This week In the Hot Seat: Jim Fleming, chairman, Fleming Artists.
The head office of Fleming Artists is located in a modest building at the edge of a residential neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The agency was founded there in 1979 by Jim Fleming who had been on track for a career as an academic administrator before being lured away by the excitement of promoting music shows and booking acts.
Fleming Artists has recently grown to two further locations, New York and Melbourne, Australia. Its six agents will book nearly 3,000 shows this year.
This formidable agency represents over 60 acts, most of whom have careers not driven by record sales and radio play but, instead, by touring and a steady stream of live performances.
Its roster includes Ani DiFranco, Tom Paxton, Krista Detor, Garnet Rogers, Martyn Joseph, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Verve Pipe, Lucy Kaplansky, Jill Sobule, Ellis Paul; actor/singer/songwriter Jeff Daniels; and Ann Arbor techno pop group, My Dear Disco.
Two years ago, Fleming Artists began a significant restructuring. With the addition of the Australian office at the time, and the creation of operations and artist development divisions, founder and president Jim Fleming set out to reposition the company over next few years.
Fleming was then named chairman while Adam Bauer, who had joined the agency in 1999, was promoted to president, heading the overall operations of the agency. As well, Susie Giang was named VP.
In February, Fleming tapped Jordan Burger, formerly of The Agency Group, to helm the company’s newly-established office in New York. Burger brought to the fold a strong artist roster that includes Will Hoge, Patrizio Buanne, Vienna Teng, Civil Twilight, Teitur, the Spring Standards, the Alternate Routes and Katie Herzig.
In a joint statement, Fleming and Bauer said “We are excited that, in a time of so much uncertainty, we are in a position to bring an agent of Jordan’s caliber to Fleming Artists. As we continue our growth into 2010, this venture will allow us to better service our roster and broaden our ability to compete with more agencies.”
Born and raised in the factory town of Portsmouth in southern Ohio, Fleming grew up in a blue-collar household. In high school, he raised money for the Catholic students’ mission crusade that helped poor people in the area. That evolved into him promoting his first show at 18—a financial disaster—while he was a summer counselor for the Neighborhood Youth Corps.
Fleming attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio where he became involved in student activities, both as a promoter of concerts and a film and speaker series. Among his first bookings was controversial Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. Fleming also served as a co-director of the Southern Ohio Folk Festival.
He next applied to Michigan State University in Ann Arbor as a graduate assistant. While there, he started a music series called Mariah that featured Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat; John Prine and Steve Goodman; and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the James Cotton Blues Band.
A couple of years later, he was asked to be an assistant VP at Chicago State University. He soon became acting VP for student affairs there. However, when a friend asked Fleming to return to Michigan and start a theatre, he jumped at the chance.
Fleming and his friends established the Black Sheep Repertory Theater in Manchester, Michigan. On off-nights and weekends, the theater hosted touring acts including Muddy Waters, and Chicago’s Second City troupe.
At the time, Second City rarely performed outside Chicago. Fleming approached Second City producer Joyce Sloane and asked if he could line up further work for the troupe. She agreed.
Fleming Artist Management (as it was then named) kicked off with Texas singer/songwriter Jim Post and Second City as its core clients. Over two decades, Fleming helped the comedy troupe develop into a popular national touring company.
During this time, the agency—which became Fleming, Tamulevich & Associates when David Tamulevich joined as a partner in the early ‘80s-- developed an international reputation with a roster that included such folk-based icons as Tom Paxton, Ani DiFranco, and the late Stan Rogers. Tamulevich, who left in 2002, is currently a partner in The Roots Agency.
You seem to be one those people still moving forward and looking to the future.
I was sitting backstage in Adelaide (Australia) two or three weeks ago with Peter Noble (co-founder of the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Byron Bay, New South Wales) who runs one of the best festivals in the world. Peter just turned 60, and I will be turning 60 in April. He’s currently building onto his infrastructure. He looked at me and said, “Here you and I are Jim. We’re in our 60s, and we’re doing all of these new things. Everyone else is retiring.”
Not a bunch of folkies sitting around drinking apple cider? Your agency once had that folksy image, though it wasn’t quite true in reality.
No, it wasn’t true. It was never true but it was the image. I’m not sure why it existed, but it did. I am so proud to still represent some of these wonderful (folk-based) artists and I don’t run away from that (history). But I don’t want people to misconstrue what we are or where we are heading. Or what we are capable of. We can represent someone for the clubs, but we can also represent someone for the sheds. We know how to cut deals. We know what to provide promoters with so they can pull off a successful show.
