Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Newhart Bobs Up

Thursday, February 14, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Newhart Bobs Up

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

With the purr of hot singles from the Everly Brothers warming up WBR’s echo-y offices “across the street” from the rest of Jack Warner’s picture company, the label’s head man, Jim Conkling kept at it. His job: turn this damn label into a profits-maker. Or else.

Conkling and his VP of Sales, Hal Cook, flew in to Chicago, to minimize the overhead costs of one of WBR’s few remaining distributorships. To get there, under the pressures from the studio watchdogs, required the two Records execs to take tourist class flights.

So James B. Conkling – once head of Capitol Records, once head of Columbia Records, once retired – flew tourist into O’Hare. Jim had also had a phone call from Chicago’ Dan Sorkin, a disc jockey of note on WCFL. He wanted to make an intro to Conkling after he arrived. “Sure thing.”

The meeting got tagged on to the clear-out-this-stuff business visit. It took place within the distributorship, which has handily close to O’Hare. The distributorship was eight-months pregnant with WB albums piled up, going nowhere. At meet-up time, this fellow Conkling was to meet with was actually there, waiting for them. He’d come by city bus; Robert Newhart couldn’t afford a car.

The First Date

Newhart’s background was quickly talked through: he was an accountant who’d moved from job to job. He’d once worked for the Illinois State Unemployment Compensation Board, behind the counter. His biggest job: bookkeeper with U.S. Gypsum in Chicago.

It wasn’t all that dull. Bob and his friend Ed Gallagher had cut the audio, and Bob had been hired by Dan Sorkin for special spots on his station. Sorkin knew what he liked, and had called Conkling.

But let’s get to the point: Newhart had come up with a comic routine: he recorded phone calls that you’d just hear one end of. Like hear one end of a call from Abraham Lincoln’s PR man, back in 1865.

Newhart had recorded a few of such phone calls – “routines” they might have been called then – and made copies to sell to radio stations. That venture wound up losing $350.

No need to boast, and Newhart did not. Before Conkling, this “star to be” was pale, soft-spoken, and nervous.

Then and there, at the dark end of a closing label warehouse, Bob Newhart demo’d. He turned on his tape machine to play the first of his tapes: that Abe Lincoln routine: “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue.”

Jim Conkling could not believe his ears.

He later recalled, “I’ve auditioned thousands of singers and other performers, but I’ve never had anything else happen the way it did with Bob. I have never ever been so sure of something. He didn’t even have to finish the Abraham Lincoln thing for it to be clear. He was an original, a real talent.”

Lincoln Elected

Warners’ A&R head argued that Newhart would go over better on records if he performed these “skits” live. He asked when Newhart’s next club date was. Newhart had to answer, “I’ve never played a club date.”

Struggling to find the right place (bookers easily answered calls with “Uh Bob Who???”), Warner eventually found a small club in Houston, The Tidelands Club.Two nights got booked. February, 1960.

Conkling’s money supervisor at WB Studio, Herman Starr, made sure this was stingy time. He ok’d the trip with these conditions, or else: “Twelve dollars a night for the hotel room in Texas, air fare, one show per night for two, successive nights.”

Avakian recalled, “Bob was really scared and nervous about the whole thing. He felt he hadn’t done such a great job. …He’s got this deadpan delivery where he seems so serious and doesn’t seem to realize that what he’s saying is a little goofy. His character seems baffled at why everyone is laughing at him.”

Take this example from track one: A PR man’s on the phone from Washington, calling Abe in Gettysburg.

Newhart: Hi, Abe Sweetheart! How are ya, kid? How’s Gettysburg?

The PR guy keeps talking: “You changed ‘four score and seven’ to what? . . .to eighty-seven? . . . I understand it means the same thing, Abe, but it’s supposed to be a grabber. We test-marketed ‘four score and seven’ in Erie and they flipped.”

What Lincoln says is not funny. You never hear Lincoln. Newhart knows it: “It’s what isn’t said is funny. None of what the PR guy says is funny. It’s what Abe says.” And of that not one word is spoken on the record.

The album got put together – vinyl plus cover plus liner plus innersleeve. Newhart’s title – “The Most Celebrated New Comedian Since Attila” – became its subtitle. In Burbank, a bigger title took over: “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.”

