Photo courtesy John Broven
In the Atlantic Records office, October 2006: Label head Ahmet Ertegun with author John Broven. This was almost certainly Ertegun's last full-scale interview; within a month, he suffered his tragic fall at the Beacon Theater.
That Was Rock 'n' Roll!
In Record Makers and Breakers, author John Broven explores the hidden history of the birth of the independent labels that brought rock 'n' roll to the masses
By David McGee
Music historian and author John Broven has put together the story of the birth of rock & roll in a way no one else has quite managed before and in doing so delivered a work essential to understanding the concatenation of intertwined factors that helped bring the new music to the masses. In Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of The Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers (University of Illinois Press), Broven, author of two respected histories of Louisiana music (1974's Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans, and 1983's South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous), tracks down not only artists and label personnel from those days, but also explores the symbiotic relationship between labels, jukebox distributors, DJs, record retailers and even record pressing plants in the developing framework of the rising independent record labels. Some of his interviews are invaluable-he is the only writer known to have ever interviewed Specialty Records founder Art Rupe, for example, and in one of his most important finds he documents the career of Mimi Trepel, described by one reviewer as "the unseen heroine of rock 'n' roll," who started out on radio in Brooklyn and ascended to the head of foreign distribution for London Records, one of the few women behind the scenes in those years, and largely ignored until now-and the stories he gathered from the likes of Ahmet Ertegun, George Avakian, Jerry Wexler and others are both vital and entertaining. Some may complain that Broven shies away from examining the more unsavory aspects of the business, but in fact he does come to grips with those accusations in his own fashion; moreover, the book is not a Frederic Dannen, Hit Man-style expose but an attempt to correct, and in many instances set down for the first time, the complex history of the rock 'n' roll era's genesis.
TheBluegrassSpecial.com spoke to Broven via email about his work on Record Makers and Breakers. In addition, with thank to the University of Illinois Press, we are able to offer a small excerpt from the book. It's fascinating history, thoroughly researched and well observed, presented in Broven's usual accessible style, which is informed and respectful but not uncritical or without his usual dollop of wry humor.
How long were you working on this book, from research to writing? Do you know how many interviews you conducted?
John Broven: I suppose you could say I started the book when I wrote my first article for the first issue of Blues Unlimited (of Bexhill-on-Sea, England) on Louisiana record man J.D. Miller way back in 1963.
In 2004, realizing that most of the surviving pioneers were in their 70s and 80s (and more), I resolved to write the book and duly stepped up my interview schedule. After the arduous transcribing process—like compiling indexes, there is no quick and easy way!—I began writing in earnest on July 4, 2005. The manuscript was delivered to University of Illinois Press in May 2008 and was published in March this year. Through the years, I interviewed just over 100 people who were quoted in the book.
Who among these record people had never had his/her story told before?
Broven: London Records' Mimi Trepel story had never been published before and has been something of a "hit" with readers and reviewers; and surprisingly Gene Goodman (Benny's brother and cofounder of Arc Music) said this was his first interview. Johnny and Freddy Bienstock (Bigtop) explained the intervention of publishers into the record arena. And I was delighted with the first interviews with the Cash Box editors: Ira Howard, Irv Lichtman and Marty Ostrow.
Then there was Joe Dreyhaupt, the pressing plant director at Shelley Products; and Dick Alen who discussed the work of booking agents and their relationship with the record makers; also Buck Ram's publicist Jean Bennett. Britain's Jeffrey Kruger licensing travails with Herald-Ember were a revelation. And what a great story Col. Jim Wilson told as a King Records branch manager.
Henry Stone, Stan Lewis and Floyd Soileau were able to explain the machinations of the distribution system, as did distributor's salesman Harold "Mr. Blues" Ladell (who also doubled as a pioneering disc jockey). Both Cosimo Matassa and Joe Bihari related their experiences as teenage jukebox operators' assistants. And how about George Avakian's marvelous treatise on the Battle of the Speeds (LP v. 45)? Or Shannon Williams' brilliant reminiscences on the workings of Ernie's Record Mart mail order business?
The one thing I learned through the years is that one should never consider a person to be fully interviewed on the basis of one interview. If a person has had an interesting career, inevitably there are still fascinating stories—and observations—to be dug up.
Good examples are Joe Bihari (Modern), Billy Davis (Anna, Chess) and Bobby Robinson (Fire-Fury), whom I interviewed on several occasions. Each time there was much to savor. Although these men had been interviewed in the past, I think this is the first time their stories have been told so comprehensively.
Likewise, I was pleased to put the work into its full historical context of Berle Adams (Mercury), Dave Appell (Cameo-Parkway), Harold Battiste (Specialty, A.F.O.), Howard Bedno (Cobra, promo man), Miriam Bienstock (Atlantic), Luigi Creatore (of Hugo & Luigi), Cy Leslie (Pickwick), Fred Foster (Monument), Bob Marcucci (Chancellor), Doug Moody (Herald-Ember), Art Rupe (Specialty) and Shelby Singleton (Mercury, SSS Int., Sun).
