One of those good-hearted, immensely wealth eccentrics who seem to thrive in the San Francisco Bay area, Robert “Bob” Pritikin (born Chicago IL, date n/a) graduated from UCLA; joined top advertising firm Young & Rubicam,  co-founded his own agency Pritikin & Gibbons, then found his greatest success with Fletcher, Richards, Calkins & Holden. From 1977-2001, Pritikin owned and operated the Mansion Hotel, a pair of connected Queen Anne mansions in Pacific Heights whose decor included life-sized stuffed dolls of Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as Richard Nixon’s letter of resignation as United States President and Gerald Ford’s letter of pardon.

In 1981, Bob Pritikin built a new home in the Glen Park neighborhood, known as Chenery House. It’s the largest private residence in San Francisco — there’s a swimming pool in the second-story living room — and has been the scene of many legendary parties, political fundraisers, and Passover Seders. Jam sessions at Chenery House have featured performers ranging from Bob Weir to Carol Channing, often with Pritikin joining in on his chosen instrument, the musical saw.

In 1975, Bob Pritikin financed the recording and manufacture of his own album of “saw songs.” He was sufficiently wealthy and connected to obtain the services of “practically half the San Francisco Symphony string section and a chorus from the Edwin Hawkins Singers” of “Oh Happy Day” fame. In November of that year, Pritikin submitted a copy of his LP to Mo Ostin, president of Warner Brothers Records, accompanied by this pitch letter:

Mo dutifully passed Bob Pritikin’s album on to Dean Chamberlain, a guitarist who’d passed through the ranks of several Southern California bands (including the early Motels and Code Blue) before signing as a WB a&r rep. Chamberlain opines that Pritikin is “not that good a saw player,” although the basis for this judgment is anyone’s guess:

In the end, Warners decided to passed on “Moonlight Sawnata,” “The Last Time I Sawed Paris,” and the rest. But the world hadn’t heard the last of Bob Pritikin and his musical saw, as we can see from this YouTube clip filmed in 2009:

March 12, 2012

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It’s Liza Minnelli birthday today. The actress/singer/dancer was born March 12, 1946 in Hollywood, California, the only child from the marriage of show-biz legend Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli.

Liza Minnelli

Liza’s career album discography begins in ‘64 with her Capitol debut Liza! Liza! and runs right up through 2010 with Confessions (Decca/Universal).

But there’s one that got away: The never-released album Liza recorded in 1971 with producer Rick Hall at the fabled FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

How do we know such an improbable recording even exists? Because the Minnelli/Muscle Shoals sessions left a paper trail through the Burbank CA headquarters of Warner Bros. Records. It begins with this memo from Rick Hall to WB President Mo Ostin, accompanying a tape of the just-completed album:

From RICK HALL, the wind-up and the pitch to WB President MO OSTIN.

Mo passes the tape along to WB a&r man Ted Templeman, the ex-Harper’s Bizarre singer/guitarist turned Warner staff producer of the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Captain Beefheart, and Little Feat. Ted likes a lot of what he hears…but there’s just one “difficulty.”

TED TEMPLEMAN listens to the Minnelli/Muscle Shoals tracks.

Mo Ostin hands Rick Hall a ticket to “Pass-adena,” gently murmuring something about having too many female artists on his label already:

MO to RICK: Not this time, good buddy, but keep in touch...

In the summer of 2008,  I was hired as a contributing writer in the creation of The Rock Annex, described by Ben Sisario in The New York Times as “a smaller, quicker offshoot” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland OH. The Annex  occupied a 25,000-square foot space beneath an Old Navy store at 76 Mercer Street in Manhattan’s Soho district.

Entrance to the Rock Annex at 76 Mercer Street, NYC. Photo: Dan Cross

For the Annex project, I wrote the text panels introducing each thematic section: “Roots and Influences,” “Moments to Movements,” etc. I created some captions for specific exhibits or artifacts. I also researched and wrote the descriptions for “New York Rocks,” a 26-foot long scale model of Manhattan identifying the location of two dozen different historic music sites. The Annex was slickly designed and built to a high professional standard by operating partner Running Subways. There were special exhibits dedicated to The Clash (where it was nice to see an old issue of my former magazine New York Rocker on loan “from the collection of Mick Jones”) and to “John Lennon: The New York City Years.”

The Rock Annex opened in late November 2009 with considerable fanfare. I attended the gala opening party, held in a vast Soho loft where corporate sponsors proffered freebies ranging from vodka shots to makeovers, with live performances by Dave Mason and Blondie’s Chris Stein & Deborah Harry.

This was less than three months after Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, plunging the US economy into its worst crisis since the Great Depression (and far from over, at this writing). Meanwhile, a ticket to the Rock Annex cost $26.50 — at that time, more than the Museum of Modern Art. There was a gift shop, but no screening room or performance/lecture space in which to hold ancillary events. The Rock Annex closed January 3, 2010 after just over a year in operation. The artifacts were returned either to Cleveland or to private collector who had loaned them; the exhibit components, including my text panels, were sold at auction a few months later.

Before the closing, I returned to the Annex in late December 2009 with my good friends Doug Milford and Eliot Hubbard–and with permission to photograph all but the John Lennon exhibit, in order to have a visual record of my work. Doug Milford shot the photographs posted below, and I thank him for his invaluable contribution to this post.

A.S. with Hall of Fame inductees list.

(1) From the main lobby, you entered a low-lit room where a central display listed all R&R Hall of Fame inductees.

(2) Plaques on the entry room walls were engraved with the names and signatures of inductees, cf. Drifters lead singer Johnny Moore (1934-1998).

(4) This original C.B.G.B. urinal was displayed in a hallway that lead to real urinals, i.e. restrooms.

(3) Proceed to a screening room for a short film of Great Moments In Rock & Roll. Fast-paced and cranked high, it was the single most exciting element of the Annex.

(5) Panel: "Moments to Movements." I was somewhat surprised to see my submissions used verbatim in this and other displays.

(6) Panel: "Roots & Influences." I tried to address a general audience, in a consistent tone.

(7) The Who's Peter Townshend looms behind my text panel for "The British Invasion."

(9) Touch screen for "NY State of Mind." Make a selection (cf. Apollo Theater, Manny's Music, etc.) and my explanatory text would appear.

(8) Looking south at the 26-foot scale model of Manhattan, inevitably labeled "NY State of Mind." Sites selected on touch screens lit up on the model.

(10) Panel: "New York Rocks."

(12) Panel: "Guitar Heroes"

(11) Panel for CBGB section of "New York Rocks."

(13) Eliot Hubbard & A.S. at the CBGB installation, with original awning, sound board, etc.

INTRODUCTION

I was surprised and very saddened to learn that the great soul singer Howard Tate had died 12.2.2011 at age 72, reportedly from complications of multiple myeloma and leukemia. His Verve debut album (especially in its killer mono version) has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I first heard it, a few years after the original 1967 release.

After decades in complete obscurity, Howard made a stunning comeback in 2001 and thereafter enjoyed a career revival that brought him more attention — and, one hopes, financial reward — than he’d ever received during his first go-round. He toured the world and recorded four more albums, beginning with Howard Tate Rediscovered (Private Music/RCA, 2003). This disc reunited the singer with his original studio Svengali, songwriter/producer/arranger Jerry Ragovoy (who died 7.13.2011), and I wish I could say that the results were even close to their Sixties glory days. Nonetheless, I was honored to contribute liner notes for Rediscovered and have posted the full unedited version here. (A.S.)

On the night of July 21, 2001, in a subterranean Manhattan nightclub called The Village Underground, a packed house buzzed with anticipation. As the lights went down and the Uptown Horns band kicked off the first song of the set, a short, stout, nattily dressed man stepped to the microphone. And with the first notes of that first song, Howard Tate reclaimed his rightful place in American music.

We looked at Howard and Howard looked at us, and it was hard to say who was the more shocked and surprised to see the other. Just a few short years before, neither would have guessed that this moment would ever come to pass. But he who once was lost, now was found. And we, who once were blind, now could see: That before us stood one of the greatest living soul singers—indeed, one of the greatest of all time.

In the spring of 1967, a few months before his 28th birthday, Howard Tate released a self-titled debut album (later reissued as Get It While You Can) that became a revered classic of the Sixties soul era.

Born August 14, 1939 in the rural hamlet of Eberton, GA, Howard Tate had moved with his family to Macon and then Philadelphia, PA. His father preached in a Baptist church, and Howard sang with a youthful gospel group, the Bel-Aires, that later recorded a few unsuccessful r&b singles as the Gainors. When the group broke up, organist Bill Doggett re­cruited Howard as the vocalist for his popular combo.

Meanwhile, ex-Gainors Garnet Mimms and Sam Bell formed a new group called the Enchanters and in 1963 scored a breakthrough hit with “Cry Baby.” At No. 4, “Cry Baby” was the first “deep soul” record to crack the Top Ten (as well as a No. 1 R&B hit). It was, as author Robert Pruter later wrote, “a gospelized production so full of soul-saving, fire-and-brimstone ecstasies of the Black sanctified church that it singularly stood apart…Never before had the public heard any­thing so intense and so emotional on Top 40 radio.”

The 1995 CD reissue of Howard Tate's Verve debut, long out of print. Sealed copies are listed on Amazon.com for up to $200.

“Cry Baby” was co-written and produced by Jerry Ragovoy, a white Philadelphian (born September 4, 1930) who moved to New York in the spring of 1962. While Howard Tate was grinding out one-nighters with Bill Doggett, Ragovoy was ex­panding and refining his idio­syncratic style on records by such gifted, church-bred singers as Lorraine Ellison (the monumental “Stay With Me”) and Irma Thomas (“Time is On My Side,” a Ragovoy co-write later taken Top Ten by the Rolling Stones). Ragovoy’s carefully crafted arrangements and stately piano playing grafted elements of opera, Broadway, and Romantic classical music onto such proto-soul archetypes as the Impressions’ 1958 hit “For Your Precious Love.”

