Sometime in 1985, a new label-wide policy was instituted regarding all new signings. There were to be none. Nada. The staff was called into a departmental meeting to receive the news, which, to my mind, might as well have been notice that the oxygen supply to the building was being abruptly cut off. Success at the major label level involves constant evolution. Like the care and feeding of a miniature bonsai tree, sculpting, shaping, and pruning the roster is a delicate and subtle business that eventually yields strong roots and fine blossoms. To withhold basic nutrients is to doom the entire undertaking to a slow and withering death, and not one I cared to be a party to.
But this new edict, however strange it seems, actually led me straight to my next signing.
That morning I had gone through the previous day’s mail, sorting promising looking demos into one stack, and depositing the rest in the trash. Exactly what a “promising demo” looks like is anyone’s guess, and tossing the others is not flattering behavior for an A&R man, but the company also had one of those “no unsolicited tapes” policies so I suppose any route out of the building for these offerings was more or less the correct one.
On this particular day I received a twelve-inch vinyl record in a white sleeve with a picture of three large bowling balls in triangular formation. These bowling balls bore the inscriptions “Steve,” “Bob&,” “Rich.” I took one look, declared the item preposterous, and threw it away. Two hours later, fuming from the meeting which ended all further A&R activity, I returned to my office and declared out loud to no one in particular, “Well, if I’m going to waste my time, I might as well waste it on this!” With that, I fished Steve, Bob, & Rich out of the wastebasket and slapped in onto the turntable. I cranked the stereo’s volume way up, figuring to disturb just about everybody within earshot with this complete rubbish. What emerged from the speakers, however, was not the misguided and amateurish attempt at immortality that I had imagined but rather an incredible piece of writing and performance called “Let My People Go-Go” (download). Even the track’s count off, not “1-2-3-4” but rather “Father, Son, and Holy Cow!” had me going wild. The lyrics were sublime:
Moses went up to the mountain high
To find out from God, “Why did you make us? Why?”
Secret words in a secret roomâ€¦
He said, “A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!
What a hoot! Still, there was a moratorium to be observed, so I simply made a cassette copy of the record and threw it in the bottom of my tape bag to enjoy again at my leisure.
I believe it was some weeks or possibly months later, on a trip to L.A. to hear Don Everly’s lead vocals for the Born Yesterday LP, that I was swapping tapes with my good buddy and international A&R man Bas Hartong and rediscovered the cassette I had made. I played the tune for Bas, who only had one comment.
“That’s a SMASH, baby!” he declared.
“I know.” was my simple reply. There was nothing to be done.
Again, some weeks or months later, I was reminded of the song while flipping through the gig ads in the Village Voice. Appearing Thursday at the Peppermint Lounge on 15th Street was the one and only Steve, Bob, & Rich. Could there be another? I thought not, and planned to see the show.
So there they were in all their ragged glory. Steve, at stage right, played a mean and stylish lead guitar. Rich, at stage left, held down the bass. Bob, in the middle, was a sight to behold. He wore blue jean coveralls, possibly with long johns underneath, and stood behind a snare drum, hi-hat, and ride cymbal. He sang lead, with occasional harmonies from the other two, and together they looked like the three biggest hicks that ever fell off the hay wagon and found themselves in New York town. They were only from Kansas City, but they could just as easily have come from Mars.
A subsequent journey to Kansas City, the next planet over from New York, filled in a lot of the blanks. Not only was this group extremely popular in their hometown, but everybody there was very much like them. It seemed that too much of my previous work was concentrated on the eastern seaboard, and this was an extremely refreshing change. I also remember the precise moment when I made the decision to sign the act. While toeing the company line and cutting way back on my travel expenses by riding on some kind of hotel shuttle bus back to the airport, I listened to a cassette labeled “25 Songs” by the group. One tune was called “Rockin’ At The Tea Dance,” and I played it over several times to catch all the lyrics:
Take a trip with me in nineteen sixty-seven,
With Grissom, White, and Chaffee
On a rocket ride to heaven.
A dead end date aboard AS-204
It was American made
Only the best for our boys
I had a little date with the homecoming queen
I took her to the moon in Apollo thirteen
We orbit the moon but we couldn’t get home
Little Queenie’s mom was pissed â€˜cause her baby didn’t phone
Take a trip with me to Kansas City, MO
To the Hyatt House
To the big dance floor
You can still see the ghosts but you can’t see the sense
Why they let the monkey go and blamed a monkey wrench!
