Harry Sandler, Rock Photographer & Famed Tour Manager, Dies at 73

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Courtesy of Sandler Family
Harry Sandler

He was the long-time partner of AEG's Debra Rathwell.

Harry Sandler passed away on Saturday (Sept. 2) after a brief fight against cancer. Sandler had spent much of his career as a tour manager working with Irving Azoff, assisting with the careers and tours of artists like John MellencampEagles, Katy Perry, Billy Joel, Jewel, Van Halen, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Nicks.

"Harry Sandler worked for me for 32 years. We fought many a round together against unscrupulous promoters, record companies, managers, merchandisers, and tried to keep ticket prices fair from dishonest ticket scalpers. Harry even produced a movie for me. He gave many people their start in this business," Mellencamp tells Billboard. "Harry was part of my family. All my kids grew up knowing him, and we traveled the world together. I don’t recall having any serious arguments with Harry. He was generally correct about most things. But mostly I remember just laughing with him."

Sandler retired in 2008, returning to photography as the digital revolution was taking over, focusing both on music and, later, landscape photography. He met his partner Debra Rathwell of AEG Presents in 1980 when she was a promoter for Bass Clef Entertainment and he was tour managing Springsteen. As the story goes, they argued over some obstructed seats, she pretended to cry, the argument was dropped, they stayed friends and became romantically involved in 2002. They lived together in a white center hall colonial house in Mount Vernon, New York, where Sandler's studio occupied the third floor. 

"He started out in the music business as a photographer but it was too difficult to earn a living that way, so he became a tour manager," Rathwell tells Billboard. "But he always continued taking photographs. He liked black and white odd photos and music photos and landscapes. He was two people in that way -- photographer and tour manager."

Sandler was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1944 and spent his childhood in Atlantic City, where his large extended family owned a summer boarding house. When he was 18, Sandler enlisted in the military and was stationed in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea.  

"He describes his type of work in the army as being the Company Clerk -- just like the Radar O’Reilly character from the TV show MASH," Rathwell tells Billboard. "When the ship docked back into San Francisco in 1964, his choices were to take the tab of acid that his cousin brought with him when he met Harry at the ship, or go back to the Bronx and marry his girlfriend. He took the tab of acid and moved to Haight-Ashbury where he became immersed in the music business for the rest of his life."

Sandler worked for Bill Graham at the Fillmore East in the early days of his career and was involved in a number of high-profile events including the US Festival, tour managing Barbra Streisand, running the Big Apple Circus, producing Simon & Garfunkel's 1981 Central Park concert and working with artists like Debbie Harry, Joan Jett and Nicks. He briefly came out of retirement in 2012 to work with Perry, who referred to Sandler as the "Papa Smurf of our tour family" with "a heart of gold to all.

"Words are inadequate, to sum up what Harry Sandler meant to everyone he touched during his incredible life," Perry tells Billboard. "I will be forever honored he came out of retirement for me. We will all miss his unwavering warmth and kindness, which created a coziness only he could instill, making every new city stop feel just like home for us. We were all inspired by his constant curiosity and enthusiastic outlook on life displayed through his brilliant photographs as he documented tour life," adding "His spirit and smile will forever be our mantra, city after city."

Sandler spent nearly a decade working with Irving Azoff's management company and Azoff described Sandler as "one of most accomplished tour managers I have ever known."  

He was also an earlier pioneer in VIP ticketing, working with Azoff to create a company called ILoveAllAccess that eventually was merged into Artist Nation after the two left Live Nation. 

"It was the first real VIP experience that gave fans real customer service and an experience and not just a ticket and a piece of merchandise," Azoff tells Billboard. "He was an incredible mentor to his son Jesse, who has become a road warrior and accomplished touring executive just like his dad, and to [daughter] Emilie, who has also become a road warrior." 