Howard Tate with Jerry Ragovoy (at the piano) during sessions for Tate's self-titled Atlantic LP (1972). Third man at left is unidentified.

Tate and Ragovoy began working together within weeks of Howard’s departure from the Bill Doggett band. When his first Ragovoy-produced single “Ain’t Nobody Home” hit the R&B chart in August 1966, Howard was mixing mortar on a Philadelphia construction site. Still wearing his soiled work clothes, he was hustled onto a flight to Detroit to open for Marvin Gaye at the fabled 20 Grand. Upon landing, he climbed into a waiting limo just as a local DJ introduced “Ain’t Nobody Home” as “the Number One record in Detroit.”

“It was just unbelievable,” Howard told Jason Gross in a 2001 interview. “This is the only busi­ness [where] you can be poor as a Georgia turkey today, make a record, go to sleep, and wake up a multi-millionaire. That’s how quick it can happen.”

But it didn’t happen that way for Howard Tate.

Howard Tate/Get It While You Can introduced a singer of uncommon power and eloquence, with songs and arrangements tailored to his special strengths. The album spun off two No. 12 R&B hits; garnered favorable reviews in the nascent rock press; and later inspired cover versions of its Jerry Ragovoy-penned songs by

Howard Tate during a session for his self-titled LP on Atlantic (1972).

artists ranging from B.B. King to Janis Joplin to Grand Funk Railroad. But al­though Verve Records released the LP twice—in different covers, with different liner notes—Howard Tate/Get It While You Can just didn’t sell.

Two more Howard Tate albums followed. Singer Lloyd Price produced Howard Tate’s Reaction for his own Turntable Records, dubbing Howard’s vocals over instrumental tracks cut in Jamaica. The results sank more or less in tandem with the label after Price’s business partner, Harold Logan, was murdered in 1969. Tate and Jerry Ragovoy reunited in 1972 for the eponymous Howard Tate on Atlantic. But a few compelling songs (“Where Did My Baby Go,” “8 Days On The Road”) and Rags’ typically sharp arrangements couldn’t overcome a lack of promotion, and soon the third Howard Tate LP had come and gone.

Howard himself had taken just about enough from a business that promised so much and paid so little. As he would later explain to Jason Gross: “I was with guys that called themselves my road manager, and they didn’t know their way out of a wet paper bag. The booking agency I had, they stuck me down South on that chitlin’ circuit where…[local promoters] put 20,000 people in there and told you to go for yourself, scream ‘til your head fell off. They’d give you $500 and say ‘See you next year.’”

A dozen years after the release of Howard Tate/Get It While You Can, Howard had receded so far into the shadows that even the most determined searchers—concert promoters, record collectors, Jerry Ragovoy himself—could find no trace of him. The prosaic truth was that Howard had be­come a securities salesman for Prudential and the dedicated father of six children. He had, in his oddly apt phrase, “alleviated myself from the music business altogether. I didn’t talk about it. Nobody knew who I was.”

HOWARD TATE, released 1972 on Atlantic. The 2001 Koch CD reissue is still in print.

In 1976, a house fire killed Tate’s 13-year old daughter; he divorced in 1981, then married his second wife the following year. Somewhere along the line, he “started hanging out with the wrong crowd,” fell prey to drug and alcohol abuse, and drifted further into obscurity — even as the cult of Howard Tate expanded across the US and Europe.

Nineteen ninety-four brought a spiritual reawakening. “I was on my knees praying, and I heard a voice,” Howard recalls. “It said ‘I want you to go preach my gospel.’ I said, ‘Lord, I can’t go. Not me—I don’t want to be no preacher.’ And the voice said ‘You’ll go or else.’ So I knew that was an ultimatum.” Tate became a pastor at his own Gift of the Cross Church in Mount Holly, New Jersey; he dedicated himself to helping the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill.

On New Year’s Day 2001, a former member of Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes named Ron Kennedy en­countered Howard Tate in a Willingboro, NJ supermarket. Kennedy told Tate that a South Jersey DJ named Phil Casden had been playing the CD reissue of Howard Tate/Get It While You Can on his AM radio show and pleading with his listeners for any clues to the singer’s whereabouts. Two days later, Tate and Casden were having dinner together. Casden posted details of their meet­ing on the Internet, and within hours Howard’s home phone began to light up with recording and performance offers from England and France, Germany and Australia.

Fast-forward to that fateful, thrilling summer night at Village Underground. Two days later, Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times:

“When Howard Tate’s voice leaped into falsetto on his 1967 album…it was the sound of a man driven nearly beyond endurance by love and pain. He sounded just as powerful and just as blue at the Village Underground on Saturday night, in his first New York performance since he dropped out of music in the 1970s…Unlike some soul singers who have returned to the church, Mr. Tate didn’t proselytize. He just let his songs testify to the endless hopes and torments of love.”

Jerry Ragovoy was in the house that night, up from his home in the Atlanta sub­urbs. He too was amazed to hear how little Howard’s voice had changed. “It’s a slight bit huskier,” the producer noted. “But other than that, the tonal­ity, the sonority, the falsetto—all that is still there.”

And it’s all there on Rediscovered: The voice of Howard Tate, the songs and arrangements of Jerry Ragovoy, the playing of the Uptown Horns. You don’t have to be religious to call it a miracle.

When the phone calls and offers began to come in, decades into a life outside of music, Howard Tate prayed for guidance. “When I prayed, God told me: ‘I gave you that voice. You never went to music school. You wonder now if you should sing secular or gospel? There is a beauty in all music. It’s the life you live more than what comes out of your mouth.’

“Just tell the people out there that I’m going to give the best I can give. They deserve the best.”

—ANDY SCHWARTZ

April 4, 2011

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Marcus Shelby (born 1966 in Memphis TN) is an African-American bassist, composer and bandleader based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His lengthy professional résumé encompasses recordings, theatrical/film scores, music education, and assorted grants and commissions.

He also is the prime mover behind an ambitious project he calls Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The bassist has a personal connection to the subject of this inspirational work: Several members of the extended Shelby family participated (and were arrested) in the “ I Am A Man” march by Memphis’ Black sanitation workers that would mark the final campaign of Dr. King’s life in the week leading up to his assassination on this day in 1968.

This clip features the Marcus Shelby Orchestra with lead vocal by Faye Carol on a stirring big-band arrangement of the Curtis Mayfield classic “We’re A Winner.” (This is the correct song title, not to be confused with another Mayfield/Impressions hit “Move On Up.”) Additional performances from Soul of the Movement may be viewed at http://www.marcusshelby.com/video.htm.

“I’ve got two daughters and I wanted them to keep the story going. Getting it from my ancestors and passing it on…Storytelling is an African tradition and African-American tradition. I feel blessed I had the opportunity to do my part.” Marcus Shelby

LONESOME SUNDOWN: Front cover of the funeral program.

BOBBY ROBINSON, who died January 7, 2011, was one of the unsung pioneers of the 20th century American record industry. That sun you see setting in the illustration at left might well represent not only Robinson’s own passing at the age of 93 but that of the entire half-century-long, world-changing epoch of rhythm & blues and rock & roll in which he forged his career. “He outlived the record business,” remarked Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman as we sat with Sire Records’ Seymour Stein in a front pew at the United House of Prayer for All People on West 125th Street, where Robinson’s funeral was held on this bitterly cold January evening.

The grandson of former slaves, Morgan Clyde Robinson (called “Bob” by his entire family including grandchildren) was born 4.16.1917 in Union, South Carolina and later became valedictorian of his (segregated) high school. Obituaries in the NY Daily News and NY Times don’t clearly state when Robinson arrived in New York, which event may have preceded his Army service during World War II. While stationed in Hawaii, Bobby honed his entrepreneurial skills as both the entertainment director of live shows mounted for servicemen on Oahu and as (in his own words) “the biggest loan shark out there.” Following his discharge, Robinson claims to have returned to Harlem with nearly $8,000 in cash. It was an enormous sum in 1945: According to U.S. Census figures, the median annual income for non-White families and individuals was $1,294.

Robinson in happier days at the Happy House. (Photo courtesy of NY Daily News)

In 1946, Robinson paid $2,500 to buy out a defunct hat store located at 301 West 125th Street, just west of the world-famous Apollo Theater at #253. There he opened Bobby’s Record Shop, later and better known as Bobby’s Happy House. It was the first Black-owned music store on  125th Street — the commercial and symbolic heart of Harlem — and possibly the street’s first Black-owned retail business of any kind (accounts vary on this point).

This modest establishment became Robinson’s base of operations for his freewheeling career as songwriter, record producer, label owner and distributor — one of the very few whose active career spanned the decades from Fifties r&b to Eighties hip-hop. His Wikipedia entry includes a detailed discography, but Gladys Knight & the PipsElmore James, Lee Dorsey, King Curtis, Spoonie Gee, and the Treacherous Three (with Kool Moe Dee) are just a few of the artists recorded by Bobby Robinson and released on one of his several imprints including Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Red Robin, and Whirlin’ Disc.

Label repro courtesy of ClassicUrbanHarmony.net

“Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “Fannie Mae” by Buster Brown, “Ya-Ya” by Lee Dorsey, “Number Nine Train” by Tarheel Slim, “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis, “Rockin’ It” by The Fearless Four, and “Super Rappin’” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five — if you’ve heard any of these songs, then you’ve heard Bobby Robinson at work.

By 1959, when Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became the first major hit for Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., Robinson had already made the national r&b charts with multiple releases. One man became a crossover giant who built a recording and publishing empire, produced Hollywood movies and TV specials, and transformed his artists into icons. The other was a guy you could find, most days of the week, holding court in a Harlem storefront.

That guy didn’t move to Hollywood, or buy a chain of radio stations, or become some major label’s Executive V-P of Urban Music — he just kind of hung out. Yet by doing so, Bobby Robinson touched the lives of thousands of people, a couple hundred of whom showed up on this night to pay their respects. (One of the first I encountered was the ethically-challenged Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who was departing as I arrived.)

