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Aug 9, 2010

Interview with Jerry Greenberg

Jerry Greenberg is an icon in the music industry – a legend in his own right. At the age of 32 he was the youngest president of a major record label (Atlantic Records). He’s signed and worked with a number of rock and pop legends—ranging from Led Zeppelin to AC/DC to ABBA to Michael Jackson to The Rolling Stones to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E—and has managed to maintain those relationships throughout the years.

After spending an hour with Jerry it’s easy to see why he is so highly revered within the music industry. Whip smart with a keen business sense, Jerry has an eye and an ear for talent and knows what it takes to break an act. He also knows the importance of cultivating a relationship. No one is too big or too small. In Jerry’s world everyone is important. Jerry Greenberg truly is a class act.

When did your love affair with music begin?

I started taking drum lessons when I was 12 years old. I played my first gig with a band on New Year’s Eve when I was 13 years old. My father had to carry my drum set into the club. Everyone had to work on New Year’s Eve, and this guy found out I was a drummer. He had 10 bands working that night, so he sent me down to play with a trio. I came home that night with $60, which was about what my father made for the whole week. That told me, right then and there, that I should get into the music business and be a musician. That’s how it all started. I went on to form my own band when I was 15/16. I’m from New Haven, CT., so we played all the colleges – Yale, upper Boston—then we started backing up different groups that would come in. We played behind Chuck Berry, The Drifters, The Ronettes….We got very fascinated with the recording business and we got hooked up and made a couple of records with a group called The Five Satins, which were very big out in Connecticut. Then all of a sudden we got into it and started making records. I had a record when I was 19 years old on Atlantic. I bumped into Jerry Moss about a week ago and I told him that Herb Alpert and I are probably the only two guys who recorded for our own record companies and then went on to become President. Herb was President at A&M, and I was President at Atlantic. So, that’s how it all evolved and started in the beginning.

You’ve led an impressive career. What do you attribute your success to?

That’s a good question. I never set out to become the President of Atlantic. I set out to love music. To be able to have a good feeling about artists and music. I worked very, very hard. I devoted my whole life…the family was there I would always go home at night. I lived in Greenwich and I commuted, but I really gave Atlantic my life, my blood and people would ask, “How did you become President at 32 years old?” I told them I called everybody back and I knew how to say yes and no.

Calling people back is really important. When BiteMe! first started I made it a point to return every phone call. Now it’s responding to every e-mail. I tried to cover as much as I could for each publicist. It’s about making those key connections and staying on top of it all and giving everyone your time.

Right.

Obviously the music industry has changed a lot from when you first started out. Aside from the digital aspect what other changes have you seen?

The big conglomerates took over. They bought up a lot of the smaller independent labels. I think that a lot of A&R people in the big corporations got very scared about their jobs and very slow and nervous about making decisions. Someone said to me, “What’s the best description of how the business changed?” and my response was, “The shirt and tie guys got in there and kind of took over.”

Yeah, that is very true. What do you like/dislike about the changes in the music business in regards to downloading, the Internet, and digital distribution?

It is what it is. It’s not a question of like or dislike. The business has changed incredibly. Part of it is the fact that the record companies never recognized that digital was coming, that Napster was coming, that Myspace was coming. I’m amazed that a guy like Steve Jobs could come in and just take the whole business out from under everybody. I still love the music. I still love the fact that there is going to be and are new ways to exploit the music and find new artist. Music is the international language and that is not going anywhere. I just want to have a vision and be around people that have the new ideas about the new way it is going to work in the music business.

It’s funny how it all seemed to come full circle. Today it is less about albums and more about singles just like it was in the early days.

Absolutely. If I were running a record company now there would be no more spending $750,000 on an album. I’ll never forget, about five years ago, I was sitting with Ahmet Ertegun and he said to me, “You know it’s all coming back to singles. That’s just the way we started our business. Some of these artist were cheating the public by giving them just one single and the rest of the album was not that great. When we started Atlantic records in 1948 we’d put out a single and then maybe a second single. If we had three hits in a row then we’d say, ‘Oh, maybe we should put out an album.’” You’re exactly right. It’s coming back to finding singles and hoping that you have a real artist and not just a one shot.

Do you really think video killed the radio star or did it just make it stronger?

That’s a very good question. Bud Prager—who managed Leslie West in the old days and Felix Pappalardi—he’s a great producer who I have the utmost respect for. One day we went for lunch…it was 1979/1980 and MTV had just started. Warner Communications funded MTV in the very beginning along with American Express. Steve Ross had a vision of creating music on TV and having it be a marketing tool. Bud said to me as MTV progressed that he felt MTV hurt the record business. His whole philosophy and, I have to agree with him, was that we broke bands by them going out and getting a fanbase – a real fanbase. AC/DC started out in a little club called Max’s Kansas City then they worked their way up to the Fillmore then the Forum and then the stadiums. They built a fanbase, but so many of these artists just became these video stars and you could see them on video. The only way you could see AC/DC, before videos, was to wait until they went on tour. Bud felt that in the long run it hurt the artist and hurt their career and then it also created a lot of what we call “The One Shot” video artist – who were really acts that people got because of the video but when they really had to go out and do it there was no substance.

