Industry Profile: Vincent Degiorgio
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Vincent Degiorgio, president and CEO, Chapter 2 Productions.
Canadian Vincent Degiorgio is a neighborhood type of guy with an expansive range of musical influences that have served him well over an impressive four decade career as a DJ, producer, and music publisher.
Today, Degiorgio is the president & CEO of Toronto-based Chapter 2 Productions, which houses the Cymba Music Publishing Company with its roster of songwriters including Davor Vulama, AIleen de la Cruz, Ava Kay, Shawn Zhang, Young Feng, and Hakan Lundberg.
Degiorgio himself has had songs recorded by such formidable international acts as Caro Emerald, Atomic Kitten, Kristine W, Alcazar, Tomomi Kahala, Shakaya, Human Nature, Room 2012, LEAD, Aloha From Hell and others in 11 languages with overall sales surpassing 30 million units.
Chapter 2 Productions has provided music for over 150 television shows including "America's Next Top Model,” "Degrassi" and "Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
Degiorgio began his music career as an import buyer for a Sam the Record Man retail outlet in his hometown of Brampton, Ontario. This led to working at the prestigious Toronto music retailer Disco Sound, and spinning records at the Toronto hot spot, Le Tube.
After a stint at overseeing promotion in Southern, Ontario for Montreal-based Unidisc Records in the mid 80's, Degiorgio formed Power Records, which released over 250 12-inch singles over 8 years.
While helming Power, Degiorgio began producing and composing music, including Tapps’ “My Forbidden Lover,” and Eria Fachin’s “Savin’ Myself.”
After winding down Power Records, Degiorgio was hired as a dance music and marketing consultant at BMG Music Canada, where he developed a handful of best-selling dance compilation brands.
While International A&R VP at RCA, Degiorgio signed N Sync for North America.
In 2001, Degiorgio parted ways with RCA to focus on the production and the writing careers of his growing roster at Chapter 2 Productions, as well as his own bustling career as a songwriter and producer.
What is it about pop music that appeals to you?
I just think that it’s in the blood. When my father came to Canada from Malta in ’59, he was crazy about Frankie Laine, Dean Martin, and Nat “King” Cole. I just grew into it (pop music). You could almost say that I became obsessive about pop when my father took me to see Johnny Mathis at the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. It was my first concert. I was 6 or 7. I may have remembered one of two songs. Fast forward to now, and I have seen Johnny Mathis perform eight times. As I was always the kid on the outside. I was just obsessed with pop music.
When did you begin writing songs?
I started to write in the early ‘80s. I wish, in hindsight, that I had written more, and that there was a base for a kid like me (in the Canadian music industry). It wasn’t exactly conventional. I just wish that back when I started in dance music that I had gotten into a studio with one of the rock guys who were published so I could have contributed to a hit song.
Why didn’t that happen?
Back in those days, they (major labels in Canada) never went to the dance people to say, “Can you write a song for Chantal Candor because she had left (the Canadian female disco duo) Voggue? You’re the idiot who played the hell out of ‘"Dancin' the Night Away.” She was on Columbia Records, and they went to Sony/ATV, picked a rock song, and gave (American producer) John Luongo a lot of money to remix it to make it sound like it was presentable (for the clubs).
Did you play an instrument as a kid?
My father had me take piano lessons when I was 6 years old. I took three lessons, and I decided I was bored. I didn’t take music in high school. Later on, I found that could write a lyric with lightning speed. My melodic base has such a point of reference that it’s easy (to write).
What is your strength as a songwriter?
I think that I come in with a complete opposite idea from most lyricists. There’s the memory bank of what I have in that I can hear and reflect on the past five decades when I step into a room. I don’t want to write something generic. I want to twist a person’s brain when they listen to my music. I want them to feel what they are hearing.
What are the biggest misconceptions faced by new songwriters these days?
Probably that they think success is automatic. The other thing is just because they have a song on their local radio station that they are a star. At the same time, it's wonderful seeing people from different genres collaborating today. I didn’t grow up in that society, but I’m doing everything I can to foster that change.
What mistakes in songwriting do newer writers tend to make?
The normal thing is that they are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. They shouldn’t be writing against their type. I grew up, and I stayed true to who I am as a musician, and as a writer. I don’t think you have to change anymore to make somebody happy. I’ve heard so many people say, “I want to do the dance thing.” The next day they are doing (performing in) a country coffee house. Songwriters trying to change their point of view because someone told they should is the biggest mistake that they can make.