Label repro courtesy of ClassicUrbanHarmony.net

At some point (in the 1980s? the ’90s?), the Happy House was displaced  by a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet; Robinson moved his shop around the corner and slightly north on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The store remained open for more than 60 years, gradually functioning more as a clubhouse and community center than active music retailer. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, lived a few blocks away; in a remembrance posted 1.9.2011, he wrote:

“Bobby’s Happy House…had a stream of visitors throughout the day, but nobody ever seemed to buy anything. The display cases were filled with rows of dusty, ancient CDs and cassette tapes. Folks were really coming to see Robinson: tourists from Europe on pilgrimage, neighbors and local characters stopping by between errands, old friends like Paul Winley checking on Bobby. Sometimes, like me, they’d wait for him. Bobby Robinson would usually saunter in mid-day — and what an entrance he would make. At 90, he was always clean, always sharp — usually in a bright-colored suit jacket that contrasted with his long, straight, shock-white hair. He walked slow, turned gradually, and sat tentatively. But when he looked at you, you almost felt zapped. A lot of life and light in those eyes…”

“As much as Bobby Robinson loved Harlem, Harlem loved Bobby Robinson. Even more atrocious than his eviction — just before the bottom fell out during the subprime mortgage crisis — is that the developer who sent him packing has done nothing with the building. [Emphasis added -- A.S.] It still stands there, empty, boarded up, across from the Duane Reade and around the corner from the Apollo.”

Robinson’s funeral was a down-home neighborhood affair. Other than Tom Silverman and Seymour Stein, I spotted only a few music business veterans including Aaron Fuchs of Tuff City and DJ Chuck Chillout. I introduced myself to Vincent Davis, who claimed to remember me from 1985 (!) when I wrote the Elektra Records publicity bio for his artist Joeski Love. (Time to kill? Watch the story of “Pee Wee Dance,” Joeski’s hip-hop novelty hit. But I digress…)

If any of the many “name” artists recorded by Bobby Robinson were in attendance, they didn’t get up to speak or otherwise identify themselves. It wasn’t like Doc Pomus‘ funeral, in 1991, where I sat next to Kris Kristofferson and heard songs by Dr. John and Jimmy Scott. Instead, ordinary people — mostly but not exclusively Black, some looking hard-used by life — offered their tributes. Joe Jackson (not Michael’s dad) called the Happy House “a center of communication” and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” which I thought an odd choice. A woman declared “I stand here today with my right mind because of Bobby Robinson”; two others sang spontaneous, impassioned versions of the gospel standards “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Won’t Complain.”

White-uniformed attendants flank the casket. (Photo courtesy Tom Silverman)

Bobby Dunn hailed the deceased as “one of the greatest producers and songwriters.” (Gunn wrote or co-wrote “You Broke Your Promise,” the B-side of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ first Robinson-produced hit “Letter Full Of Tears.”) Another gentleman offered a litany of the many doo-wop groups on Robinson’s roster (the Velvets, the Kodaks, Earl Lewis & the Channels), prompting Seymour Stein to break into a sotto voce medley of said groups’ greatest hits.

Paul Winley, Robinson’s friend and competitor dating back to the Fifties, noted that “he was the first record shop owner to put a set of speakers outside the store. When James Brown first began to break out with ‘Please Please Please,’ I remember him sitting on one of those speakers outside the Happy House and telling people passing by ‘that’s me, that’s my song!’” We also heard from Robinson’s grandson and nephew, and from Bilal Muhammed (nee Jerome Robinson) whose father was Bobby’s cousin.

The Apostle H.M. Swaringer delivered the closing eulogy. He began with the hymn “My Living Shall Not Be In Vain” and launched into an evocative, free-flowing oration that touched on Robinson’s long relationship with the House of Prayer For All Peoples and the commercial history of 125th Street (the Braddock Hotel, Apollo Theater, etc.) along with a citation from the Book of Job. Bobby Robinson, the preacher noted, “came to the House of Prayer every day. He helped people.”

Amen, Brother Swaringer.

Rest in peace, Bobby Robinson.

Like the NY Times headline said: A Lot Of Jazz. Many More People.

But if you paid in advance and could deal with the sometimes-crushing crowds, the seventh annual Winter Jazzfest was one of the great NYC live entertainment deals of the year. For the online advance price of $35.00 plus the inevitable $5.00 “service charge,” I purchased a wristband good for admission on both Friday and Saturday nights to any set by any act in any one of the multiple WJF venues clustered around the historic Village intersection of Bleecker & MacDougal Streets.

There were three clubs in use on Friday and five on Saturday. The fewest number of acts to appear in any one of them was four, on Friday night at Le Poisson Rouge, where 89-year-old Chico Hamilton topped the bill beginning at 9:15 p.m. (I missed him). Every other venue was hosting nine acts per night, beginning at around 6:00 p.m. and running past 3:00 a.m. Each set ran about 50 minutes and the changeovers, at least the ones I sat through, went quickly and efficiently.

Naturally, I was not the only person taking advantage of this bountiful bargain: WJF wristbands sold out before 9:00 p.m. Saturday, seats were almost impossible to come by even at the seated venues, and some sets were packed to the firetrap level. (Zinc Bar was turning people away on Friday night, I never even tried to get in there.) I made the right move in going solo and thus able to maneuver independent of someone else’s level of discomfort, exhaustion, hunger, intoxication, etc.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 7

(1) JD Allen’s VISIONFUGITIVE! Conducted by Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (8:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – Nearly a full house at this SRO venue in the former below-ground home of the Village Gate (1958-1993). But I manage to  get close to center stage where Allen (tenor sax) plays some dense, fairly complex music with a large band conducted by Butch Morris: two basses, two drummers, percussion, vibes, four horns, and more. To my ears, the long (12-15 minute) opener never achieves lift-off although there’s a frisson of pleasure when the two drummers kick in together at about the halfway point.

Conduction Agent: BUTCH MORRIS

After this piece, Butch Morris temporarily halts the proceedings to offer a show-and-tell demonstration of his “conduction” techniques — and rather than pedantic and boring, it’s informative and engaging. Morris pauses to explain his hand and baton movements while constructing a spontaneous composition from improvisational building blocks; at one point, he tosses into the front rows a batch of postcards imprinted with  a detailed definition of “Conduction.” It reads in part: “The practice of conveying and interpreting a series of directives to modify or construct sonic arrangement or composition.” As the critic Howard Mandel wrote, Morris’ hand signals “convey instructions to repeat, hold, return, etc., but not specific pitches or beats; those are chosen by the players themselves.” He elicits some strong solos, including an extended foray by Allen, partly unaccompanied; and the piece as a whole is coherent, powerful, and (in my experience) unique in the context of jazz performance. I remember seeing Butch Morris in action several times since the late Eighties. But I realize that until tonight, I’d never really understood what he did.

(2) Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue (9:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – Speaking of something really different…This performance feels like it belongs on the concert stage, with better lighting and more room to move, rather than at the far end of this long-time Bleecker Street bar. Jen Shyu was trained from childhood in ballet, piano, and violin, and her WJF set incorporates dance elements along with her keyboard playing; she’s accompanied, with rapt attention and excellent musicianship, by Dave Binney (alto),  John Hébert (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums). She sings in what sounds like three different languages: English, Spanish, and possibly Hokkien, the form of Chinese spoken by most people from Taiwan (Shyu’s parents are from Taiwan and East Timor).

Who Am I To Judge? JEN SHYU (Photo: Eric Cheng)

On her Web site, Jen’s bio lists among her early accomplishments “playing [as piano soloist] Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, 3rd movement with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at age thirteen; placing…in the Finals, at age fifteen, at the Stravinsky International Piano Competition, playing piano solo works by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Chopin; being the youngest student at Yale University’s Summer Drama Program at sixteen; serving as Illinois’ Junior Miss her senior year of high school and winning the Miss America Talent Scholarship at America’s Junior Miss with piano.” I myself managed to graduate high school and haphazardly complete four or five semesters of college.

(3) Charles Gayle Trio (10:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – The spirit of late-period John Coltrane and Albert Ayler lives in the music of tenor saxophonist Gayle, a seemingly ageless fixture of “downtown” music for the past 25 years (he turns 71 on 2/28/11). At AllMusic.com, Chris Kelsey enumerates his “long, vibrating, free-gospel melodies, full of huge intervallic leaps, screaming multiphonics, and a density of line that evidences a remarkable dexterity” — Charles Gayle has been playing in this style since the late Sixties without getting any closer to the musical mainstream. His set is like one 50-minute-long song, with only a single quote I can recognize (from a standard, something like “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful”), and bassist Larry Roland and drummer Michael Thompson are with him every step of the way. It’s fairly awesome.

Bigmouth Strikes Again: CHRIS LIGHTCAP

(4) Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth (11:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) - Never even heard of this bassist/composer, but his set follows Gayle and I decide not to relinquish a precious seat in the increasingly crowded room. Lineup is Craig Taborn on electric piano, tenor saxophonists Chris Cheek and Jeff Lederer, and Gerald Cleaver, drums; trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, another new name to me, sits in for half the set. Bigmouth is really good. Lightcap’s a strong, supportive bassist; his originals are melodic but not predictable, and the horns’ interplay remind me a bit of Ornette Coleman’s late-Sixties band with Dewey Redman on alto. I’d go see these guys again, for sure….It’s midnight, and although the night is relatively young, I head home to Brooklyn Heights.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8

(1) Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet (8:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – The free-wheeling Byron has kept this particular band together for three years: NGQ made its debut in the spring of 2009 at Jazz Standard. Performed to a full and enthusiastic house, this set is more expansive and more exciting than the one I caught last April at Jazz Standard. Certainly, having Geri Allen on piano raises the whole band to a higher level; she also turns in a couple of superb solos. Byron sounds great on both clarinet and tenor sax; Brad Jones (bass) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums) form a supple, propulsive rhythm section.

