|Photo by Jane Richey
Industry Profile: Mike Kappus
By Larry LeBlanc
This week in the hot seat with Larry LeBlanc: Mike Kappus
Mike Kappus’ career would make an engaging film.
His ties to America’s musical community are powerful and closely personal.
Blues icon John Lee Hooker was the best man at his wedding while Aaron Neville was the featured singer, joined by Hooker, Robert Cray, John Hammond, several in-laws, and the bride.
Kappus was John Hiatt's best man at his first wedding.
Kappus also served as pallbearer at the funerals of Muddy Waters, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and Albert Collins. He also had enduring relationships with such late blues figures as Willie Dixon, Charles Brown, Luther Allison and Albert Collins
In 1976, Kappus founded The Rosebud Agency in San Francisco with the specific goal of booking a limited number of distinctive artists worldwide,
Today, with dedicated fan bases and established club, arts, and festival circuits firmly in place for blues, and Americana acts, The Rosebud Agency is of the most respected agencies in the business.
With its focus, it is also less affected by the uncertainties of the touring world than agencies plying mainstream pop and rock acts.
With a 10 member staff consisting of four agents, The Rosebud Agency currently book close to 2,000 shows a year worldwide
Its booking roster includes Mavis Staples, Ruthie Foster, Bettye Lavette, Allan Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright III, Beausoleil with Michael Doucet, J.J. Cale, John Hammond, Marcia Ball, Carrie Rodriquez, Coco Montoya, the Duke Robillard Band, Charlie Musselwhite, the Weepies, Charlie Watts, Meshell Ndegeocello, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Kappus’ management clients have included John Lee Hooker, Robert Cray, John Hiatt, Duke Robillard, Loudon Wainwright III, John Hammond, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.
Kappus continues to manage J.J. Cale (the two worked have worked together for 26 years) and he co-manages Trombone Shorty.
When Kappus launched The Rosebud Agency, John Lee Hooker was one of the first artists he approached for representation. Initially, Kappus represented Hooker for east of Colorado, and eventually he became his exclusive agent, and then his manager.
Working with Hooker provided Kappus with milestones that are rare in anyone's career.
Before his death, Hooker said. “Mr. Kappus has done more for me than any agent I ever had and I have had quite a few of them. I never had a lot of managers, I had one or two, but they weren’t as strong as this man. He is a very strong young man. He don’t back down….I was with Mike when I was scufflin’; we stuck by each other. He was scuffling’, I was scufflin’. We got poor together, now we just about got rich together.”
Hooker, who had little formal education, ran away from his sharecropper's home in Coahoma County, Mississippi as a teen, moving to Memphis and Cincinnati before finally settling in Detroit in 1943. There, he supported himself with auto factory work while performing in the clubs in the Russell Street and Hastings Street nightlife districts.
Hooker's first manager, Elmer Barbee, brought his demos, recorded in the back of Barbee's record store, to the attention of Bernard Besman who operated the Sensation label. In 1948, Besman recorded "Boogie Chillen" and licensed the track to Modern Records in Los Angeles.
“Boogie Chillen" became a #1 hit on Billboard’s R&B Juke Box chart in 1949, spending 18 weeks on the chart.
While Hooker recorded other hits for Modern, including "Hobo Blues," "Crawlin' King Snake," and "I'm in the Mood,” he also recorded hundreds of tracks for other small R&B labels, recording as Johnny Williams, Birmingham Sam, Texas Slim, Johnny Lee, Delta John, Little Pork Chops and other names.
In 1955, Hooker signed with Vee-Jay Records in Chicago and recorded such blues standards as "Boom Boom," "Whiskey and Women," "Dimples," "House Rent Boogie," and "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer."
However, by the early '70s, Hooker had abandoned recording to make his living as a touring performer.
It was Kappus who conceived, and supervised Hooker's remarkable 1989 comeback album “The Healer,” which spent 38 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart, peaking at #62.
Several years after an initial discussion with Van Morrison, Kappus decided to take advantage of a growing list of requests he had received over the years from a group of leading artists, including Carlos Santana and George Thorogood, to record with Hooker. The requests gave him the idea for an album project that would also include collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Canned Heat, and Charlie Musselwhite.
However, Kappus had difficulty placing the album after it was recorded. Label after label turned it down, figuring Hooker wouldn’t sell no matter who was on it.
After Chameleon Records released the album, Hooker received his first Grammy. His career revitalized, he then began a fruitful relationship with Virgin Records which released a half-dozen Hooker albums on its Charisma and Pointblank imprints between 1991-98.
Kappus and Van Morrison co-produced Hooker's "Don't Look Back" album in 1997. The album was the Grammy winner in the Best Traditional Blues Album category in 1998. The title duet by Hooker and Morrison won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
Hooker, who was believed to be 83, died in his sleep in the early morning hours of June 21, 2001 at his home in the San Francisco Bay area.
Kappus began his career in his hometown of Eau Claire in northern Wisconsin. During college, he promoted regional bands with friends and became a licensed booking agent.
