“I Feel Like Goin’ Home” – The Silver Fox Has Met His Bride

Most people probably don’t remember Charlie Rich today.  It’s hard for me to fathom that the world is generally so unknowing.  He was a soul and jazz singer who struggled through the late ‘50s and ‘60s trying to have a rock and roll career.   Through his color and his age, he must have finally caved in to becoming a country singer.  Charlie Rich was known as The Silver Fox.  

Rich hooked up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill trying to find the combination to a country career.  Their work together jelled with the creation of an album called Behind Closed Doors, released in 1972, that sent Charlie’s career through the stratosphere.  The album was driven by two outstandingly successful singles, the “Behind Closed Doors” title track and “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a warm love song that solidified his new-found superstar status.  By 1974, Charlie had five #1 country hits that all crossed over to be Pop hits as well, from his Epic Recordings with Billy and from a stockpile of tracks that he had left behind at other labels. 

When I launched the first publicity department for a label (Columbia and Epic) in Nashville with Mary Ann McCready in 1974, the press demand for Charlie Rich was likely CBS Records’ inspiration to initiate the department.  I was barely unpacked in my new office on Music Row when Epic head of country promotion, Bill Williams, said we were headed to Memphis to meet with Charlie, who was already a full-blown superstar.  Another Bill Williams, the Nashville Editor of Billboardwas also going to Memphis to complete interviews with The Silver Fox for a major advertorial for that industry trade bible.

Epic’s Bill Williams asked me if I could scramble and get some other press happening while we were there.  Charlie was a reluctant star in many ways, and although Behind Closed Doors was on its way to 7 million album sales, very little press had been done.  Epic’s Bill was hoping that Charlie could get to know me and I could work on helping him begin to be more comfortable with the interviewing process.  I never did.  And Charlie never did either.  

Bonnie Garner was a young A&R star at CBS in those days.  Bonnie had friends on both coasts based on her progressive musical tastes.  She mentioned to me that a New York photographer friend, Raeanne Rubenstein, was in town and eager to connect with our artists.  I met with Raeanne and soon we had a New York writer, Carol Offen, from the short-lived Celebrity magazine on for a junket to Memphis. 

So the two Bill Williams’, Raeanne, Carol, and I all headed to Memphis.  Billboard’s Bill immediately went to Charlie’s home in the Germantown section of Memphis to do his interview.  Epic’s Bill, Raeanne, Carol, and I went to dinner, with the plan to meet with Charlie the following morning.  As it turned out, Charlie was so comfortable doing the Billboardinterview that it continued the next morning.  The four of us then arrived around noon for Carol’s interview and with the hope that Charlie would be comfortable enough to shoot a few shots with Raeanne. 

As we put the Billboard editor in the car to the airport, Charlie suggested that the remaining four of us take a ride with him in his van to pick up one of his sons who was at a friend’s house not too far away.  Epic’s Bill Williams knew Charlie very well and had been a passionate force in the set up and success of The Silver Fox’s rise through country radio.  Bill was as close and trusted by Charlie as any record company person could expect to be.  Three of us knew that Bill was very concerned that Charlie would have a positive experience doing press.  And this ride in the van seemed like a great, casual way to get started, and we’d meet his teen-aged son Alan.  As we left the house, we met Charlie’s lovely and gracious wife Margaret Ann, who seemed happy that Charlie was comfortable with this young crowd in their living room.  Bill had told us that she was Charlie’s rock.  She was a very talented songwriter herself and the soulmate of this reluctant star.  Certainly, her special talent was understanding this tortured soulful singer.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to pick up Charlie’s son in that same upscale suburban Germantown neighborhood.  Charlie couldn’t quite locate the friend’s house where Alan was to be picked up.  And after driving around for all of five minutes looking for the house, Charlie asked if we’d like to take a drive out to the country across the Mississippi into Arkansas.  He said there was a man there who used to play the blues when he was growing up.  Charlie continued, “No one can teach you the blues…”  But if there was a mentor this man must have been the one!

Raeanne immediately lit up, obviously envisioning a phenomenal exclusive photo op with one of the biggest pop stars in America.  We all nodded our interest in the adventure and Charlie pointed that white van west, through Memphis toward the bridge.  We never again heard a word about the whereabouts of his son.

It was one of those scorching hot days with not a cloud in the sky.  We drove an hour or so into rural Arkansas, to what I believe was somewhere near Marrianna.  We drove through the cotton fields on a gravel road until Charlie finally pulled the van over to the side where a lone tin-roofed shack stood on a patch of grass surrounded by a seemingly endless landscape of cotton shrubs.

As we surveyed this desolate plot, an old black man rose from a chair on the side porch to greet us.  He embraced Charlie as they met midway in the yard. The four of us scrambled from the van and Raeanne grabbed her cameras, loaded and began shooting as if to capture this mirage before it disappeared in the Arkansas heat. 

The old farmer welcomed us all with a peaceful warmth that I still remember.  He and Charlie then engaged in a joyful reminiscence that removed the rest of us to pure spectator status.  It was only minutes before the two found their way to a weathered upright piano that was literally the only furnishing that graced the shanty’s living room.  The front door must have been open for the summer to coax any hint of a breeze from the dead-still sun-baked Arkansas air.  The four of us took turns standing in that doorway or sitting on the side porch listening to these two old friends play that piano together for the next couple of hours.  They were in a world unto themselves.  The walls of the room were as bare as the furnishings, save for a framed picture of Martin Luther King that presided proudly over this humble domain.  When you looked up, a criss-cross of wires networked an electric source that I never saw working. Raeanne captured it all. 

Here we were with perhaps the biggest country and pop star in the US of the moment, completely isolated from the world.  No cell phones.  No texting.  No landlines.  Raeanne snapped.  Carol took notes.  Bill and I simply waited patiently through the heat of the day as this private blues concert unfolded.

It was late afternoon when a pick-up truck pulled up behind Charlie’s van on the side of the road.  A neatly dressed, blue-collar type guy walked across the lawn and greeted Charlie as he too seemed to know him from childhood.  Charlie was 42 at the time and they seemed of the same age.  We came to learn this fellow was the foreman of the “plantation.” Which struck me more simply as a farm. 

The foreman was happy to see Charlie too.  However, he seemed to have a greater understanding of The Silver Fox’s celebrity.  He invited us all to his house for the evening, where he was having a high school graduation party for his son.  He spent a good bit of time one-on-one with Charlie attempting to convince him that we should stop by.  In the meantime, Bill Williams was carefully, but steadily urging Charlie that we needed to get back to Memphis.  He said we all needed to be in touch with our families and that Margaret Ann was probably concerned about where we were. 

Unfortunately, our new-found foreman had somehow slipped Charlie a beer.  And if you know anything about the legacy of Charlie Rich, you know that he struggled mightily and notoriously with alcohol at several junctures of his life.  Bill was beside himself when he realized that Charlie had had a drink.  However, Bill did convince Charlie that it was time to leave, and we said good-bye to this beautiful bluesman and the sweet piano that had filled our afternoon.

However, once in the driver’s seat again, Charlie decided we were going to stop at the foreman’s house.  Charlie Rich was a formidable man.  With a beer or two under his belt, there was no arguing.  Our next stop was the foreman’s house. 