Testifyin': DK DYSON & DON BYRON (Photo: Zak Shelby-Szyszko)

Meanwhile, vocalist DK Dyson lets loose her full complement of shouts, moans, swoops, bird calls, and glottal ululations, from “Precious Memories” and “Feed Me Jesus” through an especially stirring version of (I think) James Cleveland’s “The Last Mile Of The Way.”

(2) Charlie Hunter Trio (9:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) - Hunter’s been recording since ‘93 and gigging longer than that, but somehow I’ve never caught his act until tonight, when he leads a trio including Eric Kalb on drums and Michael R. Williams on trumpet. I thought I’d get the chance to see just how Charlie manages to play leads, chords, and bass lines simultaneously on a seven-string guitar; unfortunately, he remains seated and I can’t see him at all. After ten minutes of mildly funky mid-tempo jamming served lukewarm, I take my leave for Sullivan Hall and…

THE CURTIS BROS. minus annoying singer

(3) The Curtis Brothers feat. Giovanni Almonte (10:15 p.m. @ Sullivan Hall) – Zaccai Curtis (piano), Luques Curtis (bass), Richie Barshay (drums), and Reinaldo De Jesus (congas) play high-powered Latin jazz that really cooks. Their efforts are undercut by vocalist Giovanni Almonte, whose delivery combines the least attractive qualities of Eddie Vedder and Nina Simone. The lyrics, presumably his, are a succession of vapid cliches and tired themes: let’s save the planet, let’s live in peace, you are/I am a beautiful person, etc.

(4) Nomo (10:45 p.m. @ The Bitter End) – Not most people’s idea of a jazz group, this eight or nine-piece band out of Ann Arbor MI mines the Nigerian Afrobeat grooves most famously plowed by Fela. They hit the Bitter End stage with a bang, propelled by rock-steady drumming and those distinctive Fela horn voicings. Sun Ra’s “Rocket No. 9″ comes as a delightful surprise — I remember hearing NRBQ cover the same song live in the summer of 1969. Nomo keeps up the energy level until a female vocalist (whose name I don’t catch) takes front and center. Her singing fails to impress, the lyrics are eminently forgettable, and the Excite-O-Meter drops ten or fifteen points. But Nomo sounds like a very good dance band, especially if given more than 50 minutes in which to blow.

(5) Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers (11:45 @ The Bitter End) – With ElSaffar (trumpet, santoor, vocal), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Carlo DeRosa (bass), Zafer Tawil (oud, percussion), and Nasheet Waits (drums). After the good-time party sounds of Nomo, the intellectual acuity, instrumental virtuosity, and global reach of this group combine to hit me with serious G-level force.

He's Known Rivers: AMIR EL SAFFAR

Two Rivers keeps flowing for 25-30 minutes, at which point ElSaffar switches from trumpet to the santoor. Wiki says: “It is a trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer…with seventy strings. The special-shaped mallets (mezrab) are lightweight and are held between the index and middle fingers. A typical santoor has two sets of bridges, providing a range of three octaves.” A unique and distinctive sound, for sure; unfortunately, most of the band has dropped out to let ElSaffar do his santoor-and-vocal thing, a little of which goes a long way for me. You can hear Two Rivers on MySpace, including the twelve-minute exploration “Menba’.”

(6) Underground Horns (12:45 a.m. @ The Bitter End) – With Welf Dorr (alto sax), Kevin Moehringer (trombone), Mike Irwin (trumpet), Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba), Okai (djembe), Kevin Raczka (drums). Based on the enthusiastic endorsement of a woman standing behind me on line earlier in the evening, I stick to my bar stool to catch this Brooklyn band. Despite their upbeat energy, UH come across like a Berklee student tribute to Fred Wesley & the JB’s. Cliché riffs abound; the solos go on a while but mostly fail to develop. It’s 1:30 a.m. and I’m wondering how much longer I can hang.

(7) Noah Preminger Group (1:45 a.m. @ The Bitter End) – Noah Preminger (tenor sax) is one of the most critically hailed players under 30 to emerge in the past few years. I listened quite a bit to his 2008 debut, Dry Bridge Road, but was less favorably impressed the one time I saw him live. Tonight, however, Preminger is on from the first notes of his first tune — an Ornette composition, maybe “Toy Dance?” He has the searching quality that characterizes so many of the great soloists, building each solo with unpredictable note choices and a breathy tone. It’s 2 a.m. and the joint is barely half-filled — is someone really playing better jazz than this at some other venue? Seems hard to imagine.

Matt Wilson (drums) and John Hébert (bass) are right with their leader, but pianist Frank Kimbrough looks grim as he attempts to coax some music out of the club’s clangy, metallic, and quite possibly out of tune instrument. He almost succeeds, mostly sticking to the middle of the keyboard as he soldiers on through “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” “Then I”ll Be Tired Of You,” and his own composition “Quickening.”

Meanwhile, Matt Wilson is showing no mercy to his good buddy: “Hey, Frank, is that a piano or a banjo?” he cracks with a broad grin. ”Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Kimbrough on the pianjo! Such are the hazards and rewards of The Jazz Life…but wait ’til next year!

June 8, 2010

Artworks, Gigs

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"Slack Power" (1969/2006) from UNBRANDED

Last Saturday (6/6/2010), Leslie and I hopped the No. 7 train from Grand Central to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. This semi-autonomous branch of the Museum of Modern Art is described on its Web site as “one of the oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions in the United States. An exhibition space rather than a collecting institution, MoMA PS1 devotes its energy and resources to displaying the most experimental art in the world…MoMA PS1 actively pursues emerging artists, new genres, and adventurous new work by recognized artists in an effort to support innovation in contemporary art.”

On this particular day, the Oberlin College Alumni Association was offering a free guided tour to Oberlin grads (Leslie graduated with the class of ‘77). I had not visited PS1 in years and was very impressed by the scope and diversity of the current “Greater New York” show, encompassing painting, sculpture, video, photography, mixed media, and two exotic koi goldfish (in a sort of living diorama by Tommy Hartung entitled B Roll). But my favorite among all the various galleries was the first complete NYC installation of the pictorial series Unbranded by the African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas.

Hank was born 3/17/1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey (the original stomping grounds of George Clinton and the nascent Parliament-Funkadelic, BTW) and holds degrees from California College of the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Father Hank Thomas was/is a jazz musician turned film producer, property developer, and stockbroker; mother Deborah Willis (Ph.D.) is an accomplished photographer, widely published author, NYU professor and current chair of the Tisch School’s Department of Photography. Hank the Younger has been showing his work since student days in the mid-Nineties, but PS1 was my first encounter and he knocked me out.

The starting point for Unbranded is 40 years of selected magazine and newspaper advertisements created by Corporate America and aimed at Black America from 1968. Hank has computer-imaged the ads to eliminate all the original text and brand identifications, so that what we’re left with are remarkably revealing and absorbing portraits of black people (occasionally

"The Mandingo of Sandwiches" (1977/2007) from UNBRANDED

in the company of white people) over four decades of American life, with each year represented by two different images. In place of the ad copy, Hank has created his own captions outside the frames, and these are sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes…something else.

"The Oft Forgotten Flower Children of Harlem" (1969/2006) from UNBRANDED

On his Web site, Hank Willis Thomas says of Unbranded:

“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.

“By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”

Hank Willis Thomas with "Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil's Son-In-Law" (2000/2005)

I should give props also to Hank’s fellow artist William Cordova (born 1971 in Lima, Peru) who shares this particular PS1 gallery with HWT. In the center of the floor, Cordova  has constructed a maze from old LP covers, mostly r&b and disco — I believe the title is Laberintos (Labyrinths). This work demanded a little more attention than I was able to give it at the time: The tour group was moving on, and I was still buzzing from Unbranded.

As part of the “Greater New York” show, Hank’s masterful work is up through 10/18/2010. It’s rich in meaning, it looks great, and you really should see it for yourself.

June 3, 2010

Archives

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All photos by ZAK SHELBY-SZYSZKO for Zeal Images unless credited otherwise.

It was early May, the gig was two weeks away, and things weren’t looking good for the star of the show, Jerry Williams Jr. a/k/a Swamp Dogg.

The iconoclastic r&b singer/songwriter/producer had not played New York City in over a decade. (His last local appearance had taken place at Coney Island High, an East Village rock club that closed in  July 1999.) The upcoming show was booked at City Winery, an upscale venue more closely associated with the music of Amy Mann, Steve Earle, or Suzanne Vega than with old-school, hard-core rhythm & blues. Advance publicity was light, advance ticket sales were lighter.

Swamp Dogg was “coming off” his 2009 album Give ‘Em As Little As You Can…As Often As You Have To… Or, A Tribute To Rock ‘N’ Roll — a collection of songs written and/or made famous by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. The CD was released by S-Curve Records through EMI — the first Swamp Dogg disc in decades to receive major-label distribution. Despite the best efforts of the S-Curve staff and myself (as his belatedly hired indie publicist), Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… soon went down in musical history as what S-Curve founder/label head Steve Greenberg ruefully described as “possibly the worst-selling album of both Swamp Dogg’s career and mine.” Although  marred by its “canned” drum sound, Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… was nonetheless an audacious attempt to reclaim rock & roll as Black Music, a sui generis creation unlike any other album made by an African-American artist since I-don’t-know-when.

All in all, the stage at City Winery seemed set for deep disappointment if not outright disaster. Guess what?

Swamp Dogg killed. His set was a triumph.

The unknowing and unsuspecting among us were converted for life and sent forth into the night, frothing at the mouth and babbling in tongues of ecstasy. The true believers, your faithful scribe among them, were lifted to Soul Heaven on a pair of golden fried chicken wings (with choice of grits, black-eyed peas, or collard greens).

