September 19 – The Band Of Gold Was 7″ In Diameter & 45RPM

Happy birthday to a fine One Hit Wonder of over 50 years back. One whose done a lot more since than many realize. Freda Payne is 80 today.

Freda grew up in Motown – Detroit – and was musical at a young age, attending the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts. At the time she mostly liked jazz and some torch singers, with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday being favorites. She broke into the recording business doing commercial jingles in the early-’60s and spent a good deal of the decade doing stage musicals. She put out her first album, jazz-influenced After the Lights Go Down And Much More, in 1964 to little notice.

People who did notice her musical abilities and voice were the trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the primary songwriters at Motown for much of the decade. They’d left the company after one too many dispute with Berry Gordy Jr. and started their own record company, Invictus. She was one of their first signings and her first single, “The Unhooked Generation” was only their third release. After the fourth Invictus record, the Chairmen of the Board hit “Give Me Just A Little Bit More Time,” came Freda’s next one…the one which would make her career and help keep Invictus afloat for awhile.

But she hadn’t wanted to sing “Band of Gold.” She apparently felt it was immature and suited to a teenager, not a woman in her late-20s with serious musical aspirations. They won out, getting her to record the song they’d written in their finest Motown-sounding tradition. It turned out to be a perfect match. The song sounded a lot like the Supremes, whom would have probably done it had Holland and Co. stayed on at Motown. (Coincidentally, her sister Scherrie joined the Supremes in 1973.) “Band of Gold” had some future star-power on it besides Freda. Joyce Wilson and Telma Hopkins, who soon joined Tony Orlando as Dawn sang backing vocals and Ray Parker Jr. was on the guitar. It earned Invictus their first gold record at home, where the song got to #3, but was particularly huge in the UK, where it spent six weeks at #1 in 1970.

After that, she quickly seemed to disappear. She had one more minor hit, the follow-up to “Band of Gold,” the anti-war “Bring The Boys Home”, which made it into the top 30 in the U.S. However, as far as hit records would go that was about all for her, and she left Invictus in ’73 to go to ABC Records. There she refashioned herself more in the image of a disco singer, doing a duet with another popular ABC act, Tavares, among other things but nothing really clicked there for her. This was likely discouraging for her and she actually went 15 years, from ’79 to ’94 without recording.

Although she did help out Belinda Carlisle on her cover of “Band of Gold” in ’86, she spent most of the decade concentrating on acting after a brief run hosting a TV talk show in ’81.

She seems to have been making up for lost time lately. Since adding her voice to a 25th anniversary edition of “We Are The World” in 2010 (that one for assisting Haitian earthquake victims) she’s written a memoir, released albums, including one last year which had a duet with Johnny Mathis on it, and acted on stages. One imagines, remembering her childhood, the highlight of that was this past summer when she got to portray Ella Fitzgerald on Broadway in Ella, First Lady of Song. A pretty good resume for a “one hit wonder”!

September 8 – Human League Got ‘Jam’med Into Making A Hit

Electronic new wave was on the wane in the second half of the ’80s (despite stronger than ever response to New Order and the Pet Shop Boys), so what’s a group to do that built their fortune on that sound? Well, in the case of the Human League, it was take a look at the charts and see what was happening across the ocean and think about how to adapt. The result was their fifth album, Crash, which came out this day in 1986.

In the States, a new brand of highly-produced R&B-crossed-with-pop was taking off, noticeably with Janet Jackson who was quickly beginning to be seen as the Queen of Pop, just as her brother was the “King of Pop.” Meanwhile, despite already having ten top 20 hits in their native Britain, the band was finding itself already being labeled as something of a One Hit Wonder. Jackson had just put out her Control album, which was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. So with a little nudging (and undoubtedly backed with a lot of money) from Virgin Records, the Human League went off to Minnesota to record with that duo. Phil Oakey had always been the leader of the band, the primary writer, only male voice and captain of the ship. He quickly found that if you were in Jam & Lewis’ territory, they wanted to have…well, “control.” They tossed out some of his songs (Oakey ended up with credits on six of ten songs), came up with some of their own, then quickly grew tired of what they saw as some laziness and more lack of talent with a couple of the keyboardists, Philip Wright and Ian Burden. They were essentially told to step aside, while the producers brought in extra session players. Both would soon quit the group. Adding to tensions, at least according to Jimmy Jam, was that Oakey and singer Joanne Catherall were a couple and Catherall was getting jealous of the other female in the group, Susan Sulley. Eventually tensions grew so high, the group packed up and flew back home, leaving the producers with the tapes and the task of completing it. “We like to be in control in the studio,” Oakey admitted, “it just got to the point of who had the power and in that instant, they were the men behind the mixing console so they had the ultimate control.” He added it was “interesting to pick yourself out of the industrial north of England and dump yourself in Minneapolis. Great experience, but it just wasn’t our record!”

