The Tommy Mottola Nobody Knows
The chairman/CEO of Sony Music Entertainment is searching for the right song.
New York – July 28, 2001
Bent over a big, blond Gibson L5 hollow-body electric guitar in his 32nd floor suite of offices at Sony’s Madison Avenue headquarters, he plucks a bit of Bill Doggett’s 1956 R&B instrumental hit “Honky Tonk (Parts I & 2),” then ruminates with surprising ease on a smattering of Wes Montgomery’s distinctive thumb-picking style, before settling on a familiar rock theme.
“Here’s something you might recognize,” he says, smirking, as he launches with a flourish into a big-chords filet of prime roots rock and then shyly sings a verse: “There’s a young man in a T-shirt/Listening to a rock’n'roll station … /He says, `Boy, this must be my destination’ . . . / Ain’t that America … something to see . . . ”
There is a burst of bashful laughter from lapsed guitarist/vocalist Thomas David Mottola, but it doesn’t alter that the lyric of “Pink Houses” rings true for him just as much as it did for the song’s author, John Mellencamp, who notched his 1983 chart success with that ditty while a key client of Mottola’s bygone Champion Entertainment management firm.
Today, although Mottola volunteers that upcoming Billboard 2001Century Award honoree Mellencamp is “great, but nuts” and “the main reason I decided to stop being a manager,” the Indiana rocker is nonetheless a valued member (since 1998) of Sony’s Columbia Records artist roster, with a new album titled Cuttin’ Heads due for autumn release. “I love the new single [`Peaceful World'] John wrote for his album,” Mottola explains, “but what I like most about John is that he’s able to reinvent himself but still stay John-a progressive man but always true to the core of what he does. I admire that.”
Mottola plainly hopes for reciprocal regard from the stubborn artist he once agreed to arm wrestle in order to settle a dispute in 1985 over a tour percentage. “It was a draw,” Mellencamp now confides fondly, “so I agreed to split the difference with Tommy.”
It’s a pity that all quarrels and quandaries in the music business can’t be solved quite so handily. As the industry grapples with the profitless perplexities of digital music distribution, plus a related technology bust that has helped impede the global economic picture, there has also been the double damage of prohibitively high domestic concert– ticket prices and a drought in desirable releases by superstar acts, which have fed an 8%rb drop in U.S. sales of new album releases during the first six months of 2001. (And even though there is a growing demand for older catalog product like the Uh-Huh album that yielded the “Pink Houses” hit, overall sales are still down an overall 3% for the year to date-the worst slump in six years, according to SoundScan.)
The music industry must reconnect with its potential audience. Mottola believes his past has prepared him to ride out the rough patches ahead and to locate the music that will serve as a worthy artistic and consumer-pleasing destination. Under Mottola, Sony Music Entertainment (SME) is trying mightily. The company’s revenue tripled during his first 10 years, and for the most recent fiscal year was $4.9 billion. SME’s worldwide market share is 18% to Universal Music Group’s 22%, and Mottola says he intends to try harder as head of the No. 2 music corporation.
On this May afternoon, Mottola has also been engaged in a more contemporary search for songs. He has been listening, via a digital Ed-Net link, to the mix of a track called “You Belong With Me” from the next Columbia album by singer and friend Marc Anthony. After putting his Gibson back on its chrome stand beside an array of other guitars (including a custom Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson Epiphone dobro, and one of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Fender Stratocasters), Mottola goes to his desktop console and punches up an ISDN link to a studio in Bedford, where the Anthony project-in-progress is being mixed.
“We do this at least once a month when we’re working on a given album,” Mottola explains. “I have the exact transmission coming through here in real time and all the same levels, so I’m listening to the same recording online.” Mottola says he’ll scrutinize new tracks by Sony artists Celine Dion, Jessica Simpson, and Gloria Estefan, as well as the final mix of Mellencamp’s “Peaceful World” in the same manner.
“Tommy could always focus, especially where music is concerned,” says Ralph “Stormy” Avallone, who has been friends with Mottola since they grew up together “on Pinebrook Boulevard in New Rochelle. Our parents knew each other from the Bronx, where Tommy was born, and I met Tommy when I was 4 or 5. 1 called his mom Aunt Peggy and his dad Uncle Tom. Our families were together for every holiday growing up, every First Communion and Confirmation, every Memorial Day cookout and Christmas, every excuse to have a party.