I have noticed that some artist are big on MTV or VH1 but when it comes time to tour they end up cancelling because they are not selling enough tickets, so then they have to reschedule and play smaller venues. You have worked with a number of large acts – one of which was the Rolling Stones. What was it like working with them?

It was great. I was head of promotions when we first signed The Rolling Stones. I was tuned in with radio and kind of knew what AM radio was looking for and as soon as I heard “Brown Sugar” I knew it was a hit. I told Mick, “You’re going to have a big record.” I was the one that picked “Angie.” It was a complete departure for The Rolling Stones to do a ballad like that. They were a great band and every time they went on tour Ahmet and I were mostly on the stage with them.

What was it like working with ABBA?

ABBA was an interesting story. I listened to the record Waterloo and knew it was a hit and made a deal for the band. They were just humongous everywhere except America. America was the last place that the band broke. I was very good friends with the manager, Stig Anderson, and he knew Atlantic Records was a great company and he knew I was spending the money. It was just a question that they were a pop group and at that time radio was mostly playing rock and I remember telling him, “You have to bring the band over to tour,” and he said, “Give me a gold album and they’ll tour.” I said, “But I can’t give you a gold album until they tour.” I finally convinced them to come over and I went to their first concert and saw them live in Edmonton. They only did 13 dates - three of which were in Canada and the rest in America. It helped. It really did, but their success came with “Dancing Queen”. When the clubs got hip to “Dancing Queen” all of a sudden they were cool and radio was forced to play them. I love the group. I love their music. I was very, very close with their manager Stig Anderson.

How did you feel about “Mamma Mia” the musical and the movie?

I loved when “Mamma Mia” came out. It was a great play and then of course with the movie - it was unbelievable. If you go to my website you’ll see some pictures of me with the group. There are very few pictures of any Americans with ABBA. They did a special on ABBA and myself and Sid Bernstein were the only two Americans that they interviewed. Sid knew how big they were and he tried to bring them to Yankee Stadium to promote a concert.

You were fortunate enough to have such a good mentor. What is the most important thing that you learned from Ahmet?

I learned so much from everybody at Atlantic. I was the young guy. I came in 1967 and worked with Jerry Wexler and Wexler was really the day to day guy who ran Atlantic records. When I first got there I always thought Ahmet was the president of ATCO because he was always in California and he was always in Europe and Jerry was working with Aretha Franklin. Jerry found me in Connecticut doing local promotions. He sent me a demo of “When a Man Loves a Women” by Percy Sledge, and I literally broke the record out of Hartford. He was very impressed with that and hired me as his assistant. When I came to work for him one of the first assignments he gave me was to find songs for Dusty Springfield for the Dusty in Memphis album. Jerry taught me the day to day aspect of the record business, which was finding songs, how to call disc jockeys, how to check sales, marketing…all of that. When they sold the company Jerry went to Florida and started making records down there and that’s when I really became close with Ahmet. When Ahmet signed The Rolling Stones in 1971 he took me to France to meet Mick Jagger. That’s when I really became Ahmet’s protégé. I learned from Ahmet, first of all, about music and, secondly, how you treat artist and the whole creative system that goes with treating an artist. The Rolling Stones didn’t turn out a record every two years. They put one out when creatively they were ready to write songs. I was a musician and all of our artists recognized that and I think that is why I got along with them so well. I was never intimidated by Robert Plant or Belushi or the Bee Gees or the Eagles. I told them what I thought about the record. I told them if I thought they had a hit single or not. In case of a tie the artist won. It was that simple. Ahmet really taught me how to be a diplomat when it came to certain situations with artist and managers and it was an extremely wonderful relationship. It was almost like a father son relationship.

What was that “it” factor you saw in a majority of the artists you signed? Did they share something in common or was it always different?

It was always different. With Foreigner I heard “Cold as Ice” and “Feels Like the First Time” and I probably would have signed them without even seeing what they looked like, but I did go over and auditioned the band. I was taught by Wexler and Ahmet that music came out of different countries, especially out of England. So, my first trip to England I got hip to Richard Branson. I gave Richard his first hit on Virgin with Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield). I started reading all the English papers, Melody Maker, N.M.E., and I saw all this stuff about Genesis – Peter Gabriel and the show and how big they were. Eventually I heard their music but I knew that band was going to be big. I would have signed that band just off of the press they were getting. Sometimes it’s gut, sometimes it’s the music, sometimes it’s whose the manager. You could put your chips on a great manager. With Bud Prager—even though I heard Foreigner and I knew they were going to be big—I remember I told someone, “Bud Prager is a great manager. He is due for a big hit.” So, it varies.

