Picking up where John Mellencamp left off, and as previously promised, we trust you will enjoy Part 2 of Jon Scott’s look back at life as a record promo man in the 1970’s and beyond….
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
June 16, 2013
Jon Paul Scott
Jon Paul Scott
This was no ordinary sweat. It was thick and suffocating. Beads of perspiration dripped in streaks all over my face, my neck, and my hands. The heat bounced off the streets and cars and caused a mirage of wavering images. An occasional dog would lope by with its tongue hanging out so far, it was touching the ground in an effort to keep cool. On the highways, tar melted on the pavement. And in the fields, nothing stirred, no birds, no squirrels, nothing. It was almost too hot to make the effort to walk from my car to the stage where Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be performing.
When I first arrived at Bonnaroo, I wondered why in the world I had come. But I knew why I was there even though the mantra, Good God, it’s hot, went through my mind a thousand times. It was at least 100 degrees, but it felt like it was about 120 with the humidity and heat index. I’d forgotten what the humidity was like in the South. It was so stifling I could barely breathe. What I wouldn’t have given for a good cold one, but I didn’t want to leave my spot close to the stage.
It was June 16, 2013, Day Four of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, about 30 minutes south of Nashville. I was standing in the middle of over 80,000 screaming rock fans, all chanting the name of the rock and roll group I met in the mid-1970s and worked with for many, many years after. It was the first time I had ever attended Bonnaroo, one of the country’s largest outdoor music and arts festivals. Many say it’s the Southern stepchild of Woodstock, and I believed it. And no matter how hot or crowded it was, I wouldn’t be anywhere else that day because the rock and roll band I was waiting to see became superstars because of a few people who passionately believed in them and worked to get them played on the radio back in the day—people like me. And now, they were about to hit the stage.
All of a sudden, I was 21-years-old again, and I could hardly wait!
My heart was racing. I inhaled a deep breath of the scorching air. All you had to do to get high was sniff the air. The scent of marijuana lingered thick and heavy and stuck to you like the heat. It was so strong, even a nonsmoker could get a contact high. Pot was everywhere. Alcohol was everywhere. People barely had any clothes on at all. A group of teenage girls no older than 16 or 17, clad in teeny-tiny halter-tops and cutoff shorts started screaming as they crowded around the stage.
As it got closer to show time the crowd started to chant louder and louder, “Petty! Petty! Petty!”
My thoughts flashed back to all the things that had happened in the last 30 years to help create their success. Besides the band and their manager, I was probably the only one of the 80,000 fans there that knew their real story. I wondered if the fans realized how a band made it to superstardom of this magnitude? Was it the songs? The singer’s voice? Was it their sound? Was it luck? Or, was it possibly because of a series of circumstances that took place at the right time, the right place? Or, was it all of the above?
Normally, I would be backstage, but that day, I was just a fan, a spectator at a concert. The band I helped to become rock and roll superstars were about to hit the stage and I was just as excited as the crowd around me. I could hardly wait to see them.
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit the stage, the cheers and screaming could be heard at least 10 miles away. I couldn’t help but think back to my first encounter with this rock and roll band. It’s an incredible, unbelievable story and set of circumstances that paved the way for this very day.
The concert started and I could feel it. My leg started shaking to the rhythm. I could taste it. I could smell it. It was in my blood. This was Rock and Roll.
Just last month I was working my dream job at MCA Records as Head of Album Promotion in Los Angeles. My career was red hot. I was traveling in the inner circle of rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who, Elton John, Golden Earring, Wishbone Ash, and so many more. It was a dream, come true.
I had just personally awarded Lynyrd Skynyrd a gold album at a private lunch in the world famous Universal Pictures dining room commissary. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant planted a big sloppy kiss on my cheek. My career was on a tremendous upswing.
Then one day it all changed. Despite my successes, I was let go because of label politics at MCA Records that involved a new artist named Johnny Cougar Mellencamp. I was passionate about Johnny Cougar, and I was trying to do anything I could imagine that would break his career. I trusted my gut. I knew I was onto someone who would have a great future, even if the label didn’t see it that way. In fact, MCA had deep feelings against Cougar based on bitter politics that had nothing to do with his talent. They could not abide my passion for him, and fired me for it. They later dropped Cougar, as well. Bad mistake!