“We had the same guitar teacher, Tommy and me,” notes Avallone, now a security officer at Sony Studios in Manhattan. “His name was Gus DeAgazio, and he was a good one. Tommy and I went to House of Music on Main Street in New Rochelle and bought an amp for $15, and that’s what we used for our lessons with Gus-me plugging in my Harmony electric and Tommy plugging his Fender into the same little amp. I practiced with him and Gus for three or four months, but once football season started, I was gone. Tommy stuck it out. Of all the guys in our old crowd, he knew how to enjoy himself, but more than anybody else, he knew how to get serious when it was needed.”
[Thalia & Tommy Mottola Engagement Story]
Thalia, the renowned Mexican actress/singer who wed Mottola on Dec. 2, 2000, concurs. “I remember standing on a dock with him in Miami in July 1999, exactly two years ago. There was a beautiful sunset, with purples and oranges. I said to him, `Everything is so perfect, I could die now because I don’t want it to end.”
“We had been introduced a year before by Emilio Estefan, who’s one of my best friends, and he told me I should meet Tommy because we were as similar as two drops of rain. But when [Emilio] told me he was divorced from another singer and already had two grown children [Michael and Sarah] from his first marriage, I said, `No, stop. I don’t need this now. Not for me.’ Then I met Tommy on a blind date one night in a restaurant, and I felt like I already knew him-like we’d been in love before, in another life.” She giggles. “So that night on the dock in Miami, Tommy said, `If you feel like you don’t want this to end, wait right here.’ He went away and came right back with a ring. He said he’d bought it two months ago but was waiting for the moment. On the dock, he asked me to marry him. I said yes. Then I told my mother, who was there visiting, and we had a celebration on the spot.”
“Then Tommy had another surprise,” Thalia adds. “At the reception after our wedding in New York, Tommy got up and sang a song for me ["I've Got You Under My Skin"]. I already knew Tommy had a beautiful voice because he always sings little parts of Elvis Presley songs to me to make me laugh. And it was so funny at the reception because everybody was looking around to see who was singing from behind the stage when the reality was right in front of them.”
Answering a longtime request from this writer, Mottola agreed in May to open himself to still-deeper realities and consent to an unprecedented interview about his life and career, conducted during the course of an entire day. We met in the morning on the corner of Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street in the Bronx, Mottola arriving alone in his Chevy Tahoe SUV, dressed in jeans, sneakers, a white T– shirt, and a New York Yankees baseball cap. After walking or driving through the streets where he spent his childhood, we rode through each of the Bronx and New Rochelle neighborhoods in which he lived as a youth, winding up in the handsome but sedate Bedford residence he now shares with Thalia. Along the way, Mottola described the experiences that have shaped his status as one of the most accomplished figures in the modem history of the music industry.
Where and when were you born?
I was born on July 14, 1949, in Westchester Square Hospital [at 2475 St. Raymond Ave.] in the Bronx. I lived for the first two years of my life in an apartment building a few blocks from here on Rochambeau Avenue [between East Gun Hill Road and East 212th Street]. Then we moved to a little house at 2214 Fenton Ave.
[Mottola turns his Chevy off 187th Street and onto Arthur Avenue] Many of these buildings have been here, probably, a hundred years. But everything is kept up, the sidewalks are clean. We still shop in these stores. There’s a famous bread store here at 2348, Madonia Brother’s Bakery, and then there’s Dominick’s Restaurant which we all still come to once every couple of months. Look at all the people of every nationality-and race-Italian, Hispanic, black. Everybody’s friendly, there’s a lot of baby carriages. In this area, called Belmont, there was a time in the 1950s when you could see Dion & the Belmonts singing at a comer on Belmont Avenue.
As a kid, I remember summers of radios blasting out these windows, and you’d hear the sounds of the streets and of the kids playing in them, and the groups singing on the corner were everywhere. [Turns car around and heads back down 187th Street]
We’re coming up on Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church [on 187th between Hughes and Belmont Avenue], a famous church built in 1907 for Italian immigrants, where the mass is still said in Italian.
