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IT WAS 30 YEARS AGO TODAY (PART 1)

The title above is not a typo-hobbled headline to a story about today’s Sgt. Pepper semi-centennial; it refers to nothing as earth-shaking as that. It’s just that it was 30 years ago today—June 1, 1987—that I began my career in the music business. And so I write this remembrance, before I forget.

I wore a jacket and tie and arrived at 75 Rockefeller Plaza at 9:30, which the HR person had told me was the start of the workday. When I got to the 26th floor, no one else in the company had arrived, except for the receptionist. I waited.

The company was WEA International Records, with WEA standing for Warner Elektra Atlantic. I only vaguely understood what the company actually did, to be honest. Before I started, I told my friends it was responsible for marketing WEA’s foreign acts in America, but that didn’t really turn out to be true—in fact, it was nearly the opposite. But more on that later.

The receptionist led me to the area of the office where the publicity department was located. My new job was as staff writer—in charge of press releases, artist bios and the house newsletter “WEA International Eye on the World.”

As I sat at a cubicle waiting for my boss to arrive, I was happy to notice that many of the desks had cassette players and headphones on them. Of course—at a music company you get to listen to music all day while you work! This job would probably not be as bad as I’d feared.

I took the job at WEA International to pay off some debts. I’d been a graduate student at Stanford and then Penn, and was working towards my PhD in Communication Research. I hated Penn, and decided to leave and go back to Stanford the following year.

In the meantime, I somehow wound up running for the New York State Assembly in 1986, as a response to the corruption in the Democratic Party in Queens, which had erupted in a major scandal that resulted in, among other things, the suicide of the sitting Queens Borough President. As the young, fresh-faced idealist, I was determined to “throw the rascals out.”

But while campaigning for office was truly an enlightening growth experience, I wound up in the end with nothing more than a significant legal debt, the result of numerous rounds of court battles in which the local Democratic machine attempted to throw me off the ballot. On their third appeal they succeeded. By then I owed a lot of money to lawyers. The result was the postponement of any return to academia until the legal debt was repaid.

I needed a job. I figured music was one of the few things I knew enough about to find well-paying employment. Luckily, in researching my MA Thesis, “Broadcast Media and the Pop Music Audience,” I’d spent some time interviewing Irv Lichtman, who was the editor-in-chief of Billboard. Now in need of employment, I called Irv, figuring maybe he could help me find something.

Irv told me about the open staff-writer job at WEA, made a phone call, and on St. Patrick’s Day, 1987, I found myself at the Warner Communications Building in Rockefeller Plaza interviewing with the head of publicity, Tracy Nicholas Bledsoe. She was the ex-wife of legendary R&B deejay Jerry Bledsoe, who’d hosted the music show Soul Alive on local TV when I was a kid, so I was impressed.

Upon seeing my co-workers, I immediately realized
that my jacket and tie were overkill.

Throughout the interview, a succession of Irish marching bands could be heard just outside the window, blasting out “Sidewalks of New York” or “McNamara’s Band” one after another as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade made its way down 5th Avenue. We shouted our way through the interview, and Tracy said she’d call me.

Some time went by and I didn’t hear back. I also hadn’t heard back from a syndicated radio company I’d interviewed with for a job writing on a rock-trivia radio show. The owner of the company quizzed me on rock trivia and told me my one of my answers was wrong. When I took issue, he told me to go to the library—this was before the Internet—to ascertain the truth and to call him with the answer.

When I called him to confirm that I was, indeed correct, he quickly ended the call and I never heard from him again. As these were the only two interviews I’d gotten, I was kind of desperate for the WEA offer to materialize.  

I called a few times, and in mid-April finally reached Tracy, who told me she thought I was “overqualified” for the job and that she didn’t think I’d last long before looking for something else. I assured her she was wrong, and that being staff writer at WEA International would be a dream come true for me.