Swamp Dogg (lead vocals and electric piano) was backed capably and sympathetically by The Revelations of Brooklyn NY. I believe the personnel for this gig was Wes Mingus (guitar), Borahm Lee (keyboards), Josh Werner (bass) and Gintas Janusonis (drums) plus a three-man horn section. The set list went as follows:

1. “The Mind Does The Dancing While The Body Pulls The Strings” from Have You Heard This Story?? (Island, 1974)

We’ve waited with growing impatience through a solid hour of the opening Tomas Doncker Band (jammy and bluesy, with some good playing, weaker singing, forgettable songs) and another 15 minutes of changeover. Swamp enters from stage left, sits down at his keyboard, and gets things off to a rousing start: He’s in strong voice and looking resplendent in lime-green suit with matching hat, belt, tie, socks, shoes — hell, his drawers probably match. The audience, which fills a respectable two-thirds of this rather cavernous room, breathes a collective sigh of relief.

2. “Since I Fell For You” from Resurrection (S.D.E.G., 2007, with a cover shot of Swamp Dogg crucified)

Buddy Johnson’s greatest hit, first recorded circa 1945, has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Tom Waits to the Sonics. Swamp got around to cutting the song in ‘07 and sings the hell out of it at City Winery: The one-word description in my notebook says “Stratospheric!” Steve Greenberg turns to me and asks: “Why didn’t he put this on his S-Curve album?!”

3. “Synthetic World” from Total Destruction To Your Mind (Canyon Records, 1970)

The Revelations work up a nice MGs-type groove behind the Dogg’s impassioned vocal on this mid-tempo classic with its almost Dylanesque lines like “Friendship is like acid/It burns as it slides away…” Halfway through, Swamp Dogg launches into a semi-improvised rap — complete with Xanax reference — about suffering panic attacks while driving on Los Angeles freeways. Genius.

Photo by Kees Tabak

4. “Sam Stone” from Cuffed, Collared, Tagged & Gassed (Cream Records, 1972 — also includes “Lady Madonna” and Joe South’s “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home”)

The Viet Nam War was still raging in 1971 when John Prine released this heartbreaking ballad of a heroin-addicted Army veteran on his self-titled Atlantic debut. Swamp Dogg covered it the next year and over time the song became a cornerstone of his live shows. Tonight at City Winery, Swamp brings “Sam Stone” sharply up to date: “Nowadays, those GIs ain’t comin’ home with dope habits,” he intones mournfully. “They’re comin’ home in coffins, from Iraq and Afghanistan…”

5. “Born Blue” from Total Destruction To Your Mind – Another great performance, with Swamp Dogg stretching and scatting on the title phrase.

6. “In My Résumé” from Finally Caught Up With Myself (Springboard International, 1977 — also includes “Slow Slow Disco,” sampled by Kid Rock on “I Got One For Ya” from Devil Without A Cause)

At this point, the show has transcended the conventions of r&b live performance. It’s now a combination of Baptist tent revival, therapeutic encounter session, and after-hours blue mood, imbued with a profound sense of personal truth-telling courtesy of The Dogg. What more can I add but mindless superlatives: “great,” “awesome,” “wow,” etc.

7. “Total Destruction To Your Mind” Swamp Dogg takes us home with a rocking version of his personal anthem, re-cut for Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… (and nicely covered by roots-rocker Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on Roscoe’s Gang in 1988).

The 45-minute set has passed all too quickly; Swamp Dogg and the Revelations have played all of their rehearsed material — but the crowd won’t let them go. After some hemming and hawing and one false start, Swamp and the band launch into an impromptu but devastating rendition of Big Joe Turner’s “Crawdad Hole” that is the best piece of flat-feet-on-the-floor, stand-up blues singing I’ve heard since Howard Tate’s NYC comeback at Village Underground in July 2001.

A.S. and Swamp Dogg bond over my copy of his 1989 LP "I Called For A Rope And They Threw Me A Rock." (Photo by Howard B. Leibowitz)

Aaron Fuchs was still floating on the high of this show days later when he wrote:

“It was a rare occasion when a show so greatly exceeded my expectations. Aside from doing everything you’d expect from Swamp Dogg — all the songs you really wanted to hear, with stream-of-consciousness interludes — it was his entirely undiminished piercing tenor combined with his nods to the ages that made the show incredible. I have never, ever heard anyone cover Big Joe Turner’s ‘Crawdad Hole.’ And he ripped it.

ADDENDUM: The unfortunate task of following this revelatory performance fell to the Revelations and their regular lead singer Tre Williams. I’d seen this group three times previously as headliners and always enjoyed them; I can recommend the debut CD The Bleeding Edge without reservation. For whatever reason, Tre’s vocal partner Rell Gaddis was AWOL from City Winery and their particular interplay — a neo-soul variation on hip-hop’s MC/hype man combination — was very much missed. Matters were not improved by the fact that perhaps three-fourths of the audience had left the venue immediately following Swamp Dogg’s performance.

INTRODUCTION

"Salut'!" (Photo: Barbara LoCastro)

Today (5/12/2010) marks the fifth anniversary of the untimely death, at age 51, of my good friend Frankie LaRocka.

For several years prior to his passing, Frankie had been living with the debilitating heart condition called cardiomyopathy. On or about 5/5/2005, he underwent surgery at New York’s Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital to have a defibrillator implanted to regulate his heartbeat. He returned to his home at 55 Walbrooke Avenue on Staten Island but devel­oped a high fever a few days later. He was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital on SI where the fever turned into pneumo­nia that Frankie, in his weakened post-operative condition, could not withstand.

Frankie LaRocka was the closest friend I made out of all the many people I met and worked with during my tenure at Epic Records/Sony Music (1989-2000). We came from very different backgrounds in terms of class, ethnicity, and education. But we shared a deep love of music and an enthusiasm for everything from Texas barbecue to Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 version of Dracula. Like any of us, Frankie had his flaws. He could be insensitive, resentful, and sometimes his own worst enemy. But FLR was not selfish or greedy, pretentious or snobbish. He didn’t believe in stepping on other people in order to achieve one’s own goals.

And whether he was talking to Ahmet Ertegun or to a bartender on Hylan Boulevard, Frankie presented the same face to the world: a broad, handsome face, with a big smile and a high–pitched laugh to match his almost child–like enjoyment of life’s pleasures.

He embraced and was involved with a lot of music not at all to my personal taste. He had a populist aesthetic, meaning he couldn’t relate to the art-school/intellectual side of alternative rock (cf. Talking Heads, Pere Ubu) or any music that he considered just too “out,” from the Slits to Albert Ayler. But when it came to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, the MC5 and the New York Dolls, we were in complete head-nodding agreement.

Frankie reveled in many aspects of what used to be derided as “corporate rock.” The Big Deal, the Big Hit, the Big Tour, the Big Schmooze after the Big Gig…from the vantage point of 2010, it all must seem very clichéd and even faintly ridiculous. But this was simply part of the environment in which FLR made his life and career, and his taste for it was tempered by his slightly self-mocking sense of remove.

(In case you’re wondering, to my knowledge Frankie was never addicted to alcohol or any other drug and never smoked cigarettes. Given his later heart condition and weight problems, his most dangerous vice may have been food, which he enjoyed with a gourmand’s gusto.)

FLR with Ozzy Osbourne, who looks different now. (1986)

FLR with Lemmy of Motorhead, who looks EXACTLY the same now. (1985)

When Frankie died, his longest and most detailed obituary ran in the Staten Island Advance daily newspaper (shorter notices also appeared in Billboard and Rolling Stone, among other outlets). This obit not only omitted many details but also contained a number of errors and misstatements: Frankie did not “join the band” of Jon Bon Jovi, Sony and Epic are not separate companies, etc.

I thought he deserved better, and several months later I began writing this biographical essay as a corrective to the SI Advance story. Eventually, it became a much longer piece that may have something to say, to some readers, about one man’s struggle to find and maintain his place in the late 20th century American music business as it went from post-Sgt. Pepper boom to Internet-ignited decline. The complete essay is published here for the first time.

BEGINNINGS

Frankie LaRocka was born Franco Christopher LaRocca on April 17, 1954 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was the oldest of three children, later joined by brother Paul LaRocca (b. 2/17/57) and sister JoAnne LaRocca Scalici (b. 4/30/60). Mother Inez LaRocca (b. 11/16/28) died in 1991 of scleroderma (systemic sclerosis). Father Anthony (Tony) LaRocca (b. 5/25/27), a career engineer for Con Edison and a passionate opera fan, died of lymphoma in 2004.

Among the personal papers and effects given to me by Paul LaRocca after his brother’s death is a biographi­cal essay dated 2/21/2003. It was written for a school assignment by FLR’s young next–door neighbor Jeremy Hill and its subject is quoted directly throughout (“I interviewed Frankie while he was cooking chicken cutlets in his kitchen…”). Some of the following details are taken from Jeremy’s article.

Frankie grew up in the Little Italy section of Manhattan and lived near the intersection of Mott and Broome Streets until age 12, when the LaRocca family moved to Staten Island. He attended St. Joseph Hill Academy from sixth through eighth grades; St. Peter’s Boys High School for one year, and New Dorp High School through graduation.

In 1964, when he was 13 years old, Frankie’s grandmother Josie bought him his first drum set, an “official Beatles” model. On 7/16/1967 he saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience open for the Monkees at Forest Hills (NY) Tennis Stadium, and from that moment on the Experience would be tied with the Beatles as FLR’s two all–time favorite rock acts. Years later he would not only acquire the autographs of both groups but also befriend and per­form with Experience bassist Noel Redding.

On stage at the fabled Marquee in London. (1983)

Soon Frankie was playing semi-professionally with a series of popular Staten Island cover bands. The first one, Stem, formed in 1969 and included Tony Pompa, Frank Pagano, Steve Cannon, Frank Scribona, and brothers Bill and Dean Holtermann. The group broke up after two years, and in 1972 LaRocka and vocalist Pompa formed Fantasy with Peter Baron and Joe Vasta. In 1974, FLR earned an Associates Degree from Staten Island Community College, later renamed the College of Staten Island.

