The office I was given at Epic was located between the offices of Barry Kornfeld and Sandy Linzer, who were both A&R men and producers, as well. Both had been there for some time, and were at least five years older than I. Barry seemed partial to folk music, and had longish hair and a curly beard. He was soft-spoken, helpful and easygoing. I’m honestly not sure what he did at Epic, but I know he was involved with Tom & Harry Chapin early in their singing careers, and he was related to Artie Kornfeld , a successful producer/songwriter in the ’60s, and one of Woodstock’s originators. On the other side of me was Sandy Linzer, a pleasant, clean-cut guy from New Jersey who was a great songwriter, and had written some big hits for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, including “Let’s Hang On.” Sandy was involved with a few artists while I was there, and just before he and Barry left Epic, he cut the original track to “Brandy” by Looking Glass, but the band felt it was a little too pop and wound up re-recording it with another producer. Sandy was managed by a casually dressed young guy with a great sense of humor, who would stop in my office after his frequent meetings with Sandy, and greet me with “Werman, what’s up?” He would sit down and we’d chat about the music business for a few minutes. I always enjoyed these impromptu meetings with the young Tommy Mottola.
After Barry and Sandy were let go, I was the senior A&R man at the label, reporting to Don Ellis. Don was the first A&R head to be named a Vice President (instead of “director”), probably in part to accommodate his pay grade. This was a good development for all of us, because I could now be promoted from “assistant” to “director.” Corporations like CBS had pretty strict pay grades, and your title needed to be on a par with your salary. I always found it a little amusing to find myself in an LA recording studio in 1980 in shorts and a tee shirt, knowing that I held the title of “Senior Vice President / Executive Producer.” By then, I was valuable enough to the label to be making a salary of nearly $200,000 a year, so in order to fit into one of CBS’s corporate pay slots, I had to have an important â€“ sounding title. I always enjoyed handing out my business card, because it made me sound like a major corporate dude, while I was actually just a young guy who really liked rock & roll and was having a tremendous time making records.
But back in the first half of the ’70s, things were getting a little frustrating for me at Epic Records. After the REO signing, I had found and attempted to sign three different acts, each of whom was rejected by my boss for different reasons; these three acts went on to become three of the biggest-selling acts in the history of rock & roll. The frustration I suffered when I witnessed the eventual success of these bands was hard to bear. If I hadn’t respected and liked Don Ellis as much as I did, I probably would have held him directly responsible, but the fact was that not only was Don unenthusiastic about these bands, but I lacked the confidence and determination to argue their cases before his court of musical taste and insist we sign them. I should have. I discovered each of these acts well before anyone else in the A&R community was aware of them, but I folded in the face of doubt and opposition. Later in my career, I heard about people like Mike Appel, Springsteen’s first manager, who apparently had mortgaged his house to support Bruce’s career. This is confidence in an artist; and while I thought very highly of these acts I had seen, I didn’t enjoy the position of power in the company that would enable or entitle me to argue forcefully in their favor.
I met Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons (at that time they were named Stan Eisen and Gene Klein) when they were in a pop group called Wicked Lester. An engineer named Ron Johnsen had almost completed a project with the band at Electric Lady Studios on 8th Street, and I liked the songs enough to recommend that we buy the record (another “master purchase”). I spent a few evenings at the studio, and noted that Paul and Gene were pretty influential in this band. Don agreed to buy the record, but we never released it, as the group broke up right after the recording was finished.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Paul and Gene, asking me to come down to a showcase of their new three-piece band, which came to be known as KISS. Don and I and another member of our A&R staff went down one Spring evening to a loft on East 23rd Street, and Gene, Paul and their new drummer Peter Criss played a short, tight set for us in whiteface and black spandex — a preview of what was to come. When the set was over, Gene picked up a pail and threw the contents straight at us; it appeared to be water, but it was actually silver confetti. I loved it. I loved the theatrical aspect, I loved the show, and I was relieved that a bad Wicked Lester deal had actually morphed into this commercially potent trio.
We said our goodbyes and walked back down to 23rd Street, where Don turned to me and said “What the fuck was that?” My heart sank, realizing that he didn’t get it at all, and I didn’t respond, although I was very disappointed. Years later, after KISS had become huge, Neil Bogart purchased the Wicked Lester LP from us for what we had paid, presumably so that it would never see the light of day.
In another frustrating case, I received a cassette by a Canadian band from a young Toronto manager. It sounded very good to me — unusually musical and a little unorthodox. It was an FM-sounding band in the midst of a lot of AM-sounding tape submissions, and the guitar playing was particularly good. I traveled to Toronto to see this band, and had dinner with their manager, Ray Danniels, who had been a band booker in the Toronto area. Ray drove us out to a high school in nearby suburban Mississauga, where I saw Rush perform a brilliant set in the school auditorium, with original drummer John Rutsey. We met afterward, and I told the band and Ray that I was very impressed, and would like sign them to Epic.
When I returned to New York, I wrote up a memo recommending that we sign the band, and waited a couple of weeks while our business affairs department negotiated with Ray. When the A&R department wanted to sign a band, the practice was to supply the business affairs department with pertinent information; this would typically be the degree of excitement we felt for the band, the nature of the deal the band was seeking, and the names and numbers of their management and attorneys. After the initial meeting, business affairs got back to Don, informing him that the $75,000 advance the band wanted for a two-album deal was simply out of the question. Don didn’t question their decision, so eventually Cliff Burnstein, who was then in A&R, signed Rush to Mercury Records, whose offices were just across Sixth Avenue from us, and naturally the rest is history. This kind of thing was becoming difficult for me to take.
The final insult came some months later, when I flew down to Atlanta and drove to Macon, Georgia, at the invitation of a young manager named Alan Walden. Alan had brought me a reel-to-reel demo tape on his band — a tape which I still own. The song titles were typed on a label on the tape box, and I put a little dot beside the three songs I thought were most promising — “Gimme Three Steps,” “Wino” and Free Bird.” In Macon, there was a slim crowd at Grant’s Lounge on a rainy weekday night, as Alan had arranged for the band to play there for me. Equipped with two drummers at the time, Skynyrd rocked the house, and I couldn’t believe my luck, as no other labels were involved at that point. I’d never really heard a Southern electric guitar onslaught up close, and I was delirious. I returned to New York and wrote yet another one-page memo. I urged Don to see the band, and a week or so later, the two of us flew down to Nashville to see the band play at the Exit Inn. When we emerged after the show and after speaking with Alan and the band, Don said, with some apparent regret, “Good band — no songs.”
So this was the story of my life during the early years at Epic. A quick signing, then a clear shot at three of the biggest bands in history, and three rejections. After this, I began to despair some — others in the industry were earning their stripes and getting promoted, and making names for themselves by signing successful bands. I liked working for Don, but I could see that his musical taste, which was quite different from mine, would be of little value in helping me to acquire the bands I knew could sell a lot of records.
Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t just the record sales. I actually liked the music these bands were making at the time, and I was becoming really anxious about proving my worth to the label and to the industry. I’d been in A&R at Epic for four years, and I was beginning to feel I might be canned because I’d signed only one successful act in that time. In fact, along with Kiss, Skynyrd and Rush, I’d actually seen a few other acts that I liked, and had been able to sign them; but these acts weren’t successful, and you can’t really include the bands you didn’t sign on your resume, even if it was actually your boss’s decision to pass on them. I began to consider going into the restaurant business.