Industry Profile: Steve Hecht
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Steve Hecht, director/agent, Piedmont Talent.
With his ability to synthesize material into fascinating narratives, and with his passion for popular music, particularly American blues, Steve Hecht would make a fine music scholar.
Director/agent and founder of Piedmont Talent in Charlotte, North Carolina, the 50-year-old Hecht oversees a diverse roster that includes such legendary acts as: Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Guy Davis, Candye Kane, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, Magic Slim & the Teardrops, and Sugar Blue.
Founded in 1989 and with a staff of 6, Piedmont Talent also handles: the Heritage Blues Orchestra, Davina & The Vagabonds, the Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Mike Zito, Karen Lovely, Shakura S'aida, Smoking Joe Kubek & Bnois King, Debbie Davies Band, Samantha Fish, Homemade Jamzí Blues Band, Nora Jean, Eden Brent, Phil Wiggins & Corey Harris, Southern Hospitality, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, the Royal Southern Brotherhood, Southern Hospitality, Joe Krown Trio with Walter "Wolfman" Washington & Russell Batiste, JP Soars, Cassie Taylor and the Soul Calvary , Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets, Blues & Burlesque 2012 and others.
Born in New York City in 1962, Hecht graduated from the State University of New York in Binghamton, earning a BA in philosophy. While at college, he worked as a blues radio DJ, and promoter of blues and folk shows at the school. Following college, he signed on as a booking agent at Concerted Efforts in Boston.
A relentless blues and roots advocate, Hecht is on the advisory board of The Blues Foundation, having served two terms on the board of directors. As well, he is a two-time recipient of the Keeping The Blues Alive Award given out annually by The Foundation.
What is the significance of the agencyís name?
I just couldnít come up with a better name. I was moving from Boston to North Carolina. I was moving to the Piedmont region of North Carolina which is sort of the middle of the state. Not quite the mountains, and not near the ocean. It was also the name of a style of blues that pretty much stretched from northern Florida, into Virginia, and over to Atlanta. It was called Piedmont blues. So for the lack of being more creative, thatís what I came up.
Pre-war bluesmen Blind Blake, Josh White, Buddy Moss, Blind Boy Fuller and others helped spread the Piedmont finger style blues style.
Yeah, that syncopated Piedmont style. There are still a few folks out there playing that style. Not too many
Did you open up as a blues agency in 1989?
It may not have been a conscious decision as such, but my personal taste in music, particularly with contemporary music as of 1989 when I started the company, was more toward blues (including Bo Carter, Charlie Patton, the Harlem Hamfats, and Blind Blake). That was what I was familiar with as an agent from my previous experience. So it wound up being a blues agency although we have also worked with some blues rock bands, and some Zydeco and Cajun artists.
Since youíve been working since 1989, I presume you must be a good agent.
What else can I do at this point?
Are the reasons you are good because you have the gift of being a salesman, matched with an enthusiasm for blues and roots music?
I think that is a good part of it. I still do blues radio (the ďSaturday Night House PartyĒ show) on WNCW in Spindale (licensed to Isothermal Community College in Spindale, North Carolina.). I am still involved with that. I have been on the board of directors of the Blues Foundation. I do a lot of other blues-related things because I like it. The blues community is fairly tight. They appreciate working with other folks thatÖ.The blues club owners, letís get realistic about this. If they wanted to make a lot of money as a club owner would they be a blues club? No. They would go and get 18 TVs, and have every sports game, and have local bands with no risk (playing) for the door and probably come out financially better. But the people that hire blues (artists), even the people that run the festivals, they are passionate about this. Over the years you get to know them. They trust you. My companyís motto is ďAs Honest As An Agent Can Be.Ē
How honest are you?
As honest can be. Thereís no point in bullshitting buyers on things that you canít deliver because it comes back and bites you later. Like most businesses all you have is your reputation.
Booking agents are often caricatured as used car salesmen.
Right. But people choose to be in the blues field because they like the music and they have some sort of affinity toward (blues) artists. Itís a very personal thing. You go to any festival and you can pretty much meet any (blues) artist that plays there. Thereís really no barrier between the artist and the audience. Thatís part of the thrill (of the genre). Thatís why when the Blues Foundation has the Blues Music Awards or their IBC talent competition (the International Blues Challenge, an annual event that showcases and awards emerging blues artists) so many people flock to it. You get to hang with them (blues artists), be with them, talk with them, and become friends. A lot of folks really like that aspect of the blues community.