Even the less-than-memorable cover ended up borne out of frustration. They’d hired a well-known French fashion photographer for it. “I daren’t tell you how much money was spent,” Oakey says, but they found him to be acting inappropriately. When Sulley refused his request to do a handstand while wearing a miniskirt for him, he stormed off, leaving them to find a last-minute replacement picture to use.

For all that, it was a decent, if different album. Oakey says “it’s a disco album with lots of cymbals,” but the R&B stylings of the Minnesota duo are also clear. As allmusic would note, they “maintained their dance appeal while eschewing the overtly synthesized sounds of previous albums.” Canada’s Windsor Star called it “an infectious collection of love songs…listenable right the way through.” Smash Hits gave it 7.5 out of 10, Rolling Stone 3.5-stars. The one thing most agreed on was that the lead-off single, “Human”, one of the Jam and Lewis tracks, was a good one. Billboard picked it as hit-to-be, calling it “lush, plush, even soulful.”

Indeed, that song -even if it is in the words of Spin “schmaltzy” and “an unbearably weak defense of infidelity” was a worldwide hit, becoming their second #1 song in both the U.S. and Canada (becoming their third single to go gold in the latter) and hitting the top 10 in most other English-speaking markets including the UK and even Germany as well. However, subsequent singles , the almost Janet Jackson-like  “I Need Your Loving” and “Are You Ever Coming Back?” failed to find much of an audience and even another Jam & Lewis track that won critical praise – “Love is All that Matters” – failed to click commercially. Overall the album did go to #7 in Britain and earn them their fifth gold album there; elsewhere it fared not quite so well – #32 in Australia, #25 in Canada and #35 in the U.S., for example.

The Human League would wait four years before recording another album…and when they did, stayed in the north of England to do so.

August 27 – Fifth Beatle Had Navigated Their Path To Stardom

Just weeks after the classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit the shelves, the “fifth Beatle” (according to Paul McCartney), or the man who “discovered” the Fab Four died this day in 1967. Brian Epstein, their long-time manager and confidante died of an overdose of sleeping pills at the young age of 32.

Whether it was a suicide or accident remains debated to this day, but what isn’t open for discussion is the impact it had on the band. John Lennon later said, “I knew that we were in trouble then… I thought ‘we’ve had it now.'” Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife at the time said “Paul and George were in complete shock. Brian had found them, believed in them, molded them, turned them into millionaires.”

Epstein saw them first in the Cavern Club in Liverpool back in 1961, and recalled “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humor.” After seeing them a few more times, he became their manager (against Paul’s dad’s wishes- he didn’t trust “Jews”), got them signed on to Parlophone , guided them in things like their bookings (“the gigs went up in stature,” says Paul) and suggesting they wear their now-famous suits on stage. The recent film Get Back seemed to show indirectly, the hole he left behind in the Beatles. Not only were they still talking of Epstein longingly and respectfully, a full two years later but the role of keeping the band focused and, well, “managed” seemed to have been taken on by McCartney which caused resentment from the others. Adding to that, he wanted his father in law to take over the manager’s role, something the other three were hesitant to accept. What’s more, soon John convinced them to sign up Allen Klein as a new manager, a man history looks on with far more critical eyes.

Epstein also managed Gerry & the Pacemakers but seemed unhappy in all his success, perhaps in no small part due to his being openly gay in a society where that was still against the law. His family house was opened as a Beatles-themed B&B in 2003.

August 26 – Seattle Superstar Created Big Apple Music Landmark

The landmark lives on, long after its founder passed away. Jimi Hendrix lived just long enough to open his own Electric Lady Studio in New York on this day in 1970.

The rather non-descript, three-storey brick building at 52 W. Eighth Street in the “Greenwich Village” neighborhood had been a nightclub since 1930, originally called the Village Barn, then in the incarnation Jimi knew, The Generation. There he’d seen a number of great, and varied acts ranging from B.B. King to Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company. He was upset when it closed in 1968, and quickly bought it. His initial intent was to reopen as a nightclub. Probably fortunately for all, his friend, a studio engineer named Eddie Kramer told him that was a bad idea – the club had been losing money and there were many of them nearby – and that he should turn it into his own recording studio. It made utter sense since Jimi was a noted perfectionist when it came to his recording environment and had, according to Kramer spent $150 000 the year before on renting studios (something akin to close to a million dollars now.) He’d worked in three different studios, in London and the Big Apple on his recently-completed Electric Ladyland album.

