Monday, February 21, 2011
One of the purposes of this blog is to show why the recording industry just doesn't get it anymore. Everything pertaining to the business of making records has become so ridiculously expensive (studio time, promotion, paying off the right people) that having a shot in the music biz has become akin to hitting the lottery. This isn't 1963 anymore, when a group of guys could walk into a studio with their instruments (and a bottle of Night Train) and cut a couple of sides in an hour or two for next to nothing. When all you needed was something that sounded good, maybe different enough to sell. When a record company was willing to buy the master for 50 bucks and take a chance at the Top Ten. Today, the industry is completely different (except for the corruption, which was always there). Record companies are run by accountants, not music people. An accountant doesn't care how a record sounds; his job is to tally up the sales numbers. He doesn't care if it's a 70-minute CD of a guy vomiting - the more it sells, the more of a hit it is. I knew a guy who was a former accountant for CBS Records in New York in the 1980s whose sole purpose was to take the sales figures of artists signed to CBS Records who didn't sell squat (squat meaning less than 100,000 copies) and add them to Mariah Carey's sales totals to make her look better on the charts. Funny thing, Mariah had like eight straight #1 hits until she and Tommy Mottola got divorced, and how many has she had since? Hmmmm......
Remember the old Gordy Records slogan? "It's What's In The Grooves That Count". Now the opposite is true. Everything counts EXCEPT what's in the grooves. You need the right promotion team, the right management team, the right production team, the right stylists for your "look", the right corporate sponsor - notice I've mentioned everything except THE RIGHT SONG. Because that doesn't matter anymore. Pop records don't have real melodies and "hooks" anymore - now it's some guy rapping over a beat that he ripped off from some LP from the 1970s with a hundred or so guest vocalists (Don't believe me? Go buy a copy of Billboard and look at the charts - every artist will be "So-and-So Featuring MC So-and-So and The So-and-So Mob with Special Appearance by So-and-So and Sting"). I'm not against rap. I'm against BAD rap, like I'm against BAD rock or BAD folk or BAD Adult Contemporary. I mean, c'mon, the first time you heard Puff Daddy (or P. Diddy or Diddy or Piddly or whatever the hell that joker's calling himself these days) and his "remix" of The Police's "Every Breath You Take" called "I'll Be Missing You", didn't YOU think to yourself, "Wow, what a rip-off! Even I could do that!"? YES! Because you COULD do that! ANYBODY could do that! Why was this such a big record? Because Piddly had the right people behind him, and he knew how to play the game. P. Diddy is a great businessman. He's NOT a musician, or a producer, or a singer, or a rapper, or an artist, but a great businessman.
The simple truth is this: the music industry doesn't have the time, or patience, to put up with an artist who may make great music but won't sell in massive quantities. There's no such thing as artist development. If your first LP doesn't sell at least a million copies, you might as well go home. Because there's too much money at stake to screw around with an artist, because of the ridiculous expense of studio time, promotion, etc. Besides, if there's one thing record company heads HATE, it's a pesky artist who - GASP! - wants a say in the music they're making. So it's much easier to get someone who is willing to sound like whatever's popular and is a bit quirky and has their own "fashion sense" and their own "look" which will get people talking about the "artist" and therefore sell LOTS of CDs that are filled with garbage that a computerized drum machine can snore up (if this sounds like I'm talking about Lady Gaga's career, well, that's purely coincidental).
Which brings us to today's selection. I doubt Kar Simone knew anything about the music business or image cultivation or record promotion. He probably didn't know how to tie his shoes properly, at least judging by this record. Listen to "I Want" and dream about what today's music CEO's would think of it - they'd probably run in terror, or laugh poor Kar right out of the room - "We can't possibly release this, it's got the wrong title, it doesn't have the correct bpm for the clubs, we never heard of the producer, and, most of all, even though we pride ourselves as being pacesetters in the industry, it doesn't sound like Lady Gaga! Actually.....it doesn't even sound......uh......human.......can someone call security??"
That's why I love old records. I'm no nostalgia or "oldies" freak. It's just that the record industry was a lot more accessible in those days, and, as a result, a lot of people who had no business being in a recording studio got their chance to put their particular strangeness on tape. The best part was that there was almost always some weird little record company that was willing to put it out on wax.
