Stories told in December, 2011

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.

Law of the jungle

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on December 15th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Despite Albert Grossman’s ambitions, the kind of show business that we were involved in was still an insignificant corner of the market. The law of the jungle did not yet prevail, perhaps because there wasn’t enough jungle for it to work. There were perhaps half a dozen outfits doing concerts with our kind of artists. It felt more like a guild than a business. The Kingston Trio had not yet had their first hit, “Tom Dooley,” which changed everything.

Albert Grossman was a brilliant man and one of the most underrated and unexplained people in the history of pop music. He introduced folk music as commercial and popular entertainment, and he played a central role in bringing pop culture to life in America. Albert created Peter, Paul and Mary, the biggest of the pop folk acts — put them together, found an arranger for them, believed in them, got them a record contract. He had a clear understanding, probably better than anyone I ever knew, of where music was going. He wasn’t shy about saying it, either. He would tell his acts exactly what they should do and what they shouldn’t do in order to be commercial. “You wanna make money, here‘s how you do it.” Sometimes he was wrong, but usually it seemed to pay off.

The Old Town School of Folk Music was the first expression of popular folk music in Chicago, and Grossman’s Gate of Horn was its commercial version. It starting bringing in the traditional folk aficionados as early as 1954, after McCarthyism had peaked and things were opening up. Younger people, college kids, began following them in soon after that. By that time, the music of the radicals of the 40’s — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers — was ready for a comeback. So were some of the older Southern folk blues artists, like Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Josh White. Whenever they came to Chicago, you knew you could hear them in the basement of the Rice Hotel.

And then there were the poets and the comics. I first heard Maya Angelou at the Gate of Horn, and Shelly Berman, and Dick Gregory, and a guy named Lord Buckley who recited classical texts in a jive vernacular. Albert created and dominated that scene.

The New Politics Convention

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on December 12th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

There was a growing tone of frustration in the antiwar movement. We were going through a transition. The war would not be settled for at least five more years. It was obvious that the political leadership of the country was cynically willing to destroy a third-world country and the lives of thousands of young Americans to satisfy their own political ambitions, to prolong the fighting when they acknowledged to themselves that they had already lost the war politically, they had been beaten by the Vietnamese people, and anyway there had never been a strategic reason for them to be in it in the first place.
With Nixon’s election and the end of the draft, mass pressure would diminish and the movements would turn ugly and crazy, in reaction to the insanity of the war. By 67 or 68 this hopeful movement had taken on an irrational tinge because it had not connected with a mass movement and had not put forward a program that could unite the majority. It had not developed the socialist vision that could unite a majority section of the society. Any movement that doesn’t have a majoritarian perspective for social change is not going to win in America. The only way for a minority to play a decisive role is to project a program that the majority can support.
I thought such a thing might be emerging when a group of antiwar groups called for a New Politics conference in late 1967. An assortment of white liberals, including some establishment politicians, had lent their names to the thing. All sorts of well-meaning and independent radicals were involved too. Dr. King had said he would address the convention, and there were faint hopes out there that he would use the occasion to declare an independent candidacy for president, with the antiwar children’s doctor Benjamin Spock as his running mate.
There was also a large contingent of stool pigeons and street hustlers there, to take advantage of the white guiIt that was all over the floor. Their presence reflected the disintegration and the disheartenment that was overtaking the black community. And its alienation from white society, including white radicalism.
The antiwar movement was officially not there. SDS was boycotting it, either because they were against electoral activity, or because their own agenda required supporting an antiwar democrat, or both. Nobody ever claimed SDS was internally consistent. The SWP chose to boycott because it did not fit with what they thought was the real antiwar movement. And they were running a candidate of their own. Either way, in the end, they were lucky they weren’t there.

Lineball

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on December 8th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

In June of 1961 I moved to 156 East Superior. This was my second move since I had left the steel mill and embarked on my show business career, and like the first move, it was somewhat symbolic. I must have been confident that I was going to make it, because my rent doubled, to $200 a month. I was moving to the other side of Michigan Avenue, into an apartment in an old thirty-two-flat building, seven rooms instead of two, with an old-fashioned elevator with a grate that you had to close by hand. I used the place both as a living space and as an office. It was nothing approaching luxury, but it was comfortable.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was running a business. Until now, I’d done everything myself: put together the advertising, delivered the tickets to the record stores that were selling them for us, handled the maiI-order sales. On show nights, I ran the backstage operation and the front of the house, and was in my seat by fifteen minutes after the curtain went up. The most help I ever had was a part-time secretary. There just wasn’t any more going on than I had the energy to cover.

This was still a very small part of the entertainment business, and it was no strain to attend all the concerts. And I would have gone anyway. I understood the music and the performers, all of whom were my contemporaries, give or take ten years. Some were my friends. I respected what they did, and I believed in them — at least I believed they were sincere about what they thought they were doing. Whether they were indeed doing what they thought they were doing is another question, which history will have to judge. At a minimum, they were offering what I thought of as listening music, music that located its message in the lyric, not so much in the rhythm or the effects.

I had no social life to speak of, but I did find time to play steady lineball for a while. A handful of men about my age were getting together occasionally at Lakeshore Park, about four blocks from my office. One of the hip young priests at Holy Name Cathedral who I’d met hanging around the Gate of Horn invited me to join them. We could get a spot in the park at odd times during the day, because we all worked mostly nights. A couple of the guys owned saloons, another was a bartender, and the priest, of course, could play any day except Sunday. For about a year and a half we kept a casual six-team league going.

Lineball was a very fast·moving, quintessentially Chicago game that I think has died out by now. You played with a 16-inch softball. It was the ideal game if you only had enough people for a pitcher, an infielder and an outfielder. Not being the greatest of runners, though, I liked it better than regular softball. The field was a narrow slice of a pie: you didn‘t cover the whole 90-degree angle, and you didn‘t run bases. You hit the ball a certain distance for a single, a double, a triple or a home run, and you only got one strike. lf you fouled once, you were out.