That made sense to the guitar great, so he got a talented architect, John Storyk to help him come up with the plans and oversee re-construction. While there were many good architects around, Storyk had another quality which made him invaluable – he was a trained acoustician. He understood exactly how to get the specific sound quality people wanted from a space.

The conversion didn’t go smoothly though, running both late and well over budget. A flood, changes required for the plumbing system and delays in getting permits from the city resulted in Jimi having to go to Warner Bros. Records to get a “six-figure loan” to get it completed. Which it was, in August ’70.

Hendrix himself was first to try it, recording a few things there while final construction was still going on around him. He made sure the acoustics were great, the equipment state of the art, but the atmosphere easy-going. Some walls were painted into psychedelic murals, and he had some round windows installed allowing for controllable amounts of ambient light. He wrapped that up on Aug.22 and held the opening party on the 26th. Among those in attendance, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood and Patti Smith. Smith remembers talking to Hendrix just outside that night. She says he ”told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock, and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play…until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his studio.”

Needless to say, that never happened, and in all likelihood wouldn’t even if Hendrix hadn’t sadly died just a month later. What did happen though was that the studio became one of the country’s most in-demand and respected ones. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was the place to be. Carly Simon recorded her much-touted debut there, then Stevie Wonder came in to do several records, including Talking Book and Fulfingness First Finale. Kiss viewed it as a sort of second home when they were rising to international fame and Led Zeppelin did some work in it as well, including supposedly a record’s worth of Elvis covers which has never been released. David Bowie dropped in with John Lennon to record his first American #1 hit, “Fame.” Later, the Rolling Stones would use it to record much of Emotional Rescue, then mix Tattoo You and Chic would make their disco smashes in it. “Imagine what it’s like to have a studio built by flower-power, hippie, acid-tripping kinds of people,” their guitarist Nile Rodgers laughs.

Albums ranging from Foreigner 4 to the Clash’s Combat Rock to Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell came to be in Electric Lady. However, in the ’90s, its usage dropped and it faced some tough times, but it was rescued, temporarily by Soulquarians. That was a loosely-aligned collective of Black musicians who hung out, jammed and recorded there. Among them were The Roots and Erykah Badu. However, for all the work they did, it resulted in only a few hit records and demand for the studio declined more. Once they moved out, producer Mark Ronson suggested “the glory days had sort of ended.”

But perhaps they weren’t. In 2010, it was sold and the new owners decided to revamp it. They thoroughly renovated it, brought in new, up-to-the-minute recording and mixing equipment and added mixing rooms to its existing capacity (which includes four separate studios). That worked, and it’s rebounded to be one of the country’s busiest studios again in the 2010s and since. One day in 2015, seven different recording sessions were being worked on simultaneously there, including the Black Keys, Rod Stewart, Lana Del Rey and Jean Batiste. Adele and Lourde have recorded there of late and U2 made their Songs of Innocence at it.

A place where artists liked to hang out and could work in with top-notch equipment. An idea so simple it’s a wonder few since Jimi have decided to do the same.

August 9 – Radio Then & Now From The Inside

Today, a bit of a special feature here at A Sound Day. Regular readers will by now recognize the name “Nostalgic Italian” from his interesting guest columns in our “A Turntable Talk” feature. Well, the Nostalgic Italian is Keith Allen, who might be a familiar name if you happen to have lived in Michigan in the past few decades…or have driven through it with the car radio on, as Keith was a popular figure in radio for some time there. Today we have an interview with him giving his thoughts on the world of radio, then and now. We thank him for taking the time to share his thoughts.

Can you give us a bit of an overview of how you came to work in radio?

To answer the first part of the question, I will “cheat” a bit and elaborate a little on the interview I did with Max from the PowerPop Blog. He asked me why I wanted to be a Radio DJ. The answer sort of works as an answer to your question: During my senior year of high school, I worked part time at a local boat marina in the Parts Department.  In the fall and winter, once the boats were winterized, business was slow.  So I would sit in there with the radio on and do inventory for 8 hours a day until the “winter layoff”. 

