COLUMN EIGHTY-FOUR, FEBRUARY 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
'THE DUMB SOUND'
CAROLE KING AND GERRY GOFFIN IN 1963
(Photo by John Lynch)
[The following, written for The Saturday Evening Post in August 1963, was trimmed down to fit in the pages of the magazine by Bill Ewald, one of the few editors whose genius we salute. Ewald's bosses had little regard for pop music, however, and were delighted to be able to call what they printed, "The Dumb Sound."]
upon a time, in an era during which some looked upon The Pop Record Business as
black magic and others saw it as a fairy tale, a seventeen-year-old colored girl
named Eva Boyd applied for a job that both she and her employers delicately
agreed to refer to as baby-sitter. Under the conditions of her employment, she
was to sleep-in, dust, polish, clean, pick up and otherwise maintain an
apartment of five rooms and one toilet, but the title of her job, she still
insists with a dark, fiery pride, was baby-sitter?at thirty-five dollars a
Whether condemned by the ossified
as practitioners of black magic or whether characters in a new and emerging
fairy tale, the girl's employers were sorcerers?a husband-and-wife team of
sorc rers. They made magic by putting her music together with his words.
Right from the start, they
enchanted their new baby-sitter. While
the lady of the house, a girl only two years the baby-sitter's senior, walked
about the apart?ment bouncing her daughter to the rhythm of new melodies being
born in her head, the baby-sitter dusted, polished, cleaned and picked up to the
same bounce. Sometimes she even
learned the songs and sang them almost before her employers had finished writing
The lady of the house was Carole
King and the baby-sitter was Eva Boyd. And one day, as Carole sat conjuring up a
new tune, Eva went so far as to invent a dance to it.
"What you're doing reminds me of a locomotive!" exclaimed
Carole's 22-year-old husband and songwriting partner. His name was Gerry
Goffin and he'd been watching Eva dance.
Then, poof! In a cloud of smoke?because Gerry
was chained to cigarettes?he used his magic wand?a pencil'to write words
on a pad. Abracadabra! And lyrics appeared describing Eva's dance.
Sorcerers Carole King and Gerry Goffin had just conjured up a song called The
Sorcerers Carole and Gerry turned Eva Boyd into Little Eva, a pop music
princess. How? They took her to a studio and recorded her singing that very
song, The Loco-Motion. The record sold more than a million copies,
earning Eva Boyd approximately thirty thousand dollars, her own four-room
apartment in Brooklyn and immortality in that chronicle of passing fancies, the
record pop charts.
The Loco-Motion also earned her sorcerer employers, Mr. and Mrs.
Gerald Coffin, approximately half of the sixty thousand dollars they collected
for their sorcery that year, enabling them to hire a baby-sitter to replace Eva
The moral of this fairy tale is that anybody
can become a prince or a princess in The Pop Record Business if he's got the
magic. He or she, that is. This is a fairy tale of zipper workers, golden gloves
champions, dress rack pushers, schoolteachers, skin divers, plumbers,
broncobusters, bus boys, waitresses, ninth grade pupils, and not just
black magic or not, Adam
Wade was working as a lab technician for Dr. Jonas Salk when a sorcerer friend
asked for help in cutting a demo. Cassius
Clay was the top contender for the heavyweight boxing championship when Columbia
Records signed him. Brook Benton
used to think up lyrics while driving a truck. Sometimes he'd double-park the
truck outside a music publisher's office so he could rush upstairs with his
latest creation. And Fabian, in one of the classic legends of this new and
emerging fairy tale, was a duck-tailed juvenile when an aspiring manager
heaven-bent on finding what the trade calls a "property," discovered
Fabian sulking on a South Philadelphia stoop.
"Can you sing?"' the manager
all right," said manager. "You look like a singer," and a singer is
what Fabian became.
point," explains one record company executive, "is that outside of
records, there are no other boulevards to success in show business.
A record is the last launching pad a kid has left if he wants to shoot
for the stars. Vaudeville died and
nobody can even find the grave. I
think the nightclub business is buried in the same cemetery.
Burlesque went the way of all flesh, and that used to be a big spawning
ground for talent.
Belt was Break-insville for more names than you can shake a marquee at, but now
is only interested in big potatoes, name acts, stars. And even in TV, the screen's becoming too small for new
faces. The weekly variety shows,
outside of a few, are going the way of Vaudeville and burlesque.
And even if you want to get on a TV show, any producer worth his
shades'the first question he asks a kid is "What you got on record? What
records you got going for you?? In other words, the record business has become
the quickest and surest way of breaking into show business itself."
Probably the most recent and outstanding example of just such a magical
materialization is that of Little Peggy March, who has become certainly as big
as Little Eva.
Once upon a time, in fact only several months ago, Little Peggy was a
fourteen?-year-old freshman in the uniform of a Philadelphia parochial school,
requiring special permission from the nuns every time she was hired to sing at a
wedding. She also, under
Pennsylvania law, required a special guardian to collect her fees for her.
And, when she went shopping for a record contract with her guardian
instead of her parents, a secretary at RCA Victor mistook her for an orphan.