[Nods] I was baptized here at Mount Carmel Church on the corner of 187th Street and Belmont Avenue. This is where they would have dances, and I would come to them occasionally with older family members and cousins. My father, Thomas, actually went to Mount Carmel School, played on the basketball team there. My family is from Southern Italy-Naples and Bari. My father’s father was a soldier who died in the old country. And my father-who was born in this country and had one brother and one sister–he grew up never remembering having met his father.
A mile down here on the Grand Concourse, there would be street fairs, and as a kid you could stand in the street and have a hot dog and hear the best Latin bands ever. I would see Tito Puente playing and Mongo Santamaria. So we had this whole mix of corner doo-wop, whatever pop-rock existed at that time, and RIB, which was my heavy influence at the beginning. I would go down to the Apollo [Theatre] when I was 14, taking the bus or the D train to see James Brown. I also remember that in my house all the time the radio was blasting-my sisters would play Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom [program of bigband music on WNEW-AMI, so I grew up hearing that, too-which I hated.
My father played the piano. He used to like to get my sisters around the piano to sing, and every weekend, we would have other family members come over. A couple of my uncles played guitar and other instruments. There was always a family gathering with food and music going on. They would play all this old-fashioned stuff, the popular music of their time, like "Blue Moon."
My parents met in the Bronx. My mother, Peggy-her last name was Bonetti-had four sisters and two brothers. She came from a large family. She was born upstate in Brewster, and then they moved down to this neighborhood, which is where my father lived.
[Pulls up in front of a tiny brick house on Fenton Avenue between East 222nd Street and East Gun Hill Road] When I was 2 years old, we moved into this neighborhood. This firehouse, Engine 97, 1 was in this firehouse every day, sitting on the fire engines, ringing the bells. And that little house down the road there at 1457 Fenton Ave. was a candy store back then, and it was my favorite stop. In the summers, we would go to Rye Beach and stay there all summer.
This is a lower-middle-class enclave, with small, structurally connected one and two-family wood and brick homes.
This was considered a big step up from the Belmont area-it was like, `Wow, you made it.’ Next, we lived in another little section down here on Pelham Parkway, before we went to Westchester.
My father was a customs broker, and he would go to work downtown at Battery Park where the Customs House was. Every day after school he would come and pick us up, because he would take the subway back and forth to work. My mother never worked. She was a housewife; she raised the kids. This neighborhood remained pretty nice. We left here when I was about 8, but we were always going back and forth, because the rest of the family stayed in the Bronx.
I have three older sisters-two twin sisters, Jean and Joan, and a third sister, named Mary Ann. I came 13 or 14 years after my last sister. So I was the baby-I was sort of a surprise. As the baby, it was good and bad. I had a lot of attention from the whole family and had a lot of the good stuff my sisters didn’t get. I had all this input from people always being around me and wanting to teach me and to see me be successful-but also pushing me in that direction.
How did your father gravitate to being a customs agent?
He started his own business when he was in high school. The story goes that they scraped together $750, and he went to high school at night and started his own customs brokerage business. He worked privately, and it was basically a company that facilitated licenses for exporters and importers’ merchandise that came in and out of the country. It was called Atlas Shipping Co., and they worked with U.S. Customs and the importers to do all the clearing. His accounts included Seagram’s, so he handled imports of alcohol. He also dealt with companies in Italy, where it would be food products, and companies in India, where it would be carved wood and brass and home furnishings. And he dealt with importers in Japan.
What were your interests as a kid?
I was into nature, hiking, swimming. I liked to play baseball, football, but I was never a sports fanatic. But from the age of 4 or 5, I was attracted to music and musical instruments. I went from kindergarten at [Public School] 97 to parochial schools: Sacred Heart School in the Bronx for first and second grade, then from third grade to 12th grade, I went to Iona Grammar School and Iona Prep in New Rochelle. Then I had a brief stint of college at Hofstra [University on Long Island].
