With advancing age come hints of mortality, including the nagging curiosity about how we'll be remembered. Pete Bennett likely knew how he'd be remembered; he worked to shape his legacy daily through the relentless promotion of such icons as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Stones -- and Pete Bennett. A heart attack at age 77 ended his lifelong mission last month.
During the '70s -- the prehistoric era before MTV, CDs, Napster, iTunes, Spotify and the decimation of the record industry -- Pete's base camp was ABKCO (Allen B. Klein Company) Records' Manhattan headquarters at 1700 Broadway, a few blocks from the Brill Building and one floor below the offices of Record World magazine, where I served as editor from 1972-82. There were lots of successful indie labels and colorful execs, great shows nearly every night and sales growth that seemed to presage a boundless future. And believe it or not, back then cocaine wasn't addictive!
Even riding the elevator to our 42nd-floor office was an adventure. One day, James Brown took respite from his job as the hardest-working man in show business to get a haircut en route to 39. Another time, a colleague bragged, Phil Spector thanked her for pressing the ABKCO button without his having to ask. (At the ensuing press conference in Klein's office, Phil made it clear that he was packing more than a pile of demos.) And if you looked toward the ceiling, you'd occasionally see the face of NBA Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere, who served for a time as Commissioner of the ABA, whose offices were also on 42.
Even by the exaggerated standards of the time, Pete was larger -- or one might say wider -- than life. Short, dark, stocky and a snappy dresser, he frequented the RW offices to ply our editorial staffers and, more important, our chart-compilers with free singles, albums, photos, press releases and stories. He knew how to work the make-or-break radio programmers to get airplay for his acts and get retail store managers to give his records prime placement.
Somehow, Pete also became part of the picture whenever and wherever a camera and a celebrity were in the room. He wasn't shy about letting everyone know how close he was to The Beatles, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, The Stones, The Who and Michael Jackson. (He also promoted Jermaine, whom he called "Gemini.")
Pete promoted himself with such enthusiasm, he became a sort of self-parody of the obnoxious promotion man. He photo-bombed so many stars -- mostly with their blessings but sometimes as a vaguely-positioned background figure -- that his photo op with the Pope led some to ask, "Who's that with Pete?"
There were vague rumors of mob connections, and Pete liked to brag about his "relationships" with Richard Nixon and other Republican pols. But to us, at least, Pete was more a strong-charmer than a strong-armer. Whether it was because we liked him or wanted to get rid of him -- or both -- we ended up running his pics far more often than we probably should have.
Pete's embellishments of his own biography were more entertaining than annoying. He had an uncanny ability to move into a star's inner circle and then claim some ill-defined role in that artist's career. He said he launched Elvis's smash 1969 hit "Suspicious Minds" (he did help promote it), signed Michael Jackson to CBS (he was an advisor) and produced the Concert for Bangladesh (he did play a role behind the scenes of that extraordinary benefit show and the subsequent album and film.)
Few knew that Bennett got his start as a drummer. Fewer still were aware that "Pete Bennett's Orchestra" played on several Belmonts singles, post-Dion. Pete also claimed to have substituted "played" for "laid" (... a divorcee) -- in the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," thus allowing the BBC to program a record that quickly swept to the top of the British charts and went on to become one of the greatest singles in rock and roll history.
The time I remember Pete best (no pun intended) was one holiday season circa 1980 when he burst into our office grinning like a kid who'd just finished his first science project. He'd sketched a Christmas tree with big round bulbs hanging from its branches, into each of which we were instructed to insert a photo of Pete with a different celeb -- Pete and Elvis, of course, took the place of the usual angel at the top. The full-page four-color back cover ad was pricey, and Pete paid -- literally -- out of his own pocket. The ad's very tackiness made that issue a keeper, though I have to admit I don't remember anyone asking, "Who's that with Pete?"