I would listen to Jim McKenzie on Detroit’s Kiss-FM every day.  He was a great example of what a DJ should be – the listener’s friend.  Every day I listened, and I felt like he was talking to just me.  He kept me company while I worked.  The more I listened to him and other DJ’s on the station, the more I began to think, “Hey, I could do that!  I’d enjoy doing that!”  So I called the station and asked to speak to someone about getting into the business.  The guy I spoke with told me that I could 1) go to broadcast school or 2) intern at the station for a while and see if I could break in that way.  I chose Option #2. 

I started my internship for the news guy.  I took news stories off the wire and rewrote stories and helped compile a newscast.  I then began hanging out with the morning show (Paul Christy and the Christy Critters).  I enjoyed this so much more.  This was where the real action was.  I got to see them plan bits, edit phone calls, and more.  Eventually, I started running Paul’s Saturday show, which was all on tape.  He was recorded and I would play his clips out of songs or up the intros to songs. Before a commercial break, he would throw it to me from the tape and ask about the sport scores, lottery numbers, and weather (which could not be predicted the day they recorded the show).  I did this for about six months and they let the overnight guy go.  I was asked to fill in on the show temporarily.  The temporary job ended up being full time.  Paul believed I had some talent (although not much of it showed during my time there) and he gave me my first break in radio.

When I was a Music Director, my job entailed listening to all of the new music that came in to the station each day/week and deciding what songs were going to be considered as possible additions to the play list. I had a day set aside for record reps to call and give me their pitches for why their song deserved a spot on the station. If I was working at a Classic Rock or Oldies station, there really was no “new” music to consider, so the job consisted of scheduling music for every day.

Scheduling music is another responsibility of the Music Director. Without scheduled music, no one knows what to play. Back in the days before computers, you scheduled the tunes and the on air jocks played them from records, CDs or carts (like an 8 track tape). Today, all of this is done with computers. All the songs are digital and once the music log is merged with the system, it will pull up the songs (and all the in between stuff) and it will play automatically.

I was also an Assistant Program Director. This job assists the Program Director, who is the person who basically runs the station and all that plays on it. As the APD, I assisted the PD with scheduling all of the weekend on air personalities and lining up talent for offsite appearances.

I was a Program Director once. It was the ultimate goal for me. I was the guy who called the shots. Well, that’s the way it used to be. By the time I was the PD my station was owned by a big corporation and most of the big decisions were made FOR me by the higher ups and consultants. This was maybe 10 years ago, and I am sure that now the PD is doing his job, the APD and MD jobs and a whole lot more.

I also acted as the Production Director. This job I hated more than any. My job was to write and produce commercials. It meant dealing directly with sales people who never seemed to get copy in on time (despite deadlines) and promised their clients things that were impossible. It meant loading hundreds of network commercials into the system every week, which we often pawned off on part time personalities. The only thing I loved about this position was when I was able to produce promos or sweepers (the things that play between the songs) for the station. I loved writing them and producing them. It was always fun to hear your station “voice guy” reading your lines.

I was blessed with a career that began in 1988 in one of the top ten markets in the country. After leaving radio full time in 2013, I continued to do it part time until the Covid 19 pandemic shut most places down.

What was your musical taste as a young man going into the field? Was it difficult to work on stations which played other types of music?

I was really lucky to have been raised to appreciate a lot of music. I guess I was raised on Oldies music. My dad played Elvis, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Doo Wop, Motown, and Big Band Music. Being a band nerd, I listened to a lot of classical music, too. My dad played guitar in a wedding band for years, so this exposed me to some new music. I remember him playing “The Breakup Song” by the Greg Kihn Band on our stereo as he tried to get the intro just right.

Most of my friends listened to AC/DC, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and Journey. I was listening to the older stuff. I recall buying a few “modern” singles on 45, but I would rather listen to the Beatles.

My first station, as I mentioned, was one that I listened to – an Oldies station. So most of the music I really liked playing. There were a couple songs that would show up on a playlist that I couldn’t stand (“Sunshine Superman” by Donovan immediately comes to mind) and when they played, I turned the speakers down.

I worked in a variety of formats (Oldies, Classic Rock, Urban Contemporary, Adult Contemporary, and Country). There were songs that I loved to play at each station. It was nice to be exposed to new music I may never have discovered had I not worked at some of these places. You could always turn the volume down on the studio monitors when you were playing something you didn’t care for. I would say that the speakers were down more at the Urban Contemporary station than any other.

