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WHEN LAVINTHAL
MET BEER, COMPLETE
Another chapter from the forthcoming memoir High and Inside

It’s often been said, not without reason, that if you lived through the 1970s, you don’t remember them. Surprisingly, we’ve somehow managed to dredge up detailed recollections of that wild and woolly decade in this recounting of the sequence of events that led us initially to start the indie promo outfit MusicVision and eventually to launch the left-of-center trade rag HITS.

The story begins, fittingly enough, in a men’s room stall at an iconic West Hollywood watering hole…


1. THE FIRST ENCOUNTER

The first time I met Lenny Beer was at Dan Tana’s in 1974—and if you haven’t had the steak or the chicken parmigiana, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Lenny was the new guy in town, the head of Record World’s chart department. He was a Carnegie Mellon grad and an NYU MBA; kind of nerdy, with a near-genius IQ, he’d come up with a new system of calculating airplay and sales to make up their charts that was driving label guys crazy. His methodology was based on actual sales and spins, as opposed to the Billboard system of people reporting sales and airplay as poor, fair, good or very good.

Billboard’s approach was so far removed from reality that Beer’s system of real information was making the VPs of promotion, who had control of the Billboard charts, want to kill him—guys like Capitol’s Al Coury and Atlantic’s Dickie Klein, whose basic form of communication was screaming at the tops of their lungs. They were furious, because some of the nation’s top radio programmers were paying close attention to Beer as he exposed the man behind the curtain.

I didn’t care that much about the charts. I worked for a guy named Jay Lasker, the president of ABC/Dunhill, who cared how many records we were selling, but my team’s lane was working the charts to try and get bullets on our records, which could help you get your records played. That was the name of the game, and my team was super-hot: We always had a few hits on the radio.

I didn’t meet Lenny in person until that night in ’74, but I’d spoken to him on the phone a few times about his new chart bullshit, which had us all trying to figure out how to manipulate it. When we ran into each other in the men’s room that night, the first thing I said to him was “Wanna do a bump?”

2. LEARNING THE BIZ

I had moved to L.A. a few years earlier to pursue my life’s dream of sex, drugs and rock & roll. I’d spent a whole year trying to get a job at Elektra or A&M, both of which were very cool labels back then—not as cool as Warners, but getting a job at Mo and Joe’s house seemed like such a long shot that I didn’t even try.

I knew most of the top players at the leading indie labels of the time, as I had worked for the big indie record distributor in Seattle. My dad, Lou, had grown that business—starting with a small G.I. loan, post-World War II—into a very prominent distributor, retailer and rack jobber that covered the Pacific Northwest from Alaska through the Bay Area. I’d worked after school and summer hours since I was old enough to push a broom in the warehouse.

When I was 18, I was asked by guys who worked at the labels we distributed if I would help get their records played at the big Top 40 station, KJR, for $25 to $50 a pop. I knew most of the jocks and programming people—it was still a small cottage industry in those days, and we all spent a lot of time together at weddings, bar mitzvahs, softball games and other gatherings.

After college, I was desperate to land a job in L.A. at one of the top labels. I was frustrated; I knew I could do the job, but how could I get it? And then, at the NARM convention at the Century Plaza, Lasker said to me, “Kid, come work for me and I’ll teach you the record business.”

This wasn’t my first choice by a long shot. Dunhill was in a fight with its top act, The Mamas & the Papas, and their other hits were Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park,” both big novelty records. No Hendrix, Stones, Doors, Kinks or Cream, but beggars can’t be choosers, so I said “I’m in” at 300 bucks a week. I told him I was going to make them and break them.

When I showed up at 449 South Beverly Drive three months later, Lasker looked up from his desk and said, “What the fuck are you doing here?” I said, “You hired me,” and he yelled for Muriel, the office manager, who hustled me into the mailroom. Because of my background in distribution, I got thrown into the sales department, which was OK—my only caveat when I took the job was that I didn’t want to do radio promotion anymore. Before I even left Seattle, I’d grown tired of kissing ass, buying dinner and telling those morons how great they were.

3. REELIN’ IN THE YEARS


Lasker was a tough, no-bullshit, old-school record guy who knew how to sell The Mamas & Papas so many different ways it was mind-boggling: Farewell to the First Golden Era, Their Greatest Hits, The Golden Years, The Anthology, 16 Greatest Hits, and then the final 16 Greatest Hits Never Heard Before in This Order. The guy knew how to milk a catalog. They never recorded as a group for him, or anyone else, ever again.