Music-related talent shows on TV sell stardom. Not the idea that an artist still needs a support system around them.
Those shows have ruined the A&R process in one regard because people are walking in saying, “Yeah, I’m a singer/songwriter.” They do the show, and they get signed to a label. Suddenly, they are cutting 10 songs of someone else’s. So they aren’t really being true to themselves like I said.
I also think that the A&R world got really lousy when “Pop Idol” in the UK hit, and then “American Idol” came along. Suddenly record companies were hesitant to put records out because they didn’t want to compete (with TV-based artists) on the same release day. People were also signing all of the cast-offs from the shows. If people wonder why we don’t have a qualitative approach to the artists that we are signing, that’s a big reason. Do you really want to sign a cast-off from a show because that kid did all of the work for you, and you don’t have to do anything but some plug in? To me, that’s heartbreaking.
A few years ago, producer/engineer Al Schmitt and I talked about how many singers of the ‘50s and ‘60s were performers who worked in nightclubs; and they learned their craft there. As a result, singers like Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald had unbelievable microphone technique. I don’t think we have that today.
It’s so true. I was recently listening to “The Nancy Wilson Show!” (a 1965 live album recorded at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). I heard the greatest singer I have ever heard, and there ain’t nobody who’s going to be able to do what she does today because she went through the university and college for a Masters degree in the musical way that you just mentioned.
Sam Cooke’s “Shake” (1965) was the first album that I was given by my father. It’s still one of my all-time favorite records by one of my all-time favorite singers. R. Kelly has wanted to be Sam Cooke on every record he’s done, but Sam Cooke wrote way better songs.
As the say goes, it all starts with a song.
Having a singular intention for your mission as your writer is possibly the best thing that you can have. You’ve got to wake up. If you want to be a writer then you have to be a writer. If you decide to be an artist down the road it’s because your writing was good enough that your songs almost sang themselves.
What project are you currently involved with?
I’m writing songs for Laura Fygi (former member of member of the popular Dutch girl band, Centerfold). She is one of my favorite jazz crooners who was on Verve/Universal Netherlands for 20 years. I’m also going to be working with a couple of Canadian artists which I haven’t done in many years.
Funny to be so busy after so many years.
Who would think that I would have the biggest hit of my life at 50? “You’re A Superstar” the Love Inc. song that I wrote eclipsed and ended selling 7 million copies and it became an evergreen in England four years after it was a hit in Canada, South Africa, and Spain. I just looked at myself, and went, “You know what? It’s not luck. If you put in the work, someone is just going to give you a hug one day.” And they have been hugging me for about four years.
[Vince Degiorgio’s career escalated internationally in 2002 with re-interest in Canadian dance trio Love Inc.( DJ/remixer/producers Chris Sheppard and Brad Daymond, with Simone Denny on vocals) Top 40/dance crossover 1998 hit of his song “You’re A Superstar.” Four years later, with support of BMG UK's associated label NuLife, "Superstar" became a smash hit single in Ireland and England, spending 4 weeks at #7 on the UK Singles Chart in 2002.]
You went on to successfully collaborate with a slew of international songwriters.
Of course, but I had already had quite a few of international records. Tapps really traveled. They have sold millions of records in Mexico, and were a big hit in the Netherlands and other places. When I was doing Inner City (with Kevin Saunderson) I had a #2 record (on the Billboard Dance chart) with “Follow Your Heart” for this great techno act.
I just bounced around an awful lot but I always made friends along the way.
Peter Swartling (SRVP A&R) at BMG Sweden at the time said, “I’m doing a record with the Swedish Eurodance group Alcazar.” I played him “Baby Come Back” and they ended up cutting it (for the group’s debut “Casino” album). Peter played it for (Swedish producer) Alexander Bard, and then he reframed it (re-arranged it) a little bit. Suddenly, I was on a really important record. I also ended up A&Ring (the TV soundtrack) “Queer As Folk,” and I put them on the record as well.
Is it true that the smash Caro Emerald hit “Back It Up” was originally written to be pitched to an artist in Japan? And after Caro recorded it, the song was pitched to labels without any takers?
Robin Veldman and Jan van Wieringen did a track, and (songwriter) David Schreurs and I worked on the top line. Wrote it about 1 A.M. in the morning. We had written it for a demo. Namie Amuro was looking for songs. She’s a huge pop artist in Japan. She had done some kind of retro EP, and I thought the song would be perfect for her. So I drank two beers, and I imitated Billy Holiday (on the demo). The next thing you know the first demo singer doesn’t show up. This other girl shows up and it’s Jan’s friend Caroline. We heard her, and Just looked at David and said, “Oh my God, this is something.”