How do you divide duties up with your staff?
Itís pretty simple. There are the agents, Tina Terry and Lori Haynes, and the support staff have different roles. Michelle (Michelle Kaplan, executive business manager/IT officer) has been with me for over 10 years. Sheís from Canada. She moved back to Canada about 6 years ago and, thanks to the miracle of the internet and networking, can work remotely (there) just as well. She lives in Edmonton and does all of our artist statements, immigration, travel arrangements, updates web sites, and those type of things.
Then there Bryan Osborne (office manager) and Robyn Fryer (special projects manager) who handle different aspects of contracting, follow-up work; all of the annoying little things that I donít have patience for. It works out very well.
How difficult is it finding new agents to book primarily a blues roster?
The hardest part (of running an agency) is finding agents in this field. You have to want to be in the blues field to work at Piedmont Talent. There arenít that many people that are young enough in their job history to take that chance. Work as an agent more or less on a commission basis in the blues world. You do get certain people that want to work in the blues world that are older--that are blues experts-- but they donít have the selling and personal skills. I had one guy here--a friend and a great guy--but he was more interested in getting recognition for unheard of blues artists. I was like, ďThey donít want recognition. They want to eat. They want a gig. They want to make money, and they want to eat. They donít really care if thereís another interview with them in some library somewhere.Ē
Back to your question. I would definitely bring on more agents if I could find the right people because the company is only as good as the staff. Some of my competitors, they bring on new agents, but their personal feel is a different direction. So they find a lot of artists that arenít blues, and thatís where they find their success. At this point, I would like to open an office overseas because I think that in Europe there is so much work there that I would love to have more of a presence there.
These days some people contend that blues is on a lifeline but you speak about expanding your company. Obviously, you donít expect the patient to die.
Well, itís not going to die. Itís going to change drastically. A lot of things that pass for blues these days would be marginally referred to as blues when I started in this crazy business. But it (the genre) has morphed. It has changed. Whether it has changed for the better or not is for the listener or the consumer to decide. But I still find artists that really blow me away. Like when I heard the Heritage Blues Orchestra this year for the first time. As soon as I heard one of their songs I said, ďThis is unique. This is special. This is the future.Ē Hereís a band that takes traditional-based material and has really updated it and made it special. Itís not cheesy. It has all of the elements that I like. It has multiple vocals. It has a very creative horn arrangement. Alright, touring a 9-piece band when they have to go to France has its own problems, but there are still some great things out there for them. The Royal Southern Brotherhood that I work with now straddles the blues and rock worlds. They are receiving some great attention and thereís going to be some great things coming out of there as well.
Would your biggest competitor be The Rosebud Agency in San Francisco?
Ahhh in some ways, yeah. But most of my competitors are a little bit more diverse in what they represent than I am. Thatís just the way it worked out. My roster is pretty much all blues with some exceptions. Most of my competitors have other aspects of the touring business whether it be bluegrass, jam bands or whatever they like to do as well. So in a lot of ways, I have a certain in with some of the buyers (being) this way.
Thereís something to be said for being a specialist agency. Club owners or festival promoters think of you right of the bat if they want a blues act.
Right. There are only a handful of agencies that (buyers) can call right off the bat if they have to fill a particular slot at the last minute; or if they need to round out their festival. Within blues, thereís a lot of diversity. I pride myself in the fact that my roster has a lot of artists that are very unique. Heritage Blues Orchestra, Candye Kane, and Davina & the Vagabonds are very unique artists. Thereís nobody else that sounds like them. Of course, thereís also Johnny Winter, a historic rock legend.
Itís nice to be able to offer events another (unique) slot. They may have 10 guitar players and you offer them someone who is a harp player. People call up all of the time saying, ďLook, I need more women on my festival.Ē Or I need this or that. They never call me saying that they need more middle-aged white guitar players. Theyíve got plenty of those.
