profiles - a light-hearted look at industry personalities
No. 39 in a continuing series
Sales Manager, TMB (California)
Tommy Stephenson was TMB's first employee in 1986, when he joined Colin Waters and Marshall Bissett's embryonic venture, supplying a myriad of lighting equipment to the production and entertainment industry. His relaxed, fun-loving personality is well known on the international trade show circuit, and his ambassadorial skills are legendary.
Like many of the TMB team, Tommy's first love was music. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, at high school the music became serious and he drifted in and out of many rock ‘n' roll bands in the late 1970's/early 80s, nurturing a secret yearning to be the next Aerosmith! After high school he went to Kent State University - famous for the student anti-Vietnam protest in 1970, that ended in the National Guard massacre of four students. Tommy studied marketing and business administration, and continued playing in his band White Night, which achieved moderate local fame and pressed and sold 2000 copies of their first record Etched in Steel.
He also hung out at some of the local gigs, helping the passing crews. Cleveland then as now, has a healthy network of high profile live showcase venues, where would-be rock gods cut their teeth there while still relatively unknown. Here Tommy met various touring sound and lighting companies and individuals from across the country. After two years of studying, the desire for rock god status, fame and fortune had not died. Tommy and his guitarist decided to seek better weather, a lucrative record deal and hordes of adoring fans in California. They upped sticks and drove West in a beat up 1977 Chevy Grand Prix, with two guitars, thousands of dreams and 100 bucks between them.
LA didn't turn out to be the creative haven or honeypot of gold they anticipated! Tommy did some recording, but generally drifted between jobs, playing the lifestyle of struggling musician - which was tough. His erratic work patterns included a stint selling motorbikes for Yamaha, and an extended period at a consumer hi-fi shop called the Federated Group. It was here, serendipitously, that he met the animalistic Colin Waters. Waters was on one of his renowned ‘breaks' from the entertainment business and worked at Federated for a while. The meeting proved a life changing experience for Tommy as the pair became firm friends.
At Federated Tommy and Colin both worked the shop sales floor for a period, getting creative in maximizing the SPIF incentives to boost their commissions - and having great laughs. Their camaraderie extended well past working hours, and Stephenson recalls many wild nights at Waters' home in Topanga Canyon - a famous hippie hangout. Tommy was impressed by Colin's tales of the road and his connections with international lighting and sound production companies and all the artists they were servicing.
Also by the early/mid eighties, California was the central hub for the rock ‘n' roll production industry - with the likes of LSD, Supermick, Electrotec, TASCO Delicate Productions, etc., all having shops there Colin seemed to know them all, and Tommy still fancied a crack at going ‘on the road' instead of doing tedious one-offs.
In 1985/86 Colin became Marshall Bissett's partner in TMB Associates, going for a slightly more off-road lifestyle and business. One day he called up Tommy - who was still working at the Federated Group - with a tip that Greg Lake (the Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) was looking for a ‘personal' for his up-coming tour . . . and was Tommy up for it?
Here was his road break. Tommy quit Federated and flew to rehearsals at San Antonio, Texas. It was the closest yet he'd come to rock ‘n' roll stardom, and he survived the North American tour with flying colours. Lake - notorious for operating a harsh revolving door policy for all his ‘personals' - took a shine to Tommy, and they got along well.
After the tour, Tommy first travelled to London with Greg Lake, but after three months he returned to the US, and then got a call from TASCO that took him back to California. Here he worked in their shop and on one offs in the LA area. His TASCO gigs included Barry Manliow and David Lee Roth, Poison, and The McAuley Schenker Group.
Colin Waters popped up again in late 86. TMB was going well and they were looking for an employee. Right place-right time, Tommy this time seized the opportunity to stop loading trucks and prepping shows, swapping it for a steady job and income. He was still in the business he loved and based in Burbank, a nice family community in the L.A. area. He's been at TMB ever since.
Tommy's role as sales manager means he's a bit of a fall guy - the one everyone moans at when things screw up - not unlike being a ‘personal' really! A standard Colin Waters phrase is: "If it's fucked up - it must be Tommy's fault!" Colin adds: "In addition to his incredible loudness, Tommy is one of the world's great people. Life without simultaneous love and ‘hate' for Tommy would be infinitely poorer. There are many, many people, inside and outside of TMB, who feel the same way."
Needless to say, TMB has yielded countless fun and debauched times over the years - most of which will remain off the record!!!! However, his favourite road story dates back to college days at Kent State, when aged 19, Tommy had his first - and to date only admittable - brush with the law. In spectacular fashion, he was arrested for driving illegally a semi tractor-trailer down Highway 71 in Ohio.
Intrepidly hitching to a hot date in Louisville, Kentucky - on a shoestring student budget - Tommy was picked up by a trucker driving a load of steel destined for the military. The driver was exhausted and announced his intention to postpone his trip to catch up on sleep. Tommy however, needed to get to Louisville with some urgency - the date would only wait so long! The trucker suggested a ‘simple' 2 minute crash course in HGV driving would enable him to complete the rest of the journey at the wheel, whist he caught up on his zeds in the rear cab sleeper. Tommy, fearless, 19, and up for trying anything once, passed the ‘lesson' with flying colours. He confidently took the wheel and the vehicle sailed on towards Louisville.
Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn't crap or erratic driving that got him busted by the cops - it was his inexperience in trucking protocol! Believing you only needed to stop twice at a weigh station - once when entering and once when leaving the highway - Tommy was rumbled when he whizzed past the next scheduled weigh station!
When asked for his drivers licence, using his natural wit and charm, he produced his regular automobile licence. He was promptly and unceremoniously banged up! Several hours later, he extrapolated himself from the clutches of the cops - unlike the driver. With dignity bruised but intact, a determined Tommy resumed his journey - getting his next ride just in time to make his rendezvous. He's not attempted to drive a full artic ever again!
Tommy is married to Vicki Stephenson, advertising manager for top US trade publication PLSN. He has two children aged 10 and 7 from his first marriage and Vicki has three - aged 13, 15 and 20 - from hers. This welcome domestic handful occupies all their spare time, and activities are based around the family whenever he manages to take a break from his intense work, tradeshow and travel schedule with TMB.
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