Return to SWAG Page
Return to IMG Catalog
Stephen & the Snake Home Page
Although billed as a work of historical fiction, this account is largely autobiographical.
Read about the halcyon days of the music business in the words of one of its icons!
Morning of Apollo: August, 1961
Benny Allen carefully climbs down the rusting metal stairway to the basement rehearsal hall of the Apollo Theater, Harlem. He is there to rehearse his arrangement of "Heartbreak Hotel" with the all-black house band, for the new weekly revue opening the next day.|
Although all other artists appearing are black, this arrangement was written for a white artist, Ral Donner, perhaps the original Presley imitator. Ral sounded bluesy, had a record on the charts, so he was invited to appear.
During the past month, Benny had been cutting an album with Ral for George Goldner's Gone Records label. But this band arrangement was a total departure to the recorded sound Benny had created. Ral had no idea what was in store for him. At the same time, Benny had no idea what was really in store for him.
Inside, rows of bare flickering fluorescent ceiling lights flood the room, illuminating groups of black artists waiting their turn to run down their music. Huddling along the walls, watching and listening, in contrast, are their white managers, directing gofers to run in and out through the giant open doorways to bring them coffee and food. They also send them scurrying up and down the backstage stairway to deliver the artists' uniforms to the dressing rooms. The Apollo rules are: new artists — top floor with three or four to a room, sharing a long table, mirror with lights, and hanging their clothes on nails in the wall.
Headliners' gowns and tuxedos went to the private dressing rooms on the low floors, close to the stage.
Benny watches from the sideline, anxious to have his turn. The managers speak to each other in muffled tones, occasionally making comments on each run-through. "Yeah, great song. Good arrangement."
After what seems like 10 versions of "Shout," Benny gives out his music and climbs up on the podium. The baritone saxes and trombones thump a bass line, while Ral moans, "Feelin' so lonely, feelin' so lonely, I could die."
"In-cred-ible!" Someone shouts from the back of the band.
Benny can't see who. Probably some impressed manager on his way out. He ignores it and continues conducting.
There it is again, louder this time and coming from behind the sax section.
Resolute, Benny keeps conducting. But some curious musicians have already turned around, disrupting the performance.
"In-cred-ible." The voice repeats, coming closer. A weasel-like man, waving his arms, knocking down music stands, pushes and shoves his way through the brass section, still maniacally shouting "Incredible," and finally stopping at Benny's side.
"Take Five!" the man shouts. The musicians put down their instruments and walk away, grateful for the break.
What the fuck! Who the hell is this imbecile dismissing my musicians?
Ral walks away, toweling his face, acting disgusted.
The man stands there, smiling up at Benny on the podium. He is dressed in a black velvet vest, a puff white shirt with a black pearl tie pin stuck in a paisley tie.
Benny looks down at him, disdainfully. Who is this short guy? He looks like a cross between a midget Dr. Faustus and Abe Lincoln. "So?" Benny asks.
"I mean, that's incredible, man," stroking nervously at his squared-off black goatee. He watches with darting beady eyes, — left, then right — left, then right.
What is he waiting for? Maybe I'm supposed to know him.
Benny's never seen him before. He shrugs, looks back at his score, makes some notes where he left off. Maybe he'll just go away.
No chance. The man reaches up and pulls at Benny's arm. He offers up his card which he slips from his vest pocket. "I really gotta tell ya your music's great. Are you some kind of modern band arranger, like Stan Kenton? I never heard anything like this before." He then steps back, looking up, waiting for Benny's reaction, as if some revelation will follow.
Benny looks at the card: "Phil Spector," and shoves it into his pocket. "I'm not a band arranger, but a hit record arranger. I'm on the charts this week with the Echoes, Shirelles, Chuck Jackson and Tommy Hunt."
"Even better. I'm producing the new Gene Pitney session in a few weeks. Do you wanna do the arrangements? I know you'll write something in-credible."
"Yeah, for Pitney, probably more a full orchestra with strings and rhythm. Right?"
"Absolutely, man. I mean, whatever you want. You'll have carte blanche. So how's Bell Sound for the session?"
"Bell's good," Benny says. Fact is he was there last night. "So who wrote the songs?"
"Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the lead song, 'Every Breath I Take.' "
Benny doesn't know who they are either.
The Apollo band drifts back into place. Benny prepares to resume his rehearsal. Ral steps up waiting for the downbeat. The man walks out the door.
Bennys, Come Back!
April 1970: flash forward for the moment.|
Four are shot at Kent State.
ABC-TV begins "Monday Night Football."
The twin-towered World Trade Center is completed.
The floppy disc is invented.
Charles Manson is convicted of killing Sharon Tate.
Bar codes are introduced.
The Beatles are going. The Beatles are gone. Oh, Yoko. Oh, Yoko. Oh!