Somehow, I think the son’s graduation party guest list expanded a bit once the word was out that Charlie Rich might stop by.  We arrived to a packed house and the foreman quickly made sure to separate Charlie from his minders.  Bill was exasperated.  And we then spent the next couple of hours uncomfortably in this packed living room with a well-oiled group of people who were very happy to have Charlie Rich there, but weren’t entirely interested in having two ladies from New York and a couple of record guys there.  I distinctly remember the son, who was apparently headed to college to play football, repeating over and over with a dedicated enthusiasm that he “just wanted to hit someone.”  I’m sure he found the opportunity over that next four years.

Bill finally convinced Charlie to leave about 10 PM that night, and he also managed to get the van keys as Charlie dozed after a lot to drink at the foreman’s house.  We were all extremely relieved to be heading toward Memphis.  As we drove, everyone started remembering that we had not eaten since breakfast (thanks to the hospitality at the foreman’s house!), and it was determined that we should make a quick stop in West Memphis, Arkansas, for a bite to eat.  West Memphis is a sea of 24-hour truck stops, but we found a pizza shop that was ready to close around 11 PM.  The place was empty save for the owner, a very friendly and hospitable Lebanese man, along with a young waitress.  They put some pies in the oven for our ravenous crew and we all had a couple of beers in the relief that we were close to getting Charlie home.  Bill headed quickly for a payphone to call his wife.  Then, Charlie collared me. 

He was on the downside of his drunk and ordered me to get as many quarters as possible, and then directed me to play the B side of “The Most Beautiful Girl”, a song he had written called “Feel Like Goin’ Home.”  It fit his melancholy, the hour, and the direction we were headed perfectly.  He then asked me to play it again… and again.  I dutifully pumped quarters for nearly two hours as The Silver Fox found a single, solitary place in his mind he was searching for.  “Lord, I feel like goin’ home…”

It was close to 1:00 AM when we got Charlie out of the pizza joint.  The Lebanese pizza man and his helper were locking the door and leaving too.  And just as we thought we were on the last leg of this escapade, Charlie Rich suddenly had a new idea.  He pronounced, “I want to see the sunrise over Colt, Arkansas!”  Colt was where he was born.  Bill quickly began trying to convince Charlie that he needed to go home.  But Charlie had found some new energy and on top of that, he wanted the pizza man and the waitress to go with us! 

I guess there wasn’t much going on in West Memphis that night, because our new found friends were more than eager to see the sunrise over Colt with the giant celebrity who so unexpectedly graced their shop that night.  Bill was completely exasperated.  His wife was upset that he wasn’t home.  Margaret Ann must have been extremely worried.  Charlie was ultimately his responsibility, since I was just the new kid in the company, and Charlie had reached a point of defiance.  Raeanne and Carol were more than eager to get back to the hotel in Memphis at this point, but they rolled with the punches.  Charlie, now back behind the wheel was planning to drive the 75 miles down I-40 to the birthplace of The Silver Fox.  Bill finally relented to this new side trip if Charlie would agree to riding shotgun.  And speaking of guns, some years later, one of my three partners in this odyssey mentioned that Charlie might have had a gun that night and made a threat.  I don’t remember it, but he may have had one may have been under the seat. 

Now, we were headed west again.  But, at least we had eaten!  There were now seven in our party.  I fell asleep at some point on this drive, but I woke up to the van violently rocking as we drove uphill through the brush and trees of a wooded area somewhere in the middle of Arkansas.  We must have still been going 15 MPH off-road as everyone was tossed around the back of the van.  Within seconds the truck stopped haltingly and we all piled out into the middle of that steamy Arkansan night.  Charlie quickly urged us to follow him another fifty feet, through the brush up the hill, when we suddenly burst upon the end of the path… and a sharp cliff below.  Now, before us from this peak was the Arkansas flatland, the overnight lights of Colt, that glazed into a sky full of stars.  Charlie Rich was proud in his alcoholic glow that we had achieved his wish.  He intended to sit on that precipice to see the sun rise over Colt. 

The rest of us rambled back down the hill to where the van sat.  The night heat was excessive, but we discovered we had stopped directly beside an overgrown pond, and the lure of the water had us quickly pulling off shoes, rolling up pant legs, and ditching our shirts.  We had dressed for an interview at Charlie’s house the previous morning.  The clothes had burdened us too long!

For an instant, the water was cool and a welcomed relief, but literally within seconds the water, the sweat, and the scent of fresh blood ignited a mosquito orgy like I have never experienced in my life since!  We were screaming from the welts as we shut ourselves in that sweltering van trying escape those ravenous bugs.  I was nearly out of my mind from the bites for the next hours till dawn. 

Hot, bitten, eyes burning from the morning light, and stiff from sleeping on the floor, I felt the van start bouncing down through the brush to the road.  Within minutes we were on the highway and then we pulled into a Stuckey’s.  Everyone was pretty groggy and looking for caffeine.  And as we started to find our equilibrium again, an Arkansas State Trooper pulled in.  When he got inside Bill met him.  He told Bill there were people look for us, including Margaret Ann.  Assured that we were okay, he left and surely radioed in that The Silver Fox was alive and maybe well somewhere in the middle of Arkansas, with two ladies from New York, a pizza guy and a waitress, and two record guys. 

The long drive back to Memphis was quiet.  Bill drove.  We dropped the pizza man and his assistant at the shop and we continued across the Mississippi into Memphis, Tennessee.  When we got to Germantown, Bill suggested that it might be better if Raeanne, Carol, and I wait a couple of blocks from Charlie’s house on a street corner.  He would take the big man home and try to explain it all to Margaret Ann. 

Today, it was almost exactly 15 years since Charlie Rich made that ultimate trip home.  He died in 1995.  He pretty much avoided the spotlight past the early ‘80s.  Tom Waits toured with him in later years and wrote a song called “Putnam County” that included the line “The radio’s spitting out Charlie Rich… He sure can sing, that son of a bitch.”

I saw Charlie win countless awards later in 1974,  and perform gloriously behind grand pianos as the true star that he was, with that shock of gray hair and that strong chin standing out as he gave us his soul in songs.  Some may remember him drunk on national television presenting the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award to John Denver in 1975, when he set the envelope on fire in defiance that only he understood… if even he did.  I thought of how much Margaret Ann had to bear for the love of a tortured man.

I thought I would lose my job at the record company for such a potentially damaging PR fiasco with one of the most profitable recording stars of that era.  Carol wrote the story for her magazine, but I begged her to keep our names out of it, which she did.  I thought Margaret Ann would call the head of Epic Records and condemn us.  But in hindsight, I’m sure she knew that whatever happened was driven by the restless impulses of her soulmate, the Silver Fox.

I got a note from Mary Ann McCready this week.  It said that the rock of Charlie Rich’s life, Margaret Ann had passed away a few days ago.  A songwriter and a singer herself, she was the only one who knew him.  So now God has finally gotten some help with that restless soul he took 15 years ago.  

