Industry Profile: Cary Baker
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Cary Baker, owner/president, Conqueroo.
As well as his clients, Cary Baker believes in the spirit of rock and roll; in the purity of blues and country music; and in the sanctity of kicking off his working days at 6:30 A.M. (Pacific Time).
This wily, fast-talking, midwesterner veteran publicist maintains that it’s crucial for his PR firm, with four employees working from Studio City, California, to work in real time with all of their American media contacts.
Before launching Conqueroo in 2004, with a sizzling hot Americana, blues and alt-country roster that included J.J. Cale, Gingersol, Robert Earl Keen, Anne McCue, James McMurtry, Vernon Reid, Chris Stamey, Tres Chicas, Ponderosa Stomp and the Americana Music Association Conference, Baker had been a label publicity executive for nearly two decades.
Baker worked as VP of publicity for I.R.S. Records, Capitol Records, Morgan Creek Records, and Discovery Records in Los Angeles. Prior to Conqueroo, he had been at The Baker/Northrop Media Group, where he was a founding partner.
Over the years, while working at these labels, Baker spearheaded publicity campaigns for R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Shelby Lynne, the Beastie Boys, Delbert McClinton, Cheap Trick, Loudon Wainwright III, Alex Chilton, Susan Tedeschi, Tina Turner, Steve Vai, Concrete Blonde, Frank Zappa, Tom Verlaine, and many, many others.
For 20 years, from 1987 to 2007, he instructed the UCLA Extension class “Publicity in the Music Industry”.
Prior to switching over to publicity, this ardent record collector, and musical evangelist was a respected freelance music journalist working for such national publications as Billboard, Goldmine, Creem, New York Rocker, Bomp!, Mix, and Trouser Press.
He also freelanced as a writer around Chicago for such local publications as the Illinois Entertainer, and the Chicago Reader, and edited a monthly music magazine called Triad.
Since Conqueroo was launched in 2004, the publicity company has represented Trombone Shorty, the Band of Heathens, Sonny Landreth, Martin Sexton, Rodney Crowell, Hoodoo Gurus, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Hot Club of Cowtown, and Billy Joe Shaver.
As well it has had such corporate clients as Collectors’ Choice Music, Stax Records, Shout! and the 2007 John Sayles' film "Honeydripper."
Baker has also compiled and written liner notes for reissue titles on Universal/Chess Records, EMI/The Right Stuff Records, and Motown.
Much of Conqueroo’s clientele has been Americana. Why?
First of all, I’m from Chicago, and I spent my adolescence listening to blues and rock and roll. It’s my background, and it’s my history. I also worked for Ovation Records (in the late ‘70s) doing country. I went to Nashville and worked with the Kendalls, Joe Sun, Vern Gosdin, and Max D. Barnes. I developed an appreciation for country and for Nashville as well. (Then working with) R.E.M. really got me into the possibilities of American indie rock.
So you combine blues, American indie rock, country, Nashville, Austin; and (the fact) that I’m getting a few years older; I sort of drifted from punk rock and indie rock to Americana seamlessly.
You are renowned for being fiercely devoted to your roster.
Conqueroo is sort of the summation of all my years in publicity. I am doing what I want. I am doing it my way. I am doing it during my hours—although the hours are long. I’m doing it with artists that I love and respect. I am utilizing all of the connections that I have made during the prior 25 years of my career.
I think that I have engendered some respect as an indie working in a certain area of music. I’m not the guy you would go to if you are a fuchsia-haired, tattooed, pierced band that is going to play on the second stage of Coachella (Coachella Music and Arts Festival). That’s not what I do. But, if you want real grassroots experienced publicity for singer/songwriters, roots music, blues reissues, Americana, and triple A, then you come to me.
With all the talk of DIY these days, most artists can’t replicate what you do.
It still takes a village. It can be very unbecoming when an artist presents themselves. At the same time, I know many artists who do book themselves; and a few have relationships in the press and do reach out themselves.