We are very sophisticated in that regard.
What we are trying to do is to say to people, “Pay attention to what we really are.” We want to make sure that people aren’t stuck on this idea of what we were 10 or 15 years ago. It is a whole new agency.
Following Paradigm’s buyout of Monterey Peninsula Artists, Little Big Man Booking, and Ellis Industries; as well as the merger of William Morris and Endeavor, Is there room now in the market for a competitive independent?
I think so. I admire all of those companies. They are wonderful companies. But I do believe that there is room for an agency like ours in the future. We are trying to service the needs of artists beyond just the booking. We are offering them some new services here. We have in-house marketing now that (marketing director) Don Kline is running. He’s looking after new media and social networking for some of our artists. Sometimes, they don’t have the time or the inclination to do that. But, in terms of getting that dialogue going with fans, and in terms of helping the promoters to strengthen the connections between the artists, their fans, and the promoters, we felt it was necessary to develop a division like that.
You receive about 400 unsolicited requests for representation annually?
It’s hard to keep track, but it’s accurate to say between 300 and 400. We probably pick up 5 acts a year now. We can handle a few more artists now. It’s not a lot. As we often say, it’s not a reflection on their artistry (when we turn an artist down). It is just that we really try to keep a handle on not taking on too much. We still have to be proactive in finding our artists work.
Have you gotten good at saying no?
Yeah. I think in a very respectful way.
It is hard to say no if you do like the act.
Yeah, but we are having to do less with developing type acts. We have such a great infrastructure, and we have really experienced agents. So we are at the point where we are trying to attract artists to the roster that are established. That we can start (booking) when they walk in the door and, hopefully, turn over new opportunities for them that they didn’t have previously.
There are a lot of mature acts out there today, looking for label, management or booking representation.
We have a lot of those (mature) artists on the roster but what we’re looking to do is build for the future. We are signing a lot of the younger artists, and we are taking the careers of the younger artists that we have and setting those as priorities in terms of developing their touring circuits further, and developing their opportunities. We are trying to get them into festivals and all of those things.
With the recession, has it been a tough booking year?
We are doing about the same volume of dates. I would say that some of the other kind of numbers are down in terms of what the artists are earning. But when you say “tough booking year” I think that our artists are working as much, for the most part, that they want to work. A lot of our artists have solid fan bases, and (people) seem to still come out for shows despite the economy. We aren’t getting hit really bad. We know there’s a recession, but we have had to kind of ignore it, and just forge ahead.
Are you hearing about tough times from any promoters?
On occasion, but not as much as you would think that we might be. At the beginning of last year, I have to tell you that I was worried. I thought, “Oh my God, we are going to do 70% of what we did the previous year.” And we didn’t. We were closer to probably 95%. I thought that was pretty good considering the economy. But, yes we’re hearing from some promoters. There are promoters who have gone out of business. There are festivals that didn’t happen this past summer because their sales were slow the previous year. But, for the most part, we’re moving forward, and I feel that a lot of our promoters are too. They seem to be pretty solid.
Live music can be a release from day-to-day life.
It is also that the music is very empowering at a time when things are tough. (People) do want to go out there and hear these messages of hope. The other thing is that promoters are learning that they have to scale (down) some of the tickets--more than they used to in the past. They can’t charge $250 for a ticket. I always had concerns about those high ticket prices in some markets because sometimes it took all of the money out of the market. If people went out once for this show, they couldn’t go out to anything else.
There are still high ticket prices.
That’s remarkable to me. With a lot of promoters that we work with—and we work with a lot of independent promoters and venues as well as with Live Nation and AEG—one place that we have seen a change is that they are pricing differently so they can go for volume. I think that volume is ultimately what will protect us in a (economic) situation like this.
Was it business as usual while awaiting the Department of Justice’s decision on the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster Entertainment?
For me, it’s always been business as usual. I read the New York Times every day and I read the Wall Street Journal and all of these (news) things, but I don’t know what they mean to me ultimately. I can’t sit here, and not go and try to find people work because I might be worried about what might happen with Live Nation or Lehman Brothers (which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sept. 15, 2008). You just forge ahead. Perhaps, the hallmark of my career has been that I put my head down, and I move ahead. It’s not that I’m oblivious, and that I don’t pay attention to trends, but I don’t know on a day-to-day basis how much they affect me or the artists that I represent.