He’s at peace, now that Margaret Ann is home.  Maybe she waited a while just to show him what it feels like to sit home and wait.  I dearly hope Charlie takes her to see the sunrise over Colt…

…And maybe there will be an old fella playing an upright piano.  Because I’m just about out of quarters… 

Lord, I feel like going home
I’ve tried and I fell and I’m tired and weary
Everything I’ve done is wrong
And I feel like going home

Lord, I tried to see you through
But it was too much for me
Now I’m coming home to you
Yeah, I feel like going home

Clouded skies are closing in
And not a friend around to help me
Of all the places I’ve been
Lord, I feel like going home…

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHx5CqYFoNs

                                

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The Lost Liner Notes from Sun Records’ Sam Phillips

Back in 1978, after a couple of years in the music business in New York, a few of my friends in Nashville, kept urging me to come back.  The artist management business was somewhat undeveloped there at the time.  The major country artists often had managers in New York or LA.  The bigger Nashville-based managers were, for the most part, considered purely country managers, who did not always have a larger vision of the music business and were not geared to helping artists cross-over to the pop world.  Although there have always been pop crossovers from country, there appeared to be a new emerging artist movement in Nashville that was not purely country.  In the previous
few years, Kris Kristofferson was evolving as a multi-dimensional writer-artist-actor, Charlie Rich had sold 7-times platinum only recently, Dan Fogelberg and Jimmy Buffett were surfacing from Nashville, and Billy Swan’s single “I Can Help” had exploded at pop radio by then.

I had been working at Leber-Krebs, Inc. in New York, arguably the biggest and most successful rock management company in the business at that time.  It was a chaotic place, and although I was involved in a number of successful projects that year including “Beatlemania”, Aerosmith’s “Rocks” and Ted Nugent, Nashville seemed like a place to return.  I thought that artist management might be the next emerging career in the Nashville music landscape. 

I partnered with a friend from my previous life in Nashville, Don Cusic, who is now a long-time professor at Belmont University, and an author of numerous books about country music artists.  We started the company with virtually no money, but we had one lone artist in a guy named Dickey Lee.

Dickey has quite a history!  He grew up in Memphis, and was an original Sun Records artist, signed by the legendary Sam Phillips.  Sam’s success with rock’s earliest stars, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and R&B artists was fundamental to the creation of rock and roll, including his work with artists such as Ike Turner and Howlin’ Wolf. 

Dickey never had a hit at Sun.  However, he did form a life-long friendship with Sam’s son Knox Phillips.  In a way, Dickey became a surrogate son to Sam, and Sam playfully always told Dickey that he owed him for not making Dickey a legend like so many other Sun artists had become.  Sam had a special place in his heart for Dickey Lee, and Sam’s lament was kind of a warm, humorous bond between them.

After Sun Records, Dickey Lee became a pop star in the early ‘60s.  His hits included the 1962 Top 10 hit “Patches” on Smash Records, and a couple of Top 20 singles over the following year or two.  There was the Dion-esk “I Saw Linda Yesterday”, and another teen-throb tragedy ballad called “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)” that was in the vein of “Patches”.  Dickey toured with all the teen stars from that era like Bobby Darien and Fabian. The Big Bopper, and Dion. 

Although Dickey didn’t write his pop hits, interestingly coinciding with his pop career, he was writing country songs.  In 1962, his song (now a country standard) “She Thinks I Still Care” became a huge country hit for George Jones.  It’s been covered a few hundred times since by other artists, and was a hit for Anne Murray and Elvis Presley, as
well.  This success as a country writer evolved for Dickey into a new career as a country artist in the late sixties.   By 1971, he had a Top 10 hit with “Never Ending Song of Love”.  Dickey had a few more Top 10 country hits over the next couple of years on RCA Records.  However, his country singles success had not translated into album sales the way the label envisioned.  By the time we began to manage Dickey in 1978, he had a very steady touring career doing country package shows, he had country chart singles and hits, but something needed to happen to jump-start album sales for his recording career.

At that point, his country fans really were unaware of his earlier pop success and his writing success (he had a few more big hits for other country artists) didn’t seem to connect with his recording career.  I suggested that maybe we should re-record his pop hits and his big songwriting hits and put them together with his best country successes
to create a complete picture of the three facets of Dickey’s musical successes.

Dickey had never been happy with how he had been imaged, as country music in those days had few even decent photographers.  Virtually no one at the labels ventured beyond creating packaging that serviceable.  Major labels had only recently even begun to explore any kind of marketing services.

We had no budget, but we found a young photographer we liked who had no track record, and he did a photo shoot with Dickey that finally captured his warmth, unending youthfulness, and some rock energy that was rare in country music in Nashville at that time.

I was trying to find every possible way to get people to better understand Dickey and respect him and enjoy him for who he was.  What else could we do to bring attention to this “Best of Dickey Lee” album?

I said to Dickey that we need to also tell his story inside this package.  We needed to get his fans more involved in his history.  We needed liner notes.  And the biggest impact I could see for us, was to get Sam Phillips to write the liner notes!

I thought it was an absolute long-shot.  Sam Phillips was this untouchable legend, virtually atop the music industry pop/rock/country hierarchy for seminal influences.  This was the man who ultimately invented rock and roll via his Sun Records label.  Would he actually pick up a pen and write a liner note for anyone?  He probably had no reason to do so.

I asked Dickey if he thought we could approach Sam to do it.  Dickey’s answer was almost disarming.  He said that Sam had always been so good to him, and always wanted to help him.  He said, “Sure.  I think Sam would do it.”

Dickey called his good friend Knox to see if his Dad would write a few kind words for Dickey’s album.  I heard back that Sam wanted to get a little better understanding of the what we were doing and that he was going to call me.  To say the least, to anticipate a call from Sam Phillips was something way over the top in my life’s expectations!  As a 28 year-old guy who knew of the legend of Sam Phillips since my
older brother spoke of his name in reverence since I was six years old; a phone call from Sam Phillips was an out-of-body experience. 

Sam called and simply asked what we were doing and what we wanted him to do.  I explained our situation with RCA, that I thought our deal there was tentative based on album sales and that pulling together all the creative elements from Dickey’s career would hopefully help us create a new energy at the label for Dickey and stimulate some new sales.  I told him how much it meant to all of us, and especially Dickey, that he was willing to write the liner notes for the album.  Sam said good-bye, and that was that.

After the call, I thought how my mind had raced when I mentioned RCA to Sam.  I guess I had some awareness that he was never happy about the legendary deal when Sam sold Elvis Presley’s recording contract to RCA for $35,000.  For any of us in the business with any sensitivity for the indie record business over the years, it is easy to understand that small record companies often are forced to make such deals to survive.  And that’s what Sam had to do.  He might not have been happy about it, but supposedly, it was a better deal than the $25,000 that Atlantic offered him for Elvis’ contract.  And before we get feeling too bad for Sam Phillips, it should be remembered that he invested some of that money in a new Memphis-based company called Holiday Inn.  Sam allegedly made hundreds of millions from that deal.

Well, a couple of weeks after my call from Sam, a large manila envelope arrived at my office.  It was early on a Monday afternoon.  I remember it well!  Dickey and his band were on the road that previous weekend.

I opened the package to find several hand-written pages that were obviously the Sam Phillips liner notes that would clearly create much needed media attention for Dickey’s “Best of” album.  I don’t think there was a cover note… just Sam’s stream-of-consciousness on behalf of Dickey.

And to my immediate horror, the first couple of sentences exploded off the page as Sam Phillips’ tirade on RCA.  Like a ton of bricks, I instantly knew we could never use this.  RCA would never LET us use this stuff.  My hands collapsed to my desk with the notebook/legal pad papers.  We didn’t have our validating stamp of approval from Sam Phillips.  My mere utterance of the name RCA must have triggered a lot of extremely bad history for Sam.

I don’t even know how much of the several sheets of handwriting I even read.  The instant I knew we had nothing for the album; the rest of the screed became a blur.  To this day, I have virtually no recollection of exact what Sam wrote, other than it was his vent toward RCA that came from the Elvis deal.

