The Record Deal
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
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!
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
forging new ground. I named my new project “Snowblind,” Carol Veto sang
the leads on this album of tunes.
I’m still proud of Snowblind. I threw a bunch of money at it, using 12 strings,
5 horns, 5 rhythm players and 4 backup 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!
Here is a cut from Snowblind – “No To Love”
It was 5 years later, in ’81, when 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 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
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. 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
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 that is tough to crack these days, even if you’re
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 demos 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 five 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.
A Little Magic – the incomparable Cheryl Wilson
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!
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.