Coming from a journalism background, I know how to write a good pitch or a good proposal. I have (media) lists that artists don’t have. I have relationships that artists don’t have that are constantly being renewed. It is full-time work doing what I do.
When you accept an act, what time period do you look to work with them?
Ideal is 90 days. (A successful campaign) is still doable at 60 days—less desirable, but I have done, is 30 days. I have had artists who have called me a week before release; and I have had artists call me 30 days after the release to clean up a mess because their in-house label person failed.
A 90 day media campaign seems most realistic.
I am a believer in solid, long lead-time magazine set-up. Magazines like American Songwriter, Relix, M, Rolling Stone, Spin, Magnet, Under the Radar to name a few, these take real solid lead times. Even if artists don’t care if their review is on time—“a late review is okay”—it might not be fine with the magazine who wants to remain current. Sometimes it takes 60 to 90 days just to eke a path to many of these editors as well. It’s hard to get to them sometimes. Everybody has voice mail. It takes a lot of restrained repetition to get people to reckon with the CD that is on their desk.
Do editors and journalists hide behind email?
People prefer email. It gives them time to take a breath, consider, park the email, flag it, think about it, listen to the music, and then get back to me. When you think about it, calling people on the phone is tantamount to putting them on the spot. Maybe, they haven’t heard (the CD). Maybe, they need a moment to think about it. Maybe, they want to reach out to colleagues or people on their staff and see if there’s someone on their staff more interested than they are about the CD.
How many clients do you work?
Conqueroo works about 10 clients at the moment.
Do you go on the road with acts?
I never go on the road with artists. I am here at control central. I see my artists when they come to L.A. or when I come to New York, Nashville or Austin.
Pitching Americana, blues and roots acts to mainstream press is a tough row to hoe.
It is. Americana really isn’t mainstream until you get to the point of Wilco, Steve Earle or Buddy Miller. Some of those artists do get to play late night television.
For many daily newspapers an act also has to be playing locally to be considered for a feature.
That’s true. If the artist is newsworthy enough then maybe they would consider it. A few major newspapers still have record review columns. Every Sunday, I read the Philadelphia Inquirer reviews, and the New York Times reviews.
Decades ago, many music journalists were generalists and wrote on artists in different genres. Journalists are more focused today and are often more celebrity-oriented. Pitching them on an Americana artist is often a long shot.
Well, I don’t go to People magazine with a lot of my artists. But it’s also true that if somebody is newsworthy, editors want coverage of that artist, and they would be foolish not to. The real trick is to come up with the story that is really compelling, or to come up with an angle that is unique. You are not going to make all of the headway, but you can make some headway. You can get your foot in the door.
You are competing for space against Lady Gaga and Madonna.
I know I am. So I am very picky with who I take on. I work from 6:30 A.M. to 7 P.M. at least. I just never stop. I put out about 200 emails a day. I really work it. That’s how I am able to do this. I will also start a baby artist with baby press. There are a lot of blogs that start artists. They catch fire, and people notice. Then you are able to take that to the national press.
Americana is not really a music genre. It’s an amalgamation of musical styles.
That’s the revelation. When you go to the Americana (Music) Conference, there’s everything from Ricky Skaggs to the more indie rock sort of things. You will find everybody there from Billy Joe Shaver to the Avett Brothers, who came from that world. Wilco would cordially be invited to play the conference and would be right at home, along with Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. I usually have eight to 10 artists performing at the conference, including some people that you wouldn’t think of as Americana like Over the Rhine, and Susan Cowsill. Basically, if it’s honest, and it’s singer/songwriter music, if it has some integrity, it doesn’t have to have a twang, it can be considered Americana. It is a very wide genre.
Thirty years ago, Van Morrison was on mainstream rock FM. Today, he’s practically considered Americana.
If he made an album today it would probably get worked at Americana like Elvis Costello. But, I don’t like to think of Americana as a place where people convert to gracefully (with age). I like to think that people have some commitment to Americana. And there are a lot of up-and-comers in Americana like Amy Speace for instance, or the Band of Heathens who I work with.
