In keeping with honoring April as Jazz Month, let’s continue to ride the music horse, perhaps clear into the sunset!
The first time I heard about a “record deal” was in Boston in 1965. A guy named Gene, from Philly, was putting together a latin band with Berklee students, of which I was one. Gene was a big guy with a nasally voice, and a Philadelphia accent. Don’t ask me what that sounds like, it was just different. And when I spent a week in Philly years later, I recognized it immediately.
We rehearsed some well-known latin tunes in a Berklee practice room 3 or 4 times before I left the group. Every practice Gene would make this short speech at some point. “As soon as we get tight enough, man, I’m gonna get us a record deal. I know this guy… we just need to be tight enough.” Gene was a fluegelhorn player, not bad, certainly not hot, (none of us in that group were) and it was painfully evident that we weren’t going to be Mongo Santamaria any time soon, and we wouldn’t be getting any “record deal.”
After that, it seems like every band I joined talked about, at some point, getting a deal. I heard it all the time for the next 10 years. “If we could just get a record deal…” became this kind of wishful-thinking mantra, as if we would all go to heaven and live (and play) happily ever after if we could just get a deal. To this day I’m pretty sure that every guy who talked about it back then had no clue whatsoever what a record deal really was. My concept of it was incredibly naive… I saw a deal as being signed by a record company that suddenly allowed you to go into a recording studio, record 2 or 3 albums a year, have your music distributed all over the country, until it was heard on the radio and you could see your own record in the music store! Strangers would come up and say stuff like, “Hey, aren’t you Steve Hulse? I heard your music on the radio. Where can I pick up your album?”
Argh. Painful. But true. I don’t think any of us knew anything close to what a record deal was really about. We’d heard a few stories, of course; jazzers who had “made it” and told us how the record company had bought them all new clothes, taken them to dinners and introduced them to important folk… paid for all the studio sessions and put them up in nice hotel rooms… even provided girls occasionally! Well… why wouldn’t we all want “a deal??” What we didn’t know was that we were actually paying for all that stuff… those were written as recording “expenses” and were called “the draw -“ which was taken out of our percentage at the record company’s discretion. I’ve heard stories about guys who were several years into their contract before they found out they were paying for their own perks!
My “record deal” fire got lit on a trip to L.A. in ’76. I had won 2nd place in the jazz division of the American Songwriter Festival, which was just getting off the ground back then. One of the perks was to go backstage before a Chuck Mangione concert at Universal Studios, meet Chuck and his band and hang with them a bit. It turned out to be a real eye-opener, or so I thought. The band room was a large tent behind the stage. My girlfriend and I met Chuck and his dad, both whom were very pleasant to us. There were a few of Chuck’s friends there, and a huge table of food and drinks. The mood was very relaxed, and we felt like we’d just stepped into a different world. l remember thinking that if this was the life of a successful jazz musician who had a deal, then I wanted in on it!
Chuck had recorded several albums for Riverside Records, but I don’t know if he was still with Riverside when this concert happened. All I knew was that it appeared to me that Chuck and his band had been shot into heaven and were totally enjoying it. He was making it look so easy, so effortless. I didn’t realize until much later that he and his band had already been touring for quite awhile and it was all old hat to them. No matter, I was thoroughly buzzed!
Diana Krall once said in an interview:
“For 20 years I worked as a bar pianist. When I was 15 I started playing jazz in local restaurants in Canada with bass players. Then I was a student in L.A. and Boston and I supported myself and my jazz piano lessons by playing in hotels and bars. I also went to Europe sometimes, to Sweden and Switzerland. For three months I lived in Zurich where I played in hotels six days a week.
You don’t just start out getting a record deal being a jazz pianist, you have to wash and dry some dishes first. I learned work ethic, I learned what it is like to work your ass off, to move, to look forward. I also learned a lot about people, watching people, how they treat you…
I look at people’s eyes and I sing like I would talk to them. I’m not like “here is my invisible curtain, with the audience on one side and me on the other.”
Interview: Jakob Buhre
I began to write some tunes, tunes that I recorded at Doppler Studios, in Atlanta, where they had given me an office. My plan was to make an album of jazz/pop tunes that would easily cross over on the charts. A few jazz instrumentals, a few pop-sounding vocals… why couldn’t that work? Well of course it could, but unbeknownst to me, it was already being done by groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Earth, Wind And Fire. I did no homework as to what was already out there in the marketplace, or I would have known that. But I didn’t, so I forged blindly ahead, thinking I might be breaking new ground. I named my new project “Snowblind,” Carol Veto sang the leads on this album of tunes.
“No To Love” from my Snowblind album
I’m still proud of Snowblind. I threw a bunch of money at it, using 12 strings, 5 horns, 5 rhythm players and 4 backing vocalists. Everyone on the album performed beautifully and the Doppler engineers (Steve Davis) gave me some wonderfully-sounding tracks, which still stand up today, especially considering that the digital revolution was still over a decade away!