In light of Frankie’s turbulent sixteen–year marriage to and eventual divorce from his wife Nina (nee Timpone), and his loving but often fraught relationship with their daughter Adrianna, I was struck by this passage from Jeremy Hill’s essay:

“Frankie admires Paul McCartney ‘because he is an absolute genius.’ He likes how ‘[McCartney] stuck with his wife through everything and didn’t spoil his kids. He had passion, feeling and talent. I like how he balanced talent, music, and family.’

TURNING PRO

Cherry Vanilla performs at Club 82 in Manhattan with FLR on drums. (1976?)

In late 1975, Frankie LaRocka joined a band led by the glam-rock singer/songwriter/actress Cherry Vanilla. It was his first job with a Manhattan–based group playing original material.

The personnel included John “Buzz” Verno (bass), Kasim Sultan (keyboards), and Tom Morrongiello (guitar). Sultan later switched to bass and joined Todd Rundgren’s Utopia; Morrongiello has been Bob Dylan’s chief stage tech (guitars, keyboards) since the early Nineties. Cherry Vanilla released two RCA (UK) albums, Bad Girl and Venus D’Vinyl, but FLR did not play on either of these recordings.

In 1977, Frankie and Buzz Verno formed a new group with two other SI musicians, guitarists Johnny Rao and Thomas Trask. While riding on the Staten Island Ferry, Frankie ran into David Johansen whose pre­vious outfit, the New York Dolls, had broken up two years earlier. Frankie talked up his new band and eventually nagged the singer into checking out a rehearsal.

“It was a one-in-a-million stroke of luck. He was by himself and I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, but are you David Johansen?” And he said, ‘Yeah. What about it, kid?’ And we started talking…I called him for weeks and tried to get him to come down, to take the ferry and we’d pick him up on the other side. We’d rehearsed a bunch of Dolls [songs] and r&b and shuffles, and we blew him away.” [FLR, from the liner notes to The David Johansen Group Live]

This aggregation became the first David Johansen Group (a/k/a The Staten Island Boys) and recorded the eponymous solo debut David Johansen, released in April 1978 on Blue Sky/Epic Records. It was Frankie’s first appearance on a major label, and

FLR with Rick Derringer (left) and the Dead Boys' Stiv Bators. (1977)

he was mentioned in a New Yorker magazine profile of David Johansen written by Stanley Mieses and published 6/12/1978. Frankie made several U.S. tours and one European jaunt with the Johansen band and stayed on into 1980. On 7/21/1978, the group headlined The Bottom Line in New York with guest appearances by ex–Dolls Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders.

“When David spotted Johnny in the audience and brought him up, it just kicked everybody in the ass. It was like the Stones at Altamont — without anyone getting hurt!” [FLR, ibid.]

The show was taped and released as a Blue Sky/Epic promo-only LP that quickly became a sought–after collector’s item. In 1993, Sony Legacy issued an expanded CD version as The David Johansen Group Live; Frankie was pleased and proud to co-produce this edition with Peter Denenberg.

“It’s as clear as day, that whole era. We weren’t making shit but we were happy to be alive and fuckin’ rockin’. That period in time could never happen again.” [FLR, ibid.]

Picture sleeve for the 1978 Blue Sky/Epic single "Funky But Chic" b/w "The Rope" with (L. to R.) Sylvain Sylvain, Thomas Trask, David Johansen, FLR, Buzz Verno, Johnny Rao.

THE EARLY EIGHTIES

The early Eighties were a busy time for Frankie LaRocka, who gigged and/or recorded with Scandal, John Waite, and Bryan Adams. In an interview with journalist Jonathan Grevatt sometime in the Nineties, Frankie recalled:

“I was doing what I really wanted to do – making records and touring. I was on a mission. I’m not a real techni­cal player. I play with a lot of feel, which I have adapted in my philosophy of music: Keep it simple, soul­ful, and sincere.”

Scandal was a new wave–ish hard–pop band led by lead singer Patty Smythe and guitarist Zack Smith. The group was signed to Columbia and FLR played drums on Scandal’s self-titled debut EP. On a résumé prepared for his later hiring by Atlantic Records, Frankie noted that he played “(NYC) metropolitan area performances during band’s introduction,” i.e. early showcase gigs. In the same document, FLR says he “developed band, songs and sound with Zack Smith and [producer] Vinnie Poncia for first release.”

FLR was never quite a full–fledged member of Scandal and his photo appears only on the back cover of the original vinyl edition of the EP. Propelled by the minor hit “Goodbye to You,” Scandal entered the Billboard chart in January 1983; the EP breached the Top 40 and was certified gold. The group later hit platinum with the Warrior album and its Top Ten title single. Frankie did not play on Warrior or on subsequent Patty Smythe solo releases.

L. to R. FLR, John McCurry, John Waite (1983)

By that time, Frankie had moved on to a new band formed around English rock singer–songwriter John Waite. After a moder­ately successful run as front man of the Babys, Waite released his first Chrysalis solo album Ignition; it entered the Billboard chart in July 1982, hung around for six months, and peaked at #68. FLR played drums throughout the album including the belated single “Change” (#54 in April 1985) and toured with the Waite band for six months in 1982 (also per his résumé).

In 1984, John Waite scored a massive international Number One hit with “Missing You” and the Top Ten album No Brakes; Curly Smith played drums on those sessions. But Frankie was back at the kit for several tracks on Waite’s next Chrysalis album, Mask of Smiles (1985). (Contrary to the SI Advance notice, Frankie did not sign John Waite or any other act to the Chrysalis label.)

Frankie takes a bow with Bryan Adams. On the back of this photo, FLR wrote: "We love you people!" (1983)

In February 1983, Frankie auditioned for Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and within days was rehearsing for a tour in support of Cuts Like A Knife, Adams’ just-released second album for A&M Records . Other personnel included Keith Scott (guitar, vocals), Dave Taylor (bass), and John Hannah (keyboards). The Adams group toured with Journey in the spring and summer of 1983, trekked through Europe in the fall, and fin­ished the year with a tour of Japan. The band performed live on German television and appeared Stateside on “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold.”

Cuts Like A Knife generated two Top 20 singles, hung on the chart for 89 weeks (peaking at No. 8), and went platinum with U.S. sales of over one million. FLR did not play on any of Bryan Adams’ studio albums but he performed on a live radio broadcast (possibly issued as an A&M Records promo disc) and on a rare Adams EP.

“Frankie was the greatest fun to have on tour. His ‘Staten Island-isms’ kept us all smiling and his personal grooming techniques kept us all wondering if Oil of Olay was, in fact, a good thing to use for men’s skin care. Frankie was a very dear person and an inspired musician, and I send my deepest condolences to his family. Rock on, Frankie – you made a big difference to our lives!”Bryan Adams, May 2005

Celebrating Bryan Adams' gold album with (L. to R.) paternal grandmother Josie, mother Inez, and father Tony.

Frankie scored one other significant recording credit in this period: In 1981, as a hired session musician, he played drums on “Runaway” by Jon Bon Jovi, who had not yet formed his own band.

The song was first issued on a radio station compilation LP and unexpectedly began to garner airplay throughout the New York area. “Runaway” led to the formation of the band Bon Jovi and their signing to Mercury/Polygram Records. The original recording was included on Bon Jovi’s self-titled debut album, which was released 1/21/1984 and eventually certi­fied gold. But so far as I’m aware, FLR never played a live gig with Jon Bon Jovi and did not play on any Bon Jovi tracks other than “Runaway.”

When Bryan Adams came off the road and returned to the studio, Frankie rejoined John Waite’s touring band in 1985 for dates in the U.S. and Japan. The group now included Tom Mandel on keyboards, guitarist John McCurry, and FLR’s former Fantasy band mate Joe Vasta on bass, but the road was getting old.

“I was out with Bryan Adams and I was getting kind of bored playing the same fifteen songs every night,” Frankie told Jonathan Grevatt. “I felt there was no future in it for me.” When Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun extended the offer of a job in the label’s A&R (artists & repertoire) department, Frankie readily accepted.

A&R (1) – ATLANTIC RECORDS

Atlantic personnel records show that Frankie LaRocka was employed as an A&R representative from 2/13/1984 until 3/9/1990. Our man wasn’t quite ready to relinquish his drum seat, however. While ostensibly holding a full–time executive job at Atlantic, Frankie proceeded to join two more bands—both of which recorded for rival labels!

EASTERN BLOC with (L. to R.) Tony Shanahan, FLR, Ivan Kral, Mark Sidgwick. (1985)

The first of these was Eastern Bloc, which began in early 1986 as the songwriting partnership of Mark Sidgwick and ex–Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Kral joined by bassist Tony Shanahan with FLR on drums.

“At that moment, Frankie pretty much was drawn to the A&R scene but he kept drumming as a way to keep in touch with the scene and with his roots. He was a great bandmate—gregarious, with a cheeky sense of humor—and hit a solid backbeat that never wavered. He always gave 100% and never bitched or moaned about anything.”Mark Sidgwick [Eastern Bloc]

In the summer of 1986, Eastern Bloc self–released an EP, Wall to Wall, that led to their signing by Passport/Polygram and the 1987 album Eastern Bloc. Pat Benatar’s partner Neil Geraldo mixed the single “You Got Love” and the band filmed a video for the song but like most of the records ever released, Eastern Bloc didn’t sell and the group split amicably in 1988. Mark Sidgwick recalls playing with Frankie on Bye Bye Route 66 by pop–folk group Devonsquare (with guest guitarist Stephen Stills) and on the 1988 Warner Bros. album Lost To The Street by Alex Rozum.

Company of Wolves was a big–haired hard rock band (think Def Leppard from Staten Island) with Kyf Brewer (lead vocals), brothers Steve Conte (guitar) and John Conte (bass), and FLR on drums. Some demos they cut with engineer Peter Denenberg led to a contract with Mercury/Polygram. The band’s self–titled debut appeared in 1990 and spun off the middling radio and MTV hits “Call of the Wild” and “The Distance.”

