It was 1996 when Bob Guccione was watching The Cable Doctor Show when he purportedly said, “I like that guy; let’s hire him to do tech stuff for Penthouse.” Penthouse editor Peter Block called me the next day and asked me to come in for an interview. Peter explained that Bob, the publisher, wanted me to author a column called “Technomania” that was all about new cool consumer electronics (CE) products. This was the start of my 11-year run at Penthouse magazine. Back then Penthouse had sales of well over 200,000 copies per issue, a big subscription base and one the highest impulse-buy rates (at places like newsstands and airports) of any magazine.
Using my newfound status as a print journalist I was able to gain better access to major CE manufacturers, and invitations to all kinds of events that had corporate tie-ins, including concerts and sporting events like the US Open or a Yankees game. Olympus sent me to the Formula One races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the purpose of using and becoming familiar with their new digital cameras. They had a sponsorship and tie-in with Ferrari, who took us on a private VIP pit tour. We had access to the Paddock Club that was located right above the Ferrari pit and we could see the crew work and the tire changes close-up. The club provided great views of the start/finish line. Jackie Stewart stopped by to say hello. It was a great weekend and I never realized how loud the noise of those Formula One cars are. Ear plugs are necessary.
There were press junkets to Korea, Japan, Los Cabos. I was traveling at least eight times a year. Events like the one hosted by Richard Dreyfuss for Dragon Systems (the speech recognition company) were enlightening. A hugely entertaining event was for Sprint (now part of T-Mobile), which was launching a new double split screen phone. The entertainment was magician David Blaine submerged in a big glass tank filled with water. He was underwater for 15 minutes while sitting in an easy chair reading a newspaper, drinking red wine and smoking a cigar. How did he do it? Afterwards he came out and mingled and chatted with all of us. Fun event, but the phone did not do so well.
One of the yearly events I looked forward to was the JVC Jazz Festival, formerly and currently known as the Newport Jazz Festival. The festival has occurred in many summers in Newport, Rhode Island. It was initially established and financed by Elaine Lorillard and her husband Louis Lorillard in 1954. They brought in George Wein to organize the first festival and almost 67 years later he is still involved.
In 1972, the Newport Jazz Festival was moved to New York City. In 1981, it became a two-site festival when it returned to Newport while also continuing in New York. From 1984 to 2008, the festival was known as the JVC Jazz Festival. In 2009, due to the economy and general downturn of business, JVC bowed out of its sponsorship. Newport Jazz Festival producer George Wein then sold his Festival Productions company in a merger with Shoreline Media. The merger saw the creation of a new company, Festival Network LLC. That company now owns and operates the event and controls the “Newport Jazz Festival” brand. George Wein continues with the new company in a senior position but has a relaxed role in everyday operations. Fortunately, the festival continues to this day (except for 2020, the year of COVID-19) and is hoping to resume in 2021.
Every year they would have something to the effect of 10 or 20 concerts during a two-week period at different New York locations. We are talking Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and even Yankee Stadium as well as other notable facilities. About a month or so before the concerts were announced, JVC would e-mail a list of concerts and invites to a select group of journalists. It was first come, first serve, and tickets were limited so once you got the list it would be important to respond quickly.
In early summer before the festival kicked off, George Wein would hold a press conference at the Supper Club on 47th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. If you were on the list of journalists who were offered tickets it was considered good form to attend.
One year in the late 1990s George Wein was on stage going through the announcements pertaining to the upcoming festival dates when Bill Cosby (apparently uninvited) walked right in through the front door. It took a moment for him to be recognized as he made his way to the stage. George Wein was stunned as Bill stepped onto the stage and took the microphone away from George. Bill then began to compliment George and the festival, the town of Newport and JVC. The festival is possibly the longest-running concert series of all time. Most of the Jazz greats have played and jammed there. Many memorable live recordings have spawned from their stages and the collaborations between the jazz gods are priceless.
