Sasha, Yuri, Valery, Yakov, and Steve Seltzer

I read recently where Sasha Lehrman, a well known professor of Language had died…..did that bring back memories from 1976.

Photo by steved_np3 from stock.xchng.

Did you ever want to manage a Rock and Roll band of Russian immigrants?  Neither did I, but I did.

A good friend of mine, a fraternity brother from Northwestern called me and said he had been at a gathering the night before and had heard two wonderful Russian immigrant folk singers, and because of my affiliation with BASS Tickets and the various music clubs I might be able to get them bookings.

And thus I was to meet Sasha and Yuri.

They had not known each other in Russia, but were able to emigrate, theoretically to Israel, but both came to the US.  Sasha was an expert in the similarities of languages (there is a specific title, but I forget it), and Yuri had been an attorney in Moscow.  I invited them to perform at my son Richard’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and everyone enjoyed them.  They happened to be outside my older son Steve’s bedroom, and they heard him playing the guitar and asked to meet with him.  They listened to him play (we had tuned him out and didn’t pay much attention) and they remarked how good he was…!  Then Sasha said they really played rock and roll “underground” in Russia, because the Soviets only allowed “official” music.

They had met with two other immigrants from Latvia, which was also under Russian control, who wanted to play the music they loved in America.  There was Yakov, who was a drummer, and Valery, who was a singer.  Yakov had wanted to go to the Berkley school of music in Boston, but when he saw Berkeley CA on a map, that’s where he thought it was, so he ended up in the Bay Area.  Yakov was a computer engineer, Valeri an architect.

They had all gotten together as a group, and Sasha, who could play any instrument, played bass, Yuri rhythm guitar, and the other two their specialties.   They needed a lead guitar and asked Steven to join them.  He was 18 at the time.

They had all been in different “official” bands in Moscow which played traditional songs and light rock music (“like the Hollys”, Sasha said).  Led Zepplin, Beatles, Pink Floyd etc records either were smuggled into Russia, or the music lovers taped the Voice of America music.  And what astounded me was there were huge underground rock festivals in the Russian countryside; famous bands (famous to the Russian afficinados) played before thousands…..if the officials came upon them they had to disperse, otherwise they faced prison).

So began the saga of Sasha and Yuri.

Not having anything else to do other than to work with Hal on getting a computerized ticketing company into a profit position, and having returned the previous winter from the Dylan tour, I became the manager of this band.

They actually sounded quite good, Sasha an accomplished musician, Yakov a strong and powerful drummer (he really was into soul and wanted to be in a funk or soul band;  he was eventually), Yuri was ok on rhythm, but drove them all nuts with his insistence on using the fuzztone,  and Steven was a huge surprise as lead guitar and added to the group.  Our explanation for Steven was that his grandparents came from Russia (well almost, a Polish town right on the border;  the joke was the town would be part of Russia one year, part of Poland the next and my grandmother would say quite happily, “Thank God, I couldn’t stand another Russian winter”).

They practiced and were ready to perform.  Valery was the novelty we needed.  Although he was bearded and spoke with a heavy accent, when he sang he sounded like a cross between John Fogerty and Joe Cocker; he sang with animation and would end a song with a standing flip.  Sasha had a great voice and he and Yuri had good harmony together.  And our family friend, Steven Marcus, became the roadie, driver, tuner, and official keep the Russians from killing each other person……all for no pay.

I booked them into my friend Jeff Pollack’s original Old Waldorf club where the popular rock bands played.  Jeff was willing to go along because he knew that the novelty of having the first Russian band would attract people.  And he was right.  I think the audience expected to hear the “Volga boat song” and instead the band opened with a rockin’ version of “A little Traveling Band” and clicked through a set of cover songs, done in their own fashion.  They closed with Sasha’s version of the Beatles “Back in the USSR” which was transposed to “Out of the USSR” expressing their happiness to be in the US.  The crowd was on its feet.

On the second or third night they were at the club, Joel Selvin, the rock critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, came and listened and gave them a very positive review, with some nice things also said about the guitar playing of Steven.  Later on, Joel and I became good friends, and he was responsible for the “uber” party at my house on the hill in Sonoma one night after the Sonoma Music Festival when the Steve Miller band and most of Sonoma’s well known citizens crowded into my upstairs living room and deck, and Joel barbecued and we partied until 3 am.  But I digress again.

Bookings came easy:  the band opened for Elvin Bishop who was so gracious; he talked to the group and told them he was also the descendant of East European Jews; hard to believe.  They also opened for the band that became “Night Ranger”, and in Santa Cruz they were on the bill with “The Band”, featured in the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz”, filmed at Winterland (yes, I was there, too).  And their dream, Bill Graham booked them at Winterland to open for Blue Oyster Cult and the audience which booed them when they first came out cheered them at the end.  And Bill had nice things to say to them.

Since these bookings represented their total income, and I had to pay additional expenses out of my pocket, they were getting disgruntled that they were not getting more income (often the bands just took part of the “door” at the clubs), and since they had added some Russian songs Sasha had written, they wanted to know about a record deal.  A producer volunteered his services and produced a demo which was sent around, but there was no response.  We also sent the demo to The Voice of America, and when they played songs from it and explained the group, all of them heard from friends “behind the iron curtain” who were thrilled.