With the word "orphan" shooting into the secretary's heart, the secretary
took it upon herself to force Little Peggy through the otherwise impenetrable
door of two RCA Victor executives known as Hugo and Luigi, a team of record
producers who claim to be so single-?minded in their musical efforts that they
refuse to be photographed separately.
The outcome of this confrontation was a two-?minute and
twenty-five-second recording of Little Peggy singing a song called I Will
Follow Him, which climbed to the No. 1 position on the pop charts and stayed
there for many enriching weeks. On the basis of this singular success, Little
Peggy found herself the starring guest on two Perry Como TV shows, the object of
an assault from Hollywood and the signatory of a promising contract with General
Artists Corporation, one of the foremost
talent agencies in show business.
She also was invited
by RCA Victor to cut an entire album, now selling like the proverbial hotcakes
that records so easily resemble?you throw a handful of vinyl into a much more
complicated version of a waffle iron and?presto! There's your record.
Little Peggy was also
booked on a concert tour of Europe, where I Will Follow Him again became
No. 1. And where the Italians swore they would blow their TV tubes if Little
Peggy didn't accept an offer to appear on them.
"And it all
happened," says Little Peggy, her eyes wide in ninety-day wonderment, "in
just three short months."
During that time,
incidentally, Little Peggy grew three inches taller.
The list of Little Peggys and Little Evas
is as endless as the circumference of a turntable. Suddenly, becoming a Pop
Record Business prince or princess is an easy way of becoming a movie king or
me, for instance," says Tony Scotti, a twenty-three-year-old former
football star who has been trying for three years to break into pictures only to
find himself doomed to an eternal career as a Broadway understudy.
"As an actor, I might have to work for years and years and maybe
won't got discovered until late in life. I
want to be a film star, but I don't want to have to wait that long. My friends
tell me I have a good voice, a good commercial sound.
So that's what I'm going to do. I'm
going to start cutting records. I'm
going to sing my way into the movies."
chief complaint in Hollywood is that The Pop Record Business has unlocked its
gates to nothing more than an epidemic of acne, but then The Pop Record Business
has changed Hollywood's complexion, too.
There's no longer a major movie studio that now doesn't own or is about
to own a record company, except for Universal International, which somewhat
compensates for this lack by being owned by Decca Records.
tale that it may be The Pop Record Business is still a business, and for every
dollar and a half that the public spends for a movie ticket, it also spends an
estimated fifty cents for a record.
1962, these fifty-cent pieces added up to a grand total of six hundred and
fifty-one million dollars, which is another explanation of why a whole
generation of stage-struck teenagers is now frantically engaged in recording
demos ""dubs," the trade calls
them?in such makeshift studios as cellars, attics, garages, gymnasiums, and
penny arcade booths, where, for upwards of a quarter, any aspiring singer can
have his voice handed back to him on an acetate platter.
course," says disc jockey Scott Muni, one of the pop music purveyors on New
York's radio station WABC, "those penny arcade recordings make it sound as
if you're singing underwater but don't laugh.
One of the biggest hits around is something called Tie Me Kangaroo
Down, Sport by Australian Rolf Harris, and the main gimmick on the record is
a sound that sounds like a bathroom plunger."
The main gimmick
on any pop record, in fact, is the sound.
'that's what the kids listen for," says Dick Clark of ABC's American Bandstand, who has been in the business of deciding what the kids listen for since 1957. "What interests them is new sounds,
The kids loved the sound of a record with lyrics they couldn't understand
sounds. The more different, the more original, the more unique the sound is, the
more chance a record stands of becoming a hit."
of the sensations of the past few months, for example, has been a Japanese
recording called Sukiyaki by a rock-and-roller named Sakamoto, billed as
Japan's Bobby Darin. According to a
Pop Record Business legend too charming to contradict, a West Coast disc jockey
played it on the air in the middle of one night just as a joke and then found
himself deluged with requests to play it again.
The record, which had been No. 1 in Japan, quickly became No. 1 in the
United States, where it was purchased by at least seven hundred and fifty
thousand Americans who couldn't understand a single word of its lyrics.
the new sounds that Clark says the kids listen for are sounds that many parents
still interpret as nothing but noise. There's
even one company that's coined part of its profits by issuing recordings of
sports car races and World War I airplanes. While the argument over what is
sound and what is noise might lead to many a family disturbance, the Pop Record
Business remains comparatively ruffled only by success. Except in those
instances where the parents have cut off the kids' allowance.
the sounds of popular music are not designed for the parents, they are
designed for the kids. Or, more specifically, for that girl at the counter of
The Pop Record Business?a sometimes tomboyish and sometimes entirely
feminine creature with an identity as vague as her years and as elusive as her
one of the chief trade publications of the business, figures her to be about
fourteen or fifteen years old. Other
market surveys show her to be thirteen and getting younger.
Time magazine describes her as "desperate, unhappy, twelve
years old," adding, "She is cursed with the catastrophe of parents and
her boy friends complete her misery by being too young to drive."
unhappy, cursed, miserable and young as she might be, she still spent much of
the one hundred and sixty-one million dollars that The Pop Record Business
collected for the 210 million 45 r.p.m. 'singles? it sold last year. But she
didn't buy ALL the 210 million. Adults dance to rock and roll, too. New York's
WMCA claims almost half its listeners are adult. The adults say rock and roll
makes them feel young again.