He promoted some larger shows in the local high school gym and a theatre and, with a partner, turned a roller skating rink into a night club. Then TGC Productions, a booking agency in Milwaukee, asked him to join them. He worked there for several months before moving over to Contemporary Talent where he worked as an agent for 5 years.
While an agent at Contemporary Talent in the early ‘70s, Kappus also bought talent for several clubs as well as a few festivals and universities.
Among the acts he brought to Milwaukee were such blues figures as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Freddie King, John Hammond, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee; jazz players Eddie Harris, George Benson, Les McCann, Mose Allison, Grover Washington, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Horace Silver; and Roger McGuinn, and John Hiatt.
Today, Kappus is a board member of the non-profit organization Music In Schools Today; an active advisory board member for the US-Cuba Cultural Exchange; and works closely with several other non-profit organizations, including Global Exchange and Los Cenzontles among others.
You are both a manager and a booking agent.
I worked (as a manager) with Robert Cray for over 20 years; with John Lee Hooker for over 20 years; and with Loudon Wainwright for, maybe, 15 years. Loudon is the only (artist) to fire me as a manager, but we still book him and we’re still on good terms. At one point, I was managing Duke Robillard, John Hammond, the Dirty Dozen, Loudon, John Lee Hooker, Robert Cray and J.J. Cale while running the agency, and doing some non-profit work.
Well, I was. About 10 years ago, I realized that we were in a situation where there were three records coming up (for release) in the next 8 weeks. We were dealing with artwork, marketing, promotion and everything else. I realized that it was too much. So I got up one day, and I told John Hammond, the Dirty Dozen and Duke Robillard that I just couldn’t do it all, but that I would stick with them, and help them find new management. I’m happy that we are still representing all three of them as well as Loudon.
Today, I still manage J.J. Cale and I co-manage one of them (with Dave Bartlett and Matt Cornell at 525 Worldwide) Trombone Shorty.
How do you explain your longevity with artists?
We have always focused on keeping (the roster) small and working with artists that we really believe in and who transcend trends. It was very clear (to me) that there is only so much time in the day to really focus on someone and give them attention. You can’t promise that same time to everybody.
When I was in Milwaukee, I worked for some artists on a regional basis. Then they got their big break to go to a big agency. A couple of weeks later, they were contacting me saying that they were number 200 on a list of 200. “Can you get us any work?” I had similar situations with artists I had worked with in a prior company in Wisconsin where (the agents) would get excited about an act, sign them and tell them the great things that they would do. Two weeks later, they would say the same thing to someone else. Two weeks later, it’d be to someone else.
You work with artists that move you emotionally?
Exactly. Basically, the three points that we look at (in signing an act for representation) are: Firstly, are we emotionally moved by them? Secondly, you can’t be a charity. There’s got to be, at least, a hope of a future that they will at least cover our costs. Finally, that we feel good about the people—the artist, the management -- that we are working with on a day-to-day basis. We do keep (the roster) small and, as long as it is going to be small, we want happy marriages. So this is much more intimate than most agency situations.
It is also not like an agent signs an artist and solely represents them everywhere.
Generally, we try to get everybody to see an artist first because we do things here by territories. Agents have a territory. So we want to make sure that (signings) are unanimous. There’s not going to be an agent on the west coast who loves them, and an agent on the east coast who doesn’t care.
You personally stepped up to the plate signing Bettye LaVette in 2005. She hadn’t had an agent in 30 years. You took her on and promised to find her a label.
Dennis Walker, who had produced Robert Cray early on, produced a record of hers (“A Woman Like Me” in 2003), and he sent it to me. I thought it sounded good but it didn’t blow me out of my chair. John Goddard, who headed Village Music, a great combination record store and museum in Mill Valley, would do these special shows twice a year--a Christmas and an anniversary show. He’d bring out his favorite artists and some obscure artists. He had Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and other people playing this 120 seat club for his parties. He brought Bettye out and she and he asked me to come out to her show. I saw the show. If you get chills watching an act, then you really feel that there is something there. I had chills about four times in the first song. It was just incredible. She has such a presence.
I really pressed everybody here that this was something that we had to do. They hadn’t seen her. It was really something that I drove through. Everybody else, of course, then saw her and saw the (audience) reaction to her. She just kills everywhere she goes.
[While LaVette’s first single, “My Man, He's a Loving Man" on Atlantic Records reached #7 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1962, she failed to match its success on other labels including Calla, Silver Fox, Epic, SSS International, and Motown.
After Kappus signed her to The Rosebud Agency, he persuaded Andy Kaulkin, president of punk-based Epitaph and its eclectic offshoot Anti-, to see LaVette perform. Kappus introduced Kaulkin to LaVette after the show. The next day Kappus and Kaulkin met and started negoiations that led to Anti- releasing LaVette’s album "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," produced by Joe Henry, in 2005.]
John Lee Hooker died in 2003 at the (supposed) age of 83. You were him for over 27 years. How did you take his death?
