Industry Profile: Colin Escott
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Colin Escott, music archivist/historian/journalist.
Music journalists tend to focus on people who make the music; Colin Escott’s career since the early ‘70s has been writing about the people who make the people who make the music.
Along the way, this soft-spoken British archivist/historian/journalist wrote the definitive history of Hank Williams—“Hank Williams: The Biography” as well as the best damn book on Sam Phillips’ fabled Sun Records, titled “Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and The Birth of Rock & Roll.”
He has also written liner notes for hundreds of retrospective albums by Bob Dylan, the Box Tops, Big Maybelle, Roy Buchanan, Bobby Charles, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Betty Wright, Tim Hardin, and Clyde McPhatter for the likes of such labels as Bear Family, Rounder, Time/Life, RCA, Stony Plain, Savoy Jazz, and Razor & Tie.
In the latest installment of his colorful career, 61-year-old Escott has co-authored two Broadway musicals: “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Baby It’s You!” with Floyd Mutrux.
Writer/director Mutrux has contributed to such films as “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Dusty and Sweets McGee," “Freebie and the Bean,” “Aloha Bobby and Rose,” and “The Hollywood Knight.” He also notably directed “American Hot Wax," the remarkable 1978 film about legendary American DJ Alan Freed, who was a victim of the U.S. radio payola hearings in the late ‘50s.
“Million Dollar Quartet” dramatizes an impromptu jam session, featuring Sun Record stalwarts, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, on Dec. 4, 1956 at Sun Record Studios in Memphis.
The following day, Memphis Press-Scimitar entertainment editor Robert Johnson wrote an article about the session under the byline, "Million Dollar Quartet.” The article contained the now-famous photograph of Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash.
“I never had a better time than yesterday afternoon when I dropped in at Sam Phillips’ Sun Record bedlam on Union at Marshall,” Johnson wrote. “It was what you might call a barrel-house of fun. Carl Perkins was in a recording session…Johnny Cash dropped in. Jerry Lee Lewis was there too; and then Elvis stopped by.”
“Million Dollar Quartet” premiered at Florida's Seaside Music Theatre in 2006. The musical had a limited run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, opening on Sept. 27, 2008. The show transferred to Chicago's Apollo Theater where it opened on October 31, 2008, and is still running.
“Million Dollar Quartet” debuted on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre on April 11, 2010. It closed on June 12, 2011 after having played 489 performances and 34 previews. The production has since opened Off-Broadway at the New World Stages.
“Million Dollar Quartet” opened in London’s West End at the Noël Coward Theatre on Feb. 28, 2011 and is still running there.
An American national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet” is slated to kick off Oct., 2011 at the Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio.
The duo’s second theatrical piece, “Baby It’s You!,” opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 27, 2011 starring Beth Leavel as pioneering music industry executive, Florence Greenberg.
When did you start working on the musical “Million Dollar Quartet?”
Floyd Mutrux came up with the idea in 2001, so it’s been a long haul. Floyd called me out of the blue and said, “I have this idea for a show.” I knew Floyd. He had done “American Hot Wax.” He said, “This will make a great stage show. Why don’t you help me write it?”
It’s a long and twisty road to reach Broadway.
It really is. When the sign went up on Broadway, and you look at it, and you realize that it’s really real, yeah, you realize what a long torturous path it’s been. You think of all of the people who have developed shows that they wanted to see on Broadway but didn’t (get there). You feel grateful that the fates smiled upon you, and that you are there.
You also worked with Floyd on “Baby It’s You!” based on the life of Florence Greenberg.
“Baby It’s You!” has been much more his baby, so to speak. Floyd took that over and, I kind of took over “Million Dollar Quartet.” “Baby It’s You!” is an incredible story. (Florence Greenberg) was a true pioneer, and a really tough woman.
[Although she had no background in the music industry, former New Jersey housewife Florence Greenberg went on to be one of the key figures of American pop music. She discovered and managed the Shirelles. With producer Luther Dixon handling A&R, she built Scepter Records from the ground up, with a roster that included Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, B.J. Thomas and many others.
Scepter Records, or its subsidiary labels Wand and Citation, also released recordings by the Kingsmen, Joe Tex, Deep Purple, Wilson Pickett, the Isley Brothers, Roy Head, and the Guess Who.
