The Producers: Rebuilding Elektra, Missing Whitney, and the CrÃ¼e
Our little cul de sac in Los Angeles was short and narrow, just off Laurel Canyon and just south of Ventura Boulevard. Except for the occasional airport trip when I would call for a town car to pick me up, limos were generally scarce in our neighborhood — so when a big black stretch limo pulled up at about 6:30 one weekday evening, the neighbors knew somebody of some note must be visiting. John and Judy Belushi, accompanied by their driver/assistant Smokey and Paul Cooper of Atlantic Records, came into the house, and we introduced everyone to our daughters Julia and Nina, who were then eight and five. We had some drinks and some hors d’oeuvres, and John was as hyperkinetic as anyone I had ever known, even when he was sitting down. Every minute he was doing something with his hands or jiggling his feet, talking nonstop or walking around looking at things in the living room. At one point, while fooling around with Nina , who was a very petite five-year-old, he literally tossed her over the back of the couch onto the floor – she wasn’t hurt, but she still hasn’t forgotten.
At dinner, John explained that he was on the wagon at the time, and that Smokey was along to make sure he didn’t drink and to “take the cocaine out of his nose.” After dinner, we repaired to my music room, where John proceeded to thumb through my 1500 vinyl albums, and we pulled out a bunch of records and started to compile a list of songs that he would enjoy doing. He danced with my sister, who was visiting us, and we had a pretty enjoyable evening. We agreed that I would meet with Dan Aykroyd in New York, and further discuss what might happen on the next record. Some days later, I met with Danny at the midtown office he shared with John (where one of the office decorations was the actual passenger door from a Chicago police cruiser).
Later that evening, I cabbed down to John’s apartment, and we went out on the town, making visits to some of John’s favorite haunts. In my irresponsible and youthful way, I had halfway hoped that this might be a wild and crazy evening, but it turns out that he was being good that week. We started out at Jimmy Pullis’s place, JP’s, on the upper east side. This had been one of my favorite places in the ’70s as well, and the place where Billy Joel became famous enough in New York to land a contract, and possibly the place that inspired “Piano Man.” That night, we went upstairs to the owner’s living quarters where there was a small party of sorts, and after a few minutes of checking things out, John told me we had to get out of there because there were just too many drugs. In the ’80s, people were tripping over themselves to give John drugs, so they could claim “Hey, I did some blow with John Belushi.”
We headed back downtown, and entered another trendy restaurant/bar that was jammed with young people drinking and eating and generally having a good time. I’ll never forget our entrance, because John literally sucked every ounce of energy out of that room the second he walked in the door. All over the room heads turned, either obviously or imperceptibly, and I knew then for the first time what it was like to be with a really famous person. Standing next to him, I was invisible. People tap-danced around him like little marionettes, jockeying for position and saying anything that might elicit a reply.
It was a nice evening out, but in the end I passed on the album because I was anxious about the logistics of a large band of studio musicians with a brass section, and mainly because there was no movie to accompany it. A surprisingly brief time after my introduction to John and Dan, John died. I regret not doing the project; it could have been fascinating.
In 1982, I signed a band brought to me by Molly Hatchet manager Pat Armstrong. They were called Stranger and were a very popular band on the Florida club circuit. The lead guitarist, Ronnie Garvin, was a stunning player. They received marginal support from the label, but I can’t say that the album’s failure was due to that; my friend Bruce Harris, who was then in A&R at Epic, thought the problem was that they were, in fact, a “bar band,” and didn’t have the material needed for top 40 penetration. This disappointing experience, coupled with another unsuccessful album I did for a Chicago group called The Bzz (pronounced “bees”), furthered my frustration with Epic, and I began to think about a change in direction.
At that point, my current two-year contract was drawing to a close, and I requested a meeting with CBS Records President Dick Asher. The record business was suffering after the disco boom, and Mr. Asher was taking a cautious approach. I suggested a few changes to my contract and told him I had to have a considerably larger paycheck to compensate for my small royalty payments. Since I was contractually limited to producing records only for the label (with one outside project allowed per year), I was receiving about 12 cents per album while independent producers were receiving almost 40 cents. Considering that by this time my Epic productions had sold about 20 million copies, one could say that I had been underpaid by about $5 million over seven years. When Asher said “this isn’t the same record business anymore, Tom,” it seemed that my chances for a big raise were pretty slim. The meeting ended with no significant improvements in store for my deal, and I left his office considering that the time may actually have come for me to call it quits with CBS Records.
In September of 1982, an independent publicist named Wayne Rosso told me that Elektra Records was going to be looking for a new head of A&R, since Kenny Buttice was departing the label. Elektra was a prestigious label with an impressive roster of fine artists, including Queen, Judy Collins, Paul Butterfield, The Doors, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. The problem was that they had no current hits, and most of their big stars had seen better days. Joe Smith, who had been one of my favorite radio deejays when I was growing up in Boston, was now the head of the label, which had its headquarters in a modest white building on La Cienega Boulevard, just south of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
I met Joe Smith at his house in Beverly Hills, and we talked for 20 or 30 minutes. I was keenly interested in Elektra because of Bruce Lundvall’s association with the label. Bruce had first interviewed me at Columbia Business School, and had facilitated my re-introduction to CBS after my year at Grey Advertising. I had known Bruce for 12 years at this point, and I liked and trusted him. I did have some reservations about my ability to see the “big picture” and actually run a department in a corporation (which would involve budgets, profit centers, annual reviews, expense accounts, goals, etc.). On balance, though, I figured that I knew enough about A&R at this point to be capable of revitalizing a label which had always been highly regarded in the industry. I began my job as Vice President of Elektra A&R on January 3rd, 1983, and I brought along an assistant with me from Epic.