Music pioneer George Goldner dies suddenly April 15, 1970 at 52 (born 1918, New York City). Throughout a career spanning 22 years, George Goldner owned or co-owned over a dozen different record labels, first in the Latin market, including Tico, Rama and Vee labels; then, Gee, Roulette, Gone, End and Red Bird. He and his contemporaries built the foundations of what the music industry became.
Two days following Goldner's death, on the 17th at 8:30 in the morning, Benny's ex-publicist, Morty Wax, silent for the last 15 years, calls, asking why he wasn't at the funeral.
Benny says, "I didn't know George had died."
"Yeah, and he died in the sack with someone you introduced him to. Ya know, the gym teacher."
Same old Morty, calling with a headline: GEORGE GOLDNER DIES IN THE SACK; not simply that George had died.
"Yes, Morty, I introduced them."
Mort's jibe angered Benny. News of George's death made him sad. And the gym teacher, he hasn't thought about the gym teacher incident in all these years, happy to have placed George securely and comfortably into his internal discography with all the other people, places, events of each session he did in the early 60s; each artist, arrangement, label, studio, engineer and story. Now, forced back to 1961, to mix legacy and legend, to take from his index of short interludes and love affairs — the 2,000 recordings and hundreds of hits he made, he draws George Goldner back from memory.
But why not? He loved George, even though he had refused to speak to him since 1961. He loved him like he loved all these music men of vision he had come to know — George's closest friend, Hymie Weiss of Old Town Records, Nat Tarnapol, singer Jackie Wilson's manager, and all the others who adopted him like a son, took him under their wing, taught him everything he needed to know about the business, and gave his talent opportunity.
Hy Weiss, who started the Old Town label with his brother Sam in 1953, was one of the great independent record makers of the 50s and early 60s, and like George Goldner and most of the others, all rose from meager existences to become music pioneers of their time. And yes, they greedily did for themselves, but they recognized great artists, great songs and talent, that they brought to the public at their own risk and expense, and built the foundations of what the music industry became.
These enclaves of independent record promoters, entrepreneurs who founded record labels that became the catalyst of rock 'n' roll, generated hundreds of hit records, a major radio industry, music publishing dynasties and all the major media that followed. They include Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic; Sam Phillips at Sun; Phil and Leonard Chess of Chess Records; Herman Lubinsky at Savoy; Syd Nathan at King; Florence Greenberg of Scepter Records; Al Silver, Fred Mendelsohn at Herald/Ember Records; Morris Levy at Roulette.
And yes, the gym teacher, George's companion in his death, appears in George's life May of 1961, when George hires Benny for a split date for two of the artists on his roster, Ral Donner and the Bobbettes, at Mira Sound Studios.
Benny usually hates split dates because he would have to fit two different artists into one orchestral concept since they both are recorded with the same orchestra in the same session. Luckily, this time the songs that each was recording fit into his concept, which included strings. Not realizing that Goldner had never recorded with violins and cellos before, Benny watches him freak out, abort the control room to the studio's lounge, and face his destiny.
There he finds said gym teacher, tall, beautiful and blond, sitting with the receptionist. He instantly falls in love.
Benny asks Morty, "Yes, I remember the gym teacher, but how come you didn't tell me about the funeral?"
Arrogant as ever, Morty says, "So I'm telling you now. What's the difference, he's dead. Right, Bennys?"
Ah, Benny with an 's.' Yeah, that was George's affectionate name for me.
That is, right up until the time Benny stopped talking to him when he didn't pay him at the completion of the Ral Donner album. Then, every day, George called, saying "Bennys, Bennys, come back." And every day Benny just hangs up on him.
"So come for lunch," Morty says. "We'll reminisce. You can see my new office. It's a world-class office now, not like the dump it used to be. It's just upstairs over where George's office was — like it used to be."
He didn't see Morty then in '71 in his new office. But he did see George a few days before he stopped talking to him back in '61 in his office one floor below.
The night before he and George had recorded Little Anthony at Bell Sound. Benny's days were filled with recording of one artist after another, some squeezed in between larger album sessions for the same or other labels.
That morning, on walking into George's office, he could already hear George from the reception area shouting at his wife, Mona: "Mona, I want you to stop bugging me. And besides, I told you never to call me in the office." By the time Benny reached George he was at his height of fury and in the process of slamming down the phone.
"Hiya, Bennys," he greets him with a smile. "Sit down. Mona's still bitching that I'm never home."
George was either recording, traveling to promote his records, running with his pals, deejay Alan Freed or Hy Weiss, betting on the trotters, or playing gin, badly, ultimately gambling away millions, or off with the gym teacher.
But he had a fabulous office, not like the run-of-the-mill offices of the time — an impressive sprawling black half-moon couch that made the room look round, complete with bathroom and stall shower.