In other words, the
young always come up with their own version of culture and rock and roll is,
number of hopeful obituaries, is
entrenching itself rather than digging its own grave.
Rock and roll got its name from Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who
became its champion after Bill Haley and his Comets? Rock Around The Clock electrified
the kids of the world. Freed also lays claim to having been the first DJ
to introduce to the airwaves a record by Chubby Checker describing a dance
called The Twist.
'the Twist," says Freed, 'suddenly
made rock and roll acceptable and respectable. And I think it's funny that the
adults who made The Twist an "adult? dance are the same ones who used
to go home and beat the hell out of their kids for doing exactly what they
started doing themselves."
addition to making cultural history, The Twist, or at least Chubby
Checker's recording of it, also made history in The Pop Record Business. The
record, first issued in the summer of 1960, quickly revolved its way to No. 1 on
the pop record charts, elevated Checker to princehood in the fairy tale and then
died a natural death.
that was before the nation's adult population discovered The Twist. When
it did, Parkway Records immediately resurrected the record and, a year after The
Twist's demise, it was back on the charts again, climbing to the top.
Chubby Checker's The Twist now remains as the only record in history to
have lived a normal lifetime as No. 1 on the charts and then to have had a
hereafter in that position.
Otherwise, The Twist as a dance can be done to most
songs with a rock and roll beat. The patrons at such clubs as The Peppermint
Lounge and The Wagon Wheel are still waiting in line to dance to it. They're
also doing such footwork variations as The Chicken Back and The Wobble. Both of
which have yet to be discovered by the nation's parents but which,
nevertheless, help prove that rock and roll will long outlive the people who
Every generation adds its own rung to the ladder of culture's unending
climb to perfection. And from the preceding rung comes the cry:
"No! Stop! We've already reached perfection!"
America's great parental discovery of The Twist wasn't necessary to
assure rock and roll its due
place in American music. It was the
"adults? who put down Frank Sinatra's bobbysoxers, too. Now, the
bobbysoxers are adults. Eternally, the world keeps dancing to new rhythms.
Eternally, the lazy and unthinking insist on remaining hidebound to the past.
by teenage culture's oneness with rock and roll, pundits in and out of The Pop
Record Business also seem baffled by it. They call it a phenomenon and they try
to analyze it. They
theorize that rock and roll, with a throb that reaches openly for the libido,
is a syndrome
of the younger generation's reaction to impending thermonuclear annihilation.
speculate that in a world where the life expectancy extends no further than
tomorrow's headlines, youth's mass consciousness has decided that there's
not enough time to spend dawdling with society's pretensions.
Life has become more basic for America's youth and so has the
music?no matter what the name callers call it?"raunchy,"
"earthy," and even "dirty."
the establishment knew what today's popular music really is saying," explains
one musician, "not what the words are saying, but what the music itself is
saying'then they wouldn't just turn thumbs down on it, they'd ban it, they'd
smash all the records and they'd arrest anyone who tried to play it."
American Popular music for the most part has always
filtered into America's mainstream through a place that came to be known as
Tin Pan Alley.
Originally, the home of the moon-and-June school of
songwriting, Tin Pan Alley is not really an alley but actually it's a heart.
The heart of a building. New York's legendary Brill Building. 1619 Broadway.
Traditional home of the music publishing industry. Once ruled by balding men
with cigars in their mouths, Tin Pan Alley is packed with so many kids,
they've started calling it Teen Pan Alley. The Brill Building is where Carole
King and Gerry Goffin got their start.
New York ranks first as America's musical capital.
After New York and Los Angeles, Nashville ranks as America's third most
important musical capital.
"I always go to Nashville for my recording
sessions," says Connie, "because you, can't get musicians like that
If there is a New York sound or a Los Angeles sound,
or a Nashville sound, then every city has one. Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit,
Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Boston'they all boast recording studios where their
sounds are being born.
Even the so-called "majors," established record
companies such as RCA Victor, Columbia, Capitol and Decca?at first they tried
to ignore rock and roll.
A twenty-one-year-old singer named
Dion, for instance, is the new A&R man for Columbia. And five Brooklyn boys
called The Tokens?with one of them still in high school, have been signed to
produce records for Capitol. Executives there tell the story of how one of the
Tokens jumped atop a desk and demanded:
"Where's our money??
Kid stuff, eh?
It's not really a fairy tale so much as it's a cultural revolution?a cultural revolution on the back of a technological revolution: the advent of the long-playing record. Until 1948, when Columbia introduced the 33 1/3 r.p.m and RCA Victor countered with the 45 r.p.m., the recording industry con'sisted of the four majors that accounted for some 75 per cent of the total U.S. record production plus about two hundred independents, who split the remaining 25 per cent. Today there are about five thousand labels with new ones going into business or going out of it at the rate five or six a week. Anyone with three hundred dollars can put out a record and, if it's a hit, his investment can bring him a return of many thousands.
