SIGMAN'S HISTORY OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS, CONTINUED:
HOWIE RICHMOND

When people talk about the history of our industry, they almost never talk about music publishing. It’s not as exciting as records, not as visceral as live performance, not as hot-button as technology.

But before rock & roll and the British Invasion, publishers and the Great American Songbook reigned supreme. And though the name Howie Richmond remains nearly unknown even to most industry players, he became one of the most important music publishers of the past century by staking his claim at the intersection of Tin Pan Alley and Abbey Road.

The company he founded, TRO (The Richmond Organization), is still owned and operated by Howie’s family. It sports a spectacular catalog from a diverse roster of songwriting giants including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Kurt Weill, Shel Silverstein, Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, Lionel Bart, Pete Townshend and David Bowie.

A list of the 100 greatest songs of the modern era might feature these TRO copyrights: “This Land Is Your Land,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Tom Dooley,” “What Kind of Fool Am I,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “My Generation,” “Space Oddity,” and “Whiter Shade of Pale."

My relationship with Howie began in 1949, when my mom gave birth to her first son and my dad gave birth to Howie’s first song. The son was me and the song was “Hop Scotch Polka.” Both the son and the song made a lot of noise.

The Sigmans and the Richmonds grew up together in Great Neck, Long Island during the 1950s and ’60s. My folks—who met in the Brill Building when my dad, Carl Sigman, was writing songs for Louis Prima (whose Gal Friday, Terry Berkowitz, was my future mom)—were close with Howie and his wife Anita. My brothers and I went to summer camp with the Richmond kids. Our families took vacations together. When the kids got older, my folks and Howie and Anita bought houses on the same cul de sac in Rancho Mirage, California, between Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope Drives. Howie’s “uncle” Abe Olman—a music-biz legend in his own right and one of Howie’s original partners (the other was the great Ali Brackman)—dispensed oracular wisdom from his house next door to Howie’s.

As a young teenager, I was a rapt witness when the Richmonds came over for dinner, music and conversation. Howie was a classic schmoozer with a fine sense of the absurd. He was also brilliant and intense. Sometimes in the middle of the festivities and for no apparent reason, he’d jump up and pace around the living room, muttering about how everything was changing.

I now know that Howie was building a music publishing empire at a time when rock & roll and the British Invasion were turning the industry upside down and threatening to displace the Tin Pan Alley writers who had made him successful; writers like my dad.

With help from Howie, fellow Great Necker Jerry Wexler and others, my dad held his own in the brave new world where most artists wrote their own material. Meanwhile, Howie gave me my first job in the business while I was in high school. The job—listening to and cataloging the massive piles of reel-to-reel tapes in the firm’s music library—was one I’d gladly have paid to do.

I knew a little about Guthrie, Seeger and Lead Belly, but the library comprised thousands of songs by them and scores of other amazing writers—songs about the great issues of the day and about the smallest, most playful human experiences.

Howie popped into the library once a week or so, like a dazed reporter from the front lines of the rock battleground. He imparted his breaking news with a mix of delight and self-deprecation. On one occasion, he said, “I have no ears, but check out that Traffic number”—“Paper Sun,” their first hit. On another, “I can’t understand this record, but my guys in England say this Pink Floyd group might have something”—the groundbreaking “See Emily Play.”

Howie was born in Hollis, N.Y., in 1919, the son of music publisher Maurice Richmond, whose catalog included “The Sidewalks of New York.” He got his start in the biz as an intern for George Lottman, dean of Broadway press agents. Before he started TRO, he set up his own PR shop, where he earned ink for clients like Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and The Andrews Sisters.

Howie pioneered the art of harnessing the power of radio to break records. During the ’40s, publishers attended big-band live performances, pitched their songs to the bandleaders and then released their recordings. Richmond put his tunes on shellac and made the rounds of key deejays all over the country, relentlessly plugging away until they couldn’t say no. The resulting airplay turned good songs into big hits.

One day shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, Gene Rayburn and Dee Finch, deejays on New York’s powerhouse radio station WNEW, were searching for an unusual song to play. They came across a 1924 acetate of “Scotch Hot,” written early in the century by entertainer Billy Whitlock and originally recorded on a cylinder by Edison Bell Gramophone Company with a special set of glockenspiel-like musical bells.

Rayburn and Finch put it in heavy rotation and tried to find Whitlock to do an update. They finally located him in a boarding house in Brixton, England, where he toiled as a night watchman. Whitlock was thrilled, Rayburn convinced my dad to write a lyric, and “Hop Scotch Polka” became TRO’s first hit, scaling the charts of its time—Most Played Jukebox Records and Sheet Music—in the U.S. and the U.K. My dad, who shunned publicity like a contagious disease, was persuaded to play hopscotch for a Cash Box cover photo.

Before long, Howie had his first #1 record, Teresa Brewer’s “Music! Music! Music!,” written by Stephan Weiss and Bernie Baum.

During the ’50s, Howie developed a special relationship with Woody Guthrie. Howie’s son Larry, who now runs TRO, says that Woody was rejected by many New York publishers before he showed up at TRO’s one room office over a Chinese restaurant on West 46th Street. Larry adds, “Woody found a home on the office couch and shared his catalog of songs which for the most part were written before he met Howie. Howie and his secretary Irene Kelsey thought Woody a bit strange, but they also could see his genius and they worked together to get Woody’s songs recognized.”

During this period, TRO championed many great folk artists, including Pete Seeger and The Weavers, whom Howie stuck with when things got tough during the blacklist.

As traditional publishers scrambled to stay relevant amidst the rock revolution, Howie, perhaps partly as a result of all that pacing around our living room, recognized there might be opportunities in London and set up a company to attract young songwriters emerging from the folk-rock movement. He hired the gifted British music publisher David Platz and proceeded to sign a stunning array of talent including The Who, Procol Harum, The Moody Blues, Marc Bolan and Bowie.

I was in close touch with Howie during his final years, always touched by his unfailing warmth and mesmerized by his extraordinary memory for the details of a rapidly disappearing era. That he had the most infectious laugh of anyone I’ve met was a bonus.

Howie died peacefully at his Rancho Mirage home in 2012 at 94. The New York Times called him, “among the last of a Runyonesque breed that was long a vital if largely unheralded segment of the music business.”

Wherever he and his Runyonesque compadres are now, they’re probably laughing their asses off.


HITS recently published the first volume of History of the Music Business: The Mike Sigman Interviews. Order copies from [email protected].

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