Mercury

This story takes place in 1962. It was told here by Frank on December 23rd, 2011.   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 here by Frank on December 15th, 2011.   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 here by Frank on December 12th, 2011.   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 here by Frank on December 8th, 2011.   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.

Vivian

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on November 5th, 2011.   1 Comment

Years ago my sister, Vivian Maddock, spoke with Ted about the Triangle days. Here’s some of what she said:

I worked for Frank when he first started his business. He had great ideas but wasn’t very well organized in terms of the paperwork. His first office was out of his apartment on Superior Street, and then he started managing the Chad Mitchell Trio and he moved over to a wonderful big apartment where the receptionist sat in the front in the living room and there were two small offices for the people who took care of the offices, and then one for me, and Frank took the dining room and the bathroom. From time to time, you’d hear one of his musical groups rehearsing in the kitchen.

It was a nice, informal place. People came in and feIt very comfortable there. And at that time, most of the folk singers were just starting out and they were nice people. After a while, you know, they begin to believe their own press releases, but it was not the kind of time when the contract stated how many cases of liquor they had to have after the show, and how many girls and all the rest of that; that came much much later. These were very talented young kids, and for the most part very nice people.

When Frank had the Gateway Singers playing in Chicago, we had them all for Thanksgiving in our house. That part my mother enjoyed. She didn’t approve of his politics and they fought bitterly. She was genuinely afraid, it wasn’t just paranoia on her part. But from the time we were small our friends were always welcome in the house, made to feel comfortable. So she was delighted, and actually very proud of him at that point.

The Vegas Tonic

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

You would have thought that if Pete Seeger could do so well, all was going to be easy from here on out. It was not. I always seemed to be operating on the margin, and I was having a distressing number of flops interspersed with my successful shows. There just didn‘t seem to be enough concert product to sustain that side of the business.

The management side was not doing too well, either. By this time it was becoming clear that the Gateway Singers were not going to make it, and the Coachmen, another promising folk group I had taken on, broke up before they could go very far. I was about ready to throw in the towel on this whole business when I went to California, with a stop in Las Vegas, to do some business for the Gateway Singers. I had scheduled a concert with Carlos Montoya, the flamenco guitarist, when I got back.

I’d never seen anything like Vegas before. Jerry Lewis was playing either the Sands or the Flamingo, and I asked the pit boss how Lewis was doing. “Very poorly,” he told me. “He brings a bad kind of clientele in here.” My antennas perked up — I thought maybe I was going to get a revelation. And he said, “He brings in people with children.”

lf you could resist the tables, Vegas was an incredible deal. I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie in a lounge and there wasn’t even a two-drink minimum. I had never seen gourmet food in such abundance. The traces of the social psychologists were very much in view. Everywhere you went the idea was to get you to pass the tables and play. Playing poker, I remember asking a woman next to me what time it was, and she just looked at me and said, “There is no time in Vegas.” lt’s a little like pornography: the expectation is always better than the reality.

It‘s the sterility of the city that gets to you. It was a much warmer place when the so-called hoods were running it. Now that a more corporate breed of gangster has moved in, you don’t get a very good show. You don’t get very good food. The accommodations are glitzier and a little more sterile. The basic motivation is still to get you to spend as much money at the tables as possible, only now they don’t want to give you anything back.

When the old mob ran it, it at least seemed like you got something for your money. I think when the corporate world saw how much money was being made in Vegas, they decided it was too good for the mob. They were like Queen Elizabeth in that old joke, asking Prince Philip on their wedding night, “Milord, is this what the masses call fucking?” “Why, yes, milady.” “Well, rnilord, it’s much too good for the masses.”

Vegas was a tonic, though. When I returned to Chicago, much to my surprise, I had made two thousand on the Montoya concert. My spirits were up, and it was onward and upward.

Star ticket-seller

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on September 26th, 2011.   Be the first to comment

Albert Grossman called me in February 1959. He was still managing my new friend Martha Schlamme, along with a black folksinger named Odetta, who played a fearsome guitar and sang with a great booming voice like nothing I have ever heard.