Well, it was not unexpected. He was in fine shape and played a few days before. But there were times over the year if I couldn’t reach him for a day or something, I’d worry because he was not a young guy, and he was not always in the best of shape. He had a thyroid problem several years before the end where he actually played a show and, all of a sudden, he began to forget words and his hands weren’t doing what they always did. We canceled all of his future shows, and he got treatment, and he felt a bit better.
You then booked shows as the Coast to Coast Blues Band with a Special Appearance by John Lee Hooker.
I started booking shows with John Lee just to get his feet wet again, and to build his confidence again because he had lost all of his confidence after being onstage and losing physical control, and his memory.
We did a couple of benefits where we didn’t even mention him. He came up and he could get the feel of being onstage again. Then we did the Coast to Coast Blues Band with a Special Appearance by John Lee Hooker in tiny venues. The band would play, charging $10 or $15, no more than what people would (usually) pay to see the band. So nobody could say, “Well, John Lee only played for 10 minutes.” Then John Lee would come up and play. When he came off the stage at one of the shows, I said, “That was great” because it had a great energy. He said, “Do you really think so?” His confidence was gone but, little by little it built back up. Then, we started doing more dates.
A couple of years before he passed we were about to do the first European tour in years and German (promoters) required a doctor’s report in order for them to cover their insurance. John Lee went to the doctor and (tests showed) aneurysms in his stomach and kidney. We canceled all of his dates and he was going to get an operation. He ended up backing away on the operation because he was feeling sort of normal, and he was fearful of surgery. He didn’t feel that he should sit around home waiting for a problem, so we booked shows again. But we knew he had these aneurysms in him. So, many times if I couldn’t reach him for awhile, I would worry. When the call finally came, I was not overly surprised.
John Lee Hooker's impact upon other blues, rock, and folk performers is immeasurable. T-Bone Walker once told him, “Man, your style will never die. You got a personal style. You doin' the true blues.”
I remember one time in the studio with John Lee, he just sat down and played a chord, and it was undeniably unique, the Mississippi mud sound. Just with that first strum of a guitar, not touching any dials. It was him. It was in him and other people try so hard to re-create it. It is amazing to me (watching) people noodle with amps and guitars trying to get a sound like that.
How long did you manage John Lee Hooker?
I booked John Lee since 1977 but I passed on management which he asked me about on several occasions. There were different reasons I wasn’t comfortable about doing it. Then during “The Healer” project I was doing everything and more than what a manager would do. So I thought its silly doing the job and not having the title. So, between 1987 to 1989, I took on management.
John Lee Hooker had several distinct high points in his career.
He had the initial "Boogie Chillen" that supposedly sold a million copies. Then he was popular again when the Animals and Canned Heat picked up on him. The Animals, of course, covered “Boom Boom.” The third high point (starting with “The Healer” album) was far beyond all of that for him, directly and personally. And it lasted until he passed.
How did “The Healer” come about?
It started out with Van Morrison wanting to do something with John Lee in 1983. Van had already recorded with John Lee years prior, and they had a good relationship ever since John Lee had spent an extended period of time in the UK. Van had talked with John Lee about producing him, and John Lee asked if I would discuss the situation further with him. I wasn’t managing John Lee then. I was his agent. There was no manager, so I handled a variety of managerial tasks in the absence of a full time manager. Van was playing in the area so I talked to him, but he wasn’t able to do anything right away.
In the meantime, Carlos Santana had been coming to John Lee’s shows and sitting in. He called me and said, “If John Lee makes an album, please I want to be part of it.” As well, George Thorogood had been recording at least one John Lee Hooker song on every record. He also had a personal relationship with John Lee to some degree. He called me up, when I was representing him, and said if John made a record that he wanted to be part of it.
That’s when you came up with the concept of John Lee with his friends and also recording him in more intimate settings solo and in small formats?
I just thought, “Hmmm, I know other people out there that feel the same way.” John Lee had helped Robert Cray early in the beginning of his career. He had a wonderful relationship with Bonnie Raitt. I knew that Los Lobos loved him. At the same time, I knew that a lot of John Lee’s fans loved him solo. So I came up with (the idea of) making the album like an audio scrapbook where Carlos Santana could say, “Here’s me with John Lee Hooker” and John Lee could say “Here’s me with Carlos Santana.” As the record came together, it obviously felt like it had a lot more commercial value than what we had first thought.
Did you have to talk John Lee into doing “The Healer?”
To a degree, yes. But the situation was that John Lee (previously) would put out a (new) record on Tomato Records or something like that, and it would sell a minimal number of copies because there were 100 plus records available (At one point, Amazon.com had 173 John Lee Hooker albums for sales). You’d go into a record store and there’d be a new John Lee Hooker album with, maybe, another 30 John Lee Hooker records. You put the new record out for $15 and there’d be a $9.99 “Greatest Hits” album there, along with a “Golden Hits” package and a “Best Of.” So you are up against all of the original hits with a new album which nobody has heard anything about, and it cost more.
Meanwhile, there wasn’t a lot of money (being) put into the production of (a new Hooker album) because nobody saw a great return on it. There’d be nothing done in marketing it. So it’d drop into a bin, and there wasn’t a big return.
