May 19--Sue McLean, the pre-eminent Twin Cities music promoter who brought talent to the Basilica Block Party, the Minnesota Zoo and the Live at the Guthrie Series, died of cancer Friday, May 17, at her home in Minneapolis. She was 63.
After growing up in Dayton, Minn., McLean went on to earn a teaching degree from St. Cloud State University. But live music was in her blood, and she took a job with longtime Minneapolis concert promoter Randy Levy in 1974.
"I come from a very social Irish family," she told the Pioneer Press in 2010. "My dad owned a bar, so it was natural to be out schmoozing."
In 1985, she began booking concerts for the Guthrie Theater, where she started working with national acts and forging lifelong bonds with many of them.
John Munson, bassist in the bands Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic and the New Standards, called McLean a class act. "She always made it more fun," Munson said. "And it's not easy doing what she did. 'Promoter' is really where the rubber hits the road. She took chances on lots of people and put herself out there. Her reward was the allegiance of myriad artists."
After nine years at the Guthrie, McLean started an independent concert promotions business, Compass Entertainment, with a partner. After that partnership ended, McLean founded Sue McLean and Associates with $10,000.
"I just kind of jumped into the deep end and made it work one month at a time," McLean said in 2010. "I think I work best as an independent."
the years, McLean found her niche in folk, jazz and blues. She staged concerts for the Guthrie and the Women of Substance Series at the O'Shaughnessy, as well as clubs like the Cabooze and Cedar Cultural Center. While she was not the promoter, she booked bands for the annual Basilica Block Party. Her successful longtime partnership with the Minnesota Zoo continues this summer, with 30 nights of music scheduled at the zoo, from Joan Baez to Willie Nelson to Lyle Lovett.
"My wife and I share a mutual love of Sue's favorite band, Los Lobos," said PD Larson, a local writer and publicist who has known McLean for more than 30 years. "Seeing them this summer at the zoo without Sue's smiling presence and giddy introduction will be a bittersweet experience indeed. In a business full of sharks and vipers she was also just about the sweetest person you could ever meet."
In a business long dominated by men, McLean stood out. Last year, the concert industry trade publication Pollstar named her the top independent female concert promoter in the world. In 2010, she summed up her job as finding the balance between risk and reward: "That's what I tell young people who want to go into concert promotion. Promoters take all the risk. They get a percentage of the gain, but they take all of the loss. That's the formula, and it's the same process at the highest levels."
McLean's no-nonsense approach influenced a generation of women who followed her, including Kim King, talent buyer at the Cabooze.
"The loss of 'The' Sue McLean is immeasurable," King said. "She did great things for Minneapolis and for women in the music industry. My favorite thing about Sue was her humility and her ability to laugh at herself. She didn't sweat the small stuff. She taught me so much about this business that she probably didn't even know she was teaching me and introduced me to some of my dearest friendships. For that, I can't thank her enough."
Kimberly Gottschalk is McLean's former director of operations, current owner of Blonde Redhead Productions and Music in the Zoo general manager. "I've lost my friend and mentor and already just miss her terribly, but the music community as a whole has truly lost a piece of its heart," Gottschalk said. "Sue has been a shining light in the music industry, but just as importantly, has been one of the most passionate music fans that I have ever had the honor of knowing."
McLean never married, but became a mother at 53 when she adopted a 2-year old from Guatemala named Lilly. Inspired by her daughter, McLean founded the Tween Town Girls Camp in Excelsior four years ago. It's meant to teach girls how to perform music.
"When people talk about what makes a music scene great, they tend to fixate on the musicians and performers but Sue was the consummate behind-the-scenes person," said Larson. "Her work over the years was critically important to the local scene and groundbreaking at the same time."
Local singer/songwriter Chris Koza said McLean gave him a vital, early break when she asked him to open for Andrew Bird at the zoo.
"She was committed to giving young, unknown, local artists a shot on stage with the stars," Koza said. "Whenever you saw 'Sue McLean and Associates Presents' on a bill, you knew it was going to be of the highest quality."
McLean's niece, Patricia, will now run Sue McLean and Associates. There is already talk of mounting a benefit concert to pay tribute to McLean and establishing a fund for her daughter, Lilly.
"Her loss leaves a hole that is going to be hard to fill," said Munson.
In an interview with the Pioneer Press last year, McLean pondered the business she spent her life pursuing. "Ultimately, the promoter takes the risk," she said. "It's the way I make a living. But I'm a huge music fan, and there's never a dull moment."
Visitation will be held at 9:30 a.m. Friday, May 24, at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, followed by services at 11 a.m.
Pop music critic Ross Raihala can be reached at 651-228-5553. Follow him at Twitter.com/RossRaihala.
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