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Interview: So What Management's Lisa Barbaris

Interview: So What Management’s Lisa Barbaris

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This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Lisa Barbaris, president, So What Management.

So, how resourceful is New York-based manager Lisa Barbaris?

Resourceful enough to navigate the twists and turns of managing two decades of Cyndi Lauper’s career.

The beautiful thing is that Barbaris understands Lauper’s talent, idiosyncrasies, and plucky, radiant image, and works with it all. Therefore a “Kinky Boots” and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” star like Lauper isn’t primarily a singer nor a songwriter nor an actress, but an international cultural presence.

Along the way, Barbaris–this great cultural gatekeeper–has assembled about the best management roster around. Not only overseeing Lauper’s ever-exploding career, but also managing Atlantic Records’ Nikki Vianna, and former Pwr Bttm co-founder Ben Hopkins, and the musical side of actor/singer Billy Porter.

Barbaris started her career as a publicist at Morton Dennis Wax and Associates in New York, before moving onto the publicity department of Elektra Records in 1985, where she worked with Metallica, Teddy Pendergrass, Mötley Crüe, Natalie Merchant, Simply Red, Anita Baker and others. In 1990, she jumped over to Geffen Records as director of publicity, looking after XTC, Cher, Don Henley, Aerosmith, the Sundays, among others. Her last label position was as the head of the press department for Atco/EastWest/Atlantic Records.

In 1996, Barbaris opened So What Media and Management, a boutique publicity and artist management shop that represented the likes of Simply Red, Craig David, and Brand New Heavies. Two years later, So What transitioned to being solely a management company and handled Lauper, the Mooney Suzuki, the Spence Sisters, and Vivian Green.

In 2008, Barbaris, with Lauper and Jonny Podell co-founded the charity organization the True Colors Fund, later renamed True Colors United, and she served as the first Board of Directors president until 2015.

Today, True Colors United works at federal, state, and local levels to ensure funding, policies, systems, and protections are in place to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. It also collaborates with communities and service providers to ensure homeless LGBTQ youth have access to the services they need. It also develops and implements systems at the community level to prevent youth homelessness, while trying to ensure that any homelessness experienced is rare, brief, and one-time.

Managing such spirited artists as Cyndi Lauper, Billy Porter, Nikki Vianna, and Ben Hopkins, how do you tell the truth to these artists when they may not want to hear the truth?

I only tell the truth to my artists. Always.

You don’t have contracts?

Nope because I don’t want to… Cyndi and I, we have blowouts sometimes. We absolutely have blowouts.

People that have worked with Cyndi describe her as being mercurial.

Look, Cyndi doesn’t like bullshit, right, and she smells it, sees it, whatever. But I worked with (manager) Elliot Rashmen and Simply Red, the managers that I admired were managers that I saw that didn’t try to be friends with their artists. They tried to be messengers. They didn’t try to be liked by their artists. Whatever their artist’s vision, they were going to go through heaven and hell to make sure that it happened, and try to not let them make bad decisions. But if your artist won’t let you manage them, what’s the point? They don’t need you.

A good thing about being Cyndi’s manager for 20 years is that I was her publicist before that, and I know exactly what she wants. I don’t need her to tell me. And she trusts me because I’ve always had her backend. Whatever she wanted, I was then able to help her make it happen.

Do you treat all your clients in the same manner?

All my artists I treat the same as Cyndi. I am the guy who tells them, “You want the bad news first or second?” Maybe, somebody wants it second, but I always say, “This is why you can’t do this right now.” Ultimately, they make their own decision, but I always come with bad news. I never go, “Can you tell Cyndi that?” Never. I know managers that do that. I have had that done to me when I wasn’t the manager. “Can you tell her? Can you tell him?” Why would you want someone else to go to the artist? It’s like it’s your kid. Not your kid, but the same kind of relationship. You have to be able to make the not fun decisions. That is what being a good manager is. I guess I don’t attract those kinds of artists either.

There are a handful of music managers that have had long-term relationships with their artists including the late Elliot Roberts with Neil Young, Shep Gordon with Alice Cooper, Punch Andrews with Bob Seger, Jon Landau with Bruce Springsteen, and Q Prime Management’s Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch working with Metallica.

es. I modeled the way I wanted to manager be after a handful of people like Daniel Markus and Shep Gordan, and the Q Prime guys, Cliff and Pete, I did press for Mettalica in their very early days. Simply Red had a U.S. manager Pamela Burton, and she was amazing, but she was the only female manager I met in those years.

There was a handful of female managers including Mary Martin (Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison), Marcia Day (Seals & Croft), Susan Joseph (Laura Branigan) and, of course, Sharon Osbourne with Ozzy and, at various times, Gary Moore, the Smashing Pumpkins, Motörhead, and Lita Ford.

(Laughing) There were no female managers that I worked with. I modeled myself on a few managers that I worked with. “Well, that’s the type of manager that I want to be” because I saw other kinds too.

Mike Myers’ 2013 documentary, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” finally put the spotlight on Shep Gordon who continues to manage Alice Cooper from 1968 to this day without a contract. Over the years, he has also represented Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray, Blondie, Luther Vandross, Burton Cummings, the Pointer Sisters, Yvonne Elliman, and so many others.

With Shep, it was like, “Go do your job.” Steve Barnett (with Cheap Trick, AC/DC and Foreigner), he was a really good manager. All of those guys, when I was represented their different artists it wasn’t that I’d never hear from them, but I only heard from them if they didn’t think that I was doing a good job. But I always did a good job. I hear that this or that manager is a hard ass. They were great to me. I don’t think that there’s a manager that I didn’t work well with. As long as you do your job. That is all they want, and then they leave you alone, versus they tell you how to do your job.

I interviewed Steve Barnett, now the Chairman and CEO of Capitol Music Group, onstage at Canadian Music Week in Toronto a few years ago. Halfway through the interview, I wanted to punch him because he was so obnoxious.

A lot of people say that, but Barnett was good to me. A straight-shooter. He gave me a lot of space to do my job. He’s a good boss. You have no problem working with Steve unless you don’t do your job. He lets you do it. He’s a great guy.

I don’t usually ask this, but given your vast industry experience, I will. How old are you?

I’m 57.

You and I have each have been in the music industry wars for decades.

Everybody is nostalgic, but I loved the ‘80s and the early ‘90s in the music business. It was just so much fun. It was so much fun, and the characters.

Working in that era in A&R, publicity, or radio promotion at a label, you had to know what was happening on the street. You had to know everybody else’s records. Today, you have to silo down to discover new music. You have to continually check out the streaming, Instagram, and YouTube platforms, and varied radio formats. I look over the top Spotify tracks today, and I often won’t recognize many of the tracks or even the artists. I’m constantly updating myself with what’s new.

It’s unfortunate too the way some of the younger kids at labels work. Back in the day, it was about the big picture stuff, and now it’s what’s today, today, today? They (managers) try to get a long plan, and it’s just not that kind of thought at the labels anymore. It’s not that, “We want to get to here, and how do we get there?” It’s just, “How do we get the ball over the fence?”

The music industry has somewhat returned to the 1950s when the release strategy was the hit, the flip, the follow-up, another hit, and the flip, and then the label threw all of the tracks onto an album. That’s kind of where we are today.