I know that you are also a fan of John Fahey, Cliff Edwards (aka ďUkulele IkeĒ), Cab Calloway, King Benny Nawahi and other Hawaiian guitar music. Why did you drill further down in the blues world rather than expanding the agency with other musical genres?
Because this is my comfort zone. At this level, I can still retain control of what goes on in the agency, and it seems to have always worked out best when we work with blues artists. Weíve worked with Americana and roots rock artists and it just hasnít been as quite as successful. It also takes a lot more work because the more genres you represent, the more different types of buyers you have to contact in the same area. Iím never opposed to the right artist. I loved working with the Asylum Street Spankers, They were a totally different thing. That one just worked. But after awhile they just hung it up from the road (in 2011).
In the past decade the American blues market has moved more from clubs to festival bookings.
Absolutely. That has to do with the audience aging, and not getting out quite as much. Thereís a great crop of young blues artists out there including Mike Zito, and Samantha Fish. There are a lot of great (emerging) artists but they donít draw the big numbers of the James Cottons and the Johnny Winters; the folks that are more established. And they still seem to draw---to a large degree--an older audience. It is really hard, even with the young artists in their 20s, for them to draw their peers. That is what is going to make or break the future.
Iíve gone to several festivals when they have emerging artists who are still teenagers, and these kids have a lot of potential. We will see if they use their skills for good or for evil.
If the blues market in the U.S. has moved more to festivals which tend to be seasonal how do you building bookings for the rest of year? Nobody is planning to do a festival in December.
That is true. Itís not as if club work has totally disappeared. There are still a certain circuit of clubs. Itís not diverse. It used to be that you would go up to the North East and you had 10 clubs that you could consider for a weekís routing. Now you may have half of that. But they (the clubs) are still there. So you pretty much set up your club runs, and arts centre run that you can in the winter months or possibly go overseas a little bit. Also thereís the blues (boat) cruises. Those are nice. Those add a nice thing in January or October for the artists that are able to get on them.
The Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan, and the recent Blues and Burlesque 2012 tours you organized were successful packages.
I wish I had more time for the Blues and Burlesque. That is something that I hope to expand upon in the future. It is tough to find the right burlesque troupe that arenít hobbyists. That have really got their act and show down and have put it together. That is something that I hope for 2013 to be able to do more with.
Blues goes through waves of popularity in America. By the Ď70s, it was the white community that was picking up on the blues. Is that true today?
Well, itís a lot more complex today. Iím glad you brought that up, Larry. Blues, in a lot of ways, is hanging on by a thread these days. If it wasnít for the Blues Foundation, the blues scene would be in such sorry shape it would be scary. The audience is primarily white. There are very few African Americans in the audience. Blues does not attract a new audience; a new younger audience. As the audience gets older, we lose them.
Thereís a good reason for that.
Blues is a music that anyone can make at home. No one wants to see middle-aged white guys. People arenít going to flock to see middle-aged white guys playing blues. Itís like walking in on your parents having sex. You know that they do it but you donít want to see it.
For Afro-Americans the blues represents their great grandparentsí music that came from the Mississippi Delta, and northern urban cities like Chicago.
I donít even know if that is even valid anymore. That was true, maybe, in the Ď60s and Ď70s. The Afro-American audience went another direction. The good part about blues dying---to some degree--is itís because of civil rights. Back in the days before the civil rights movement (of the Ď60s), blues had a totally different value in the (Afro-American) community. Thatís 40 or 50 years ago.
Today, it (the blues) doesnít have the same oomph in relevance to a younger audience.
The music is fun to play. It has a great history. People love it for that. As far as attracting new and creative talent, it doesnít have the relevance. And thank heaven those days (of segregated racism) are gone. Those were the days of separate water fountains, and separate audiences. Iím 50 years old. I was a kid when all of that ended. I donít really have a first-hand perspective of it, but that was the environment that blues grew and flourished in to a large degree. Itís great that itís gone.
As I said, blues had waned in the Afro-American community by the mid-60s. The blues moved over to the college and festival circuit at that point. At the same time, the chitliní circuit was closing down.
Thatís all very true.
Interestingly, Cajun music had earlier gone down a similar path before the emergence of Dewey Balfa, BeauSoleil, Zachary Richard and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys led to greater recognition by folk in Louisiana and elsewhere. The same hasnít happened in the Afro-American market with blues.