I didn’t go into “The Healer” with a commercial concept to begin with. It was really to create this audio scrapbook, and knowing how much each of these parties loved each other. We had some other significant names suggested to us and artists asking about being on the record, but if there wasn’t a relationship, John Lee passed on working on them. Those collaborations (on the album) weren’t concocted. John Lee had a warmth for (these) artists, and it didn’t matter how much the (other artists) were known. All of those situations (on the album) were relationships he had built. We didn’t go in with the commercial concept but, as it progressed, it obviously had commercial potential. I didn’t want it to fall short of its commercial potential.
“The Healer” was turned down by a lot of labels before Chameleon Music Group took it.
I did have a hard time selling “The Healer.” People looked at how many records John Lee was selling and, said they didn’t see any reason why he would sell more. In fact, one of the reasons Chameleon signed John Lee was that their parent company (Rockwood Music Group) had bought the Vee-Jay label but they hadn’t released any of the material yet. They figured that a new John Lee Hooker album could kick things off.
Chameleon was a small label, however.
Right. I saw the value in that. It just wasn’t Chameleon. It was Chameleon with Warner distribution (in the U.S). So we had the intimacy of a small label, and the reach of a major distributor. The album sold about 50,000 copies in the first couple of months. All of a sudden, we were doing a lot of the (retail) marketing directly out of our office. We were contacting all of the 190 Billboard (retail) reporters to find out if they needed display materials, in-store play copies and getting it out to them. Then, we started hearing about (retailers) not having records. I talked to Chameleon and they said they had got back their money, and didn’t want to risk pressing up more records that might not sell. Eventually, they pressed up more. Three months later, it was a “gold” record in the U.S.
With John Lee on over 130 albums from varied labels, many of whom have been sold and resold; did he get paid for his songs or regain his publishing rights?
The legitimate labels paid us. (As a songwriter) he got paid but you will see the name of a producer on some of his song credits. What was a huge factor with John Lee was that he was illiterate. Also, at the end of the session, John Lee certainly was not writing up the publishing and everything. He trusted different people (to take care of his business). So all types of confusion reigned.
When I started managing him, there had been another party dealing with his publishing but they hadn’t really sorted anything out. I discovered one case where John Lee had given publishing on a group of songs to more than one party. I found another situation where a publishing company had a lot of his songs and, after I got a hold of the contract, I found that it clearly was not his signature on the contract. I presented his signature from various places to the people, and they just gave us the publishing. I also re-secured a lot of things from someone who had supposedly been on his side and took advantage of him.
When did you begin working with Muddy Waters?
I started working with him in the early ‘70s when I was still in Milwaukee. I bought talent for one or two stages at SummerFest in Milwaukee. I also worked with people who sponsored one of those stages, in buying talent in Memphis and Winston-Salem. I also did the same for clubs in Milwaukee and various other festival and universities. So I was buying dates for people for Muddy Waters. I dealt with his manager (Scott Cameron), who also managed Willie Dixon quite a bit..
How did you come to represent Muddy exclusively?
Somebody told me that the Paragon Agency (in Macon, Georgia) had gone under. That is where Alex Hodges was (as president) along with Ian Copeland, and Carole Kinzel. So I dialed Scott Cameron’s number and said I had heard that Muddy’s agency isn’t there anymore. I pitched him on working with Muddy. Then I sent him a real passionate and sincere letter telling him what it would mean to me to book Muddy. They checked all their different options, and Muddy said, “Let’s go with that guy who wrote that letter.” So I started booking him.
Several months later. I went to ChicagoFest (at Old Navy Pier, Aug. 4, 1981) where I had booked Muddy, but I wasn’t sure that he would remember me. So I come to the show—I run into Scott and he asked if I had talked to Muddy yet. I said I didn’t want to bother Muddy before the show. There were these temporary trailers across the parking lot where Muddy was in a dressing room. Scott said to go say hello. I started walking toward the dressing room, and Muddy came out the door, his band was already on stage, and everybody is chanting his name. He walks toward me--I’m not sure if he remembers me—and just before I stick my hand out, he gives me a big bear hug. There I was with Muddy hugging me with all of these people behind me chanting his name. It was one of the best moments of my life.
Muddy had such a regal presence about him.
Regal is the word I use too. You walk into a room with the whole band there, and there was just a glow, a regal aura, that he had.
Muddy’s death in 1983 came as a surprise to many who didn’t know he wasn’t well.
He had been hospitalized earlier, and I had been with him in the hospital. He was making jokes from his hospital bed about him and John Lee one-upping each other. He was imitating John Lee. Muddy was saying, “Well, I got me a Cadillac.” Then (as) John Lee, he came back with, “I’ve got a Cadillac with a telephone in it.” Then Muddy says, I’ve got a Mercedes.” John Lee says “Well, I’ve got a pool now.” Muddy throughout imitating John Lee with good humored poking at each other.
Muddy’s last public performance took place when he performed with Eric Clapton in 1982.