Do you remember, “Oh, the third single is going to be it. It’s the hit.” Now if you don’t hear that the first record is not the hit, then there’s not going to be a second one. It’s a little hard because with Nikki I‘m like OG, like in the old days where you held the hit, and now you lead with the hit.

But that’s only true for radio artists.  Lead with the hit versus making them wait for the hit.  We used to make them wait for the hit so they (people) bought the album.  But that’s not how it is now.  If you are a superstar act you lead with the hit  If you are a new artist you put out a lot of songs to grow your audience. And once your audience is big enough, the label brings you to radio. For me that approach devalues songs.  I mean songs are magic.  How did they become content?

I understand both strategies. One is about having that immediate hit, the other is building a lasting career.

Yeah, but OG we can pivot. We know how to pivot. You can even see with the COVID-19 pandemic, because the plans are so short, and not long, that you have to pull records back, and you have to do this, and you have to do other things. It’s very interesting that they had a long term plan for the Weeknd, and it came to fruition. So when you have a tour that is going to happen, this is going to happen, and this, and that happens.  And if it doesn’t happen in that way, you don’t have a Plan B. You only have Plan A.

The Weeknd, (aka Canadian singer/multi-instrumentalist Abel Makkonen Tesfaye), his latest effort “After Hours” which topped the album charts, showed maturity in its sound and subject matter.

I love that record. It is such a great record. That record… I just think that is the best album he’s ever made. That’s the best album that has come out. Every single track is good. The other thing too (today) is what is the album? You put out lots of songs and, then at some point, if you are successful with enough songs, it’s an album. It’s great stuff, and it’s just a great record. He’s an interesting artist. I’ve seen him live a few times, and I’m like “Okay,” you know, but he makes these incredible records.

Back in the day artists ran a hamster wheel throughout their careers with endless demands for releases, and touring.

Oh yeah.

Releasing singles and only then touring, and the label largely dictated if and when artists toured because they either fronted tour support or controlled the release dates. Today, the agent, manager, and artist tell the label when a tour will happen.

Oh yeah. And it’s all about that if you don’t tour, then they don’t have anything to bite on. Then you can’t tour, and if you don’t sell or you don’t have traction, then how can you tour? Before you always toured when you had records. That is how people knew that you were alive because you could pull an audience. Not always, but most times. That’s how a buzz started about a band or an artist. It’s really expensive to tour now, and it is also harder because a lot of the clubs are gone. Solo, it’s not as easy to tour either.

The ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s were different for sure.

With (New York garage rock band), the Mooney Suzuki, there were a million places to play. They made a lot money on the road. We didn’t need the label. We wanted a label. We wanted to have hits. And they made great records that were not ever prioritized at Columbia. We were fighting against a band that Don Ienner’s son had signed to the label at the time in a similar space. A garage rock band. It was about getting them placements, and making this or that happen. They were all over the Osbourne’s TV show, the music. They had a huge placement in the Jack Black film (“School of Rock” in 2003). He was a big fan who did the band’s video. We had Kings of Leon tours. They were on the road all of the time making money, and they never released a single. Ever.

How do you balance all of Cyndi’s agency contacts for theatre, TV, and live events?

We just switched from ICM to William Morris Endeavor (WME). Sam Kirby is our main person but she has a whole team there. TV is Richard Weitz. Marsha Vlasic (at AGI / Artist Group International) still represents Cyndi in North America for touring.

Cyndi is a multi-media artist, but her music career has had incredible highs, and incredible lows.

With Cyndi, it’s interesting because Cyndi was having a hard time in music a decade ago. The last Sony record (“Bring Ya to the Brink” in 2008, featuring collaborations with Basement Jaxx, Richard Morel, Max Martin, and Kleerup) was a dance record. The plan was for her to break out of Europe, and then they’d work the record here (in the U.S.), and all this nonsense. I go to the UK company and Craig Logan, (managing dir. of the RCA Label Group) who had been in a boy band  (Bros) in the UK. I went to see him because he was the one supposedly working the record, and he said to me, “This place is not for you.” Off the record, you know. He said, “I have my priorities from the U.S. company,” and he flips a piece of paper over, and Cyndi’s name was like buried in it. It wasn’t even him. They wanted him to work the Beyoncé record or whatever. The U.S. side was telling me “We are going to break her out of Europe.” I go to the Europeans and they are like, “They didn’t tell us that.”

To support “Bring Ya to the Brink” outside North America, Cyndi took the Bring Ya to the Brink World Tour to Australia, Japan, Europe, and South America in 2008. She toured America that summer to support the album but under a True Colors 2008 billing. The album proved to be Cyndi’s last for Epic Records, her label since her 1983 debut solo album, “She’s So Unusual.”

I had good enough relationships with the people there that I was able to get her off (the label). Cyndi had lots of other ideas. She wanted to write a memoir. She had opportunities. “Kinky Boots” came up. We did a reality show (“Still So Unusual”)  with Mark Burnett, not necessarily to do a reality show, but we understood about how we didn’t have access (to her fans). We didn’t have a label supporting us. So how were we going to get to her fans? We would tour, and see people and they didn’t even know that she had new music out. So, “How are we going to tell people that you have this Broadway show? How do we tell people that you have a memoir coming out?” And we have this TV show, “Still So Unusual.” And that was how we were going to tell her fans. It wasn’t a very successful TV show, but that was our motivation for doing it. If you ever have the pain and suffering to watch it, just know we were trying to let people know about her.

(Filmed in 2012, “Still So Unusual” was to take viewers on “an all-access journey” into the personal and professional life of “one of pop culture’s most beloved and influential icons as she juggles her roles as rock star, mother, wife, Broadway composer, and philanthropist”…..It showed Cyndi’s family life with her husband, actor David Thornton, and their teenaged son, Declyn. “She may be constantly running to keep up, but Cyndi’s true colors show equally at a glamorous photoshoot and while cheering on Declyn at a hockey game.”)

Mark Burnett is obviously a great TV guy, but when we were making that TV show I think it was in the middle of when he was doing “The Bible” (miniseries). It was like the Mark Burnett team took their eyes off of the show because they had sold it to WE tv (owned and operated by AMC Networks Inc.) who were going to make it. WE tv, at the time, wasn’t a reality show network; they had “The Golden Girls.” It was a rerun station. Cyndi was going to be the crown jewel of this new (TV) brand of “”Women, women, women.” The thing was, “We have this ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ woman who performed the women’s empowerment song,” and that she was going to be the star of this network. Then when we were taping the show WE tv blew out everybody there and brought in this new team. And they were like, “We want more family (situations).” The show we sold to WE tv was about a day in her life.

Cyndi can be hysterically funny.

She’s like Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball was a real person in that “I Love Lucy” show, and funny things happened around her, and she’s funny. If you watched Cyndi recently do a thing for Joe Biden for LGBTQ live, things go wrong. She always has such pluck. She always turns lemons into lemonade. That was the premise of the show. Our kids were part of the show, but the new network people wanted even more family. It was a hard time, and our families didn’t want anything to do with that. We were trying to make two different parties happy, and in the end, the show didn’t feel right, and we didn’t want to do it again because it wasn’t what we hoped it would be. It’s not very good.