["Back It Up” became the debut single for Dutch jazz singer Caro Emerald. It was released in July, 2009, and listed in the Dutch Top 40 for 12 weeks, peaking at #12. The follow-up single, “A Night Like This,” also reached #1 in The Netherlands.
It wasn’t obvious that "Back It Up” was a potential hit?
It sat on the shelf for two months. David kept mixing and remixing it. For two months, we were talking to each other, “What are we going to do with this?” He’d say, “We really have to work on the chorus.” We debated the chorus for two months. I argued that no one knows the second line of a hit at a wedding. He finally gave in. That’s the (original demo) version of the song. That's me doing background vocals on the chorus.
A year later, after Caro got the chance to perform "Back It Up" on TV station AT5 in Amsterdam, viewers called and e-mailed about her performance.
Yeah, she did the TV show, and the phones blew up. I’m a distance away from all this. I’m back in Canada.
In the Fall 2008, David flew to Toronto to write 7 songs for Caro’s album with you. A regime of eat, watch YouTube, write, eat, watch TV, and laugh a lot?
Mike Myers and “Austin Powers” have become folklore in our friendship. We never had a writer’s block. We were too busy laughing. This was really first time I heard my own voice. If you do three-way co-writes, and you do it with people who play instruments, and there three people are in the room, your original intention ends up taking a different route.
With David, he just looks at me, and if he feels it, he just goes with what I come up with. He doesn’t correct a lyric. He doesn’t say anything. We’ll nitpick if something is really bothering us. It was just hysterical the people I was imitating on that record. I wish Eartha Kitt was still I alive I could write an entire album for her in about 20 minutes. A couple of songs were written with her in mind.
[Caro Emerald’s debut album "Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor" was released in The Netherlands Jan, 2010, entering the Dutch chart at #1. It went on to chart throughout Europe. In 2012, Emerald won two prestigious German awards: a Goldene Kamera for Best Musik International, and an Echo Award for Best Newcomer International. In 2013, Emerald’s follow-up album, “The Shocking Miss Emerald,” reached #1 on the UK album chart.
A career surprise having your songs with Caro reach #1 in so many territories?
It humbled the hell out of me. I was wondering if it was at all possible after hanging around like I did for so many years, and having had successes for so many other people. I always knew that one day (mega-success might happen) because of ‘N Sync. But seeing them move to Jive (Jive Entertainment in 1999) really broke my heart. I lost working with them. For me, it wasn’t a monetary thing, but it changed the course of my career. Now I can look back and say that it was part of the journey.
I don’t know if I would have been as confident (with success) then. I think what we did with Caro was that we stuck to our beliefs as a team. A lot of what I learned at BMG got infused into that. Making sure that Caro could be a star first at home so she would always have a base to fall back. That was the BMG International philosophy.
Another triumph for you was "Lovin' You" by Kristine W released as the second single from her second RCA album “Stronger” in 2000. The single reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.
If you ever want drama, that’s Kristine. You know (the book and film) “The Devil Wears Prada?” If you ever did it with a 6-foot tall towering inferno disco diva, and you surrounded her with 50 A&R people--meaning real close connections of fans in the dance community--and then you have a really outside-the-box fire wagon type management team, then you get me sitting at the end of this going, “This is a firestorm. She’s not going to like everything I suggest, but I think that her fans will in the end.”
Lovin’ You” was one of the last songs written for the record (“Stronger”). Johnny Jam or (aka) Johnny Mosegaard Pedersen, part of the production team Jam & Delgado (with Karsten Dahlgaard), and I wrote the lyrics and melody with Maria Christensen in my apartment. We held Kristine’s hand during the session. Kristine is a wild live performer. Sometimes it’s very hard to contain those kind of people in the studio.
How were you able to capture her performance in the studio?
(Laughing) I warned people, “If you don’t get the first two takes, I’m not going to pay you.” I told that to everybody. So everybody got it down. She ended up cutting the best vocal of her life (on the album) with (writer/producer) Jud Friedman on a song called “Stand In Love” But “Lovin’ You” became a big dance hit, a #1 for her, and for the writers and producers.
"Lovin' You" was covered by British girl group Atomic Kitten for their third studio album, “Ladies Night” in 2003. How did that come about?
Susan Henderson Tyler, who was working for Ric Wake at W&R Music, published Maria Christensen, and she took the song over to England. The next thing I know Atomic Kitten is cutting it. We ended up selling a million units on it.