He got out of the hospital and did that show. Eric Clapton’s manager arranged for him to surprise Eric at a concert in Miami. He hid Muddy backstage. When Eric began to do “Blow Wind Blow” Muddy came out from the side of the stage and sang with him. The way I understand is that when the song ended people had their lighters in the air and Eric Clapton, who was dumbfounded, said, “That was Muddy Waters.”
[By the late spring of 1982, Muddy Waters was feeling strong and a new tour was booked. Eric Clapton was playing in Miami on June 30, and his manager arranged a surprise visit. Clapton had incorporated Water’s” Blow Wind Blow” into his set, and when he began it, Muddy stepped onstage. By all accounts, Clapton was shocked. At the end of the song, Muddy left the stage, and Clapton said to himself, as much as to the audience, “That was Muddy Waters.”]
Upon his return home, I understand that Muddy coughed up blood. The cancer had returned, but his body was not yet strong enough for surgery.
Yeah, he came home from that show and he found that he had blood in his lungs. He realized he had not been cured. I was back in Chicago again, and I spent time at his house. We watched a movie together, “Neighbors” with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. It was his choice. He was in pajamas, and we watched TV for hours, and talked. We all knew (his death) was coming. The idea was that he would get stronger and that they’d do another operation. But he just didn’t have the energy to work on getting stronger.
(“Neighbors” was John Belushi's last film; he died in March 1982, less than four months after the film's release.]
You started talking to Van Morrison about “The Healer” around that time.
The seed for what would become “The Healer” came from a conversation with Van around that time. In fact, I can place it to 1983 because I was meeting with Van, and Muddy was sick. People had heard rumblings about it. I had been told to keep a lid on it, and not to indicate any problem to anybody. Van asked me how Muddy was doing, and I toed the company line, and told him that Muddy was okay.
You retained a relationship with Van Morrison. He hired you last year to oversee the North American promotion and marketing of his “Keep It Simple” album.
It was the first time I’ve been hired for a project. I was hired for six months, and I was asked to stay on for another month. Finally, I said that there’s nothing more I can do on this project. So I stepped out on my own terms.
[On its first week of release “Keep It Simple” reached #10 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. Morrison's highest placement previously on the chart was “Saint Dominic's Preview” in 1972, which reached #15].
You were a pall bearer and an usher at Muddy’s funeral.
The thing that was interesting about Muddy’s funeral was that while people talked about being in awe of him, they also told stories about the pranks and jokes that he played. It was just such a wonderful testament to the joy that he brought to peoples’ lives. I was the last person (at the service) to see his face. We were carrying flowers out to a trailer because there were too many to put in the hearse. They were just about to close the casket and I noticed that I was the only one there, and I waited until the casket was closed. We rode with the casket to the cemetery. The streets were lined with people. It was amazing.
[Muddy Water passed away the morning of April 30, 1983. He was 70 years old. On May 2, his casket was laid out at the Metropolitan Funeral Parlors on the South Side of Chicago. The funeral closed with the playing of his version of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” reminding everyone, “The whole world knows who I am.”
Did you have mixed emotions watching the film “Cadillac Records” about the Chess Record era?
I wasn’t dealing with any of those people at the time. But I represented Willie Dixon later on and, of course, I loved Muddy. It wasn’t the Muddy that I knew. The other thing that was strange to me in that film was that the Willie Dixon there was a guy trying to weasel his songs (onto recordings). He was portrayed as a friendly nice guy but, top of his mind, was getting his songs recorded. Willie may well have been that way, but I guess in defense, it would be impossible to duplicate Willie’s personality.
You toured Europe with Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Sugar Blue, Luther Allison and John Hammond in 1983.
We were all on a bus together. I sat behind Willie and John Lee on the bus with my ears stretching. It was quite an experience. I took a lot of pictures on that tour of people performing, and in every single picture Willie is leaning back with his head in the air with a great big smile on his face every minute that he was playing. I got the chance to walk with him, just the two of us. He was just a joy, such a wonderful presence.
I had just started working with Robert Cray and he’d given me a tape of his album (“Bad Influence”). I remember we had just come from Montreux, and everybody had a copy of their tape of their show. So Luther, John Lee and Willie Dixon played their tapes. Then I slipped in a tape of Robert Cray’s new album. People were really grooving. John Lee asked, “Who’s that?” I told him, and he said, “Play it again.”
You weren’t managing Robert at that point, however.
I’d been a big fan, and I had been helping Robert for a few years prior, but I didn’t sign him because I couldn’t tour him and cover costs. I told him I would sign him if and when he was able to get a record out. So, he got a deal, I signed him and I had an advance (copy of the album) which was John Lee’s first knowledge of Robert. We later packaged them together on tour and, they developed a really good relationship. I also got Robert on shows with Muddy Waters, and George Thorogood. But, (it was tough earlier because) he was so unknown, and there was no label supporting him.
In order to tour Robert initially, I got him on a package I coordinated with John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and the Nighthawks. We played the package at Carnegie Hall (with the addition of Sippie Wallace on that bill) so Robert’s first (and later third) gig in New York was at Carnegie Hall. I kept trying to find a manager for Robert, and he kept asking me. I finally began managing him in 1986 just before his “Strong Persuader” album which went double platinum in the U.S.