What advice do you have for artists that are just starting out?

I would tell artists to keep the faith because that is the most important thing. I would tell them to get involved with Artist Intersect, which is a brand new company, that I sit on the board with along with Chris Squire, Joe Elliott…It’s a new company created by a good friend of mine. A.I. is definitely part of the future of the record business. They can help young new artists find their way in the industry. It’s almost like one stop shopping. It can really help these artists with their careers and their music and to find a record company and a publishing company. There’s some great, great music out there. I’ve never seen so much good music out there – really. I started Mirage Tribute Bands, which I’ll get to later, but I’ve been out on the street again – going to clubs and seeing a lot of new bands. Obviously You Tube and Myspace are a new tool for these bands where they can literally get views and get people’s attention where they never could before. So, I would just tell young artist to keep working hard at your instruments, keep writing songs…the most important thing is to build a fanbase. I don’t care if it’s 300 people in a certain market at a certain club because you will find out in that club which songs really go over well, what the people really like and what they don’t like. I think it’s going to be a great time again.

You mentioned Artist Intersect. What is your involvement with the company?

I was asked to join the board, and we’re going to have board meetings. We’re not necessarily lawyers and doctors sitting on a board. We all come from the business. Chris Squire was in Yes. Joe Elliott in Def Leppard. There are other people on the board that are very streetwise, musicwise, and understand the business. It’s going to be a great company to advise young musicians and help them with their careers.

It’s great because they have the opportunity to receive advice from some top notch music veterans.

Absolutely. It’s almost like a one stop shopping machine.

Their business model is very good, and it’s geared toward where the industry is going.

As I said before, music is the international language and one of the things that I find…I joined forces with James Elliot and the two of us joined forces and formed Mirage Tribute Bands. It started basically with ABBA because I saw an ABBA tribute band about a year and a half ago that I just couldn’t believe. It was like watching and hearing ABBA. Then I went and checked out a band called Led Zepagain. They were also another great band. They looked like them. They played like them. They got it down. Then I found out that The Australian Pink Floyd Show sold out the Hollywood Bowl, so I thought there could be a definite situation here. Another good friend of mine, Michael Blum, he produced this Led Zepagain record on his label (Titan Music Inc) and they sold a million downloads. He’s built a whole record company business with tribute bands and we’re doing the touring management side. We have a Stevie Nicks, a Rolling Stones, an AC/DC (Bonfire)…so my whole Atlantic career is coming back in front of my eyes with these tribute bands and I am so excited about it. We do shows every Wednesday night at The Hilton in Las Vegas, which has led to shows every Friday during the summer in the Atlantic City Hilton. I just watch the expressions on these people’s faces. They even bring their kids, and these young kids know the songs because their parents listen to The Stones and Led Zeppelin. If you ask any guitar teacher what song a new student wants to learn and they’ll tell you it’s “Stairway to Heaven”. There is a whole new thing happening out there with a resurgence of the old music, which is going to help the young musicians because the young musicians are going to hear Zeppelin and say, “I want to be like that.” They will probably copy “Kashmir” and those type of riffs with the heavy drums and the heavy bass. I just think it’s a terrific time in the music business. (Check out Bonfire here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Txid6ullSwM )

You don’t see very many guitar gods anymore. It’s time for them to come back.

Absolutely. I was a big guitar hero fan. I signed Gary Moore. Guitar players are one of my fancies. My two favorite guitar solos is Jimmy (Page) with “Stairway to Heaven” and Eric (Clapton) with “Layla”. They were incredible.

You were a part of WTG Records, which was helmed by 3 big music moguls. Was it hard for Tommy, Walter, and yourself to agree and work on projects?

WTG stood for the three initials of Walter Yetnikoff, Tommy Mottola, and myself, Jerry Greenberg. They left me alone. It was my company, and it was out in Los Angeles. The interesting thing about that company was that I had gone to the Atlantic 40th anniversary party and Led Zeppelin played and Jason Bonham was on drums. I went backstage after the show and said, “Jason, I’m starting a new label over at Sony called WTG. I want to put a band around you.” He said, “I already have a guitar player. I was thinking about doing it.” That was my first signing for WTG/Sony and Bonham put out The Disregard of Timekeeping and it sold over a million records. It’s amazing how things happen. WTG was my life when I joined Sony and then I met Michael (Jackson). He was going to form his own record label and he asked me to come on board as President. I was with Michael Jackson for 10 years.

What was Michael like as a person?

Wonderful. He was an incredible human being. The kindest, nicest, most wonderful guy I’ve ever met. He was really a God gifted entertainer.

I heard that he was brilliant in that regard.

