Managing Talent: Rock’s God Fathers

Gregg Allman is doing O.K. these days. His career in music has certainly been an epic.



Gregg Allman is doing O.K. these days. He can laugh about his storied past, and does so in a wheeze that sounds part gospel moan and part exhausted truck driver. His career in music has certainly been an epic.

“I am probably up for the Guinness Book of World Records for having the jivest, thievingest, most crooked managers in the world,” says the singer who put the tattoos on Southern Rock, laughing brightly.

He’s got a new guy now and his career is on the upswing again. But there were times, he recalls, when the Allman Brothers’ record sales had gone past 30 million and he was still living on $150 a week. Sure, much of his fortune was lost in opium dens and divorce court, but still. Something had surely gone wrong.

Maybe it was the financial advice? With one of his past managers, he swears, he knew he was paying the medical and dental for the whole office, but the last straw came when his American Express bill showed the manager had put his daughter’s wedding on Allman’s card.

Like so many musicians who became popular in the turbulent 1970’s, the Allman Brothers made deals that moved them out of obscurity, but often at a price that would give a man a serious case of the blues.

The Allmans’ first manager, Phil Walden, brought them into a deal that closed around them like a Venus flytrap. “He had what I would call five fingers in the pie,” Allman recalls. “There’s laws against this now. He was the booking agent, our travel agent, our manager. He had my publishing there for a while, and he owned the record company.”

The manager owned the record company? This wouldn’t result in any artificially low royalties, would it?

Allman’s short answer: “Yes. It did.”

“Now it’s against the law for a manager to advise a client to sign with a record company that he owns any of. They fixed all that, thank God.”

As Allman moaned on about the conflicting interests that characterized his early career, I could not help but think of a lovely afternoon I’d spent with Phil Walden. During that period I was writing about rock bands for Rolling Stone and happened to be at a wedding reception for comedian Martin Mull, who grabbed me by one elbow and Walden by the other, plunked us at a table and said, “Rolling Stone, meet Capricorn Records. Have fun.”

Walden was sunny and wise, politically astute (he figured prominently in Jimmy Carter’s presidential run) and had stories about being on the road with Otis Redding. He even mailed me clippings about him and his lovely family. Gosh, I thought, what a great guy.

One wouldn’t have guessed that he’d end up getting sued out the wazoo by the Allmans, forcing his record company into bankruptcy to avoid paying back royalties, and certain other ignominious ballads in his final slide from grace and life.

The 70’s was rock’s Renaissance decade. FM radio was still independent and bursting with adventurous music. The Beatles and Bob Dylan had battered down the creative walls, and now all musical styles were in the mix — folk, pop, surf, psychedelic, jazz, singer-songwriter, blues, Indian, Celtic. Fans still bought records. The latest revolutionary howl could be nabbed at Montgomery Wards for three bucks.

As a fresh-faced rock writer who sat in the mud at Woodstock, I could see how that festival pushed things to a new level in one summer weekend in 1969. Businesspeople might have been oblivious to top 40 charts and concert-ticket sales of the earlier era, but no one could miss the spectacle of a half-million fans drawn to a place as if by some mystic force.

Immediately, businesspeople wanted to know what it was all about. The questions came flying. This was a market.

Scores of bands rushed to the scene, every one of them adhering to the admonition, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” So said William Blake, who for some reason forgot the parts about bankruptcy court and rehab. Of course, there had long been a crooked element in pop music’s dark corners. In the 50’s and 60’s, record labels were known to be money-laundering operations for organized crime. Artists never knew who was poaching from their accounts. In the 1950’s, Chuck Berry was forced to give half his publishing rights on his song “Maybelline” to disc jockey/impresario Alan Freed just to get the song played. Berry spent years suing to get the rights back. If the original blues musicians and songwriters who wrote all those standards ever earned a royalty check, it was, as Allman noted ruefully, “just enough to keep them in alligator shoes.” The most famous rock manager was Elvis Presley’s Dutch-born Svengali, Col. Tom Parker, who took 50 percent of Elvis's earnings. For many managers of the day, giving the artist even 50 percent seemed generous.

Up until the early 70’s, record deals weren’t all that lucrative, so management pushed performers into punishing tour schedules. Today’s basement guitarists who treasure their Cream CDs might be amazed to know that the explosive British band of the late 60’s was crammed into station wagons, sent to high school gyms all across America and, in general, dumped into living situations that led to mutual loathing and disruption.

In one year, the Allman Brothers did 300 shows — and they were always long shows that went into the night. Is it any wonder they resorted to bad medicine? “We were pushed to exhaustion,” Allman says. “But when you’re 23, you think you’re bulletproof.”