Cleopatra Records was about as little (and weird) as you could get. Started by an accordion player named Tommy Falcone in 1963, this label/production company produced some of the strangest singles to ever come out of New York, such as "Hong Kong Baby" by The Tabbys (which, like "I Want", has to be heard to be believed) and "For Your Love" by The Reminiscents (on the surface, a doo-wop group doing the old Ed Townsend tune; turns out it was one guy overdubbing himself - badly). Falcone's wife posed for the logo, dressed in an old Halloween costume. Most of the label's production duties were handled by Tommy and his partner, Gino Viscione. The label stopped releasing singles in 1964, but the production company soldiered on for a few more years (producing such singles as "Local Town Drunk" by The Inmates on Columbia in 1966, and "Candy Andy" - the only "bubblegum" song about a child molester - by The Shoestring on 20th Century-Fox in 1968). Unfortunately, none of Falcone's ventures in the music business ever translated to big money, and he reportedly died at the tragically young age of 40 from a heart attack after coming off stage at an accordion concert (!!!).
Of all the 45s Cleopatra put out, none was stranger than "I Want" by Kar Simone. The first time I played it, I just stared at my turntable in shock. I said at the time that it sounded like Lou Christie meets Tiny Tim at a Greek wedding. I still think that's the best description of the sound that emanates from this disk. A few years ago I had the pleasure of corresponding with the daughter of Gino Viscione, who gave me a few interesting tidbits about Cleopatra Records, and she hit me with this wowser - the drummer on "I Want" is none other than BUDDY RICH. Yes, THAT Buddy Rich!!! Seems that the original drummer slated for the session didn't show up, and Buddy was recording in a nearby studio, so on his break he came over and did this session for extra pocket money! Today, two managers, three agents and a team of lawyers would need to "advise" Buddy before he could set foot in the studio.
So today's lesson is: sometimes keeping out the "riff-raff" can also keep out the creativity. Kar Simone had absolutely NO chance of having a hit record, but he tried anyway. Tommy Falcone had NO chance of ever selling this record to anyone, but he tried anyway. The very least you could say is that THESE FOLKS TOOK A CHANCE. Which is way more than can be said about the cowards that run the music industry today.
Kar Simone - I Want (Cleopatra 103) - 1963
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
This is not only the story of the great Buddy Holly, but of the business machinations (aka greed) that drove poor Buddy, Ritchie and Big onto that plane. It is also the story of how a country was so taken with the sound of the young man from Lubbock, Texas that it almost singlehandedly based its entire rock and roll music industry on him (and, of course, it wasn't the good old USA). There's also a creepy side of the story, which will also be told here.
We all know Buddy's story. Born in Lubbock, Texas on September 7, 1936, he and his group, The Crickets, became a sensation with their Brunswick single "That'll Be The Day" (which, by the way, was the first record played by Dick Clark on "American Bandstand" when the show went national). Hit after hit folllowed, not only under the Crickets' name, but also under Buddy Holly's own name (I've still never found an explanation of why or how this happened), but by mid-1958 The Crickets had broken up due to Buddy's desire to move to New York (and get away from producer Norman Petty). In early 1959 Buddy decided to go on tour with General Artists' Corporation's "Winter Dance Party" to make some extra money (since he and his new wife had a baby on the way). Unfortunately, after a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy chartered a plane so he wouldn't have to take the long, 435 mile bus ride to Moorhead, Minn. for the next date. The plane was originally for just Buddy and his group, but The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens wanted in, so the members of Buddy's group gave up their seats (Ritchie Valens got the seat by winning a coin toss; The Big Bopper got his because he was nursing a head cold and, being a big guy, couldn't get comfortable in the bus seats). The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, and the rest is history.