Meanwhile, Cyndi was arguably the main attraction of Mark Burnett’s 2010  “The Celebrity Apprentice” though she was sent home. She was in the losing team led by actress Holly Robinson Peete who failed to impress in the decorating challenge against Sharon Osbourne’s team. The task was to decorate an apartment within a day and one room should have a celebrity theme. The team lost, and Cyndi and Holly went at each other. At one point earlier, Cyndi called Holly “a bitch” in the boardroom. Still, Cyndi’s appearance gave her enormous visibility in her career.

(“I think I set a record for most times being called a bitch in the history of television,” Holly Robinson Peete has since said. “I think people were put off by my aggressive demeanor, trying to win money for my charity… You’d have thought I’d caused the damn oil spill in the Gulf. People were like, ‘How dare you!’ I heard from gay men who said, ‘I came out to ‘True Colors.’ I heard everything.”)

Well, do you know how that (“Celebrity Apprentice”) happened? We had already done our deal with Mark Burnett before, with Chili Scot Cru who is one of Burnett’s guys (executive in charge, international at Mark Burnett Productions). He was like, “Mark and I have this idea. We are going to bounce your show off of ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’ Cyndi should do ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ and when the last show of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ ends, we will put her show up on WE tv.” I said, “There’s no fucking way that she’s doing ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” And he said to me, “Have you ever watched ‘Celebrity Apprentice?’ I said, “No, I’ve never watched it.” He sent me a couple of episodes of the show. At the time with the True Colors Fund, Cyndi and I were keeping it alive by, “Have a tarot card reading with Cyndi Lauper.” “Do a vocal lesson with Cyndi Lauper.” “Have Dinner with Cyndi Lauper,” and “Bowl with Cyndi Lauper.” We were raising small amounts of money but keeping the foundation running. We were just a little tiny foundation but we were doing really good things. Mark and Chili said to me, “You can make your nut and, maybe, even more, and you can get out in the world, and let people know about True Colors (Fund) and what it does. Why wouldn’t you want to take that opportunity?” That is really why she did it. She could launch True Colors (Fund) or at least keep it going instead of how we were doing it with the VIP experience with Cyndi, which was painful. So that’s why we did it. She wasn’t very good at it.

I disagree. I thought her segments were entertaining, particularly the run-ins with Holly Robinson Peete.

Cyndi would call me, and Holly Robinson Peete was always throwing her under the bus. She has a son (Rodney Jr.) who has autism and she was playing for her own charity, (The HollyRod Foundation). I said to Cyndi, “You have to do to her what she is doing to you.” Basically, be mean. You know that Cyndi failed in high school too.

(Cyndi grew up in the working-class Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens. Her father left the family when she was 10, and her mother remarried a man described as a “violent bully.” She left home when she was only 17. “When I was a kid, I dressed differently, so people threw rocks at me,” Cyndi told The Times in 2008.)

She was the odd girl out, always being treated badly by the popular girls. She said, “I feel like I’m in high school again.” Then be the mean girl. Cyndi said, “Yeah, but I think about her baby, and how could I do that? I’d be duplicitous. I would be mean when she’s trying to save her son? I am not going to do mean.” So she never really played the game mean which you kind of have to do in that show to win.

You must have a Donald Trump story.

So Cyndi is doing a shoot with the celebs on the show, and Donald Trump comes up to me and says, “Cyndi shouldn’t really play for those (LGBTQ) people because if she wants to win, she has to play for a more sympathetic group. Why don’t you play for Pediatric Cancer?” I’m like, “Well we are here because of that LGBTQ group. That is why we are here. Not to be on a XXXXing reality show. We are here for those people. But thank you.” But no thank you.

“Kinky Boots,”  the Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Cyndi and book by Harvey Fierstein, was Cyndi’s first outing as a Broadway songwriter. Cyndi had some Broadway experience, having performed on in the 2006 Roundabout Theatre Company production of “The Threepenny Opera.” With “Kinky Boots” she became the first woman to win a Tony alone in the score category.

From what I understand director Jerry Mitchell knew that Harvey and Cyndi were friends, and he thought they’d make a good team to create the musical. Harvey approached Cyndi to write the songs because he “saw in the adaptation an opportunity to work with someone with a big musical range, somebody who could write club music, along with show tunes.” So Cyndi joined the creative team in June 2010. While she had limited Broadway experience, you had zero Broadway experience.

That is why we were so good at it. We didn’t know to be afraid. It was a game. Write songs? She can write songs. She loves Broadway. When she was a little girl her mom was a big Broadway person. They didn’t have money to go to shows but she bought the soundtracks. Cyndi’s first performances were playing every part of every Broadway show for her mom, and her siblings.

(The original production of “Kinky Boots,” based on the 2005 British film “Kinky Boots” written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, premiered at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago in Oct. 2012. It made its Broadway debut at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on April 4, 2013, following previews that began on March 3, 2013, and ended on April 7, 2019. The production earned a season-high 13 nominations, and 6 Tony wins, including best musical, best actor for Billy Porter, and best score for Cyndi. “Kinky Boots” made its London’s West End debut in 2015,  and the next year, it won three Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical.)

And why not work with Harvey Fierstein who had won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his own “Torch Song Trilogy” about a gay drag performer and a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for playing Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray?” He also wrote the book for the 1983 Broadway production of “La Cage aux Follies,” for which he won a Tony. Not too shabby.

And Harvey is her buddy. And Jerry Mitchell, she knew from The Gay Games. He had worked with her on her performance. So it was like, “Oh my buddies.” We didn’t know to be afraid if the show wasn’t successful.” It was just being naïve. We went in, and said, “This is fine. We need to get away from the music business.”

Obviously, Cyndi saw the movie before committing?

She saw the movie. Loved the shoes. Drag queens. What are you talking about? She loved it. And we had Harvey and these wonderful Broadway producers. We had this great support. We just didn’t know how hard it is. The show opens, and it’s a huge success. Of course, it is. We were like, “No. This doesn’t happen.”

The Broadway production swept the Tony Awards in 2013 with 11 nominations, and 6 wins.

The great thing about that was I always said that Cyndi is like the Rodney Dangerfield of the music business. I have never understood why people didn’t get it. When I was shopping her one time with a younger A&R guy, and she was playing with Cher at The Gardens–Cyndi is a masterful performer. I have seen her a million times and I still watch every show because every show is different. She’s funny, and she sings her freaking ass off–So this A&R guy is watching the show, and he says, “I didn’t know that Cyndi Lauper can sing.” I said, “What the fuck?” I am like, “You didn’t know that Cyndi Lauper can sing or you didn’t know Cyndi Lauper?” I was like, “Oh, my God.” So (with “Kinky Boots”) we were just so happy to not be in the music business. The weird thing was it was like having a boyfriend. You break up with them, and then you get a cute boyfriend, and it’s like, “I kind of liked her.” What happened was that “Kinky Boots” turned the industry around for Cyndi. She got the Songwriter Hall of Fame award (in 2015) not for her work for “Kinky Boots,” but her overall work. People didn’t recognize her as a songwriter until Broadway did.

How far along is her next Broadway project, “Working Girl?” I understand that librettist and screenwriter Bridget Carpenter (“Friday Night Lights”) and Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (“Come From Away”) have joined the creative team of this in-development musical adaptation of the 1988 film of the same name. Is an out-of-town developmental production still being considered for the 2021-2022 season?