An astonishing number of major talents in that period had very short careers. The death of Jimi Hendrix was particularly galling to many musicians, as it was known that his mysterious manager, Mike Jeffery, worked Hendrix into the ground. Would Hendrix have survived and prospered past the age of 27 if he had been managed differently?

But musicians began to wake up. By the 70’s, they were becoming cultural spokespeople, taken seriously in the press. Records were selling by the millions. Artists no longer wanted to be disposable cash machines, enslaved by management. A power shift was inevitable.

When the new style of management arrived, it helped bring about a flowering of creativity. The successes of that period provide valuable lessons for any business leader operating in a sphere where production starts with creative people. Business, after all, always dominates creative. When creative input is appreciated, you get the Apple Computer of 1990–2010. If not, you might end up with failure.

The lessons on how not to manage a rock band were plentiful. Just look at Fleetwood Mac and infamous “fake Mac.” In 1973, the road-weary band felt the time was right to have a vacation, write some songs and think about a new direction. They were in the process of transitioning from a hard-nosed British blues band to a gentler California outfit with a romantic air that would eventually go huge. But while they were vacationing they learned that some other “Fleetwood Mac” was out on the road, doing concerts.

Their manager, Clifford Davis, it turned out, had hired other musicians and formed this imposter band. Why? Because he felt he owned the name. After a raft of lawsuits, Davis found himself on the outs.

If Davis had only looked around, he would have seen a new kind of management taking hold, one that provided a stark contrast to the classic model in which managers were masterminds and talent were marionettes.

A critical figure in this transitional period was Peter Asher, a Mod-style singer from swinging London whose toothy, bespectacled look would later be copied by Mike Myers for his Austin Powers character. As half of Peter & Gordon, he had enjoyed a number of hits in the 1960’s. When the duet broke up, Asher, a bright fellow who’d studied philosophy at London’s King's College, went to work as an A&R man at the Beatles’ new label, Apple. He had good recommendations. His sister Jane had dated Paul McCartney for two years, and McCartney had quite often bunked at the Asher family home.

The Beatles had ambitious as well as idealistic hopes for Apple, but Asher thought it was a madhouse. He did, however, find one artist he admired — James Taylor, a soft-spoken singer from North Carolina. As the two struggled to get a record off the ground, they grew increasingly disenchanted with Apple’s business turmoil. The Beatles decided to bring in a “fixer” from New York, the controversial wheeler-dealer Allan Klein.

Klein had just “fixed” the business affairs of the Rolling Stones, with “repairs” that would soon get him fired by the band. Klein ended up owning all the Stones’ music made in the 1960’s.

“When Allan Klein arrived,” Asher recalls, sitting at his desk in Los Angeles, “I knew Allan by reputation from friends in New York. So I was convinced he was not going to be the right person for the job of taking over and reorganizing Apple in an efficient way. Paul and John agreed this was the mission but disagreed vehemently on who it should be. James had met Allan once and shared my opinion.”

Asher and Taylor quit the Beatles empire and left for America. At the time, it seemed a rash move.

“The only reason I became a manager is that James and I didn’t know who we trusted to do it. It wasn’t something that I knew in advance how to do. Therefore,” he says with a laugh, “I made it up as I went along.”

Asher had some ideas of what he didn’t want. His tours of America as a singer had been a mess. Peter & Gordon’s manager was part of a big, well-connected firm, but he was oblivious to their lives and never joined them on the road. They would later learn that their agent was afraid of flying.

By contrast, Asher was prepared to offer complete devotion. He compares his journey to that of Brian Epstein: “He wasn’t a manager — he ran a record shop. But he found the Beatles originally and believed in them so intensely that he became a manager.”

Being a manager in that era, of course, offered a lot of what musicians call “the side benefits.” Led Zeppelin’s roughhousing manager, Peter Grant, certainly lived a more decadent life shepherding a pretty-boy British blues band around than he had in his earlier days as a bouncer and wrestler. One of the toughest, shrewdest managers in the business, Grant fought (sometimes literally) to get his band the better deals until at last the rock star life caught up with him.

Asher, once he set up in Los Angeles in 1969, went on to write several chapters in the history of pop. He invited L.A. musicians to his living room and from them assembled a group to — gently — back up Taylor on his recording of a new album. To their astonishment, the autobiographical lament “Fire and Rain” would seize the public imagination.

“We were only hoping to sell out the folk clubs,” Asher says, voice rising, “not Madison Square Garden. Not be on the cover of Time. That wasn’t in the plans at all. Although we had no objections!”