Shortly after finishing up Snowblind in ’81, I finally made my run at getting a record deal. Long story short, I had spent several months in L.A. studios while working with James Stroud, and knew a dozen people on first name basis. I knew that Russell Ferrante and his new band, The Yellow Jackets, had just gotten a deal, and that it was time I got a deal, too! Ha. I had put together 5 original songs that I’d recorded in my studio, and had them on a reel-to-reel tape in my briefcase, along with some cassettes. I was able to make several appointments with record companies in L.A., and they all went badly. A few of them refused to see me at the last minute, and a couple of others made me leave my tape with the receptionist. I was discouraged and a little pissed. Was this any way to treat an up and coming jazz musician from Atlanta??
Yup, it sure was. I tried calling a few of my “friends” there, but no one would take my calls. Finally one guy admitted that “In L.A. you’re everybody’s best friend when you come to town with money to spend. (which I did, with Stroud) but if you need a little help to get started, nobody knows you.” And it was so true! Suddenly nobody out there knew me, even though I’d been there just months before, working with them, going out to dinner with them, meeting their families.
Richie Zito then and now
Richie Zito, a fine guitarist I’d worked with earlier, finally had me over to his house one afternoon after a week of getting nowhere, of meeting no-one. He gave me the down & dirty basics of the L.A. music scene, and basically said I should go home, that unless I was already a “star” somewhere or had lived in L.A. for awhile, I wouldn’t have a prayer. He was right, of course. I did finally get a short audience with a jazz producer with A & M records, who listened to me for a few minutes, then showed me a box in the corner of his office. “See that box?” he grimaced. “That’s where I throw all these demo tapes that people bring me. When the world finally runs out of real talent, I’ll go through those and see if there’s anything in there worth recording.”
Harsh. But he did give me the phone number of Lee Young, younger brother of the famous Lester Young. I found out later that Lee Young used to play drums for Nat King Cole. Seems Lee had an office in Motown’s L.A. facility, and was looking for a good act to produce. I had dinner with Lee, a nice man, middle sixties, dressed well but obviously not in the west coast music scene any more, if he ever was. Richie Zito (Z) told me later the word on the street was that Motown gave Lee an office and a project “to get him out of the way of the important stuff.” Lee told me me he’d give my demos a listen and get back to me in Atlanta in a few weeks. At that point I thought that was the end of it.
My last night in town I took Z out to dinner. In the past ten days he’d been the only friendly voice in the whole damn town. I asked him if I simply wasn’t talented enough to make it in L.A. He smirked. “Talent doesn’t have that much to do with it, man. Are you marketable? That’s the question. Can I sell you? See, they want someone to walk through their door who is going to make their job easy for them. That’s what they want, that’s nearly all they want. Actual talent is way down the list. In your case, the best you could do here is become a studio musician, and even that is tough to crack these days, even if you’re connected.”
I asked him why no studio cats or other musicians had answered my calls.
“Hell, man… if you’re not helping them somehow, then you’re considered competition. And no one needs any more of that out here!”
I told him I thought I had at least a couple of good albums in me, and he said, “What do you do back in Atlanta?”
“Basically, I write and record jingles.”
He smiled, then looked over at me. “Go back to Atlanta and write jingles, man. You’ll be much happier there.”
Several weeks later I got a phone call in the Doppler lunch room. It was Lee Young. “Steve, my man, I have exciting news for you! I like your stuff and I’m thinking of doing an album with you! What do you think?”
It sounded exciting, for sure, but I asked him if I could call him tomorrow with an answer. He said yes, but don’t take too long, for he had decided that it was either me or Dr. John that he was going to produce. I knew by then that signing with Lee Young was going to be, at best, a stepping stone to something better… that Motown wasn’t going to put a dime into the promotion of an unknown jazz kid, and a little white dude, no less! So I called Lee back the next day and passed on the only record deal I ever got close to.
A year or so later, I demoed a new set of songs, again at Doppler, and sent them around to a few record companies. These new demoes were along the lines of Lionel Ritchie, who, I finally discovered, was selling records like crazy. My budget on this set of demoes was cut back significantly, as I had spent over eight thousand dollars on the first set, with zero results. This time, I used less strings, no horns, 4 rhythm players and a lot more synthesizer… after all, that’s what Lionel was doing! I named this new project “Dreaming Out Loud, “ this time with four vocal pieces and only one instrumental. Cheryl Wilson was the lead vocalist on this project, and sang her butt off. This new group of songs impressed no one, however, and I finally realized that I already had the job of a lifetime… writing and recording jingles and corporate film scores for the best recording studio in the South!
“A Little Magic” from my second album, “Dreaming Out Loud”
Turns out that a record deal involves a standard procedure that so many musicians have verified over the years. You sign a deal, you get money, you put a band together, you record, your album comes out, and you immediately go on the road to promote it, starting out with small venues and maybe college campuses. It you’re successful, it’s a double-edged sword. You make a bunch of money, true… but suddenly you’re on the road all the time. You begin to get sick of it, and sick of your band mates. Finally, the money’s not worth it and you break up. Lovely.
I saw Dr. John records in the record rack from time to time, but never one that was put out by Motown. Gives one pause, doesn’t it? And to this day I still appreciate that Z was the only voice in town willing to give me the straight skinny on the L.A. music scene. I took his advice, went back to Atlanta and continued to do jingles. And lived happily ever after. Sort of.