[Interestingly, Van Morrison had never played Nashville before 2006. Touring behind his “Pay The Devil” album—his versions of country tunes both celebrated and obscure —he made the city one of just seven U.S. stops on this tour. The Ryman Auditorium reportedly sold out in 12 minutes—even with a lot of those hallowed Mother Church pew seats selling for $135 each.]
I’m a critically-acclaimed Americana act with a great record produced by someone like T-Bone Burnett on a respected indie label. How would you treat me as a client?
First of all, let’s talk about whether or not I accept you as a client. I’m very picky. There’s only one of me. I don’t want to be as big as Shore Fire Media or Sacks and Co. by design. We have four people here. I want to remain small and boutique. I’m very hands-on with every client we take on. As I said, I am very picky. I want an artist that I can take to the New York Times, to late night TV, to National Public Radio, to American Songwriter, to M, Spin and Rolling Stone. Those are my goals. It’s going to be a lot easier if the artist has a little bit of media base for me to do that.
It helps if an act are road warriors?
It helps if they are road warriors. That certainly helps in the various cities. It’s competitive out there, man. There are just hundreds of artists out there playing Chicago, New York, D.C., Philly, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland every night of the week. It is even hard to do tour publicity now unless you really have a compelling artist.
There are companies that now handle social media and internet marketing. How involved are you with that?
There are a lot of companies that do social networking and internet marketing. I am able to do it when it’s necessary. Usually, the artists are ahead of me on that, but I will make suggestions.
My personal Facebook page has 3,000 friends; I have a 1,000 followers from my Conqueroo Facebook page, and 700 followers on Twitter. I am aiming to get more on Twitter. I really do the Twitter thing on my press releases with the hashtags. On Facebook, I pretty much have a running document of all of our important press releases, and press clippings that you can access. I treat it like an archive. I will say the odd whimsical thing on Facebook, but I regard—at least the Conqueroo Facebook page—as very sacred. I don’t want people to remove us. I am also on LinkedIn, which I have found to be a useful tool.
Publicity is a relationship business.
It has always been a relationship business. Every year at South by Southwest I meet new editors. Many of them half my age. I let them know that, “Hey, I may be a little older, but I come with this kind of a pedigree.” I know music. I know the media. I come from the media. I keep up with music. I have satellite in my car. I listen to Sirius XMU and Outlaw Country.
Is your age a handicap at times? People in their 20s use social media and…
I use social media too. I use social media like I am a 20 year old.
Many younger people rarely use the telephone except to text.
That’s okay, I sent 200 emails today. I’m right there with them, and I have the same energy that they do. At South by Southwest this year, I had 13 artists, plus a party, plus a hit list of people that I wanted to meet and a selection of breakfasts with media people that I wanted to get to know better. Nobody knows how to play the relationship game better.
You don’t do much pitching overseas.
I deal with Maverick, Mojo and a select few others (in the U.K), but I have been told by some of my label clients not to work international publicity because release dates don’t always correlate with the American release. It’s such a bleed these days because a lot of Mojo writers live in the U.S. The U.S. is full-time work. U.S. publicity is absolutely beyond full-time work.
How many years have you attended South by Southwest?
24 out of 25 years. I love it. I love Austin. I love live music. I love spring. It really kind of helps me to meet people and renew contacts. It lets me know what music that I might work on, or sing, or listen to, or buy. It’s a great party. It’s harder now. It’s immense. You have the Spring Break factor. The festival factor. The interactive (sector). There’s film and now even fashion at South by Southwest.
You can’t really break a band there anymore.
I don’t know if the objective is, necessarily, to break a band. Some bands definitely break out of South by Southwest, but you have to go there with realistic expectations. You realize that at any given point and time, and at any given hour, you have 100 to maybe 200 people playing official and unofficial showcases from 10 A.M. to 2 A.M.
You come with a realistic set of goals, but you also have to prepare in advance.
