so she could use the gym for the show. And she loved the two shows headlined by Chicago for which The Allman Brothers Band opened. In fact, she said that after seeing the crowd’s reaction to the band at the first show, Chicago asked them to close the second. Other favorites included Nina Simone, James Taylor, The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane.
After graduation, Medley toured with Mountain, best known for their hit “Mississippi Queen.” She represented their management company, collected money from promoters and ensured everything ran smoothly, including hotels, flights and rental cars. She remembered her first day on tour at the University of South Carolina, which she described as the day she almost quit — “when nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” she recalled. “The car rental and the hotel reservation got mixed up, and the security guards at the venue thought I was a groupie. When I went to get paid by the dean, he said that he ‘refused to pay a girl.’”
As a last-ditch effort, she found the band’s leader, Felix Pappalardi, and explained the situation. “Felix told the dean, ‘You will pay this young lady, or we will walk out.'” Not only did she get paid, but that never happened again.
In 1974, Medley started working at Sir Productions, which was run by Peter Rudge, a manager for The Who and the Rolling Stones. She met Rudge through Barsalona during her senior year and later ran into him touring with Mountain in the United Kingdom. Together, they planned big tours for the Rolling Stones, The Who and Lynyrd Skynyrd. She remembered planning the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour.
“I had index cards and a map,” she said. “I called every arena and every stadium in the U.S. and Canada for their availability. And then we’d just map out the tour based on what Mick [Jagger] and Charlie [Watts] wanted — and the logistics, of course.
“We had so much fun on tour, like water balloon fights on planes. And everyone was young. I’m only a few years younger than Keith [Richards], Ronnie Wood and Mick,” she said. “We were all in our 20s and early 30s, so we grew up together.” She’s remained friends with the Stones throughout the years and many of her other musician friends, such as Peter Frampton.
Starting the Next Act
After the fatal Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash in 1977, Rudge shut down his company, and Medley worked for a record label for a year. She then left the music business to do something new — culinary school. She opened Bahama Mama, a popular Caribbean restaurant in New York City, in the late ’80s, which closed after six years. She then worked at a small resort on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, where she was responsible for creating exclusive four-course dinners. All of her planning from her rock ’n’ roll days came in handy, as the island didn’t have electricity or running water.
After experiencing the devastation of three hurricanes in 10 months on the island, Medley returned to the states. She was working in estate management when fashion designer Donna Karan tracked Medley down to help build her $35 million estate on Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos.
NOW AND THEN
Mary Beth Medley, recent portrait
Mary Beth Medley, 1960-1970s
Mary Beth Medley, recently at SBU
Mary Beth Medley, 1960-1970s
Heading Into Retirement
In working with Karan, Medley met many people, including Robert De Niro. “I retired once, and then Bob said he wanted my help finding an island to build a resort in the Caribbean.”
At first, Medley agreed to help him find a property, but it turned into a full-time job. Over the next five years, Medley would travel to Barbuda — where she had to rebuild yet again after Hurricane Irma. She said after that she was exhausted. She flew home on March 5, 2020, right before the pandemic. “I lived on the most beautiful beach in the world, but it was time to go home and retire for real.”
Medley still stays in touch with people she’s known over different generations and eras. “Sir Bob Geldof still texts me daily jokes. Corky [Laing, of Mountain] visits me often. On Parrot Cay, Keith Richards invited me over for dominoes. They are people I grew up with. I savor those relationships,” she said.
Those are relationships, memories and experiences she wouldn’t have had without the SAB at Stony Brook.
“My college education was more than just learning academically,” Medley said. “Stony Brook gave me the experience and confidence to go forward with no hesitancy, something that I often did throughout my entire career.”
For her next act, Medley is settling into retirement and her new home in upstate New York. She still needs to unpack boxes of old photos, and she’s excited to relive those memories again.
“I’ll never forget when my family came to a Who show, and my mother spent the evening discussing opera with Pete Townshend,” she said. “Or when Linda Ronstadt and Mick Jagger sang happy birthday to me on my 30th birthday.”
The music industry is very different now, but Medley has advice for those looking to make their big break: “Make lists! And don’t be afraid to explore new adventures. Call that number on a piece of paper. You never know what opportunities await you.”