You never know with Broadway. It could happen later or sooner  I have asked the producers, but there’s no answer yet. They are still writing. Bridget is working on a book, and Cyndi is working on songs. Cyndi is always busy. We always have stuff that we are doing. So now that we are all on lock-down, she’s just writing every day. It’s clipping along.

Last year, Dana Goldberg and Bill Bost at Sykydance sold a sitcom to Netflix to co-star Cyndi and Jane Lynch. What’s happening with it?

Yes, we are on Netflix, but again because of the COVID-19 pandemic, things are start and stop.. They are about to open a writing room for the show and once that happens, we are off to the races.

Explain to me why Cyndi decided to settle a copyright infringement suit filed by Benny Mardones, and his writing partner Robert Tepper. They accused her of lifting parts of their song “Into the Night” for “Raise You Up,” the finale of “Kinky Boots.” Their song is unusual for being one of only 10 recordings to ascend to the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart twice–in 1980 and 1989 with two similar but separate recordings. Cyndi denied that any copyright infringement took place, and I fail to see any comparison with “Raise You Up.” So what happened?

Cyndi consumes music like no people do to be honest. She’s not really in touch with pop culture. She likes what she likes, and she find what she likes. She’s very eclectic. She didn’t know their song. She really didn’t. She just didn’t know it. Cyndi was like, “I was in Europe on tour when that record was big there. I don’t really listen to radio on tour. I would go to radio stations (for interviews) and was there a chance) of hearing it)?” I guess there was a chance, but she honestly did not know the song. An attorney said to me, “Any time you have a hit that’s how big your hit is when these things come out of the woodwork.”

Any issues of this nature previously with Cyndi?


The thing that sucks is that artists and songwriters sometimes pay claims because they may consider it a nuisance suit. They feel the accuser isn’t going to win, but some jury could find against them. Who knows? You take just about any song, and you may find issues. There are only so many notes and chords. The bottom line is that fighting an infringement suit is expensive. The artist or songwriter being sued just wants the lawsuit to go away.

I can’t comment.

Billy Porter is incredibly busy. He recently covered Stephen Stills’ beloved Buffalo Springfield hit “For What It’s Worth” and he has a memoir and a children’s book planned, and he’s writing scripts. He plays the Fairy Godmother in the upcoming “Cinderella” film remake. His work was completed before production was shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also set to voice Audrey II, the talking man-eating plant, in director Greg Berlanti’s remake of “Little Shop of Horrors.” This guy is busy.

Billy has more stuff than you can imagine. He’s developing a new show for Broadway. He has a memoir. He is supposed to be doing three movies this year, and finish (the FX show) “Pose.” “Cinderella” is done. “Little Shop Of Horrors” is supposed to start in August after “Pose.” But I don’t manage that side of Billy.

What aspect of Billy’s career do you manage?

I’m music. I’m the music manager. I have only known Billy from the first table reading of “Kinky Boots.” He wasn’t even in the cast yet. I went to Chicago when the show opened there, and we all went out. We went to a karaoke club, and Billy went up and sang. Cyndi and I were watching him, and she said, “Why doesn’t he have a record deal?”

Billy had recorded albums for DV8/A&M Records, and Sh-K-Boom Records.

He didn’t have a deal at that time. So he came off stage, and he said, “You can go ahead. If you can get me a deal, great. But If I don’t get a deal, the record business I’ve been there, and I’ve done that. I’ve disposed of that.” Billy, you have to remember that when his first album came out (“Billy Porter” on DV8/A&M Records in 1997) that Billy has never not been Billy. And black radio rejected playing a very out gay man. He had no love at black radio because AC wasn’t like that back then. He was making R&B records. He wasn’t making pop records. Black radio said “No” to a gay guy which is funny because we are working this record (“For What It’s Worth”) now at Urban AC. We are working it independently. Urban One loves the record. They are doing all this stuff with it. People caught up to Billy. Billy has always been Billy Porter. He’s always been brilliant.

Often, whatever is out on the fringes moves to the center as people recognize what it is.  Billy didn’t move to a general audience, it moved to him.

It took the business a long time on the music side. It was because he had “Pose” basically, and “Pose” led to the fashion stuff. Now people care about what Billy Porter has to say. But, as I said, Billy has always been Billy. He hasn’t changed a bit. I’m just so glad that the world caught up because he is one of the great ones.

Billy’s video of  “For What It’s Worth” is quite compelling.

“For What It’s Worth” we put out because Billy wanted to get people out to vote. He read about black people being rolled off the voting lists, and what was happening in Georgia and the Supreme Court decision. Billy was like, “I am a platform.” Also LGBTQ folks with the 2016 election, only 48% of LGBTQ people voted. He’s like  “We are the most disenfranchised, why aren’t we fucking voting?” So he really recorded the song because he was going to do something at the DNC, and he was like, “I going to have a chance this summer to remind people to get out and register to vote.” It was that pure of an idea. We put it out through The Orchard, and we were lining up with some voter registration folks, and we were going to do some pop-up voter registration stuff in Harlem, and do all of these things. Then the virus happened so we’ve had to suspend that for a moment, but his goal was to get people to vote. We got the song to the Biden campaign and Billy recently performed for the Bidens. Steven Stills has been unbelievable with the rights. He gave us a gratis license to give to the Bidens.

(Stephen Stills on Billy Porter’s version of “For What It’s Worth”: “For many years, no one tried to ‘make it theirs’ as covers are supposed to do. That an artist of Billy’s caliber has chosen to add his flourish to my song from so many years ago is totally in keeping with what I intended.”)

You’ve done a deal for Billy with Wendy Goldstein, president of West Coast creative, Republic Records.

We are going to make this record with Wendy, and the Republic folks. Wendy and I worked together with Sylvia Rhone at East West Records So this is like home for me, and Wendy makes great records. The great thing about Billy is that this is the beginning. It’s not that he’s too old for radio. It’s like this is great. He’s going to be all over the radio.

The 2020 Academy Awards in February opened with Janelle Monae walking onto a re-created “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” set, changing into a red sweater and singing, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Then she threw it off to join with Billy — decked out in a floor-length gold coat and red satin jumpsuit — singing “I’m Still Standing.” Just an incredible moment.

Billy is just another person who is insane live. Just insane. One of the things that is great about theatre folks is that Broadway people, they are a tough bunch. Eight shows a week. Everybody has to show up. They don’t take audiences for granted. It’s different. It’s not, “It’s not my fans.” It’s a different kind of relationship. It’s more caring in a way. And they have to do it (perform) 8 times a week. Whether they’ve had a bad day or a fight with their spouse or whatever they have to get on stage every night and twice some nights.

Let’s talk about your support, and now management of Ben Hopkins, formerly of the provocative queer punk duo Pwr Bttm which formed in 2013 at Bard College by Ben, and Liv Bruce.

You had questioned the speed with which Salty Artist Management, as well as the distributor Polyvinyl Records, their U.S label Father/Daughter Records, and UK label Big Scary Monsters Recordings dropped the duo following sexual assault allegations made against Ben.

As well, several bands including Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, T-Rextasy, Ratboys, Iji, and Tancred scheduled to join Pwr Bttm on their summer 2017 tour pulled out of their shows.