I spend from January 2 to March 15 preparing for South by Southwest. I do a mailing to the Austin press. I set up TV for my artists. I put together my party. I make South by Southwest work for me.
Conqueroo is co-sponsor of the prestigious Guitartown/Conqueroo Kickoff Party.
I have a party partner, Lii Deb. She started Guitartown 10 years ago. I have been a partner for five years. I get to give her a certain number of clients and she brings a lot of her favorite bands that she knows, or up-and-comers that she knows.
The party gives Conqueroo a big footprint there.
A big footprint on day one at South by Southwest. It’s a venerable party at this point. I get lot of people asking if they can play it, but I’m not about to put requests off the street in front of my clients, who I am working for, and who I really want to get the exposure. But, I welcome the enquiries. I always send them a polite and prompt “no” and I explain why.
I also go to the Americana Music Association’s awards each year. I have been to almost every one of them since 2001. I didn’t go the year of 9/11—it was rescheduled and I wasn’t able to make it. I’ve been to about 10 of those. Here’s the heavily-guarded secret: It’s more fun than South by Southwest. It’s smaller; there are only about four clubs. It is not beleaguered with day parties. There are panels which are first-rate. It is really an adult singer/songwriter, Americana, alt-country equivalent of South by Southwest that happens in the fall in Nashville, which is a great city to visit and do business in—which Austin is too.
You came to California to work with I.R.S. Records in 1984. Before that, you also worked for a label in Chicago handling publicity.
I had one (label) job in Chicago before I went to I.R.S. I was head of publicity at Ovation Records. Right out of college, and around the time I wrote for Billboard, I started to write about Ovation. Ovation had country artists like the Kendalls, and Joe Sun. They were basically a country label with a few failed attempts at pop. I did that for two years, so I was not inexperienced at publicity.
What lead you to working with I.R.S.?
I graduated from college in July, 1978. I moved back to Chicago from DeKalb. I worked for Billboard out of the Chicago office. I wasn’t prolific. I edited a monthly magazine called Triad, which was a little like BAM! (Bay Area Music) in San Francisco). It was a glossy, stapled, monthly free music magazine. Its previous editor was Patrick Goldstein, who went on to become a big writer at the L.A. Times.
[Triad magazine was produced by Triad radio, a progressive, free-form, nightly program, which aired on WXFM-FM in Mount Zion, Illinois. The magazine evolved from Triad’s program guide and was available free at retail outlets.]
I also worked for the Illinois Entertainer, and the Chicago Reader. I kept writing for Trouser Press, Creem, New York Rocker, Bomp! and a magazine called Record. I wrote a lot about I.R.S Records artists. Eventually, I formed relationships with I.R.S. They signed my college roommate Wazmo Nariz, who had been my first signing on Fiction Records. He would sever with them, but I had my own relationship with I.R.S.
[Wazmo Nariz’s (aka Larry Grennan) first success came with the single, "Tele-tele-telephone," released on Baker’s Fiction Record label in 1978. The single was licensed by Stiff Records in the U.K., which released an EP the next year. I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland signed Nariz and his band to Illegal Records/I.R.S., which released the LP “Things Aren't Right.” It featured the single "Checking Out The Checkout Girl," which received some airplay in the midwest. Soon afterwards, Nariz was dropped by I.R.S.]
How active was Fiction Records?
I put out three or four 45s, and an EP. Wazmo Nariz was our best-known artist. He was my college roommate and he sounded a lot like Bryan Ferry meets David Bowie meets Lou Reed. His record “Tele-tele-telephone" went on to be licensed by Stiff Records out of the UK. They put out a 12-inch single of it. Wazmo Nariz went on to become the first American artist signed to I.R.S. Records. That in itself was a pivotal incident in my career because I had discovered this guy signed to I.R.S. and I formed a relationship with I.R.S. myself.
This was as punk music was taking hold in America.