Tell me about Cymba Music Publishing Company.
Our writers are Davor Vulama, AIleen de la Cruz, Ava Kay, Shawn Zhang, Young Feng, and Hakan Lundberg. Davor has been with me for 13 years. He was in a group called Starfly. I met Davor after we put an ad in the Georgia Straight (in Vancouver) looking for songwriters. Russell James, who is now the PD at The Bounce (Rogers Radio station 91.7) in Edmonton, opened the office for me in Vancouver. I moved there in 2003 from Los Angeles. I was there for four years and three months.
What was behind your move to Vancouver?
The trials and tribulations of trying to make it as a writer in L.A. and being a publisher with an independent Canadian company, everybody was looking at me like I should be doing A&R again. I had made a bunch of millionaires. I thought, “My luck is horrible here in L.A. It’s never going to get any better unless I refocus. So let’s go home.” So I moved to Vancouver. I moved from a 2,200 foot three-story apartment into a 317 square foot studio, and I was never happier. I left Vancouver in 2008, and returned home to Toronto.
With Cymba you wear your publisher’s hat.
I started Cymba in 2000 because BMG Canada’s mandate was very different than what I thought a music publisher’s mandate should be. You can’t potentially change the rules when you have Americans controlling your (Canadian) office. Basically, the reporting structure there was that it was American-based so they were America led.
But Vincent Degiorgio has been an international music junkie since he’s been 6-year-old old.
So what I did was I bought a around a world (airline) ticket in 1999 when I was still living in New York. I ended up going 13 times around the world. Doing the Star Alliance Round The World thing, 24,000 miles in one direction.
Before I did that I had started separating my writers from the C2 It Music Publishing company, and I called it Cymba. Cymba is an acronym for Crushing Your Music Business Apathy.
The reason that I called it that was because of anything you can do I can do better. My job is to try and find every possible opportunity for myself, or anyone I am associated with. I even ended up getting a couple of dozen Canadian songwriters that weren’t signed to me their first cuts internationally. I don’t like to just publish writers, I like to change their lives and to change their luck.
By 13, you apparently knew you wanted to be in the music business. You were that crazy about music?
I was. I saw being a DJ as one of the ways of moving ahead. Let’s face it, I was living in rocker land (in Brampton, Ontario), and it was killing me.
One of your first jobs at 15 was working at a Sam the Record Man store in Bramalea just outside Toronto.
I did. I worked for Larry Friendly. He owned the Sam the Record Man franchises in Bramalea, and Bayview Village. He used to call everyone on the staff "schmucksy." A great guy. He ended up losing the stores back to Roblan's (Roblan Distributors) . I worked at Sam’s for about 10 months. I was sent to work usually on Friday with a list of things that my father might like to have, which is a tradition that continues to today. I just bought him a Brook Benton double CD from the UK.
You then worked at Disco Sound in Toronto for about four years.
The first time I went in there was in 1978. I bought Patrick Juvet’s “Got a Feeling” album, which you couldn’t get anywhere else. I walked into that store the first time and I almost had a nervous breakdown. I could have spent $400 the first day. I was the kid who watched “Soul Train” and “Ebony Affair” and all of these black music shows (on TV). I opened up the door, and it was like, “Oh my God. They have got everything here.” The funny thing too is that as I stood there—no word of a lie—I also encountered the first two gay people in my life. You realize not only how far it was between Brampton and Toronto, but also how socially and culturally different the cities were.
Disco Sound had all of the imports other stores in town didn’t have.
They had listening stations in the black music stores--that’s what was they were called before they were re-merchandised--and at the disco music stores. They took a page out from the disco stores in Montreal like Downstairs, and Pierre Musique and so many others. It was amazing for me.
When you worked at Disco Sound dance music was starting to take off in Canada, especially in Montreal and Toronto.
There were a couple of stores that I went into including Melvina Records in Malton near the (Toronto) airport which used to get (disco) singles in. Before I went to work at Disco Sound I would occasionally go to Monica’s. My disco history sort of goes from orchestral pop of the ‘50s and ‘60s that my father listened to into soul of the ‘70s. then as it got more soulful and more rhythmic, and the splinter was going to happen toward the end of the ‘70s into the ‘80s with the electronic (music).
Disco was a natural extension to the music that I had always listened to. Because I worked at Disco Sound I knew all of the DJs.
Of course, many of the early disco artists, like Gloria Gaynor and KC and the Sunshine Band, came out of soul music of the ‘60s.