COMPANY OF WOLVES - FLR is second from left. (1990)

Frankie appeared in both videos, but he split a few months later and Company of Wolve broke up circa 1995. (The Denenberg demos were compiled for a 1998 album entitled Shakers & Tambourines.) Steve Conte now plays with the reconstituted New York Dolls and Mike Monroe (ex-Hanoi Rocks) as well as his own band The Crazy Truth.

“As the band began to take off and tour, Frankie made the decision to quit, citing his wife Nina and young daughter Adrianna as the reason he needed to keep to his A&R job. After all, he had succeeded in getting his own band signed to a giant competing label! It backed him into a corner and I think it ate him up inside. He’d call us when we were on the road and say, ‘I was having dinner when you guys went on last night. When I looked at the clock, I dropped my fork.’”

“I first visited Frankie’s A&R office at Atlantic in 1985…It was insane. Tapes covered his desk, and collections of Japanese toys and tchotchkes lined the windowsills, in­cluding a giant Godzilla. There was a live alligator in an aquarium. On one wall was a color poster of the David Johansen Band on stage and over the faces of the band members who had died, Frankie had drawn big black Xs with a Magic Marker.” – Kyf Brewer [Company of Wolves]

[NOTE: In accordance with Kyf's recollection, I distinctly remember Frankie telling me that at least two and perhaps three members of the Johansen band had died before the year 2000. But Frankie's close friend and fellow Staten Islander, Deane Holtermann, emailed me today (5/10/2010) to report that "I was hanging out with Johnny Boy (Rao) and Buzzy (Verno) just recently, like a month ago, and Thomas (Trask) is living in Williamsburg." As Mark Twain wrote to a friend in 1897: "The report of my death was an exaggeration." -- A.S.]

Meanwhile, back at Atlantic Records, Frankie signed the MTV–ready hard rock band Mr. Big, led by former David Lee Roth bassist Billy Sheehan. (Their name came from the song “Mr. Big” by Free, another of FLR’s all-time favorite bands.) The self–titled debut Mr. Big entered the Billboard chart in July 1989 and made it to No. 46 but a second LP, Lean Into It (1991), reached No. 15, spun off a No. 1 single (“To Be With You”), and was certified platinum.

It was Frankie’s biggest hit for Atlantic, where he also worked with Blue Rodeo and Dirty Looks, and on the two-million selling Lost Boys soundtrack. After moving to Epic Records, his office decor included a framed note from Mr. Big manager Herbie Herbert stating that FLR was the person responsible for the band’s signing to Atlantic. This kind of recognition was important to Frankie, who deeply resented other higher–ranking executives’ occasional attempts to take credit for his discoveries.

A&R (2) – EPIC RECORDS/SONY MUSIC

THE HAIRY YEARS: Epic publicity photo taken for FLR's hiring announcement. (1990)

In an internal memo dated 6/26/1990, Don Grierson announced the appointment of Frankie LaRocka as Associate Director of A&R for Epic Records (a division of CBS Records, soon to be renamed Sony Music). It’s likely that Frankie had started his new gig a month or two earlier, since usually there was a time lag in the dissemination of hiring and promotion notices.

SPIN DOCTORS

“I saw this band at Nightingale’s on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, and there were about 20 people there,” Frankie recalled to Jonathan Grevatt. “However, all of these people had this grin on their faces that was really contagious. They were all dancing and just having a great time.”

With the blessing of his new boss, Epic Senior V–P of A&R Richard Griffiths (who had replaced Don Grierson), Frankie signed the NYC jam band Spin Doctors. In January 1991, he launched them in low–key, low–budget fashion with the Up For Grabs EP, recorded live at the Tribeca rock club Wetlands. Spin Doctors’ first full–length album, Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, was issued in August 1991 – the same month, and on the same label, as Pearl Jam’s debut Ten. While MTV, radio, and the press were going gonzo for grunge (Nevermind by Nirvana was released 9/24/1991), the unpretentious and uncool but undeniably catchy Pocket Full Of Kryptonite just kept selling more copies – and then some more – week after week.

FLR and Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess display multi-platinum plaque for POCKET FULL OF KRYPTONITE. (1994)

By June 1993, Kryptonite had made the Billboard Top Five. It stayed on the chart for 115 weeks and ultimately sold over five million copies in the US and another five million internationally while spinning off the hit singles “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (#17) and “Two Princes” (#7). When Richard Griffiths announced FLR’s promotion to Direc­tor of A&R in an internal memo dated 9/1/1993, he noted Frankie’s “pivotal role in the debut success of Spin Doctors.”

“After the Spin Doctors broke [in 1991], I saw Frankie at some event and went to congratulate him. We hadn’t spoken in quite some time, but I went over to shake his hand. ‘Frankie, congrats on the Spins,’ I said. ‘Good work.’ He replied: ‘Thanks, Steve — it’ll buy me a few more years before I have to open that pizzeria with my uncle on Staten Island!’” Steve Conte [Company of Wolves]

Pocket Full Of Kryptonite was the commercial pinnacle of Frankie’s A&R career, and as album co–producer (with Peter Denenberg) it might have made him a lot of money. But later FLR told me that under the terms of his employment contract, his earnings from any given Sony Music project were capped at $300,000 – not an inconsiderable sum, but nowhere near what he might have earned as an independent producer of a 10 million-selling album.

Unfortunately, Frankie’s standing within Epic Records seemed to decline in tandem with Spin Doctors’ sales. The half–live/half–studio Homebelly Groove (1992) was rushed out to capitalize on Kryptonite’s success. A second studio album, Turn It Upside Down, was a poorly sequenced set of uneven songs; with a mere two million copies sold world­wide, it was deemed a commercial disappointment. In almost a textbook example of the hubris endemic to the major labels in this era, Epic rented the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to film a video for the song “Cleopatra’s Cat.”

(Spin Doctors covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” for a million-selling Epic soundtrack album that accompanied the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia. LaRocka and Denenberg co–produced the Spins track, which later gave rise to the erroneous assertion that FLR “produced the Philadelphia soundtrack.” But he’s co-credited for just one song out of ten; Glen Brunman, Jonathan Demme, and Gary Goetzman shared executive producer credits for the full album.)

PRONG

PRONG (Photo by Chris Cuffaro)

A trio comprised of former C.B.G.B. employees Tommy Victor (vocals, guitar) and Mike Kirkland (bass) with ex–Swans drummer Ted Parsons, Prong was the most radical, raw, and aesthetically adventurous act on Frankie LaRocka’s Epic roster. Prong’s aggressive sound, sometimes dubbed “industrial metal,” was a clear influence on bands like Nine Inch Nails and (unfortunately) Korn.

Prong was signed to Epic in 1989 by Bob Feineigle and released Beg To Differ the following year. After Feineigle left the company, Frankie guided Prong through four further Epic albums including Cleansing (1994) which included some of the band’s best–remembered songs like “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck.” Since 1996, Tommy Victor has revived Prong periodically with various personnel: At this writing, the band is gearing up for its umpteenth US tour, co–billed with Fear Factory. After FLR’s death, Tommy offered this remembrance:

My band Prong was under Frankie’s direction for pretty much all our Epic Records releases. He was executive producer of Prove You Wrong (1991), Cleansing (1994), and Rude Awakening (1996). He was also very involved in designing and compiling the remix album Whose Fist Is This Anyway (1992). Frankie LaRocka was not only a major contributor to my art and career with Prong but also godfather to my only child, Victoria. If anyone could ever assume the role as “Godfather,” it was Frankie—he looked the part, as well!

Working with Prong at Epic Records, Frankie went beyond his job and got involved with our lives. He was paternal, truly caring, at times showing tough love. When I remember the times he bitched me out, I realize now how often he was correct and simply spreading his knowledge.

In the studio, behind his desk, at dinner, or on the phone, Frankie was the funniest motherfucker ever. I remember a discussion about the pre-production budget for our Rude Awakening record in which I kept pushing for A-DAT machines, digital eight-tracks and the like.

Frankie pulled out a $50 bill. “Here,” he said. “Go over to The Wiz [electronics store], buy one of those little Dicta­phone things, put in the rehearsal room, and leave it on.” Meaning: “Fuck all that tech shit, get busy with the songs!”Tommy Victor [Prong]

BLITZSPEER

Blitzspeer emerged from more or less the same East Village metal/hardcore scene as Prong. The personnel were Scott Lano (lead guitar, vocals), Phil Caivano (lead vocals, guitar), Curt Fleck (bass), and Louie Gasparro (drums). Blitzspeer were what the Brits would call a “second division” band, never destined for the big time but enjoyably gritty and high–spirited.

Frankie recorded Blitzspeer live on July 22, 1989 at NYC club Limelight (now an upscale mini-mall) and Epic released a seven–song EP of originals (“Road Machine,” “City Boy”) plus a prosaic cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams.” A glossier full–length album, Blitzspeer Saves, fol­lowed in 1991 but went nowhere and the band split up. Phil Caivano began driving a cab and picked me up one night on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. (He later moved to Los Angeles, joined Monster Magnet in 1998, and also did production work with Electric Frankenstein and other bands.)

HENRY LEE SUMMER

An AllMusic.com review of his 1989 album I’ve Got Everything describes Henry Lee Summer as “a completely undistinguished heartland rocker most notable for sporting a mullet that could blanket a grain silo.” But after amassing respectable indie–label sales in his home state of Indiana, the singer was signed to Epic in 1987 by Richard Griffiths, who may have hoped to replicate Mercury/Polygram’s success with another Hoosier rocker, John Mellencamp.

Summer was no Mellencamp, as it turned out, and in 1993 Griffiths handed Frankie LaRocka and Peter Denenberg the thankless task of producing Henry Lee’s fourth and final Epic album, Slamdunk. This stillborn effort only served to heighten Frankie’s disenchantment with Epic and the tensions between himself and Richard Griffiths.