A couple of hours after I received the package, Dickey called.  He and the band were back home in Nashville, and he wanted to fill me in on the weekend’s shows and catch up on our plans for the week.  I told him we received the liner notes from Sam… and I told him they weren’t usable on the album.  I told him I would give them to him when he came by the office, which I believe happened later that day.  I never made a copy.

I’m sure Dickey was a little disappointed.  However, you see, Dickey knew Sam more like a dad or an iconic uncle.  Sam’s response was probably entirely natural to Dickey.  This unassuming, easy-going artist knew Sam Phillips in a different way.

Subsequently, RCA dropped Dickey.  His royalty account was simply too unearned as an artist, and the label never released the album.  Dickey later re-recorded everything again and put it out himself adding a few of his other favorite songs and now sells it at his live shows.  However, the Sam Phillips liner notes never surfaced.   Those liner notes are a hand-written manifesto that is a virtual Magna Carta of Rock and Roll. 

I recently had a wonderful dinner with Dickey.  We had drifted away in our different directions after that year.  Dickey has since been named to the Country Music Songwriters Hall of Fame.  In his early seventies, he’s still somehow so youthful.  He’s still one of the nicest people you could meet in this business.  He’s been engrained in the environment of music history – be it pop or rock or country all his life.  He was like a son to Sam Phillips, and Sam’s notes weren’t so earth-shaking to him.

I asked Dickey if he still had those liner notes.  He said he did “I know I have them… somewhere.”  I am sure he does, as he always was extremely well organized. 

A young friend of mine, Homer Berkowitz, who is a professor at Full Sail University, in Orlando, Florida, and I had a chat about this story a while back.  He commented that the interesting irony is these notes from Sam Phillips venting about RCA, would probably sell at auction for more money than the original sale of the Elvis Presley contract from Sun Records to RCA. 

This was Sam Phillips’ rant.  This was his response to the first famous deal in rock and roll.  This deal was legendary.  And this was his answer to it.  I’d really, really love to read those notes again.  Wouldn’t you?             
 
© 2009 by Dan Beck.  All rights reserved.

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

Living HIStory

Maybe the key to short stories is in the word short.  Keeping it short has always been a problem for me.  However, in thinking about it recently, I came to the realization that the best short story I have ever written was just seven letters long…HIStory.  I’ve reflected a lot over this past year following his death on the extraordinary opportunity that I had to know and work with Michael Jackson and to come up with the name for his double-album greatest hits.  At times, I really minimize it, because everyone who grew up listening and experiencing his career over the past four plus decades really did have an insight into him.  I also know a number of people who had as much of a relationship or more than mine with him. 

We all knew him as a child.  He was a cute little boy and super talented, and seemingly so joyful!  We knew him on Broadway in “The Wiz”.  We knew his family relationships… the brothers… the sisters… the bad relationship with his dad.  We watched him as he evolved into the biggest artist and celebrity on this planet.  We knew his friendships with Quincy and Diana, and Elizabeth, and Bubbles, and McCauley.  He took us into a new realm of “short films” as he called them, first with “Billy Jean”, and then “Beat It”, and “Thriller”. We marveled at his business instincts in buying The Beatles music publishing catalogue. He dropped our jaws when he Moonwalked on “Motown 25”.  We watched in horror as his brain caught fire in that infamous Pepsi commercial.  We speculated on his skin color and what he was doing to it.  We questioned the plastic surgeries and counted the noses.  We watched a sparkling, dynamic career sink into the mire of questions about child molestation.  We shook our heads as the plight of his fortunes as bankruptcy loomed. We heard of his battles with the corporate world.  We raised a brow to the possibility if his last tour would ever happen or bring him back.  And finally, we saw his sleepless end in a rented mansion at the hand of a rented doctor.  No one needed to be an “insider” to know Michael Jackson. 

Of course, with Michael, it didn’t end there.  There was a memorial service that he virtually wrote and produced himself and an epilogue of his final work, “This Is It.” 

My work with Michael came to a conclusion at the end of 1996, when I left Epic Records to launch V2 Records in North America for Richard Branson.  The previous six years were utterly exhausting working with The King of Pop.  After marketing the “Dangerous” album, the idea of a “Greatest Hits” emerged from the record label as the fastest way to generate more revenue from the MJ brand.  Record companies are always thinking that way.   

And while we waited on the ruminations from Michael’s camp on the next album project, I spent about 18 months putting together the “Dangerous” home video.  It was my initial experience, first-hand, of how detailed and big Michael thought.  Without Michael, we probably could have finished it in a month and spent $30,000 compiling the contents.  As it turned out, we spent about $400,000 and that year-and-a-half clearing orchestral arrangements, finding lost footage and editing and re-editing.  All of this came with a great enthusiasm from Michael.  He thought through every detail and enjoyed making every element of it.  The line producer and I were constantly on the phone, and just elusive steps from calling it a wrap for many months.  I reviewed edits and re-cuts every week for months.  I went from week to week thinking we would finish by that Friday, only to see many more Fridays come and go.   

This was, of course, just the warm-up to the Greatest Hits project.  The initial plan was for Michael to quickly record a couple of new songs that could be released as singles to drive the sales of a full album of hits.  That was somewhat the formula for many Greatest Hits packages by other artists.  However, this was Michael Jackson, and his ability to envision almost every initiative as “bigger than life”, was his life’s work.  The recording went on… and on.  And three years later, there were three studios and a team of producers and engineers working 24-7 on music for the album.  The single album Greatest Hits had expanded into a double album; one of new material and the other containing the best of his previous hits.   

David Glew, Chairman of Epic Records, became deeply immersed in getting Michael to finish the album.  He was the cheerleader and he nudged and cajoled both Michael and his manager at the time, Sandy Gallin.  Dave and I shuttled back and forth from New York to LA to keep Michael focused on finishing the album.  In the meantime, Michael was constantly looking for that next brilliant idea, that next giant breakthrough, the most unforgettable hit, to make this the biggest album of his career.   

And as the recording process moved forward, the challenges became greater.  I believe it was on Columbus Day of 1992, Michael’s attorney announced a noon press conference to address the child molestation charges that had recently arisen.  Coincidentally, I had an interview previously scheduled with the Los Angeles Times to set up the release of the Dangerous home video for the exact same hour!  Talk about a gut check after 18 months of work.  I wanted to cancel the interview, as I thought it would turn into an Epic Records response to the charges against Michael.  However, after a series of calls with Dave Glew who was with Tommy Mottola in Montauk, Long Island for the weekend, they insisted that I do the interview.  Amazingly, and almost unfathomably, the interviewer never asked me one question about it on the same day as the media exploded with coverage on the charges.   

That day really marked the beginning of what was arguably the most challenging and daunting marketing campaign a record company has ever faced.  We now had the world’s biggest superstar working on the completion of his Greatest Hits while facing the most serious and image exploding charges an artist could ever face.  The next 44 months brought me closer than ever to Michael; put me face-to-face with a sometimes enraged media, and the daunting task of building a complex marketing pyramid that looked capable of collapsing at any moment.     

Over the next couple of years, the negative media coverage of Michael continued to pile on.  Wacko Jacko became the branding that seemed to be on TV and in print on a daily basis from a media momentum that seemed hell-bent on declaring him guilty and taking Michael down. 

In the meantime, Michael seemed less than willing to defend himself to the media.  At one point, he was photographed at EuroDisney with a group of children.  In a subsequent meeting, Dave, Polly Anthony, and I, with Sandy Gallin, urged him to avoid these types of media situations as it only served to enflame the press to further trash him.   He saw it all as a concerted plot against him, and he was not going to let the media railroad him into changing his life or to abandon his commitment to the causes of children.  He was adamant.   

