Ends and odds

beatles-1295244_1280Allan Williams, the Beatles’ first manager (aka “the man who discovered the Beatles"), passed on last week.

In August 1960, Williams booked the young Liverpool band for a three-month residency in Hamburg, Germany, where they transformed themselves from a raggedy dance band into a tight concert act, which put them on the map in Liverpool as a top draw. As a result, we can safely say: no Allan Williams, no Beatles.

By the following spring the band dropped Williams in a contract dispute and eight months later picked up the more urbane Brian Epstein to manage them. In truth, there would be no Beatles without either Williams or Epstein. One kept them alive in their scuffling days; the other cleaned up their act, found them national gigs, and got them a record deal which helped launch them to international fame.

One lesson here is that a business may need one kind of management to get it off the ground, but another kind to get it into the global market. This week let us give thanks to the former. RIP, Alan Williams.

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It’s great to see the pop music community continue to resist the roar from the cave in American politics, as we await the changing of the guard in two weeks. Rock/pop artists are not always paragons of virtue, but they can be counted on to speak out against the most virulent forms of prejudice they witness. The campaign of the President-Elect has promoted the most toxic brew of racism, jingoism, xenophobia, bigotry, and sexism I've seen in American politics in my lifetime, so it's no wonder the PEOTUS can’t find a single A-list entertainer to play at his inauguration, as mentioned here.

Bruce Springsteen, rock’s working class hero, is the most recent to speak out against the man-child who will be Prez—although Bruce focuses not on the intolerance factor but on Trump’s mental and emotional capabilities. The Boss doesn’t mince words:

I’ve felt disgust before, but never the kind of fear that you feel now…[Is he] simply competent enough to do this particular job? [Does he] simply have the pure competence to be put in the position of such responsibility?

Given the lack of confidence that the public has in this Prexy-Elect compared to previous ones (as surveyed here), it’s fascinating to see many in the business community—who were hostile to his candidacy a year ago—line up to kiss his ring. I predict in the long run many of them will pay a heavy price for this.

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Let’s wish Elvis Presley—wherever he’s hiding—a happy 82nd birthday this weekend. In recent years I’ve come to appreciate the innovative force he was in pop music from the time he first wiggled his hips on national television. I’ve long celebrated the work of his uber-talented contemporaries, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but for much of my life I under-appreciated the dude who made it all possible. Elvis was the gyrating force that liberated millions of teens in the 1950s and put rock & roll on the map to stay.

Here’s Roy Orbison’s reaction to seeing a young Elvis performing in Odessa, Texas, on a Country & Western tour in 1954:

His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. ... I just didn't know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.

Within a year Elvis had an RCA contract and his first chart-topper, “Heartbreak Hotel”—followed by 10 more #1 hits that made him, by many measures, the most successful solo artist (pop or rock) before or since.

His draft induction in 1958 interrupted his momentum, after which poor career decisions by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, led him down a blander path to schlock-film stardom. Over the ensuing two decades, Elvis resumed touring from time to time, but he never fully regained his rock edge. And the jealous protectiveness and royalty demands of his manager drove away many of the top songwriters (like Lieber & Stoller) who wrote his earlier hits (like “Jailhouse Rock”).

Elvis wound up in a classic business rut, when you no longer have to innovate or take creative risks to keep the money rolling in. You become a performing cash cow. No need to rock the boat—or the house.

Many believe Elvis died in 1977, a victim of prescription drug addiction. But if you listen again to “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” or “Jailhouse Rock,” you know better. The King of Rock & Roll lives.


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5 Comments

  1. Springsteen has said far worse things about Trump. Bono - who seems to get along with every other politician - said, 'The public is under seige by a moron.'

    1. For some reason that descriptor is used more than any other by music artists describing the President-Elect.

  2. Parker destroyed Elvis's career in the 1960s and 1970s. The King ruled the world in the 50s with cutting edge rockers. Even his ballads were top quality. But then he slowly slid into self parody. A good manager would have made certain Elvis kept getting the best songs to record along with the best films to star in. Royalty percentages should have been a secondary concern.

    1. I especially loved Elvis's rockers, but I'd have to say "Love Me Tender" was a killer ballad (and sung beautifully). And "Don't Be Cruel," a kind of up-tempo ballad, was a masterpiece. All his early stuff was recorded exquisitely well. I still can't believe those studios could get that kind of sound in 1956 and 1957. Simplicity was the order of the day, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

  3. Taking your point about Allan Williams and Brian Epstein (different kinds of management did different things for The Beatles) I think we can see that different types of talent were needed to launch rock n' roll: Chuck Berry and Little Richard wrote it and launched it, Elvis popularized it.

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