It was the success of the rock and roll independents
and one-shot labels that forced the majors into plunge into The Pop Record
Business. Because, along with a technological revolution, there came a
revolution in the merchandising of records and a revolution in radio
the sale of records no longer was confined to record shops but soon spread to
supermarkets, drug stores and. dis?count houses. In radio, the station managers decided that if consumers were
spending all that money to listen to pop records on their phonographs then
they might rather want to listen to them free on the air.
And in the music business, the publishers found that not a lot of people
were buying sheet music any more.
the old days, music salesmen were called song-pluggers. A song-plugger visited
successful singers, sat down at a piano and sang the song that the song-plugger's
song-publishing boss wanted the song-plugger to plug. Came this revolution, and
song-pluggers were out of a job. Today, songs are brought to hit singers on a
platter'the aforementioned demo or dub.
to old-timers in the music business, several music publishers, faced, with
vanishing sheet music sales and not content with the prospect of existing
performance royalties alone, decided to produce records in their final forms and
then try to sell the master tapes to record companies for distribution. Other
music publishers soon began to follow that pattern on a limited scale, but it
was left to a young and patently unsuccessful songwriter named Donnie Kirshner
to develop the technique to a point that really revolutionized the business.
at twenty-nine, Kirshner is hailed as 'the Man With The Golden Ear."
He also has a Midas Touch. Almost everything he tries ends up a success.
The son of a Bronx tailor who seemed to make it largely on unemployment checks,
Kirshner only several months ago sold his music company to Columbia Pictures for
more than three million dollars. As
part of deal, he also became executive vice president of Columbia Pictures and
all its subsidiaries at a salary of one hundred thousand dollars a year.
Now he lives in a two hundred and twenty-five-thousand-dollar palace in
suburban New Jersey, complete with a hi-fi system hooked up to a jukebox in
almost every room.
There were several ingredients for Kirshner's success,
not the least of them being a personal touch as golden as his ear. But the most
has been his uncanny ability to determine what lyrics and what tune and what
sound will make a hit record.
Kirshner is responsible for putting intelligence back into lyrics," says Bobby
Darin. "Donnie took music with
a beat and insisted on writing words to it with much more body and depth than
anybody had been doing. The funny
thing is he's not even a musician, and yet he has a fantastic ear, probably the
greatest ear in the business. Last
year alone, he produced forty-one records that ended up in the 'Top Ten," 80
per cent of them written by his staff."
was by teaming up with Darin, as a matter of fact, that Kirshner got his start
in the music business. Kirshner was
twenty-one. Darin was nineteen.
They met over a couple of egg creams in a Washington Heights candy store.
was a big man in the neighborhood because I had a publisher's contract for a
song I wrote," Kirshner remembers. 'that's all I had was a contract,
the song never went anyplace. I
didn't even know what lyrics were. But Bobby, he became the brother I never had.
He could sing, he could play instruments, he could act, he could do everything
that I couldn't do that I wished I could. I
used to split my allowance with him."
they tried writing jingles for radio commercials, with Kirshner lugging a tape
recorder from store to store, trying to market their handiwork.
couldn't sell a thing!" Kirshner says.
"We couldn't get arrested."
after helping Darin in his race to stardom, Kirshner aligned himself with an
older musician named Al Nevins to establish his own music publishing business,
eventually called Aldon Music.
"I used to go around to these other publishers and they used to tell me, 'You'll never be any
less of a songwriter
and more of an editor
Kirshner says. "But whenever
they turned down one of my songs, I wanted to know why, and they couldn't
tell me. I knew they didn't have the ears, I knew they were wrong, I knew they
were bluffing. I knew I was better
than they were. I know I bad the knack of picking hits, and I'd tell them,
"Well I'll show you, I'll be a bigger publisher than you.""
Kirshner concedes that his own songwriting talents were less than notable.
was more of an editor," he says. "I
could take someone else's material and see what was wrong with it,
rewrite it, fix up the story line. The
material is the most important thing. More important than the artist is the song'the material and
the proper interpretation.
"I believe a great song is basically a great idea, a
message. I don't think today's
music is 'junk' songs or rock and roll, per se. People buy feels, ideas,
sounds. They want a great story line, a fresh melody line."
As a publisher, Kirshner vowed he would
not treat other songwriters the same way that he had been treated by publishers.
Instead, he accepted and encouraged almost every songwriter who walked
through the door of his two-desk office until today he has forty-five of the
leading pop music composers in the country under contract to him, the largest
so-called "stable" in the business. Even Paul Anka, who himself now
heads his own million-dollar music venture, has joined Kirshner's group to write
songs in collaboration with Howie Green?field, a twenty-seven-year-old former
messenger boy whose lyrics earned him seventy thousand dollars last year.
Kirshner's dynamism in the music business
actually has carried him far beyond his original goal.
As a music publisher, he became an independent record producer, the first
to sell master tapes to the major record companies. And as an independent record
producer, he established his own independent record company, Dimension Records.
"In the same way that I found a lot
the old music publishers were wrong, I found a lot of the A&R men at the
record companies were wrong," Kirshner says. "I would have a hit record standing there and they would
turn it down. Some of my demos were
good enough to be masters, and they would still turn them down."