The duo’s debut album, “Ugly Cherries,” was released in 2015. Then two days before the release of their second studio album, “Pageant,” Ben was anonymously accused of sexual assault on Facebook. On May 10, 2017, a Facebook user going by the name Kitty Cordero-Kolin posted to the private group, DIY Chicago Facebook group informing members that Ben Hopkins is a “known sexual predator,” and had allegedly witnessed Ben initiated unwanted sexual contact with people.

The posting quickly destroyed the duo’s career. You were quoted as saying that you found “the impulsive manner the duo was discharged by their management, distributor, and labels to be very troubling.” You further said, “I’ve never seen a label respond in such an irresponsible way in the 30-plus years I’ve been in the music business.”

I was a huge fan of the band. First of all, they were fucking great. They were going to be the first queer band that was going to change everything. Then when I saw the headlines, “Band dropped by manager, label, tour canceled,” I was like, “Wow.” This band who professed all of this safe space, and be who you are and the person is a bad person? I was talking to Marilyn Laverty (founder and president of Shore Fire Media), and it came up, and she said she was Pwr Bttm’s publicist, and she told me the story. I was like, “That’s fucked.” She said, “They are devastated. Will you talk to these two kids.”

What did you find out?  

The crazy thing is It was a D.I.Y. Facebook group, and this woman said, “I have been having sex with Ben, and some of the things that we do I don’t think were consensual.” Ben’s non-binary, but he identifies as queer.

(Ben Hopkins later said, “I don’t even know who this person is. it was anonymous. Every person I’ve had sex with I had consensual sex. I will call every person I’ve ever had sex with and I will find out who it is. This isn’t me.”)

So it’s in this D.I.Y. chat, and there was this other woman who was part of that scene, and she said to this woman, “Let’s talk, privately. Tell me what happened.” They went off. She then goes to Jezebel, and says, “Ben Hopkins is a predator. There is going to be tons of women,” and he’s a serial rapist basically. Meanwhile, the record is about to come out. Now in January of the same year, the same woman of the D.I.Y. scene when they ask “What are your New Year’s Resolutions of 2017?” she says, “Take down Pwr Bttm.” I did a lot of homework before I got involved. She apparently thought Ben was a fake queer. He wasn’t queer enough. This stupid shit that was in this Facebook thing. Then I heard through the business side, “Well they are freaks.” So I said, What the hell s wrong?” “At the very least,” I told Ben and Liv, “I’m going to get your record back.” Polyvinyl Records said, “Whatever.” And the next day Pwr Bttm was dropped. It was all tied to the same thing. The manager worked with the label, and the tour was a label tour. It was on hold. This allegation ruined the band. They all knew Ben, and they didn’t even give Ben a chance. Meanwhile, this D.I.Y. fan thing has gone. All these people involved have moved on with their lives, and Ben’s was over

Is Pwr Bttm anymore?

Basically, Ben just shut down. It took me a while to get that record “Pageant” back because it takes time. You have to negotiate. Meanwhile, the world moves on. So I finally got “Pageant” back, and then what are you going to do with it? Then all of a sudden Harvey Weinstein happens, and this and that happens.

You were likely thinking, “I am of the camp where we believe the woman.” You believe the victim or the accuser.

That’s where I come from. But I saw what happened here, and I 100% believe him. No other women came forward. Like I said, everybody moved on with their lives, doing different things, and Ben had nothing. Ben has something now. They (Ben is non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them) have a great album coming. We have a distribution deal with ADA. They have something.  Ben is putting out a new EP. We’re going to put out a single out very soon. More recently I was going to do different things like Billboard was going to do something, and then CoVID happened. We want Ben to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

(Ben:Three years later, I have struggled to process what happened that weekend. When Jezebel emailed me saying they’d be publishing an article with the claims leveled against me in three hours–horrible things I had never done nor even recognized–I couldn’t fathom who would say this about me. And when hours later I was able to learn who was saying this–a sexual partner I had consensually slept with many times and was on friendly terms with as recently as a few weeks prior–I was in shock. I was devastated and I was angry. But I had no wish to contribute to a narrative of disbelief or to respond by shaming an accuser, and so I said nothing until it was too late.”)

The #MeToo movement, and Harvey Weinstein brought a change our culture along with the predator activities of such men as Billy Reilly, Charlie, Rose, and Louis C.K.

There’s nothing good about the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are taking a step back and examining our lives and practicing self-care. Times up and with #Me, it’s not going to happen anymore. Women are going to say “Fuck no.” And nobody is going to be allowed to have (private) meetings. Harvey Weinstein was a successful serial rapist because he had a team that helped him. They were telling jokes about it on the Oscars. People are going to be accountable now. Now this shit is over. Ugly bad shit because women are saying, No more” and  “You are doing what?”

You had to stickhandle past all of the music industry crap of the ‘80s, and ‘90s. There was a patriarchal order in the music industry in those days. It was also the era of cocaine and outrageous business expense accounts.

In her CelebrityAccess profile last year, Sharon Osbourne told me, Listen, it was at the time when it was a real boy’s club. Everything was cocaine. Women were for fucking, and that was it. That was it. Unless they fancied you or they thought they could fuck you, they (male executives) didn’t want to know you in the industry. It was the boys’ club. It was going to strip clubs, getting hookers, doing the coke. You don’t do that with women. You do that with other guys that ran radio stations, and with the editor of magazines. They basically didn’t want women to be hanging around cuz you would bust them to their wives.”

Sound familiar?

I was lucky in that I was not pressured to do anything that I didn’t want to do. There was bad behavior back in the ‘80s, and there were a lot of drugs in the ’80s, but it was more like you just stood your ground. I never felt, “If you don’t do this you are going to lose your job.” That never happened to me. Ever.

Queens-born singer, Nikki Vianna is incredible. Watching her video of “Mambo,”  a spiritual successor to Rosemary Clooney’s 1955 hit, “Mambo Italiano”–prominently featuring a sample from Rosemary’s original while bringing a modern delightful approach–is so refreshing.

It’s fun, right? She’s an Italian girl. I only manage Italian girls from Queens (laughing). She’s very Italian. She very, very proud of her history, and she’s an Italian girl through and through.

I first spotted her as Nikki Valentine with an independent SoundCloud release “Let It Go” which racked up 20 million views on YouTube, and amassed over 3.3 million Instagram followers by 2018.

When she started off as a kid as Nikki Valentine, yeah. She’s great.

Nikki worked with the production trio Cash Cash—including the dance hit “Jewel,” which has over one million YouTube plays, 7 million cumulative streams, and reached #35 the Billboard Dance chart.  And “Show Me Love” with Flo Rida. Also Poo Bear showcased her on “From Here” with LAZR.

She was signed to Flo’s label (International Music Group) and I met her towards the end of that. Then she had a feature with a couple other Big Beat Record acts.

Atlantic Records’ Chairman/CEO Craig Kallman signed Nikki.

I adore Craig Kallman, and I was his publicist because (his label) Big Beat was part of the Atlantic family. I think with East West, maybe. I was with East West and I did some Atlantic stuff. So I’ve known Craig forever. We worked on Craig David together. I was Craig David’s U.S. rep. So I had that relationship with him, He seemed just like the perfect guy because he’s such a great song guy, and Nikki has such a great voice. She’s a great songwriter, and she needed to be nurtured as a songwriter. She had never done any significant collabs. So he put all of the right people together. It is coming along nicely. She just released a new song, “One By One” that she wrote, and we will go from there.

