Indy’s Geno Shelton comes full circle
For all his presence in the Indianapolis entertainment industry, Geno Shelton is a modest man. He is the entertainment director for Indiana Black Expo and has brought top-flight entertainers to IBE’s Summer Celebration by the truckload. He has also branched out into the comedy business and brings talented black comedians and other acts to the city, but he thinks of himself as just an average guy living in Pike Township.
IBE board member Vernon Williams calls Shelton “the premier entertainment promoter in the city.” But this is a handle Shelton wears uncomfortably.
“I really don’t take a lot of credit for a lot of what goes on in my life,” Shelton says. “I’m a person who believes that everything that I have and hope to be is because of God’s grace and goodness upon me. It’s a great compliment [to be called a great promoter], but I like to give all credit to God,” he says, then adds after a slight pause, “And a lot of hard work.”
Shelton is not a particularly imposing man on first meeting. He is of average height and build, and his shoulders slump forward when he walks, giving a strong impression of humbleness and politeness. But his power and intensity, as both a person and a promoter, come across directly in his strong baritone voice. It’s a broadcaster’s voice, captivating and commanding — the voice of leadership.
Shelton arrived in Indianapolis from Western Michigan in 1985 and worked for his music idol, Jay Johnson, at WTLC for about 12 years. But he began with college radio in Michigan before turning professional, and like many radio personalities, he did parties and dances on the side. He went into promoting after he noticed a business inequity. As a radio personality doing a gig, “I saw that the person who gave the event would take away more money from the event than I would take away from it,” he says. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he remembers thinking. “I’m the person on the radio. I’m the person drawing the people here. I’m the person who should make the most money.”
From doing parties and dances, Shelton started promoting concerts, following, ironically, in the footsteps of his father, who promoted dances in rural Michigan where they lived. It wasn’t always highly profitable, however. “Sometimes he would come back with a lot of chips and popcorn and stuff for what he didn’t sell at the party,” Shelton says.
All the while, he and his mother, whom Shelton calls his greatest influence, listened to pop music and tried to pick up faraway stations in Chicago, where his music idols — DJs like Cecil Hill and Jay Johnson — worked. And, of course, he later worked for Johnson in Indianapolis.
Indiana Black Expo’s 37th Summer Celebration runs July 12-22. Shelton says it should be one of the biggest ever, thanks in no small part to concerts the last two nights. R&B artist Erykah Badu will headline Expo’s Music Heritage Festival concert on Saturday night, along with smooth-crooning Anthony Hamilton.
Though Shelton had initial reservations about booking Badu for IBE, those are now replaced with optimistic confidence. “I am so thankful that I picked this show,” Shelton says. “The response is good. People who haven’t been to Black Expo … to Summer Celebration in years are saying, ‘I am coming to this show.’ So it helps with what we are trying to do.
“These are two acts with quality musicians who are going to give us a great show. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.
Grammy-winning guitarist, singer and songwriter Norman Brown, whose new CD, Stay With Me, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, will join in concert with singer Peabo Bryson, saxophonist Marion Meadows and keyboardist Jeff Lorber. After everything is done, Shelton could take a rest, but planning for next year starts immediately.
“In August. I start early,” he says. “Right after Indiana Black Expo’s Summer Celebration is over, Joyce Rogers is in my ear, saying, ‘Geno, what are we going to be doing next year?’ Every year she wants it better than the year before, which makes it really tough for me because the amount of money we’ve got to spend doesn‘t go up anymore,” he laughs. “It’s a real challenge for me but really, it’s an act of God.”