Out It Comes

Release date: April, 1960. Out came the “Button-Down Mind.” Not only “Abe” but following tracks like “The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish” and “Merchandising the Wright Brothers” and “Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball.” And more.

By July 31, WBR had its first #1 album up atop the blessed charts. The sales reaction suddenly had got stunning, especially to those walking quietly at 3701 Warner Blvd., trying to avoid the notice of “across the street.” Radio raved. Suddenly, orders poured in. Cash came right behind. The LP stayed #1 for 14 weeks.

Warner Bros. Records had to tell its nearby biggest retailer, Music City on Sunset and Vine, that “we’ve run out of album covers. Just sell the vinyl records and people can come back in two weeks to get a cover.” And people did. And across America, “The Button-Down” mind was all over the airwaves.

By 1961, the most talked-about comedian in the country was indisputable. That year, Bob Newhart won the Album of the Year Grammy award. Unprecedented for some new artist who didn’t play an instrument, who never sang, at least in public.

Newhart was also voted “Best New Artist of the Year.” He played Carnegie Hall, and the NY Times reviewer (Arthur Gelb) wrote “for a man who has been exercising his twin talents of writing and acting for such a short time … he is an extraordinarily polished performer. He is also hilariously funny.”

For Warner Bros. Records, with all these sales and follow up releases coming in, Jim Conkling was no longer required to call across the street to OK an expense. He could travel first class again.

“All of a sudden,” recalled WBR’s financial head, Ed West, “we were making money. Nobody ever asked us to close up shop again.”

Albums Galore

Newhart’s repertoire grew, too:

From “Driving Instructor”: After he learns that today he’s giving lesson two to a dangerous woman client: ”Who was the instructor on that, Mrs. Webb? … Mr. Adams? … Just let me read ahead here and kind of familiarize myself with the case … Um, just how fast were you going when Mr. Adams jumped from the car? … Seventy-five? … And where was that? … In your driveway? … How far had Mr. Adams gotten in the lesson? … Backing out?”

LP two was released very soon, late in 1960: “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back.” It sold almost as many as “one” had: over 500,000 copies, list priced at the top in 1960: $3.98, and each with a cover, too.

By 1965, the chain of comedy grew stronger with The Windmills Are Weakening, with its cut “King Kong.” The cut depicts a newly-hired guard working at the Empire State Building who’s reporting in to his boss on what’s going on:

“This isn’t your standard ape, sir. He’s between eighteen and nineteen stories high, depending on whether there’s a thirteenth floor or not …. I got a broom without signing a requisition for it … I will tomorrow, yes sir …. And I starting hitting him on the toe with it. It didn’t bother him much . . . and he’s carrying a woman in his hand, sir …. No, I don’t think she works in the building, no sir …. She has a kind of a negligee on, so I doubt very much she’s one of the cleaning women.”

Year after year, Newhart’s routines chuckled out of Warner Bros. Records. Remembering back, George Avakian, who’d done Newhart’s first album, recalled “Bob never really changed when he became famous. He was quite simple and direct. What you saw was what he was. And he stayed that way.”

And his sign-here first boss, Jim Conkling, remembered Newhart as “very pleasant and congenial, but he isn’t an outgoing sort of person…. He’s always hiding away in some corner of an out-of-the-way restaurant. He’s a shy, modest, quiet fellow. I can’t remember Bob ever saying a dirty word, on stage or in person.”

Newhart’s Warner Albums List:

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (1960)

The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back (1960)

Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (1962)

The Button-Down Mind on TV (1962)

Bob Newhart Faces Bob Newhart (1964)

The Windmills Are Weakening (1965)

The Best of Bob Newhart (1967)

This Is It! (1967)

… all those in six or seven years!

What Next?

Jim Conkling felt comfort at work after 1961. Between the Everlys and Bob Newhart, he’d had a year when the label had actually turned a profit – sales bigger than expenses. Even though past years’ losses remained on the books, Conkling didn’t get “no” calls from the studio execs he was “reporting” to.

Time, Conkling felt, that he might ease his way out of his executive chair now.

-- Stay tuned.