No. Blues is just one musical aspect of the black community. So much innovation in American music has come from the black community, and either the white audience or the white players just follow it. Nowadays, Afro-American musicians have gone to something else; and are being creative and moving forward. Cajun music is a very regional culture along with cuisine and other traditions.
To me, itís not a bad thing that people have moved on from the blues. Blues, by definition, stylistically has a very limited amount of leeway in the music before it becomes something other than blues. It has been diluted so much that every little city has a local blues band in play, and it doesnít really inspire.
Blues just seems to have no relevance to a young audience. Our (blues clients) people ask ďCan you get us booked in colleges?í And as you mentioned in the Ď60s and Ď70s that was a popular spot for blues. Go look at CMJ. Thereís no blues chart. If you look at the list of CDs being released in CMJ today, thereís no blues releases listed. Michael Burksí CD has just been released. Why is that not listed in there? It (the blues) is just so unimportant in the big picture of music. Blues is such a small micro spec.
[Celebrated Arkansas blues master Michael "Iron Man" Burks collapsed May 16, 2012 in the HartsfieldĖJackson Atlanta International Airport on his way back from Italy. He was 54. ďShow of Strength" is the final CD recorded by the blues-rocker shortly before his death. Bruce Iglaurer, head of Alligator Records, said in the liner notes that he did not want the album released as a memorial, but rather as a "living, breathing statement ... from Michael's heart and soul."]
People were furious about the Grammys cutting back the number of blues awards from two to one.
Thatís really just a symptom (of the problems in blues). Where are all of the other music awards? The American Music Awards and all of the other music awards? Well, they have zero blues. It doesnít even rate.
With labels not impacting the way they once had, blues artists tour today as performers and as traveling mobile stores.
Absolutely. It used to be such a beautiful system. A CD would be released. The label would put it out. It would get some attention and some sales and radio. That, in turn, would fuel the demand for the artist to tour. That touring fueled more sales. I used to be able to tell that if an artist sold 10,000 CDs this was the kind of response that I would get from buyers. Then when they sold 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 the buyer calls that I would get coming in would greatly increase. You could just tell when (artists) were hitting certain milestones and sales. But that doesnít happen anymore. A lot of times some of the labels donít even support the record until there is a tour. It seems that the touring part of business is the driving engine for the sales. I miss when it was reciprocal but thatís just the way that it is.
Is there much consultation between you and the labels with releases by artists you represent?
Not as much as there used to be. The labels donít have as much of promotion budget. But there are still some labels that are very hands on. They want things timed with the release, and they are willing to do their part to get things done. But not as much as there used to be.
With lessened revenue and staff, labels canít do a lot of things today. All artists have to do more to promote their releases. More so with blues artists.
(Blues) artists donít always support their own careers the way that they should. A lot of the cultural aspects of blues are gone. They are not as relevant to the artist today. The history is set in stone, and the icons of the blues world we all know who they are.
Up-and-coming artists sometimes ignore the fact that the blues is a sub-set of the entertainment industry. You just donít want to coast on the fact that there is a certain genericness to blues. It used to be that blues clubs could have any quality of blues act, and blues fans would come out to hear the blues music. Well, thatís not true anymore. We need to drum into artists the need to have a good support system. They canít count on the agent to make everything happen. They have to have a publicist, and they have to have a video. So many times people use these really awful Tube clips to promote themselves. That doesnít work. They need to treat this (the blues) like any other form of popular music.
The other thing that is lacking in blues is vocals. It is so guitar-centric. Some of these guitar players are utterly phenomenal but they canít sing worth a lick. That puts a very low glass ceiling for them. Also they donít have background vocals. I have seen so many bands that have really good material, and have one lead vocalist. If another musician in the band could do harmonies.
Have you never heard a hit song on the radio that doesnít have background or harmony vocals? Have you ever seen anyone become successful without a video?