Why open an office in New York this year?
I’m going to give you the very honest response to that question. I feel really good about what we have been able to accomplish in Ann Arbor. There’s part of me--that hard headed Irish/Scot in me, I suppose--that wanted to show that it could be done from here. But, I felt like we got to the point that we had hit a ceiling and we needed to have a presence in New York. So we could be looked at more seriously by a lot of artists out there and, specifically, by their managers, as (a company) which could provide more for them beyond what we are capable of doing here (in Ann Arbor). The other thing is that a great opportunity presented itself.
You had explored having offices in New York and Nashville in the past.
We didn’t feel that we had found the right connection. Then the opportunity presented itself with Jordan (Burger), who had left The Agency Group. He and Adam (Bauer) had worked together on a few tours where our artists were on tour with his artists. We thought, “That’s a really good match. Jordan is a great guy, and he’s a hell of an agent.” So we reached out to him. He had other people who were reaching out to him as well. He came out here a couple times. He hit it off with everybody here, and we all hit it off with him. We felt that we were all on the same page philosophically. He’s a big music lover and passionate about what he does. So we said, “Okay this is the time to pursue this.”
Jordan is ambitious and he wants to grow that office there. We’ve rented space on Madison at 27th in Windup Record’s offices. It is Jordan and an assistant (Brian Greene). Jordan brought about 10 artists with him. All just wonderful artists that folded kind of naturally into our roster.
What advantages will having a presence in New York bring to the company?
Why we did New York is that we wanted to expand the opportunities (of the company). What we have here, besides really great agents, is a wonderful infrastructure. We felt that we could plug (more) artists into that infrastructure. We would like to also start plugging higher profile artists into that structure. We are going to be out there, and we will be competitive with some of the larger agencies. So that when people are looking at signing to a agency where they want to further develop the touring of an artist that they manage, we are taken into consideration.
Two years ago you opened an office in Melbourne, Australia.
John Sinclair and I have been colleagues for years. I felt that there was an opportunity there because we were sending people down there and, on occasion, I was bringing Australian artists here. I was there in 2006 meeting with John and checking out the scene. He told me what he wanted in terms of the artists he wanted to tour down there, and I said what I wanted was a presence down there. For many of our artists, once they’ve toured North America quite a few times, it’s smart to develop new markets. It is also interesting to them to go to somewhere like Australia and, if we can throw New Zealand into the mix, all the better.
For decades American folk performers generally restricted their international touring to England and Europe.
What you are saying is correct. But I think you go to the markets that want you. Europe is something that we have never tried to crack from here. I have relationships there with Ani (DiFranco) being with Nigel Hassler who has just moved to CAA over there.
We have a number of artists on our roster that we don’t represent for Europe because Europe is better represented by an agent there. So we have formed an association (with agents there). Nigel has looked after Ani in Europe for some time. People like Lucy Kaplansky go over there quite often. Krista Detor, who I represent, left for Europe last week.
With Ani, we hope to go back to Europe in the fall. Last year, she was in Australia and did some work on the western side of the country with the Waifs. Then, she did the eastern side of the country by herself, and she did some festivals. We had her play Singapore too. She will go to Australia every 2 or 2 1/2 years, and we try to get her to Europe every year or 18 months.
[Veteran London agent Nigel Hassler has taken a bow at Helter Skelter and joined his former colleagues at the London offices of the Creative Artist Agency. Hassler had been an agent at Helter Skelter since 2001 when he made the transition from Primary Talent. Hassler represents a solid roster of artists including Avril Lavigne, Madeleine Peyroux, Loreena McKennitt and Ani DeFranco for international and UK bookings.]
You are pretty cautious and thoughtful about how you operate.
That’s accurate. (Our growth is a) step at a time. We would eventually like to have a presence in Nashville, and on the west coast of the U.S. But I have always taken what I consider to be baby steps. Look, these people (here) are going to (run) this business after I’m gone so, sometimes, I figure “What’s the hurry?” I would rather take on one thing at a time. Taking on New York is a big change for us. We would really like to get that in place before we take the next step.
Opening in Melbourne and New York, as well as restructuring the company in 2008, have greatly changed your company.