After being unceremoniously let go by MCA, with only a one-week severance pay, the bills started mounting up as my savings account started going down.
My wife, daughter and I had just moved into a nice home we purchased in an older neighborhood in Woodland Hills. Things had been secure when I first made the move. Now, I wandered around the house, lost and aimless. What was I going to do? How was I going to pay for my new mortgage? Hell, how was I going to buy groceries or put gas in the old Mercedes that sat in the driveway?
I got on the phone and called friends in the industry. I had friends and family back home in Tennessee rooting for me and offering advice. But there was nothing out there.
“Don’t worry,” I told my wife as she passed through the room with a laundry basketful of clothes. “I’ll find a better job tomorrow.”
I didn’t. Weeks passed. The days warmed up and the fat, lazy summer rolled in. I gave up hope and briefly considered taking a job as a used car salesman. I thought about selling the house and vacating California altogether. I mulled the idea of going back to Tennessee and working at a radio station again, running record promotions and spinning LPs. It was a sad step backward and I didn’t want to take it, but sometimes, a person doesn’t have a choice. And I had a family to support.
One Friday in June, I sat in my favorite recliner, staring at the phone. I was listening. But it never rang. I scratched the beard on my cheeks, pondering what to do. Just as I started to get up to get a beer from the fridge, the phone rang.
Dammit, I thought. It’s probably the bank calling because I was late with my mortgage payments.
The ringing continued. Finally, I lifted the receiver and listened.
“Hello? Anyone there?” the voice on the other end asked.
“Sure. Who’s this?”
“It’s Charlie, man. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
“I sure do,” I said, snapping out of my daze. “Charlie Minor. How you doin’, buddy?”
Charlie was a legend in the record promotion business, a smooth-talkin’ southern boy from Atlanta, famous for his devil-may-care attitude and lavish dinner parties. He could charm the socks off a snake. He was handsome and a real ladies man, a superb salesman and a kingmaker in the music industry. Being invited to one of his outlandish dinner parties was always a sure sign that your career was on the fast track.
I assumed he was calling to console me about getting fired at MCA. We had known each other for many years, all the way back to Atlanta, and were pretty good friends.
“How am I?” laughed Charlie. “I’m pretty good, Jon-boy. I’m over at ABC Records now. How’d you like to have dinner with me sometime? No fancy party. Just you and me and a side of grilled beef?”
What better way to toast my former career than to have one last dinner with the original Good Time Charlie? I thought. It would be a blast, of course. It would remind me of better days, when I had a future and felt like somebody important. We’d chow down on a steak, knock back some expensive scotch and smoke a few cigars and have some fun. Afterwards, I’d come home and think about packing everything up. Tennessee was calling.
“Dinner sounds great, Charlie.”
There was a pause. “I heard you were having a bad time. How’s the family?”
Charlie was, above all things, a Southern Gentleman.
“The family’s fine, Charlie. My wife’s got a part-time job as a hair stylist and I’ve got—,”
“Look, I know all about it,” Charlie interrupted. “The thing with Cougar and MCA is out in the open. You’re not the only one who got fired over that kid. I hear they’ll be kicking him to the curb soon enough, after a little more legal wrangling. Why’d you wanna go and stick up for him like that, anyway?”
“That kid’s gonna break out, Charlie. I know it. You just watch. Only, it won’t be MCA that makes money on him, or me either.”
Charlie didn’t say anything.
“Why are you really calling me, Charlie?” I probed. “We haven’t had dinner in ages and ages.”
Charlie laughed. “Sometimes a dinner invitation is just a dinner invitation.”
“Sorry, Charlie. I was just—,”
“But sometimes a dinner invitation is something else entirely. I have always loved your passion, Jon.”
I felt a tiny bit hopeful.
“You often see things, Jon. You see them before most anybody does and you’re almost always right. You got a feel for music like nobody I know. That’s rare. That’s so rare I can’t tell you. You had it as a deejay in Memphis, and you have it as a record promo man.”
“Are you offering me a job, Charlie?” I chewed on my lip.
“Well, yeah. But not the one I originally thought of you for. I couldn’t convince them to hire you to mop up the lobby on Saturday nights. Sorry about that.” He waited for me to laugh. I didn’t.
“You’re just gonna have to settle for Head of Album Promotions. Would you be okay with that?”