We were caught in the mind-bending and agonizing process of trying to make sense of all of this, to give Michael the benefit of the doubt, to support our contractual commitment to him, and try to move the creative process on his album forward.  There were countless steps as this situation evolved over the next couple of years.  However, to make this tale as succinct as possible, let’s jump ahead three years to 1995. 

As Michael’s high profile legal issues moved toward settlement, and the album came closer to completion, I asked Sandy Gallin if Michael had a name for the album.  Sandy said “No,” but why didn’t we (the record company) come up with some suggestions.  I expressed to Sandy that since this was the culmination, at that point of Michael’s solo recording career, that Michael might have some very personal thoughts on it.  However, Sandy insisted that we come back with suggestions. Maybe Sandy knew something that I didn’t, but I thought it was ridiculous that the record company was charged with coming up with a name for the album.  How impersonal can you get?  

That evening, I stopped by Dave Glew’s office, as I often did around 7 o’clock as the day’s dust settled on the issues of the various major artists I worked on.  We would pull together our thoughts, make immediate decisions, or leave the more challenging ones with Dave for further review with Mottola’s brain trust, which included Mel Ilberman and Michele Anthony.  In the case of Michael, Polly Anthony (no relation to Michele) was often a part of the discussion.  At this point in her career Polly headed Sony’s 550 Music label; but previously she had overseen Epic’s national radio promotion and still maintained a very strong personal relationship with Michael.  Polly had great instincts about Michael and knew Sandy Gallin well.  Often, the discussions in Dave’s office about Michael were Dave, Polly, and me, and that evening it was the three of us.  In many ways, it felt like Dave, Polly, and I represented the last supporters of Michael at Sony Music.  He did not represent the current musical tastes of many in the company and with his damaged image, many had moved on to the cause of new acts.  And since the costs of marketing Michael were astronomical, we often tried to keep the details out of the company’s weekly meetings and away from a young, energetic staff that was thriving on the more organic and refreshingly minimalistic campaigns for artists like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine.  Although Michael would ultimately be paying for most of the costs, the discussions about bloated video budgets often seemed old and obscene.  This was 1995 –not 1983, when Michael had ruled the international music world during “Thriller’s” record-breaking success.      

I told Polly and Dave about the conversation with Sandy, and that he wanted us to come up with a name for the album.  We talked about it really being a personal decision that should be left to Michael.  However, we felt that unless we initiated some thoughts on it, no one would push Michael to focus on the album title.  As we concluded this short conversation, Polly wistfully said, “I wish Michael had a name for his Greatest Hits as cool as Madonna’s ‘Immaculate Collection.’”  She was right.  Michael deserved to have a name that was such a unique play on words that made an indelible statement about his career.   

That night I took the Long Island Railroad home.  Polly’s words really consumed me.  Then, I started thinking about the three or four songs that Dave and I had heard in the studio on our last LA trip.  The new songs were darker.  Lyrically, Michael seemed to be answering his critics through his new music in a way he had not done in addressing the media.   

In the confusion of his response to all the allegations, I frankly did not know what to believe. What was the real story?  However, Michael was actually expressing his anger and response through his songs.  I guessed this was ‘his story’ about all of this.  Then, I thought, the second part of this double-album, the previous hits, was his musical history.  His story.  I wrote it on a legal pad and played with it.  HIStory.   

The next day, I went up to Dave’s office at some point and Polly and Dave and I met briefly.  I mentioned the HIStory idea, and it didn’t really resonate.  I also faxed a hand-written version of the idea to Sandy.  …And I never heard another word about it.  Nice try.  I thought it was pretty good, and was disappointed that no one jumped at the idea.  However, you let it go and move on.  The velocity of daily business came at such a rush that there simply was no time to linger over an idea that elicited no response.   

Several months later, the album was nearing completion.  Dave flew out to LA and heard much of the completed new material.  He came back to NYC in a lather that we needed to get concepts moving and pronto.  We had a meeting with Arnold Levine, who headed Creative Services for Sony Music.  An idea surfaced to offer a bounty of $1,500 to $2,500 to various creative people (copywriters and designers) within the company, and designers, illustrators, photographers, and ad agency people outside the company to come up with concepts for Michael’s Greatest Hits.  If an idea was accepted, then that person would be commissioned to complete the concept.  All ideas were to be sent to Nancy Donald, who was head of Design for Sony Music on the West Coast, and the person who had overseen the packaging design for previous projects for Michael.  Nancy has spearheaded a phenomenal list of album packages over the years for artists such as Barbra Streisand, Gloria Estefan, and many others.  Michael loved her for her talents, her attention to detail, her patience, her sense of humor, and her wonderful ability to prod him forward to get it all done. 

Within a couple of months, Nancy’s office was overflowing with presentations. Some were simple paintings and sketches; some were enormous murals, and some were giant books of full concepts.  A day was scheduled for us to take them all to Sandy Gallin’s office and for Nancy and Arnold to present them to Michael.  Dave and I were, of course, scheduled to be there to help move Sandy and Michael toward some conclusion.  We had amassed over 60 submissions for this meeting.   

Nancy acquired some help, I believe from a couple of college interns, and we had a van to haul all of these presentations from the Sony Music offices in Santa Monica, to Sandy’s office near La Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.  We arrived about an hour before the meeting was scheduled to load all of this material into Sandy’s conference room.  It was a huge physical job and extremely unusual.  It was a presentation that would happen only for Michael Jackson.   

And as we lugged a 5’ x 6’ painting from the basement parking garage up the elevator, down the hall, through the Gallin-Morey Management front office door into the conference room, one of Sandy’s young assistances cheerfully shouted out, “Hey Dan, isn’t it great that Michael has decided to use your HIStory idea for the cover!” 

Arnold, Nancy, and I just about dropped everything we were carrying.  We were speechless!  Stunned!  Here we were unloading over $100,000 in concepts to be reviewed with Michael in the next hour, and he had opted to use an idea I had submitted in a hand-written fax some six months earlier.  I was completely torn between an overwhelming sense of loss for what we had just spent in time and money… and the stunning thought that Michael wanted to use my simple concept. And since this was the world of Michael Jackson, I wasn’t entirely sold that what I heard was really happening!  

Along with the interns, Arnold and Nancy and I dutifully continued to unload and set up all the presentations for the meeting in silence.  I remember feeling a bit embarrassed in front of Nancy and Arnold.  They must have thought they had just been roped into a crazy MJ fire drill that was going nowhere.  When we were ready and Dave Glew and Sandy had joined us, along with some of our Epic colleagues from the West Coast, suddenly Michael appeared.  A board meeting table filled the room, but one end was pushed against a wall.  Nancy and Arnold stood at the other end to present, as the rest of us sat on either side of the long table.  Michael, all smiles, climbed atop the table and sat against the far wall.  I had occasional phone calls with Michael on various issues, but we had not discussed the concept.  I recall trying to make myself invisible in the room.  Anything I might say could be construed to having an agenda.     

The King of Pop dressed in his trademark faux military jacket with epaulets, simply giggled through the entire presentation of over 60 concepts for his double-album greatest hits.  Other than an equal ‘Hello” to each of us, Michael never directly spoke to me that day.  When Nancy and Arnold finished the presentation, Michael said how much he enjoyed them and appreciated all the work that went into them.  No decision was mentioned that day.  He didn’t latch on to any particular concept with his enormous enthusiasm, as he was wont to do.  Then, he left.   The presentation was HIStory! 