Not only did Taylor catch on, the sound itself caught on. The musicians Asher had assembled, led by Russell Kunkel and Danny Kortchmar, were so much in demand that they became known as the Section, the hidden purveyors of the soft-rock hits that gushed blissfully from Hollywood recording studios. Taylor’s success cleared a path for dozens of other singer-songwriters.

Asher, suddenly a proven success, gave the same treatment to Linda Ronstadt. The pop singer, he says, is a very intelligent woman who had suffered years of managers telling her, “Don’t worry your pretty little head.” He let her create the music from within, and again, it was magical. Instead of being merely “chick singer, pop folk,” she could now do soul, oldies, Mexican, even a full torch-singer number with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.

It was Beatles’ thinking all over again. And it’s critical to note the contrast with the many promising bands that failed because of the manager or record company executive who had a Big Idea and forced the artists to put on some metaphorical monkey suit.

Asher let the artists out. His success begat more hit records, and the unique aspect was that he was both managing careers and hiring himself out as a producer. His other clients included J.D. Souther and Bonnie Raitt.

By 1995, he was able to quit managing and join Sony Music as senior vice president. Having seen the business from the other side of the desk, he knew all the fibs and stretchers record companies told clients and he determined, in his seven-year stint as Corporate Guy, not to lie to the artists.

Asher’s style of management was emulated and taken to new places. Two mailroom guys from William Morris named Elliot Roberts and David Geffen worked their way into the management of folk acts, starting with Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. The two guys weren’t musicians, but in their faded Laurel Canyon jeans, they looked like musicians. In contrast to the cigar-chompers of yore, these long-haired managers were comfortable hanging out with their artist-clients, and the staff could comfortably get high with them, too.

They might have looked mellow, but Geffen and Roberts were not above some screaming into the phone and coming on like Gen. Patton with promoters and record labels.

Result: Huge record deals. Geffen and Roberts’s Lookout Management scored with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young prying more-lucrative album advances out of the record companies. Now the rock ’n’ roll deal had really changed.

Was it all to the good? Not always. Now surrounded by loyal consigliere, walled off by wealth and illegal alkaloids, a number of great musicians rode out the decade on a fast train to isolation and oblivion.

As a writer, I loved interviewing the acts who were veterans of the road and not surrounded by the psychological walls. Pete Townshend shambled through his house, squeezed his teabags with his fingers, let me play his guitars, talked like a guy. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull would point out most emphatically the importance of a man paying his own bills and writing his own checks. Stevie Wonder ate a plate of ribs while he messed with a piano’s electronics, shocking himself repeatedly but, you know, asking about things and how are you, anyway?

Then there were the huffy rock stars. The frequently repeated legend about the Eagles was that they were caught at the Los Angeles airport one night without a limo and called up Lookout Management in a real snit. The office underling who sped out to rescue them was Irving Azoff, who gave them undying, no-questions, take-a-bullet allegiance. Thus a manager/tycoon’s career was born. He’s still with them.

Azoff’s secret? Sheer relentlessness, of course. But he also has this gusto and amused glint that makes you want to hang with him, play a round of golf, just do something fun.

For its cool California image, Lookout Management was brutally ambitious. Geffen created the Asylum record label in 1970, and in so doing formulated a new manager/producer paradigm that was just as significant as Asher’s. Managers running a record label, however, raised serious questions about conflicts of interest, requiring that they carefully section off the workload. It seemed to work: They helped create the Eagles, managed them and watched the band sell millions of records on Asylum.

In two years, they were able to sell the label to Warner for $7 million in cash and stock. Geffen, suddenly a major shareholder of the new Warner-Elektra-Asylum combine, left management for the highest ranks of moguldom

It wasn’t the first time musical management had branched into production. Robert Stigwood, the Australian-born music tycoon based in London, proved to be a seismic influence in the business when he expanded from mere agenting in the 60’s into record production, his own RSO label, theatrical productions (“Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and film (“Saturday Night Fever”).

For all those successes, though, Stigwood botched his handling of Eric Clapton. After the Cream breakup, Clapton wanted to make quieter, more adventurous music with his old chum Steve Winwood. They formed a band called Blind Faith. Instead of letting the band develop in friendly clubs and concert halls, Stigwood made their premiere — as a supergroup — an outdoor concert in front of 300,000 people in Hyde Park.

Their New York debut was one of the saddest concerts I ever saw. The band was placed on a rotating stage in the middle of Madison Square Garden where they spun around and around while a chintzy sound system emanated a trickle of music. Winwood, spooked, high tailed back to his English cottage. Clapton, adrift, joined Delaney & Bonnie as a sideman.