For some reason for a lot of blues folks, those things are not necessary to them because blues has a certain holiness or something. They just forget that this is the entertainment business. If they want people to pay attention to them, and if they want to stand out they canít just ignore things that create success in other forms of the music world. It doesnít cheapen them to have their bass player and drummer singing along with them in harmony. A lot of the times (the blues) is so instrumental-oriented that it gets lost. Look at the great and most successful blues artists out there now. They are all--to quote Junior Wells, ďSinging motherfuckers.Ē They are not just one trick ponies who are great instrumentalists. A lot of the younger artists need to do that. Some are. Some are putting out inexpensive, but professionally shot videos that sometimes go viral or get attention. They have to remember that they canít play outside the rules of the music business if they want to succeed in it.
Blues is hard to find at physical retail; meanwhile blues fans who are older arenít downloading.
No but they are probably like me. I enjoy the fact that I can go online and order a CD that I would never find if there was a local record store. Like, ďI didnít even know that this existedĒ and order it and in two days and itís here (playing) in my car or whatever.
How does this all this turbulence affect you as an agent trying to book the blues?
Well, when I first started as an agent there were a lot of other agencies that either specialized in blues or a good bulk of their roster was blues. As time has gone on the demand for blues overall has waned, and they have dropped out. So even though the pie is smaller, thereís less competition. Being that I am very dedicated about one narrow aspect of the music business, it still works well for me because Iíve been doing it for so long that I have the contacts. Itís less competitive in that way. Thereís less gigs but thereís less artists willing to go out and get them.
Over the years, the blues has fragmented into different groups, Some blues fans are not supportive of some blues styles.
Thatís very true. Acoustic blues artists have it a lot rougher these days. Acoustic blues artists used to be very accepted in the folk music world and they played a lot of folk festivals, and the folk circuit. But they kind have been pushed out of that to a larger degree. They donít have the opportunities there that they once had. And I donít really why that is.
Folk has evolved into singer/songwriters to some degree. Thereís not a lot of traditional folk at some folk festivals these days.
Thatís true. I have an 18-year-old daughter, and I was talking to one of her friends recently and I asked her what type of music that she liked. She said, ďI love the stuff that I got from my parents. I love folk music.Ē I was like, ďAhh, hereís a young person who likes folk music. I asked, ďLike who?Ē She said ďMumford & Sons, and the Avett Brothers.Ē They never crossed my mind as folk music per se. To me, folk music and acoustic music arenít necessarily the same thing but, maybe, that is just splitting hairs (today).
You mentioned about blues being part of entertainment world. That was true in the Ď20s and Ď30s when blues labels were putting out anything that they thought would stick in the marketplace.
I think that all labels back then were trying to figure it all out. They were releasing and exploiting everything they could possibly could. Whatever ethnicity you were there was someone putting it out Klezmer music and New York City Italian music and there were blues. So much music of all sorts, not just blues, was recorded before the Depression and it is just such a blessing for all of humanity that all that stuff has been preserved. There are so many blues artists recorded in the Ď20s and the Ď30s. We have volumes of work to listen to today. It is just utterly mind-boggling that it all exists. How easy would it have been for Robert Johnson or Skip James not to have ever recorded?
I also like that in the last decade or so that blues research and scholarship has shifted focus a little bit more toward the commercial aspect of the blues. Blues just wasnít a form of music with people sitting on their porch who got recorded by folklorists. It was commercially successful entities. When I do my blues radio shows, I play a fair amount of the old pre-war blues because I just love that stuff. Iím pathological about it. I have to remind people that these were not old men and old women when they recorded this (music). These were young people in their 20s and 30s. They were the catís pajamas. They were the ones that everybody wanted to emulate. They sold records. They made money. They didnít work in menial labor.
They had fast cars, fast women and plenty of whisky. They were in showbiz.
Yeah, and for awhile, that was secondary in the scholarship of the folk roots and such. It is just so nice to see people saying, ďWhat about Leroy Carr?Ē He sold so many more 78s than his peers, but heís not the big name now in the history books. I like the fact that people like Elijah Wald is one of the writers who has done that. They say, ďLook this is what the black community was buying back then.Ē The Bluebird (label) stuff was really, really successful. Big Bill Broonzy recorded umpteen 78s, and played on even more.
[Nashville blues singer and pianist Leroy Carr was renowned for his laid-back, crooning style that influenced such artists as Nat ďKingĒ Cole, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Carr died in 1935 of nephritis shortly after his 30th birthday.]