So was that the end of developing the concept?  No, this was Michael Jackson.  We were about to take a simple idea and see it grow into a 600’ statue!  How could something get so convoluted?  It was enough to make you wish he hadn’t picked your idea.  Yes, this was Michael Jackson.  You can’t make this up… there was nothing simple or short in making HIStory! 

What was so unique about Michael was that everything we did took on this larger-than-life… Over-the-top… How did we get here?  Where are we going?  Complicated… Difficult to explain… Reality all of its own.   

If you saw “This Is It”, you got a good reflection of the relentless dedication, the talent, the brilliance, and the enormous expanse of his work.  He was an amazing collaborator and a dreamer of the highest order.  In many ways he was fearless.  He was a visionary and he also had his blind side.

As utterly exhausting as it was working with him, there are many others who had experiences similar to mine.  What remains staggering to me is the passion and energy he committed to a public career that spanned some 46 years.  He didn’t compete with other artists.  Michael’s challenge was immortality.   

There are no short stories here.  Almost every situation I was in with Michael had an extraordinary element to it.  Each is a story that I could go on and on about. I have spoken to so many people who remain completely intrigued with him.  Imagine, he had a complete lifetime of extraordinarily unique experiences that happened virtually every day.  Everyone who ever met him has a story to tell.  The fact is, millions of people who consumed his music and witnessed his media all have a story about him too… because we all knew him.   …And in so many ways, we never knew him. I still find it hard to believe that I actually had the opportunity to work with him.  

It was a little stunning to pick up the New York Post as I caught the Long Island Railroad to work one morning and read a headline that exploded across the entire front page:  “Michael Jackson Makes HIStory”.  I wanted to jump out of my seat and tell everyone on that train car “I wrote that!"  But by the time the album actually came out on June 20, 1996, I was over it–exhausted by the giant slog it had taken to make HIStory.  Michael for his part rarely seemed fatigued by the enormous effort required to create and sustain his career.  Frankly, I cannot imagine the weight of it.   

The media will be all over “his story” in the next couple of weeks as we approach the anniversary of his untimely death… or was it timely?  It’s as though he orchestrated the ending.  Was it his extraordinary sense of timing, of theater itself?  His life was a story cut short… but you and I know it will be written about for generations to come.  

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

Ted Nugent: Parental Warnings Are Just Ducky

Epic TeamPushing the boundaries of socially acceptable expression has been a controversy that has been fueled by the artistic community throughout history.  Sculptures, writers, painters, poets, filmmakers and comedians have all pushed the envelope of the public comfort zone.  Music, of course, has had its own prominence in expanding political discourse, inciting political change, and exploring social taboos.   Part of my passion for contemporary music, as with many of the people with whom I share a generation, has been its ability to bring forward important issues through song lyrics.  The issues of civil rights and the peace movement were obviously punctuated and profiled by artists such as Curtis Mayfield and John Lennon in a way that inspired phenomenal change in our thinking and our societies’ direction.  However, challenging acceptability is not just a thing for Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Marvin Gaye.  It’s also the domain of Redd Foxx, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dog, and Slayer.   As entertainment expanded and liberalized the commercial expression of sex, drug use, and violence over the past half century, music has, of course, been a prominent vehicle.   

When you look back on the music that was banned in the ‘50’s or was considered revolutionary in the ‘60’s it is beyond mild by today’s standards… or lack of standards.  As music and other aspects of creative expression have become more fragmented, aggressive, diverse, and often self-serving, some of the efforts to corral it or police it seem to be limp or helpless efforts today. 

As a major label marketing person, my many colleagues and I had to grapple with the issue of the Parental Warning sticker.  It became a political tool that some naively thought would save our  children from the evils of society.  Although it is still in use today – even in the digital music world – the meaning of it, for the most part, has long since faded. 

Scream DreamI have to admit (should I go there?) that I was likely the first person to ever create a warning sticker for an album.  I believe it was for Ted Nugent’s “Scream Dream” album.  If there is an earlier one, I am not aware of it.  I worked with Ted in several capacities, from 1975, when he was signed as a solo artist to Epic Records into the early ‘80’s.  We became good friends in those first couple of years as the Epic publicity department engineered a phenomenal media campaign that was pivotal to Ted’s launch into guitar god stature.  Susan Blond, Pat Siciliano, Glen Brunman, Carol Bork, Eric Van Lustbader and I, along with his management publicist, Laura Kaufman, had a brilliant time positioning Ted into media situations that he completely loved and slam dunked. As his career grew, I later joined Ted’s management firm, Leber-Krebs, Inc., and became his music publisher.  By 1979, I had returned to Epic and in my role in the Epic marketing department, became Ted’s product manager, and worked together on the gold “State of Shock album.  

Dan & TedIn putting together the album packaging and marketing campaign for his next album, “Scream Dream”, I had the occasion of reviewing the lyrics to all the songs.  I think we were trying to figure out if they should be printed inside.  Ted’s lyrics were often cartoonish, sometimes funny, and were nothing that should be taken too seriously.  Ted, even in his strong convictions, always seemed to apply a sense of humor to it.  We liked to give album buyers as much value as we could find, so if re-printing the lyric seemed worthwhile and not too redundant, we would probably do it.  It was in this review that I discovered a lyric that included a violent act against a Catholic nun.  I remember being surprised, as Ted often wrote sexually explicit lyrics, but I hadn’t remembered any overtly violent ones.  I think the song was called “Violent Love”, but I have been unable to find those lyrics online to correlate it.   

I have never felt that it was my right to deem what is socially appropriate.  I do, however, believe that a consumer should be given information to let them know what they are buying.  Because these lyrics were pretty extreme in 1980, I also felt that the album might create a ‘returns’ problem at retail, with parents bringing the album back.  Such disruption was not something that our retail accounts liked.  On that basis, I had the very individual thought that a sticker might be appropriate.  If my porous memory serves me right, I believe the copy I wrote was something like “This album may contain lyrics that may be objectionable to some consumers”.   If that’s not correct, it is fairly close to the sticker that ultimately was included on the cover.   

As political as the entire PRMC (Parents Music Resource Center) issue became after Guns & Guitarsits launch in 1984, the decision to include this first warning sticker several years prior was a very simple one.  I went to my boss at the time, Ron McCarrell, and told him of the lyric, the issue I thought might arise at the retail level, and my suggested copy for the sticker.  He thought it made common sense, approved it, but ran it by Epic’s label head Don Dempsey, simply so that Don was aware of what we were doing.  In the meantime, I informed Ted’s manager, David Krebs, who I had worked for and remained friends.  As any good manager, David was furious.  He had never heard of such a thing and didn’t think his artist needed to be singled out.  However, when I explained my concern about the possibility of returns, he acquiesced.  I never heard if Ted really cared either way about it.  Frankly, I doubt that it would be a big concern to him.   

Over the next couple of years, albums occasionally were stickered for content in much the same way as we did on that first one.  However, by 1985, a movement was in full swing and local obscenity laws became a major issue for music retail stores across the country.  Now, even one curse word might be considered offensive under local laws and the major chains, especially Wal-Mart began applying major pressure on the record labels to disclose any questionable lyrical content.  Wal-Mart was feeling the local pressure more than any other retailer.  This was all political cover-your-butt business, but meetings abounded internally to evaluate if a sticker was needed at every label as this political issue expanded.  Acts were advised to remove a gratuitous curse word, to avoid being excluded from being positioned at Wal-Mart. Everyone was overreacting.  

