Posted: 01/17/2009 03:08:35 PM PST
Rita Gentry, executive assistant to Carlos Santana, sorts memorabilia
Rita Gentry has worked quietly behind the scenes In the Bay Area rock music business for 40 years, the past eight as executive assistant to Marin’s Carlos Santana.
Now the modest Novato resident is being honored as one of the Women of Latin Rock at the Voices of Latin Rock concert, the fifth annual benefit for autism awareness at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre on Jan. 24.
The 61-year-old Gentry is the only non-performer being recognized for her contributions to the Latin music scene, including helping to organize this show. Her fellow honorees are singers Lydia Pense and Linda Tillery, percussionist/drummer Sheila E. and singer/pianist Wendy Haas.
For 12 years, Gentry worked for legendary rock impresario Bill Graham as his secretary and as a production assistant. After Graham was killed in a 1991 helicopter crash, she stayed on with his company for another eight years. She is on the board of the Bill Graham Foundation.
Gentry, who is single, moved to Marin in the early ’70s, raising two children while working in various office capacities for the Grateful Dead, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody and the Sons of Champlin, among others.
Q: In your resume, you mention that you’re a native of San Francisco and “a participant in the Summer of Love.” Were you born into the counterculture?
A: I graduated from high school in 1965, so I was right in the heart of it. I went to shows at the Fillmore that cost $3 for three great acts. I wouldn’t trade that
time for anything. It was fabulous. You just can’t put in the paper what was so fabulous about it.
Q: Why did you get into the administrative side of the music business?
A: My background is in dance. My mother is 83 and still teaching dancing five days a week. I grew up being a dancer – tap, ballet, jazz, you name it. From the time I could walk, I danced, that’s why I love music. But dancing wasn’t as popular as it is now, and I couldn’t be a dancer and support myself. So, instead of being on stage, I became the person behind the scenes or in the office. I’ve been a hard worker, but I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time.
Q: How did you get started?
A: I wasn’t the kind to go to college, so I learned shorthand and secretarial skills. I didn’t want to work in the regular business world. I wanted to do something theatrical. So I started at 680 Beech St. in San Francisco, working for an independent company that booked shows in Tahoe and Vegas. That’s when I learned how to do artist contracts. Since I knew how to do contracts, that’s what I did. I did contracts for all the bands. I made my little travels from group to group, band to band.
Q: What brought you to Marin?
A: In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I lived in a house in Noe Valley with six people and dogs and cheap rent. One of the guys in the house got a job at Out of Town Tours, a booking agency for the Dead that Sam Cutler ran in Marin. They needed someone who knew how to do contracts, so I went to work for them in an office at 1330 Lincoln Ave. in San Rafael. The New Riders, the Dead and Out of Town Tours were all on the same floor.
Q: Wow. What was that like?
A: The early days were outrageous. If my parents saw where I was working and who I was surrounded by, they wouldn’t have been too thrilled. (Laughter) But there was so much freedom and so many opportunities for women. As opposed to a woman working in the straight world, you had more of a chance of making your own decisions as a woman working in the rock music business that was being created then.
Q: How did you get the job with Bill Graham?
A: I always wanted to work for the wonderful Mr. Bill Graham. So I went and interviewed and ended up going to work for him on Feb. 26, 1979. And I quit on Feb. 26, 1999. I was his secretary, but my favorite job was in the production department, the creative side of the shows. I would coordinate with the stage managers, starting with Days on the Green and going on to other large productions. I was always the person behind the desk making sure all the people did what they were supposed to do, from making laminates to making sure someone had their hotel, taking care of transportation, etc.
Q: Graham had a reputation as a fire-breathing dragon. What was it like to actually work for him that closely?
A: Even though people say he was so mean, the truth of the matter is that in all the years I spent with him, not one time did he ever raise his voice to me or be rude to me. He was very caring to the women who worked in his office. And he also gave women a chance to work. He always gave his employees the chance to do what they could do best, male or female. Basically, it was take the ball and run with it. If you can do it, great. If you can’t, step aside.
Q: It must have been terrible for you when he died.
A: It was the absolute worst. It was the closest thing to my father passing. For me, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. He was the guru, the creator of the rock ‘n’ roll show as we know it. The best part about him was that he cared about the fans, the person going through the doors, and the artist. The patron and the artist came first, pretty much in that order.
Q: And now you work for Carlos Santana, who has a history with Graham as well.
A: He and Bill were very close. We can speak about Bill and we understand each other’s feelings. There’s that bond between us. Through Carlos I got involved in the Voices of Latin Rock. After the first year, I decided I’ve got to get involved. I thought, ‘This is fabulous. It’s like a Bill Graham thing.’ I’ve been in my usual role as the woman behind the curtain. In this show you’re seeing artists from every generation in the Latin music scene. And the money is actually going to a worthwhile cause, benefiting schools in the Bay Area dealing with autism.
Q: How does it feel to be getting this recognition from your peers?
A: I’m flattered, but I’m almost embarrassed to be honored for doing a job that was in my heart, that I’ve always loved and that I hope to stay in until the day I drop.
Tags: Carlos Santana, Rita Gentry, Women of Latin Rock