Sure, Gypsy Lane, the backing band for the Ritchie Family and all of those Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali productions, were killer. Not to mention producers like (Arthur) Baker, and (Norman) Harris. Norman Harris is like a God to me. Thom Bell is my musical hero.
[Gypsy Lane worked with Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo on Ritchie Family and Village People projects.]
One of the early dance clubs in Toronto was Koutoubia.
Koutoubia was the first disco in Toronto that I ever went to. It was at the Roehampton Hotel. When I went on the dance floor for the first time with this incredibly pretty blond girl, and I heard “From East To West” by Voyage, she says, “I’m Candy.” She was Candy Berthuiame who ended up being the lead singer of Tapps who I worked years later on.
You started at Stars as a backup DJ, and then worked at Le Tube?
Yeah I did. I did the apprenticeship. I wasn’t like today’s modern contemporary DJ who walks in with two hours under his belt and say, “I’m a star.” I started by playing Wednesday nights that were dead. It (Le Tube) was such a hot spot that people would automatically think that I was this great DJ when I was basically the schmo from Brampton who almost finished high school. I got to grade 12. I needed one credit to get my high school diploma.
Le Tube was the premiere dance club in Toronto.
Le Tube was owned by three Portuguese businessmen. I got to Le Tube because I got asked to DJ a birthday party. Apparently, I did such a great job that the next day two of my DJ friends there ended up getting fired, and I got a job. You can imagine the next day at Disco Sound. I’m going to work and two of my best friends show up. They knew it wasn’t me (who got them fired) so I kinda got off the hook a little bit.
At first I apprenticed there. I played a number of different nights on off-peak hours to learn the trade. Later, I would go in at 10 P.M. and I would play music for myself for an hour. At 11 PM when the doors opened, I knew exactly what I wanted to do until I got to leave, whether it would be 3 A.M. or 5 A.M. or 7 A.M. In those days, you couldn’t take a day off from a club. You’d get fired. DJs never took vacations in those days. Today’s 4-hour exclusive sets are laughable to me when I would play 7 hours a night.
[In late ’70s there were plenty of places to dance in Toronto including Le Tube, Katrina’s, Stages, Peaches on Pears, Koutoubia, Heaven, and Sparkles at the CN Tower.]
There were some great DJs in Toronto in that period including Greg Howlett and Wally MacDonald.
People like Wally MacDonald, Greg Howlett, Gord McMillan and Don Bell were legendary DJs. Wally ended up being my alternate at Le Tube. Wally was one of the most legendary DJ/ remixers. He was an absolute magician with an editing block. When Gary Salter from Inter Global Music came to him and said, “Look we’ve got this record from Germany, what do you want to do with it?” Well, he did 94 edits on “La Bamba” by which turned out to be the Antonia Rodriguez hit. His edit is a masterpiece. It went to #2 on the Billboard dance chart. He did other great things for Plastic Bertrand and Amanda Lear.
[Wally MacDonald also DJed at such Toronto venues as Stages, Sugars, 18 East, The Albany, and Wonder Bar. He passed away from HIV-related complications in the 1990s.]
While the major labels in Canada then generally didn’t work closely with the disco and dance community, A&M Canada’s senior VP Doug Chappell often hired DJs to re-mix records for the dance community.
Doug knew that any level of acceptance within the disco community was a path to success with some artists. We felt like we were important on those days. One of the greatest days for revenge for me personally was having someone from CHUM (Toronto Top 40 station CHUM-AM) come to Disco Sound to buy a Village People record that they couldn’t buy anywhere else. Those bastards wouldn’t play anything with a beat. That is why Nevin Grant (PD) at CKOC (in Hamilton) will go down in my personal history as the greatest radio guy in the world. He played what was relevant rather than what was programmed.
In 1980, you briefly became a promoter for Denny O'Conor's 120 Dance Promotions.
I was doing some independent dance promotion for 120 Dance Promotion based in San Francisco and New York. I used to trade records with these people. After that I did some independent promotion for Larry Macrae (National Promo and A&R head) at Quality Records who was working for the legendary John Driscoll.
Then you went to work for Unidisc Records in Montreal, which was a real major jump.
I repped the company in Southern Ontario. That was because (owner) George Cucuzzella had known me since 1975. I ran Unidisc from my apartment. The big cultural difference was that if the record was on Unidisc, (label manager) Nat Merenda always said that the boss had paid big money for it, and I had to break those records first. We had a bit of a difference, Larry. What happens in Montreal because of the support of radio is one thing but they (radio programmers) didn’t give a flying whahoozit about “Native Love” by Divine in Toronto. But I helped that record as well as “Living On Video” by Trans-X become national anthems.