Dan & Ted 2However, what happens when you start legislating morality?  Usually, it only encourages people to push the envelope further.  As heavy metal and gangsta rap artists moved forward, they were compelled to make sure their albums were stickered.  If they weren’t, it was a sign they weren’t heavy enough, edgy enough, or gangsta enough.  The Parental Warning sticker became a marketing badge for edgy artists.  The “clean” versions of albums, often massively bleeped, found their way into retail to assure that sanitized aggressive music could still be conveniently racked across America.  What a convoluted pile of junk.  It never solved the social values issues and nade most of these albums utterly unlistenable.   

Sometime in the mid to late ‘80’s, I was made the representative from Epic on the R.I.A.A.’s marketing committee.  The committee was chaired by Hilary Rosen, who had the unenviable job to try to make sense of the Parental Advisory sticker.  At the first and only meeting I ever attended, Hilary raised the issue of trying to revise the copy of the sticker to have it make more sense and perhaps better represent the responsibility of the industry on the issue of consumer awareness.  There must have been 20 major label marketing executives in attendance.  We were the supposed marketing geniuses millions of album sales.  However, after several hours of discussion, the meeting degenerated into a discussion of how large the sticker should be.  Somehow the simple idea of disclosing the content of a product had devolved into a stupid political tool that was manipulated and used by the most liberally offensive creators of content and also the most conservative censurers of free expression.  I’m so sorry I ever had the thought! 
 

Today, as I watch the news on television and as I explore it online, I had the thought TEDthat we should have a sticker to warn everyone that not all the news we are getting is fact.  You know, just something simple to provide a little consumer awareness!  Then, I thought about how the truth about the truth might be manipulated.  Might that lead to the PTRC (The Parent Truth Resource Center)?  Then, maybe people would start bleeping out the obvious distortion of facts, which would sound pretty annoying.  We would also then have people reach the point where they didn’t care if they heard the truth, but just want to hear what they want. It’s 30 years later.  I think I’ll give up on stickers! 

One side note to this story:  Interestingly, we never heard one, single, solitary complaint regarding the violent lyric directed toward nuns on that album.  No organization came to the defense of those poor sisters.  No parent called us.  No priest wrote us.  We heard not one peep about it!   

Conversely, my old friend Ted once sent me a smoked duck for Christmas.  He had it sent to my office and it arrived on Christmas Eve.  Unfortunately, I had left for vacation the day before and like almost everyone in the music business, I didn’t return to the office until after the New Year.  Upon arriving on the 12th floor of the CBS Records upon my return, everyone was in turmoil about this unbelievably rank odor coming from my locked office.  We had the two-week old smoked duck removed, but it was the talk of the building that entire day.  For weeks, people talked about how offensive Ted Nugent was for sending me that duck!  Folks, that was a nice Christmas present from the Nuge! 

I guess it is all a lesson in the complications and futility of effectively responding to social values in our mass market society.  Sometimes it just has the aroma of a two-week old smoked duck.   

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

Social Networking Without A Net: The Indigo Girls “Rites of Passage”

The indigo girls, with no caps, always seemed to understate their success.  Finding their audience looked easy, but before the advent of online marketing, the challenges were formidable.  Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, in caps, have made significant contributions to contemporary music over the years through their folk, pop, rock harmonies, melodies and lyric.  When Epic signed them in 1988, through the enthusiasm of Roger “Snake” Klein, the label got a duo that had already established themselves as a sustainable touring act in an arc from the Carolinas through the mid-South on campuses, small theaters, and collegiate bars.  

Along with building this live fanbase, the girls sold an EP and later the album “Strange Fire” independently to where there was momentum for a major label to accelerate the process.  They also came to Epic with a song on a new, unreleased album called “Closer To Fine.”  Although slightly passed college themselves, they really represented the college marketplace of the mid-to-late ‘80’s.  In the marketing department, we were instantly excited about them, as they provided so much of a set-up for us to build upon.   

The mid ‘80s at Epic had been populated by arena rock bands and many pop hits that were the staples of contemporary radio at the time.  Often, the marketing department toiled in support of the promotion department’s success at radio.  Many times, these artists were not the most cutting-edged from an image standpoint.  The indigo girls gave us an act that was smart, lyrical, and provocative in their own way, with a regional touring base we could leverage.   There were enough tools for the marketing department to create a case for the promotion department.  John Doelp was a product manager on my staff who had risen out of the finance department.  However, he had a history of producing independent records during his college days in Boston.  I assigned the project to John and worked as his back-up through this first record.  It was one of his early successes that have led to a long and illustrious career at Sony Music.  John established a wonderful relationship with Amy and Emily that provided them enough of a basis of trust within the company to get their participation in the marketing activities we needed from them.   

The girls’ image was also more like a rock band, so we could shoot music videos more in that style, rather than gearing up the ‘glam squad’ that was essential for the images of female pop artists such as Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, or Sade.  There was less pressure, less money, and less risk in creating a video for MTV and VH-1.  Although, we always seemed to feel the pressure to deliver on every act.   

Because they could perform acoustically, Amy and Emily gave us the cost effective ability to transport them to key promotional opportunities, whether that was a radio programmers conference or a retail chain’s convention.  Although they didn’t necessarily love the promotional work deemed important by a major label, they were genuine in their likability, and generally good sports about doing the promotional roadwork.  Their manager, Russell Carter, although mild-mannered, always stood firmly when the glad-handing requests would go beyond their character.  Russell and John Doelp coordinated their efforts and left no stone unturned with the Sony field staff and every Epic department.   

All this led to a hit album, a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and nearly a Best New Artist Grammy.  However, Milli Vanilli somehow scored that one, and although later forfeited, I don’t believe the Grammy was ever given to another deserving nominee.  During this time, we also re-packaged their independent album and EP, and the indigo girls were proving to be a very profitable and rewarding endeavor for Epic Records.  

The success continued through 1990, with the release of the “Nomads, Indians, and Saints” album.  It went gold behind the success of their biggest radio track to that point with “Hammer and Nail”.  Amy and Emily continued to build their touring base.  Russell had worked with an extremely dedicated agent, Frank Riley, to alternate acoustic shows with touring a full band.  They worked creatively with the girls, doing shows with guests and friends joining them, performing for meaningful causes and charities, and other unique approaches that were endearing, reaffirming, and connective to the fans.  I remember one club tour where the first fan in line got to write the set list for the night! 

Through this success, one internal issue stood out to us.  The two great songs that had surfaced successfully at the Modern Rock radio format had not crossed significantly to pop radio.  These songs, as great as they were, did not come easily for our promotional people.  These were labeled “work records”, and as such, were not necessarily looked upon with positive anticipation from the promotion staff.  The other telling sign was that only one song each from the first two albums actually charted at Modern Rock.  It was almost like the programmers were saying “Okay, we gave you one track, now go away.”  MTV and VH-1, often considered to be programmed much like large radio stations, by people who actually came from radio, were also a bit non-plus to the “plain” image the girls presented.  We sometimes complained that our promotion department listened too much to the people to whom they promoted.  However, you should hear the complaints they had about us in the marketing department! 

In 1992, things continued to change.  The girls were now a little further away from actually being college students.  They were maturing as artists, but we were dealing with an unforgiving marketplace.  “Image” was an underlying concern at the label.  John Doelp had moved over to Epic’s A&R Department, and I felt it was imperative that I personally product manage the project.  They had earned the right to work with someone with experience and leverage in our marketing system and with someone they knew.   

