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HOMB 2: SIGMAN SPEAKS

Interview by Simon Glickman

As we prepare to roll out HITS Presents The History of the Music Biz, Volume 2, we offer this conversation with journalist Michael Sigman, who authored the issue’s profiles of industry trailblazers. Mike was extremely patient with our questions, though he probably wishes he could get us off of his trail. 

Sigman, Lenny Beer and Record World associate editor Howard Levitt with Albert Brooks, then touting his album
Comedy Minus One, and ABC Records label promo rep Greg Kimmelman After this photo, Brooks considered further subtraction.

How did the first edition of History of the Music Biz come into existence?
I had lunch with Lenny Beer in September of 2014 and it turned out to be the day that David Anderle died. It was such a sad time, and Lenny said, “These music industry veterans have such great stories; it would be great to get them down.” I liked the idea but was interested in doing something that was a little different from a standard Q&A format. He said, “Why don’t you start interviewing some of the legendary people and give it a personal angle? Whether it’s from your time editing Record World or from your time at L.A. Weekly or from your experiences growing up with a songwriter dad, there’s usually going to be some kind of a connection that you can make and that can make the stories of the old days, of the glory days, more interesting.” After that, I sat down with Lenny and Dennis and we mapped it out. I started out with the easy ones, the guys that were my friends. Like Dick Asher and Joe Smith and a couple of others.

In this timeless tableau, the incomparable composer, arranger and producer Quincy Jones is flanked by the visionary songwriting duo of Marilyn and Alan Bergman, during that rollicking era when a pitcher of martinis and a pack of Pall Malls was known as "lunch." The trio collaborated on the theme song for the landmark film In the Heat of the Night.

And what we ended up doing in Volume One is interviewing many of the great record company chiefs and label founders from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, people I had covered when I was editing Record World, and in many cases people who had a connection with my dad. So that was the focus for Volume One: the record-company chiefs. 

Maybe we should back up now and say a little bit about your home growing up. Because your childhood was in the music business.
Yes. My parents met at the Brill Building in the 1940s. My dad was a songwriter who’d had some hits by then, including “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “Crazy He Calls Me.” My mom was Louis Prima’s Gal Friday; she answered his calls and put the bets on the horses and signed his autographs. My dad was writing songs for Louis, and so they met in the elevator of the Brill Building and got married soon thereafter. I was born in ‘49; when I was in utero, my dad wrote “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think,” which can serve as a sort of theme for everything but certainly for these History books we’re doing.

I was the first of three sons. The five of us moved to leafy Great Neck, Long Island, in the early ‘50s, so I was brought up in a music business home where people like Percy Faith, Jerry Wexler, Johnny Mercer and Jerry Blaine came over for dinner parties, and I got to know and revere these people. When I was a teenager and falling in love with rock and roll, these people would come to my parents’ house and scream and yell at each other. It was the rock and roll pioneers like Jerry Blaine and Jerry Wexler against the traditionalists like my dad, Percy Faith and Johnny Mercer, who were horrified.

"I dunno, fellas," says the legendary Elvis Presley in this vintage shot with songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. "'Jailhouse Rock'? Seems a little off-brand. What happened to my original idea, 'Bordello Shuffle'?" Stoller is featured in HOMB2.

Horrified?
The rock revolution  was a direct threat to their careers. I loved the old stuff and the new stuff. When I was in high school, my dad helped me get a job at TRO, Howie Richmond’s publishing company, which had everything from Woody Guthrie to Bricusse/Newley to Traffic and Pink Floyd. During the summers when I was in college I worked at Record World, a job that I got via Jerry Blaine. And when I graduated from college I had gotten into law school and graduate school to study philosophy, but I also got a job offer for $85 a week to be the lowest person on the totem pole at Record World. Guess what I did?