Now, Albert told me, he was branching out into the concert business. He had persuaded a young folk fan named Alan Ribback to put up five thousand for seed money, with which Albert had set up a show at Orchesta Hall with Theo Bikel, a European refugee who had become a well-liked interpreter of Jewish folk songs in the United States. He’d also arranged something with Tom Lehrer, a fellow who played piano and sang sharply irreverent songs, some of which had become underground hits among a loyal audience of hipsters. He wanted to bring in Josh White, a blues singer from the deep South who had managed to extend his audience beyond the standard folk crowd.

Albert wanted the Eugene Debs Forum to sell tickets for him in exchange for a ten-percent commission, which he said was the standard rate. I said no, the Forum wasn’t in business to hustle concert tickets unless it was for a political cause. But then I thought again. I was out of a job, and I wasn’t doing anything. “Wait — I think I know where I can sell them myself,” I told him.

I took the Bikel tickets to a meeting of one of the Jewish groups, which snapped them up to resell them as a fundraising project of their own. The Tom Lehrer and Josh White tickets I sold in batches to people I knew in the National Lawyers Guild, the Unitarian Church, and the various other haunts of a radical organizer. I must have sold about a thousand tickets.

Suddenly, to Grossman I was a big star. He immediately offered me a job for seventy-five dollars a week — in cash — which I was shmuck enough to turn down. I could have gone on collecting unemployment and taken my wages in cash on top of it. But the government was watching us professional revolutionaries, I was sure, and we couldn’t give them any excuse to come after us.

That was my start in show business. I didn‘t know a thing about business. I was young and I believed I could do anything. I learned a lot that year.

Lou and the Gateway Singers

This story takes place in 1958. It was told here by Frank on September 10th, 2011.   1 Comment

The year before Lou Gottlieb died, I went up to Occidental, California and spent a day with him. Lou had been one of the founding members of the Gateway Singers. We’d become friends later on, during his career with the Limeliters. We shared a radical history and a certain outsider’s perspective on the things we were doing. Here are some of the things he remembered, in his own words.

The California Labor School was the headquarters of People’s Songs, an organization Pete Seeger started that had local chapters everywhere. I met Jerry Walters and Barbara Dane and Jimmy Wood there, and we started the Gateway Singers. The Gateway Singers used to be called the “Re-Weavers” when we first got started, because I just took down all their tunes and transposed them into keys that the Gateway Singers could sing in.

The minute we got Elmer Lee the thing started to sound really good. First of all, she’s the greatest rapper the world has ever known. I mean, she could really get an audience going. If you’d make a little funny, she’d crack up. And that’s apt to give you delusions of success if you‘re a nascent comic, you know, and you’ve got a laugh meter like that standing right there. And, of course, she had a magnificent contralto voice that was really dependable — a lot of singers have got about two good weeks out of four, you know. It had no great personality, but for an ensemble group it was magnificent. You could put her anywhere. You could put her on lead, you could double the lead on the outside, you could put her above the lead and it would be right. You could not misuse that voice.

I remember one night, the Hungry i was so crowded people were sitting on the stage. We’d been working there about two years, seven nights a week, minimum three shows a night, sometimes five on Saturdays. And some guy made some kind of a nasty racist remark about Elmer Lee. It was during the last number. I came up to him, and later I thought, “Did I kick him in the head? Or did I not?” I was doing pretty good with the booze. I thought I had kicked him in the head, because his face was right there and it ran through my mind that I would just destroy his face for this vile ridiculous racist remark, you know, about a girl that was about as straight as you could get. And I really didn’t know.

That‘s when I thought l‘d better quit. lt’s gin mill-itis. You know, you cannot stay in a gin mill seven nights a week, month after month, and not get crazy, because everybody there is drunk.

But generally speaking the reaction in San Francisco was okay. Even Ralph K. Davies, who was the moneybags for the Democratic party for twenty years — he’s got a hospital named after him in San Francisco — he was the number one Elmer Lee Thomas fan in the city. And Harry Bridges was there two or three nights a week. Everybody came. I mean everybody.

