Stories about events in 1962

Mercury

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on December 23rd, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

A lawyer in Chicago, a former radical who now represented all the authors in town and had done some work for me in the past, came to me one day in and suggested that Mercury Records might be interested in my services as a consultant. Mercury was looking to get into the increasingly hip folk market, which I was thought to be knowledgeable about; maybe we could work out a mutually beneficial deal.

I liked the idea. I didn’t know what Mercury could want from me– I knew nothing about records, and I was still learning my own end of the business. But I knew I could learn a lot from some exposure to another side of things. I think the people at Mercury knew I was wooing the Chad Mitchell Trio and might be able to bring them a recording contract. I never did figure out whether they were more interested in me or the trio.

Mercury was the biggest Chicago-basad record company, and had recently been sold to Phillips. it was very much part of the hip Chicago scene. Some of their early artists were Frankie Laine, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, etc. During the two years I worked with them they had Johnny Mathis, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Smothers Brothers, the Singing Nun, Roger Miller. For a short period they were toe to toe with Columbia, not in overall volume but in records on the charts.

I remember once hearing Irving Green, Mercury’s founder, talk to Frederick Fernel of the Minneapolis Symphony on one phone and Sarah Vaughan on the other. I was amazed at the way he could relate to both artists on a level they could understand. He had that kind of charismatic personality. He was a big man.

My lawyer friend negotiated a contract for me to help them out as a sort of part-time producer. As it turned out, I did benefit from the relationship. I met Sherman Wolfe, a very nice and competent PR man for the agency. When Sherman left that agency and went into business for himself, he became my regular PR guy, and remained that for many years.

It worked for a couple of years. I was more of a talent finder than a producer. I had neither the ears nor the ability to produce records, although the deal paid off for them — I got them the Serendipity Singers, which was not that great a group, but they had a regular television show spot, a hit single and a good album. I had contracts out on two artists which were never signed: Bill Cosby, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. But I felt good that at least these two artists justified my getting the contracts for them.

On the plane

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on March 18th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

About a week before the Sinatra comeback date, I called Peter Epstein one last time to make sure we were doing everything that was expected of us. Epstein said, “Say, Harold Gibbons and I are taking the four o’clock flight over to Cleveland Thursday to catch the show there. Why don’t you come with us?” I’d been planning to go up there anyway, to get a first-hand look at how this organization wanted their shows done, but this was even better. On the plane for an hour and a half with these guys, I figured, I would get to hear some of the inside scoop. I might get a peek at the real balance of forces in the entourage, and even at the widely-rumored role of the mob in all this.

“Great idea,” I agreed, trying hard to match his enthusiasm. “I’ll get a ticket and go up with you. Pick me up at my office, will you?” Two days later I was sitting with Epstein in the back seat of his enormous black Pontiac. As the Chicago tenements flashed by, Epstein told me he had sold his home and was selling his business. “We’re moving into a house in Palm Springs, right near where Frank Iives,” he said, wide—eyed. “So that’s your next move, huh?” I said.

“You ought to come along next time Frank takes a trip to Palm Springs,” he said. “You could maybe get on the plane, even. Bring your wife.” That might be fun, I agreed.

It was in fact a very dangerous move Epstein was making, because he was not quite in the inner circle in Sinatra’s throne room. He was still only in the second tier, and the contours of the court changed all the time. I stared at him as he chattered on. This man was living his whole life in the shadow of somebody else’s fantasy.

We boarded the plane with Harold Gibbons and a third man I don’t remember well, a groupie-in-training from the oilfield supply business. This was his first invitation into the inner circle and he was patently thrilled to be included. He wasn’t saying much, just grinning and nodding.

To my disappointment, the only two subjects discussed on the plane were status and women. As the flight wore on, I heard nothing about Sinatra’s people or any other questionable characters. Epstein and Gibbons went on at length about who was going to be at the concert, who was traveling with Frank on his plane, who had got in to see him, who would get to go back with him to California, where in the pecking order they fit, and where they might end up.