I was right on top of punk, and I still liked blues. I even liked folk. I was way into punk and power pop. The unsigned bar band in DeKalb, and Rockford nearby, was Cheap Trick. They didn’t have a contract yet but we knew about them. Cheap Trick turned me onto this band called the Names. They were friends of (Cheap trick drummer) Bun E. Carlos. I put out their first 45, “Why Can’t It Be” (b/w "Baby You're a Fool") in 1977. It was the same year I went to L.A. and New York to check out CBGBs in New York, and the Starwood and the Roxy in L.A. 1977 was a very big year for me.
How did you come to work with I.R.S.?
In the cold winter of 1984, word reached me that I.R.S. Records was seeking a head of publicity. I had nothing to do, and it was freezing out. I put in a resume and a cover letter. I was going to Los Angeles for a bit of a vacation—I mentioned that in my cover letter. They called me. I went in, and talked to them. I pretty much spent my winter vacation interviewing. I made about four stops at I.R.S. Records (in Los Angeles), talking to different people.
Over 60 people applied for the job. I don’t know how many they talked to, or how many they were serious about. I got back to Chicago, and about a week or two later I got a call from Jay Boberg (president of I.R.S.) offering me the job. So I accepted the job. About three weeks later, I put my stuff in a moving van, came out and lived at the Travelodge Sunset motel at Sunset and La Brea for a few weeks until I found an apartment.
I got to I.R.S. in Feb. 1984. They were just getting ready to launch R.E.M.’s “Reckoning”; the Go-Go’s “Talk Show”’; the Alarm’s “Declaration”; Let’s Active’s first album (“Afoot"); and a new Lords of the New Church record (“The Method to Our Madness”). I came into town, and I had all of that to get me in the door. I had Bob Hilburn from the L.A. Times, and the music editor of the L.A. Weekly calling me which was astounding.
I was at I.R.S. for four years. I helped break Concrete Blonde, Fine Young Cannibals, and General Public. R.E.M. had a lot of foundation before I got there but we got them onto their first David Letterman show; their first “Saturday Night Live”; and their first Rolling Stone cover.
Did you like your job?
I felt like I had the best job in the record industry. I.R.S. was truly a fun place to work. They were signing artists that were critically acclaimed, and with the Go-Gos that had preceded me, they had proven that they could also chart a hit as well—with A&M’s help. But they knew what they do, and they knew the right artists to sign.
At that point, I.R.S was on fire while many of the more established labels were floundering.
The label was on fire, but we weren’t getting paid much. They weren’t selling a lot of records. They had a lot of good publicity, a lot of critical acclaim, a lot musical credibility, good A&R. Everybody loved the Fleshtones, Let’s Active and the English Beat. Everybody loved R.E.M. There was also Timbuk 3, Fine Young Cannibals, and the Balancing Act etc. I had a great roster to work with.
You were also quickly accepted by the music press.
I brought a solid journalism background to publicity. I knew how to write. I wrote all my own bios. I was a bonafide—I don’t want to say musicologist—but record collector. I really knew music. I could really sit in a room with Bob Hilburn or Bob Christgau and talk music, which I think accounts for a lot of my success. I still make it a point to read the music press, and listen to as much music as possible.
Until the rise of internet, print ruled publicity.
There wasn’t the internet back then, so it was print. Basically, publicity was print of all kinds: magazines, newspapers, lead time dailies. It was wire services. It was TV, and TV news of all kinds; public radio, although it wasn’t the force that it is nowadays; and some radio, but radio promotion is a whole occupation in to itself.
I would like to think that I helped further the position of record company publicity a little bit. There were visionaries in publicity that preceded me like Marilyn Laverty, who has gone on to form Shore Fire Media; Bob Merlis (at Warners); and Heidi Ellen Robinson, in Bob Merlis’ department at Warners, who invented tour publicity. And as far as indies went, there was Howard Bloom, Danny Goldberg, and Mitch Schneider. There were a lot of people who had really given credibility to publicity—many that I haven’t named.
In 1988, after four years, you left I.R.S. to go to Capitol Records.