Marshall Chess provides an enlightening look at the inner workings of Chess Records in John Broven's book Record Makers and Breakers
With Marshall Chess I stuck purely to the "record man" subject and came away with an enlightening interview on the workings of Chess Records; and Donn Fileti gave a gem of an interview from a young record collector's perspective.
Artists Paul Evans, B.B. King, Ruth McFadden and Maxine Brown gave trenchant industry-insider comments.
Then there are the other pioneers who are no longer with us. How pleased I am to have preserved some of the many stories and contributions to the indie record business of: Hoss Allen, Ahmet Ertegun, Lee Magid, J.D. Miller, Juggy Murray, Sam Phillips, Don Pierce, Doc Pomus, Googie Rene, Marshall Sehorn, Arthur Shimkin, Eddie Shuler, Hy Weiss, Shannon Williams and. Jerry Wexler. I am sorry, though, that they (and others) could not see the results of my endeavors.
Then there are the interviews with Seymour Stein, Johnny Otis, Morty Craft, Dave Burgess and Joe Johnson. I could go on and on.
But think of the stories that have been lost from the "uninterviewed" Leonard Chess, Syd Nathan, Herman Lubinsky, George Goldner, Jules and Saul Bihari, Ernie Young, Clark Galehouse, Bess Berman, Florence Greenberg, Paul Ackerman and, yes, Morris Levy. Still, I'm thankful to have interviewed those pioneers that I did.
Why did you feel it was important to include the distributors and even the pressing plants in the story?
Broven: Add to this list the jukebox distributors and operators, one-stop and record shop owners, disc jockeys, music publishers, trade magazine editors, studio owners and promo men. Together, they created the independent record business—it wasn't just the record men and women, or the artists.
Do you believe the industry profiled in your book was less corrupt than it became during the years chronicled in Frederic Dannen's book, Hit Men? How do you answer the charge that the pioneers profiled in your book made their fortunes by pilfering monies owed the artists?
Broven: First, Dannen's Hit Men seemed to portray a far more cynical and "dark" industry from the 1960s onward.
But let me try to put a positive spin on things. I think my book gives a fresh perspective on the inner workings of the cottage industry that was the early indie record business, for all its faults (as hinted above). Indeed, for too long, I feel music history writing has been tilted too much toward the artist and I wanted to restore the balance by highlighting the record makers' contributions and successes—often against all the odds—along with, importantly, the failures and hustles.
I think my work does show the industry in a more compassionate light while not ignoring the less savory aspects. Therefore, I was pleased with this recent review comment: "'Record Makers' is an essential book for anyone interested in not only American music culture but American culture, period." (Ed Hurtt, American Songwriter). Or as Ahmet Ertegun said, it is a great American story.
Let us not forget that the indie record makers literally built an industry from scratch, which has had lasting cultural and social implications. At the end of it, we are left with marvelous music that is preserved forever.
Did you find anything in your research or interviews that surprised you with respect to what you thought you knew about a particular subject, or challenged the conventional wisdom about the era as you understood it?
Broven: I came to understand just how much the industry was intertwined, with the individual elements all vital toward creating a hit record. And, really, it was all about the hit record. By the same token, I could see the elements of cooperation and friendship between supposed competitors.
I wasn't fully aware how the industry developed from its small beginnings during World War II with the crucial help of the jukebox operators, who acted as distributors, bulk purchasers and "free" promoters with jukebox plays—and importantly dictated the "sound" of R&B, hillbilly and then rock 'n' roll. Also I was unaware just what a big role model Capitol Records was for the indie record makers.
Too, I didn't realize just how many indie artists were snapped up by the major labels (Elvis was neither the first nor last!); and the extent to which the majors bought up the bigger indie labels in the course of time.
Also with the majors, it became clear to me just how quickly they cornered the hillbilly market, but basically left the R&B market to the indies until rock 'n' roll came along. As well, the majors participated in the indies' rise by pressing many of their records.
Conventional wisdom challenged? I had no idea that Bigtop Records was set up in the hope that Elvis Presley would be signed from RCA Victor. Even the name was designed to appeal to Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker.
I could see the indie labels were covering original records in the mid-1950s just as much as the majors; and understood how the indies benefited by having their songs covered by major labels. So it wasn't merely a question of the Big Bad Majors pillaging the Poor Indies.
I always thought major label Columbia missed out on rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. In a sense they did, but as George Avakian said, they were not concerned at all because they were enjoying massive LP sales (with far bigger profit margins) from their "career" pop artists.