[Turns onto the Bronx River Parkway] Let’s head up to New Rochelle. The first house we moved to in New Rochelle after Pelham Parkway in the Bronx was here on the comer of Hayhurst and Somerset roads. So you can see it’s a ranch-style house. If my mother didn’t move every five years, she wasn’t happy. Then they bought a condo down in Miami, and we started going down there quite a bit, so we moved from here and got an apartment in New Rochelle, on the water, and lived there for four years. Then she decided she didn’t like the apartment, and we moved to this next house. So we moved again [drives onward] to this second house in New Rochelle, this small brick ranch house with black-and-white shutters on the comer of Pinebrook Boulevard and Fieldmere Street, and my band and I would play in the basement.
Tell me more about your early involvement in music.
I took piano lessons in school for a couple of years it was fun, easy. I had a fascination with the trumpet for a while, took lessons, and played in the school band at Iona from third grade till eighth grade. I got so proficient by fourth grade that the school gave me a music scholarship until eighth grade. I was playing everything from “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby” and being in the marching band at football games to being in the 40- to 50-piece school orchestra. I was the first trumpeter, so I would always do the solos . But by eighth grade the trumpet was not a cool instrument at all. You definitely could not get girls with a trumpet.
The two people who influenced me most growing up were James Brown and Elvis Presley. I wanted to be Elvis in the worst way-and James Brown. In the gym or the showers, where you had the great echo, me and my clique would emulate James Brown with his cape act, singing “Please Please Please” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” I imitated Elvis in a third-grade and fourth-grade play: I did “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog.” I wanted to be Elvis Presley so bad that I would come home from Iona Grammar School, take off my uniform, put on a black leather jacket and black pants, recomb my hair, and take my sister’s eyebrow pencil and paint sideburns so I could look like Elvis.
The first guitars I got were a Sears Roebuck Harmony guitar, then a Dane– electro. You could buy those then for about 30 bucks. Then I decided to upgrade and got a Fender Stratocaster. I still have all my guitars in my office. My next guitar was a Fender Jazzmaster. Later, I got a double cutaway ES cherry finish Gibson with the double humbucking pickups and the twang bar-Chuck Berry’s guitar of choice. Guitars like the Gibson L5 would be played by another idol of mine, Wes Montgomery-these typically were more jazz and orchestral guitars. The solid-body guitars came a little bit later for the R&B bands-a lot of the R&B guys would use Stratocasters and Telecasters. Over the years, I also had a Gretsch because Duane Eddy’s sound you could only duplicate with a Gretsch. I didn’t get into any solid-body guitar again until Led Zeppelin came along, and I had a Les Paul. But my real guitar of choice after all was said and done was a Fender Telecaster-because I got so impressed with one of the great guitar players of all time, Linc Chamberland, who played in a band called the Orchids.
The Orchids were a local band that went nowhere. They were on Roulette Records-maybe that’s why they went nowhere. They played their brand of soul music and had some local hits ["Pony Walk"/"Good Time Stomp," 1962, Roulette 4412] and albums [Orchids Twistin' at the Roundtable, Roulette SR-- 25169], but they were the best group of local musicians I had ever heard. I went to see them live every week in Mamaroneck at a club called the Canada Lounge -I started going in there with fake ID from the age of 13. 1 was planted there every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, their biggest fan. Linc Chamberland played a Telecaster and he was really a jazz musician, but he played R&B and funk like I never heard in my life.
He was the inspiration and prototype that David Spinozza, a friend of mine at the time, followed and wanted to be. Spinozza became one of the finest studio guitar players in the world. I grew up around here with bands that had people like [drummers] Jerry and Rick Marotta and Andy Newmark-the greatest session players.
What was the name of your group?
The first band I was in that had a name was the Exotics, a four-man band. The lead singer, Joe DeMarzo, is still singing. The bass player died, and the drummer, Charlie Powers, is still an active musician. I played guitar.
We did covers-R&B-and we cut studio demos of some Joe Tex and Tom Jones songs. If there was a pop song we liked, fine, but it was really all about R&B. All the cool musicians I knew only wanted to play black music, which was really the only cool music up until the Beatles. We played all the local dances, all the churches, bar mitzvahs, weddings, beach clubs on the [Long Island] Sound like the Colonial, the Beach, and Tennis, and a place called the Fountainhead.
Did you write songs for the Exotics?
I wrote some songs but not a lot. At that time, all I wanted to do was become a musician, and my guitars eventually became my parents’ worst nightmare.