You’ve said Wolfman Jack was your favorite national DJ. And so many other people’s…the Guess Who wrote a song about him for gawdsake. What was it about the Wolf that made him so appealing?

I guess I will answer that by saying why he was appealing to me. I always loved the way he always had something unique to say when he opened the microphone. Man, the stuff that flowed out of his mouth was like poetry. To this day, I wonder how much of that stuff was written down and how much was made up at the spur of the moment. It was brilliant. He painted pictures with his words. I wish that I could convey things the way he did!

I once read a quote from him that said, “I taught myself to tune in to another person’s wavelength, figure out what they were looking for, and try to project that thing back to them.” He did just that. There are countless clips of him all over YouTube. Listen to the way he reacts to listeners on the phone – he is a master. I heard him ask a female caller if she wanted to dance once. He was speaking in a soft voice and asked her if she wanted some “male companionship” and she told him yes. He then told her to stand up and hug her radio so they could dance together. It was just perfect.

Another quote from him: “I know it sounds corny, man, but I like to bring folks joy, and I like to have a good time. I know folks like to be with somebody who is having a good time. You sure as hell don’t want to be with somebody who’s having a bad day.” He always sounded like he was having fun when he was on the air. He was “playing” on the radio! He was having so much fun that you were having fun, too. I really think that is why he is so appealing to me – and the world.

You’ve said you got to interview many country artists & many like Reba McEntire were wonderful people. Did you get to interview any rock/pop stars too? And, you don’t have to name names if you don’t want but we’re any NOT wonderful to talk to?

(Keep reading to find some of the other greats Keith has talked to, why radio these days sounds so bland and why he chose to leave the field…) Continue reading “August 9 – Radio Then & Now From The Inside”

May 23 – Granddaddy Of ’80s Music

A music fan who shaped a good deal of modern music. A music fan, scientist, engineer…but poor businessman that is. We remember Robert Moog today, inventor of the modern synthesizer, who was born this day in 1934.

Moog grew up in New York City, and loved music. But he had little real inclination to play it, despite his parents putting him in harp lessons. Instead he was fascinated by the instruments, and by his dad’s career. His father was an electrical engineer for ConEd. At age 14, he built a theremin (a strange sound-shifting instrument used on the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” for instance) from blueprints. By 1953 – while still a teen – he began manufacturing them in small numbers and selling them by mail order, for about $50 (about $550 in today’s funds). “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he’d later say, “I was doing this to have a good time.”

He carried on to university, eventually getting two engineering degrees including a PhD.Somewhere along the way, a customer of his hooked a keyboard up to one of his theremins and that got him thinking about the possibilities. He began thinking about the idea of having the range of sounds made by a theremin controlled by a number of dials and combined with the sounds and simplicity of a simple electric piano keyboard. Thus by a 1964 New York engineering conference was born the Moog Synthesizer, the first commercially available musical synth. There had been a few synthesizers before that, but they were of little practical use for musicians, costing over $100 000, being large enough to fill a whole room and being run by punchcards. Moog’s synth was portable, albeit huge by current standards, and cost under $10 000, and of course utilized keyboards. In 1970 he refined it into the smaller, cheaper Mini Moog, which was the first really popular synthesizer in pop music, quickly being adopted by Rick Wakeman of Yes and Frank Zappa’s band among others. By then he’d already gained some credibility in the industry when the classic-lite album Switched on Bach, playing upbeat Bach music largely on a Moog, won a Grammy.

For all that, Moog was not great at business. He started Moog Music in the ’60s, sold it at one point but then bought it back but he lacked the acumen for running a large company and it didn’t do well financially. Among his “problems” was that he only filed for one patent. If he had patented all the groundbreaking innovations he’d introduced in his instruments, he doubtless would have made far more money…but perhaps stalled the progress of his instrument breaking through. As Sound On Sound wrote, if he patented all he could have “it’s likely the synthesizer industry as we know it would never have happened.” By the second half of the ’70s, Moog was losing ground to a number of competitors including Roland, who were able to refine the instrument a bit more and mass produce them at lower costs.

By the 1980s, he’d moved to North Carolina and had become a university music professor, although he still ran a music instrument company. He passed away from cancer in 2005, leaving behind his second wife and five children, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously..

So put on some ’80s clothes and crank up the Depeche Mode or Soft Cell and remember the “archetypal American maverick inventor”, who as the Guardian put it “changed the complexion of pop and classical musical worlds.”