A lot of the artists had left I.R.S. and my soul had left the building as well, I’m sorry to say. I had a few differences with Miles Copeland over the years. Fortunately, I had an offer from Capitol Records to head their publicity department. This was a quantum leap for me. I had one, two or three people at I.R.S. Records, depending on which way the wind blew. At Capitol, I was a department head with 12 to 14 people, including interns on two coasts.
You were at Capitol from 1988 to 1991.
They were great years. We had Bonnie Raitt with nine Grammies (in total) and we had M.C. Hammer, Tina Turner, Paul McCartney with “Flowers In the Dirt,” the Smithereens with “11,” and we had Dave Edmunds, Grace Jones, and Donnie Osmond. If you sense a trend of ‘70s retreads there, well that was the case. We also had the Beasties, and Blind Melon was just starting to be signed. So we were starting to see the future. But we had a hit with someone from the ‘70s (Bonnie Raitt) with one of the biggest hits of all time, “Nick Of Time” (selling five million copies, and winning three Grammy Awards in 1990, including Album Of The Year).
You spent nearly three years at Morgan Creek Records from 1991 to 1993. The parent company was very successful in the film business.
That’s why the label didn’t succeed. The movie business was very geared to opening weekend box office whereas music is artist development. We had Mary’s Danish, Little Feat, Janis Ian, Shelby Lynn, and Miracle Legion.
It was strange working there. We had computers on our desk, but we didn’t have the internet. It was press releases on paper. We could write things on the computer but then it had to be mailed or faxed.
Eventually, the guy (James G. Robinson) who owns Morgan Creek Productions, who knows the film business well, got tired of writing checks in the name of artist development. The label was pretty well laid to rest after three years.
The label’s biggest hit was "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" by Bryan Adams featured on the 1991 soundtrack album “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and on Adams' album “Waking Up the Neighbours” on A&M Records.
That was the big hit that paid a lot of pay checks. It is the only platinum record we got at Morgan Creek. It fueled a lot of artist development.
Did you know early on that you wanted to work in the music industry?
I knew that I wanted to be surrounded by music, and by media from day one. My science teacher in junior high had a subscription to Billboard. He would bring it for me, and I would study each issue. It was fascinating to me: the labels, the executives, the charts, the news items, the signings, the concert reviews, the “Watch Closely, Mr. Retailer” album reviews, and (stories on the) juke box operators. I was in rapt attention.
Was music part of your background?
My late father was a classical music collector. My mother was a violinist in the Montreal Symphony for years. They served as an inspiration.
Like others, I got hooked on the Beatles, and I was a rock fan from that moment onward. But I discovered that I lived in Chicago, which was the home of blues and Chess (Records). I think I heard Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud” album (released by Chess-affiliated Cadet Concept in 1968) on freeform radio WSDM-FM or (urban station) WDAI in Chicago in 1968 or 1969. That was really when I lost it. I realized that I was a subway ride away from Chess Records. I needed to know everything there was to know about Chess Records and the blues. That was on top of my interest in rock and everything else. I was a goner by then.
The other thing that was instrumental in my career—and how is this for career focus? I was, maybe, 14 years old and had entered high school (New Trier High School) in the north suburbs of Chicago, only to find out that we had an FM station 88.1 FM WNTH. I became a DJ with a blues show. Then I became music director and public relations director (at the station) at 15.
Music director was an interesting job because it entailed me contacting record companies, and local distributors and getting them to service a high school radio station. After school, in that narrow window between 3:30 and 6 P.M., I would go to the distributors, and make sure that we had albums like “Woodstock” for the radio station’s library. And as the public relations director, I was trying to get stories on the station at the Winnetka Talk, the Evanston Review, and the Chicago Sun-Times.
I went to Brunswick and Dakar, the soul labels. I also went to One-derful. I visited Delmark a lot. I spent time at the Jazz Record Mart with Bob Koester (also the founder and owner of Delmark Records.) His shipping clerk was a wild-eyed, angry young man name Bruce Iglaurer who went on to form Alligator Records (in 1971). Both guys were mentors and good friends. They answered my questions and suffered a teenaged kid hanging around.