The late Texas guitarist Albert Collins was a major influence on Robert Cray.
Albert was an extremely humble person. We had him on a show once with Robert Cray. Robert invited him up (onstage, but Albert sort of shied away. I had to encourage him to come up, saying that, “Robert loves you.” Albert was, in fact, a huge influence on Robert Cray. There was a point when Albert played in the north west, and he was being booked as an individual artist and the promoter or club owners would book a band to play behind him. Robert raised his hand (to play with Albert). He backed him for several days and he valued the lessons that Albert told him about being a (band) leader and everything from when they were on the road.
Over the years, you have landed label deals not only for John Lee Hooker but also for John Hammond, Duke Robillard, and "Pops" Staples. You also shopped Mavis Staples’ 2004 album “Have A Little Faith” around before Alligator Records released it.
I did but Alligator was there at the beginning. We were looking at other options. When I shop a record, it’s not like so and so wants to put out a record by this artist, and I go there and make a deal. I always think that, maybe, there is someone else out there that has a much better idea or a better deal. I don’t think we should pull the trigger until we know all the options. So I generally do an overly thorough search on labels before I pull the trigger on anything.
Was your concern that Alligator was too small?
I wanted to check everything out. Alligator has changed in recent years but, going back, there was more of a blues stereotype (to the label). We wanted to be careful that Mavis wasn’t limited by that. Alligator has, of course, expanded a lot. They have gone well beyond (being a pure blues label) and really spread out.
In 1994, you signed J.J. Cale to Delabel, the label founded by Emmanuel de Buretel, president of Virgin Records France that had such artists as Rita Mitsouko, Les Negresses Vertes, Keziah Jones, and French rap band IAM.
How did that come about?
Our first recording when I started doing Cale’s deals was (for “Travel-Log” in 1989) with Andrew Lauder when he was (managing director) at Silvertone Records (in London). I had met Andrew through John Hiatt who I was working with. I was representing John as an agent and, for a brief time he had no manager so myself and Ken Levitan (president and founder of Vector Management) who was John’s lawyer, said we’d both see what we could do. Ken got John a deal at A&M (in North America), and overseas with Silvertone.
In the meantime, I had been booking J.J. Cale. He had stopped working with his long time manager, and he was not feeling good about the record industry. I thought of Andrew Lauder, who I knew was a big fan. I talked to Cale, and told him that he didn’t have to worry about being told what to do with Andrew. So we signed with Silvertone. Then, after the first record, Andrew parted ways with Silvertone which was a real frustration. Cale had to deliver a second record “(“Number 10” in 1992) but he didn’t do any promotion for it.
[Andrew Lauder, then managing director of London-based Silvertone Records, had released John Lee Hooker's 1989 album, "The Healer” and signed Buddy Guy, and the late Willie Dixon to Silvertone, which was distributed worldwide by BMG. He later brought a similar A&R policy with him to This Way Up, his PolyGram-distributed label, signing Otis Rush.]
Somehow I connected with Emmanuel de Buretel at Virgin France. I had been dealing with Virgin in America for John Lee Hooker. Cale did four albums with Delabel.
[J.J. Cale has been back in the studio with Eric Clapton recently to follow up their Grammy Award winning "Road To Escondido" album released in 2006.]
Why make separate recording deals for Europe?
A lot of the artists we have represented have had strong followings in Europe. I have done a lot of deals where I make a North American deal and a (separate) European deal. That way, you have people that are right on top of their market. They know their market. They are getting their full share instead of sharing (royalties) with the signing company in America. They are more enthused from a business point but they are also more knowledgeable and more appreciative sometimes about the music than the American label is.
You initially financed he Blues Foundation's Handy Artists Relief Trust Fund, established to assist foundation members and their families with financial troubles. Why did you step forward?
My involvement with the Handy Artist Relief Trust came from going to the awards presented by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation (which provides for the financial and medical needs of older R&B artists) a few years back. They were the most emotional awards ever. They would be around the Grammy Awards and (organizers) would utilize younger and contemporary artists in town for the Grammy Awards, and have them present awards to an early (R&B) pioneer. They would talk about the artist who would also give an acceptance speech and perform two songs with a house band that might include Ry Cooder or Booker T. Jones. Then, the act would open an envelope, and there might be a check for $25,000. (The awards) gave them some cash which some of these artists really needed, and it gave them recognition after years of neglect.
I thought that the Blues Foundation should have something like that, but they didn’t have the money to spare. So I put up some of the money to start it. Also we did these tours of Handy Blues All Stars with people who had been nominated or won Handy Awards. We packaged them and made sure a portion of the proceeds went toward helping to fund the trust fund.
[The W.C. Handy All-Stars was a flexible blues package that has included such prominent blues artists as the Duke Robillard Band, Joe Lewis Walker, Johnnie Johnson, Little Milton, John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite.]
So many of the older blues and R&B artists were ripped off.