This was not the house that Mo and Joe built, but there were a few of us: Steve Barri, a Top 40 hit producer out of famed Fairfax High (Phil Spector, Herb Alpert, Tommy Roe, The Grass Roots, etc.), and Joel “The Creeper” Sill, the son of Lester Sill (who’d co-founded Philles with Spector and headed Colgems during the Monkees era) and brother of publishing mogul Chuck Kaye, both famed music men. Joel was executive producer of the Easy Rider soundtrack on Dunhill. The three of us stuck together that first year or two. Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” had been a big hit, and Three Dog Night’s third single, a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One,” was just out.

After I’d been there for six weeks, Lasker told me, “Go back and work for your daddy,” as he threw a box of 45 RPM singles at my head, declaring he didn’t want to see me again until I went on the road and got the record played.

“Don’t go to Seattle,” he added. “That doesn’t count.”

I went home and told wife #1, Pam, who was from Spokane, that we might have made a mistake moving to L.A. She’d been crying since we moved to town. After mulling over the situation, I decided to call an old family friend, Bill Gavin, who ran the influential tip sheet The Gavin Report at the time, and see what he thought I should do. He asked what record Lasker had sent me off to work; after I told him it was “November Snow” by Rejoice, he said he’d call me back.

Bill called the next morning and suggested that I go to Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston to see stations WKY, KLIF and KILT. So I went. Both WKY’s Danny Williams and KLIF’s Michael O’Shea added the record, but Bill Young at KILT in Houston kept me waiting in the lobby for two days. When I finally confronted him in the parking lot as he stood there with a shotgun in his hand, he said he didn’t have time because he was shooting birds. I had the distinct feeling that shooting birds and shooting Jews was pretty much the same thing to him. I haven’t been back to Houston since.

The next six years were awesome, as ABC/Dunhill took off. I became a super-hot young exec, and the dream of sex, drugs and rock & roll was fulfilled to the max. The label’s output was incredible: Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good,” Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” The Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got),” Dusty Springfield’s “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Hummingbird,” Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” Ace’s “How Long,” The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Come Monday,” The Grass Roots’ “Sooner or Later,” Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods’ “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” Bobby Vinton’s “Beer Barrel Polka” and Tommy Roe’s “Jam Up and Jelly Tight,” plus classic LPs by John Lee Hooker, Lamont Dozier, Keith Jarrett, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Bobby “Blue” Bland, to name more than a few.

It was through Three Dog Night that I met the Ienner brothers. Jimmy had replaced Richie Podolor as the group’s producer, and Donnie was Jimmy’s runner. Even then, I could tell Donnie was going to be this super-aggressive, win-at-all-costs kind of guy. The first time I laid eyes on Donnie was the day he delivered the master refs to the first single from Hard Labor, “The Show Must Go On.” He strolled into my office, yanked open the door to my fridge and took what he wanted without asking.

4. SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT, NO WAITING (P. SILVERS)

One of the most interesting, talented and envelope-pushing record guys I ever met was Bob Krasnow, aka Ernie or Bilko (nicknames given to Kras by Warner’s Lenny Waronker because of his resemblance to Phil Silvers, who played Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko in the hit ’50s sitcom The Phil Silvers Show).

The first time I met him, I was still living in Seattle and he was taking an artist named Penny Nichols on a promo tour for Buddah Records. One thing led to another, and we ended up getting wasted and tripping out that night. We kept in contact, and by the time I moved to L.A., he was running Blue Thumb Records with Tommy LiPuma and Don Graham out of an old barber shop on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills—complete with barber chairs and an apothecary full of weed and pills of assorted colors.

The label debuted with Captain Beefheart’s Strictly Personal, and in its first few years would release Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Unicorn, Dave Mason’s Alone Together—on marble-colored vinyl in an elaborate die-cut package—and Headkeeper, Love’s False Start, the first two Mark Almond albums, a couple of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks LPs and a pair of Ike & Tina Turner titles.

We resumed our friendship and began hanging out at the Troubadour, Tana’s, the Whisky, the Roxy and especially the infamous Bungalow 8 of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He wanted me to work for him as head of promo—ugh—but it was just too crazy for me, even though I loved what he and Blue Thumb were doing.