My favorite blues artist from that pre-war period is Lonnie Johnson. After an accident in 1969, I saw his final performance at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1970. He performed with Buddy Guy sitting at his feet. He died a couple months later.
What an immense talent.
How far afield do you book? Europe? The Far East?
If you are not overseas. you are in deep shit. Thereís a lot of work over there. What they look for is different. You may have an artist that is huge demand in Europe, and hasnít quite caught on here (in the U.S.) in their home. I do really well with the Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band. I donít book them in the States. I only represent them overseas. They have made some great strides there. Davina & the Vagabonds, who is not really a blues artist to a degree, they have just wowed people just by being different. So they are able to get on some other events and get over there (to Europe) to some pretty nice events that they still havenít quite got in the States, yet although that (their booking schedule) has grown. It hasnít got up to the level there. If they go to France, Switzerland and Norway they play some pretty nice places.
Europe has some great local blues scenes.
But Europe has changed a lot and booking there in the blues world as well has changed greatly. There used to be a lot of promoters that would hire and act and book them throughout Europe for three, four, five weeks. Those (days) are long gone. Now you have to go (and book) country by country. If you canít find somebody to promote a tour in a country, I have wound up going directly to every club and bar in Germany and England to get it done. And itís paid off. It takes a lot of patience. But you do what have got to do.
But you do work with sub-agents over there?
Well, I do when I can but even that has dried up and itís not as dependable as it once was. I have some great colleagues that I work with in Scandinavia, and in Germany, and in Eastern Europe.
Give me some examples.
Well Fleming Christenson from the Marsk Music agency in Denmark has done a great job and some of the folks like Romain Tirgel (Veryshow Productions) that work with Johnny Winter in France, and Rolland Nilles at Kultopolis who handles Germany and Australia. They have been phenomenal. They have their stuff together. But, unfortunately, I canít always find someone of that caliber for each of my artists when I need it.
With such a diverse roster, you may have one artist that might be a fit and another that might not be.
Right. Obviously, some of the promoters there want Johnny Winter and the more rock type stuff. Then you go into Eastern Europe, and people there just want something totally different.
Is the Far East a no-fly zone for your artists?
No, but itís a tougher one (market). Japan and China, they know what they want, and I canít sell them anything. Theyíll say, ďI want this person.Ē And if I say, ďGreat. Letís do thatĒ and add this person (to the booking package) it usually goes nowhere. They have a very strict idea of what they want and thatís what they go for.
Can you recall what the first blues record you ever heard was?
I donít know what the first blues record I ever heard was, but I grew up in New York City and there was a lot of college radio available. I used to listen to WFMU over in East Orange (New Jersey) all of the time. A lot of the times I would hear John Narucki, who passed away a few years back, and he would play a good bit of blues. I was a big Hot Tuna fan. I still have never heard anybody (like Jorma Kaukonen) play finger picking electric blues like he did. I canít believe nobody else has hit on that idea. I would hear on the radio the original version of ĒPolice Dog BluesĒ or ďThatíll Never Happen No MoreĒ which (Hot) Tuna recorded. I would go, ďWow. This is really cool.Ē I remember the first three blues records I bought. One of them was one of the Robert Johnson Columbia things. Another one was a two album Blind Lemon Jefferson and the other was a Lightiní Hopkins. It was an eye-opener to me. This stuff is just so cool.
The Ď70s was a great blues reissue era with releases from Columbia, RCA, Capitol and other labels.
My parents had a Capitol demo (sampler) record in their collection that had Mississippi Fred McDowell and Guitar Junior which is (the moniker of) Lonnie Brooks on it.
In 1969, Capitol distributed Mississippi Fred McDowell album ďI Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll.Ē
Thatís a phenomenal record.
[Mississippi Fred McDowellís 1969 Malaco Records album ďI Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll,Ē recorded in Jackson, Mississippi was his first featuring electric guitar. McDowell died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 68. He was buried at Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. In 1993, a memorial was placed on his grave site. The ceremony was presided over by blues agent/manager Dick Waterman, and the memorial with McDowell's portrait upon it was paid for by singer Bonnie Raitt.]
While attending State University of New York, you hosted a blues radio show.
