Epic Records was located on the 13th floor of the imposing Eero Saarinen-designed CBS Building, dubbed “Black Rock” due to its black granite exterior. The interior was furnished with fine tables and chairs designed by Mies van der Rohe, and many of those same tables and chairs could be found at the Museum of Modern Art, just down the block on 53rd Street. During that time, one could find himself in the elevator with John Hammond, Goddard Lieberson, Clive Davis, or even William Paley, the president of CBS. I had an office at Epic in New York from 1970 to 1978, when I moved to Los Angeles. During that time, our annual record sales grew from roughly $12 million to $250 million, but strangely, the number of offices never increased — we actually occupied very little space for the powerhouse we had become. The entire national Epic Records staff occupied 15 offices. We had one conference room. Epic shared creative services with the Columbia label, which was located on the 10th and 11th floors, and occupied all of both floors.
The corporation had a decorating code for offices, and supplied its own artwork for employees to display. Independently chosen artwork was frowned upon — except on the creative floors. Things were so relaxed in the ’70s that for a couple of years I had a large framed poster on my office wall which read, in perfect Coca-Cola lettering, “Enjoy Cocaine.” After Clive was dismissed later that decade, I thought it wise to retire that particular piece.
The A&R offices were extremely colorful, and generally reflected the taste and personality of the inhabitant. They were equipped with standard CBS office furniture, but there were two things that distinguished our offices from all others in the building — a powerful stereo system with both reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks, and upright pianos. The pianos were a holdover from the earliest days of A&R, when songwriters used to come in and pitch their tunes to the early A&R men (like Mitch Miller, who had been head of A&R at Columbia Records) by actually sitting down at the piano and performing. Later in the decade, Jim Steinman would play piano while Meatloaf sang and fairly blew down the walls, auditioning live in my office (more about this in the next installment).
When I arrived early on a Monday morning for my first day of work I encountered the future head of A&R, whose name was Don Ellis, occupying the first office by the secretarial bay. He called me in and we had a nice chat. At that time, Don was director of marketing at Epic, but would soon succeed my first boss, Larry Cohn, director of A&R when I started. Larry was a friendly, easy-going blues fanatic who played guitar and wore jeans and cowboy boots to work. He was a prince of a guy. He didn’t, however, care much for the bureaucracy and structure of a large company — even a record company. He and Clive had frequent creative disagreements, and I always felt that Larry really wanted to create a boutique jazz and blues label — not exactly a formula for massive album sales. At that time, he was content to leave the rock and roll to me. When I started at the label in 1970, its biggest acts were Jeff Beck, the Dave Clark Five, Bobby Vinton and Sly & The Family Stone.
I was given several cartons of reel-to-reel demo tapes and cassettes, and was instructed to separate the wheat from the chaff. The truth was, regrettably, that more than 99% of the crop was chaff. At first, I listened to most of each tape, jotting down notes on what I heard and then replying to each artist with a fairly detailed letter. I felt it was important to explain what was missing from the music, rather than use lame reasons like “this material doesn’t fit our needs at this time” — a standard pass letter phrase. Due to the sheer volume of submissions, though, I soon had to abbreviate my listening procedure, and eventually got to the point of determining the worth of most of the tapes within a few minutes. My letters also became briefer and more succinct.
As the years went by, I discovered that I was one of the few A&R people in the industry who actually responded personally to every tape that was submitted. Others sent form letters or just threw the tapes directly into the wastebasket. I returned each one with a personal note. I realized that this was an unusual thing after I started receiving letters of gratitude from musicians whose tapes I had rejected. They actually wrote to thank me for my rejection letter, adding that I was the only one of all the people they had contacted who bothered to respond at all. I took special care to write a nice letter to the several musicians who sent me cassettes from prison, remembering that Charles Manson had badgered producer Terry Melcher about his own demo (which Terry rejected), and probably would have killed him, too, if Terry had been at the right place at the right time.
One day about two months after I had started at Epic, I was called in to Ron Alexenburg’s office, where he gave me an acetate (an LP test pressing) and asked if I would evaluate it for him. Ron was the head of marketing, sales and promotion, which basically made him the head of the label. When he was doing local radio promotion as a young man, he earned the nickname “Ronnie Records,” because the record business truly was his life. An independent producer named Paul Leka had cut an album at his 8-track studio in Connecticut, and had brought it into Ron. I took it back to my office and put it on the turntable. Two of the songs on the acetate immediately caught my attention — “Sophisticated Lady” and “157 Riverside Avenue.” This was solid, fast, well-played rock & roll, and I wrote a memo to Ron, with a copy to Larry, explaining why I liked the band, and why I thought they bore closer examination. The next morning, the memo came back to me via interoffice mail with a message handwritten from Ron across the top: “Carry on, my good man.”