Blue Thumb was part of Gulf+Western’s move into the music business when Tony Martell headed it in NYC. It was a collection of various indie labels besides Blue Thumb, which scored a hit with The Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can” (from their self-titled first album) the year after G+W bought it. The G+W family also included Just Sunshine Records from Woodstock’s Michael Lang; Melanie and Peter Schekeryk’s Neighborhood Records, which took her “Brand New Key” to #1; and Artie Ripp’s Family Productions, which released Billy Joel’s first album, Cold Spring Harbor, and single, “She’s Got a Way.”

G+W’s music division was hemorrhaging red ink, and Lasker bought the company and all those label deals. Blue Thumb was shuttered and Lasker asked me to let Kras know that it was over. It was not a great meeting. Mo Ostin could spot exec talent like no other at the time; perched like an eagle surveying the landscape from his house high in the Encino hills, Mo swooped in and hired Kras and LiPuma.

Kras immediately set his sights on two of the acts I had broken: Steely Dan and Chaka Khan, both of which he was instrumental in getting signed to Warners after ABC began to fall apart.

We were happening until the corporate bozos in NYC fired Lasker and hired high-profile business manager Jerry Rubenstein. Jerry was not a bad guy, but he was clueless; the company was sold to MCA about four years after he got there. Rubenstein only lasted two years, but before he got fired in ’77, he made me a new three-year deal and doubled my salary to $90k.

David Geffen, who was running Elektra/Asylum, and Steve Wax, his president, called me to say Jerry was a loser and I should come to work for them. They were right, but I didn’t. 

5. DO YOU SWEAR TO TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH? 

Near the end of my time at ABC/Dunhill, there was a grand jury investigation out of Newark, N.J., headed by U.S. Attorney Jonathan L. Goldstein. I was subpoenaed to testify as to how the business had operated under Lasker, who had exited by then.

For two days, I sat in a room with two FBI and two IRS agents as they grilled me about the business. That room was about 30x30 and contained every piece of paper I had signed during the previous five years. I was warned by my attorney to answer everything honestly or face possible perjury charges. Yikes.

One problem arose quickly, as I was the exec who had to sign off on the expense reports of the 40 or so execs who reported to me every week or two, and because there were no corporate credit cards, blank receipts from top bars and restaurants had a big cache. One of the agents, holding a bunch of expense accounts in his hand, asked me, “You know this guy Bill Drake?” I replied that Drake was an influential radio programming executive. “Is he a big guy?” the agent asked. “Yes, he’s quite tall,” I answered. “Is he extremely overweight?” Puzzled, I replied, “No sir.” “Can you please explain, Mr. Lavinthal, how he could have had dinner with three of your employees on the same night?” “I have no idea, sir.” The agent then added that two of these “dinners” took place in Los Angeles and the third was in San Francisco. Humiliated but fearing nothing, I threw my hands in the air.

They told me they wouldn’t ask me anything different when I testified in front of the grand jury, unaccompanied by my attorney. They kept their word—almost—and when I finally testified, the one new question was: had I ever done coke in my time at the label?

I then asked to be excused so I could discuss this question with my lawyer, who was waiting outside the jury room. He told me to tell the truth. So I returned and answered affirmatively.

More than 10 times I answered “Yes” to their questions; more than 50 times I said “I’m not sure.” They excused me after that.

Most thought this probe was a result of the Nixon White House attack on the big three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, which had humiliated him to the point of resigning as President; the Department of Justice was looking for headlines about sex, drugs, rock & roll and payola.

All this happened on the heels of CBS unceremoniously dismissing Clive Davis for what was believed to be a number of irregular practices involving one of his lieutenants, David Wynshaw. Nothing major resulted from this witch hunt, other than a few indictments of minor players at various indie labels on income tax issues.

A few months later, while I was in the South of France, Jerry Rubenstein called me to say he was going to change the first Poco single to a different track. I caught the next plane back to L.A. and told him he shouldn’t get involved in choosing singles, that we were hot and that I had this shit under control. He said he was boss. I replied, “Why don’t you find yourself somebody else to do my job?” And so he did.

But by that time, all sales, promo, marketing and publicity staff had been reporting to me, and the A&R guys had practically lived at my house in Tarzana as we decided how to break acts and sell the music. The crew consisted of Steve Barri, Gary Katz, Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter, Lee Young and, of course, Harvey Bruce—on the loose with the juice—Ed Michel and Bill Szymczyk, who had previously quit and moved to Denver after an earthquake and a bad tab of mescaline.