Show business!
So it was 1971, and I was a cub reporter at Record World and it was just the time when everything was exploding in the industry and also in music. So I got to see everything and meet everybody, and Lenny came aboard as the chart editor right around the time I became the editor of Record World at the tender age of 23—by default, really, because everyone else quit or got fired. We just had a blast for the next number of years. I was there for 11 years until the magazine folded.

My parents met at the Brill Building in the 1940s. My dad was a songwriter who’d had some hits by then... My mom was Louis Prima’s Gal Friday.

What are some highlights from the new issue?
For Volume 2, it was easier to get people like Jimmy Bowen, Al Bell, and Fred Foster. who don't do many interviews, because I could show them what the book would look like.  When it came to Walter Yetnikoffthe most powerful industry exec for much of the '70s, who turned me down flat for Volume 1—it was pure pestering, I think, that finally won the day. But for Volume Two we’ve also expanded the universe to include artists, music publishers, people in radio, retailers, the whole spectrum. In some cases there were people who did both; Herb Alpert is a perfect example. He founded and helped build an incredible record company and was one of the most successful artists of all time. We’ve got Tony Bennett, who’s just about to turn 90; the highlight of this whole project for me was answering the phone and hearing him saying, “Mr. Sigman! It’s Tony Bennett!”

"So Frank and Joey Bishop were just about to toss this croupier off the roof of the Sands, when Grace Kelly shows up with some crazy reefer she got from Omar Sharif," recalls Tony Bennett in this classic shot with Tommy Mottola, Donnie Ienner and Bruce Springsteen. "But look how I'm going on. Bruce, I'll bet you've got some great stories too." Later, Springsteen took the cannoli.

When you mentioned those shouted conversations over the dinner table I was imagining  how everyone might’ve responded to the news that Tony Bennett would still be going strong in 2017.
Exactly. Then there was Russ Solomon, who started Tower Records and was an incredible giant in the industry; he was wonderful to talk to. Kal Rudman, who was a big shot tip-sheet guy—he’s one of the funniest people of all time and had a column in Record World. My first week as editor I got in big trouble because I published something  Kal wrote that was very salacious. He said a record made the girls’ “nooshies” wet. I didn’t know what that meant. 

That’s a new one on me.
And then there were these characters like Herbie Rosen and Artie Ripp, who were not record kingpins but contributed a lot and were hilarious and had great stories. This time we’re taking it to the streets and into the studios, retail stores and radio stations—spreading out the stories. One of the interesting things about it is that the record-company chieftains tended to be more about “I did this and then I did this.” Those stories were great. But in this case you’ve got the whole gamut of people, many of whom really had to struggle. The other guys had their struggles, but some of these guys had more struggles that the ones in Volume One.

The highlight of this whole project for me was answering the phone and hearing, "Mr. Sigman! It’s Tony Bennett!"

A lot of these stories are about faith being rewarded.
I think you’re right. Another interesting angle is that many of these people are music people first and foremost; they grew up singing and playing instruments. Others are people who couldn’t care less about music until they got into the business and then fell in love with it that way. But in all cases, they had this passion for certain artists and certain records and were gonna do whatever it took to make that happen. It was a combination of spotting the talent and then just relentlessly pushing forward.

So what were some of the biggest surprises for you in doing this?
I think the biggest surprise was the humility of a lot of the people. Everybody struggled, and a lot of them started out with nothing. They had these great stories about meeting their idols or getting their first job for $50 a week sweeping the floors. Mel Posner was thrilled to sweep floors at Elektra when there were three employees there. They didn’t rewrite their pasts.

Everyone I’ve sent Volume One to says it’s one of  the best reads ever about the business.
The hardest thing about doing this for me was getting these people to be part of something that was going to have a lot of other people in it. They all wanted to have their own book. And in fact Joe Smith sent me note saying, “How the fuck did you get all those people to agree to do this thing?” That’s the thing that was the hardest and the most challenging and that I’m the most proud of. To get Berry Gordy to be part of something that all these other people had already signed on to. And the way you guys put it together with all the photos, it was so dramatic that people said, “Whoa, I didn’t know it would be like this.”

 

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