Unfortunately, though, the story isn't that simple. Buddy's move to New York was precipitated by a falling out with Norman Petty. Petty was not only Buddy's producer, but also the Crickets' manager. Petty kept Buddy and the boys on a tight allowance, to say the least, while constantly promising that everyone would get their fair share "when things settled down". The excellent book "Remembering Buddy" by John Goldrosen and John Beecher (Omnibus Press, 1996) explains a lot of the details of the relationship between Petty and Buddy. On a more personal note, Buddy's new wife, Maria Elena Santiago, was Puerto Rican, and in Lubbock, Texas in 1958, a white man marrying a Puerto Rican just didn't happen. Additionally, Maria knew a LOT about the music business - her aunt was head of the Latin music division of Peer-Southern Music, one of the largest publishing companies in the US. In fact, Maria was working there as a receptionist when she met Buddy. Maria saw that Buddy wasn't exactly getting the greatest deal from Norman Petty, and encouraged Buddy to ask for an accounting. Petty (of course) got very insulted, and that played a major part in the Crickets' breakup.
Unfortunately, the tussle with Petty left Buddy Holly in a very bad position - a lot of his royalties were being held up, and by December, 1958, the move to New York, Buddy's dwindling stature in the industry (his latest records weren't the huge hits his earlier ones had been), and his now-pregnant wife all contributed to the decision to go on that last, fateful tour in early 1959. He needed the money. He shouldn't have had to do the tour, but he did.
Things got worse from there. The organization of the tour was, to say the least, lacking in professionalism. General Artists Corporation's Irving Feld was a greedy bastard (aren't all promoters?) who wanted to maximize his profit margin, so he sent Buddy, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion and The Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo on a grueling 24-city tour - for three weeks. That's eight cities a week. Today most groups tour 24 cities in three months. Feld also compounded the tour's problems by providing the transportation - an old, rickety bus with an intermittently working heater. In the North Midwest. In January. Shame on you, Irving Feld. Needless to say, the haphazard schedule and the constantly-breaking-down bus took its toll - by the second week, the performers' clothes were desperately in need of a cleaning, the Big Bopper had gotten sick, and nothing could be done about it because there was no time before the shows to GET anything done. Buddy Holly was a take-charge type of guy. He knew this couldn't go on. So he chartered a private plane to get him to the next city earlier than the bus would have gotten him there - not because he was THE STAR, but because he wanted time to get some desperately needed sleep, to get some laundry done, and to take care of other tour business that Irving Feld couldn't possibly care less about.
And three stars ended up dead.
The news hit the American public like a ton of bricks. But, like most American news, it was quickly forgotten about. A new crop of teen idols soon popped up, most of them named Bobby (in fact, one of them, Bobby Vee, got his start by playing at the concert in Moorhead on February 4, 1959), and Buddy Holly was quickly forgotten, for the most part, in the USA. His record label, Coral, continued to release singles, but they all died a quick death. Buddy Holly was a has-been in the USA.
In Great Britain, however, it was a different story. Holly actually charted more singles in England after his death than before the plane crash. British singers such as Brian Poole and Freddie Garrity began to model their stage appearance on Holly's, complete with glasses. Adam Faith was one of many Holly sound-alikes to hit the British charts. A young group named themselves The Beatles in honor of The Crickets. Another group named themselves The Hollies. Buddy Holly fan clubs in Britain numbered in the hundreds. He became as well-known across the pond as Elvis was in America!
Now, the creepy part. Shortly after Holly's death, a record producer started his own studio and label at his flat in London. His name was Joe Meek. Meek became a sought-after producer during the mid-60s because of his otherworldly production style; his biggest hits include "Have I The Right" by The Honeycombs and "Telstar" by The Tornadoes. Meek was a genius; he was also a loony. He had an unhealthy obsession with Buddy Holly, telling friends that Buddy spoke to him from beyond the grave. When Meek's business partner, Geoff Goddard, wrote a song called "Tribute To Buddy Holly", Meek recorded it with a singer he knew, Mike Berry, and released it in England in November, 1961. It became a sizeable hit, and Meek was on his way. But Meek's obsession continued on, and on the 8th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death - February 3, 1967 - Meek celebrated by killing his landlady with a shotgun and then blowing his own brains out. Makes Phil Spector seem like a dream date, doesn't he?
So, to conclude, a year and a half (December, 1962, to be exact) after "Tribute To Buddy Holly" became a hit in England, the folks at US Coral woke up and decided to release the record in the US. It flopped, of course, but it stands as a fascinating monument to a fascinating performer....and a REALLY weird producer.
Mike Berry - Tribute To Buddy Holly (Coral 62341) - 1962