Stories that feature ‘Albert Grossman’

Star ticket-seller

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on September 26th, 2011 by Frank.  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.

On my own

This story takes place in 1958. It was told on June 1st, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Albert Grossman and I drifted apart after about a year. Albert knew, although he never asked about it, that the Gateway Singers wanted nothing to do with him, and he knew I would give up my relationship with him to manage the Gateway Singers if I had to make a choice. Al, not one to force a decison or provoke a confrontation, never brought it to a head. When he became more successful he had other people to do that sort of thing for him, but with me he just let things slide until the relationship more or less faded away.

When Albert decided to move to New York to embark on his meteoric career, he casually asked me if I wanted to come along. I thought about it. I said no. I wanted to create my own little world for myself, and I was aware that I could only do that if I stayed in Chicago. I think I understood at some level, even if I hadn’t really thought it out, that I could get away with what I was doing — being the insider who was really on the outside, or vice versa — only as long as I could completely control my own circumstances. I also didn‘t want to be involved with Albert any more. I was well aware of his talent for developing performers and his uncanny ability to pick out trends in American society. But he was not the kind of person I wanted to partner with.

Martha Schlamme

This story takes place in 1956. It was told on April 16th, 2011 by Frank.  2 Comments

One night late in 1956, somebody told me an Austrian folk singer named Martha Schlamme was in town. She was playing an engagement at the Gate of Horn, a night club in the basement of the Rice Hotel that catered to folk music fans and other hip people.

So what, I inquired. Well, Martha Schlamme was no communist herself, I was told, but she was one of the all-too-lonely progressive artists trying to speak out for the Communist Party members whose lives were being wrecked by McCarthyism and the blacklist. lf somebody asked her, she might be willing to help the local radicals raise some money with a benefit performance.

One of the American Socialist’s goals was to help other radical groups spread the word. We were active in the Eugene Debs Forum, a freewheeling speakers’ program that had the support of most of the independent radical groups in town. The idea was to talk with everybody who was interested, without worrying about sectarian lines or historical disagreements. Of course, advertising and promotion took money, and like every radical project, the Debs Forum had very little. It was part of my job to help put those funds together.

I knew nothing about folk music and even less about putting on a show. In fact, I don’t think I had ever been a nightclub before I went to the Gate of Horn that night, except for the time my mother took me to see Ronnie Clary sing at the Black Orchid on somebody’s birthday. I took the El train to the Gate of Horn, paid my one dollar at the door, and sat down in the dark to listen.

A thin man was standing on the club’s small stage tuning a guitar. After a minute, a tall, striking blond woman strode onto the stage and took up a position in front of him. She began to sing. “Die Gendanken sang frei,” she sang: “My thoughts are free.” It was a song ordinary people had sung during the peasant wars in Germany, she explained afterwards, and its short, rough lines said, “Tyrants can do what they will to my body, but my mind is free.” What she was doing, it struck me right away, was affirming the power and the responsibility of us all to keep speaking our minds in the midst of the repression of the McCarthy years. I was mesmerized. From working with the American Socialist, l’d had an inkling that this could be done, but I had never seen anyone standing up in public doing it with such conviction. It was a reaffirmation of everything I believed in, everything I had dedicated my life to. I still hum that song to myself today, although I‘ve forgotten most of the words.

After the songs were over, I went up to the stage and introduced myself to Martha and her guitarist, Frank Hamilton — one of the great folk accompanists of the time, I found out later. She called across the room to a heavy, bearish-looking fellow, medium-tall, with his shirttails hanging out and a few days’ worth of beard on his face. He came over and said hello. He was Albert Grossman, Martha’s manager and a co-owner of the Gate of Hom.

Later on, he was to become one of the dominant personalities in the pop explosion — the man who took Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and any number of others to the top of the commercial heap.

I explained to the two of them how badly the Eugene Debs Forum needed to raise some money, and how a small benefit concert could help. We were trying to get the word out, I told her, and that was expensive. We were arguing that radicals spent too much energy squabbling over the pros and cons of the Russian experience. American problems were a tall enough order, especially during a time when capitalism was on the upswing and labor and the left were in retreat. Clarity and education, not competitive sloganeering, would get the socialist movement back on its feet.

Martha thought that sounded good and she‘d like to help out. Grossman said it was fine with him. He was not unsympathetic, he was just bemused at how hard some people would work for no money– and for a lost cause, as far as he was concerned. Martha sang for us, for a minimal fee, in the living room of a large apartment in Hyde Park. A hundred and fifty people showed up: a huge success.

Martha and I became friends after that. She asked complicated questions about what I thought progressives should be doing and how we might change the world, and I did my best to answer. In return, she brought me to folk concerts and poetry readings and gave me a look at the strange, sophisticated world she lived in. I was fascinated.

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.”

Uptown

This story takes place in 1958. It was told on December 12th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I left Hyde Park and moved uptown to 11 East Superior, into the apartment that Hugh Hefner had operated out of when he set up Playboy. I got the place from Alan Ribback, who had been Albert Grossman’s partner in the Gate of Horn. We were right across the street from the Archdiocese. It was very convenient, but it further removed me from my friends and from my roots, and put me deeper into that show-business milieu that I never could completely feel a part of.

This was still a game to me. It was fun to play and I certainly was eager to explore, but I never really accepted its values, and I always thought of myself as a socialist who was only doing part-time duty here.

I never hid my politics. I never advertised them either, but I always said, when the press would ask, that I had worked in the steel mill. I knew that my best defense was honesty: if everyone knew everything, there was nothing anybody could expose me on.

Even though I had abdicated from active left politics, my friends were all radicals (if perhaps more middle-class radicals than before). My business associates, in the main, were absolutely not. I lived in two worlds, and the bigger the business got, the sharper the contradiction got. At what point have you crossed the line? I was in a fun business, but I was not too naive to realize it was a business, and that even presenting Pete Seeger did not get me a ticket to heaven. I was not doing socialist or communist work, I was making a living. A fairly comfortable one, by this time, but a living.

In a certain sense I was more acceptable to the left as a businessman than I had been as an activist. As early as 1958, I remember a dinner for the American Socialist at the Essex Community Church to celebrate the magazine’s fifth anniversary. There was a crowd of about a hundred and seventy, which was very big in those days. William Appleman Williams spoke, and Ernie deMaio, the district director of the United Electrical workers, was the chairman. Everybody was kidding me about my new station in life, but I was also being treated as a bit of a celebrity.

I certainly didn’t turn it away, but it did bother me a bit. It was a measure of how deeply bourgeois values had permeated the radical movement – how far we had fallen from the time of Eugene Debs — that my success under capitalism was treated as some kind of accomplishment that all could celebrate. It was as if one of theirs had made it.

I thought I might have been much more comfortable as a working class hero, which I’d never managed to become, than as a petit-bourgeois celebrity. It stuck in my mind that the honest longshoreman or the honest steelworker or the honest professional revolutionary is the one the radical movement ought to be emulating, not somebody who becomes a celebrity in bourgeois society. But we’re never immune to the world we live in.