Ken Phebus dies at 64; veteran talent buyer

Shortly after being hired about a decade ago to up the ante of musical talent offered at the Orange County Fair’s summer concert series in Costa Mesa, veteran talent buyer Ken Phebus rolled out his schedule for the fair’s board. But one of the performers on the list was given a thumbs-down.

A board member “didn’t recognize the name and neither did any of her friends,” said Jim Washburn, a writer who covers pop music in Orange County and became friends with Phebus.

“It was Norah Jones, and that was right before she took home a boatload of Grammy Awards,” Washburn said. “They had egg on their face for missing out on that one. I was always amazed at what he was able to get done in spite of people.”

Phebus was an outwardly genial but professionally aggressive career maverick. He not only refused to fold in the face of competition from corporate giants that came to dominate the concert industry in the 1980s and ‘90s but relished taking them on.


Phebus died of a heart attack April 7 in Mission Viejo, said his longtime partner, Tracy Young. He was 64.

When the House of Blues opened an Orange County location next to Disneyland, bringing a high-profile name into direct competition with the comparably sized theater Phebus was then booking, he quipped that the development was to his advantage. “Artists won’t be happy playing next to Pirates of the Caribbean.”

A fierce independent streak and caustic sense of humor sometimes raised hackles with those he worked with but didn’t stand in the way of his multiple nominations for Pollstar magazine’s nightclub talent buyer of the year.

By his own count, he booked more than 7,000 events since 1981, including shows with 104 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members. “He was one of the most prolific bookers I ever knew — he just did so many deals,” said Jim Guerinot, who manages No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and other acts. “I used to tease him that he booked by the pound.”


From 1985 to 1999, Phebus carved out his reputation by booking acts for two of Orange County’s most important rock and pop concert venues, the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana, both owned by Gary Folgner. In recent years Phebus had also booked talent for independent music festivals in California, Nevada and Texas.

In the late ‘90s, Phebus was hired to book a shiny new $15-million venue, the Sun Theatre in Anaheim, now called the Grove, which gave Orange County a 1,200-seat facility that could accommodate bigger-name acts. Phebus brought in Dwight Yoakam, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson in one of his first solo shows, and — on one of the bills Phebus was proudest of — Bob Dylan, who kicked off his 2000 tour at the Sun.

Phebus scored dates with iconic names such as Ray Charles, B.B. King, Miles Davis and Merle Haggard and bands that were on the rise, including No Doubt, Crowded House, Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fringe acts with cult followings that Phebus believed deserved the exposure also made the cut.

Kenneth William Phebus was born May 8, 1947, in Newport Beach, where his father was a police officer. He studied film at USC but soon segued into managing a restaurant in Long Beach.


In Long Beach, he began booking local punk, alternative and other underground shows at the Rumble Seat Garage and then Fenders Ballroom before teaming with Folgner in 1986 to make the Coach House and, later, the Galaxy, destinations for nationally touring musicians.

“Ken liked real music and had profound respect for really talented people, and it saddened him when the Bonnie Raitts of the world didn’t get as much attention as the Madonnas,” Young told The Times. “He thought that good musicians, even ones that aren’t commercially acceptable, should have a venue and people should have a chance to see them.”

In addition to Young, Phebus is survived by his mother, Betty.

A memorial celebration is being planned.