After 15 or 20 minutes of Bill Cosby praising George Wein and the Jazz Festival the press conference wound up. I headed for the exit, grabbed the commemorative T-shirt they were giving away, and stepped out to 47th Street in hopes of hailing a cab. About a minute later Bill Cosby and a person who was accompanying him stepped out on to the sidewalk.
Immediately a panhandler aggressively goes up to Bill and makes a demand for money. Bill turns his full attention to him and in a soft voice starts to talk to the guy. The guy is a little shocked. He was not expecting this kind of response. They talk and I cannot really hear them, but I can hear the tone of voice and Bill is talking very gently to this guy. After about a minute or so I see this guy’s face soften and his whole presence takes on a respectful and engaged posture. I stopped trying to hail a cab and just watched. It was amazing that a big star like Bill Cosby would take the time to acknowledge a panhandler like this guy. This is one of the most thoughtful, kind, and considerate exchanges I have ever witnessed. After about five minutes I had to go, but I was so impressed with Bill Cosby’s kindness. This guy was an aggressive and probably homeless panhandler and Bill was taking the time to make the guy feel like he mattered.
Later that week I was talking with Jim Veal, the only Black agent at CMA (Creative Management Associates). He handled the Fifth Dimension, Al Green, Donnie Hathaway, Patti LaBelle. I mentioned the Bill Cosby incident and Jim told me that Bill Cosby had been the benefactor and the person behind many good deeds. He contributed quietly and discreetly; not many people knew that. For instance, he paid for the rental of the sound system for Martin Luther King Jr’s. “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
Some years later Bill Cosby was indicted for sex crimes. This came after years of rumors that morphed into public accusations and then to indictment. What Bill did was crazy and wrong, and the audacity of his actions was predatory. It is difficult to reconcile these deeds with the man I witnessed outside the Supper Club.
The next year I was lucky enough to score two JVC tickets to Smokey Robinson at Carnegie Hall. It was one of the best concerts I ever attended. Smokey announced that this was the fifth time he was playing Carnegie Hall and he felt like a champion with his fifth win. He spoke at length about Motown Records, the beginning, the songs, the artists and all the talented people associated with the label. He would explain how some of the matchups of singers, musicians, songwriters and producers came to fruition. Then he would do a song and tell us the story of the birth and growth of the song. Smokey had the gift of gab. As the concert went on, he did more music and less talking. Pretty soon everyone in Carnegie Hall was singing along. Even my girlfriend Marlene and I were singing with smiles pasted on our faces. It was so much fun;, a great night and a fantastic concert. I will never forget it.
Not all of the JVC Jazz Festival shows were good, and some were surprisingly bad. Al Green, whom I had seen before when I was on tour with LaBelle, was a real disappointment. He came out in a tight tux that highlighted his pot belly. He started a song and sang about two lines, then stopped and started talking. Al Green does not have the gift of gab. He never finished a song during the entire show. It was annoying.
Then there were surprises. At Lincoln Center I had a single ticket to Joe Cocker. I have never been a big fan of his and my only association with him was when he was drunk and disorderly at the Whisky A Go Go at a Split Enz show. I particularly enjoyed John Belushi’s 1976 skit of him drunk on Saturday Night Live. His albums never moved me. That year there were not that many choices so I figured I would check him out. I had good seats up close, Row F center. Joe came out with a bang. He had a full band with horns and three backup singers. He brought those songs to life. He killed it. The show, his energy and his stage presence were amazing. Joe Cocker convinced me what other people already knew.
The internet has decimated the print magazine business. I still write for magazines, but they are online. There are still new products coming out, but all these press conferences and events have been suspended because of COVID-19. Even the largest trade show in the world, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was held online this year, instead of hosting its usual 175,000 (approximately) attendees, along with around 5,000 journalists and bloggers, in Las Vegas. The obvious result of not having the live show was devastating and affected countless numbers of people and manufacturers.
However, things are looking up and hopefully this COVID-19 nightmare is ending. But none of us know what the New Normal is going to be, in the consumer electronics industry or anywhere else.