(Craig Kallman launched Big Beat with the 1987 single, “Join Hands” by Taravhonty. His second release, “The Party” by Kraze turned into a club smash, selling over 300,000 units.

In the late ’80s, Big Beat was a significant imprint with hits by Robin S., Jomanda, Tara Kemp, Bucketheads, Artifacts, Double XX Posse, Dawn Penn, Inner Circle, Changing Faces and Quad City DJ’s. When Big Beat was acquired by Atlantic in 1991, Kallman joined the company as VP/Assistant to then co-chairman, Doug Morris.

Among Kallman’s Atlantic signings are Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Death Cab For Cutie, Trey Songz, Flo Rida, Zac Brown Band, Gnarls Barkley, B.o.B, Janelle Monáe, Wiz Khalifa, Gucci Mane, Cardi B, Nipsey Hussle, Lizzo Halestorm, Hunter Hayes, Fitz and the Tantrums, Charlie Puth, Sturgill Simpson, Aaliyah, Brandy, P.O.D., Twista, the Donnas, Craig David, Nappy Roots, TapRoot, Trick Daddy, Trina, Juvenile, T.I, and Sean Paul.)

At Atlantic, your day-to-day with Nikki is Gina…

Tucci. (GM of Big Beat Records and VP of A&R for Atlantic Records). Gina is basically her day-to-day person, but she is signed to Atlantic proper. She is not signed to Big Beat.

(Gina Tucci’s first job in the music business was as an intern at Warner Music. She was a legal assistant, and then a radio assistant, and then finally came to work for Craig Kallman as his assistant for three years. Her first big hit was B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” a collaboration with Paramore’s Hayley Williams that climbed to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Gina oversaw the re-launch of Big Beat in 2010 with the signings of Skrillex, Hercules & Love Affair, David Guetta, Galantis, Clean Bandit, Rebuk, Cloonee. and disco legend Cerrone.

What did you see in Nikki that that encouraged you to sign her? As you know labels no longer invest in developing artists as they once did. It’s fallen to managers to do the development work.

Yes. They don’t even have artist development or artist departments like they did right? I was very lucky to start my career at Elektra ‘cuz (Bob) Krasnow had… this long view culture of that label, how (Elektra chairman) Bob Krasnow ran Elektra is still how I approach my clients. I remember the first time we heard Metallica, and Kras said, “One day this band is going to be an arena act.”

Even in a business of strong personalities, Bob Krasnow stood out for his brusque, mercurial manner. He had a big personality, and it wasn’t always the easiest personality. And everybody in the room hearing Metallica for the first time went likely went, “What?” Of course, Metallica went on to sell over 40 million records at the label.

Exactly, Kras also said, “This is where we need to get them this year. This is where we need to get them next year. This is where we need to get them with the next record.” There was this long view of every act. We never signed acts thinking that we would have a hit out of the box. Then he would say things like, “We are going to make art commerce. We don’t make commerce art.”

It’s all about artist development.

Plan for 6 months, 12 months, and 10 years. To have success, you have to connect the dots. To plan, and to strategize. Not just put records out, and see what sticks, and chase them. Elektra taught me how to embrace the vision of the artist, and help it come true by hard work, long-term planning, and coming up with plan B if plan A doesn’t work out. You don’t abandon the long-term goal because short-term plans had to change. Yes, you pivot and make changes in real-time, but you always keep your eye on the long-term goal.

Each artist that Krasnow and his Elektra team signed at the time was…

It was such a great label. We had Billy Bragg, the Kronos Quartet, Metallica, and then we had commercial records. Like we had Keith Sweat. We had to make the great artists commercial artists; not the other way around. I went to other labels and they didn’t have that philosophy. It was like, “What can we grind out?” But that was not Elektra. My management heroes at Elektra were Shep Gordon and I got to work with Q Prime Management’s Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, and I got to work with Elliot Rashman, who was Simply Red’s manager. I went on to work for Elliot years later as Simply Red’s U.S. manager. The partnerships between the (Elektra) labels and the management was a (real) partnership. It was us and them. It was we. “Let’s make this artist.” It feels a little bit lost in the music business now. That kind of partnership.

(Originally an East Coast folk label, Elektra found success in the 1960s with Judy Collins, Theodore Bikel, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton; then moving to Los Angeles with the signings of rock and blues groups like Love, the Doors, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Stooges, and MC5. After merging with Asylum Records in the ’70s, it became known as a home for California singer/songwriters. Krasnow brought Elektra back to prominence after taking over as chairman in 1983. His first orders of business was firing over 200 employees, reducing the artist roster by nearly 90%, and moving the label from Los Angeles to its original home in New York. He rebuilt Elektra with artists like the Sugarcubes (featuring Björk) Anita Baker, Teddy Pendergrass, Mötley Crüe, the Cure, the Pixies, and 10,000 Maniacs before leaving the company in 1994.)

You worked with Teddy Pendergrass for years. As his former co-manager (with Shep Gordon)  Danny Markus recalls: “It took Teddy 11 seconds to get to the point with a girl that would take me two dinners and a trip to meet her parents.” It is overlooked that his songs have been covered by the likes of Simply Red, and the Communards, and that artists who’ve sampled Teddy include Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Nelly, Mobb Deep, D’Angelo, and InfiniteXscape.

You know the Teddy story though? Ted was signed to the CBS-distributed Philadelphia International label when he got in the accident, and they dropped him when he was in the hospital still because he was a paraplegic, and he was never going to sing again. Ba, ba,ba,ba, bah. And there was some money, I think, an advance owed probably or something, and they dropped him. Shep (Gordon) went to Kras. And that’s the kind of man Kras was. Kras understood that Teddy was Teddy. Not necessarily knowing that Teddy was going to sing again, but that Teddy deserved to have the parachute that Elektra gave him with the hope that he would sing again; but also with the understanding that, maybe, he wouldn’t. But because he was an American (icon) or whatever he deserved to be able to make sure that his kids are okay.

(Teddy Pendergrass got his start as a drummer and then lead singer in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. After leaving the group in 1976, he launched a successful solo career under the Philadelphia International label, released a platinum-certified LP every year between 1977 and 1980. His career was suspended after a March 1982 car crash that, suffering a spinal cord injury, left him a paraplegic; paralyzed from the chest down. In 1982, Philadelphia International released “This One’s for You”, which failed to chart successfully nor  did 1983’s “Heaven Only Knows.” The albums completed Pendergrass’ contract with Philadelphia International.

He then struggled to find a recording deal.

Through his manager Shep Gordon, Teddy had met Elektra’s Bob Krasnow in early 1983. After hearing a demo of the Luther Vandross-produced track “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me),” Krasnow offered Teddy a contract with Asylum Records, and four of his albums went gold. In 1994, Krasnow left Elektra and was replaced by Sylvia Rhone, a black woman who had a reputation for championing R&B and rap. Surprisingly, Rhone dropped him. Pendergrass, who retired in 2007, died from respiratory failure in 2010. In 2019,  the documentary “Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me” premiered on Showtime.)

It was Sylvia Rhone who did the job interview with you at Elektra.

Yes. Sylvia was in radio. It turned out that I worked all of the black records there. It was called the Black Music Department in 1985.