I decided to take them to Los Angeles and booked them in the famous Troubadour. I invited all the TV entertainment editors and the newspaper critics.  We drove up to the club and there was Tom Waits, sitting outside with a drooping cigarette.  I don’t think he even looked up.  One of the TV stations asked if they could broadcast a song live, and their guy would introduce it on the 11 PM news.   Of course I said yes; meanwhile, Channel 7 ABC was showing it live also and were extremely pissed when the competing newsman introduced them…..I remember the guy named David from ABC coming and screaming at me that I was now dead in Southern California.   Thank God I didn’t run into him when I went down there for 10 years with Fred Rosen and Bob Leonard at Ticketmaster!  While in LA, the band performed on Midnight Special, and occasionally I look at the tape.

So we had interest;  Rolling Stone did a feature, Walter Cronkite news did a piece on them, but no big offers.  We were running into trouble.  Sasha and Yuri didn’t like each other, Yakov needed to make more money so he was going to work down in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley, Yakov wanted his own band with his own songs…….so of course the band broke up.   Sasha went to become an instructor in his specialty at Yale, Yuri drove a cab for awhile, Valery found his band, Steven went to school, chased a blonde back to New York, where he eventually became sommelier at the Rainbow Room and then at Tavern on the Green.  He is in the wine business today in Connecticut and raises ducks along with the beautiful Saquana, and they just had a wonderful son named Aaron.

If you know a great band that needs help, don’t come to me.

17 comments on “Sasha, Yuri, Valery, Yakov, and Steve Seltzer

  1. Nice article Dad. Your recollection is quite good. One minor correction is that Yakov and Valery were from Latvia, I believe.
    Those were fun times. I remember driving from gig to gig in a Volkswagen Bus full of equipment, which could barely get up the hills on the highway. We were a guerilla band, trying to get a contract while playing some pretty impressive gigs. I remember playing halftime at a Warriors basketball game, and at UC Berkeley in the Quad at lunchtime. We also played some great clubs in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, and Davis. We opened for Elvin Bishop at the Marin Civic Center, a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Fun times!

    • Wow, I remember seeing Sasha & Yuri open for Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Seger, & Rory Gallagher at Winterland exactly 34 years ago this coming Sunday, on November 21,1976!

      Hey there Steve, it’s been a long time.

      I used to work for your dad at Bass Tickets, on 22nd Street in Oakland, but left in December 1980 to persue my own music career.


      Mick Flaire

      • Mick, actually it was the night after The Last Waltz! Bill Graham had hired them to open for $250.00 because Rory Gallagher didn’t want to open! He had been scheduled as headliner at his own show at Winterland that sold about 500 tickets so Bill added him to the Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Seger show. I was “road manager” for Sasha & Yuri…We were told that “we” wouldn’t be allowed an encore, but we got one anyway and I got a champagne “shower” after the set.
        (I met Grateful Dead crew member, Steve Parish at this show. He was head of the BGP stage crew at the time and had a short fuse at the time.)

  2. I’ve been transported back in time! Steve Seltzer and Steve Marcus, I feel like I’m sixteen. I too remember Blue Oyster Cult at Winterland (the walls were breathing) and the Elvin Bishop @ Marin Civic show. The many nights at KZSU were a favorite. How are you guys?
    I’m still in MP. What fun it was to read this today. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
    -Maureen McGuire

  3. I actually am very sad to hear about Sasha’s passing…I really liked him and had many good talks with him…He was a good person with a huge heart and lots of soul…
    …I have been corrected about the Blue Oyster Cult/Bob Seger/Rory Gallagher show at Winterland. I am absolutely positive that it happened the night after The Last Waltz, but the official list of shows at Winterland from Bill Graham Presents Archives shows that it was November 21, 1976…so much for brain cells!
    …and Steve Seltzer…I remember driving that VW Van from a gig in Chico back to Menlo Park, where we loaded that thing up and your father left us at the gig in his Mercedes packed with the band members…As we pulled away in the loaded van something happened and we couldn’t get out of second gear, and had to drive all the way back to Menlo Park in second gear…have you ever tried going up those hills on I-80 in a loaded down VW bus that was stuck in second gear? Not fun! The next morning I was able to get the VW to a VW shop on El Camino Real and found out that a link needed to be replaced in the transmission for a total cost of $25.00!

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  5. I doubt if you remember, but I was second roadie for S&Y for a short time in 1976. I met everyone at the Berkeley Quad lunch show, and introduced myself to Steve and Steve after. This was my first “job” as a roadie, but I really enjoyed it and especially the gracious hospitality of the Seltzer family.

    Lack of food drove me back East where I hooked up with a regional band which paid just enough to get by. Then moved to Vegas where I worked with a lighting company, then Los Angeles where I was picked up by TFA Electrosound, a lighting and sound company of note at the time. After touring with Humble Pie, Pat Benatar, Eddie Money, Boomtown Rats, Mahogany Rush, Earth Wind & Fire and others, I got off the bus, finished college, and settled in LA.

    I’ve wondered what became of everyone, and am saddened to hear of Sasha’s passing.

    Thank you for the memories and details, many which I forgot.

  6. I was at the Winterland concert – first “row”. I had tickets to both Rory & BOC before the shows were combined. Sasha & Yuri were a surprise opener and only played for a short time. If they were booed at the onset (which I don’t recall happening, at least not anywhere around the front of the stage), it was probably because they played simple 60’s covers and the audience was ready for Rory. I remember “Out of the USSR”, then much applause. Then Rory came out (most likely with a chip on his shoulder because he was opening for Seger / BOC after his headlining show was cancelled), and preceded to put on one of the all-time greatest guitar playing displays I have ever witnessed. Seger was a let down after Rory tore it up – he should have gone on before Rory. BOC rocked – Agents of Fortune. Always wondered what happen to Sasha & Yuri.

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