In addition to Spin Doctors and Prong, a 1/11/1994 internal memo from Frankie to his boss lists the following Epic acts un­der FLR’s direction: Joe Satriani, Eve’s Plum (with singer Colleen Fitzpatrick, who later scored as pop/dance solo act Vitamin C), the ahead–of–its–time hip–hop band SSL a/k/a Smokin’ Suckas Wit’ Logic, and the scarcely remembered Watershed, who released an EP and an album entitled Twister. Also in the works was a Mick Ronson tribute disc — best known for his work with David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the guitarist had died of liver cancer on 4/29/1993. (Mick and FLR had been friends since the time of David Johansen’s second album, In Style, which Ronson produced.) Not much happened with any of these acts, and today only Satriani still has an active career.

LEAVING EPIC

FLR offers Gloria Estefan a choice: Either she can autograph this poster or record a duet with Prong.

When Sony Music declined to renew his employment contract in the summer of 1995, Frankie could not easily forgive or forget. His standing within the company may have declined but nonetheless it was a prestigious and well-paid gig that he hadn’t wanted to lose. Having shown prescient enthusiasm for a host of new bands, he’d been dismayed and disappointed when not allowed to act on his instincts. In October 1995, FLR vented his feelings in a two–page, single–spaced letter to Richard Griffiths in protest of his perceived maltreatment, with copies to Epic President Dave Glew and Sony Music Executive VP Michelle Anthony:

“…I feel your actions toward me were unfair, misleading, and without just cause. I truly believe that my termination had nothing to do with my performance or my professional abilities…”

“I do not go after the flavor of the week. But I do have a long history in this business and my background as a musician has proven invaluable to me throughout the years. I share a special rapport with the Spin Doctors and Prong as these bands have great difficulty trusting big cor­porations and yet they have all yielded to me on creative decisions and permitted me to guide them. These musicians are aware that I’ve already been through exactly what they are enduring – I’ve performed, I’ve toured, I’ve lived on the road, and I’ve gone through the personal and professional upheavals that are unavoidable.”

Frankie cited a number of then-sought-after acts for which he’d raised his hand early – all of which, he claims, were rejected by his department head:

“I presented Spacehog to you before the band had a final line-up and a management company behind them. Within weeks, Seymour Stein had signed them [to Elektra]…I mentioned Our Lady Peace eight months before our International department circulated this record [OLP was picked up by the other Sony label, Columbia]…I tried to get you excited about Pavement ten months before they signed directly to Warner Brothers [actually Capitol]…”

But Richard Griffiths had moved on: He wasn’t about to reconsider his decision or ask the Sony higher–ups to offer Frankie an improved severance package. In a brief reply dated 10/16/1995, Griffiths wrote that although he’d “always been fond of you personally…there were numerous times when we agreed but there seemed to be more and more when we didn’t. I hope life is treating you well, and that there are some good opportunities for you out there.”

Among Frankie’s papers is a copy of an undated one-page letter in which he discusses his vision of what it means to be a creative A&R person. The letter isn’t signed, so we can’t be sure he sent it; and there’s no salutation, so we don’t know to whom it was addressed. But this paragraph seems to sum up FLR’s philosophy of A&R and his personal sense of mission within the music business:

“We need to be in every nook and cranny, basement, rehearsal and recording studio seeking out new talent. And we need to engage the tentacles of of local radio, retail, clubs, booking agents and local rags in our search. Focus and diversity are the keys to working and breaking new bands. I’m really disturbed by the trend in the music business [toward] more corporate influence and the emphasis on profits at the expense of creativity and building careers. It’s about the passion for the music, not the level of arrogance.” [My emphasis -- A.S.]

A&R (3) MERCURY RECORDS / STRAIGHT LINE & SAVOY ENTERTAINMENT

Frankie & Nina hit the floor at my wedding, 8/26/1995. (Photo by Teri Bloom)

This is where things get murky, even to those of us who stayed in close communication with Frankie LaRocka after his departure from Epic/Sony. Between 1996-1998, label head Danny Goldberg employed FLR at Mercury Records on a consultant basis rather than as a full-time employee. But a later résumé lists only one act, Outhouse, for Frankie’s stint with Mercury and it appears that no recordings by this group were ever released. In a Billboard photo dated 7/5/1997, Frankie is identified as a “Mercury A&R exec” but an A&R colleague at the label, Steve Greenberg, couldn’t recall any acts he may have worked with in this period. (However, Steve vividly remembers FLR once describing his philosophy of A&R: “I’m ziggin’ while everyone else is zaggin’.”)

A Billboard written by Carrie Bell and dated 9/4/1999 announces the 9/31/99 release of the debut album Sun by Portland, Oregon–based band Lisa Hayes & the Violets on Straight Line Records, a new label described as “part of Denon Active Media’s Savoy Entertainment Group (SEG)” with North American distribution by Atlantic Records.

Straight Line/SEG pacts with Atlantic Records for distribution. L. to R. Dick Meixner (SEG), Atlantic chairman Ahmet Ertegun, unidentified Denon Japan exec, FLR.

Straight Line, Bell reports, “is run by a team of veteran producers/performers/A&R executives including President Ed Roynesdal, Senior VP of A&R Frankie LaRocka, and VP of A&R Stan Lynch, who was a founding member of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers…” Frankie was the key man in hooking up distribution for Straight Line through Atlantic Records, where Ahmet Ertegun was still an FLR fan.

(In addition to releasing contemporary rock/pop music through Straight Line, SEG controlled the vener­able Savoy jazz catalog and reissued classic recordings by Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Scott, and Errol Garner among others. In the 44th annual Grammy Awards, SEG’s Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings 1944-1948 was nominated for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Recording Pack­age. But other than his position with an SEG–affiliated label, Frankie had no connection to this or any other Savoy jazz reissue and was not cited in the Grammy nominations.)

Straight Line/SEG was under-capitalized from the start. In terms of promotion, airplay, and marketing, the struggling company couldn’t achieve liftoff to a point where Atlantic would sit up, take notice, and begin to flex its corporate muscle. Lisa Hayes’ Sun quickly set, and the same fate befell another of Frankie’s releases, Silver Zone by the Stones/Faces–sounding band Glimmer. By 2002, Straight Line/SEG was in disarray. In early 2003, Frankie LaRocka made his last stand in the music business, alone.

A&R (4) STRAIGHT LINE PRODUCTIONS

Frankie founded Straight Line Productions with the goal of discovering new talent that he would either sign directly to a label or record himself and then license in various territories. He applied all of his abil­ity, experience, and dwindling physical energy to this effort, but with scant results.

FLR business card for WWI Productions: "Weasels With Integrity."

Straight Line projects included an album by ex-David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick entitled Zig Zag, with guest appearances by Bowie, the Cure’s Robert Smith, and Joe Elliot of Def Leppard; it was released through Sanctuary Music in 2003 with minimal impact. Frankie appears to have signed a Canadian band called Finger 11 to Wind-Up Records: A Straight Line press release from 2004 took credit for the deal and stated that one of Finger 11’s albums had gone gold. But I’ve been unable to substantiate these claims — that gold certification may have been for Canada only — or otherwise determine the extent of FLR’s in­volvement with the band.

Frankie had never given up the drums and had ample practice space in the Walbrooke Avenue house that he owned and occupied to the end of his life. In the early Nineties, he played some sporadic gigs (mostly in Europe) with bassist Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A 1995 show in Prague, with Ivan Kral and Anthony Krizan on guitars, was released in 2002 as Live from Bunk R – Prague by Noel Redding & Friends. But any real friends (or fans) of the participants should steer clear of this set of Hendrix and classic rock cover versions. (Noel Redding died May 11, 2003 at age 58. Among Frankie’s papers, I found and saved  several handwritten postcards that Noel mailed to FLR from his home in County Cork, Ireland.)

Noel Redding, FLR, and Anthony Krizan. (1993)

In 2004, with his health in decline and fighting to maintain a foothold in the music industry, Frankie found a Springfield, Missouri band called happyendings and got them signed to Clive Davis’ J Records. The back story behind this unexpected and heartening victory included perhaps the most gruel­ing airline trip of FLR’s life – a hair–raising tale of snowstorms, cancellations, and an eight–hour layover in the Cleveland airport – but he got the deal done. happyendings recorded in Los Angeles with überproducer Bob Rock (Mötley Crüe, Metallica) but I can’t ascertain if the album was released or shelved.

Up until a few weeks before his death, Frankie LaRocka was gigging and recording with Hot Monkey Love, a blues–rock quartet of veteran Staten Island players including Jack O’Neill (lead vocals), Jordan Lee (bass), and Bob Delross (guitar). His final recordings appear on HML’s self–released CD Primate Blues.

GOODBYE

Mass card with lyrics from "Angel" by Jimi Hendrix.

“I think when I was young, I would just go with the flow and say, ‘Wow, man, I’m playing drums behind this one and that one,’ but now I think of it as more of a business. But also, I feel lucky to be making a living out of something that I really appreciate and really love. How many people do you know that say, ‘I’m really happy at my gig?’ I feel honored and content that I stuck with it. I honestly love what I do.” – (FLR, quoted in the Staten Island Advance, 5/13/2005)

I last saw Frankie at Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital in Upper Manhattan on 5/4/2005. Only a day or two from heart surgery, he was anxious and upset, and I did whatever I could think of to put him at ease.

I had my iPod with me and slipped the headphones on him to play “Don’t Give Up On Me,” the title track from soul singer Solomon Burke’s superb 2002 comeback album. Frankie had never heard the tune before but he dug it immediately. As he listened intently, nodding his head with the tempo, he said: “This is great, man. We should do this song with Hot Monkey Love—Jack could sing the hell out of this!”

There he was: Lying in a hospital bed, IV stuck in his arm, preparing for a risky medical procedure–and yet still looking forward to the next rehearsal, the next gig, the next good thing that life had to offer.

For as long as I live, I’ll never forget that moment.

And I’ll never ever forget Frankie LaRocka.

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