Rubenstein replaced me and my team and hired Charlie Minor as head of promo. Charlie exited with Rubenstein in ’77 and went to United Artists with Artie Mogull before heading to A&M, where he ruled for the next two decades.

In retrospect, Jerry gave me the break of my life when he fired me and paid me out (a young John Frankenheimer had done my deal). For a year or so after that, I was looking to become the next big thing. Dick Asher wanted me to move to Paris and run CBS Europe. RCA wanted me to move to NYC and be head of promo—ugh. Alain Levy ended up taking that head of Europe job in Paris. Guess I made the right decision; where is he now?

Meanwhile, Steve Diener (father of Octone Records founder James Diener) was named head of ABC/Dunhill; he would be the company’s last president—ABC sold it to MCA two years later. Steve was a super-smart guy but couldn’t turn the company around after Rubinstein decimated it during the short time he was there. After Minor left, Diener hired San Francisco’s Johnny Barbis as head of promo.

6. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

The first year after I got fired, I hung out a lot with Irving Azoff, who managed Steely Dan, Joe Walsh and Jimmy Buffett, as well as the Eagles and Dan Fogelberg, and we contemplated starting a label together. When he finally stopped taking my calls, I made a deal, during the most drug-fueled period of my life, to run the West Coast office of Steve Leber and David Krebs. During the next year, their management clients Aerosmith and Ted Nugent did a stadium tour, and they opened Beatlemania on Broadway. I quickly learned that being on the West Coast for an East Coast-based company was boring and not for me. I liked Krebs; he was cool. But Leber was a loudmouthed, cigar-chomping, gold-chain-wearing, Polyester-Nehru-jacketed agent from Long Island—I think his claim to fame was booking the circus.

As I was leaving the company, Peter Mensch was starting there, managing AC/DC and Def Leppard. Leber accused me of putting fish in the door panels of the Mercedes they’d leased me when I returned it. When they got the car to NYC, every cat in Midtown could be found in the garage where Leber parked it. Crazy, huh?

At that point I decided to get sober, clean up my act, look for a job and go into analysis. I was now not the next big thing—that was for sure.

I did some consulting for labels and managers while trying to decide what to do next.

Warner’s Joe Smith had succeeded Geffen as head of Elektra/Asylum in 1975, and when Joe left to go into sports management in 1983, Bob Krasnow was given the chairmanship of Elektra, then based in NYC. Both Mo and Ahmet supported the move by Steve Ross.

Kras flourished there as Elektra became a super-cool label with commercial and critical successes such as Anita Baker, Stereolab, The Pixies, The Cars and Mötley Crüe. When Cliff and Peter were shopping Metallica in 1984, Kras said the rock band’s name was so perfect that he didn’t need to hear the record and made the deal on the spot.

After Steve Ross passed away in 1992, Kras, along with Mo, got caught up in the Bob Morgado bullshit that ended both their runs at WMG two years later.

Meanwhile, Beer became head of promo at 20th Century Fox Records, working for Alan “Ears” Livingston, the guy from Capitol who’d famously passed on The Beatles (he’d also created Bozo the Clown, fittingly enough). Lenny broke a couple of acts, but he got blown out after only nine months in 1978.

We met for lunch at Art’s Deli in Studio City and decided to start an indie-promo/marketing/management/consulting company, aka anything we could do. “Give me six months with your Rolodex and my brains,” Beer promised, “and we will do something great.” At that point I was just trying to put bread on the table for wifey and two kids, or else I’d be shuffling off to Seattle to go into business with my dad and two brothers.

Beer was right; we started MusicVision together, got hot, and I’ve backed his play ever since. Nobody I know has ever had a better batting average, and we’ve had each other’s backs through thick and thin. I love the guy like a brother and would do anything for him.

That FBI interrogation back in the day had been a great lesson about how to conduct—and not conduct—business, and when Beer and I went into business together, I had only two rules: (1) no coke ever, and (2) never do anything outside the law—especially regarding taxes or payola.

And that served us well, because 1986 saw the issue of payola blow up once again after the infamous Brian Ross NBC investigation into the mob, the music business and indie promo, all of which led us to start HITS 30 years ago. 

 

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