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RUSS REGAN:
HISTORY LESSON

 

In honor of the great Russ Regan, who passed away over the holiday weekend, we present Mike Sigman's profile from our History of the Music Biz volume.

When Russ Regan was running Uni Records in the late 1960s, he had breakfast every morning at the Continental Hotel (now the Hyatt on Sunset), where he ate bacon and eggs, drank coffee and watched the parade of Hollywood hustlers stream in and out. His boss, Ned Tanen, gave him a hard time about that.

I met up with Russ recently at Solley’s Deli in Sherman Oaks, and he elaborated: “Ned would say, ‘Why are you hanging out with those bums? Get your butt in the office.’ I told him I need to find out what’s happening on the street.

“One morning, a guy named Lenny Hodes from Dick James Music comes over and says, ‘Russ Regan, I’ve got something for you.’ He gives me a manila envelope with an album and a couple of 45s. He says, ‘This artist was just released by Bell Records. You’re not gonna believe it, but he was turned down by five companies. They think he sounds too much like Jose Feliciano. Russ, I know you’re gonna get it.’

“I go to the office, and around six that night things finally quieted down a bit. I started listening to these demos, and I thought, ‘This guy is really good. I wonder what the problem is?’ I called Lenny and said, ‘What’s the deal on this artist?’ He said, ‘You like it? You got it for no money.’

That’s how Russ got Elton John. For no money.

Frederic Dannen, whose 1991 book Hit Men cast a gimlet eye at record-business titans, said that in his years of research, “I only met three execs—Clive Davis, Bruce Lundvall and Russ Regan—who truly had a great love and appreciation for music.”

Russ ran two important labels—Uni and 20th Century—during their glory years, and he might be the only exec to score #1 singles in four separate decades.

As is the case with several of the figures profiled in this issue, Russ had dreams of a singing career. When that didn’t pan out, his love of music expanded into a love of the business of music—the thrill of hearing a brilliant artist for the first time, the art of the deal, the excitement of promoting a hit record and the nitty-gritty of mixing it up with the colorful characters he competed against.

As a teenager in Stockton, Calif., Russ played drums in a band and did impressions of the stars of the day. He made his way to L.A. after high school, and in 1956, while earning money as a salesman for Gallo Wine, he started singing in clubs.

“I thought I could make it as a singer. I was 21 and on the street when I met George Mottola, who wrote ‘Goodbye My Love.’ He thought I had some talent and made a record with me as a solo artist and got it released on Capitol.” That song didn’t do well, but in 1959 he came up with a seasonal hit. Taking note of 1958’s smash “The Chipmunk Song,” he wrote and produced “The Happy Reindeer” by Dancer, Prancer and Nervous, which sold 800,000 copies.

Russ then hooked up with a young music man named Sonny Bono and, as The Check Mates, they recorded “Hey, Mrs. Jones” for Arvee Records. (Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, a different group, had a Top 20 with the Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl” in 1969.)

Russ and Sonny became close friends and colleagues—in fact, Russ was present at the creation of Sonny & Cher. “Sonny, myself and [radio legend] Gary Owens were at Aldo’s on Hollywood Boulevard drinking beers. Cher walks in with another guy, and Sonny, who had never met her, says, ‘That’s mine.’ He finishes his beer, walks over—he knew the guy—and an hour and a half later he walks out with Cher. The rest is history.

“I loved Sonny. He is the most underrated person I’ve ever known in the music business. He came from nothing and became a hit singer, producer and songwriter. Eventually, he became Mayor of Palm Springs and a congressman. When we’d known each other for a while, Sonny said, ‘Russ, with your personality you should become a promotion man.’ And he taught me.”

In 1962, Russ recalled, “I broke two acts at Motown. The Supremes’ ‘Let Me Go the Right Way’—their fourth record, and the first that made noise—and Marvin Gaye’s first hit, ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow.’ It was great to work with [Motown exec and later President] Barney Ales—I learned a lot from him. And Berry Gordy probably was the most amazing music man I ever met; he was my mentor for many years. He knew the music and also understood how to promote.”

Promotion is so essential to a record company’s success that successful promo men often make the transition to the executive suite. Joe Smith saw that potential in Russ and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “Joe made me an executive. I was doing promotion, and he called me and said, ‘I gotta get you off the street, man.’”

Bob Krasnow had just left Loma Records (Warners’ R&B label), and Joe offered Russ the job of General Manager. The job paid $300 per week, $100 less than Russ was already making. Joe said, ‘You’re taking a pay cut, but I’m gonna teach you how to be an executive.’ He said, ‘Here’s your first lesson: The most difficult thing you’re gonna learn how to do is to say no to your friends. They’re gonna come at you.’”