I suppose I subscribe to that tenet that as a business, you grow or you die. So we have tried to grow. We have tried to grow in a sensible way and take calculated risks. I moved Adam up to president, and Susie (Giang) to vice president because I am very conscious of the fact that the day is coming that I will no longer be part of the business. I think that this is really good to posture people in such a way that they start having more authority. It was also well-deserved in terms of the work that they have done, and what they have contributed to the business. They are shaping the future of the business. There’s no question about it. As well, Jordan will contribute to that too.
With their experience, Adam and Susie could be running their own agencies.
Absolutely. We also have two great agents behind them. Christianna (LaBuz) and Leah (Schew) are moving up too. They are quite wonderful. I think that we have some of the best agents out there. Proportionally, we probably have more woman agents that any agency in the country. There are six agents here, including myself, and three of them are women.
How many shows do you handle a year?
With Jordan in the mix now, it will probably approach near 3,000 I would guess by the end of the year.
You book listening rooms, sheds, and theatres with artists who have careers not driven by record sales or radio.
They never have been. I am in the live touring business. One of my basic philosophies is that you go to where your fans are. I never say, “They are doing this kind of business in New York or that they are doing this kind of business in LA.” That doesn’t mean so much to someone in Poughkeepsie. You might have an artist that will play a 1,000 seater in a major market but, maybe, they are just right for a 200 seater in a tertiary market. We try to put our artists in the appropriate venue. But we do try to fill the Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when they are on the road. A lot of them tour by ground, so we just make sure that they are out there working.
Sometimes you will find music fans in the oddest places. You will find obscure places that have pretty active music scenes. There is probably someone in that market that loves music who decided that they wanted to develop a (music) scene there.
You try to negotiate deals that are consistent with what the artist’s value is in a market.
Sometimes that means that you have to go into the market to establish your value, especially if you are an artist just starting to develop your career. But I think it’s better to play and take some chances, especially in a secondary or tertiary market which is what really builds a really solid touring career. Go in there and show what you can do rather than to pass it by and sit in a hotel room watching movies.
You will take a lower figure to get an act back to the venue if it makes sense?
Absolutely. We try to negotiate deals based on what the market will bear. We deal primarily with hard ticket dates. So we have to make sure that it is in our best interests, and the artist’s best interests to keep these promoters and venues in business. So we try to structure deals so everybody is coming out of it okay. It doesn’t always happen that way. There are sometimes that the promoter will make great profits or sometimes that they will take losses but we work with them.
Our responsibility is to look after the interests of the artist but we also feel that (the booking) is a triumvirate. It has to be the artist—manager, publicist and all of those things that go in that package—us, and then the venue. What we want is that everybody walks away from that deal feeling good about it. I have always felt that it’s not about getting the booking, it is getting the booking the second time that is really important.
Does the agency book on a regional basis?
We do. We pretty much work by territory but there are some artists that we have found that it is better for one agent to look after all of their touring. For instance, I look after all of Ani’s touring. But, for the most part, we do things in regions. We have agent meetings every Tuesday so we can talk about the tours we put together. Then, we go to work and make them happen.
Since you work with both systems, what are the advantages and disadvantages of both? On a regional basis, you can dig deeper down in a market.
Yeah. I think you get to know the venues. You get to know the people that book those venues. They will pick up your call a lot faster. I do think that we are still in the business, despite email, of placing phone calls. I think it is still a business where you need to get people on the phone, and develop those relationships because e-mails are so one-dimensional. (Working regionally) you do develop those relationships with those promoters so they will take your call even if it’s someone, perhaps, you are not familiar with. That is much more possible on a regional basis.
On a regional basis, an agent likely has visited the venue. That would give them a better idea of how to book it.
Yeah, probably not as much as someone would think though. I have people in this business I have worked with for 20 or 30 years that I have never met. Not to say that we don’t get out to these venues. We do over time, and it does help. It helps to say, “Oh yeah, I remember that dressing room.” I am not saying that this is the case with other agencies, but the agents here are good listeners. So there’s not that presumption that, “We know your venue better than you know it yourself.” We listen to what people have to say about the venue. It is definitely an advantage to go and see a venue but every venue has its own intricacies and is unique. They all have different deals.
What’s the advantage of an agent booking an act nationally?
You become very familiar with the intricacies of booking that particular artist. You start to know what their specific needs are. For instance, I am very conscious of what the right venues are for Ani, and what kind of deals that we should be looking at. Also, Ani tours in a way where she will work two or three days and then have a day off because she needs to rest.
You also develop relationships.