When I began playing in bands and getting really serious, it began to freak my parents out. I was only 14 or 15, and they were worried about the kinds of people-musicians-I was hanging out with, because all of them were 18, and that’s a big disparity.
One night, after a gig when I was 14 that was one of the greatest, most exhilarating experiences of my life, with girls coming over to me afterward, my mother suddenly shows up with my father. They had been watching, and what they saw scared and intimidated the hell out of them. She walked into the backstage area, and she said, “Get in the car–now.” I said, “What do you mean? I wanted to hang out.” They said, “Let’s go!” I had to get in the car, and they took my guitar away. I thought they sold it, but they just locked it up. And she said, “That’s it. You can’t play guitar anymore. This is not good for your future.”
We’re pulling into the circular driveway of a suburban school on a little campus. Where are we now?
This is Iona Grammar School, a very Catholic school whose teachers were the Christian Brothers of Ireland, the most frustrated sons of bitches that ever walked the face of the earth. I was an honor student, but they did not like me, and I did not like them. I would be whacked at least once a day.
Meanwhile, my parents’ reaction to my guitar playing got so severe that they took me out of Iona in 10th grade and sent me to Admiral Farragut Academy in Toms River, N.J. A military school! I went there for six months, ran away three times, and I finally said, “I’m not going back, and I’m not going back home.” Military stuff was really tough in those days, and they were trying to break your spirit. You’d get up at 5 a.m. and stand to attention at your door in spit– shined shoes and listen to reveille while they inspected your bunk. It was insane. Nonetheless, a valuable experience.
I got my guitar back, and when I was a senior in high school, I sang and also played drums just enough to get by. I also got the acting bug. My parents said I had to go to college-at Hofstra-but I also took an acting course, and I played in the Hofstra band, taking up the upright bass. In the summer beforehand, I worked with my father, trying to learn his business. And I drove into New York City, two nights every week, to go to acting classes.
Whom did you study acting with?
Wynn Handman, one of the most renowned acting teachers in the world. He still runs the American Place Theater in Manhattan. He’s directed everybody from [Robert] De Niro to Lee Marvin, and he had his own teaching studio [in St. Clement's Church] on 46th Street. That was around 1968. So I’m going to Hofstra, taking acting classes with people like Marvin, and playing demo gigs as a session guitar player.
I was at Hofstra for six months and found the process not satisfying. I convinced my parents they could not hold me back any more, saying, “Look, I’ve tried everything else. I want to be a singer, a musician, and an actor. If you love me, you’ll support me.” I was about 18. So I picked up gigs playing WMCA record hops. I remember also playing a lot of gigs with Randy and the Rainbows ["Denise," "Why Do Kids Grow Up," both 1963] at Freedom Land [an amusement park] when that existed. So I got tied in with the radio stations, and I would get calls, show up, get the sheet-music charts, and play with the musicians, backing up the flavor of the month. You’d have no time to rehearse, but you’d just play the guy’s hits. You’d heard it on the radio all week [laughs] so you must know the arrangement, right?
And I started to pursue the acting thing. I did seven or eight movies as an extra or a bit-player, like No Way to ti-eat a Lady [Paramount, 1968] with Rod Steiger, and one with Mary Tyler Moore, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? [Universal, 1968]. I had lines, walking through the park on lower Fifth Avenue by Mary Tyler Moore and saying, “Look at the bird!”
[Laughs] But more and more, I really wanted to pursue singing. The guy at Epic who signed me was an A&R man and staff producer named Ted Cooper. He took me into CBS Recording Studios in the East 50s in Manhattan-where Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and everybody on the label recorded-to cut some songs [in February 1969].
I did two singles for Epic, “Woman Without Love” [written by Jerry Chestnut] and “Evil Woman” [by Larry Weiss], with Ted producing the tracks [released as Epic 5-10447]. And then I did “Love Trap,” written by Al Kooper, and “Allison Took Me Away” by Sandy Linzer, who produced the second single [issued as Epic 10523]. All of the songs were arranged by Charlie Calello, who worked with everybody from the Four Seasons to Neil Diamond.
Where were they trying to fit you in, stylistically?
I won’t say a combination of pop and urban, but they knew my love for R&B music, so they wanted to have a little bit of that feel but still create as pop a vehicle as possible. [Pause, big laugh] It’s a good thing I didn’t quit my day job. But at that point, I was really driven to be a vocalist. I was always a very ambitious guy, anxious to keep things moving forward and upward.
I’ve heard both singles. At least you had a pretty good sense of pitch.
You’re very kind. We didn’t have Pro Tools back then. Because in those days you paid for sessions in three-hour blocks, so you had three hours to get things done with the musicians and background singers. A producer would have the studio booked from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., and that was it-you lived up to that budget. They would usually do three sides in a session, including cutting the rhythm tracks.
How did you get the name T.D. Valentine?
After we’d been in the studio for a while, Cooper turned to me and said, “I think you might get confused in people’s minds with Tony Mottola.” Tony was a second cousin of mine, a great jazz and big-band guitarist who was a colleague of people like Bucky Pizzarelli. Tony played with Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Perry Como, Billie Holiday, and bands like Enoch Light & the Light Brigade. So Ted said,”What are your first initials?” I told him, and then he said, “Today is Valentine’s Day. So your new name is T.D. Valentine.” I said, “Sure! Whatever you think.” I would have been happy with any name-I just wanted to have a record out.
How did you promote the singles?
I went to WMCA record hops, and I sang in every dumpy club on the East Coast and also up in the Catskills. Sometimes I was solo and sang to tapes; sometimes with a backing band. I did radio interviews with stations that played my singles, like WMEX in Boston; and talking on the air with DJs from Providence, R.I., and Washington, D.C., down into the Carolinas. I did whatever I was asked to dora lot of it I hated.
The obsession with singing started to wear off, but I was still learning the industry, including the business of the songs. In other words, I started to get interested in music publishing. I got hired by MRC Music, the publishing arm of Mercury Records. Phonogram had bought Mercury Records [in 1965], which already owned Chappell Music, so they acquired Mercury’s publishing. One day, an executive at Chappell named Norm Weiser came to me and said, “I hear you’re the hot guy,” and offered me a raise from $125 to $250 a week
Jim Steinman was one of the first guys I worked with at Chappell Music. I put together a show by him at the Public Theater with Joe Papp. Soon I found myself working with such artists as Rod Stewart, handling the publishing side of his  “Maggie May” single and the Every Picture Tells a Story album. I remember being backstage with Stewart at a show in Philly, and he was really excited and happy with the job we were doing at radio for his album and single.
While I was at Chappell, I met up with a lot of young acts, like Daryl Hall & John Oates-who I first saw at SIR rehearsal studios in Manhattan-and I took them to RCA to make a deal. I left Chappell after six years to open Champion Entertainment, my management company, and my first clients were the acts I had been doing the publishing for, because I kept doing more and more for each of them, and they asked me to take on that role.
So I had Hall & Oates; Odyssey, a trio who had a top 20 single on RCA [in 1977] with “Native New Yorker”; and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, which I had also taken to RCA. I had hit it off well at RCA with an A&R executive there named Mike Berniker, who had previously been at Columbia and produced Barbra Streisand’s earliest albums. He loved everybody I brought to him, whether it was Daryl and John or the Savannah Band, and he had a great song sense.
Dr. Buzzard made your name a household word in a certain song lyric.
August Darnell, who later became the leader of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, was the lyricist of the Savannah Band. I go into the studio early in ’76 and hear them rehearsing this song ["Whispering"/"Cherchez la Femme"/ "Se Si Bon"] and it opens with these references to me: “Tommy Mottola lives on the road/He lost his lady two months ago/Maybe he’ll find her/ Maybe he won’t/Oh, we’ll never know.”
I had a laugh and figured that was just August and his brother Stony Browder, who did the music, being smart alecks. Incidentally, Sandy Linzer, who had worked on my own singles, was the producer, and Charlie Calello worked on the arranging for the Savannah Band’s debut [Dr. Buzzards Original Savannah Band, 1976]. Anyhow, two days later they do the formal session for the track, and when I hear the master, the lyric hasn’t changed! I’m in the song permanently! [Shrugs] What the hell can I do? Naturally, “Cherchez la Femme” became the hit [reaching No. 27 on the Hot 100].
But the biggest hits from your associations with both RCA and Champion Entertainment were by Hall & Oates, still one of the best– selling musical duos of all time. Can you recall a particular high point that typifies your long managerial bond with Daryl and John?
Daryl and I, we would have a routine where we would have dinner late at night at this old favorite restaurant of ours, Joe’s, on MacDougal Street [in New York's Greenwich Village]. After dinner, we’d go back to his place and he’d put the beat box on and just start playing. And No. 1 records would come out of those listening sessions. “Rich Girl” was written in John and Daryl’s apartment on [East] 82nd Street, between First and Second avenues. They wore strange clothes, like huge patchwork leather platform shoes, but they were just nice guys from Philadelphia, both Temple University graduates-literate, well-educated people who happened to be extremely talented musicians. With “Rich Girl,” Daryl kept playing this line on piano, and I kept making him play it over and over again. Basically, he used to write everything in the beginning on a little Wurlitzer piano, and he kept playing parts of the chorus, and it developed from there. I just kept saying, “What about that song? Go back to that riff.” Finally, one night he went home and finished it. I said, “That’s a No. 1 hit. Let’s cut it instantly-boom!” ["Rich Girl" was No. 1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks in 1977, the first of six charttopping Hall & Oates singles.]
Since you “lived on the road,” what were the low points with your acts?
There were a couple of them with Hall & Oates. I had to personally finance the whole thing in the beginning, and I remember one time riding in what we called the blue truck, an extra-large panel truck. We got stuck somewhere in a swampy Deep South area at 3 o’clock in the morning, changing tires. But then the new tire didn’t work, so we had to sit there in the dark, scared to death somebody was going to come by and blow our heads off with a shotgun.
Another time, I had to fly to a Hall & Oates gig somewhere in the Midwest in 1975-76-it could have been the Dakotas or Wisconsin. I was in a single-engine plane, with one pilot, in a non-pressurized cabin. It was cloudy, and I was scared to death. Then, when we were in mid-flight, the door of the plane flew open.
The pilot is looking over to see if it’s going to shut again, but of course he can’t get up. I’m holding onto my seat for dear life. Then the door slams shut, but it’s rattling. I’m thinking, “Fucking Hall & Oates! Why am I doing this?”
We go down to land, and the pilot misses the runway, almost crossing it like a T He realizes he has to fly off and try again, and I’m sitting there knowing the door is going to open again. Sure as hell, it does. Now the pilot is freaking out, trying to circle back. That was definitely a four-martini night, one of the most horrifying experiences ever. The problem is, those kinds of harrowing trips happened every week.
Did management ever get easier?
Never. But we had great artists like Carly Simon. We were all proud of how we worked with her and Clive [Davis] at Arista to help revitalize her career in the late ’80s with the Coming Around Again and Greatest Hits Live albums, and Mellencamp was always amazing.
I remember sitting in a car with you in the summer of 1985 as we rode up Sixth Avenue to the Champion office on 57th Street, and you played me a cassette tape of a Scarecrow outtake. John was against putting a track on the album called “R.O.C.K. in the USA.,” but you wanted me to hear the song anyway.
I think I was trying to promote you to promote him. He thought it was all wrong for the album-he said, “I did it as a joke, it’s no good.” I had the biggest fight in the world with John about forcing him to put it on Scarecrow. I said, “You know what? This is gonna be the hit!” [It was, reaching No. 2 on The BillboardHot 100.] I wanted to kill him. He made a great video-it was shot in black and white, like old kinescope TV footage. But he wouldn’t be in the video, so his whole band was playing onstage without him! [Laughs] He’s tough, but he’s great.
Meanwhile, Walter Yetnikoff, then chief of CBS Records, was enticing you to head CBS’ domestic division.
Walter said to me, ‘Why don’t you forget about being a manager?” I said, “Walter, I never want to be one of you guys.” I looked at all the record executives with very little respect, thinking, “Why don’t they do this, why do they do that?” The same thing [laughs] that happens to me now with managers. But CBS had some real problems. I said, “All of your departments are so backward. It would take 400 million tons of dynamite to blow up that building and start from scratch.” This went on for a year.
