THE BLOG
12/03/2014 01:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Book Excerpt: Management, and Fun, by Wandering Around

(This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.)

January, 1973.

PARIS, FRANCE U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho sign a cease-fire agreement that, according to President Richard Nixon, "brings peace with honor in Vietnam and Southeast Asia."

WASHINGTON, D.C. Former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. are convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

NEW YORK, NY Record World moves three blocks south.

Despite the upheaval -- the drinking, the fighting, the insane deadlines, the insomnia, the anxiety attacks, the ad cancellations, the threats, the partners' mutually assured destructiveness, the pressure to generate profits from the flimsiest Special Issues -- working at Record World in the early '70s was a blast.

Record sales surged in the U.S. and abroad, but the corporatization that would rob the industry of its vibrancy hadn't yet exerted its stranglehold. We operated at the intersection -- in some ways as the intersection -- of an astonishing mix of musicians (aspiring to superstar), label moguls, promotion and PR reps, publishers, deejays, retailers, rack jobbers, managers, bookers, bookies, druggies, fashionistas, and all manner of street hustlers and hangers-on.

Singer-songwriters competed with prog rockers, glam-shockers, and soul harmonizers for chart dominance, while disco was pulsating to the surface and punk was poised to savage all things bombastic. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was winding down, Watergate was winding up, and cocaine and Quaaludes replaced beer and martinis on many a thrill-seeker's menu -- all of this made life at this particular trade at this particular time super-charged and super-fun.

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Record World
had spent its formative years on the second floor of the Fisk Building at 200 W. 57th Street in Manhattan, a tacky, rickety structure (since refurbished) whose ground-level diner, Fisk Fountain, was the greasiest greasy spoon in the nabe. Then-assistant editor Bob Merlis recalls ordering a meat loaf sandwich and having Lem, the counter man, ask, "What kind of white bread do you want that on?" The eatery's phone booth served time as the temporary HQ for the bubblegum empire of Kasenetz-Katz ("Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," "Chewy, Chewy" and other double-entendre ear worms), who, rumor had it, had been locked out of their offices.

The vibe was college newspaper meets music-freak cave.

Most of us were raggedy guys barely out of college. We wore jeans, rock T-shirts (free, a necessity given the woeful salaries), and cheap boots or sneaks. Suits out, hirsute in: long hair, beards, mustaches and zany sideburns. There were few women, a state of affairs that would be remedied over time.

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We didn't have separate offices or even cubicles. Desks, couches and chairs were piled ceiling-ward with singles, albums, test-pressings, press releases, publicity photos, promo T-shirts, and other pop paraphernalia -- a small fraction of which, had it been saved, would be worth a fortune on eBay today.

To the right of the small reception area dwelled the chart department, where mountains of mailed-in sales and airplay reports yearned to be opened. At the far end of the office, I shared space with Sid and the associate editor, and our doors were always open. Next door was the glorified closet some called a conference room. Writers and editors squeezed into a ring of small offices around a small quad that served as a kind of demilitarized hang-out zone.

The door to Bob Austin's private corner office was rarely open. But he often left it unlocked and never seemed to notice when his album cache was less bountiful apres lunch than pre.

With Sid and Bob physically gone or neutralized by the gridlock of their hatred, there were few rules. The phrase "human resources" didn't exist, much less was there a department of. There was no employee handbook, no hiring process, no firing process, no grievance process, no goals, no performance reviews, no sick days, no personal days, no mental health days, no computers, no voicemail, no fax machines.

The adults in our midst tended to have old people's names like Morton Hillman, Pearl Balitsky, and Winifred Horton. They did adult things like sell ads, keep books, and schedule production -- things that were necessary but not necessarily fun.

We cringed at Mort's pomposity and laughed when he forsook ad sales to run for a seat in the New York State Assembly. When the erstwhile big band trumpeter won, the joke was on us. Pearl didn't say much except "No," but Winnie had a way with words. One winter's day she got to the office and declared the wind in Brooklyn was so strong that, as she phrased it, "I was blown all the way up Nostrand Avenue." Those brave enough to correct her frequent mispronunciations were met with a sharp, "You say it your way, I'll say it mine."

When musicians showed up without advance warning for an interview and a photo op, we scrambled.

Bob Merlis, a RW assistant editor from the fall of '69 to the fall of '71, when he joined Warner Bros. Records and launched a career as an ace public relations exec, recalls this exchange with a fresh-faced new duo called, simply, Carpenters.

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Carpenters, Richard and Karen (Polaroid by Bob Merlis)

"There was no bio, no notice and, at the time, they had only released a single (a cover of the Beatles' 'Ticket To Ride').

Me: So how did you come up with the name...a religious reference? ('Jesus Was A Carpenter' -- and I only knew that because Johnny Cash sang it!)"

Richard: 'It's our name. We're Karen and Richard Carpenter... I'm her brother.'

That we took pictures of future superstars with a cheap Polaroid was sorta cute. That we didn't have a decent stereo wasn't.

One time, Helen Reddy's high strung husband/manager Jeff Wald arrived with Helen's new single. (This was before She Was Woman.) He plunked the 45 on our creaky turntable for a command performance. The record sounded okay to me, but Jeff went bananas. If only he could have heard the cacophony that filled the office every Wednesday when our singles and album reviewers played disc after disc simultaneously, furiously typing their reviews to make deadline. We had mash ups when mash ups weren't cool.

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By the end of '72 it was time to move on up from our funky Fisk digs. To their everlasting credit, Sid and Bob signed a long-term lease for a brand new space -- with magnificent view -- on the 42nd floor at 1700 Broadway. The location was perfect: down the street from Carnegie Hall, up the street from the Brill Building, and within striking distance of both the Carnegie and Stage delis.

The enmity of the partners and my inexperience made the move itself an exercise in screwball comedy. I've blocked most of it out, but can't forget one moment late in the game when Bob grokked the gravity of a multi-year lease. The options he had in mind, renegotiate or move back, were equally preposterous.

The fun of working in the new building often began in the elevator, where you might encounter the colorful members of Mandrill on their way to Polydor Records on 38; or be "this close" to James Brown while an assistant combed the great man's great hair en route to James Brown Productions on 40, where he occupied an actual throne; or Phil Spector on his way to a press conference at Allen Klein's lavish suite on 43.

At a pit stop on 42, you might look up, way up, and find yourself peeing beside New York Knick legend Dave Debusschere, VP/GM of The American Basketball Association, whose offices were next door; or you might pause while zipping up because Taj Mahal was toking up and deadpanning, "Smokin' in the boys room."

Before you reached your desk, you might encounter the razor wit of receptionist Walli Nicita, a Hollywood casting director who'd moved to NY with her husband, Rick, a William Morris agent and later a founder of CAA. Walli was a keen deflator of inflated egos with better radar than Radar O'Reilly -- her PA broadcasts conveyed necessary information with a dash of irony. She also contributed on-the-money concert reviews, though, it must now be revealed, a few were ghost-penned by Rick.

The layout at 1700 featured a writers' bullpen that added a college-Frat feel conducive to newbie-hazing. We wandered in and out of each others' spaces all day and got things done via thousands of spontaneous interactions. The word "meeting" wasn't in our vocabulary.

A decade later, the book In Search of Excellence was hailed as a revolutionary business text for declaring that productivity can be enhanced via "Management by wandering around and an apparent lack of rigid command chains." Wonder if author Tom Peters ever lurked around 1700 Broadway disguised as a promo man...

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Management by wandering around wasn't the only technique we stumbled into. Our internship-for-college-credit program featured a case of mistaken identity and a bottle of whiskey. Hank Bordowitz says, "I came up to your office and explained the idea of an internship -- 'It's basically like sanctioned slave labor.' You looked at me and said, 'So I don't have to pay you?' I said, 'Nope. This is for experience.'"

And so he had his internship and was a step closer to his Rutgers degree. "One of my duties," Hank adds, "was to copy the charts on Wednesday so we could inform the people with the secret Record World chart phone number of the positions of their records. I was standing in the mailroom running off copies when Sid Parnes came in. At 19 I had a full black beard, dressed like a college student -- not a problem at RW, as so did most of the staff."

Hank, as it happened, bore a passing resemblance to our mailroom guy, Brian, aka the Tasmanian Devil. Hank adds, "Sid looked around and saw me at the copier. He strolled over, handed me a twenty dollar bill. He said, 'the usual,' and walked out. It turned out Sid came into the mailroom every other day or so, gave the mailroom guy a twenty and sent him across the street to the liquor store for a fifth of whiskey."

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Sooner or later, most every major recording artist made a pilgrimage to Record World. It was part of the hitmaking game, and everyone wanted to have hits. Marc Kirkeby, a former assistant editor and News Editor, says, "I doubt that any American magazine of that era could even approach the quantity and quality of performers who wandered those halls."

Marc, who would know -- he's a world-class music archivist and historian -- adds, "Just recall the stars -- big stars-- of R&B music sitting alone in DeDe's office, waiting for DeDe."

DeDe Dabney, Record World's R&B editor and author of the weekly column Soul Truth, was a pharmacist's daughter and Philadelphia transplant who joined the magazine in 1972 after the demise of her tip sheet Soul Music Survey. She was gorgeous and charismatic, but that was hardly the only reason she was sought after by the R&B industry's top artists, radio programmers, and executives.

DeDe had a feel for the street. She spent hours on the phone every week with top radio programmers like Frankie Crocker (WBLS-FM, NY), E. Rodney Jones (WVON, Chicago), and her Joe "Butterball" Tamburro (WDAS, Philadelphia), finding out what records they were spinning and suggesting tracks they weren't as yet clued into. When your record was one of "DEDE'S DITTIES TO WATCH," it was watched.