There were people who just got to the ramp of Sinatra’s airplane, and there were those who got to go aboard. On the plane itself, there was an even finer set of distinctions. No women were allowed, except those currently being used by one of the men in the inner circle. There were some men who got to ride in the plane but sat in the front. Then there were those who evidently had unlimited entree. There was no question that Gibbons, the former radical labor leader from St. Louis, had that.

They carried on about women until I was just embarrassed for them. I was neither a prude nor an emancipated man, by today’s standards, but the way these men went after the stewardess would have been enough to make a Bob Packwood flinch. I said nothing. I just wanted to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

Grasping for a way to get them to shut up, I turned to Gibbons. “So, Harold,” I broke in. “Heard from our mutual friend Sid Lens lately?” Gibbons turned so white I thought for a moment he was airsick. He didn’t ask what that meant, and he never did find out — not from me, at least. Old leftist connections were no small embarrassment to Gibbons. He was running the St. Louis joint board, he was Jimmy Hoffa’s number two man, he was beginning to play a national role in “liberal-labor” glamour politics, and he was part of the Sinatra entourage; all these interlocking things made him a far cry from the Harold Gibbons who founded one of the more dynamic warehouse unions in the country. I sat there quietly for the rest of the flight, enjoying his shaken expression.

Francoise

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on February 3rd, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Quentin Young had been my doctor since I went to him in 1958 with an eye problem that another doctor had been unable to deal with. Later he went on to greater glory, director of something important at Cook County Hospital, but when I met him he was just a family doctor with an office in the Hyde Park shopping center. Quentin was at a turning point of his own, in the midst of a divorce and trying to decide whether to join a group practice.

Kindred Hyde Park radicals, Quentin and I hit it off immediately. I thought he was a fascinating man. After he checked me over that first time we stayed in the office for several hours talking about politics and his marital troubles. Afterwards I thought I should have been the one to bill him.

This was probably no way to start off a doctor—patient relationship, but Quentin was my doctor from that day until I left Chicago decades later. For a couple of years I hardly ever saw him professionally. I would see him at the concerts a lot, and I saw him taking a growing role in the Medical Committee for Human Rights and the School Board struggle, but I was relatively healthy and I rarely had to go to his office.

Quentin hired a new nurse in 1962 named Francoise Nicolas, an extremely intelligent woman and a beautiful one as well, who had only recently immigrated from France. She was about my height, a little shorter, slender. Very soon after I met her at Quentin‘s office, I asked her to dinner at an ltalian restaurant on Rush Street, and we began dating.

Francoise had a fast, sharp tongue, but at the same time, she had a lot of heart. She spoke with a heavy French accent, which I kind of enjoyed. She was also a sick woman, and she didn’t know why. Even though she went about her life with an incredible amount of energy, Francoise seemed always to be getting colds. Her resistance was always weak, and during the brutal Chicago winters she was often ill.

Francoise was an angry premature feminist. She was extremely angry at her parents. Her younger sister had a Ph.D. in physics, her brother got a doctorate in agronomy, and she, as the eldest daughter, was programmed to be a nurse and get married. She became a nurse, got married, had three kids and lost her husband in a railroad accident the day they came to Chicago.

She stayed in Chicago because a lawyer misled her that she had a large case against the railroad, and that to protect herself and the kids she had to be here to pursue the claim. There was no case. The judge gave the three kids ten thousand between them, almost as a consolation prize. Meanwhile, she was in no position to get welfare, and her parents were unable to help her out.

She was instinctively a rebel and a freethinker, but not a radical in any strict sense. Her first exposure was to Quentin and his circle of Hyde Park progressives, so she heard all sorts of predictions that the machine would soon be destroyed, we‘d soon win the battle for civil rights, national health insurance was around the corner. She accepted all this at face value. When things didn’t turn out quite that way, she became a skeptic, and remained one the rest of her life.