April 18 – The Eyes Of Pink Floyd

His art took the music world by “storm.” Today we look at a “behind the scenes” type personality who passed away last decade after quietly shaping the music world of our lives. Storm Thorgerson passed away from cancer on this day in 2013. He was 69 years old.

Thorgerson wasn’t exactly a household name. But he had a hand in some of the best-known music of the ’70s through ’90s and was even sometimes referred to as the “fifth member of Pink Floyd.” Not bad for a guy who said he didn’t know one end of a guitar from the other.

Thorgerson was a graphic artist who has made a number of rock’s best known album covers and some of the videos that brought the music to our ears through the TV screen. He grew up in Middlesex, England and went to a school I imagine a lot of our readers would have liked to have gone to. While he was there, Syd Barrett and Roger Waters both attended as well; his family and Waters knew each other and he and Roger played rugby together. Meanwhile, David Gilmour hung around as well and became friends with the others. Thorgerson remembers them as being a little unusual (Barrett especially) but “They’re not as weird as hell,” he told Guitar World, speaking in the present tense about their youth some fifty years earlier. “They have the usual set of passions, but they also have a drive and talent obviously.” And while he first was friends with Waters, he left little doubt as to whom he figured was the epicenter of Pink Floyd’s greatness later on. “I think Dave (Gilmour) lent them a sense of musicianship that helped them to be very successful,” he pointed out.

While the others took off to college and formed Pink Floyd, Storm went off to get a master’s degree in visual arts from the Royal College of Art. Once he completed that, he helped form a graphic arts firm called Hipgnosis, which did visuals for any number of clients. None more famously though than his friends in Pink Floyd. Not only did he create the majority of their album covers and associated art, including Meddle, Animals and most famously the iconic pyramid-and-prism for Dark Side of the Moon, he hung out with them so much the trio of Waters, Gilmour and Nick Wright included him in discussions when figuring out what to do with Syd Barrett when his behavior became detrimental to the band.

Gilmour and Storm became particularly close, with Thorgerson being the best man at the guitarist’s wedding. Gilmour says of Storm’s artwork, “his ideas are not linked to anyone’s idea of marketing… they are atmospherically linked to the music.” And upon his passing away, Gilmour spoke of Storm, the man: “(he was) a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on and a great friend.”

As much as he was in with Pink Floyd and made our image of the “look” of that band, he didn’t limit himself to working on their LP covers. Through the years he did the covers for instantly-recognizable albums like AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds…, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, no less than 10 different albums for Alan Parsons including Eye in the Sky and Pyramid, as well as albums by 10CC, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and later on, the Cranberries and Blinker the Star just to name a few. Although many were drawn or painted images, he said “I like photography, because it’s a reality medium” but adding “I like to mess with reality… to bend reality” with his designs.

Little surprise that such a visually-oriented guy would shift gears in the ’80s, when music videos came to the forefront. When Hipgnosis folded in ’83, he turned his attention to producing videos for most of the rest of the decade and came up with ones including Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat”, Nik Kershaw’s hits “The Riddle” and “Wouldn’t It Be Good?”, Glass Tiger’s “Thin Red Line” and of course, Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly.”

Prog magazine now has an award given to the best packaging for a musical product. They call it the Storm Thorgerson Grand Design Award. Fittingly, Storm himself won the award in 2012, the last year before he passed away.

April 16 – The ‘RS’ In RSO

Remembering one of music’s big behind-the-scenes movers and shakers today. Robert Stigwood was born in southern Australia this day in 1934. Don’t know his name? Well, that’s why we refer to him as “behind-the-scenes”. But if you danced to Saturday Night Fever, saw Jesus Christ Superstar or even perhaps were bummed out by the breakup of the Beatles, Robert was a part of the story.

Stigwood went to college in Australia and got a job when young as a writer for an ad agency, but that wasn’t his thing. So he went to Asia and traveled, eventually winding up in London around the mid-’50s. He loved theatre, and started a small theatre agency there, representing actors. One was John Leyton, a stage actor with aspirations of becoming a singer. He helped his career along, and to help out, learned record production. Leyton had one decent-sized hit in Britain, and Stigwood was hooked on music. As Broadway mogul Tim Rice put it, “Robert never thought big. He thought massive!” Soon Stigwood was promoting tours in the UK for artists like Chuck Berry and The Who, and had started his own record company, Reaction. Their prime signee, Cream. Although they didn’t last long, his association with Eric Clapton did, and Stigwood helped “Slowhand’s” formation of Blind Faith and then his solo career in the ’70s. He was a socialite and he was said to have been the one who introduced Clapton to George Harrison at a party.