(Chairwoman and CEO of Epic Records since last year, Sylvia Rhone began her career as a secretary at Buddah Records in 1974. She then held executive positions at Atlantic, Warner Music Group, ABC, and Ariola. Then as chairman and CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group, and president of Universal Motown Records, and an executive VP at Universal Records. Then as president of Epic Records starting in 2014, where she oversaw releases by Travis Scott, Camila Cabello, Future, 21 Savage, and others.)

Sylvia was the one who really gave me the chance to move up in the business. She made me the head of publicity for East West when I was in my 20s. I didn’t know how to run a department. I love Sylvia. Again people will say that she’s such a hardass. Yeah, she kicked my ass. I was more afraid of telling Sylvia that I couldn’t make something happen then I was about going back a third or fourth time to convince somebody to have an artist on a TV show or have them in a magazine. Back in those days, you had to have those connections. It wasn’t like you sent an email. Nobody talks to anybody these days. That’s what relationships are about, right? You develop a relationship, and you didn’t sell somebody something that was crap. You didn’t do a switcheroo where “I will give you Metallica but you have to do this.” You didn’t do that unless the artist was worth it.

You sure didn’t try to impress journalists or editors with sales numbers either.

I remember one time one of my old publicity bosses saying, “Did you tell them that the band has sold” these many records? I said, “I am not calling David Fricke back. He’s aware. He gets SoundScan. You think of the great writers back then. Some serious talent writing for magazines and newspapers. I feel the only space like that today is NPR. Thank God for NPR. They like music. The whole music journalism thing is like gone.

I’d argue that the American School of Rock Journalism eventually devolved into conceit, ego, and pomposity in some quarters.

There was that era for sure. When I went to work with Simply Red what I was saying to (their manager Elliot Rashmen was, “I can’t stand being a publicist anymore.” It’s not like it was. You don’t have these conversations anymore. There’s no plan. You just throw it onto the wall. I can’t do it. It’s painful. The Krasnow school, there was no throwing shit on the wall. That to me what was the industry was becoming, and I was thinking, “I just want to be out of here. I don’t want to do press anymore. It’s not fun. It’s not about what deserves anything. It became whoever got the cover of Rolling Stone was.” I had Tracy Chapman on the cover of Rolling Stone. That’s what Rolling Stone did. The Sugarcubes. That’s what Rolling Stone did. Not whoever was out there.

I’ve stopped reading Rolling Stone. I read Q, Mojo, Uncut mainly now. And from a lot of online sites.

Well, I think Penske is trying. I don’t know if they are succeeding, but they are trying. I’ve been getting Rolling Stone since I was 12. I’ve never stopped getting it. It was really painful when you could fold it, and put it in your pocket. They are trying now.

(Penske Media Corporation is the current owner of Rolling Stone, purchasing 51% of the magazine in 2017 and the remaining 49% in 2019.)

You were an English major at Siena College n Loudonville, New York

I was an English major. I thought that I was going to go to law school but I was poor. I was broke. I didn’t even know that there was a music business until I met Jonny Podell, and then I went “How can I do that?” I was his babysitter.

In 1997, Michael Gross, writing in New York Magazine, called Jonny Podell, owner of the Podell Talent Agency, “One of the three most powerful agents” in the music business.” You met Jonny when you were stocking shelves at a pool company?

Yep. My mother worked for the pool company. I was a teenager. I went to college and, my major was English. I had wanted to be a pre-school teacher, I thought—and my freshman year they eliminated the program. It was a really small school. But I had a boyfriend. He was a pre-law guy and his family were lawyers and I was like, “That’s a pretty cool thing. Maybe, I will go to law school.” Someone said, “You need to learn how to write more than anything. You can take anything what do you enjoy? And then you can go to law school.” So I became an English major. I wanted to be a nursery school teacher. Cyndi sometimes says, “You still do. I think that you still are.” Because we are really old babies.

How did you get into the music business?

Jonny Podell got me my first job. He got me a gig working at Morton Dennis Wax and Associates which was this indie PR firm. One of the acts Morty had was the band Starpoint. That was the first act that I had ever worked with.

Starpoint has been with Chocolate City Records and Neil Bogart’s label Boardwalk Records. Major success in the R&B/soul market was elusive until 1985 when the band released its “Restless” album on Elektra. It brought the band significant crossover success with the Top 30 single, “Object of My Desire.”

The Phillips brothers (George, Ernesto, Gregory, and Orlando) were great. (Vocalist) Renée Diggs was amazing. That was my first act. I was basically the assistant to the music publicist at Morty Wax, and when she left expectantly  Morty was like, “Just handle it until we find a grown up to run the department.” And the band blew up, and I looked like a genius. The band was happening. Then the label hired me over the phone. They said, “Do you want to come to Elektra?” I was full-time there but I was independent. They didn’t pay me. I wasn’t on salary.

You have worked with Jonny right up to True Color United.

He’s still very much in my life. I wouldn’t be in the business, I would be anything. Jonny just saw something in me and stayed with me. He got me to Morty, and Elektra hired me. And then when I started managing Cyndi—Jonny and I stayed in touch—he’s my mentor. Every twist and turn, we have stayed in touch. Then, when I started managed Cyndi, I switched over to the Podell Agency.

Hadn’t Steve Barnett managed Cyndi previously? He briefly managed the short-lived British band Rough Diamond before he became a manager and partner in 1980 in the UK artist management firm Part Rock. His clients included Cyndi I think as well as AC/DC, Foreigner, and Gary Moore. In 1988, Steve established Part Rock’s U.S. company, Hard to Handle Management.

Yes, Steve managed Cyndi, and then (in 1986) he went to Epic (as senior vice president International), Then Stewart Young, who was Steve’s partner, managed Cyndi for a little while. Then she had a couple of different managers. I can’t remember who.

You handled publicity for many of Steve Barnett’s clients.

I was doing Cyndi’s press and I was doing AC/DC’s press. Then Simply Red offered me a gig to manage Simply Red in the U.S. I was a mixed publicist/manager. When I went to East West, Mick Hucknall (founder and leader singer of Simply Red) was still signed to Warners in the UK, but he wanted to get off of Kras. He wanted to get away from Elektra because that relationship had deteriorated. So when I was at East West, Mick was looking. He was signed to East West UK—and he could have chosen any of the WEA labels back then— and I was at East West so Mick said  “I’m going to go to East West (in the U.S.)” because I was there. That was comfort to him.

Elliott Rashman had managed Mick Hucknall since 1980, and propelled the Manchester band to spectacular heights in the 1980s and 1990s.

I was very close to Elliot Rashman. His kids are my god children. So Elliot & Mick hired me out of East West, and I worked that album “Life” (1985) with Steve Barnett who worked as a consultant for us and coached me through it. He introduced me to a lot of people, and he helped me get my management chops.

In America Simply Red never quite matched the success of its 1985 debut album “Picture Book” which contained the Billboard #1 single “Holding Back the Years,” and a great cover of the Valentine Brothers’ “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention).” If I recall, three other singles, “Come to My Aid”, “Jericho,” and “Open Up the Red Box” were released from the album. The album reached the top 30 album charts of 12 different countries and achieving platinum certification sales in 4 different countries, including the U.S. and UK.