"So, ya did it again, Bennys. I played it on the phone this morning for my distributors and they all say it's another Top 10."
With that, George turns around in his chair to the turntable behind him and tries to lift another record off with his fingers in order to put the recording on. But he can't do it. He has no fingernails, bitten off while betting on the trotters. Instead, he takes another 45 to pry the record loose. "Wanna hear it?"
"No. I just heard it." But in truth, Benny was still reverberating from George's tirade in the studio.
"Why were you so rough on the kid last night?" — meaning Little Anthony, not his kid assistant, Artie Ripp, who was also there, and whom he also berated.
"Who? Which one?" George shrugs, smiling.
He pauses for Benny's dumbfounded shaking of his head.
"Oh, you mean Anthony. Well, I got what I wanted, didn't I?" George says.
I guess he did.
George stood outside the vocal booth at Bell Sound Studios, glaring through a little glass window, menacingly shaking a clenched fist at the terrified little 14 year old in short pants and sneakers who is inside crying. George shouts, "If you don't get it right this time, I'm gonna come in there and kill you."
Anthony gathers enough courage to try again.
Done with him, George storms back into the control room, banging his way through the heavy sound proof doors, already shouting to Eddie Smith, leading studio engineer, to run the tape again for the overdub. "Okay, Eddies, do it again," also calling him with an 's.' Waiting, George smoothes down his custom black silk suit, tightens his black silk tie. The tape starts. Anthony sings, luckily getting it right this time. George stands behind Eddie listening with his eyes closed, his body swaying, his head moving forward-and-back, forward-and-back, like a Latin turtle in heat.
He turns to Benny sitting on the control room couch. "That's it, Bennys. That's it."
Happily George dances to the music. Yes, George with his Latin soul.
When the take ends, Eddie takes the tape to the cutting room down the hall to have reference discs made for George to play for his distributors.
Then, for no apparent reason, George becomes furious again, this time directed at a skinny, tough-looking, 16 year old with a goatee, smoking a cigarette in the far corner of the control room.
Artie Ripp is George's adopted prodigy, sent to him from Chicago to learn the recording business, allegedly through a connection to "Momo," Sam Giaconno, Chicago mob boss, and purported music industry bank operating through his alleged banker, Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records in New York City and former partner of Goldner.
George points to a place at his feet. "Artie, c'mere."
Artie approaches cautiously, then reaching the spot, nervously slurring his words, "Yeah, George, what is it?"
Without warning, George hauls off and slams him full-palmed across his face, screaming, "This. This is what it is." He hits Artie once again, even harder, this time causing blood to trickle from the corner of his mouth.
There's dead silence in the room. Finally George shouts, "Next time when you're supposed to rehearse the artists, you do it."
Holding the side of his face, trying not to cry, Artie defends himself. "But I did it, George. I did it."
Suddenly softening, George says, "Yeah, right. You just piss me off," then takes Artie around, now gently pushing him toward the door. "Eh, go wash your face."
"Wait!" George suddenly stops him, and takes a wad of $3,000.00 in hundreds from his pocket, gives it to Artie and tells him to take the limo up to Yonkers, and bet it all on some trotter in the Third, to win. "Ask Alan Freed if he wants to go. Tell Alan I can't go. Mona wants me home tonight. Right, Bennys?" George asks, running over to where he's sitting, now laughing, also sitting down and slapping his knee.
"Right, Bennys," Benny replies, laughing too.
The control room door slowly reopens a crack. Artie pokes his head back in.
"What?" George sneers.
"I wanted ta know if Benny wants ta go too?"
"Out," George says, pointing back to the hallway. "He's gotta get ready for Ral's Apollo rehearsal."
Benny was working on that spectacular band arrangement of "Heartbreak Hotel" for Ral to sing.
"I mean are you done yet, Bennys? Are you ready? The rehearsal's tomorrow morning."
Benny stands up to leave the studio. George walks him to the control room door. "And what's about the rest of the album arrangements for tomorrow night? Are they complete?"
"They are. And they are great."
"Well, they better be, or you don't get paid."
Well, he didn't get paid. And that's when Benny stops talking to him.
At the end of the session that next night George suddenly wants to discount Benny's arranging fees. When Benny refuses, George says he wouldn't pay him anything then. Benny threatens to take him before the musicians' union to collect. He says he'd kill him if he does. Knowing George's connections, Benny believes him, and they never speak again.
And now he's dead. And now I'm sorry.