What? My jaw dropped. I had to stop him right there.
“Charlie, hold on! What’re you saying?” I could barely breathe. “Charlie, wait! Lemme think. What kind of salary are we talking about?”
There was a long pause. “About 40 thousand a year.”
“That’s less than what I was making at MCA. I mean…is there any way—,”
“I don’t know, Jon. That’s a real good offer.”
“I need to think about this. Can I call you back?”
“Sure, if you really need the time, call me back.”
I couldn’t believe I said that to Charlie. What the hell was wrong with me? I should have just said yes. “I think I just blew an awesome job offer,” I said in a thin, cracked voice.
My wife stared at me for a moment. Then, with her usual patience, she said, “Call the guy back. Try it again. Take the offer. We need the money.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that.”
It was about then that I realized that I had no idea how to reach Charlie. I started looking for a phone book hidden somewhere amongst the moving boxes.
A half-hour passed.
I wanted a joint but was too depressed to get up and roll one. I wondered for the umpteenth time why I had sacrificed my career due to a ridiculous, obsessive fixation on promoting Johnny Cougar, a virtually unknown rocker. I knew the answer though. I knew it way down deep. I’d done it because I was passionate and was absolutely right when I followed my gut instincts.
The doorbell rang, jolting me out of my self-pity. I went to the door and opened it and there stood a deliveryman. He handed me a wicker basket containing a dozen gorgeous red roses for my wife, a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne and a sealed note.
“What’s this?” I asked.
The man shrugged. “I don’t know, buddy. I just deliver stuff.” And with that, the delivery man walked back down the sidewalk and left.
I went inside and closed the door. Curious, I opened the small envelope. It contained a card with a handwritten message scrawled in big looping letters:
“Jon, come work for me, you will not regret it! Charlie Minor.”
His phone number was printed on the back of the card.
I blinked several times. I placed the basket on a table, then grabbed the phone and called Charlie and immediately accepted the offer.
I was no longer unemployed! I didn’t have to leave Los Angeles! I was “somebody” again! And all was right with the world once again! Or so I thought!
As I drove up the 101 Freeway through smog and heavy traffic, joining the thousands of other cars on a typical Monday morning commute, I was buzzing with all the possibilities. I turned the radio up, and couldn’t stop shifting and twisting. My mind was on fire.
On my drive to Hollywood, as I topped a hill on Laurel Canyon Drive, I had a clear view of the valley and the big, black MCA building. I took great pleasure in saluting the ominous tower with my middle finger.
Initially, I had been worried about the attire at ABC. The only suit I owned was a decade old and way out of style. Charlie had informed me that casual dress was fine at ABC. So I had shaved my scruffy beard and threw on my old silkscreened t-shirt with the faded Lynyrd Skynyrd logo and a pair of jeans.
When I pulled into the ABC lot, a pristine silver Rolls Royce was easing into a parking space reserved with bold block letters for the one and only, CHARLIE MINOR. Charlie exited from the car in his expensive Armani suit. He saw me and waved me over.
“Charlie, I—,” I felt embarrassed when I looked down at my own raggedy clothes, carrying my old battered briefcase completely covered with band tour stickers and radio station logos.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “If I didn’t have to keep up my image, I’d be wearing a tank top and shorts. You know, they think I’m some suave devil? Can you believe that? They don’t have a clue I’m just a good ole country boy with the gift of gab.”
I smoothed my hair out of my eyes and just stared at him blankly.
“C’mon, buddy, let’s go in. I want to introduce you around.”
I followed behind him, eager to meet the people I was going to be working with.
When Charlie walked into the lobby, he greeted everyone, smiling big. They adored him at ABC and I couldn’t think of a single thing to dislike about him.
“Come with me,” Charlie said as he escorted me to his office.
It was a surprisingly humble small room without a big window. What impressed me was that he didn’t need flashy furniture to impress anyone. I was sure that Charlie could have had any office he desired.
“Have a seat, Jon.” Charlie motioned towards the sofa. “Now listen, Jon. This record company is a good place. I believe you’ll work out fine here. But you gotta promise me we’ll discuss it before you get into the politics around here. If you believe in an artist and he isn’t popular with the brass, I might tell you to back off. Can you do that if I tell you?”