Agents

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on August 26th, 2011.   Be the first to comment

Very early in my career in show business, the agents’ association in Chicago brought a guy up on charges for unethical conduct. Nothing came of it; it was finally decided that among agents there was no such thing as unethical conduct.

I remember when MCA signed Johnny Mathis, who had been with General Artists. MCA, being the Cadillac of the agency business, charged fifteen percent for concerts. General Artists charged ten percent for what they called one-nighters. After about six months Mathis‘s manager, Helen Noga, was hard put to figure out why she was paying fifty percent more to do the same show for the same people.

MCA, in essence, had conned her into believing they were offering her a different service than GAC when all they were offering was a much more structured organization. They had a slogan, “Think Yiddish, dress British,” while GAC was still the stripe-suited agents.

My favorite agent was Ernie Lieberman’s father-in-law, George Wilner. When I met him in 1958, George had been driven out of his profession, and he was making a living in New York by selling underground movie scripts over the phone. People who had been blacklisted would write scripts under an alias, and George would sell them through somebody else.

By late 1959 — it was that late in the decade because in Hollywood the witch hunts lingered longer — George had moved up a bit. He was working with a little independent agency and selling small scripts on his own. Finally he went back to Hollywood when he landed a job at the Rosenberg Correll Agency, working the secondary studios. He knew Louis B. Mayer and people of that ilk, but he wasn‘t allowed to call them.

George had taken a shine to me early. He called me “Kid” all the time. “Kid, you should quit whatever it is you’re doing and come out to Hollywood and become a producer,” he used to tell me. “You know more than all these people.” This was the furthest thing from my mind. I was already overwhelmed by whatl was doing. I didn’t really believe that this was all happening to me, and I also didn’t believe Hollywood was as easy as he said it was. But it was very intriguing. Everybody wants to be a producer.

By 1965, George was on the edge of being back. He had moved up to vice president at the Rosenberg agency. He was talking to all the heads of the studios. I called George up one day when I was in Los Angeles and said, “George, this is the kid.” “Yeah, kid.” I said, “George, I want to come and talk to you. I‘m ready to be a producer.” George said, “Well, come on over.” I came on over. He ordered sandwiches for lunch, and I sat in his office while he sold a script to Zanuck over the phone. I watched him work that script up from an asking price of eighty thousand dollars to a final two hundred and twenty. After he hung up, he smiled, looked around, leaned over his desk and whispered, “There’s no other buyer.”

“George, I want to be a producer,” I said.

He said, “WeIl, kid, the business has changed. You got to have a property. A producer brings in a property and develops it. That’s what makes you a producer.“ So I asked him what a property was, and he explained it. All right.

Two more years went by, and I found a property. By this time George‘s agency had been through a couple of mergers and had come out as one of the biggest outfits in Hollywood, and George was vice president of the literary department — the big job. I called him. “George, I got a property,” I said. “I’m ready to be a producer.” George said, “I can‘t talk to you now, kid. I‘m on my way to Italy with Burt, Harold, and Ray.” Burt Lancaster, Harold Hecht, and Ray Starr. Two days later I heard from him again. “Kid, I‘m at the airport.” He hadn’t asked me what my property was.

“I got these two young writers,” George shouted. “They‘re great, just great. For fifty thousand they can develop your property.” I told him I’d get back to him sometime. End of story. George was a wonderful man, but he was an agent.

Joe Allen on the Hickman case

This story takes place in Uncategorized. It was told here by Frank on August 6th, 2011.   Be the first to comment

From Time Out Chicago:

Joe Allen got the idea for his new book—about the appalling living conditions for African-Americans following the Great Migration, and the death of four children in a horrific fire—from the man who brought the Beatles to Chicago. At a 2008 party Allen met Frank Fried, a former activist and concert producer who had staged the 1965 concert at Sox Park. Fried was facing open-heart surgery, and feared the cases he worked on as an activist would be forgotten. He was most concerned with James Hickman.