In reality, I was desperate to raise the money to pay off the campaign debt so I could go back to grad school. And also so I could move out of my parents’ house in Queens, where I had found myself living for the first time since high school after the ill-fated Assembly run. She said she’d think about it.

I guess Tracy didn’t find any other qualified candidates, because she called me in mid-May to say I should come back in for another interview. After a second round with Tracy, she seemed convinced I really wanted the job and sent me down the hall to interview with the chairman of the company, who had final approval before she could make the hire.

This was pretty cool, as the chairman was Nesuhi Ertegun, legendary record man and brother of Atlantic chairman Ahmet Ertegun. We talked about the earliest Atlantic jazz LPs, and his intention to reissue them on the new CD format. We talked about how the shellac shortage during WWII indirectly led to the rise of bop, causing confused jazz musicians returning from the war to abandon jazz and create R&B. It was an amazing interview. I got the job.

Sadly, one of the first assignments I had at WEA was to craft a press release announcing the retirement of Nesuhi Ertegun and the ascension of Ramon Lopez to the Chairmanship. Lopez was a more of a corporate-executive type, poached from PolyGram after an aborted merger attempt between WEA and that company. He was definitely not a guy with whom you’d sit around discussing music history.

Anyway, on that first day, Tracy finally turned up at around 10:30, about the same time as everyone else. Upon seeing my co-workers, I immediately realized that my jacket and tie were overkill and made a mental note to shed them both as soon as possible. I was anxious to find out where I’d be sitting, as only some of the desks had cassette players and earphones and I was hoping to be among the lucky ones. Tracy said, “I’ll show you to your office,” which came as a big surprise. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d get my own office!

When I opened the office door, I was in heaven. The office had a big desk and a couch, to boot. It had a stereo system with a turntable. And most amazingly, behind the desk there were LP shelves with thousands of albums—every album WEA had released over the past few years, in fact. I was starting to like this.

Over the next few weeks, I discovered the delights of working for an international record company, as I listened to mind-blowing records from WEA West Africa’s Great Magicians, WEA Brazil’s Pepeu Gomes, WEA Australia’s Weddings Parties Anything and so many more.

I was taken around the office to meet everyone, a blur of faces and names, with two standouts: Alan Betrock, legendary pop music critic, producer and expert on all things rock & roll, was, strangely, employed by WEA International as an A&R man assigned to listen to all the unsolicited demos. I guess rock journalism didn’t pay that well even back then.

Behind the desk there were LP shelves with thousands of albums... I was starting to like this.

I knew his work with The dB’s and Marshall Crenshaw and was thrilled to meet him. At a later stage in my career, I was lucky enough to collaborate with Alan on a reissue of rare Atlantic singles produced by Phil Spector when he was an Atlantic staff producer. Alan knew more about that kind of stuff than anyone ever. He is missed.

The other standout introduction as I did the rounds on my first day was even more unlikely: Incredible as it might seem, the legendary soccer star Pelé, who held the title of WEA International’s Goodwill Ambassador, had an office on our floor. This honorary position was a leftover perk from the time when Warner Communications—with the Ertegun brothers centrally involved—owned the NY Cosmos soccer team and brought Pelé to the USA to finish out his career.

Although the Cosmos had folded, Pelé still got to keep the title and the office at 75 Rock. He happened to be in town that day, and I got to meet him. Over the next couple of years I met him a few times and came home with numerous autographed photos for my friends. He was a warm, happy guy, but very much surrounded by hangers-on who seemed to always have some hustle or another up their sleeves. Between the record collection and meeting Alan Betrock and Pelé, this job was starting to seem pretty sweet.

Tracy took me to lunch that day—the only time that occurred during my 15 months working for her, but a nice gesture nonetheless. We went to the Bombay Palace, an Indian restaurant in the building that was a default end-of-day watering hole for WEA employees due to its location. I felt very much like a grownup, being taken to lunch at a midtown restaurant.

Read part 2 here.

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