“Warner Bros. was just not a good place for rhythm & blues records,” he said. “But I did one good thing. Kelly Gordon brought me a song called ‘That’s Life.’ He wanted to record it himself. I told Kelly, ‘That is a song for Frank Sinatra.’ I went next door to Mo Ostin and said, ‘Mo, this is for Mr. Sinatra’—Frank was my hero—and played it for him. Mo said, ‘You’re right—that’s for Frank.’ Two days later, I get a buzz on the intercom. It’s Mo. He says, ‘Russ, are you sitting down? Frank’s gonna do it. Jimmy Bowen’s gonna produce it and Ernie Freeman’s gonna arrange it.’

“I went to the session—two takes and it was over. It was one of the greatest nights of my life. I’m running the R&B company, right? R&B stations went for it! That was the only record Frank Sinatra ever had that went #1 R&B [at Cashbox], and #4 pop.”

Russ was ambitious, and there were so many talented people at Warners ahead of him on the executive ladder, he didn’t see himself moving up any time soon.

“I was at Warners for about a year when I got an offer from Ned Tanen at Universal to be national promo director for Uni Records, a new label. Lew Wasserman had allocated a million dollars for the label, and they had gone through $900,000. Ned said, ‘You’ve got $100,000 left. Do you think you can do it?’ I said yes.

“I was there for about two months without a hit. Finally, we released ‘Acapulco Gold’ by The Rainy Days, which came to us from Dave Diamond, a famous disc jockey at KROQ [AM]. It took off like a rocket ship until [tip-sheet king] Bill Gavin pointed out that Acapulco Gold is a high-grade form of marijuana. Gavin says we’re advertising the drug every time that record gets played. That killed the record in its tracks.

“Then Dave tells me he’s getting calls for a record called ‘Incense and Peppermints’ by The Strawberry Alarm Clock. I bought it for $2,500 and it went to #1. I traded it for ‘Baby Now That I’ve Found You’ by The Foundations, and that led to ‘Build Me Up Buttercup,’ another #1.

“So now all of a sudden I’m the hot guy. I get a call from Ned saying, ‘Do you like Neil Diamond? He’s available.’ We signed Neil, and his first couple of records didn’t do that well. But then we had ‘Brother Love’s Travelin’ Salvation Show,’ ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Cracklin’ Rosie,’ and Neil became a superstar.”

After Russ’s fateful breakfast at the Hyatt, signing Elton John was easy; breaking him, not so much.

“It was the easiest deal of my life. They were so desperate. I was ready to go with the first album, Empty Sky. I thought we had a potential star, but not a superstar. Then I get the Elton John album. I listened to it and said, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible.’ The minute I heard it, I shut the company down—we put the phones on hold and we all listened to the album. Everybody went crazy. It was like a gift from God.

“We planned a launch campaign, which was kicked off by Elton’s performance on Aug. 25, 1970, at the Troubadour, which turned out to be one of the greatest nights in rock & roll history.

“There was an immediate buzz on Elton John in the entire business, but the public hadn’t caught on. We did OK in San Francisco, but not great in New York, where he played the Playboy Club, which was not a good venue.”

Elton’s show at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia changed all that.

“I’m at the Marriott Hotel, and I get a call from [MCA Records president] Mike Maitland’s office.” Maitland had talked with his finance department about the Elton John tour, and the MCA Controller was raging, saying, “You’re spending all this money on this trip, and you haven’t sold any records. You know what they’re calling your superstar at the [Universal] Tower? Regan’s Folly!”

Remembers Regan, “I called that guy every name in the book and I hung up on him. Rick Frio [Regan’s #2] was standing right there with me. I went next door to Elton’s room, and I told him what happened. Elton looked at me and said, ‘Tonight I’m gonna burn the city of Philadelphia down.’

“That night he took that stage with Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson—three pieces, but they sounded like 30. It was the most incredible sound. The last song he did was ‘Burn Down the Mission.’ He did that song for about 15 minutes—he was under the piano, he was on top of the piano, he was out in the audience. Everybody went berserk.

“I was so elated, I got back to my room at 2 in the morning and ordered two banana splits from room service. At 10am, the phone rings and wakes me up. It’s Sam Passamano, my branch manager, who says, ‘Russ, something happened last night. I had to wake you up. I just got an order for 5,000 albums.’”

Sam called back a few hours later and again woke Russ, who again didn’t mind at all. An order for another 5,000 had come through. Russ says, “Now it’s 1:15pm, which is 10:15 L.A. time. I called Maitland and said, ‘Tell all those assholes up there that Regan’s Folly is coming back.’”