I had a blues show on WHRW in Binghamton where I went to school starting in 1980. I had access to a whole library of stuff. It was an eye-opening experience every day. I also booked blues and folk shows for the school with the schoolís money. I ran a group called Straight Country & Blues that (promoted) folk and blues shows. We did J.B. Hutto, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Johnny Copeland, and Rory Block. All sorts of folks.
Did you get to know Dick Waterman back then? His company Avalon Productions was representing such iconic blues figures as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Skip James, Lightniní Hopkins, Junior Wells, J. B. Hutto and others.
I didnít get to know him at that time. I knew who he was. Dick has always been a hero of mine. He was an agent involved in this music when the rules werenít written. I first met him in Boston in 1985 when I was working for Concerted Efforts. He was there for a show and he bought me a drink. It was one of the proudest moments because I was only 23. I didnít really care that he had managed Bonnie Raitt. The fact that he had re-discovered and worked with Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt. Thatís the kind of stuff that is not going to happen again. That to me was just amazing.
Doing a radio show while in college is a great way to get free records.
Oh, it was. I didnít really get free records from the radio but by doing some blues concert promoting I got all of the demos and stuff sent to me by the different agents.
Alligator, Blind Pig and Rounder were all thriving labels back then with plenty of blues releases.
I booked a lot of artists that were on Rounder. Johnny Copeland was on Rounder then. I donít recall if I booked anyone on Alligator at the time. It was a weird time for blues. The price that I paid in college for Buddy Guy and Junior Wells (as a duo act) was a crime. Itís hard to believe. At that time blues was fairly hot but these guys werenít making any money compared to what Buddy makes now. Many blues artists didnít have labels. They didnít even have agents. I booked Buddy and Junior directly from Marty Salzman who was the manager; who I still work with because he manages Magic Slim whom I represent. But (blues artists) didnít have agents then. Even when I started working at Concerted Efforts in Boston there were a lot of Alligator acts out of Chicago that didnít really have agents. Thatís when America Famous Talent with Ron Kaplan and folks there started picking up Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and things.
It was just unbelievable the void that was there back then for blues performers.
When I started Piedmont Talent, Johnny Copeland was unrepresented. Hereís a guy who was a Grammy winner; and a phenomenal artist with no agent.
You majored in philosophy.
I graduated college and I had a degree in philosophy. I moved to Boston which I liked because I figured I had no real skills so I should go to a city where there might be some bizarre opportunities for me to do something. Thatís where Concerted Efforts is located. I had hired a bunch of artists from them when I was in college. So I called Paul Kahn there. I never even thought that being an agent was a job or a career. I thought, maybe, it was something you did until you got a job. But I didnít know anyone in town except him, so I called. He had a two person company and he needed someone else. I was 23, and I went to work for him. I couldnít believe that Iím 23 and Iím representing Clarence ďGatemouth Brown,Ē and Matt "Guitar" Murphy. Holy shit. How did I get so lucky?
What did your parents do?
Mom was a stay at home mom. Dad was a social worker.
What do your parents think of your career?
They are happy with it. Itís the only thing that Iíve ever done, and Iíve been successful at it. So, they are tickled pink that I graduated with liberal arts degree in philosophy and found my niche. Thatís what I tell people when you go to college -- itís not necessarily what you study or what your degree is. The fact that I booked shows for the school and did blues radio added to my human capital and led me to where I am. I could never have foreseen it.
You were recently diagnosed with cancer. What type?
It is called plasmablastic lymphoma. It is the type of cancer that almost all the patients that have it have AIDS or severe immune deficiencies issues. It is very rare that someone who is not AIDS positive has this.
When were you diagnosed?
Back in May. I had a little lump in my neck. It was removed, and biopsied. It turned out to be this rare form (of cancer). It hasnít spread. Itís in this one area. Lymphoma responds fairly well to radiation. You donít need intense amounts. I havenít really been sick from the chemo or anything. I missed two days of work mainly because I felt like deserved to take a day off work because of having cancer.
Did the diagnosis initially scare you?
Initially. But I tend to not panic or freak out until I have some hard evidence to back up the need to freak out. I was diagnosed pretty quickly. As soon as I was told it was curable, I felt that I was going to go with that and follow what Iím supposed to do. So far, itís been coming along pretty well. My artists and friends have been very supportive.
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 ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē