True-Life Rock Tales

Elektra – My Record Company Gig

Issue 138

We were starting to level off and the pilot said, “okay, take over.” “Really?” I asked. “Yup, sure; I will show you what to do,” he says. “First, keep the wings level.” He pointed to a display that showed the wings and a line. “Keep the wings level with that line with slight adjustments to the wheel. Then, keep a watch on the altimeter and keep the nose slightly up and stay at this altitude.”

We were flying east out of Teterboro, a private airport in New Jersey just across the Hudson River and Manhattan. The two-engine prop plane looked new. It seated ten and it was full. I made eleven, and that is how I ended up in the co-pilot’s seat. We, a bunch of employees of Elektra Records, were flying out to Martha’s Vineyard in the spring of 1971 to see Carly Simon do a benefit for a public school there. Carly was an Elektra Records recording artist, so of course her label supported her. The outdoor concert in the early evening was going to be pretty much acoustic. What made it even more special was that Carly rarely performed live. She said she had big issues with stage fright.

She is a tall gal, 5 feet 10 inches with a big smile. She is the daughter of Richard Leo Simon, co-founder of Simon and Schuster publishing. Whenever she came up to our office, she would stop at everyone’s desk, say hello and chit chat a little. It was thoughtful and of course that was a very smart thing to do. Elektra Records took up a whole floor in a glass high-rise building. At the time it was called the Gulf and Western building, at 15 Columbus Circle on the north side. The name and ownership of the tall glass building has changed more than a few times. Previously, I thought it was exclusively an office building but now the glass skyscraper has some condo apartments. I have visited a friend at one of the condos and he mentioned that Adam Sandler owns or has owned an apartment there.

Carly Simon, 1971.

Carly Simon, 1971.

 

Flying east over Long Island Sound, I made the necessary adjustments of keeping the plane level and at the correct altitude during the flight. No one on the plane knew I was flying it, though the pilot supervised me carefully and handled the other tasks. When we came into view of Martha’s Vineyard, he showed me how to bring the plane in for a landing, circling and then slowly descending for a couple of miles as I pointed the plane towards the runway and started our approach. At 800 feet the pilot took over.

For someone who claimed to be afraid of performing because of overwhelming stage fright, Carly hid it where no one could tell. She was seemingly relaxed and sang and played well. Her material was largely from her (then) new self-titled debut album, and she was joined on stage by another guitar player who came and went as the show progressed. Sometimes there was a keyboard player. There were never more than a few people on stage and very often it was just Carly alone. It was a good show and the sound was crisp and clear. I am sure those few hundred people in the audience had a lovely evening.

It was a nice setting in the warm early summer and with the ocean in the background behind the stage. Just as the sun was setting in the western sky, she finished her set. A one-word description of the show would be “sweet.” After the show we all went backstage to say hello to Carly, and she was all thank you and thank you for coming and was I any good? Are you sure I was? Thank you,. She was unassuming, charming, and gracious. Afterwards it was back to the plane and once we were in the air the pilot let me fly again.

 

A few weeks later Steve Harris, head of Elektra A&R, tells me that we are going to Boston to see a folk singer that he was thinking of signing. We take an Amtrak train to Boston and a taxi to the hotel. It is still early afternoon, so we go to a couple of different record stores. Steve wants to see what Elektra albums they are stocking and their general inventory and displays. That evening we go to the performance and Steve is underwhelmed by the show. I do not remember who the performer was or what happened to him. We head back to the hotel and check the newspapers to see if there are any other shows he wanted to see. There is nothing going on, it is a quiet night. Steve looks at his watch and says fu*k it lets get back to the city (that is what we New Yorkers call Manhattan. We take a quick cab ride to the station and catch a late train home.

Next week we take the comedian David Steinberg to lunch at an upscale Japanese restaurant. David has an album out with us called Disguised As A Normal Person and it is doing well. With comedy albums the label does not expect too much. However, the album has cracked the Billboard Top 100 charts and that is considered fairly good in the label’s estimation. David is charming and funny at lunch. He is also pleased and happy that Elektra is okay with his LP’s chart position and sales. (David went on to become extremely popular; for example, he appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson more than 130 times.)

David Steinberg, Disguised as a Normal Person album cover.

David Steinberg, Disguised as a Normal Person album cover.

 

Around that time my sister Ellen (the famous rock writer) invites me to go with her to The Bitter End, a small but famous club in the West Village, Greenwich Village, to see Jim Croce. I liked him, thought well of him, and enjoyed a few of his hits but he was not really on my radar. The Bitter End is a small club on Bleeker Street with maybe 200 seats squeezed in together. I was kind of surprised that he was playing such a small club considering his hits, but upon thinking about it, the show was probably a showcase and there were press and other important folks there.