Little Eva's recording of The
Loco-Motion, for example, originally was intended as a demonstration record
to try to interest Dee Dee Sharp in singing it. A record by an established
recording star like Dee Dee would always stand a better chance of becoming a hit
simply because she has at least a better chance of getting airplay and a promise
of minimum sales among her fans. Dee Dee Sharp already had won her wings as a
princess in the fairy tale.
"But when Donnie heard Eva's
demo," says Gerry Goffin "he said, "Why go any further? That's
it!?? The record sold a million on Donnie's Dimension label.
It wasn't long before Kirshner's example
as both a music publisher and an independent record producer began to be
imitated on wholesale scale within the industry and the majors have begun to
fear that they will lose their original purpose and become nothing more than
why companies like Columbia and Capitol are signing up these young producers
like Dion and the Tokens," says Ed Burton, a veteran in the publishing
business. "And anyway, these
artists don't mind turning into A&R men because producing has become the
most lucrative part of the field."
Crewe, for example, is a hit singer, an expert photographer, an accomplished
interior decorator, a handsome acting student, a respected painter and a
successful songwriter, but he has found that the bulk of his income comes from
producing records. Which he does under the trade name of Genius Incorporated.
Bobby Darin abandoned his personal appearance tours to establish his own
record-producing firm, with deep-carpeted offices in the Brill Building.
To the highly appalled entrenched, the
spectacle of all these kids making millions from what the entrenched considered
nothing but noise resembled little more than a gang of teenagers playing
kick-the-can in church. When The Tokens produce a Chiffons record in an
$80-an-hour studio, it turns out to be not so much a recording session but five
boys and four girls having a party. The entrenched didn't go for that kind of
expensive horseplay. As for the The Tokens, they agree with Donnie Kirshner that
some record company A&R men know too little and get paid too much.
"Like, in August of 1962, we produced
a record with The Chiffons called He's So Fine," says
twenty-one-year-old Philip Margo, a member of the group.
"First of all Capitol turned it down.
They wrote us a letter to tell us how bad it stunk.
Then Victor turned it down, Columbia turned it down, ABC-Paramount turned
it down. The master stayed in the can for six months before a small, independent
company named Laurie took it. The record ended up on the charts for fifteen
weeks. It was No. I for four
singers and musicians seem the most natural choices as A&R men, a technical
knowledge of music is not necessary to go into the business, as proved by
Kirshner. Another example is
twenty-six-year-?old Nick Venet, whose musical training is that of a listener.
Beginning when, as a five-year-old boy, he used to sit next to the jukebox in
his father's Baltimore diner. With a sixth-grade education, Venet is now an independent
producer under contract to Capitol, which pays him a base salary in the vicinity
of fifty thousand dollars a year, a two per cent royalty on every record he
sells and a yearly budget of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
you want to know about the record business?" says Venet. "It's a
business where you can start out with nothing, a twenty-dollar bill, and a
couple of months later, with a certain knowledge of what you're dealing with and
with a lot of luck, you can be a millionaire.
other words, it's a get-rich-quick business, it's a crap game.
You can also lose your shirt. It's
a business where you have to be a genius, even a magician?because, look!
It's the only business in the world where you have to sell a product that
they can hear it for free for months and months and you can still make them
plunk down their money for it. You have to a magician to make them do
Venet has produced several million dollars' worth of pop hits for
Capitol. Venet also impressed his colleagues with what he found out when asked
to learn why hit records that might have sold a million copies at one time were
beginning to sell no more than seven hundred and fifty thousand.
Because of the influx of inexpensive Japanese transistor radios, that's
why, he said. The kids were finding it cheaper to listen to records on the
record businesses," Venet says, "is where you can take a group like
The Beach Boys and in eighteen hours they become stars.
I found them, they had made one record on a one-shot label.
It had been a local hit, but all they got for it was a thousand dollars.
This happens a lot of times in the business.
A group walks into some small company, makes a record, it sells, the guys
who own the company splits with the loot, the company goes bankrupt and the
group doesn't even end up with union scale.
hours after I found them, I A&R'd them in a session, we produced a record
called Surfin' U.S.A. and it was a smash.
So right away, they became stars, they started talking big money, their
hats couldn't fit on their heads.
I found them, it was 'Mr. Venet this' and 'Mr. Venet that.' Eighteen hours
later, you can't even talk to them, you've got to talk to their manager.
What they don't realize is that?well, take The Weavers, The Letterman
and The Kingston Trio. They're like
copper, bronze and gold. The Beach Boys? They're plastic!
That's what so much of the record business is, it's plastic.
Copper, bronze and gold, it lasts a long, long time.
Plastic, you keep it around for a while and then you throw it out."
swelled head is an occupational hazard in the music business. As a singer's
record climbs the charts, so does the singer's ego climb. Sometimes the
singer's ego keeps climbing long after the record has flopped.
like, wait'll they hear about room service," says another old-timer.
'they come in, they're still in their teens, they're scuffling. They're so
nice and polite and grateful. They
cut a record and to push it, they go out on record hops with disc jockeys and do
'lip synchs'?in other words, the jock will play their record at a teenage
dance and they'll move their lips and make believe they're singing it.