We have dealt with independent promoters a lot in Ani’s career over the years—so you develop those relationships even deeper, I think, as a result of an association like that. Some of her tours are more regionally based. Occasionally, she will do a national tour, and I am able to put that together. If she wants to do a tour that starts in Boston and ends in San Francisco, I can put that together for her because I have a network of promoters that I work with. Some of those relationships are almost 20 years deep.
You grew up in the foot hills of the Appalachian Mountains?
I grew up in Portsmouth Ohio. It is in southern Ohio right on the Kentucky border. The closet large cities are Columbus which is 100 miles to the north, and Cincinnati, about 100 miles to the west. I used to wake up every morning to (cornbread eatin’) Zeke Mullins singing, “Buy your furniture at Glick’s on Second Street” (on WNXT). We would go to family reunions, and my relatives were all from the hills of Kentucky. We’d have banjos and guitars and all of that.
You promoted your first show when you were 18?
I worked for a neighborhood youth corp as a counselor. I saved money from my job during the summer, and I decided I wanted to put a show on. So I rented out the LaRoy Theatre, a movie theatre. It was probably on a Monday night or something. I decided to bring this R&B group in from Columbus, Ohio that absolutely nobody knew. I think maybe 10 people bought tickets. I lost everything. I gave tickets away to all my kids (at youth corp).
But I got the bug. I thought that this is damn interesting.
Then I went down to Ohio University in Athens (Ohio) where I became co-director of a music series and a festival (the Southern Ohio Folk Festival). In 1971, the festival featured Pete Seeger, Kate, Livingston, and Alex Taylor, Mary Travers, Dave Van Ronk, Keith Sykes, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doc and Merle Watson, and Arlo Guthrie. It was in a big arena, and we sold out two nights. The lineup was incredible.
Back then you could book acts for $150 a night.
Well, it was reasonable. Pete Seeger was the headliner, and I remember being next to him at the side of the stage as he was about to go on. He was watching Doc and Merle Watson who were on before him. His jaw was dropping, like it was with all of us, because if you ever watched Doc play, you know. Pete said something like, “We’re knee deep in garbage shooting for the moon.” (likely a reference for the need for conservation on earth after the U.S. moon landing). Here I am this 19 or 20-year-old and I don’t even know what the guy is talking about. But, I was so enamored with Pete. I didn’t know that much about him then.
One of my finest memories was when I was in Chicago a few years ago at a show at the Auditorium Theatre. I helped Sing Out! (magazine) put together their anniversary shows. I was there standing between Pete Seeger and (author and radio broadcast personality) Studs Terkel. Pete is telling Studs about my company. Telling him how wonderful it is what I do. “Jim does this, and Jim does that.” I was like, “Wow.” It was like the sky had opened up, and there was this great light on me. I just felt like I was being ordained or something.
I never booked Pete but I was always a big admirer. I went to his 90th at Madison Square Gardens. (Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert on May 3, 2009), I was fortunate to be invited because Ani and Tom Paxton performed. Peter Seeger has been a big influence on me. He represents so much to me. To this day, I don’t care if there’s 20,000 people out there or 200, he can get onstage, and deliver.
What were you studying at Ohio University?
I was going to be an English major. Then that department lost its accreditation. So I was one of the first students to graduate with a degree in General Studies. Then I went onto Michigan State to graduate school because I thought I wanted to be a college president. I got a masters in college student personnel (under the program), The Administration of Higher Education.
Ohio University is where the (music) bug really bit me. I set up a program there called Mariah that brought in Bonnie Raitt with Little Feat opening. It was just Bonnie and Freebo out there. Little Feat was the opener and that was when Lowell George was alive. I also did Lightnin’ Hopkins, James Cotton Blues Band, just an array of artists.
Dick Waterman’s Avalon Productions was representing many of the blues artists at that time.
Dick is one of my mentors. He’s a person I’ve always looked to, someone who I felt was just a great guy, and highly ethical. I booked Bonnie through him. I booked Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and "Big Mama" Thornton though him, though she never came through. She canceled for some reason. That was when Dick was out there finding all of these (blues) people and re-introducing them (to the market). Dick set a really good example for me in terms of how I wanted to conduct myself.
Before he founded The Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, Mike Kappus was booking blues acts from Milwaukee
I admire Mike Kappus. In the choice of the people he has represented, and his integrity, and also how he has presented his agency. I met him while at Michigan State. He was in Milwaukee and he used to call me about booking Luther Allison. I don’t know if I ever booked Luther Allison, but Mike was so persistent. Damn, he was persistent. He is a good agent. A Class “A” act.
