INTRODUCTIONToday (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.)
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.
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.
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.’“
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
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.]
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.
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.)
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
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!
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.”
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
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.
“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.
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.)
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 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.
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
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, 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.
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.)
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.
“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.