Jesse Sandler now works as a production manager and tour director for acts that include Bon Jovi, Phish and Nickelback. In 1999, his father invited Sandler to tour the country with  Mellencamp -- "I jumped at the opportunity to do so," Jesse Sandler tells Billboard

"Touring with him as an adult shaped me," Jesse Sandler added. "I looked up to him. He unknowingly pushed me to be the best person and touring professional I could be. We worked together on Mellencamp, The Eagles, Don Henley, Dancing With The Stars and Rock Band tours together in my early years. I was blessed to have him as my mentor. I always wanted to be like him."

Emilie Sandler works for Good Sense and Company in Brooklyn and tells Billboard, "As a teenager I spent a couple weeks on the road with dad during the summers helping out where I could," adding, "I began my touring career as a VIP coordinator for Van Halen, the Eagles and Def Leppard. I quickly moved on to be a production coordinator, road manager and assistant tour manager for bands including John Mellencamp, Phish, Katy Perry and the Grateful Dead."

Rathwell's daughter, Marcella Grimaux, also works in the business, moving to Montreal in 2009 to assist Dominic Champagne, show director of Love for Cirque du Soleil, on a project. She is now in video content creation.

Sandler was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 29 and died 66 days later.

"Recently after his diagnosis, he was incredibly positive and calm," Azoff tells Billboard. "He convinced me he was winning the battle but no one wins against this horrible disease. I can't think of enough nice things to say about Harry's work ethic, demeanor, and skills. He will not be replaced!"

Following his death, tributes came pouring in from the people whose lives were touched by Sandler, like Dennis Arfa from Artist Group International, who calls Sandler "a man of integrity, honesty and always a straight shooter."

Perry's co-manager, Direct Management's Steve Jensen, described Sandler "as a man of many things to many people: seasoned tour manager, master tour accountant, sage advisor and ticketing expert. Most of all, he was our cherished friend and will forever be in our hearts."

Jensen also noted that Sandler was "a very talented and passionate photographer" who "beautifully captured great moments on the concert stage, serene landscapes and wrangling cowboys, all for us to enjoy and remember forever. I personally owe Harry my sincerest gratitude for his partnership in Katy Perry's touring. Harry was one-of-a kind and will be sorely missed."

Shelley Lazar with Live Nation's SLO said Sandler was a consummate professional. "From the Fillmore East to the Far East," adding that "he was always straightforward, smart and concerned with what was best, not only for the touring artists he represented but for all of us working with him. I will miss his 'always there' support and smile and the great stories we always told about the 'good old days.'"

CAA booking agent Carole Kinzel recalled rooming with Sandler "in a magical house in Philadelphia in the '70s with the members of the Edison Electric Band," who Sandler was managing at the time and whose members TJ Tindall, Mark Jordan and Freebo went on to successful music careers.  

"Harry was the official photographer and creator of good cheer. I was just starting out with Electric Factory Concerts. We really were free spirits. We had such great hopes and dreams and were pure of heart if not always of action, and the music business had an emphasis on music not business," Kinzel said. "Last year we lost TJ and Harry and I were so distraught we spoke all of the time of our lost youth and how we loved those carefree days. We drove Debra crazy. No one made me laugh like Harry. He really understood me and still saw me as that young girl in love with music. I will miss him every day."

Many remember that Sandler often went out of his way to create special experiences everyone around him, even those he barely knew.

"I remember being a 32-year-old facility GM in Richmond and we were lucky enough to lure the Eagles to not only play, but rehearse for a week," says Larry Wilson, who now works at SMG. "We had an amazing week. I think they played the sold-out show on the Friday. On Thursday, the band was rehearsing at like 9 p.m. and I remember Harry coming up to my office and saying, 'I have a surprise for you.' He walked me into the arena and sat me down on the front row. He said, 'This one is for you' and the Eagles played "Hotel California" for this kid who knew nothing about the entertainment industry. We have spoken often over the years and I will never forget him or that moment. He was tough but made me feel like I was on top of the world for that four-minute song."

As a veteran and former military man, Sandler cared deeply for the non-profit Veterans Matter and worked to raise money for the group. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Sandler's name go to Veterans Matter.org/donate. Funeral arrangements are pending.