Two weeks after meeting Phil Spector at the Apollo, Benny overflows Bell Sound Studios-Studio A with 54 musicians. The choice of Bell is right for the session. It has great live sound and great echo chambers which are needed for Benny's orchestration. The room also has a large enough recording floor to accommodate the musicians he hired — 20 violins, violas, cellos, double-basses, two harps, oboes, flutes, bassoons, brass, rhythm section, percussion, and two background vocal groups, a white girls trio for ooo's and ahs, and the Five Satins of "In The Still Of The Night" for the Doo-Wop parts. It is a new concept of mixing R&B, Doo-Wop with Classical, with a Rock n' Roll bottom and a Bach "Brandenburg Concerto"-type top. Listening from the control room, when played across the speakers, one hears a wall of sound.
Excitement sizzles. Phil Spector fizzles.
Everyone is ready to record. Benny stands at the podium surrounded by three guitars and amps in front of him; the grand piano, bass and drums, behind him; the white girl-group to his left; the Satins on his right; Gene Pitney waiting in the enclosed vocal booth in the far left corner of the studio.
Seemingly insecure, ponderous, unsure, and whining for three hours, Phil tries to get a drum sound he likes, trying out different equalizations, listening to various echo combinations, and asking to hear the drums again and again.
The drummer, Gary Chester, a short, tough-looking Italian/Cherokee, patiently accommodates, smiling knowingly.
By then, however, the session is about to go into overtime and nothing is on tape. The standard union session is three hours for four songs. Guests in the control room, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, producers Leiber and Stoller and others sit patiently waiting for the recording to begin. But Aaron Schroeder, the owner of Gene's label, Musicor, is now fuming that the session is costing him $14,000.00 — an unheard sum for a single session at the time.
For musicians to sit around too long is unwise because they get stale. Spontaneity is important for a hit record. It is the beginning of the 60s, when all recording is done live, the orchestra, vocal, vocal group, everyone together in the studio recorded live, at the same time. The arranger is supreme. Without the arrangement there is no recording, no notes to play, nothing for the orchestra to read. The arranger creates all the music heard on a record, other than the melody of the song. He writes the drum parts, invents the rhythms, the guitar riffs, piano parts, bass lines, string music, group parts. He invents the "hooks." The producer captures it on tape.
Most songs have a "hook," a main theme, chorus, catch phrase, and the hit part that you go away humming. The arranger must make this the most universally appealing part of the orchestration, something that is built up to with just the right amount of tension so when it finally arrives it is a great and satisfying appearance, a great burst of power. The process then repeats itself, verse after verse until the song is concluded, usually with the hook.
Because there are no multi-track recorders as yet, and Monaural is the standard, there is little overdubbing — no layering of instruments for adding-on later. The notes the arranger writes must be perfect for the live on-the-spot performance. The recording engineer, under the producer's direction, balances the instruments through the live performance, simultaneously mixing them through the recording board and onto a 1-track mono master 1/4" tape.
It is late 1961. Stereo is in its infancy. Two-, 3- and 4-track tape machines had only just been introduced, and are used mainly as safeties, rather than for masters. Bell Sound had a 3-track recorder for overdubbing, leaving one track open for a vocal or harmony overdub, the same method Benny later used for his Neil Sedaka sessions. But 8-track was not fully adopted until a year later when a few studios, Bell Sound included, experimented with it. And futuristic 24- and 32-track recording were just non-existent.
Aaron Schroeder finally demands that Phil Spector get on with it. And Phil relents.
Everyone resets their music. The orchestra retunes. Benny returns to the podium, carefully making his way through the maze of wires and microphone booms.
The room quiets. He breathes in and, finally, counts off.
The drums reverberate. The rhythm pounds. Gene Pitney moves closer to the mike as the Five Satins sway in unison, swinging their arms, snapping their fingers, "Click," singing deeper and deeper in perfect street-corner harmony:
"Da-um, Dip-dip, Dooba-bop-bop.
"I hardly ever thank the stars above,
For sending me your very precious love,
You'll never hear me say a prayer
For thanks to someone way up there
Who gave me such a lucky break?
Oh, no, darling
Only with Every Breath I Take."
The tympani resounds and Benny indicates 20 violins tremolo, and they rise to a crescendo, shimmering higher and higher as Benny holds a masterful regiment to a steady beat, molding each nuance with the turn of his hand, a look in his eye, standing there, his head raised in a cathedral of sound, embracing the wonderment of his life, his arms open, his eyes closed, 50s music, 60s music, the classics as he had learned so well, the echoes of new in a communion of old; his heart pounding, screaming, pounding, screaming. "God, I'm making music."
"God, I'm making music," he murmurs again, as the strings sweep over and under, and over and...
Want to read more?
Paperback edition available from the Iris Music Group Store
Also Available on Amazon.com and as e-book Kindle, Nook and iPad Editions.
Don't have an e-book reader? You can dowload free Kindle software for your PC here.
First | Previous | Next | Last
Return to SWAG Page
Return to IMG Catalog
Stephen & the Snake Home Page