That wasn’t his only tie to the Beatles. In 1966 he became friends with Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager. He merged their two’s companies, but Epstein’s death cut short that relationship. Technically, he could have stayed on to manage the Beatles… but the Fab Four hated him. Paul McCartney apparently told Epstein not long before his death “if you do this (bring Stigwood in to help run their career) we can promise you one thing – we will from now on record ‘God Save the Queen’ for every single record we make…and we’ll sing out of tune!” Stigwood read the writing on the wall and gave the business back to the Beatles… for a nice profit. The end results of that are debatable. The void of management upon Epstein’s death led to in-house disputes between the four Beatles and eventually to John Lennon bringing in the seemingly corrupt Allen Klein to run the business end of the band.

Stigwood did make friends with some fellow, displaced-Aussies – the Bee Gees. He signed them and promoted them to stardom…then super-stardom. Along the way he was busy in theatre, producing London plays of shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and running a publishing company that had British TV shows in its nest including Til Death Do Us Part...which quickly was adapted in the U.S. to All in The Family. All the while, the Bee Gees were taking off on the RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) label with hits like “Massachusetts” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” . Their career stumbled a bit in the early-’70s, until Robert’s other major musician client, Clapton, moved to Florida and made the hit 461 Ocean Blvd. record, which was a smash. Clapton suggested the Bee Gees follow his lead and move to the land of palms, white-sand beaches and white-sand cocaine. They did, and made Main Course, which kicked off the second part of their career, with their first smash dance tune, “Jive Talkin’”. Around the same time, Stigwood was moving to New York City and taking in that city’s liberal ways and party scene. It was a barely-concealed secret that he was gay, and the Big Apple was no doubt more conducive to a happy life for him then than ‘Swingin’ London”.

One fortuitous day in New York, Stigwood read an article entitled “tribal rites of a new Saturday night” in a local publication. An inspiration hit him, and he bought rights from the writer … and turned it into Saturday Night Fever. The movie was a hit, and the record soundtrack – on his label and mostly created by his act the Bee Gees – set records… for record sales back then. He got the Bee Gees kid brother Andy Gibb on his roster and, after turning Grease into a smash movie and record was as the Guardian would later say, “the entertainment industry’s most powerful tycoon.” Although his big idea of a film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band didn’t help his bottom line nor the careers of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton or others involved, it didn’t sink his company and he went on to stage several more successful theatre productions including Evita, although his role in music began to take a backseat.

Stigwood passed away in 2016 at age 81 in London; sadly despite being lauded as one of the biggest “moguls” in the business, little appeared to be known about his personal life or who he left behind.

March 10 – Litt Lit Up Charts In ’90s

Today we wish a happy birthday to one of the important “behind the scenes” people of great ’80s and ’90s music. Scott Litt turns 68 today. Scott’s a producer extraordinaire…and a bit of a mystery man! Unlike say, Mutt Lange, let alone George Martin, there’s not much info about Scott out there. We presume he likes to let the music do the talking for him!

Litt says “I was a math guy in school, but once I got to the college level (in Colorado), I knew I could be a math teacher if I was lucky.” Around that time, he’d really gotten into pop and rock music and “the idea of making it seemed like a great career thing and a lot of fun.” So, in 1976 he made his way to New York, and landed an entry level job at the famous Power Station. He learned how to work tape machines and engineer the studio, by 1980 being the head engineer for Carly Simon’s Come Upstairs album. By 1982, he’d worked his way up to record producing, starting with an album by underground band The dBs. Chris Stamey of that band said “he was clearly a cut above anyone we’d been involved with.”

His reputation and skill grew. In 1985, he was called on to do some remixing and after-production for mainly British band Katrina and the Waves (a local hit in Canada, oddly enough but then virtually unknown elsewhere), including producing their re-recorded version of “Walking On Sunshine”… the record that made them international stars. Good fortune shone on him, and rising alt rock group R.E.M. then. He met up with them and produced their breakthrough album Document, and stayed with them for the next five albums… the ones which would happen to be the most successful, award-winning, multi-platinum ones of their career including Automatic for the People and Monster. He recently remixed and re-mastered the latter for the 25th Anniversary re-release, something he’d told the band “if there was ever a chance to take another shot at”, he wanted. He “decided to clear away the woolen guitar overdubs that clotted over (Michael) Stipe’s voice,” in the words of Pitchfork, something they weren’t convinced was an improvement but does show his willingness to always try to be better.