Regan was again accused of folly when he poured resources into promoting the debut record of young Australian thrush Olivia Newton-John. “I thought we had a hit,” Russ recalled. “They thought I was crazy. They said, ‘She’ll never make it. She’s too beautiful and too plastic.’ I said, ‘We’re gonna bring plastic back.’”

During the early ’70s, the center of gravity of the record business shifted to Los Angeles from New York, and labels with exotic names like Asylum, Chrysalis and Island were displacing outfits like Roulette and Buddah on the charts. More and more of the important lunches and dinners took place at The Palm, Martoni’s and Le Dome in Hollywood, not Al & Dick’s and Gallaghers in Manhattan.

Russ was on top of the world. “It felt great. Every time I walked into Martoni’s, I felt like I was the mayor. Everyone was coming up to me and glad-handing me. I loved every minute of it.”

In 1972, 2oth Century Fox tapped Regan to become president of their new indie label. Soon, another major superstar was born.

“After I left Uni and went to 20th Century Records, I got a call from Barry White, saying, ‘Can I see you, Rusty?’” White had written, produced and provided deep-voiced spoken word narrative for Love Unlimited’s “Walkin’ in the Rain With the One I Love,” a hit for Russ at Uni just before he went to 20th.

“When I got the Elton John album, I listened to it and said, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible.’ The minute I heard it, I shut the company down—we put the phones on hold and we all listened to the album. Everybody went crazy. It was like a gift from God.”

 “He said, ‘I was gonna be your next big artist when you left. I can sing, and I want to make records with me singing.’ I thought of Barry as a writer and a producer, never as a singer/recording artist. But he knew exactly what he wanted. He said, ‘For $27,000, I’ll make an album.’

“So while we drew up a contract with his lawyer—he hadn’t signed it and I hadn’t signed yet—I gave him the $27,000 and told him to go make the album. The first record he brings to me is ‘I’m Gonna Love You.’ I said ‘Oh my God, thank you, God. Barry, this is a smash.’ I went out of my mind.

“After Barry leaves, I get a call from his lawyer saying he wants to renegotiate the contract. I said, ‘Wait a minute, we haven’t put out a record yet.’ The lawyer says, ‘Barry says you think the record is a smash.’ In those days the lawyers were crazy. I said, ‘Let me tell you right now, I give you the authority to shop this record and get me my $27,000 back.’”

Six weeks went by and Russ heard nothing. Then Barry called with the news that he’d pitched his record to every label in town and they all passed, on the grounds that he sounded too much like Isaac Hayes.

Russ says, “I told Barry to have his lawyer draw up a new agreement stipulating that the day his record goes platinum, the old agreement will be torn up and the new one will be signed. He had my word on that. And that’s exactly what happened.”

After five years as president of 20th, Russ chafed at working for corporate people who didn’t fully understand or appreciate the music business. “I get a call from Neil Bogart [President of Casablanca Records and a quintessential L.A. record biz entrepreneur]. He wants to form a label with me—50/50. I thought maybe it’s time I had my own label.

“We formed Parachute Records, which lasted 14 months. We weren’t successful. The biggest problem was I was not a druggie—I didn’t fit in. That was a heartbreaker for me, because I hadn’t experienced failure for a long time.”

Russ took a year off and got back into the race at PolyGram Records, where he served as general manager. “I stayed there from 1980-86. Those were six of the best years of my life. We had Flashdance, Chariots of Fire, Breakin’ and lots of other hits. It was great to work for David Braun, Guenther Hensler and then Dick Asher.”

“Then I went back to Motown. Berry gave me a million-dollar contract for three years. I said, ‘Berry, if you’re gonna sell the company, don’t bring me over.’ I was there two years, and then Berry sold. I couldn’t believe it.

“I was on the street again. So I went to work as President of Quality Records with Canadian money. The second record I put out was ‘One More Time’ with Timmy T, which went #1. I’ve had #1 records in four decades.”

Before we left Solley’s, I asked Russ to recount how he helped one of the greatest groups in pop music history become a household name.

“In 1961, there was a group called The Pendletones on Candix Records. The first record they had was ‘Surfin’.’ [Candix A&R man] Joe Saraceno played it for me over the phone and said ,‘I’m changing their name to The Surfers.’ I said, ‘Joe, we can’t call them that—there’s another group called The Surfers.’ He said, ‘Well, give me a name.’ I said, ‘Call them The Woodies.’ He didn’t like that, so I suggested the Hang Tens, which he also didn’t like. I said, ‘Call them The Beach Boys,’ and that was it. Whenever I see Brian [Wilson], he says, ‘There’s the man who named The Beach Boys.’”

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