Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Starting Over in 1961

Thursday, February 21, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Starting Over in 1961

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.

Two-plus years had crept by for the record executives up in that old machine shop called Warner Bros. Records. For label chief Jim Conkling, all those months had, by now, started to show a mildly profitable record label. Occasionally.

The Everly Brothers kept making sellable singles. And the comic Bob Newhart had added two whopping big albums in his Button-Down style.

Jim Conkling felt like a success again, as he had through his careers at Capitol and Coiumbia. The label was making money nearly every month in ’61.

Enduring the arm-wrenching governing style of studio execs Jack Warner, Ben Kalmenson, and Herman Starr, Conkling had indeed buckled down. WBR had closed its branches in most cities. In warehouses across the country, boxes of “returns” sat, ready for somebody to pay to have them carted back to…to Burbank?

Conkling was ready to slide out, too. He felt his label had hits and maturity now. When Warner Bros. stock moved up to a nice profit point, Conkling executed his stock options, made a million, just as he’d done in years before at his prior labels.

For veterans within the studio, Conkling’s snap sale felt like a kick in the wallet. Good Warner studio employees didn’t sell quick. That felt disloyal, and Jack Warner habitually monitored who sold when, watching like a money man straight out of Charles Dickens. Conkling’s sale? Warner called Kalmenson about it, angry as hell. “Hell, Jim Conkling’s lucky to be still standing.”

With that one stock sale, Conkling’s future at WBR was over. Time to get some new head guy over there.

Kalmenson made the call: “We’re going to make the change, Jim.” Jim didn’t apologize, and offered to help find his replacement. But who where? WBR’s number two, Hal Cook doing marketing from New York, had just quit, despondent over his son’s stunning death. Any of the other execs within WBR, none felt just right to Jim.

In Edges Mike

So Conkling hired a sales exec who’d left Capitol after his own intra-company battle there; he’d expected to succeed Capitol head Alan Livingston, but got passed over. He was available. His name, Mike Maitland.

Maitland was a good looker. He’d been an Army pilot, then a record exec. He knew branches and sales, and how a company the size of Capitol earned good money. Conkling told Warner staffers that Maitland would be taking over Hal Cook’s job in Sales.

No one within WBR knew Maitland had been hired to become their boss. Mike was likeable, but his hands were full in his new Sales job.

Herman Starr started co-bossing Mike. Starr has themes, and repeated them. “Cash flow.” “Skip all this catalogue shit.” “Hits.” Procedures that had little to do with the music inside those album sleeves.

Within months, Conkling re-re-retired. Moved out and stayed home. Maitland moved to the big, vacant office. Maitland’s first big move was getting Warner Records releases exposed to the public market, on radio, not just asleep in browser boxes with labels like “Piano.”

To do that, Mike Maitland hired an ex-DJ out of Boston, who knew radio play.

In Walks Joe

Joe Smith had also retired, leaving Boston radio amid the 1960s Payola scandal. He’d gone through Washington government hearings. Testify? He followed macho-machers like Alan Fried, Roulette Records’ Morris Levy, both masters of payola. At his hearing before that House Legislative Oversight Committee, Joe Smith was the testifier with class (he’d graduated from Yale U, not Katz’s Deli).

Smith’s classiest answer at those hearings: “I paid taxes on it.” He moved into a decent office at WBR, one with a view of the Warner water tower.

Now, with Mike and Joe sprinting through the new feeling at WBR, they were ready (but able?) to turn Warner Bros. Records away from being consider just some laughable label at radio stations and distributorships.

Mike and Joe hesitated not. They got rid of paperwork, like Advertising Request Forms and Return Authorizations. They stopped making salesmen having to break up “defective” discs that hadn’t sold. Big label Columbia was hired to do all manufacturing, assembly of packaging, storing inventory, and shipping product only that distributors actually ordered. Simple? No, revolutionary then.

By Christmas, all kinds of cuts had been made at WBR, but profiting was still irregular. December, 1961, had been a negative month. Still, Warner Bros. Records’ new leadership knew they should have a Christmas party for its wee staff.

On December 24, 1961, the small (27 people now) home office team gathered after lunch, downstairs in a cleared-out, 20x20 foot space. To celebrate, there were two bottles of New York State champagne, Styrofoam cups. No bonuses. No presents. Maitland turned to Smith and whispered, “Say something funny.”

Things were not yet bountiful. Still, there was fresh energy in that room, because something, something! Felt like it was happening. “See you next year!”

Finding Hot Ears

With all these budget trims, however, WBR still needed to attract fresh artists. “Enough with those piano albums!” In New York, they connected with a rascal-of-worth named Artie Mogull, working then for Warner Studio’s music publishing company, MPHC (for Music Publishers Holding Company).

Mogull was a gambler of eminence, which in A&R can be a virtue. In Vegas, Artie would claim all of the chairs at a blackjack table, so he could bet on all the hands at once. Sometimes it worked, other times he had to borrow. But Mogull was a zinger, witty, funny, hyper-alive. And best of all, he heard hits.

One night, back in Manhattan, Mogull’d promised Herman Starr he’d head down to the Blue Angel club to hear some new trio. That night turned into a blizzard. So Mogull tipped off Mike Maitland, who was in New York, about this yadda-yadda new act Mike just had to catch. Tonight. Then Mogull skipped out for home.

In five degree weather, Maitland headed for the Blue Angel.

The club was near empty. Just a young trio came out, to little applause. No drummer? Maitland wondered “why am I here?” He was not a man to trust his own ears, either.

The trio sang six songs, saying that was all they had. Not even an album’s worth, thought Maitland. But he thought “they were into detail, even at that time, in this rather obscure club. Lighting’s right. They understood their songs’ words.”

After the show, Maitland went up to them and told them how much he liked them. They told Maitland that he’d have to get together with Mr. Grossman. “Our manager,” they added.

Maitland had heard of Grossman. A man of size. In the business, he was often referred to as The Floating Buddah.

“I will,” Mike answered. And soon he did.

It would prove worth the effort.

-- Stay Tuned

Where Are They Now

Jim Conkling. After leaving WBR, Conkling first turned to Public Service work, heading up the Voice of America, then other foundations, even trying to teach China how to form a record industry. He once called this blogger to ask, “Can I get rights to translate Allan Sherman’s album into Chinese?” In his later years, Conkling, a victim of Alzheimer’s, still behaved as if in command. Mornings at Sutter Oaks Hospital in Sacramento where he now lived, Jim dressed for work, tie and jacket, briefcase, working the hospital halls, firing all the nurses. After lunch, Jim rehired them at triple salary. He died at that hospital at age 83, in 1998.

Artie Mogull. He continued in the record industry until his death in 2004, from label to label, working with artists like Kenny Rogers and Olivia Newton John. He bought United Artist Records in 1978. In 2004,he announced the birth of his new label, Insane Records. He died of heart failure, age 77.

Mike Maitland and Joe Smith. Stay tuned.