I nodded. “Sure. I’ll back off. But I wasn’t wrong about Cougar. You know it. They just can’t see it.”
“Yeah.” Charlie gave me a look. “But that’s in the past. You’re the kinda guy who wouldn’t do the same thing twice and get himself fired all over again. Would you?”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t.” But I wasn’t really sure I meant it.
“Great,” Charlie said. “Wait right here while I make a few phone calls. Then I’ll run you around the building and introduce you.”
It was Monday, a big day for Promo Men. It was a crucial day to make calls to radio personalities on the first day of the week. Promoters lived and died by their ability to get records on the air, to convince DJs and managers at prominent stations to take a chance and play someone who was unknown. What happened on Monday set the tone for the week.
Charlie took off his jacket, ready to roll. He pushed a button on his phone and said, “Linda, get me KHJ on the phone.” KHJ was the Los Angeles Top 40 giant, and was owned by RKO radio, one the most respected radio chains in America.
As I watched Charlie work, I knew that I was going to learn from a pro. Charlie was amazing.
“Buddy, I want to personally thank you for adding Steven Bishop’s smash record On and On,” Charlie told KHJ. I realized that KHJ wasn’t playing On and On—not yet. But they would in a minute, because when Charlie turned on his charm, he was unstoppable. He was like a machine, convincing everybody and anybody that the records he was working on should be top priority.
“Get me WQXI Atlanta on the phone and get WMAK, Nashville on in five minutes,” Charlie barked to his assistant. This went on and on.
Charlie worked five calls at once, oozing Southern charm. He racked up a steady stream of “adds” as the minutes ticked away. A bell that hung outside his office door rang each time he received a commitment from a station. It rang and rang continuously. Within half an hour, he had gotten more “adds” than most Promo Men earned in a week.
Charlie had now talked to at least a dozen stations and I began to learn the real meaning of record promotion. I thought I knew what a Promo Man did, but after watching Charlie, I was convinced he was the King. No radio station in their right mind would ever turn down a call from Charlie. They knew he would somehow return the favor, which could be any number of things. Most people loved getting a trip to Los Angeles, with an invite to one of Charlie’s infamous Malibu parties. The word on these parties was that scores of beautiful bikini-clad women, radio VIPs and celebrities enjoyed Charlie’s food, drinks and hospitality while their limos swallowed up dozens of parking spots along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Most all of the radio stations knew that they also could get an invite to join him at the place EVERY record and radio guy hung out—Le Dome, the famous celebrity-filled restaurant on Sunset Strip.
If you were loyal to Charlie, you knew he would return the favor. For many people in the 70’s, this is what the record business was all about.
After about an hour, Charlie finally took a break and escorted me to my new office.
It was much smaller than the one at MCA and it didn’t have a ceiling-to-floor window looking out on the San Fernando Valley. But I didn’t care. It was equipped with top of the line gear, including the best turntable, the best headphones, and the very best sound system anyone could want.
I looked around and sat down in a plush office chair, smiling.
“There aren’t any new album releases to work on right now,” Charlie said. “Why don’t you just settle in and make some calls to the local ABC Records staff and introduce yourself?”
“That’s fine with me,” I said.
“Let me know if you need anything,” he said. “Just tell my assistant.”
I immediately ordered my two favorite magazines, The New Musical Express and Melody Maker, both British magazines that always featured new artists. That’s why I loved them. British bands had always been a favorite of mine.
The very next day, both magazines arrived. At MCA, it would have taken eight vice-presidents to sign off on the orders and several months to get an issue.
For the first week, I had little to do. I spent that time visiting various offices, introducing myself and familiarizing myself with ABC’s clients and music library.
I spent hours in my office with an expensive set of padded AKG K240-stereo headphones, spinning records on a Thorens TD-160 turntable. I made friends and ABC began to feel like home.
A few days later, just as I was ready to go to lunch, I reached behind the office door to get my jacket. I heard something fall. Curious, I reached down and retrieved an album in a white paper wrapper. Someone had scribbled the date by hand on the disc. It was at least eight months old.
In the world of record promotions, that was a long time ago! In the high-stakes record business, months were like centuries. This record, still in its plain white sleeve, was clearly not a priority at ABC, and likely contained subpar music by a subpar artist. It was probably supposed to be in the trash can.
But something bizarre happened.