They don't get paid for these appearances, it's all part of the promotion
for the record, but they're glad as hell to be out there.
then the record starts moving up on the charts and they start making a little
loot and they're booked into clubs on the strength of the record and they start
to travel and they stay at good hotels and then they find out about room
they want to know why they didn't got paid for the lip synchs and they ought to
have as good a contract as Ray Charles and they want their own music publishing
company and if the contract doesn't allow it they start their own music
publishing company anyway and they start writing songs under different names to
evade the contract.
the guys who discovered them and got them started are bums and exploiters living
off their fat. Talk about room service.
There was one fourteen?-year-old kid who was booked into a top New York
nightclub after he got a couple of hit records going for him.
So he's up in the dressing room and he starts screaming 'I want broads!
Bring me broads!"
these jerks around him, what do they do? After all, he's a star now, so they
bring him broads."
old-time songwriters like Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen sit there collecting
their ASCAP royalties, saying, "Wait till melodic music comes back,?" says Barry
Mann, the twenty-four-year-old composer of some five hundred songs, thirty of
them hits since he gave up his aspirations
as an architect.
melodic music the way they mean melodic music isn't coming back,
not the way they used to write it. I
don't want to knock Cahn and Van Heusen because they're great writers.
But I do knock them for knocking rock and roll.
What the Sammy Cahns and the Jimmy Van Heusens don't realize is that it's
harder for us?it's harder for the average songwriter today to write a good
commercial song than it was for them in their day.
These old-time songwriters put down rock and roll'they say it isn't
music. But let me see them try to
write it. I could write music the
way they wrote it, but could they write it the way I do? I'd be able to do both,
but they don't understand it."
himself started out to be a recording star. Now he hopes to write a
"I guess that's the dream of every songwriter,"' he says.
his twenty-two-year-old lyricist wife, Cynthia Weil, Mann has written a string of hits that includes On
Broadway and Uptown, both of which have been acclaimed by music
critics such as Ralph Gleason, who thinks that the 'top-Forty" on the pop
record charts ought to be recognized as the folk music of today.
Many of the lyrics in popular contemporary music deal,
in fact, with social issues that might seem to be far beyond the comprehension
of a twelve-year-old love-struck girl. Detroit City, for instance, is the story of poor white
southerners who have migrated to Detroit to work on the assembly line. Spanish
Harlem deals with the congestion and squalor of that particular New York
ghetto. Blowin' in The Wind
is a lament over the way things are in this age of the H-Bomb. And the words for
Uptown, which is the way black New Yorkers refer to Harlem, was inspired
by Cynthia Weil's image of a dress rack pusher in the Garment District.
He gets up each morning and he goes downtown,
Where everyone's his boss and he's lost in an angry land.
He's a little man.
But he comes uptown each evening to my tenement,
Uptown where folks don't have to pay much rent,
And when he's there with me
He can see
That he's everything.
Then he's tall,
He's so tall,
He's a king,
Downtown he's just one, of a million guys.
He don't get no breaks and he takes all they've got to give,
Cause, he's got to live.
But then he comes uptown where be can hold his head up high.
Uptown he knows that I'll be standing by.
And when I take his hand
There's no man
Who can put him down.
The world is sweet,
It's at his feet,
When he's uptown.*
(* Courtesy of Screen Gems-Columbia Music Inc.)
"As a matter of fact," says disc
jockey Scott Muni, "the only other thing besides the sound that can
possibly sell a record is the story line. A good story line, a good set of
lyrics, can overcome even a mediocre sound and make the record a hit."
The story lines of the majority of pop records don't, of course, concern integration, poverty and war. In its effort to cater to that teen girl at the record store counter, The Pop Record Business to a great extent tries to capture what it calls "the teen feel," and there also are songs with lyrics much closer to her heart such as:
I've waited so long for school to be through
Paula, I can wait no more for you
My name is Oliver Cool
I'm the most swingingest boy in school,
feel,"' says lyricist Goffin, whose idol is Lorenzo Hart and who shudders
at lyrics like My name is Oliver Cool, "is a term used to describe a
small amount of hit records that sneak into the Top Ten. When I write, I don't
consciously try to appeal to the kids, but I try not to exclude them. If the
lyrics are too clever without having any soul, then they make a song sound
insincere and phony and the kids recognize it right away."
A better term than
'teen feel," perhaps, is what is known in The Pop Record Business as 'the
"'the dumb sound,?? explains one record company executive, "is the teenage sound, the kid
the sound that lets a kid identify with a record because it sounds like himself,
it's innate, it's natural, it's real. It
doesn't have that technical perfection which, in older music, can sound so
glib without any heart, without any soul.
sure, there's a lot of fabrication the business, people trying to fabricate the
dumb sound, people trying to fabricate a lot of sounds.
Even a good singer like Connie Francis sometimes comes out with a
fabricated sound. For instance, she's not a country artist.
But she sings songs with a country beat'songs written, incidentally, by
writers in New York?and she records in Nashville, and her records go to No. 1
on the country music charts, but it's not real country, it's fabricated."
analysts in The Pop Record Business feel that the true dumb sound is a quality
attainable only by youth, accounting for the abbreviated longevity of recording
stars. By getting on in years, a singer simply outgrows the dumb sound and its
audience. Mitchell Margo, who started singing with The Tokens when he was
twelve, once complained to a record company executive, for example:
know I'm getting so good it's beginning to scare me.