Jim was touching. He was so personal and ingratiating, sitting on a simple bar stool with his guitar and a microphone. I love when a performer can make a personal connection with me. All of us have had that feeling of when you meet someone, and it clicks, and you think to yourself, “I really like this person.” That is what I felt spending that evening with Jim Croce. I was deeply saddened when a few years later I learned that he was killed in a plane crash.

 

Steve tells me I am going on the road with the New Seekers. As I understood it the New Seekers were “manufactured” after the break-up of The Seekers in 1970. (The Seekers had hits with “Georgy Girl,” “I’ll Never Find Another You” and others.) The long and the short of it was that The New Seekers were salaried employees, maybe with other incentives. They had a hit single with “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” with good top 40 AM airplay. They were based in London and were coming over for a short promotional tour. Steve looks me right in the eye and says, “you cannot sleep with either of those girls.” “Okay, right,” I reply, and he says, “no, you must promise me you won’t.” “Okay,” I say, and again he emphasizes, “I am serious about this.” “All right, I promise.” I answer.

This would be the second time I met The New Seekers. The first was when I flew to LA on Elektra’s corporate jet. (See my article, “I Love LA” in Issue 110.} That was the time Harry Nilsson and I shared a limo. The New Seekers had come over for one date and this time, they would be here for a couple of weeks, doing a couple of gigs in Ohio and then flying down the Mississippi river to New Orleans.

They are playing Ohio, opening for a headliner at a coliseum, a big venue. I am hanging out with the act, helping out, but I really do not have much to do, no box office work or travel planning. I would call it hand-holding or better yet, road management lite. The New Seekers’ performances are good and on stage and off they are pleasant and likable. The next night, another date in Ohio and after the gig we all meet at the hotel bar. We are having a few beers and drinks and sure enough, one of the girls start flirting with me. Uh oh. I remember my promise to Steve, and I try not to be flirtatious. Well, I kept my word, but she was never very friendly with me after that. Sometimes keeping a promise is a thankless task.

 

Postscript:

I had taken this job at Elektra Records as an assistant A&R man working under Steve Harris’s tutelage. I enjoyed working at Elektra, but the pay was nothing to speak of. Previously I was involved in the production of Peace Parade (see my articles in Issue 117 and Issue 118). Peace Parade had finished up the previous fall as the Broadway show Hair was winding down. That affected us and our bookings. With ticket sales declining everything just peters out.

Ken Sander's Elektra Records business card.

 

A few months later Bruce Sachs, my friend and CMA (Creative Management Associates) agent, calls me up and says, “Boy! we are back in business!”

Bruce and I were putting together the talent for the very first stage show of Superstar, a touring production based on the 1970 hit album Jesus Christ Superstar. To us it was readily apparent, this was a big album that begged to be performed. With impressive LP sales that exceeded 8 million units, name recognition was established. Apparently, at that time there was not another show based on the album.

Considering our history, mine and Bruce’s, it seemed like a logical decision. This was in our wheelhouse. And we had a good notion of who would be in the cast and which musicians we would use. With Hair closing, we had all these Broadway actors and singers freed up, and we had worked with them before. Some of the best on-stage talent in the world. Bruce and I felt in our bones that we were on to something. The timing was perfect.

Bruce Sachs. Photo by Ken Sander.

Bruce Sachs. Photo by Ken Sander.

 

All hands were on board within the week. Mike Martineau, who booked Peace Parade, had no problem with the concept and bookings were rolling in. For legal reasons and to keep it simple, the thought was to stage the show as an oratorio and just call the show Superstar, the Original American Touring Company (OATC). No costumes or props, just the music. Additionally, Superstar would use dramatic lighting to create moods or highlight a performer. The lighting equipment was generally available in theaters, but to make sure, the lighting gear was specified in the contract rider so the promoters would have the responsibility to make sure that the specific lights the production needed were on hand. I was certain that my finances were going to be much improved, and they were – initially, the monies exceeded my expectations.

In many ways Superstar started off easy. As things progressed it became more routine. That kinda made it harder. You can read more about it in Issue 137.

2 comments on “Elektra – My Record Company Gig”

  1. Hi Ken,

    Did you ever cross paths with Recording Engineer Ben Taylor ? He’s told me lots of stories about his Elektra NYC days including how two Thorens TD124’s wound up in his possession. One went to a friend who took it to England, the other I listened to at his place the other day.

    I always joke with him that whenever I have the urge to listen to Vinyl, I just go over to his place. He knows I’d never steal any his Records since I no longer own a Turntable and sold my Vinyl off a few years ago.

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