Francoise always told me that it was her kids who had decided that she would marry me. She had gone out with one other guy before and had broken up with him because the kids didn’t like him. I was surprised to hear it, because I had always thought I’d make a better uncle than father. I didn’t treat them badly, but I didn’t I shmear over them either. I think I gave them a feeling of protection and security.

The Gateway Singers

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on January 20th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Albert Grossman had sent me to the West Coast to do some booking chores. I met Maryanne Polar, the promoter for college concerts in the area, at her house in Berkeley. We made the arrangements for Lehrer to play there the following summer. After we talked I had the rest of the evening to myself, so I went to the Hungry i to hear a group I had heard about. I sat down at a table near the back of the room to listen.

I’d just lit my second cigarette when a small black woman emerged from the wings and walked to the microphone at center stage. Three white fellows, carrying guitars, followed and arranged themselves behind her. They launched into “Putting on the Style,” and then they did a version of the old gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” They closed the set with a literate, sarcastic little song about “Dr. Freud.” I was their fan before the set closed. I had never heard anything like it. These four people could sing up a storm, they were smart, they were funny, and they looked absolutely incredible. When they took a break and went backstage I got up and followed.

They were called the Gateway Singers. They had a regular gig at the Hungry i, but somehow they hadn‘t been able to get much further. Their first manager had been Abner Greschler, the man who had discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and had brought British films to American television. He was one of the legendary Hollywood sharks, but he was a courtly man, meaning that after you shook hands with him you would usually wait until he left the room before you counted your fingers.

Greschler would only have managed an act like this one if he saw instant money. He never got it, because they never made it, but he tried hard. Somehow, in spite of it all, they had not broken big. There had to be a reason. They acknowledged that they had made some mistakes. Before their first album, Greschler had got them contract offers from Decca and Capitol, two of the more aggressive record labels in the business. Decca had won a reputation by recording the Weavers, the legendary folk group that hit big with “Goodnight Irene” in 1950, but by this time the company’s arteries had hardened and it was content to rest on its catalogue. Capitol was still a hungry, hustling outfit without a lot of big names. The Gateway Singers went with Decca. The Kingston Trio chose Capitol.

I didn’t care. I told them they were the most exciting thing I’d seen. I thought they would be offended if I told them their act was more commercial than most folksingers, but I said so anyway. Elmer Lee Thomas, the lead singer, nodded. “lt’s meant to be slick,“ she said. “Yes, we’re more commercial than most folk groups, but we’re also more provocative. Just our being together is a statement.”

Norman

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on March 16th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The worse the investment, the easier it is to get people to invest. This was the first time I encountered that principle in my show business life. Something makes people invest in pop concerts, plays, movies, when similar odds in another field would send them running. In a word, the upside is limited, and the downside is not.

I think our investors lost thirty-five cents on the dollar. I knew nothing about taxes, or I would have known it would cost somebody in the seventy-percent bracket thirty cents on the dollar, so an investor who lost thirty-five cents on the dollar really ended up losing only about fifteen cents.

In the end, the reputation I gained from that first Johnny Mathis series gave me a foothold in big-concert promoting, because even though I lost money, I was seen to be handling it professionally.

I knew everybody who put up money, except one fellow my accountant had brought in, Kevin Norman of Norman Lock Co. He had lost five thousand dollars. Norman came into the office one day in November. We were there putting together the Henry Mancini and Andy Williams concert at the Arie Crown Theater, and Barbra Streisand’s first solo concert the week after that.

Norman said he wanted to see me. I was overcome with guilt. I didn’t ask what the guy wanted; I figured he was going to read me out for being an opportunist and not even calling him. But all he wanted was to buy a block of tickets for the Streisand show. After the business was concluded, he said, “You know, you did a great thing for me.” I thought to myself, let’s see… he was probably in the seventy percent bracket, which meant losing fifteen percent of his five grand. That’s not so terrible, but I didn’t think I deserved to have it put on my tombstone that I’d done him a great favor. So I said, “Why?”

