It’s going to be the biggest rock ‘n’ roll concert in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area in 40 years.

The Who, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, has not played in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area since Dec. 3, 1979. That’s the night 11 young people waiting to watch the band’s concert lost their lives in a crush of humanity on the west side plaza of Riverfront Coliseum—now the Heritage Bank Arena—in downtown Cincinnati.

Now, The Who is coming back.

The band will play to a sold-out crowd at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena on April 23. So how was the venue able to book the biggest rock concert in the area in 40 years?

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Finneytown Connection

No one really knows why The Who hasn’t played a concert in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area since Dec. 3, 1979. Members of the band generally don’t decide where they play.

But “The Who Tragedy,” as the event that night became known, certainly had to play a factor to whomever was making decisions on where the band would play on tour.

Three of the people who died that night waiting to see The Who were from the small community of Finneytown, about 17 miles north of downtown Cincinnati—Stephan Preston, 19; Jackie Eckerle, 15; and Karen Morrison, 15.

Friends and classmates of the three Finneytown High School students started a scholarship fund in 2010 as a tribute to Preston, Eckerle and Morrison known as the P.E.M. Memorial. The fund awards three scholarships annually to eligible Finneytown High School seniors who are pursing higher education in the arts or music at an accredited university or college, says Fred Wittenbaum, a P.E.M. Memorial committee member.

About seven years ago, the committee decided to reach out to The Who to see if they might be interested in doing something for the memorial. Wittenbaum says he sent an email to the band’s management office in London, England.

Eventually, with the help of a “wonderful young woman on the phone in the management office who listened to me,” Wittenbaum’s email made it to the desk of the Bill Curbishley, the band’s manager. Curbishley called Wittenbaum shortly afterward and said The Who would like to become involved in the P.E.M. Memorial process.

The co-founders of the band—lead singer Roger Daltrey and songwriter/guitarist Pete Townshend—eventually put together a DVD they filmed in Pittsburgh speaking in general to the Cincinnati community, says Wittenbaum. It was shown at the third memorial and then buried, never to be seen by the public, per the band’s request, he says.

In July 2018 Daltrey agreed to meet Wittenbaum at a small, private airport outside of Dayton where he was scheduled for a solo concert that night at the Fraze Pavilion in Kettering. Wittenbaum drove Daltrey to the Finneytown memorial that afternoon.

The families of the three deceased Finneytown teens met Daltrey at the memorial. Also attending was Mike Simpkin, who was on the plaza of Riverfront Coliseum that night, says Wittenbaum.

“Mike was given the opportunity where he took it to say to Roger, ‘We never blamed the band. We never held you accountable for this.’ And that was a solid moment,” Wittenbaum would later say on a radio interview on the Scott Thompson Show.

Very Lucky

In October 2019, WCPO TV’s Emmy award-winning news anchor and reporter Tanya O’Rourke—herself a Finneytown graduate—conducted an interview with Daltrey, Townshend and Curbishley in Seattle. The interview was for a documentary called The Who: The Night That Changed Rock that aired on Channel 9 on the 40th anniversary of the last The Who concert in Cincinnati.

During those interviews all three committed to returning to Cincinnati for a concert. “We need to go back to Cincinnati,” says Townshend during the documentary. “We’ll be there.”

Not just any concert, however. Part of the proceeds would be used to contribute to the P.E.M. Memorial.

Wittenbaum says, “That led into the conversation of they haven’t been here in 40 years, so I made the statement, ‘I’m assuming you guys aren’t familiar with the concert venues anymore. You know, we’re a different concert town now than we were then anyway.’ And I said I’d be more than happy to run a little interference. And I did.”

That “little interference” led to an email and phone call to Regina Hensley, director of booking and marketing with BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University, asking if she had anyone booked for April 23. “I returned his call and told him the date he was looking at was available,” says Hensley.

She says she asked Wittenbaum what band it was because she didn’t want it to conflict with any upcoming shows. “He told me it was a rock band that hadn’t been here in a long time and that the promoter would be back in touch with me soon,” says Hensley.

Wittenbaum says although he never told her the name of the band, he did drop several hints to Hensley. “I used a couple of buzzwords,” he says. “I said this would be the biggest rock concert for my generation and I said they haven’t played here for 40 years.”

Still perplexed by the call from someone she didn’t recognize as a concert promoter, Hensley spoke with Darren Stearns, general manager of BB&T Arena. “We were trying to speculate who the band might be,” she says.

“I said, ‘Would it be crazy if it was The Who? They haven’t been here in years,’” says Hensley. “At that point we dismissed it as a little far-fetched.”

Later, BB&T Arena’s Live Nation representative reached out for a conference call and confirmed BB&T Arena was a viable option for the April 23 date. But Hensley and Stearns still didn’t know the band’s name.

So, they asked the Live Nation representative who it was. “He said, ‘You don’t know? It’s The Who.’ We both were astonished,” says Hensley.

Wittenbaum says the stars aligned for The Who to play BB&T Arena. “There was nowhere else to play on that date,” he says. “Every other venue was either taken, unacceptable or too small. We got very lucky.”

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