Mick has this new album (Simply Red’s 12th studio LP, “Blue Eyed Soul”) out now and it’s so good. It’s the best one he’s done in years. He’s still an arena act around the world. The U.S., it was a love/hate thing for him. All of his favorite music is American R&B, and in the early part of his career when the U.S. sort of turned off of him or his records sort of flat-lined, it hurt him. He would come over here and do small rooms after playing an arena.

Early in your management career you handled the American garage rock band the Mooney Suzuki, the Spence Sisters, and Vivian Green and represented Craig David, and Brand New Heavies.

Spence was Atlantic. Craig Kallman called me to manage them. One of them had a baby and it was very slow for them at Atlantic. These young girls from a rough town in Delaware. Very impoverished. The thing fell apart. Atlantic never really got behind them.

The Brand New Heavies and Craig David were both managed by Colin Lester of Wildlife Entertainment in partnership with Ian McAndrew.

Colin Lester basically had me be his U.S. representative. Kind of what Simply Red did with me, but with Simply Red I was more in control. For Colin, after the deals were made, I was the go-to person in the U.S., and I would tell Colin about the things that the label were bringing us were the best things to do kind of thing. So I was Colin Lester’s consultant on the Heavies, and I was the publicist for the Brand New Heavies, and for Craig. Everything took off outside of America, and he kind of chased that stuff. Then when they were paying attention to America again, Colin didn’t really need me. He had learned a lot.

You worked with Vivian Green for a long time. She sang backup for Jill Scott before signing with Columbia Records in 2012. She has credit for co-writing “Dear God” by Boyz II Men, from their 1997 album “Evolution.” A very talented lady.

I still stay in touch with Viv. Me and Kevin Patrick managed Vivian together and she’s such a loyal and good artist, but there were a lot of times when I felt that she wasn’t getting certain “looks,” and it was because I didn’t really have those connections. There was a time, especially in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, where black relationships were easy. Still, when Kevin and I were managing her, it felt like she wasn’t getting certain tours, and certain things because. “Oh shit, they don’t like white people working for her.” She deserved to have something more connected people around her. Now she is managed by the producer Kwame (Holland) who is also producing her records, and he is making great music. She’s got a nice career going on right now.

You and Cyndi co-founded the True Colors Tour in 2007, followed by the True Colors Fund (since renamed True Colors United) in 2008. You served as the True Colors Fund’s first Board of Directors president until 2015, helping to establish the organization as America’s leading force working to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. How did the True Color Fund come about?

Cyndi had a dream. She had been honored by the HRC (the Human Rights Campaign Foundation) in Washington. Cyndi was always doing different events. She always did Pride. Before people were doing stuff for AIDs, from the very beginning, Cyndi helped. Anytime that there were any LGBTQ events. We worked with Judy Shepherd and the Obama administration to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in 2009.

We were noticing when we went to HRC that there was so much work to be done with work discrimination, and (President) Clinton had passed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and all of that garbage. It was also a voting thing. Cyndi was like, “I want to raise awareness of these issues. I want to raise awareness because these bills are passing.” And we found out that there was poor LGBTQ turnout for voting.

So we were basically going on the road saying these politicians support LGBTQ rights, and these don’t. “This is your information.” For the first tour, we raised money for HRC, and the Matthew Shepherd Foundation. We basically gifted money from that tour to different organizations that do good work. During that time, Gregory Lewis, who runs the foundation for us-as Executive Director & CEO of True Colors United—he was then doing all of the hard lifts—He said, “Do you want to continue as a funding gift organization or do you want to want to become a bigger organization?” With me, Gregory, Cyndi, and Jonny Podell. That was the True Color Fund, and we were raising money. This is around the time of “Celebrity Apprentice.” We talked to HRC where we knew that there were people fighting for marriage and adoption but what was lacking was, and what we were seeing, of all homeless people, kids 12-25, 40% are gay,

And these kids are homeless because they are gay.

Family rejection. Some families are not fixable. But a lot of those kids left home with a little bit involvement with their parents or schools, and the kids wouldn’t be homeless. Of course, at the shelters working with homeless people, there’s no plans for gay kids. What gay kids are experiencing is different than what straight kids are experiencing. They are rejected by their families for being gay. Then you get into these shelters and there’s a lot of mental illness, and poverty, and who gets victimized at the shelters? The gay kids. The trans kids. And there was no way to help these kids. In rural areas are churches, and churches won’t take in gay kids because they are gay until they get federal funding, and then they have to accept them.

So there were things that you and Cyndi felt needed to change?

Cyndi did a photo-shoot one time on the (New York City) pier before we decided to do this, and she saw all of these kids hanging out. These gay kids and they were all homeless. They were waiting at the place they’d spend the night over at the safest place in the neighborhood. They were waiting They came up to her to talk. After that, we read about these statistics. That is when we decided to make our organization focus on homelessness. We are like the go-to people in Washington, D.C. right now about homeless and LGBTQ. There are probably 15 people working for True Colors United now, Most of them are in Washington, D.C., and they help change policy. It has become bigger than us. There’s federal and private grants. We are a grown up to be a 501 (c) (3) (Tax-Exempt Status) company which does real work. Cyndi and I are very very proud of that. We get to meet people that we’ve affected. It’s important. But it’s bigger than us now, and she doesn’t have to bowl anymore for it.

In December, Cyndi was awarded the inaugural High Note Global Prize, created by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, acknowledging artists who use their platform to bring about social change and advance equality. The honor recognized her years of activism towards trying to eliminate LGBTQ youth homelessness.

Obviously, with Cyndi working in entertainment, a lot of her friends were LGBTQ in the early days of working in the business, and there’s her having a sister Ellen who is a lesbian. Cyndi is 66, so Ellen must be close to 70, maybe. When Ellen came out she was 18 or 19, there was no family rejection. There was no shame. No. nothing. So Cyndi learned from her mother.

And Cyndi was an oddball.

She suffered in high school for being the odd gal. She’s a very empathetic person. She feels peoples’ pain. She’s been there. She knows what it feels like to hear, “Not you. Everybody can come to the party but you.” So she knows what it feels to be rejected. The times of being pretty young and having a lesbian sister, but also seeing the violence then and now; as a mother now seeing how they (society) can throw your kid out for being born the way that they are. “I wanted blond hair. I wanted a brunette.” What the hell?” But the world is growing. My son is 21, and he’s got a buddy who came out when he was 11 and it was cool, “Okay.” You don’t want to see your kids hurt. Look there were two New York women murdered last month visiting their hometown in Puerto Rico for being transgender. You see that. “What the fuck? A trans woman of color, forget it.

Like so many, I was enchanted by Cyndi’s country-flavored album “Detour,” (2015) which included duets with Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, and Alison Krauss. As it was being planned and recorded, our mutual friend Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records who is the album’s executive producer, was proudly giving me inside details. I have since read that Cyndi said she’s dreamed about recording a country album when she was in a rockabilly band and wore a Patsy Cline button right next to another button that said, “Almost Famous.”

I love that record. I was just listening to it. When I hear her songs on the album, all I hear is Seymour first. It was just fun. It was like being with Yoda. He knows so much. His brain is just so incredible. He knows when a song was written, and what the temperature was in the room. When it was originally recorded.”

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 1970-80. 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 a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.

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