After nearly 60 years in the business, Alberta-based concert promoter Ron Sakamoto is being recognized at the 2023 JUNO Awards.
Sakamoto is the 2023 recipient of the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, which recognizes individuals who have contributed to the growth and development of the Canadian music industry.
“I almost fell off my chair,” Sakamoto said about the recognition: only 38 other people have received the award since 1984. “It’s a real, real big honour.”
Sakamoto says he’s looking forward to the March 13 ceremony, which will see long-time friend and Canadian music icon Bruce Allen inducting him.
“He manages Michael Bublé, Bryan Adams, Jann Arden, on and on. He’s been my friend for 50 years,” he said.
From organizing KISS’ first concert in Canada to helping introduce Shania Twain to the world, Sakamoto has played a pivotal role in building the careers of countless Canadian artists. He has been recognized with close to 50 awards and accolades, including being inducted into the CCMA Hall of Fame in 2014.
But Sakamoto’s career started in an unlikely place--when he was a teenager growing up on a dairy farm in Medicine Hat. While recovering from a hockey injury, Sakamoto saw American Bandstand on television and an idea grew.
“I didn’t know anything about the music business but I thought this could do really well because there was nothing for teenagers to do at the time," he said.
With help from Medicine Hat’s former mayor Harry Veiner, 17-year-old Sakamoto opened a nightclub for teens called “Honeycomb A Go Go” in 1964. Later, he started Gold & Gold Productions Ltd. where he booked acts and handled marketing, ticketing, and producing the shows.
When he could afford to open a second club in Lethbridge, Sakamoto worked as an accountant during the week and ran the two clubs on weekends.
As Sakamoto’s reputation grew, he met a manager named Jon Landau about up-and-coming Canadian country star Shania Twain. Together, they put on the singer-songwriter’s tour “Come On Over” in 1998.
“We sold out all the big buildings--it was pretty phenomenal. They trusted my judgement, so we did the next tour and the next tour,” Sakamoto said.
Since then, Sakamoto has worked with top recording artists like The Guess Who, Bryan Adams, The Bee Gees, and Keith Urban. He remembers putting on KISS’ first Canadian tour in 1973.
“It was really different. I didn’t know how people would react for sure, because they were dressed like they were in a Halloween costume. But they were so good, it worked. They could have worn an elephant costume and they would have been fantastic.”
Sakamoto is proudest of how he helped build the careers of those like country singer-songwriter Johnny Reid. At one time, he was Reid’s manager, agent and promoter.
“It’s the most rewarding because we did it together,” he said.
Sakamoto has opened doors for others to get their start in the music industry too, including establishing a Digital Audio Arts Scholarship in 2010 (with his wife Joyce) at the University of Lethbridge. In 2013, the year he opened The Sakamoto Agency with partner Paul Biro, he donated 28 guitars to Galbraith Elementary School to start their music program. And during the pandemic, Sakamoto gave back to the community with over 300 free streamed concerts to care homes across Canada.
“There are so many things in this world that are really sad, like war or depression or homelessness," he said. "But if people come to a concert, they can enjoy a few hours of happiness. Seeing people come out singing and dancing means so much to me.”
The Sakamoto Agency recently launched Sakamoto Music, a record label to support Canadian entertainment, and for those looking to get their start in the industry, Sakamoto has advice that helped him along the way.
“Don’t quit if you have your dream, and reach high. Always do what you love to do.”