When the A&R difference of what happens in Montreal versus what happens in Toronto reached an impasse in 1982, I basically told Nat and George that I was going to start my own record label. They gave me their distribution deal and I didn’t really like it. Then, Nat fired me.
The first release on Power Records was “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by Ambience. They were members of the Montreal fusion funk band Something Extra that recorded for Tony Green’s TGO Records label. It was a cover of the 1969 Steam #1 hit.
Why start a label?
Oh, I was 23-year-old I had a really big mouth and I thought I could do better than everybody else. It’s funny how quickly it humbles you because calls came through from Holland from companies wanting to license the Tapps record for all of Europe I broke down in tears and dropped the phone. It was kind of a validation. I had co-written the record (“My Forbidden Lover”). It was probably the first global hit I had. It still sells today.
You eventually lost Tapps.
After Power’s 15th release, which was “Runaway,” the third Tapps’ single, (Canadian distributor) Dominique Zgarka decided to start his own label called Boulevard. Basically, he stole my biggest act. At the point, we were doing single by single deals (with Tapps), and they ended up doing the “Turn It On” album for Boulevard.
So Boulevard wasn’t your label?
No. Not until 1986 when (Toronto entertainment lawyer) Ed Glinert decided that we should merge forces. Then I had both labels until 1989.
You also had the Chateau imprint.
For years, I had three labels of my own. What would house Power was Chateau, a second label. If there was no Power you should have a Blackout. So we had the Blackout label. It distributed all of the Jam Packed Records from (Miami) Florida like Trinere, Pretty Tony and Debbie Deb and Freestyle.
You had some great local talent on Power including Karen Silver, Kim Esty, and Eria Fachin. As well, there were releases by the Pet Shop Boys and Claudja Barry, which you licensed.
We made a ton of international deals. I got a lot of inspiration for that by being in the Unidisc office. George had all of these gold and platinum records from Musart in Mexico, and various international labels. George was a legendary DJ at Limelight, and started the Downstairs store, and he’s a great entrepreneur. He really knew his shit. I figured people that I admired or idolized or befriended or worked for, they went through their lousy records to get to their good ones. So I figured I would do it anyway.
Basically, I was I trying to go into the individual markets where music was being misrepresented or not presented at all. (Canadian) radio stations were playing American records that were potentially rhythmic. You mentioned the Pet Shop Boys. I licensed that from Unidisc because they didn’t care that “West End Girls,” the Bobby Orlando version, was the first big hit that they could have had in Eastern Canada. They didn’t care about it. Then I released Fonda Rae’s “Tuch Me (All Night Long)” which ended up being reframed (re-recorded) by Cathy Dennis, like (Canadian singer) Alyssa Reid had happen with “Alone Now” (A different version with Jump Smokers became a major hit in parts of Europe, peaking at #2 in the UK).
Cathy Dennis had a #2 (Billboard pop hit) record with it. I had sold 14,000 Fonda Rae 12-inch singles with no radio play. Then they (Canadian radio) played the Cathy Dennis record like ours didn’t exist.
People have to understand how modern rhythmic creators are these days. They (Canadian radio programmers) wouldn’t play anything of ours unless we had a machine gun in our hand.
What I was trying to do with Power Records was to try and represent disenfranchised communities. Gray matters that’s me. My family is from Malta. Everybody looks at my name and thinks I’m Italian. You have a pink triangle. The gay community was a huge backbone globally for our records. Either we would release records for them and all of the DJs and the gay clubs would break them first before or they would crossover. It was like (Toronto radio station) CFNY to clubs. Gay clubs to straight clubs to mobile.
At the same time, Canada was more receptive to international hits than America.
Canadians live in a very multicultural society. We weren’t dictated to growing up. I think when a lot of labels came into Canada, they were using our mentality that they had to get a record out in the United States. I think that’s when the business changed in Canada.
Canada’s openness to international hits was certainly true in the ‘70s when European recordings like "Fly, Robin, Fly" by Silver Convention first gained traction in Canada prior to breaking in America.
Supertramp, and Crowded House had the same fate in Canada as well. I think what it was because our doors were opened in different ways. There was a real relationship with the global world because of the multicultural diasporas of Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. Anything was possible because we were a true melting pot.
Backstreet Boys broke out of Quebec.
Donna Summers’ “Love to Love You Baby” broke in Montreal during the Olympics there.
