Stories told in January, 2011

The Gateway Singers

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on January 20th, 2011 by Frank.  1 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.”

Cute, clean-cut and clever

This story takes place in 1964. It was told on January 5th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I’d been in the business for five years when the Beatles first fell into my lap, in 1964. I had a regular folk concert series going that was very well attended, I was organizing some shows with Henry Mancini, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, and I’d branched out into jazz concerts too. One morning I got a call from Jerry Perenchio, the Los Angeles talent agent who earlier had handled Mancini and Mathis for MCA, the largest booking agency in the country.

Jerry was a cut above the average talent agent in a few ways: he was intelligent, had a sense of humor, and was interested in things outside show business, a rare thing among agents. He had a sense of ethics _ another unusual quirk __ and at the same time he could be self—serving and ruthless. He’d got his start booking bands for fraternities in his college days. I liked him.
“You’re gonna be called and offered the Beatles,” Jerry told me. “They’re gonna be big. They’re gonna do business. Don‘t miss it.”

I did not know the Beatles from Adam. All they were to me was one more of the English pop bands that were capturing the fancy of American teenagers that year. But they had just released a series of records that were selling phenomenally, so the timing seemed right. The money wasn’t that big, even for the early 1960s. I guaranteed a take of $25,000 or sixty percent of the gross for General Artists Corporation, which was running the tour, and I booked them into the International Ampitheatre, with eleven thousand seats.

It was a hall that until then had mainly seen rodeos; before I put the Beatles there, the only musical act to play the Ampitheatre had been Elvis Presley.

We were sold out by mail almost the moment we announced the show on the radio. We had to go back on the air right away and tell people, “Don’t send your money in. There are no more tickets.”

It was obvious that something new had happened. What it was, I didn’t have the vaguest idea. The Beatles were a terminally cute, clean·cut, clever group with original songs that were not particularly profound — lightweight love songs, bubblegum music. Their dress was unusual but not at all threatening. Somehow they and the British acts that followed them in had touched a chord among young Americans that American music had not.

If this reflected something that was going on in society, it might have been that they’d found the handle to some of the same anything-is-possible feeling that John Kennedy’s administration had successfully locked into with its rhetoric of “new beginnings.” This was still a time when most people thought we might be able to get somewhere by appealing to peopIe’s morality, joining hands and singing songs. There was a great notion that the world was going to get better.

What I couldn‘t see was how this Beatles phenomenon really connected with that. I was doing concerts with Pete Seeger — now there was a singer who could articulate people’s hopes for change. Peter, Paul and Mary, the most successful of the pop folk trios, seemed to have something significant to say. I was managing the Chad Mitchell Trio, another pop folk group whose political satire was on the cutting edge for several years. Miriam Makeba, the extraordinary singer Harry Belafonte had brought over from South Africa, was a regular on my stage. And there was Bob Dylan, who was just then shaking up the country’s intelligentsia. In this company, the Beatles seemed lightweight, unconnected to what was going on in America. Maybe they were inspiring the kids, but they weren‘t inspiring me.