First of all, record deals for anybody weren’t good in the early days. For Afro-American artists without representation, they were bad. One of the things that could happen, especially with Chicago blues artists, is that they could put their feet down and say, “I’m not going to do this unless I get a legitimate deal” and there was a guy next to them that would take the deal. Plus, even if they got ripped off on the record deal, they’d get airplay on the radio, and they’d get live performances. So it was hard to say no to the label owners.
People have said that British acts ripped them off (by performing their songs). However, except for the British artists that put their names on songs they didn’t write, when they gave credit, and recorded songs by (these early blues artists), they were saviors.
Europeans have such a love for the blues and roots music.
In general, there’s more of a level playing field for roots music in Europe. There is more government sponsored radio there that is more “go to radio.” There’s also more of a cultural awareness overseas.
What countries are good for blues?
Japan used to be great. Like the Europeans, they studied and revered the artists. But that was a time when there were fewer American artists going over there. They started getting all of the artists that everybody else was getting. So the rarity of an American artist went away in Japan. Today, Japan has a very minimal blues audience. Europe has a better audience, but it is not what it used to be when you’d bring over these legendary artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and so on that nobody had seen before.
There’s also been a MTVing of the world that has brought rap and hip hop to the forefront, replacing interest in American blues and jazz overseas.
That’s correct. (The diversity of music) also factors into the blues today. Years ago, there were blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters; people who grew up on plantations. John Lee’s father was a sharecropper. His family had, maybe, a Victrola (record player) that they listened to and a limited number of records. And, maybe, there would be juke joints where they could see certain traveling artists perform. That was pretty much the extent of the influences, along with the environment, of these Delta blues artists. Today, by the time any artist is playing their very first gig, every kid has heard Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead and everything else. They are never going to have that purity of influence that was there with these (earlier) artists. That (musical) depth that they got from this one area (in the Mississippi Delta) was their life.
As well, bills were musically eclectic years ago, but not today.
Not at all. It would change things drastically if the White Stripes brought a traditional blues artist with them (on the road), and introduced their influences to their audience.
Media exposure is often lacking for blues and roots music today.
Radio (airplay) is severely lacking. It has been for ages. But with (print) media we do very well. There’s real stories, and there’s real talent (in blues and roots). This is not just the trend of the moment. I think a lot of people appreciate that.
There are always outstanding newcomers like Ruthie Foster from Texas.
Ruthie is amazing. I’m always blown away seeing her but one of the most satisfying times was her first time at the jazz festival in New Orleans a couple of years ago. There were about 5,000 people in a tent and, maybe, 10 had seen her before, and they were all on their feet with their jaws hanging down. “My Gawd, who is this person.” (She received a) raucous response because she was outstanding.
You represent several impressive up-and-coming acts.
I co-manage one of them (with Dave Bartlett and Matt Cornell at 525 Worldwide), Trombone Shorty. He's a 23 year old phenomenon who has already toured in Lenny Kravitz's band, and shared the stage with U2 and Green Day. In all my years I've never worked with someone who has been able to grow so quickly without a representative record in distribution. He recorded a couple of home-made CDs but the last was 5 years ago. He is in the studio now with what should really be considered his first national release. He's a great talent musically, but also a phenomenal talent as a showman. All summer long, we'd come into the office on Mondays, and get reports of how he was the hit of one festival or another almost every weekend.
I recently saw two sets of another wonderful young artist we represent, Carrie Rodriguez. Just a great artist on record and live, a great singer, songwriter, performer and bandleader with unlimited potential. She was playing here in a smaller venue just to warm up some material before starting her new record.
With your career, I’d expect you to be from a big urban center like Chicago or St. Louis. You grew up in Eau Claire in northern Wisconsin which is near…
There’s nothing for 90 miles around of that size. We were 40,000 people surrounded by towns of about 15,000 people. Minneapolis is 90 miles away. I grew up when Top 40 was about all you heard. We couldn’t hear (blues) on the radio, but we started getting Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck and learning about that. So I got turned onto Willie Dixon through Led Zeppelin, and the Jeff Beck Group recording “I Ain’t Superstitious” (which features Rod Stewart as lead vocalist).
You saw Roy Orbison perform in 1964 when “Oh, Pretty Woman” was a big hit.
Roy Orbison came to our high school. Somehow, I got to be a helper of sorts and ended up being in Roy Orbison’s dressing room which was his own Silver Airstream trailer. They had booked Roy for one show in the auditorium that held 500 or 700 people. Of course, “Pretty Woman” was such a hit that they added a second show in the gymnasium. I barely saw the shows.
You began promoting shows when you were at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
I had such a small town mentality that I thought I would only read about things happening elsewhere. That I would never experience anything special in person. Then I thought, “I can buy a ticket and go to Minneapolis and see a show.” I saw the Steve Miller Band, and the Bonzo Dog Band (at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1969). I was knocked out by how professional music could be. We usually only saw our local bands or Top 40 bands. I came home and, within a month or so, I had booked my first concert with some friends.