We keep playing and practicing so much that we're really getting good on
in musician's hip talk also means great. To the more cultivated ear, the dumb
sound is something less than smart. Although
pop music is becoming chic and acceptable in some intellectual circles, the
main tendency is to equate pop songs in music with comic books in literature.
This creates some paranoia among the more serious composers in the pop
music field. They sometimes take time out from their intensity to laugh at
"A lot of these guys don't know what they're
doing," says singer-songwriter Hank Ballard. "They sit down and
write a song in two minutes, but they don't know what they're saying, it's just
a lot of silly words."
Barry Mann once
even wrote and recorded a satire of pop music called Who Put The Bomp In The
Bomp Bomp Bomp? The record rose to No. 5 on the charts. Another time, he
satirized himself by recording another of his songs, I'm a Teenage Has-Been.
started getting letters from fans," he recalls, "saying, 'Oh, Barry,
you're not a has-been, we still love you, you're still a star to us."
records may very well be the comic books of American music, but even such
characters as The Shadow and Captain Marvel have made it to the higher echelons
of literature. The fairy tale has already given Ray Charles and Elvis Presley to
American culture and there are prodigious talents on the way. One is Timi Yuro,
a twenty-two-year-old singer who started out as a waitress in her mother's Los
Angeles spaghetti restaurant, who has had eleven years of voice training, who
originally studied opera and who is especially prized in The Pop Music Business
because she sounds like a black girl.
artists in the pop field are Negro," explains one record company executive.
"Call it a subconscious desire for miscegenation in America's psyche if you
like, but blacks have become the dominant sellers of records. With Timi, they deliberately set out to give her a black
sound, but she can sing anything."
Signed as a pop singer by Liberty Records, she became so disgusted, with
the material she had to sing that she stormed into a meeting of Liberty
executives, confronted the president and exclaimed:
"I'm Timi Yuro and I want my contract back! All you've given me to sing
is horrible rock and roll and you haven't even released a single one of
At this point, the president, Al Bennett asked her to come into his
"OK, Timi," he said, 'tell me what you want to sing."
Unaccompanied, she then burst into the first six words of an old ballad
called Hurt. She recorded it two days later and in three weeks it began a
climb to the Top Ten of the pop charts.
Another example is Barbara Lewis, who sounds black because she is
black and has a voice that could easily transcend the pop field to reach more
esoteric audiences?especially those that buy albums instead of singles. Not
only does she have the same distinct and original manner of creating music as,
say, Ray Charles, but, at the age of nineteen, she also sings with technical
perfection, a little of the vibrato and a hint of the emotion present in the
"He really believes those silly little words he's singing."
A newcomer to
the fairy tale, Barbara is the daughter of
a mother and father who were both bandleaders and who are elated to Sheldon Brooks,
who wrote Darktown Strutters? Ball and Some of These Days. A
native of Detroit, she began writing songs when she was nine but really intended
to become a nurse.
"Her first hit
was Hello, Stranger," says Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic
Records, which has Barbara Lewis under contract. "As soon as we heard it, we
knew it was going to be a smash. But the funny thing is the record was out three
months before it started doing anything. We had difficulty getting radio
exposure, but as soon as it got some air time, it went right to the Top Ten on
Stardom in the
record business is often as fleeting as the record itself.
record is over two minutes and fifteen seconds long, its radio exposure will be
cut by 50 per cent," explains RCA Victor's Robert Yorke. "We've got to
get radio exposure to sell a record, and with today's tight programming, the
disc jockeys can't play anything too much longer than that."
to estimates by radio station librarians, between two hundred and three hundred
new singles are issued each week, all of them competing for the air time
necessary to stimulate sales. Because most stations don't have enough
programming time to introduce more than fifteen or twenty records each week,
record companies sometimes have to resort to what the trade calls
"payola" to induce a disc jockey to play a release.
consists of expensive gifts, free records or outright bribes, and it is also
used in attempts to influence the various trade surveys that determine which
records are selling well enough to deserve a place on the pop charts. The charts
themselves have become buying guides for record consumers, and, with some record
departments refusing to stock
any singles except those in the Top
Forty, a place on the charts is itself a guarantee of sales.
every step a record goes up on our charts," says Tom Noonan, research
director for Billboard, 'the manufacturer can count on an additional
two thousand sales."
1960, the accusations of payola had become so widespread that a congressional
committee launched an investigation that ended with commercial bribery
indictments against a number of disc jockeys and federal restraint decrees
against some fifty record companies, including the majors.
then, many radio stations have tried to eliminate the opportunity for payola by
prohibiting any individual disc jockey from choosing what new records he will
play. Instead, on many stations the
new records are chosen by the vote of all the disc jockeys on the station staff.
Other radio stations have tried to eliminate payola by simply refusing to
play any records at all except those in the Top Forty, a fact that has further
reduced the opportunity to 'break" a new
Top Forty stations, these formula stations, they're playing it cagey," says
B. Mitchell Reed, WMCA's staccato-tongued disc jockey, known to his fans as Your
Leader. "They wait and see what the other stations are doing before
they do any'thing. Up until
recently, New York was that way, too. Six
or seven years ago, New York had 10 per cent of the market.