It was also good to understand how Cash Box magazine conducted its reviews and compiled its charts. And Art Rupe's staff rules were revelatory on the nuts-and-bolts operations of a successful indie record company in the mid-1950s.
Most of all, I could see the importance of the song to a record company. As I said in the book, I was searchin'; I learned a lot in the process—and am still learning.
Visit John Broven's website at www.johnbroven.com for more details about Record Makers and Breakers, and his other books, Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans and South to Louisiana: Music of the Cajun Bayous. All are available at www.amazon.com.
Elvis Presley, 'Teddy Bear'
(an excerpt from Record Makers and Breakers: Breakers: Voices of The Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers, by John Broven)
When the Aberbachs [Julian and Jean] appointed Johnny Bienstock to head Bigtop in 1958, he had no idea how to run a record company. So he went down to Philadelphia to pick up tips from former Hill & Range writers, Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann, who had jumped out of the gate quickly with their Cameo label. As well, Mann and Lowe had just written a summer 1957 Elvis Presley No. 1 hit, "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear." "They let me come by and look over their shoulders," said Bienstock, "because I didn't know how to handle certain things productionwise, inventorywise." It was also his introduction to creative independent label royalty accounting: "I said to myself, 'Look, this is very good but I'm not erasing things and putting new numbers in. But I'll sell a few records.'"
The first semblance of a Bigtop hit came in November 1958 when young Bobby Pedrick Jr. (later known as Robert John) scored modestly with the bright teen rocker "White Bucks And Saddle Shoes," written by Hill & Range staffers Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman: That's what the kids all choose ... sang Johnny enthusiastically. "That record came out at exactly the same time as Bobby Darin [with 'Queen Of The Hop,' a follow-up to 'Splish Splash']," he said. "They were both on the 'try-out' [called Rate A Record] that Dick Clark had. He used to try out new records for the kids to react to, and Bobby Darin overwhelmingly beat 'White Bucks.' Although 'White Bucks' was never really a hit [peaking at No. 74], it was big enough to sell records. I thought it was a very good record."
Sammy Turner's 'Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly), established the Bigtop label when it became a #3 hit in 1959. Dick Clark said, 'I got to hate that song with a passion, but I'll tell you something, this is a good record. If I didn't hate the song so much I'd put it on the air of my dance show right away because I think it will sell. But if you can get that record played elsewhere in my town, I'll play it.'
Bigtop was established by Sammy Turner's "Lavender Blue (Dilly, Dilly)," a No. 3 hit in summer 1959. "That was a very, very big record produced by Leiber and Stoller who were songwriters of ours," said Johnny Bienstock, "they wrote for Elvis and other people.
There was nobody in our office that knew anything about the record business. Freddy didn't, Jean and Julian didn't, and so we had to rely on them. They were making records not only for us, but for Atlantic and others. We were very friendly with them, and later on we became partners [in Fort Knox Music/Trio Music Co.].
"Then television shows became big, such as Dick Clark in Philadelphia, you had this American Bandstand show. I used to drive down on every Wednesday once he became prominent. He had a guy by the name of Tony Mammarella who was his assistant, and he screened you before you got to see Dick Clark. I personally got very friendly with Dick right away. He liked Sammy Turner's 'Lavender Blue (Dilly, Dilly)' a lot but ... I said, 'Dick, but what?' He told me that when he was a high school kid he used to work in a post office at Christmas time, like most teenagers do, and next to his desk was another guy who constantly used to sing Lavender blue, dilly dilly. It drove him bananas! Dick said, 'I got to hate that song with a passion, but I'll tell you something, Johnny, this is a good record. If I didn't hate the song so much I'd put it on the air of my dance show right away because I think it will sell. But if you can get that record played elsewhere in my town, I'll play it.'
"Jocko Henderson [Your ace from outer space] and Georgie Woods [The guy with the goods] were at the black station WDAS, there were two or three black stations in Philadelphia. I made sure that all those black stations played the record particularly since Sammy Turner was a black artist, and he had that very soulful rendition of 'Lavender Blue (Dilly, Dilly).' Then when we got on WFIL, I saw Dick Clark a week later and I said, 'Look, I got you surrounded. On top of which without you playing it on the big nationwide show, I've already sold about 100,000.' 'Wow,' he says, 'I'm going on it.' It was Sammy's only big hit; he had other little things like 'Always' [No. 19], 'Paradise' [No. 46], and 'Sweet Annie Laurie' [No. 100].
"Dick didn't ask for a piece of the action. At that time he was not as forward, even though I know from certain people that he would make deals of that sort. But I figured it was a bit rash and early [to give payola], I would rather bring some goodies. I would hate to give money to them. Like if a jockey has a baby, I used to buy the baby a birth gift, became a godfather, and things like that. I made myself hopefully that they would like me. And that way I got records played."