You next went to Chicago as an assistant vice president at the Chicago State University. A white guy at a black college on the Southside of Chicago?
And, I moved up quickly there. I became an acting vice president when I was quite young (age 24). Dr, Eric Winston, at Michigan State, hired me because I was white. This was in the mid-70s when if you had a white vice-president, you had to have a black assistant. If you had a black vice president, then you had to have a white assistant. Eric was at Michigan State working with Bob Green (Dr. Robert L. Green) dean of the College of Urban Development at Michigan State. He was one of Martin Luther King’s lieutenants.
Eric was looking for a white person that could come with him to Chicago to be his assistant. There I was. I had worked with minority groups at Michigan State. I had helped to develop Ebony Talent, which was the first time on a (U.S.) college campus that minority students were programming minority-oriented entertainment. It was quite controversial. I ended up with my picture in the (local) paper with all these black students that were challenging the university. I think Eric saw that picture and thought, “There’s my guy.”
You started booking Second City after you and some friends established the Black Sheep Repertory Theater in Manchester, Michigan.
Yeah. I started booking Second City. I had them come through and do some shows at the theatre because we had (some) dark nights and dark weekends. People thought I was crazy to bring them in.
The Second City company didn’t perform often outside of Chicago then.
Not that often. They came in, and did three shows, and we had to add three shows. We had to add a second show each night because everything sold out so far in advance. I approached (Second City producer) Joyce Sloane and said, “Would you like me to try and find some work for you outside of Chicago?” At that time I was booking (Texas singer/songwriter/actor) Jim Post. He’s a wonderful live performer. She said sure. So over the next few years we really worked hard and helped to develop Second City into a national touring company. Then I started working with the Toronto Second City company and booking it in Canada while dealing with (Second City producer) Sally Cochrane there.
From that association, oddly enough, I came to book the (Toronto comedy troupe) Royal Canadian Air Farce with Roger (Abbott), Don (Ferguson) and Luba (Goy) in the ‘80s. I just thought, “This is way too weird. This is a Canadian institution that I am booking in Canada. This just doesn’t make sense.” It was way strange.
You had started the agency.
I started the agency as Fleming Artists Management (which was renamed Fleming, Tamulevich & Associates after David Tamulevich joined in the early ‘80s). When I started, I had two goals. I wanted to support the careers of what I felt were deserving artists so that they didn’t have to worry about the booking part (of their career). I also knew that I wanted to be not a regional but a national and an international company.
What artists did you open with?
I really opened up with just Jim Post. Then I did other things out of the (Black Sheep) theatre. I put people from the theatre on tour. Out of the theatre, we had a Cole Porter Revue, and a George Gershwin Revue. I represented Sippie Wallace. I represented a guy who did W.C. Field impersonations. A good friend of mine O.J. Anderson was a mime, and mime was popular at that time. So it was a pretty varied roster. I did just about anything to pay the bills, and to get the business going.
What I ultimately wanted to do was to predominantly represent contemporary singer/songwriters. I wanted to build an agency around that. Fortunately, (booking) Second City, and the Montreux Jazz Festival (in Detroit) helped me get off the ground financially. I booked all of the Montreux headliners, and the local Detroit-based artists playing the festival, for close to 10 years.
That was big.
It was big. In retrospect, it afforded me the opportunity to interact with, and to spend time with some legendary (jazz) artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Alberta Hunter, Art Blakey, and Oscar Peterson. I ended up working with Dizzy quite a bit. My other mentor, other than Dick Waterman, was a jazz drummer named J.C. Heard. J.C. and Dizzy were very close. J.C. was part of (New York jazz cabaret) Café Society. He ended up living in Detroit. I met him through Montreux, and we became really close. My oldest son is named after him.
[J.C. Heard obtained his first significant professional job with Teddy Wilson in 1939 and continued performing into the 1980s. During his career, he also played with Lena Horne, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, Erroll Garner, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Pete Johnson, and Charlie Parker. He died in 1988.]
Working with jazz giants, you learned how to be comfortable with artists?
It was really wonderful being around those artists. Even then, they were iconic artists. I felt so fortunate to spend time with them. That was more gratifying to me than if I had been hanging out with popular pop artists. I thought, even then, that those people were a real important part of the fabric of our world--not just in the United States but everywhere. I look back on those years fondly. I was fortunate to be there.