The new album was called “Rites of Passage” and the lead track was a stunningly warm and smart song that Emily had written and sung, called “Galileo”.  I got an amazingly gifted and extremely successful commercial director named Mark Fenske to shoot the video.  He was not used to making low-priced music videos, and he was as stubborn creatively as any director I have ever worked with.  At the same time, I personally liked him very much and I so appreciated his genuine enthusiasm for the girls.  His concept was fresh in using printed lyrics as a graphic design, in a whimsical and painterly way, to emphasize the artistry and poetry of the song.   

Fortunately, we started the video production process a few months before the album came out, because I struggled mightily to get Mark to finish the video.  We were very near a final edit that needed a couple of tweaks to solve some creative issues.  I made a couple of simple problem-solving suggestions that weren’t really invasive, but to my amazement, Mark took offense to them and refused to finish the video.  We argued on the phone for days and I begged him to make these very tiny adjustments to finish, but with no luck.  I actually had to fly to LA, go to his office/studio, and complete the final edit with a member of his team.  Mark didn’t come in that day and I never saw him again.  In the meantime, we made these small edit adjustments in literally a couple of minutes.  His staff seemed extremely comfortable with the changes.  Ultimately, we had a GREAT video that was 99.9% the brilliance of this uniquely talented director. 

However, one of the issues that arose while I was wrestling with the video was a concerned promotion department.  They knew that any indigo girls’ song at radio was a struggle.  There was some fear that radio would fight us even harder this time, despite the wonderful quality of the song. So perhaps the enthusiasm was there, but they knew they faced a brutal uphill battle to get “Galileo” played.  Listening to the song today, few would imagine that this warm melody and brilliant lyric would face such trepidation.  

We wanted promotion to lead our campaign with “Galileo” at radio about 5 to 6 weeks in front of the in-store date for the album to set up a meaningful sales surge the first week.  This would give us momentum in these very early days of Soundscan, which had only started at the end of 1991. Even in those early days of actual scanned sales, first week sales were proving to be a key perception factor to sales, promotion, and marketing momentum in the immediate weeks after release. 

However, promotion remained extremely concerned about our chances at radio.  They reversed the scenario, and said they could not get meaningful traction at Modern Rock unless we could show real retail strength when the album hit stores on May 12, 1992.  So our 5 or 6 week lead at radio was not going to have much impact on sales.  Add to this that our promotion people had gotten the read from MTV and VH-1, that they were not prepared to lead on the project and wanted to see some significant airplay before they would add a video.  At this point, no one had a great deal of faith in how powerful the video could be.  And I was still wrestling with Mark to get it done.   

The good news was that we knew the indigo girls had a loyal fan base.  However, without radio, traditionally the primary marketing driver for most campaigns, how were we going to connect with this fan base? 

Obviously, we had some significant supporters among the music press.  Our press department could assure us that a number of important album reviews could be timed to help us with the first week of sales.  Lisa Markowitz was the publicist, and she had a long and consistently successful history of working the press for Amy and Emily.  She knew every writer in the country who could help.    The girls could also do a number of key interviews.  However, press coverage was never considered an end-all-be-all solution to actual sales.  Press worked best in conjunction with other marketing efforts.  A strong profile at retail, radio airplay, press, and touring combined was the best solution.  Touring was certainly a fundamental tool in this case, but it worked over the long haul and would only help us in a couple of markets in the first week’s Soundscan.   

What would happen today?  Clearly, the set-up possible on the Internet is the pervasive, timely, most targeted, and cost-effective tool possible.  Unfortunately, in the spring of 1992, the net was incubating at a stage unknown to the general public.  We were still a paper pushing, postage stamp licking world.  No cell phone catalyst.  No texting.  No email database.  No websites.   No mobile phone network.

…But we needed to network!  We needed to socially connect.  The indigo girls had an audience.   How could we get enough of that audience, in a concerted effort, to purchase the album the first week of release?  We couldn’t afford to buy radio spots across the country.  I believe we schedule a flight of spots on MTV or VH-1 or both.  However, their core fans of college students and the gay audience was not necessarily glued to those music channels.     

All we needed to do was to tell these fans the album was coming, the day it would be in the stores, and the title.   

I went to Yvonne Erikson, a long-time friend and associate, who was VP of Advertising for Sony Music.  Many of my contemporaries at the time often felt that we could never advertise enough to really sell through an album.  Advertising was just another compliment to a marketing mix of tools, but still lead by radio airplay. 

I had an idea and thankfully, Yvonne found a way to execute it.  I wanted to place hundreds, even thousands, of classified ads in the personal sections of college newspapers and gay lifestyle publications.  My copy read: 

Rites of Passage of Rites of Passage of Rites of Passage.  The indigo girls.  The new album in-store May 12, 1992.  Then, we listed a 1-800 number. 

The phone was a simple message from the girls about the album and the songs and the guest musicians who played on it.  The caller could actually leave a message. 

Yvonne and I spent somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000 on classified ads.  I spent a few thousand more for the 800 number and the in-bound costs.  We placed hundreds upon hundreds of ads in hundreds of college and alternative newspaper classifieds.   The ads started running about three weeks before the album street date. Yvonne and her staff worked through a placement service called C.A.S.S. that was in existence then.  However, the personal work they put into making this happen remains remarkable to me to this day.    

By end of May, we had received over 18,000 calls and knew that our classifieds had reached many thousand more students across the nation.  Remember, these calls probably came from dorm pay phones… college students didn’t have cell phones then.  The album sold over 35,000 the first week and debuted at #21 on the Billboard album charts, the highest album chart position to that point in their career.  My phone went crazy from inside and outside the company.  Everyone was asking how we had debuted so high with so little airplay.  I remember the independent radio promotion czar Jeff McCluskey coming to my office doorway the day the Soundscan numbers came out saying “How the hell did you guys do that?” 

The first week’s sales numbers stunned everyone.  This gave our promotion people the leverage to aggressively present the case for the artist at radio.  The great part is that “Galileo” really kicked in at Modern Rock radio and became Amy and Emily’s highest ever charting track at #10.  The great Mark Fenske video also joined our package of tools and the album went gold.

So we were flying without a Net! 

In those days prior to social networking and online connectivity, we knew we had to connect one-on-one with an audience that was there for the artist.  It was an unconscious realization of how it should happen.  The issue was that the technology simply didn’t exist.      

I remember suggesting in a marketing meeting that this particular approach might have simply been right for Amy and Emily and might not fit other artists, particularly those without a core audience who had more of a radio base.  We, of course, immediately tried it again on some rock band who I’ve now forgotten.  Like everything then, and now, we tend to fall into that intellectually lazy place where we think one size fits all.   Today, we have online successes… and we have artists that just don’t resonate.  The organic issues of music, artist, and audience remain the same.  

As I look at it today, the phenomenal potential to target niches, time a campaign, create multiple impressions, convey sound, pictures, present purchase options, and every other bevy of content that exists, it simply reminds me of the indigo girls’ album title.  Rites of Passage of Rites of Passage of Rites of Passage… 

…And if you looked through Galileo’s telescope, would the Internet revolve around the music or would the music revolve around the Internet?   

“How long will it take my soul to get it right?” 

Dan Beck 

P.S. – Amy and Emily still make great music.  Their website is www.indigogirls.com

               

               

               

               

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)