He said, “Well, I was sitting in the Pump Room later on, and Eddie Bracken was there. He overheard that I was an investor in the Mathis show.” One the strength of that introduction, Norman had produced two Broadway shows, he told me, one of which closed in Connecticut and the other on Broadway the first night.

I was not in that business, but I knew a little about how people invest in theater, I knew they sank four grand or ten grand apiece into a show. I asked, a little rudely, “So, how much did you put into it?” He said, “Twenty thousand in each show, and it was the greatest experience of my life.” I was speechless. But if he thought it was the best thing that ever happened to him, who was I to argue?

I never did have the nerve to call Norman again. Mathis came back a year later for a one-night show that sold out instantly, and I never lost another penny on a Mathis show.

Big, big, big

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on February 25th, 2010 by The editor.  4 Comments

Peter Epstein took the stairs up to my office two at a time, his blue silk jacket unbuttoned and floating along behind him. “I knew this was gonna be big, big, big,” he announced. “Harold Gibbons is coming in ahead of the Sinatra tour!” I sat up. “The Harold Gibbons?” “Teamster Number Two,” Epstein nodded triumphantly.

I wondered what Epstein would think if he knew what I knew about Harold Gibbons. I decided to keep it to myself for now.

Eight weeks ago I’d taken a long-distance call from Willard Alexander in New York. All I knew about him was that he was the agent who booked Count Basie, Harry James, and some other big ballroom acts.

We exchanged pleasantries. “Sinatra,” he told me, “is going out on tour with Basie.” Alexander had come up with the idea himself, he said. “I told him just last month, I said, ‘Frankie, you ought to be playing with Basie. You should go out on a tour.’ He says to me, ‘Gee, you think I can draw that many people?’ Of course he can, right?” Right, I agreed.

I was not in the ballroom business, however, and I knew very little about that side of the market. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

“You, my friend, are the promoter on the Chicago dates,” Alexander said, exhaling again. My eyebrows went up. “Who says?” “Me,” he answered. “Frank says Iet’s do it, so right away I think, who’s the only guy in that town for the kind of show we want to do? Frank’s people want a first-class production at a major venue. Mr. Fried, of course.” He was gilding things a bit, I thought — I had never done any business with Alexander. He was the agent for most of the remaining big bands. I didn’t do big bands. But I said, “Yes? Go on.”

“We’II take a thirty-five thousand dollar guarantee against sixty percent, you keep the rest. Deal?” I thought for a moment. It was the most money I’d ever paid for an act. But this was a huge infusion of prestige to be handed without so much as asking.

I had a virtual lock on the use of McCormick Place, and I knew I had enough in the bank to come up with the front money. “DeaI,” I said.

“Peter Epstein — do you know him? He’s gonna be taking care of some things for Frank on the Midwest part of the tour, outside of the actual concerts,” Alexander said. “He’ll be in touch.”

That evening I was sitting across the table from a booking agent friend of mine at the Chicago Hilton, my favorite place for dinner. When I told him about my unexpected conversation with Willard Alexander, he straightened up and gave me a long look. “I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he said.

“What do you mean?” He shook his head. “Frank, Frank. Haven’t you been paying attention? Sinatra played the Villa Moderne last year with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. People said it was the biggest floating crap game in America.”

“ReaIly?” I asked. The Villa Moderne was a small club outside the city limits, where you could do things the authorities didn’t want to know about.

“The heaviest collection of heavies in many years,” he nodded. “Word was they were paying off some kind of obligation. Obviously, Sinatra’s people want to clean up their image. There’s a lot image and money riding on this comeback of his, and they don’t want to jeopardize it by letting the mob reputation get out of hand.” Aha, I thought. Hence the presence of Willard Alexander, a booking agent who never booked anything like this. Add the innocent Frank Fried, and you have yet another layer of kosher. I told him about the man who was supposed to be calling to oversee things.

“Epstein? The biggest Pontiac dealer in the country? Nice guy. They say he’s General Motors’ link to the mob.” I stared at him for a moment, wondering, not for the first time, if I knew what I was doing.