Did you visit Chess Records?
People think that I’m lying when I say this, but I went to Chess, and Sunnyland Slim, the famous blues pianist and recording artist (who played with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and Little Walter) was painting the walls. I had met him once before at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. We kind of knew each other. I was 14 or 15. I said, “How are you doing Sunnyland?” He said, “You can see how I’m doing.”
That kind of stuck in my craw.
When I hear these stories about Muddy Waters painting the ceiling at Chess, according to the Rolling Stones (in an account by Keith Richards, when the Rolling Stones visited Chess in 1964), on top of being their recording star…
I don’t really believe that story.
I believe it’s true. With Sunnyland Slim, I saw it with my own teenaged eyes. At Chess, I met (producer) Ralph Bass, and (pianist) Sonny Thompson. I met a lot of the latter-day A&R people who closed the doors of Chess. They sold it to GRT (General Recorded Tape of California). Even at 15 or 16, I knew that was a disaster in the making. GRT proceeded not to have any life of its own. The Chess tapes later became the property of All-Platinum, which also collapsed.
[After GRT purchased Chess in 1968, it moved the label to New York, operating it as a division of Janus Records. In 1975, GRT sold Chess to New Jersey-based All Platinum Records. It later faced financial difficulties, and the Chess catalog was acquired by MCA Records, which itself was later merged into Universal Music.]
What did you think of the 2008 film about Chess Records, “Cadillac Records?” I thought the ambience was good.
The ambience wasn’t bad, but they didn’t film it in Chicago. Illinois has an active film office as does the city of Chicago. We have locations here. The former Chess Record building is owned by the Willie Dixon family. You tell me that they needed to shoot the film in New Jersey? That kinda offended me from the onset. Some of the other stuff I was okay with.
[The filming of “Cadillac Records” started in Feb. 2008, in Clifton, New Jersey. Filming also took place in Mississippi and Louisiana.]
I never did see “Who Do You Love?” (a 2008 a biopic of the record producer Leonard Chess, directed by Jerry Zaks and filmed in New Orleans) because it had a shelf life in L.A. of about one week. I’ve never come upon it since then.
Did you hang out at the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago?
I went to Maxwell Street, indeed. My father used to be taken to Maxwell Street by his father to shop there. It was a hot bed of activity, especially for the Russian Jewish emigrants of Chicago, and European emigrants, of which my grandfather was one.
So my father took me there in 1969 to show me around. He wanted to get it out of my system. He wanted me to never want to go back. But that backfired. We went there and there was blues on the street corners. I saw Big Walter Horton, Little Pat Rushing, and Big John Wrencher. The guy I really was in awe with was Blind Arvella Gray, who was a blind street singer who was missing some fingers.
He played a slide steel resonator guitar.
That’s right. It was a Nashville steel-bodied guitar. And he would get around all over the city. But on Sundays you could find him on Maxwell Street with a tin cup. I sat and watched him for hours and hours. I took many photos.
You arranged for Arvella Gray to record an album.
There was a label in my home town of Wilmette called Birch Records. They did a lot of “Barn Dance” era recordings (with performers from the “National Barn Dance” program broadcast by WLS-AM in Chicago) like Patsy Montana, and Lulu Belle & Scotty. I suggested that they record Blind Arvella Gray, and they made the arrangement.
One night we drove the owner of the label (Dave Wylie) and Blind Arvella Gray down to the south suburb of Harvey, Illinois and recorded an album. We got out at about 3 A.M. The album came out on Birch Records. They pressed about 1,000 albums, which all sold out.
One day in 2005, it occurred to me that nobody had ever reissued this Blind Arvella Gray record. The trouble was (Dave Wylie) who ran the Birch label didn’t have a computer; and he wasn’t on email and there was very little internet DNA. I really had to dig deep to find him. Finally, he called me and he knew exactly why I was looking for him. So, he leased me the Blind Arvella Gray record (“The Singing Drifter”), which I put out on my own label Conjuroo Recordings.