After disco crashed in 1979, dance music fragmented over the next decade. People were confused as to where club music was going. It led to the beginning of a new era, and new attitudes.
In 1989, you ceased the creative A&R operations of Power Records, launched Chapter 2 Productions, and you were hired as a dance music and marketing Consultant at BMG Music Canada in 1991.
I could finally look at a mirror and say, “This is the best thing that ever happened to me because I don’t have to spend my own money anymore.”
I had had my kick at the can as a producer with Eria Fachin, god rest her soul, with “Savin Myself,” which peaked at #54 in the Billboard Hot 100. We also had a really big hit with Holiday Rap by M C Miker "G" and DJ Sven.
However, with (Dominique Zgarka’s) Rhythms Distribution (later renamed Electric Distribution) handling Power, it was much more a distributor than a marketer. Even though they tried, I just figured that there was nothing more to do. I went to New York to work with Andrew (“Komix”) Komis for 6 months.
Meanwhile, (BMG Canada A&R head) David Bendeth was calling Andrew about remixing this act which eventually became Love & Sas. I went home to Toronto in March 1991. Then my friend Danielle Tremblay from CITY-TV helped me put a resume together. I was going to do something I was never going to do, which was work for the majors. I didn’t get them, and they didn’t get me. But time had passed and David Bendeth was there. I knew (national promotion head) Larry Macrae. I met Larry and (VP of marketing) Carol Wright. I was shaking like a leaf. Carol held my hand, and I went into a meeting with (BMG Canada President) Bob Jamieson. The next thing I was in the office making $100 a week. My first desk was a filing cabinet.
You had considerable clout at the company.
I had a singular responsibility for the first time in my life. I had this amazing team of people around me who thought that I was completely out of my mind. I was never a BMG employee. I was a consultant. Bertelsmann gave head counts to everybody in those days. So they (BMG Canada) couldn’t hire everybody that they wanted to (as an employee)
You stayed there for over a decade.
For 11 years. I was suddenly being called into marketing meetings. “We’ve got this record coming out by these two girls, Lovena (Fox) and Saskia (Garel), what should we do? I asked “What is the song called. It was “I don’t Need Yo Kiss.” “Okay, put it on red vinyl, get a pair of lips and put a circle around it and put a strike through it. That’s exactly what they did.” It was euphoria for me (working with Canadian R&B-funk and rap-influenced pop duo). For a decade, you weren’t allowed to be rhythmic in Canada. You weren’t allowed to be colored. Anything like that in Canada.
Being with a major international company, you now had a big canvas to work on.
It was a fantastic puddle jump from being a 6 year old kid getting shiny PolyGram Germany imports for my father to going to be an independent to suddenly bouncing over to a major company and people saying, “You can do anything that you want here. As long as your team, the seniors above you, see progress, they are going to let you run with this.”
That’s when I invented the Club Cutz (compilation) franchise and (BMG Canada marketing executive) Val Lapp came up with the name for Groove Station (compilation series), and I ran with that.
(At BMG) I had a chance to correct every mistake that I made as an independent. That really meant a lot to me. Any person in this business who doesn’t think that they have succeeded due to a potential number of second chances, they are insane. I had a chance to engage like minded people. They would give me things here and there, like remixing Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.” When I started to connect with our German company, suddenly I realized that these were records for us in Canada, meaning Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton -- the core cities that I would look at (for dance records).
BMG Canada broke records by Real McCoy, Haddaway, Snap for North America.
We ended up breaking every one of those records.
(Eurodance group) La Bouche was a massive hit in Canada beforehand. God bless Melanie (Thornton) what a tragedy that was (American singer Melanie Thornton, who fronted La Bouche, died in a plane crash near Bassersdorf, Switzerland in 2001).
There was the Captain Hollywood Project that came out on Imago. We had 7 #1 records on that album.
There was (British producer/songwriter) Herbie Crichlow who did the best live to track show I’d ever seen.
The big one was Snap. The “Rhythm is Dancer” lyric just makes no sense. When we got that record, and I put it on once in a club in Montreal, and I went “This is not just a hit it’s a revolution.” People were just not losing it, but within three months everybody was sounding like it, including “What Is Love” by Haddaway, which we also broke.
A lot of these records had to start in Canada (rather than in the U.S.). We were far smaller. We were far more multicultural.
You saw ‘N Sync in Budapest and signed them to RCA.
I really wanted to do something that I could make my mark with. Still with the dance pop legacy I had built, when I went to the States there were quite a few people that I worked with at RCA that didn’t think I knew anything. I was just one of Bob’s people from Canada.