Greenberg retired from the music business in 1967, and sold the labels to Springboard International. She died Nov. 2, 1995 of heart failure. The 1991 three-CD box set “The Scepter Records Story” chronicles her career.]
Was it difficult attaining the rights to use such original ‘50s hits as “Blue Suede Shoes,” Hound Dog,” and “Great Balls of Fire” for “Million Dollar Quartet?”
Surprisingly not. Most of the music publishers were very accommodating. I hope that we have repaid their faith with weekly paychecks because they are in the business of making money out of their catalogs. Obviously, they are not getting the amounts that they used to from the record business. They are looking at other avenues, and we came along. I think that they have been good for us and us for them.
Did you go up to New York last year when Jerry Lee Lewis visited the cast of “Million Dollar Quartet?”
I did. I went up to New York for that. It was one of those great nights that you feel that you have to be there for.
[Jerry Lee Lewis turned up at the Nederlander Theatre in New York on the evening of Sept. 10, 2010 to jam with the cast of “Million Dollar Quartet.” He performed three post-show songs with the stage incarnations of Elvis Presley (actor Eddie Clendening), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), Carl Perkins (Rob Lyons), and, of course, himself (Levi Kreis).]
Have you gotten to know Jerry Lee a bit over the years due to your work on Sun Records and other related projects?
Not really. I’m not sure that anyone outside of his close family really has.
How does someone like Jerry Lee Lewis feel about having their life exposed on Broadway?
Jerry Lee is sort of inscrutable. But he agreed to show up, and he did a photo op afterwards. He and Bill Clinton were there. Obviously, three of (the quartet members) are dead. The families have been very supportive. Carl Perkins’ son Stan was very complimentary. W.S. Holland, the drummer who was actually on the Million Dollar Quartet sessions, came (to the show), and he said, “Boy, you only have one problem with what you are doing here. We weren’t that good.” The Cash Estate and Graceland have been very much in support of what we’re doing.
How did you come to work on releasing Sun Record compilations for Shelby Singleton in the ‘70s?
My friend Martin (Hawkins) and I went to (Shelby Singleton Corporation) in 1971. Shelby had worked for Mercury, and Philips Records (in the U.K.) was the parent company of Mercury. Shelby had done a deal with Philips to issue the Sun titles that he put out (on Sun in the U.S.) including “Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hit,” “Jerry Lewis’ Greatest Hits,” and “Carl Perkins’ Greatest Hits.”
Then Shelby ran out of things to put out. But Philips, I guess, had paid Shelby a bunch of money and wanted to get some of it back. Martin and I appeared on the doorstep and said, “Let us put out some compilations.” Armed with a credential (from working with Philips) from London, we went into Shelby’s tape vault, started rooting through it, and pulling stuff out. Shelby had no interest in putting it all out, but he was surprised—I think that everybody was surprised, Philips and Shelby both—by the kind of latent, pent-up demand for rockabilly music in England that there was (in the ‘70s).
[Texan Shelby Singleton was a legendary musical figure in American musical history. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea, he was hired on at Mercury Records as a promotion rep in 1956. In all, he spent nine years at Mercury, and its subsidiary label Smash, eventually becoming an A&R executive, and record producer there. In 1961, Singleton scored his first big hit with Brook Benton's recording of "The Boll Weevil Song,” which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He went on to produce big hits for Roger Miller, Ray Stevens, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Dave Dudley, and Leroy Van Dyke.
In 1966, Singleton left Mercury and launched SSS International, and Plantation Records. His production of Jeannie C. Riley’s "Harper Valley P.T.A.” hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1968. In all, the free-wheeling Singleton operated 15 labels under Shelby Singleton Corporation over the next few years.
In 1969, Singleton purchased Sun Records from its founder, Sam Phillips. Singleton immediately launched a reissues program with albums by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Bill Justis, and Carl Perkins. Singleton also licensed the rights of Sun’s blues and rockabilly catalog to Charly Records and Philips Records in the U.K., and to others.]
“The Million Dollar Quartet” recording came out first as a bootleg.
It came out on a bootleg in Europe, and then Charly issued it. I arranged for RCA to put it out. I think that Sam Phillips made copies available to guys that had been there (on the session). (Presley historian) Ernst Jorgensen found Elvis’ copy at Graceland a few years ago. It had a few more minutes than the version that RCA put out in the ‘80s.
On first hearing, the bootleg of “The Million Dollar Quartet,” it was if you were overhearing something very intimate.
There really was a fly-on-the-wall quality to it. It is like a little catechism on the birth of rock and roll—where it came from. Blues, hillbilly, and gospel. Gospel, in particular.
Of course, there was Sam and Jerry Lee Lewis discussing religion.
Well, yes and Sam Phillips sounds like a reasonable person. When Sam is the voice of reason….
[As a result of a search of the Sun catalogue after the purchase by Singleton, a portion of the The Million Dollar Quartet session came to light. This was issued in Europe in 1981 as “The Million Dollar Quartet” on Charly/Sun with 17 tracks.
Several years later, additional material was discovered. This led to the release of the two LP set “The Complete Million Dollar Session” by Charly/Sun in 1987. In 1990, RCA released “Elvis Presley—The Million Dollar Quartet” with sleeve notes written by Colin Escott.
A 50th anniversary issue of the session was released by RCA in 2006, containing approximately 12 minutes of previously unavailable material. The source of the recording was a copy of the session owned by Elvis Presley.
"We found three reels,” notes archivist Ernst Jorgensen. "You could always argue that there were more. But in the first you can hear Elvis arriving and in the last you can hear him leaving. I doubt that there are more."]
Before Jorgensen was hired in 1991, from his post as managing director for BMG Europe, RCA had treated Elvis Presley's recording catalog poorly. After his death in 1977, Presley’s work had been haphazardly released in various uneven packages.
After Jorgensen was put in charge of organizing Presley reissues, a series of remarkable box sets were released that covered his studio and film music career.
When the RCA catalog came under Sony Music's Legacy Recordings division after the 2004 merger of the companies, Jorgensen oversaw "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters," a 30-CD set of all 711 master recordings issued during Presley's lifetime, in the order he recorded them.
Three CDs in the boxed set feature more than 100 rarities including alternate takes, live performances, and studio chatter between Elvis and his fellow musicians.]
What condition was the Sun vault in?
Well, part of what made Sam Phillips the genius that he was—and I use “genius” very sparingly, but I think that Sam really was—what made him the kind of wild and intuitive character that he was that he went so much against the grain. That same kind of personality didn’t lend itself to book-keeping. So there would be tape boxes with cryptic notes on them like, “Third cut—best” and no artist name. Obviously, (tapes of) Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins were pretty straight forward, but a lot guys went into Sun to record. Conway Twitty and Charley Pride and a lot of people would send tapes in.
Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service recorded local artists, and he even recorded community events at local hotels.
Exactly. The tape vaults were partly in very good shape. Shelby had gone through and pulled out all of the Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis (recordings) but a lot of the other stuff—the old blues, I don’t think that Shelby had an idea of who a lot of that stuff was, and wouldn’t have cared.
Blues was the basis of what Phillips had done at Sun early on, with artists like Rufus Thomas, Joe Hill Lewis, Little Milton, James Cotton and Little Junior Parker.
You’re right. Of course, he dropped it all very suddenly as soon as Elvis came along. Before at Sun, he recorded R&B and blues for Chess Records, and the Bihari brothers (Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe) for RPM Records, and Modern Records.
You must have got a clear impression of Sun’s day-to-day in the studio from listening to studio chatter on out-takes between Sam and the musicians and others.
There are a few instances of Sam interacting with musicians. In general, Sam was very parsimonious with tape. He wouldn’t turn (the recorder) on until he was pretty sure that something was going to happen. So the conversations were limited. You can hear him every now and then goading the musicians to pull something extra out of themselves. You can hear him on the talk back goading Charlie Rich, in particular, who had a tendency to lay back and pull back. Sam would be on him to put out.
Most of the Sun recordings weren’t country or rock. They were Sun recordings. Period.
Well, I was talking earlier about the genius of Sam Philips, and that’s really it. He just went with what felt good for him, and then he’d put it out. Then he would try to figure out a way to promote, and sell it.
How did Sam’s productions at Sun contrast with his engineer/producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement? Clement seemed to be trying to make something; Phillips was trying to capture something.
Jack admits that he didn’t understand what Sam was all about. He didn’t understand it until years later. Jack was into prettifying music, and didn’t understand why Sam wasn’t. They were both successful in their way. Sam was successful with what he did; and Jack was successful with the productions that he did for Philips.
[At Sun Records, “Cowboy” Jack Clement worked with Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. He recorded—reportedly in one take—Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 breakthrough hit "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Additionally, Clement wrote "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" for Johnny Cash which stayed at #1 on Billboard’s country chart for 10 weeks, and reached #14 on Billboard’s Top 100 pop chart in 1958; and wrote Cash’s hit "Guess Things Happen That Way” which also stayed at #1 on Billboard’s country for eight weeks, and reached # 11 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart the same year.]
You oversaw the 3-CD Time/Life Record set “Johnny Cash: The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958” with 61 songs as well as worked on other Cash-related projects. His output at Sun is often played down. It’s amazing that he was only there for about three years.
Yes, just three years. He got out of the Air Force in 1954, and began recording at the beginning of ’55. His first hit was “Cry Cry Cry” in April of ’55. Then he had “Folsom Prison Blues” at the end of the year, and “I Walk the Line” in ’56. “Folsom Prison Blues” did pretty well. I’m sure that the reaction in Nashville was that they couldn’t understand how anything that primitive, and that sorry-sounding could be a hit. It turned out that Cash knew something that they didn’t.
You won a pair of Grammy Awards for the 1998 boxed set “The Complete Hank Williams” on Mercury Records. That was a breakthrough boxed set.
It was. It was a lot of fun to do. We called it “The Complete” and every time you call something “The Complete” you wake up with chills in the middle of the night thinking, “Did I forget that?” There’s always going to be a guy out there who spots it right away, and (then) shoots holes in your creditability. We checked, double-checked and double-checked again. We really tried to make it with everything that we could. If you take that set, and you take the “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus!” (a 15-CD, 1-DVD Time/Life boxed set) and a few other CDs, you can basically get everything that Hank Williams ever recorded.
[“The Complete Hank Williams” box set collected almost all Hank Williams’ recorded works, from his first recorded track in 1937 to the last session prior to his untimely death in 1952. While a number of live and overdubbed songs are omitted, the 10 CD collection contains 225 tracks, including studio sessions, live performances and demos. Among those tracks are 53 previously unreleased tracks.
In 1999, the compilation—described as the "most elaborate and extensive boxed set in Nashville history” by Chet Flippo in Billboard—won two Grammy Awards, for Best Historical Album, and Best Recording Package—Boxed.
Was the previous unexpected success of Columbia Record’s set, “The Complete Recordings” by Robert Johnson in 1990, helpful in getting the Hank Williams’ project done at Mercury? Did that success lead to major labels to consider releasing more elaborate boxed sets?
I think Shania Twain had something to do with the complete Hank box. It would have been done anyway, but it was done in a deluxe way. It was done by the Nashville branch of PolyGram. (Mercury Nashville president) Luke Lewis was the executive producer. He okayed the budgets, and the budgets were slightly more flush than they might have been because of Shania (and her success).
In 2003 your book with George Merritt and William MacEwen “Hank Williams: The Biography” came out. More recently, there’s been “Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus!”
With all these Hank Williams’ related projects, how close have you become to Williams’ heirs?
The Mother’s Best shows—there was a court ruling that gave the (Williams’) estate those recordings—and I was the one who took the idea of doing (a boxed set of) them to Time/Life. I worked between Time/Life and the estate. I correspond with the estate on a weekly basis.
Who is the estate today?
It’s Jett and Hank Junior.
When you were researching your book, Hank’s sister Irene Williams Smith was still alive. She passed away in 1995.
She was alive, and she was uncooperative. That was really too bad because I’m not sure anyone knows the stories that she could tell.
She didn’t help you at all?
No she didn’t. She was very polite, but she declined. Some might say that she had a lot that she didn’t want to talk about, obviously. There was her cocaine bust, for instance. I promised that I would not talk to her about that because it was not germane to what I wanted to ask her. There were other things about her handling of the estate, and her role in the cover-up of Jett Williams. She knew that those questions were going to come up, and I guess that she didn’t want to answer them.
[Jett Williams is the daughter of Hank Williams, and Bobbie Jett, whose brief relationship occurred between his two marriages. She is a posthumous child; her birth occurred five days after her father's death. She was legally adopted by Hank Williams' mother Lillian Stone in 1954. Lillian renamed her Catherine Yvonne Stone. After Lillian died in 1955, Jett was made a ward of the state of Alabama and subsequently adopted. When she turned 21, Jett's adoptive mother told her there was a rumor she might be the daughter of the legendary Hank Williams. But, she added, there was no proof and nothing she could do.
In 1985 the Alabama State Court ruled that Jett was the daughter of Hank Williams. On Oct. 26, 1987 the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that she was entitled to her half-share in the Williams estate, as she had been the victim of fraud and judicial error. Hank Williams, Jr. appealed the case in federal court, but the ruling stood when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1990.
Jett Williams' 1990 autobiography, "Ain't Nothin' As Sweet As My Baby," chronicles the saga of her struggle to learn, then prove, her paternity.]
“The Complete Mother’s Best Recording” was available on bootlegs in the ‘80s.
It was. I think one of Hank’s musicians had gotten some cassette copies. What was out there was cassette (versions) of cassettes of cassettes. The sound quality was pretty dire. In 1981, the original acetates were copied to tape at the Country Music Hall of Fame (in Nashville). We did a deal with the (Williams’) Estate, and the Country Music Hall of Fame to get access to those tape copies.
You were impressed with the tapes?
They sounded pristine to me. You can hear things in Hank’s voice that you could never hear before—little chest tones, and more depth and resonance than I’ve ever heard in his voice before. These were essentially direct-to-disc-recordings. These were first generation masters.
A recording even out of a label vault is often a copy of the masters—third or fourth generation in some cases.
Exactly. Like Hank’s MGM recordings were done originally to acetate, and then when tape came in (in the music industry), they were copied to tape very expertly. Then those tapes were copied. The MGM recordings, as you say, were often second, third or fourth generation tapes.
The same with the Sterling Records’ sides of Hank Williams.
Yeah. Those were done to acetates in 1946, and MGM bought them in ’48, I think, and then they were copied to tape. Then they were re-channeled into stereo in the ‘70s.
Many estates don’t quite know how to handle master and publishing rights issues and are wary of people taking advantage of them.
Jett Williams has a very, very smart lawyer/husband, Keith Adkinson. So I don’t think that anybody is going to take advantage of Jett Williams. And (Hank) Junior is surrounded by some very smart, and very savvy people. And we are not out to take advantage of them. We are there to work with them, and present Hank’s legacy in a way that is commercially viable and artistically respectful.
You really like the gloomy Hank Williams’ songs, like “The Angel of Death,” “House of Gold,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Weary Blues from Waiting.” What’s their appeal?
There is something very moving about those recordings. You really feel that the guy is staring into the abyss.
What is Hank’s appeal to so many people? When I was growing up I really didn’t think of him being country because his music was played on Top 40 radio.
I related to him first as a blues singer. That's what he seemed like to me. Growing up in England, country music was Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman. Hank Williams was not Jim Reeves. He didn’t belong in that company. To me, it sounded like blues more than anything else, at first.
What part of England are you from?
You grew up collecting records?
Of course. Since I was 11. My first record was a Bill Haley LP with the (title) song “Rock The Joint” (on London Records in the U.K.)
British rock was pretty dire during your early teens.
It was dire. Of course, all of these (British) guys were known quantities, and therefore less intriguing. You got a record by someone like Sonny Burgess who you knew absolutely nothing about; it was far more exotic, and far more intriguing than someone you’d see on Sunday night at the Palladium.
How did you get access to a wide selection of American music? Through specialty record stores?
There were guys who brought it into the country. They would go to the States, and clean out warehouses. There was one guy who used to rent a storefront and he would bring back boxes of records. No one would know what Sonny Burgess or Billy Lee Riley sounded like (beforehand) but he would plug in a record player, and he’d play their records. Then he’d open up a box (of records) and a cluster of hands would be offering him money.
Was he a Ted?
Probably. He was likely trying to support his (own collecting) habit. But there were specialist guys who would bring music in. What would happen, sometimes, is that you would have junk merchants who would buy up stuff in the States. Randomly. It could be records, it could be shoes, or whatever. Then they would sell it down in the east end of London in a market stall. Sometimes, you would be walking through the east end of London, and there would be a market stall with a whole bunch of King Record LPs for 19 shillings or whatever.
You worked for Philips Records in the U.K. before coming to North America?
Yeah. Just freelancing, (doing) A&R for reissues. Later, I worked for PolyGram in Canada, in the Polydor (division). It was more in logistics, like allocating pressing capacity, and that kind of thing.
Why go to Canada?
I wanted to get out of England. At the time, there was something in England called the three day working week that set us back to Dickensian times. It was during winter, and you could only get heat, and lights three days a week.
I worked for One Stop Records in England that was owed some money by a company in Montreal. I came over and the company in England said that there’s another company in Canada that wanted to start up business with them. “Why don’t you check them out?” That was Treble Clef (Treble Clef Distribution) in Ottawa. Treble Clef offered me a job.
(Treble Clef owner) Harvey Glatt called me, and said, “We are expanding. Do you want a job? I was 23, “I said, Yeah, I’ll do it.” I worked for Harvey for awhile. I worked for (his) record label (Posterity Records). I worked on Willie P. Bennett, David Essig—those type of (folk) guys.
You might pick and choose projects but, basically, you’re a freelancer who works on whatever might come in the door.
You began in a sector—writing liner notes, compilations and compiling boxed sets—that few worked in.
There weren’t many when I started. I did the first compilation “Sun Rockabillies” for Philips Records in London in 1971. There certainly weren’t many people doing it then. Not in rock and roll. In jazz and blues, but not rock and roll.
I first bought the series of Sun Record discographies that you compiled with Martin Hawkins while I was in London in the early ‘70s. You two must have been doing those booklets as fans.
Yeah. There’s always been an element of curiosity of who played on Sun Records’ sessions. “Who was the drummer on those Jerry Lee Lewis records?” We just put that (series) out as a service to the 12 people who wanted to know. Martin dropped out of (music) pretty soon after that. He became a manager in the National Health Service. He retired a couple of years ago. He has started to reignite his passion for working with this music again.
Interest in American music was strong in the U.K. in the 60s. Was it because the U.K. didn’t have an in-bred, authentic rock scene so American rock and roll artists like Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins were almost exotic?
Certainly that was part of it, I’m sure. That’s why (American jazz saxophonist/clarinetist) Sidney Bechet was welcomed in the (U.K.) in 1919 or whatever.
Did you see any of the early American rock and rollers when they toured the U.K?
Yes, I saw Jerry Lee Lewis in 1966, and I also saw Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins around then. That was really about it for (American) the rock and rollers who came over (in that period).
What sort of venues was Jerry Lee Lewis playing in the ‘60s in the U.K. after his disgrace there in 1958, at the hands of the British media?
Big theaters. His career had kind of gone down the toilet at home, but not in England. Ironically, London was the scene of his disrobing. That’s where the truth about he and (his cousin) Myra was uncovered in the best traditions of the News of the World. That was in 1958.
In 1962, he came back and he was welcomed with open arms. He came back pretty well every year, playing longer and longer tours to bigger and bigger houses. He did a TV special in England in 1964 (“Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On” filmed for Granada Television on Sept. 30th, 1964 with Little Richard, the Animals and Gene Vincent as well) that we reissued on Time/Life a few years ago. A fabulous TV special.
[In May, 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis arrived in the U.K. for a six week tour. However, at London's Heathrow Airport, Daily News reporter Paul Tanfield spotted Lewis's third wife, Myra Gale Brown, said by Lewis to be 15. The headlines the next day were not good for Lewis. They got much worse when it was discovered that Myra Lewis was only 13, and is Lewis' first cousin once removed. Lewis was 22. The publicity caused an uproar, and the tour was cancelled after only three chaotic concerts. The scandal followed Lewis home to America, where his recordings were blacklisted in radio.]
How do you pick what projects to work on?
Very often, they will pick me. Somebody will call and ask if I want to do this or that. I like a lot of music. A lot of people pigeon hole themselves into one era or one style. I like old vaudeville, British Music Hall, old jazz, really ancient hillbilly music, calypso, all kinds of stuff.
What ties your interest in working on projects on Bobby Charles, Clyde McPhatter and Johnny Brunette?
Oh, usually just the chance to learn something. I bought that “Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘N Roll Trio” record (on Coral Records in 1956) when I was 15 or so, and I probably bought Clyde McPhatter around the same time. These are records that I like, and it’s clear that there is a story there. Nobody has told the Clyde McPhatter story. Nobody has ever really gone into depth about Johnny Burnette or Bobby Charles, come to that. This is like an opportunity to do something like that—and be paid for. These are things that I may well have done on my own recognizance anyway.
You have a long relationship with Bear Family Records in Germany.
It works because I’m prepared to work for next to nothing because I do value what they do. (Founder) Richard Weize, okays or does projects that literally nobody else would dream of doing. He has just made so much music available to us—us being the record caring public—that we would never have heard of otherwise. He has found a way to issue such music in the deluxe way that it deserves.
[Among the artists who have been the subject of extensive boxed set releases by Bear Family since 1975 have been: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Dean Martin, Bill Haley & His Comets, Louis Jordan, the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, Ann-Margret, Pat Boone, Frankie Laine, Petula Clark, Burl Ives, the Carter Family, Fats Domino, Rosemary Clooney, Connie Francis, Lesley Gore, Ricky Nelson, Nat King Cole, Gene Autry, Slim Whitman, the Orioles, Rod McKuen, Lonnie Donegan, Del Shannon, Neil Sedaka Gene Vincent, Jim Reeves, and Doris Day].
Bear Family is astonishing.
It is. Richard has found a way to do these deluxe packages and make up for losses in other ways. He’s got his mail-order operation, and there are other sides to his business. He’s always been very single-minded that this is what he was put here to do. Like Hank Snow, Richard reissued everything that he did.
Has the internet made releasing physical versions of reissues less appealing for the major labels? Online releases are obviously cheaper to do.
There’s a multi-part answer to that. Yes, in theory, it is cheaper to dump music out online; but there is such a plethora of (releases) that if you are a consumer, where do you begin? And isn’t there a value in buying a package that someone has selected the repertoire—tells you something about what you are listening to—and gives you a bit of background and some photos? Gives you some added value that way. I don’t feel that what Bear Family does has been obviated by the internet at all. In many ways, the internet has made what Bear Family does even more valuable. The repertoire isn’t just being puked out there, online.
Working with a lesser staff force than years ago, it’s difficult for major labels to take on archival projects that might not sell well.
The music business is in a very strange state right now. The major problem has been the shrinkage of retail space. That’s what has devastated us I think.
You obviously still feel that there is still a thirst out there for knowledge about music.
The same kind of thirst that got me going back in the ‘60s is still there. If we wanted to know about Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1963, there weren’t many places to go. Now there are. At the same time, if you want Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, do you really want RCA to pitch everything that they have out online? Or do you want someone who knows what they are doing to pick out 12, 14 or 16 tracks that represent Arthur Crudup, and then tell you a little bit about him, and his fight to get the money that was due him; and get some photos and all that kind of stuff? Isn’t it better that way, than downloading everything that Arthur Crudup did?
In what conditions are the vaults of the major labels, in general?
The vaults are temperature controlled. All tapes from the late ‘40s, and '50s are generally in very good shape and hold their sound very well. Tapes from the ‘60s and ‘70s tend to get sticky when baking. But with guys who know what they are doing, they can still sound pretty extraordinary with guys like Bob Irwin at Sundazed Records (which has issued archival recordings of the Turtles, the Challengers, Liverpool Five, the Knickerbockers, the Five Americans, and Jan and Dean).
What I have found is that, with a judicious application of sound restoration technology, and with the improvement in mastering in the past 20 or 30 years, that restored masters can sound better than ever. They can sound quite astonishing. I did a series for RCA called “When The Sun Goes Down” (inaugurated in 2002), and used blues recordings from the 20s, 30s and 40s, and they sounded terrific.
What are you working on?
I’m doing a 3-CD set for Time/Life on Hank Williams that includes his very first recording from 1938 “Fan It” (originally recorded by Frankie Half Pint Jaxon in 1928) when Hank was 15 years old. That is going to come out in September (2011). I am also doing a series for Richard Weize, a year by year country music series. We started in 1945, and we’re doing the next batch of those, taking us to 1965. That has been fascinating to do. I am a fount of useless knowledge, and this series has been a way of channeling that knowledge into something productive... a revisionist history of country music.
When did you move to the U.S.
You live outside Nashville?
I live about an hour south in Pulaski, on 35 acres with an old Victorian farmhouse that I could afford.
You have moved several times. Have you sold off your vinyl?
No. Vinyl sort of suits my attention span. I like 15 to 18 minutes. That’s all I want to hear by one artist at one time. My collection, however, is really not extensive.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”