I found that it is really important that when you are with an artist--no matter what their profile is--to talk about everything but the art. If they want to talk about the art, you can talk about it.
I remember taking Oscar Peterson to the airport in the limo, and sitting in the back with him. I don’t think we said two words to each other. He was a very shy. Then I picked up Ella Fitzgerald in the same limo. She was wonderful. I knew she was having a hard time getting around, I think because of her diabetes or something. So I had one of those (motorized) carts which was not common then, at the gate to get her. She met me, and called me Jimmy. She said, “Ride along with me” and she told me that I had nice eyes.
One of my finest memories was having dinner with Bonnie (Raitt) and Sippie Wallace years ago. I had Bonnie playing there and Sippie joined her onstage. It was just one of those magical moments.
Those magical moments are more important in retrospect than they were when I was doing them because I was young and oblivious. When people put these things together now, they think those moments are so unique. But then, it was just part of the scene. I don’t know if there are as many of those stories today as there used to be. It was a very special time.
One of the single most important additions to the roster then was Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers.
I represented Stan, and I still represent (his brother) Garnet. He has been on my roster longer than anyone. It’s been close to 30 years.
Stan’s death in 1983 must have really hit you.
It was absolutely devastating. Stan and I were not only business associates but we were close friends too. It was a terrible, terrible thing. He was on that plane because he had stayed in Texas an extra day for a barbeque. Garnett and (bassist) Jim Morrison had left the day prior to that. I remember my assistant Patty calling me as I was walking out of the house. She said, “I think that this is the plane that Stan was on.” We sat around together, and stayed up all night (awaiting news). I still vividly remember getting the call the next morning from (Stan’s wife) Ariel’s neighbor. I drove to Hamilton the next day, and I was there with the family, friends and all of the people who came in. I never got into the church (for the funeral). I was outside dealing with the media. The church was packed, and I was kind of the buffer.
[Stan Rogers died in a fire on June 2, 1983 aboard Air Canada Flight 797 on the ground at the Greater Cincinnati Airport after performing at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The airliner was flying from Dallas to Toronto and Montreal when an in-flight fire forced it to make an emergency landing at the Greater Cincinnati Airport. Rogers died with 22 other passengers most likely of smoke inhalation. He was 33. His influence in shaping Canadian folk music is incalculable.]
Your relationship with Ani DiFranco has certainly endured.
It has been a long and wonderful relationship. I have always felt proud to be associated with her. To be associated with, arguably, one of the most successful independent artists in the history of our business.
You started working together in 1991 or 1992.
She really didn’t have a agent then. I am the only real agent she has ever had. I went to Cleveland to see her perform at a funky little club. Dale Anderson, a writer at the Buffalo News, was helping to manage her. She knew something about me, and I was hearing a lot about her. She was very, very independent. At the club, there was the guy who had set it up opening, and two or three paying customers. She got onstage, and it didn’t matter how many people were there. I went, “Wow.” She and I talked afterward, and soon after that we started booking her. It was just Ani on her own at first. She had a small car. I can’t recall if it was a VW or what, but she was out there doing as much work as she could. Every time she would go into a market she could go back and triple or quadruple business.
What is her touring status nowadays?
She just finished a tour. She goes out again this week for another run. She’s doing just a few dates here and there in the summer. We have had a lot of requests for her in the summer, but she wants to lay low. Then she will start up again some time in the Fall. Hopefully, she will have a new album out by then.
It’s been two years since the release of “Red Letter Year.”
That’s been a big gap for her. Talk about prolific (in her career). But she’s now a mom and she’s loving her life now in New Orleans. I was down visiting a couple of months ago just visiting, and that’s just a good place for her right now. She still has a place in Buffalo. She’s still very committed to Buffalo.
Did Lilith Fair knock on your door for Ani this year?
Has she ever played Lilith Fair?
No. I wouldn’t presume to say (why she hasn’t).
There’s a lot of potential in Ann Arbor as an American music center on par with Austin or even Nashville.
It has that storied history with that (‘60s) period when Iggy (Stooges) and Bob Seger and all of that people lived here. I’ve met with the mayor and Arts Alliance about it. We are 45 minutes from a major airport in Detroit (the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport) that can fly you anywhere in the world. It is a pleasure to fly in and out of that airport.
Hopefully, over the next few years as I turn more (of the business) over to the people here, I will be able to work more on helping to make this a real music city.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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