[Arvella Gray was born in Somerville, Texas in 1906. Little is known about his life He apparently lost his sight, and the first two fingers on his fret hand in the early 30s.
Gray had self-released three singles in the mid-60s; and been featured on a few compilations, but he hadn't released an album of his own. In late September 1972, Wylie and Baker drove Gray to a studio in Harvey where Gray laid down 15 tracks, both originals and adaptations of traditional material. 11 tracks ended up on the 1973 album, “The Singing Drifter.” Gray died in 1980.
In 2006, Baker reissued “The Singing Drifter,” which had long been out of print, on Conjuroo Recordings.]
You tried the famous Maxwell Street polish sausage, of course.
I had many a Maxwell Street polish sausage and ribs and tacos and everything that you can think of.
In the 1980 “Blues Brothers” film, Aretha Franklin jumped up on the counter to belt out “Respect.” That was filmed at Nate's Deli on Maxwell Street - now a parking lot. As well, the Hill Street Blues Precinct House on the ‘80s TV series “Hill Street Blues” was the old Chicago police station on the corner of Maxwell and Morgan Streets.
Nate’s Deli (formerly Lyon's Deli) was a real deli (owned and operated by Nate Duncan). I’ve had many a pastrami sandwich there. They didn’t have live music never less did they have Aretha Franklin.
You could walk around Maxwell Street and find musicians all over the street corners and in the alleys, especially in vacant lots where they could run an (electric) current from next door and plug in their guitars. And there was a place called Maxwell Street Radio (Maxwell Radio and Records) at 831 West Maxwell, run by Bernie Abrams. In the ‘40s he had a label (Ora-Nelle) that released the first record, a 78, by Little Walter, and the first 78 by Johnny “Man” Young ("Money Taking Woman”).
[For decades, the swarming weekend open-air market on Maxwell Street southwest of Chicago's Loop served as a place where Chicagoans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds could come together. It was free, out in the open, and dozens of local blues and gospel musicians performed there weekly. Maxwell Street doesn’t have a market anymore, but a recent 90-minute film documentary “Cheat You Fair,” named for one of the Maxwell Street stores, chronicles the history of the marketplace from the 1870s to the 1990s.]
What did you study at North Illinois University?
I was a journalism major. I graduated after five years. I dropped out a couple of times. I was editor of Rockford’s alternative weekly Lively Times for awhile. I was also the music writer for the Northern Star which was a daily paper. I wrote for the Chicago Reader, the Illinois Entertainer, and eventually Trouser Press, New York Rocker, and Bomp! All while I was in college. I also started Fiction Records while I was in college, which was another reason why I was slow to graduate. Graduation was never a priority with me.
Were you collecting records then?
I was a major collector. I would take summer vacations and school holidays and rummage through Salvation Army stores on the wrong side of the tracks. I went to the South Side, the West Side, Evanston, Waukegan, and Joliet looking for 45s and 78s.
The best haul of 78s that I ever found was at a barbeque restaurant in Sycamore, the town next to my college in DeKalb. There was a barbeque place called Fanny’s, without a sign or a phone, located in the coach house of a house. You had to know about it.
After being a five year man on campus at NIU, I did find out about it.
My music friends and I went there for dinner one night. We learned that the place had been opened since the ‘50s. We asked the owner about those records from the ‘50s. He said, “You mean the kind that you can’t play anymore? 78s? I was going to call the Salvation Army to haul them away.” We all went, “No-o-o.”
After dinner, we went down into this guy’s basement and he gave us dozens and dozens of 78s. We’re talking Willie Dixon and the Big Thee Trio, Clifton Chenier, and Don and Dewey on Specialty (Records). Things that you wouldn’t believe. There was a bunch of Chess recordings. I have never scored 78s ever again, like I did from that barbeque restaurant in this rural northern Illinois town.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.