It’s well-known that R.E.M. and Nirvana were fans of one another in the early-’90s, so it’s perhaps no surprise he’d also work with Seattle’s top dogs, co-producing their In Utero album, remixing “Pennyroyal Tea” for a rather limited edition single and then co-producing their MTV Unplugged album as well. From there he worked a little with Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love and her band Hole. Add in a bit of work for the Indigo Girls, Liz Phair and the Replacements and later Incubus (producing their two biggest albums, Make Yourself and Morning View) Litt was one busy guy in the early-’90s! However, thinking big, he still started his own label, Outpost Records, in a joint venture with Geffen.

Outpost signed Canadian folk-roots rocker Hayden and put out his first two commercially-praised but small selling albums. More successful was Days of the New, another act he signed and produced. Unfortunately, the early 2000s decline in the type of alt rock Litt favored, coupled with a large signing bonus given Hayden pushed the company to bankruptcy by 2002. Since that time, Litt’s kept a low-profile although we know he has his own studio in metro L.A. and started a Recording Educational Facility for youth in Venice, California.

Litt’s own website appears to have been taken down, but we hope whatever he’s doing he’ll be doing a bit of “Walking on Sunshine” today.

March 7 – Burden Made The Look For The L.A. Sounds

Today we remember a man Neil Young calls a “friend for life” and “collaborator,” a Grammy Award winner whose name surely appeared in the rolodexes of California’s musical elite in the ’60’s and ’70s…but whose name is all but unknown to most fans. Designer Gary Burden passed away this day in 2018, at age 84.

Album covers are an integral…often overlooked part of our musical listening experiences,” the CBC reminded us in a tribute to him. And Gary was among North America’s best at creating memorable ones. He was born in Cleveland to “a very conservative family and I didn’t fit in.” Curiously, his way of getting away from that was one of the most conservative-seeming routes… he joined the Marines! After leaving them, he spent a bit of time leading a “beatnik” lifestyle in California before settling down enough to go back to school. He studied design at the University of California, eventually graduating and working in architectural design. His lucky break though was having Cass Elliott hire him to remodel her house.

She liked what he did, and got along with him so she told him “you should design our new record cover – you know how to design things!”. And he did, designing the first Mamas and the Papas album cover…and getting to hang out with the group, and other Laurel Canyon musical friends of theirs all the while. “I blew off my three-piece suit and never looked back,” he says. “I was born – the real me.”

Soon he was the “go to” guy for the L.A. Music crowd when it came to making album covers. “How to visualize the music, that’s been my mission.” Conor Oberst, one of the last musicians he worked with says “Gary always wanted the album packaging to reflect the spirit of music (and thus) he was often at odds with the record labels when they sought to cut costs at the expense of what he and the artist had envisioned.” Happily he usually got his way!

After the Mamas and the Papas, he soon was doing covers like Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut, the Doors Morrison Hotel (taken looking in to a real hotel named that, which Ray Manzarek had discovered driving around L.A.) and Crazy Horse’s self-titled one. That was a memorable one on two counts. One, because Burden typically envisioned and designed the cover, he more often than not got a photographer like his friend Henry Diltz to take the actual photo. “I was intimidated by the camera,” he said, but for this “I took that picture of the horse.” Which leads to the second reason it was memorable – “it was trying to bite me!”

He did Joni Mitchell’s famous Blue (“this was such an honor for me. That’s the only cover of hers that she didn’t make herself.”) , the Eagles Desperado and Jackson Browne’s The Pretender. But his most enduring artistic partner was Neil Young. Young liked Burden and his art, and told Rolling Stone they made at least 40 album covers together and “I still have covers for unreleased albums that he made for me” which he says will see the light of day eventually. It was with Young that Burden won a Grammy, for packaging of a Young box set in 2010. Burden picks Young’s On the Beach as his all-time favorite. The one with Young, facing away from the camera, staring at the sea in a bright yellow shirt beside a tacky yellow lawn dining set and with a fin from an old Cadillac sticking out of the sand “was about America in the ’70s where everything was cheaper than it looked.”

Burden was survived by his wife Jenice Heo, an artist herself. She worked with him on some covers and was for a time Art Director at Warner Brothers records. It’s hard not to think that his passing mirrors a passing of an era in music… because say what you will about Spotify or downloading mp3s, there is just no comparison to seeing a little 200X200 pixel picture on a phone screen to holding a 12” X 12” piece of art in your hands while listening.