He was a perfectionist. He had perfect pitch, which the only other person I know who had that was Roberta Flack. He would record a vocal track ten times to make sure it was absolutely correct. He had such a good sense about music. I wasn’t with the company for more than two weeks and he called me up in the middle of the night and said, “Jerry did you see Sister Act 2?” I said, “No”. He said, “There’s a girl in the movie that you have to see.” It was the lead singer of the Fugees, Lauryn Hill. He said, “I want to sign her.” I knew who managed the group so I called him and said, “Michael, I found out she is in a group called The Fugees, but I spoke to their manager and if the first record doesn’t happen I think she would love to do a solo record with us.” Obviously, the first record happened and we never got her, but it shows you that Michael can spot talent and what his gut instinct was. She turned out to be a big star. I had a great time working with Michael and when I look back at my career and I think about all the artists that I worked with at Atlantic and then Michael for ten years. That was a treat. I’d wake up and say, “You’re really paying me to do this?”

It’s great to be paid to do what you love.

Absolutely.

You’ve put together a number of soundtracks. What is involved with putting a soundtrack together?

I was at UA (United Artists) for a year and Jerry Weintraub came to me and said, “Do you think we can put together a soundtrack for Karate Kid 2." I was lucky to find a song called “Gloria of Love” by Peter Cetera, and we made it a theme song. I also put together the soundtrack for Free Willy. They called me when I first joined MJJ and they wanted Michael to look at the move and write a new song. He looked at the movie and loved it but told me he didn’t have time to write a song so I told him, “Why don’t we use 'Will You be There,'” which was from his album Dangerous , “and I’ll find some other songs and it could be a record we release on MJJ.” He loved the idea. Then there was a group called SWV and 3T, which were his nephews, and we had a soundtrack. The soundtrack I had the most fun with was when I worked with Mel Brooks on Spaceballs. Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and Mel Brooks – did I have a good time or what?

Mel is a character.

He is and he has a great talent. Mel was really something. All those years I was fortunate enough to work with my brother Bob, who I worked with at Atlantic. When we formed Mirage Records I did that with my brother, and we came to UA together. It was great to have family around and to be able to have someone who I loved and trusted by my side most of my years through the business.

Is the Rainbow Bar & Grill still around in Vegas?

No, that closed in 2007. I have a lot of connections in Vegas, which is why I am doing the tribute bands there. The Rainbow was a good experience. Music is my life and that is what I enjoy doing. My brother and I enjoyed doing that.

Do you have any good stories from the Rainbow in Hollywood?

Mario built a tremendous club there and we came up with the idea and Mario said, “You guys are the only ones I would ever give a license to. I wouldn’t trust anyone else." We had a hell of a run. We were the #1 club before Tao opened up. We were playing rock music every night and had every celebrity from Robert Plant to whoever was playing Vegas. It was the Rainbow Vegas version of L.A. We were open 24 hours and had a great time.

What else would you still like to accomplish?

It’s interesting because I am doing a lot of different things, and I am filled with a lot of energy. I am involved with a play that I did with Michael called Sisterella. It opened at the Pasadena Playhouse, and we are reactivating that again. It’s kind of like Dreamgirls meets The Whiz. I was around David Geffen. I was around Robert Stigwood. I was around entrepreneurial guys who did more than just music. David had Risky Business, Dreamgirls, and a record company. I think I learned from David that there are other things that you could still do that are all creatively connected to music – whether it is music, film, or TV. I have an idea for a TV. show. All of a sudden I am back with a lot of energy and a lot of experience. Energy, experience, and creativity...if you have all of that and your health, because that is the most important thing, that is what it is all about. I’d love to still have a legacy of “He signed all these groups at Atlantic and he did all this stuff for Michael,’” to “Hey, he just made this great movie last year or he had this TV. show or he just built this tribute band business into a multi-million dollar business.” I love being around people, music, and creativity. I consider myself a creative content provider.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Just that I was an honest, good guy that called it like I saw it. I didn’t join the people that were not so good in our business.

For more on Jerry visit: http://www.miragemusicentertainment.com/

Interview by Nikki Neil

Photo of Jerry on the Red Carpet courtesy of Wire Image

Photo of Bob and Jerry Greenberg courtesy of L.A. Times

Photo of Abbacadabra courtesy of CFM MusicScene

Photo of Jerry and Michael Jackson courtesy of musicdish.com.

Photo of Jerry Moss, Ahmet Ertegun, and Herb Alpert courtesy of Wire Image

All other photos courtesy of Jerry’s personal collection.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Nikki!

    Can we reprint this interview [with full credit, of course] on our Facebook page? Mr. Greenberg is a featured speaker at Zep Fest and this is a GREAT interview - why reinvent the wheel?

    let us know
    info@ZepFest.com

    & vist the FB page to learn more

    ReplyDelete

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