I had no staff and a very limited budget, but Bruce had advised me to become acquainted with a young man who worked at the warehouse. His name was Tom Zutaut, and he knew a tremendous amount about music, both old and new. He had brought MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e and Dokken to the label already, he was young and adventurous, and his only interest and responsibilities were in and to the music business. I hired him, and we began to plan the rebuilding of the Elektra roster. I had some meetings with artists who were on the label at that time — Greg Kihn, Josie Cotton, George Thorogood, Judy Collins, David Lindley and their respective managers — and was just getting familiar with most of the various people in the company when Bruce called from New York and told me to meet him at his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel the next evening. When I arrived at the hotel, Bruce explained to me that Joe Smith had been elevated to a corporate position, and that a man named Bob Krasnow was taking over as head of the label, right above Bruce’s level.
Bob had come from Warner Brothers (specifically Blue Thumb), where he had been responsible for signing many artists, including Chaka Khan, George Benson and George Clinton. He had a reputation as a bit of a wild man, but that was all right with me, initially. Bob showed up at the suite later, and the three of us spent some time discussing his plans. Bruce seemed to be pretty upbeat about this rather sudden change, so I left the meeting feeling that there would be some adjustment required, but that basically things would be all right. Two weeks later I flew to New York to have some meetings there, as Bob was living there and intended to staff a New York office. WhileI was in the city, Bruce mentioned that he wanted me to see an artist; he had arranged for a private showcase for just the two of us. He had hired a car, and in the late afternoon we were driven downtown to a rehearsal studio, where we saw a private 40-minute set by a beautiful girl, backed by a very tight band. A familiar-looking older woman was there, and after the set, I was introduced to both her and the girl who had sung for us, who turned out to be the woman’s niece. This artist was such a great vocalist that at one point during the set, Bruce and I simply looked at one another and laughed. I hadn’t seen anyone this strong in years. I was very excited, and grateful to Bruce for bringing this to my attention as the head of A& R.
The next day, we both spoke to Krasnow, and told him how wonderful this girl was. He agreed to see her; it became clear that he was going to be intimately involved in every A&R decision, since that was his background. A week or so later, he attended a showcase by this same girl, and when we spoke to him, he agreed that she had a good voice, but that “she sounds exactly like Chaka Khan, and I already signed Chaka Khan.” So that was how Bob passed on Whitney Houston, whose aunt Cissy Houston was an artist friend of Bruce’s and had brought her to his attention. Later that month, Clive Davis had a significantly different response to Whitney. Bruce and I were disappointed by this missed opportunity – at the time we had no clue of how big an opportunity it had been.
During Bob’s next trip to Los Angeles, he summoned me and Tom Zutaut to dinner with Bruce at a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills. Bob considered himself a fancier of fine foods, and was fond of taking people to new and unusual places. At this dinner, he laid out his immediate plans for the label, among which were to drop Motley Crue, as he considered them to be an embarrassment.
I tactfully tried to explain to Bob that under Elektra’s circumstances at that time, somebody had to pay the bills. I suggested to Bob that he do what he wished to shape the label’s artist roster, but to leave the meat & potatoes of rock & roll to myself and Zutaut. He seemed to give this at least a little consideration, and we left the dinner with the understanding that we would complete the second Motley Crue album, which was contractually called for, but that Bob would make it relatively easy for the group to leave the label. He was more interested in newer and less conventional styles of music.
Some weeks after our dinner with Bob, Zutaut told me he felt I would make a great producer for the next MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e album. Their first record, Too Fast for Love, was selling pretty well. The original tapes had been remixed by Roy Thomas Baker, and Vince had redone all the original vocals. A friend of mine from Epic in New York had sent the LP to me just before I made the move to Elektra, recommending that I look into this band. I listened to the album and thought it was a little sloppy, but that it had a lot of energy and some good musical ideas. Now that Zutaut was in the mix, I agreed to meet with the band, and felt good about the idea of once again being able to split my time between the studio and the office — this time around for adequate financial compensation. Tom brought the band into my office, and we had a conversation. Nikki was fairly specific about what kind of album he wanted, and how we should go about it. The one thing I recall from that meeting was Tommy Lee saying to Nikki, “Listen, if this guy’s gonna produce our album, then I think we should listen to what he has to say.” I was grateful for that one.
After three months at the label, with Bob’s mercurial behavior and the realization that he was going to move the headquarters to New York, I began to feel fairly uncomfortable about what I had initially considered a great new job. It was obvious now that Krasnow was the only actual head of A&R, and that his and my musical preferences were quite different from one another. I was now faced with the possibility of being a powerless executive at a label whose artistic direction I didn’t particularly favor. I got a call from John Kalodner over at Geffen. I had known John since his early days at Atlantic, and he had become something of a legend in the music business. He said that he and Geffen’s president Eddie Rosenblatt had been discussing my situation, and they knew I would be having a rough time with Krasnow; they invited me over for a powwow, and offered to assist me in getting the right attorney to extricate me from this untenable situation. I was grateful for their concern, and I think Bob was satisfied in the end, when I settled for a lump-sum payoff and a three-album production deal, the first of which would be the new MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e record.