A record had to happen in New York before it could happen in the rest of
those days, there were what you call 'regional' hits?a record would break in a
certain part of the country and nowhere else and it would stay there.
The West Coast was so far behind that it took three or four months for a
record to get over the Rockies. Today
all the stations watch what the other stations are doing, and if it happens in
Detroit or Chicago or Philadelphia, which are all big record-breaking centers,
or if it happens in any other section of the country, then it'll happen in New York, too.
"Now we're breaking records in New York again and
the other stations are watching us. The New York market is down to seven or
eight per cent, but it's going back up again."
In any event, payola continues to thrive in various
old and new forms.
"Listen," says one record company executive,
"business is business, whether it's the record business or any other
business. Take some guy who's a DJ
on a small station in Oshkosh or somewhere.
It's like putting a key in the door.
He only makes a hundred and twenty?-five dollars a week, and if he
breaks a record for you, you stand to make hundreds of thousands.
So you give him fifty dollars."
In addition to
having princes and princesses, then, the fairy tale has its ogres.
It also has its witches, its jesters, its elfenfolk and its gremlins.
Lou Christie, for instance, claims to go into a s?ance with a Pittsburgh
gypsy in order to write his songs. Drowned
out by the sound of riveting while at a New York recording session, Perry Como
had to walk to the construction site next door to appeal personally to the
workers to lay down their tools. Cashbox, another trade publication, once
printed a record review that mistook Donnie Elbert, a boy vocalist, for a girl.
And, on another occasion, it hailed the "comeback" of a recording star
that happened to be all of seventeen years old at the time.
nothing deader than a dead rock and roll singer," says Gloria Stavers,
Editor of 16, a fan magazine.
a record company will try out a singer under a new name after he has flopped
several times under his real name. And
when The Chiffons recorded their second song, it sounded so different from their
first that their producers, The Tokens, decided to release the record under an
alias, calling the group The Four Pennies.
no parallel in this business except possibly the produce business," says
Robert Yorke. "Because their produce spoils in approximately a week, and if
we're not on the market when our head of lettuce is ripe, then nobody wants it."
Stardom often lasts only as
long as youth.
see them coming from the cities, mostly groups off the streets, hanging around
Tin Pan Alley on
Broadway near the Brill Building,"
says Phil Specter, the twenty-three-year-old owner of Philles Records.
"They're usually between sixteen and nineteen, usually Negro,
anxious to record, anxious to make a hit. A
singer doesn't last long, three years, maybe?Presley's the exceptional
phenomenon. A group, you can keep
it sustained close to three years if you handle it properly."
has kept one group sustained simply by owning its name.
The group is the Crystals, which keeps coming up with hits even though it
has experienced several changes in membership.
reason the groups disappear," Specter says, "is that they record on one-shot
labels and the labels disappear. A
one-shot label usually has trouble getting paid from the distributors, so it
goes bankrupt and everybody ends up in court.
And the artists are signed up at a very, very low rate cause they're
right off the street, and before you know it, there's lawyers and a mother and
the artists are unhappy and they break up.
the group I was in, The Teen Age Teddy Bears. We had a No. 1 record four weeks, To
Know Him Is To Love Him, a typical rock and roll song. I wrote it and sold
the master for forty dollars to a label and the record sold over two million. I
received a writer's royalties of twenty, twenty-five thousand dollars, but I
could have gotten another thirty or forty thousand dollars as a producer.
same things broke us up as everyone. Stardom, money, it goes to your
head?pride, the label cheating on you."
long hair and an Assyrian beard, owns a company that does two million dollars
worth of business a year. But Spector is not the best example of what happens to
a member of a group that disappears.
to them?" says Jerry Wexler, executive vice president of Atlantic Records.
"They just disappear. We had one group'the Chords'that had a hit
record for us in l955 or 1956. It
was called Sh-boom. It was No. 1. But of all their subsequent records,
none sold. Now, I think one is a house painter, one is a pants presser, one is
writing songs and one is trying to get back into the business as a singer."
matter how many princes and princesses
The Pop Record Business creates, a fairy tale is no more than a fairy tale.
Or, as Wexler puts it:
"Do you know how many
kids there are in this business who make a record or a dozen records and nobody
even heard of them? Or how many
kids there are who make a hit record that sells for a few weeks, and then they
disappear? There are thousands.
You can't even remember the names after a while.
They're here today and gone tomorrow."
To which Donnie Kirshner adds somewhat
"These kids, they love to sing, they
don't care about money. When they
do make money, they blow it. What
happens to them when they drop out of sight?
They go home, they find jobs. Around
their block and in their neighborhood, though, they're stars, they're still
important. They once made a record,
maybe a couple, maybe even had a hit or two.
But it's a flash-in-the pan type of glory.
Inside they're empty, they're never satisfied to go back to that kind of
existence. They're always regretful they never were able to make it or
keep on making it."
OLD FRIENDS AL ARONOWITZ (LEFT) AND
GERRY GOFFIN AT GERRY'S WEDDING|
TO MICHELLE CONAWAY IN 1995
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