Suddenly, on that trip out of town, I remembered the incident to which this last verse referred. The balcony overhanging the atrium lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Kansas City had collapsed a few years back during something called a Tea Dance, killing thirteen people. In the song, the issue of the decline in American workmanship was addressed by juxtaposing failures in the space program with design failures in downtown Kansas City. I was truly impressed. Not only did the tune rock like the dickens, but also it had history, context, morality, the works!
This song was only one of many that were well constructed and thoughtful. “Downstream” was another history lesson, wherein a river rafter encounters Mark Twain, Harry Truman, and Chuck Berry as he races down the mighty Mississippi. “Government Cheese” was an anti-welfare treatise:
Give a man a free house and he’ll bust out the windows
Put his family on food stamps, now he’s a big spender
No food on the table and the bills ain’t paid
â€˜Cause he’s spent it on cigarettes and PGA
They’ll turn us all into beggars because they’re easier to please
They’re feeding our people that government cheese.
Give a man a free ticket on a dead end ride and he’ll
Climb into the back even though nobody’s drivin’
Too goddamn lazy to crawl out of the wreck
And he’ll rot while he waits upon that welfare check
We’re going to hell in a handbag, can’t you see?
I ain’t gonna eat no government cheese.
It’s not my politics, perhaps, but it shouldn’t have to be. Later, the guy in charge of college radio promotion would plead with me to remove this song from the record, advising me that airplay at the college format would be “out of the question” if that tune were included. But, for now, here in the person of Bob Walkenhorst was a songwriter with something to say and a true gift for saying it. Beyond that, he was a potent front man fronting a potent rock band. All that remained to do was to find an appropriate drummer who could free up Bob from his rhythmic chores and let him run wild. I called the group from my desk in New York to instruct them to commence the search.
I don’t specifically recall the in-house campaign that I must have waged to get this act signed, but I’m sure I threw my body down on the proverbial railroad tracks and otherwise made a complete nuisance of myself. I remember that it didn’t help that they were called “Steve, Bob, & Rich.” It made them too easily a target for ridicule in the executive suites.
My ideal choice to produce the group’s first album was John Fogerty, the former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival and just about the purest full-on rock ‘n’roller I could think of. Because he was well known as a notorious perfectionist, Fogerty had only recently managed to release his second solo album, Centerfield, after a sixteen-year absence from the music business. He also had absolutely no interest in outside production work. But Walkenhorst had a fussy nature as well, and he was clearly a rock â€˜n’ roll diamond in the rough. I figured that together they would either disappear into a recording studio and never be seen again, or together they would create a masterpiece.
I sent a cassette of Steve, Bob, & Rich demos off to Bob Fogerty, John’s brother and business manager. On the phone, brother Bob was brusque and disinterested and gave me no indication that there was any upside in holding out hope for his brother’s participation. I chose to label the cassette “The Kansas City Royals” rather than Steve, Bob, etc. in the hope of piquing baseball fan John’s interest. Then I waited for the phone that I knew wouldn’t ring.
Oddly enough, I met John Fogerty shortly thereafter. The occasion was the first induction ceremony for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The Everly Brothers were being inducted on that most magical night, and in the afternoon Phil, Don, Bas, and I were ensconced in Don’s suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when the phone did, in fact, ring. On the line was a representative of a certain Mr. Fogerty, asking if John could drop by to pay personal homage to the Everlys?
“They would be delighted,” I answered, not bothering to check.
Ten minutes later the five of us were arm-in-arm, posing for commemorative photographs. Before John left, I cornered him with my fingers crossed and my pulse racing. I thought that if I could actually put this union together, it would be rock ‘n’ roll history in the making.
“John, believe it or not, I sent you a demo recently…” I began.
“Really? What kind of a demo?” he wondered.
“Well, it’s a group I signed out of Kansas City. They don’t actually have a name yet…”
“Do you mean ‘The Kansas City Royals?'” he asked with wide eyes.
“Yeah! That’s the one!” I was near bursting with excitement. This was looking good.
“They’re fantastic!” he said. “‘They let the monkey go and blamed the monkey wrench’. What a great lyric!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. John Fogerty was quoting Bob Walkenhorst lyrics verbatim from memory. I circled in for the kill.
“So you’d be interested in producing them then?”
“Producing them? Nah. No way. I was just hoping that maybe I’d be able to steal that lyric someday. But I guess not, huh?” His statement was accompanied, as I recall it, by the sound of my heart breaking into a million tiny pieces.