Many Americans didn’t get Eurodance, Euro-NRG or Euro-House.
The problem is that there are a lot of people who think that rhythmic music and boy and girl bands are cyclical. It is only cyclical in the U.S. because they kill the genre. I was recently in L.A. I couldn’t listen to KISS for more than an hour. Dance music culture, for the most part, got ghettoized to stay in the gay community. Then you also had the dub culture. The Billboard dance chart in the ‘90s was such an unmitigated disaster. It had nothing to do with anything. We’re not talking about the ‘70s here. We are talking about the ‘90s, right?
Both Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync broke first in Europe. Arista’s Clive Davis released Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album in Europe, and then in Canada before its release in the U.S.
Europe was almost like a breeding ground in a lot of ways. When I went to Budapest to see ’N Sync, who was the third act on the bill, I swear it was like a night out of “Twin Peaks.” I remember calling Dave Novik (Sr. VP, International A&R, RCA Records) saying, “Dave we have to put this record out.” He said, “Let’s go for it.” That night I said “If they let me put this record out, I’m not only going to have a hit with it, we’re also going to do a Christmas record.”
The Backstreet Boys hadn’t done one (a Christmas album) at that point. I did the first Backstreet Club show in Montreal for the Quebec (BMG) branch at a club called Fuzzy in Laval. They were great but I really wanted to see what I could do with my boys.
[In 1998, ‘N Sync released the holiday album, “Home for Christmas” The album peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and sold over 4 million copies worldwide.]
You signed as a writer with BMG Music Publishing in 1993.
Bob Jamieson gave me a publishing deal. I had sold about 8 million records as a writer by that point. The problem was that I didn’t play guitar, and I wasn’t in a band. The fantastic thing about Terry O’Brien was that he liked playing the fringes a little bit. I had “Tell Me You Love Me” with Carol Medina on one of the dance mix compilations. It’s something that I had hacked out chords for because, as I told you, I don’t play an instrument. It ended up selling a million compilation albums for Quality Music.
Your family is from Malta, but you weren’t born there?
No. I recently was in Malta, and I saw the apartment my parents were living in before they came to Canada. They arrived on January, 30th, 1959. When my parents came here, I was a surprise.
What work did your father do?
My father worked on the docks in Malta. He was a machinist. When he came to Canada, he worked at Brampton Brick and then Canadian Monorail until he went to work for Chubb, where he finished his career.
As a kid, you went to record stores with your father?
We started going when I was 6. We’d go to a Sayvette (discount) department store. I always went with my father when he went record shopping. He would go to (local) radio stations. My dad still has all of the black and whites (promo copies) of Nat “King” Cole, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Diana Washington and all of the people. He has them all in frames.
For me, music was a connection. At the time, I had three sisters. So it was a way for me to be a bit different. I was as statistical as my father was. I started reading Billboard when I was 8. My dad was a subscriber. When he bought an album he would get the Billboard magazines and he would cut the color print of the cover out of Billboard, put in on a piece of paper, and type it out in these small binders so he knew what he had. I can remember going to G &S Television in Georgetown where my father bought one of the first Phillips cassette recorders ever made. So his influence was enormous. I fell in love with imports because I found him a copy of “Instrumentals Forever” (1966) by James Last.
Your father had a substantial record collection?
Yeah, and it grew into the thousands. The funny thing was I was not allowed to touch them. My father has the most pristine record collection you have ever seen. The funny thing is now I am buying all of the things that he didn’t. Like, my dad never liked Nancy Wilson. Nancy Wilson is probably my all-time favorite singer.
Did you have your own record collection growing up?
I was starting. Until 1970, my dad didn’t let me buy my own records. He was always buying things for me. It was almost like he wanted to protect my taste.
Did you collect 45s?
I did. The first 45 I ever bought was “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain in 1970. God bless Leslie West, and Felix Pappalardi.
One of your long-terms goals is to record a big orchestral record.
Oh yeah. I would like to find (American jazz trombonist, keyboardist and arranger) Don Sebesky, and make a huge pop record. I want to work with someone who will share with me the reasons why they are so good at what they do. I want to work with him or someone from the golden era of arrangers. People like Glenn Osser and Claus Ogerman and others. I have always been amazed at what such talented people hear in their heads. People like Tony Hatch, Nelson Riddle and Billy May just amaze me.
[Don Sebesky has worked with Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Michael Bublé, Liza Minnelli, Seal, Prince, and others.]
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.
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.
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.”