One day, he sits down and says, “I want you to come to CBS, and I’m prepared to make you the president of the company.” I said, “Thank you, I still don’t want to do it. I don’t want to become one of you people.” And I was doing very well at the time. Still, how can anybody go to sleep at night and say they turned down being the president of CBS Records at 37 years old?
So you took the job at CBS.
A month later, I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” It was April 1988. So I made a deal, and I walked in-and I thought it was a mistake. I thought I was going to be able to run this great monolith and just tweak it. I didn’t realize that it was quickly becoming the dinosaur of its time. Even though so many of the great stars who were part of the company and who helped build the company were icons and are still the backbone and the cornerstone for us and everybody-Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Gloria Estefan-down in the underbelly, there was no real development of new talent to the degree that there needed to be.
I remember looking at the Billboard charts and seeing all these bands I’d never heard of from every label at the WEA organization-like, maybe, 32 records in the Hot 100. At that time, CBS had maybe 11 or 12, and, granted, they were the biggest hits in the world from the icons we just named. But there was nothing brand-new and fresh being developed. At the same time, the company was working as two separate organizations-the international and the U.S. operations-separated by a wall. There was no seamless organization like there is now.
Sony had just acquired CBS at the time. And wouldn’t you know it, the year that I came in-1988-the company had the worst year in its history! I had nothing to do with it, but nonetheless, I’m the head of the company. Traditionally in corporations, the year that you’re having the worst year is not a good time to go to your boss and say, “We need to spend $50 million-$100 million to rejuvenate this company.”
You normally would wait until you start to have some profits and turn the company around. But I sat down with [Sony Corp. president] Noria Ohga, and I said, “Look, we have two choices. We can either sink or swim. The people across the street are kicking our ass. You have a man named Steve Ross who has empowered his [WEA] executives to go out, find, develop new talent. Let them act like entrepreneurs. If you really want me to compete, I need to build these two, separate labels. And it will cost a lot of money.” He said, “Do whatever you have to do to get the hits.”
So that allowed us to dive in headfirst, hiring Don lenner, who was at Arista; and Dave Glew, who was at Atlantic; and Polly Anthony, who was in promotion at the time. The first person I brought in was Dave Glew. Donny I brought in a year later, because he had a contract he had to get out of. Mel Ilberman I brought in-he was at PolyGram. Then a year later, I met this hotshot lawyer who thought she was going to become the next big lawyer on the West Coast-I scooped her up and brought her into the company. That was Michele Anthony. That was and still is the nucleus of our company 13 years later: the same management.
So that took us into the ’90s, where we began to develop a lot of new bands, broke a lot of big pop acts like New Kids on the Block and Harry Connick Jr. I signed Mariah [Carey] in ’88. We released her album a year and a half later, and it became the biggest phenomenon in the world.
All this after you got Mariah’s demo tape at a New York party.
A friend walked in with her, Brenda K. Starr, and handed me the tape. On my way home, I listened to the tape in the car. I said, “This can’t be that same person singing.” I turned the car around and went back to the party– she had left. I tracked her down two days later and said, “You have a deal.” The rest is history.
I recall Michele Anthony playing me three early tracks from Rage Against The Machine in her office one day in the late summer of 1992. I’d never heard anything like it.
I actually met Michele because she was such a ball breaker on this Alice in Chains deal. She was considered the alternative lawyer. I said, “Who is this lawyer? I want to meet with her. Why is she giving us such a hard time?” She met with me and said, “You know, I wouldn’t sign any acts to your label. You don’t even have any alternative bands or know how to break alternative music.” I was pissed off at her attitude and how she told me off that way, but I said, “You know what? She’s right.”
I said, “Forget being a lawyer. Come here, and you can make your mark, make a difference.” First she said no, but then she accepted. The first six months she was like a fish out of water, because she didn’t have a specific job, but little by little, she began to assume the responsibilities of business affairs, integrating with the labels and working closely with Donny and Dave on A&R matters and signing bands. Don’t forget-she was a manager’s daughter [as the offspring of former Peter Frampton career guide Dee Anthony], and she lived on the road. She brought in Pearl Jam, Rage, Alice in Chains, and had a lot to do with signing Aerosmith.
Source: Billboard – Timothy White
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