Nearly every big-name R&B artist of the day -- including the Tempts, the Tops, Al Green, the O'Jays, the Spinners, the Delfonics, Kool & the Gang, and Michael Jackson -- came by to see her; we basked in the glory she reflected. Top execs from around the country -- Kenny Gamble (Philadelphia Intl.), Buzzy Willis (Polydor), Al Bell (Stax), Miller London (Motown), LeBaron Taylor (Atlantic, CBS), Hosea Wilson (20th Century) and many more -- made regular or semi-regular appearances.

DeDe's spelling and grammar were unconventional to us conventionally-trained editors. So what? The Soul Truth was that her "uniqiquke" prose conjured another world -- a slightly surreal universe in which a line like "Swimmingly the horns and strings" was a complete sentence. Records she picked made you "pat your feet" as opposed to, say, tap them. Few can spell "hors d'oeuvres" without checking, but recalling DeDe's attempt still makes me smile.

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Above, from left: archivist extraordinaire Marc Kirkeby, yours truly, Michael Jackson, DeDe

When John Lennon, the artist I most wanted to meet, arrived unannounced one Friday with his significant other, May Pang, I was holed up at our printing plant in Hoboken, NJ.

Assistant editor David McGee was at the office that day. He recalls, "I had my back turned to the door and was hunched over the cover of the Jackson Browne album, listening to the haunting 'Song for Adam,' a requiem for Browne's departed friend Adam Saylor, who apparently committed suicide in Bombay.

"When I turned around I was face to face with John Lennon, who was standing alone in the doorway, listening to 'Song for Adam,' apparently as intently as I was. John said, 'That's a great song.'And then, like that, I was in a spirited conversation with John about Jackson Browne, finally getting around to Late for the Sky, of which he had heard only the title track. 'That one got under my skin,' he said, and then John Lennon -- John Lennon, mind you -- added: 'I wish I could write songs like that.'"

"There was something about John's presence that was utterly different from any other artist's -- or even any other human being's -- that I've ever met. He simply seemed to be operating intellectually and spiritually on another plane, and yet at the same time was as regular a guy as you could imagine -- through Jackson Browne's song, he had no trouble connecting with a kid who was then only two years off the plains of Oklahoma and only a few months removed from running the mail room at Record World."

May knew how much John meant to me, and asked him to call me at the printer's. The sound of his voice filled me with joy. We only talked for a couple minutes, but that was all I needed. What stunned me was that this man whose music and worldview had so changed my life didn't want to talk about himself; he was interested in what I was doing in Hoboken!

Most of our guests were human. But assistant editor Bob Nash recalls a visit from a piece of blue fur with a black space for a mouth and ping-pong ball black-spotted cross-eyes.

Jim Henson had paid a visit with Cookie Monster. "Every time I tried to ask Jim Henson a question," Nash says, "Cookie Monster made faces at me. When Henson answered, Cookie gave him silent looks of profound interest, or disbelief or astonishment. Hard as I tried to connect with Henson, I could not take my eyes off of Cookie."

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The brilliant comedian/social commentator Mort Sahl (center, back) makes himself semi-comfortable surrounded by Record World's Allen Levy (left) and Howie Levitt (right). Front row, from left: the magazine's Fred Goodman, myself, Lenny Beer.

Occasionally, a rock star made off with more than free ink. There was nothing cool about it when Fee Waybill of the Tubes purloined associate editor Howard Levitt's treasured Roy Rogers autographed photo from the wall behind his desk. A call to A&M's PR department threatening to expose Fee's felony prompted the wayward Waybill to make good with the goods.

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Bob Austin's sometimes tenuous relationship with the laws of physics added to the fun. He often produced ads for last-minute insertion, and we moved heaven and earth to accommodate. One Monday morning, long after the magazine had been printed and distributed, Bob came in with an ad and asked me to squeeze it in. My attempt at rationality didn't stand a chance -- Bob insisted there must be some "printer's trick" that could save the day. (Note to skeptics: I have witnesses!) In whatever cosmic space he now occupies, he's probably still trying to get that ad in.

Art director David Skinner recalls the time Bob presaged the "Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good" scene from Zoolander: "I was putting together a photo montage from one of Bob's pet events that would cover a full page in the magazine. Bob was very concerned about one particular celebrity's picture not appearing next to another celebrity's picture, because, apparently, they hated each other and appearing side-by-side in a Record World montage would bring them together in print eternity. After changing the order of the pictures several times, he was finally satisfied. Then before leaving the room, he scanned his tiny masterpiece and asked, seriously: 'Now...is it going to be this big in the magazine?'"

Humoring Bob was the first, best line of defense; ignoring him was second. Occasionally, he inspired a more direct reaction. Once he badgered Howie Levitt so mercilessly that Howie turned away, looked out the window and asked the world, with a nod to Howard Beale, "Why am I having this conversation with this moron?" Bob walked out calmly, as though nothing unusual had happened.

So ended another surreal scene from the Record World theater of the absurd.

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John Lennon with RW's Toni Profera