So I was off on my very first road trip as an A&R man. I was equipped with an overnight bag and a company-issued CBS American Express card. When I was issued this card, the accompanying instructions stated that I should use it wherever possible, when on company business; in fact, I was once called down for a meeting with the man in charge of the bean counters who processed our expense reports, and he asked me why I had reported a $4.50 cash outlay for breakfast. I explained that I had paid cash outside of the hotel for a bagel & coffee, rather than wasting money on a needlessly expensive room service or hotel dining room breakfast. He told me that he would rather I used the card, even if the expense was greater. I wonder if he’d feel the same way today.
I arrived in Champaign, Illinois to see this young, unsigned rock band with the unusual name of REO Speedwagon. I was met by their manager — a young fellow named Irving Azoff, who also managed a singer-songwriter named Dan Fogelberg. Walking down the main street in Champaign that afternoon, Irving told me of the things he planned to accomplish for his artists in the course of the next year. I distinctly remember saying to myself “Who does this guy think he is?” He rattled off a list of accomplishments that seemed not only ambitious, but actually impossible. Six months later, he had achieved everything he spoke to me about on that day.
The band played that evening at the Red Lion Inn in Champaign, and the club was jammed. They were a popular band in a big college town. Their music was much harder than the music they later came to be known for. The first album was a hard rock album, and the band did a fine version of “Sympathy For the Devil” live in their early days. After the show, I was invited back to Irving’s apartment for a party, which, as I recall, was one of the better ones I attended as a young A&R man. Epic agreed to the “master purchase” (the acquisition of a finished , ready-for-market piece of music).
So two months into my gig I had signed a band, and amazingly enough, this band is still making a good living on the road, 39 years and about 15 studio albums later. Regrettably, the practice of giving the A&R man a small royalty for his successful signings didn’t kick in until the ’80s, after I had signed a number of acts to Epic Records that have sold over 125 million albums to this date. Bummer.
Along with evaluating tapes that came in the mail, and meeting with managers and attorneys who brought tapes to play in my office, I became the de facto editor of single releases at Epic. In the ’70s, for some reason, album producers seemed to have little time for — or interest in — editing album tracks down to a length suitable for a single release; so the job fell to me, and I loved doing it. Once we had decided on the single, I would record the track from my turntable to my Sony reel-to-reel, and then with a single-edged razor blade, white grease pencil and splicing block I’d try to tighten the song up, remove the fat from it, perhaps shorten the fade, and come up with something in the area of 3 minutes (ideally a few seconds under). The shorter the single, the easier it was to get on a station’s playlist, as the station could then play more songs per hour without having to cut into their advertising revenue.
During the seventies, I edited most of the singles that Epic released, including “Backstabbers” by the O’Jays, “Long Cool Woman” by the Hollies, and “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent, all three of which had at least seven splices. After the edit was passed around and approved (or in the case of the O’Jays, sent to Philadelphia for Gamble & Huff’s approval), I would take the tape copy over to the CBS Recording Studios on the east side, and have a CBS engineer do the actual edits on a stereo copy of the master, since we were a union shop, and a CBS engineer had to do the actual work. Later, as a producer, if I did a CBS album with an independent recording engineer of my choice in a studio that was located within a certain distance from a CBS Recording facility, I was forced to pay a CBS engineer to come to the recording studio (for example, to Atlanta from our Nashville facility) and sit and read the paper while we worked.
Soon it was understood that I could solve most editing problems, and I learned a great deal about the recording process simply by listening to good spots for splices. I was also the main A&R liaison with our British artists, and at one point I found myself sitting and having tea with Sir George Martin in his London office; I had worked up a good edit for one of Jeff Beck’s cuts from the Martin-produced Wired album, and I played it for George in his office while I was looking after several things in London. He liked it, and he invited me to walk with him to AIR London Studios to cut the master tape. It was quite a thrill for me to be hanging with the Beatles’ producer in the late ’70s. Sir George is the ultimate gentleman — as far from the stereotype of a record producer as one could possibly be.