I was working at a 7-11 type place. But my sister lived in Minneapolis. I would see in the Minneapolis Star & Tribune that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were coming and I’d call my sister and have her charge 8 tickets on her Dayton's (department store credit) card and then I would find 7 friends to go with me.
But I only had a limited amount of money to see shows. I remember that Delaney & Bonnie were coming through with Eric Clapton and, at the same time, tickets went on sale for Jimi Hendrix. I couldn’t afford both of them. So, I figured I’d catch Delaney & Bonnie this time and see Jimi Hendrix the next time. But Hendrix never came back. (Jimi Hendrix died in 1970)
At 19, you got a booking license from the American Federation of Musicians.
I heard that you had to be licensed (to book shows). I found out how, sent in an application and got my license. I started promoting shows with these friends. Then I and a friend took over a roller-skating rink and briefly turned that into a club. We did various other concerts in small theatres.
Then a college friend connected me with her boyfriend, Bob Metzger who was the guitarist with a band called the Ox. She said I should book them so I booked them with Ted Nugent. I began dealing with their agency, TGC Productions in Milwaukee. They asked me to come to and work for them. So I moved to Milwaukee, and roomed with Bob. I booked, and then later managed his band (its bassist Jon Paris went on to work with Bo Diddley, and Johnny Winter). Bob has been Leonard Cohen's guitarist for some time, We just met recently in New York after not having connected in person for years.
How did things work out for you in Milwaukee?
I went there in August, 1971. I thought I would get the hang of the business for a couple of weeks and then go back to my last year of college. I never returned (home). However, I had a falling out with the owner (of TGC Productions) who was not paying me properly. I packed up my stuff to leave in December (1971). Two of the bands I was booking stopped me hours before I was to return to Eau Claire, and asked if I’d stay and represent them. I took these artists that wanted me to manage them, the Ox and the Hound Dog Band (its lead singer, at one point, was future actress Amy Madigan) and I went to another agency. That was Contemporary Talent. I worked there for 5 years.
The head of that company was then entertainment director for the Milwaukee SummerFest. So, in coming years, I managed a rock stage and then a jazz stage at Summerfest. I later booked a Schlitz Country stage at Summerfest for which I mainly booked singer/songwriters like John Prine, Steve Goodman, and Roseanne Cash but also Hank Williams Jr., and Jerry Reed. Then I instituted a blues weekend, hiring Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Koko Taylor, Hound Dog Taylor, Elvin Bishop and many more top blues acts despite having a very limited budget.
While booking the Contemporary Talent roster I also acted as a talent buyer for Teddy’s (that later became Shank Hall). I brought in a long list of jazz and blues artists including Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Grover Washington Jr., Pharaoh Saunders, Horace Silver, and Mose Allison. And I brought in John Hiatt. That’s where I established so many of my relationships.
How did you get to San Francisco?
Some of the artists I was booking--the ones that were further away--would say, that they’d like to come (to Milwaukee) but needed more dates. So I started booking extra dates at some festivals and universities and clubs in the mid-west. Eddie Harris was one of those artists. I booked him in an ever-widening circle. It got to the point where I was doing everything but the west coast for him. He suggested that I come out and set up a company in his house (in Los Angeles). I wasn’t comfortable with doing that. He was being booked on the west coast by the Keystone Music Agency, an off-shoot of the Keystone Korner Jazz Club. Eddie introduced me to those people, and they asked me to come and work for them. That’s how I ended up in San Francisco.
Are you a West Coast person now?
Yeah, I’ve lived here 33 years. I took a couple of trips from Milwaukee to the Caribbean when I was 23, and I realized that I am happier when it’s sunnier. I don’t have to wait nine months for the sun here.
Celebrations are being planned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. You were there when the wall came down.
Yes, I was in East Berlin when that happened. (British events organizer) Tony Hollingsworth had created this conference (Looking East) about music behind the Iron Curtain, and I was there for this panel session. I had horrible jet lag and went up to my room at the Grand Hotel, came down later that night and sat at the bar. Then I went back to my room. I woke up in the morning, and I didn’t realize that just a few blocks away the wall was coming down. I learned that in the morning when I was checking out. The guy checking me out, who was in his early 20s said he’d been all over Eastern Europe but he’d never been three blocks away in west Berlin. He was going there the moment his shift was over. I went out and it was very early, 5 A.M., and the streets were just full of people.
[Looking East was a media conference conceived by Tony Hollingsworth to further business opportunities between television and music executives of the West and Eastern Europe. On the first day, the East German government resigned. On the last day, the Communist Party opened the gates of the Berlin Wall for people to cross over to the western sector, and demonstrators started hacking chunks out of the wall.]
You went to Cuba five years ago with Global Exchange, the international human rights organization. Do you think the U.S., will soon lift its embargo?
I think you will see that in the next few years. There’s more openness toward Cuba now and, I think, there are more changes going on in Congress. So many international conflicts come from political things on the top. Generally, people the world over, for the most part are similar. The concept (of the embargo) was that if you block Cuba, the people will rise up against their horrible leaders. But, the reality is that the Cubans there probably have less affinity for Fidel Castro (today), and if you malign him, they might defend him.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.