Blind Faith, it was clear, wasn’t managed. It was milked.

Clapton, however, was somewhat forgiving. He knew that earlier in his career, Stigwood had used Cream’s revenues to bring the Bee Gees over from Australia. But he felt it was a family, and Stigwood didn’t pressure him when he became a junkie. Eventually Clapton would go the way of other top acts and just have a manager who worked for him. His main handler at Stigwood, Roger Forrester, was a quiet, efficient man who was utterly dedicated to Clapton’s well-being.

Besides loyalty, the new breed of manager possessed another key trait: They listened to the acts’ music and had bona fide creative suggestions. Two influential managers came from the ranks of rock criticism. Crawdaddy! writer Sandy Pearlman was a poet and philosopher who named, configured and launched Blue Oyster Cult.A fellow critic, Jon Landau, wrote a rave review of Bruce Springsteen that earned a phone call from the singer. In no time, Landau was in the studio creating the hit “Born in the U.S.A.” and stepping into the role of manager.

For every success story like the Springsteen-Landau bonding (they are still at it today), the era produced a dozen less-favorable outcomes, which is only natural when ego and fame collide.

Take the case of Albert Grossman, the first kingpin of the folk-music world. A former club operator, he had the savvy to put together three singers as Peter, Paul & Mary and gain further fame as Bob Dylan’s manager. He cut a striking figure. Tall, with big, sweeping hair and flashy clothes, he had a way of standing in front of you like some malevolent Buddha. His Dylan connection helped him attract the likes of the Band and Janis Joplin.

His 25 percent fee was 10 percent larger than normal, and he excused himself by boasting that he automatically made clients 10 percent smarter. Grossman was an implacable negotiator and something of a bully. “Albert loved to say ‘no,’?” the Band’s Robbie Robertson once told me with an evil cackle. But saying “no” is why none of Grossman’s bands appeared in the movie “Woodstock.”

Perhaps there was something of the cult leader in the big managers’ hearts. Phil Walden saw himself as the boss pathfinder of Southern Rock to be located in a city of his choosing, Macon, Ga. Similarly, Grossman started a studio and record label in Woodstock, N.Y., called it Bearsville and bid his musical soldiers to join him there. Guitarist Paul Pena recorded a fine album with producer Ben Sidran called “New Train,” whereupon Grossman demanded that Pena move to Woodstock. Pena, being blind, could not move to the country. Grossman then refused to release the record. The beautifully talented Pena’s career died on the spot. A song from the unreleased record, “Jet Airliner,” made it into the hands of Sidran’s pal, Steve Miller, who then turned it into a hit (even if it was not as good as Pena’s original). Pena had only the residuals to keep him warm in his poverty-stricken final years.

That sort of bullying manner, not to mention the commission and the cut of the music publishing, is what drove Dylan away at last. Grossman would die during a flight on the Concorde, a man famous to the end for his willingness to say no.

The business has since changed enormously. Record labels, kneecapped by digital freebies, are not only stingy with the artists, they push hard on what’s called “the 360 deal,” wherein the label gets a percentage of the artist’s tour and endorsement income. This works well for someone like Madonna who gets one-stop-shopping for career management, but for struggling musicians it’s just brutal.

As Gregg Allman sings, “When I think about the old days, Lord, it sends chills up and down my spine.”

The continued work of someone like Allman, though, is reason enough not to call him “geezer.” His new manager, Michael Lehman, would rather you use the term “heritage” act. The New Jersey-based manager acknowledges that many of that era are now resigned to make a living just by touring.

“Many of the heritage artists thought maybe their time of being creative and making a record was passed.” It was Lehman who persuaded Allman to write his autobiography (which became a best seller), and it was Lehman who pushed Allman into using the unorthodox record producer T-Bone Burnett, who helped create a remarkably original album, “Low Country Blues,” which became a chart-topper.“There are so many ways they can monetize their music,” says Lehman, who has gotten Allman’s music into a pharmaceutical campaign and into ads by Bank of America and Geico.

“Michael is a straight-shooter — you couldn’t beat a lie out of him,” says Allman, happy at last, as he describes what makes music management work. “They need to keep your best interests foremost in mind. They’ve got to know how you feel, your likes and dislikes. Michael even knows how I like my coffee. That’s the manager’s thing, to know his client second to no other man or woman. Michael doesn’t accept anything without running it past me, even if it’s ‘Hey, we want you to play 10 minutes for half a million.’?”

And that, Allman sighs as if it were the end of a song, “that’s the way it should be.”

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