Even though "Lavender Blue" was a top 3 record, Jean Aberbach was not happy back at the Hill & Range ranch. "The interesting part is that the record company was supposed to make up for the loss of the sheet music sales," said Johnny Bienstock. "And Jean was mad at me that 'Lavender Blue (Dilly, Dilly)' didn't belong to us, it belonged to another publisher and became a big hit. He said, 'What's the matter with you, that's not the idea to have just record sales, the idea is to promote our copyrights.' I said, 'Look, there are certain things that happen in the record business that you may not understand. I can give him [Sammy Turner] all the Hill & Range songs to sing and if he can't do it, what good is it? You can't force it. But if there is a thing that you can do well that can be a hit, I don't care whose copyright it is, we'll make money out of the record. That's what record companies do; Atlantic Records doesn't care who has the copyright."
Del Shannon's 'Runaway' was Bigtop's biggest hit, a #1 international best seller.
Johnny Bienstock: 'At this time I didn't even know of Del Shannon. His real name was Charlie Westover. To tell you the truth when I first met him, I saw a guy that was about 26 years old, with a big cigar in his hand and my heart fell in my pants. I was doing a record hop with him in Teaneck, New Jersey, and I said, 'You gotta get rid of that cigar, you got to lose at least 5 to 8 pounds; they'll think that you're a father. You're not a kid that's running away, you don't sound like a runaway when they look at you.''
The biggest Bigtop hit was the No. 1 international best seller, "Runaway" by Del Shannon, in early summer 1961. "Well, Del Shannon was the product of a guy that I was very, very friendly with in Ann Arbor, Michigan,' said Johnny Bienstock, "his name was Ollie McLaughlin, he was a disc jockey. He first took me to Johnny and the Hurricanes, who came out of a stable by two partners named Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk [they were connected once with Al Green at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit and operated in the name of EmBee Productions]. Harry Balk was the music man in the record business and Irving Micahnik, a Russian name, was the money man. They bought me this solid gold Swiss watch when I had 'Runaway,' and they bought a mink cape for my wife. They were so delighted about this big hit.
"The record was done and cut in Detroit but then Harry Balk brought the stuff to New York. We mastered in New York, usually at Atlantic Records if I could get Tommy Dowd to let me into his studio; and I was very friendly with Tommy Dowd. Oh, he was a fantastic engineer! I said to Harry [Balk] in the studio: 'It ['Runaway'] is so bad, so flat, we've got to speed it up.' And we speeded it up a full 10 seconds, so then the sound was pleasant to the ear. But when Del had to do it live, he couldn't go up that high. It was a terrific sound in the bridge that suddenly helped the record along. A guy by the name of Maximillian Crook, he had this crazy instrument like a moog that he played [actually a musitron]. He wanted to protect it, it was his invention and everything.
"At this time I didn't even know of Del Shannon. His real name was Charlie Westover. To tell you the truth when I first met him, I saw a guy that was about 26 years old, with a big cigar in his hand and my heart fell in my pants. I was doing a record hop with him in Teaneck, New Jersey, and I said, 'You gotta get rid of that cigar, you got to lose at least 5 to 8 pounds; they'll think that you're a father. You're not a kid that's running away, you don't sound like a runaway when they look at you.' That record was the only natural record in my career, that record got on the air and orders would come in by the tens of thousands in every territory in the United States. It was No. 1 here and No. 1 in England, too."
Johnny Bienstock credited his disc jockey friend, Bob Bartel of Radio WLOF Orlando, Florida, with breaking "Runaway" literally overnight. "The next morning [distributor] Henry Stone in Miami called me up," Johnny added. "He said, 'You got a record out something 'Running Love' or whatever.' I said, "Running ...?" 'C'mon, I have so many calls.' I said, 'Could it possibly be 'Runaway'?' He said, 'Yeah, I think that's what it is. I'm your distributor, and I haven't even got a sample: send me 20,000 records! I've had so many calls and I haven't even heard the record.' That's his story, absolutely true. And our New York distributor Gladys Pare [of Portem] ordered 30,000 copies.
"We did not publish 'Runaway' but I bought the copyright from Ollie McLaughlin. It took a while and he needed some money. I got a $12,000 bonus from Jean Aberbach, not even Julian, it was Jean because that's one thing he did do when we brought something in." Other big singles by Del Shannon were 'Hats Off To Larry' (No. 5) and 'Little Town Flirt' (No. 12). All told he had nine Hot 100 hits on Bigtop between 1961 and 1963. The Del Shannon Runaway album, like so many by indie hit acts at the time, fared poorly, but the follow-up LP, Little Town Flirt, made No. 12 in 1963.
From RECORD MAKERS AND BREAKERS: VOICE OF THE INDEPENDENT ROCK 'N' ROLL PIONEERS. Copyright 2009 by John Broven. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press