Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Larry Harris (Casablanca Records co-founder) Interview


You co-founded Casablanca Records with Neil Bogart in 1973. How did you two meet?

As I explain in the book, Neil was a distant cousin who I had met once in the early '60s. Then, in 1970, my parents were at a wedding and saw his mom and she mentioned that I should contact him about a job. And so it began.

Discuss your involvement in the first Casablanca Records deal with KISS and their manager Bill Aucoin.

Neil mentioned that he wanted me to see a band that he was thinking about signing to our soon to be new label Casablanca (the working title at that point was Emerald City, which we later found out was taken by someone in Florida). The band was managed by Bill Aucoin and Joyce Biawitz, two TV producers who worked with many musical acts. Joyce was also seeing Neil, on the side, as he was married (that could have had some influence on his decision, duh). We saw the band at a small, very small rehearsal space in NYC and that was that. We all saw the potential of what they had to offer and if Neil really wanted to do it, so be it.

Do you happen to know why KISS's debut self-titled album and the follow-up, Hotter Than Hell, sound so markedly different as far as production?

The difference is partially due to the fact that all the songs on the first album were written many years before. The band was playing them way before they even met Aucoin. I had a reel-to-reel tape that Columbia Records paid for as a demo and most of the songs that appeared on the first album were on that tape. Columbia, of course, passed on the group. The other reason they sound different is that Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, the producers of both albums, had never done a record before the first album and so they had a bit more experience under their belt this time around and probably had more input into the songs the second time when they were just being created. Of course, the band had now gotten better and had the touring and additional studio chops down better.

Whose idea was it to release the Alive! album immediately after the first 3 KISS studio albums and then Alive II immediately after the next 3 KISS studio albums and why?

We had no choice. The band had sold about 100,000 each or so on the earlier albums and Casablanca was going broke. We had no money and nothing approaching success except KISS, which is where most of the money went. We did not have the coming success with Donna Summer or Parliament or, for that matter, The Village People and we needed to come out with another KISS album quickly for cash flow. Neil decided that since we already had most of the tracks recorded live and the band had no time to write new songs in time for this needed release, it would be cheaper and quicker to go with a live album than a studio one. Eddie Kramer was on board as producer (no more Kerner and Wise) and Eddie knew how to pull that live record off. Keep in mind that we also knew that the band was much stronger live than recorded and their concerts confirmed that. They never, ever failed to get the audience (even people who were anti-KISS) to rave about the show. We knew that if we could capture that excitement, that would help sell product.

As for why we released Alive II after the next three studio albums, it sounds like we planned it but it was just timing again and we wanted the billing to bolster the books as we were now trying to impress our new partners, Polygram, who were bankrolling the company at this point and Alive! did so well, we thought why not put out a follow-up live album including some of the new songs that had become staples of their show?

Whose idea was it to release all 4 KISS solo albums on the same day in 1978 and why?

Again, it is covered in the book. Basically, we were given an ultimatum - either do the solo albums or the band may break up. The guys were getting on each other’s nerves and Gene & Paul seemed to be putting themselves way above Peter & Ace in everything dealing with the creative direction of the band. Like everything Neil did, he decided that he was going to gamble and make this bigger than anything that came before. Neil was a major gambler on everything in life. We also had to follow the KISS contract that stipulated that each album they came with had to have a minimum $500,000 advertising budget (a large part of that was controlled by KISS management, who got a separate commission on that) and we had to ship a minimum of 500,000 albums on each release. Seeing that they were selling millions on the previous albums, we felt that they would do just fine. Plus, with this huge advertising budget of over two million dollars and the band touring and all the push from our promotion and press department, we were looking forward to success. The only thing that we could not control was how bad the albums came out. The only one that did anything near good (not very) was Ace’s album. The rest died on the vine. Of course they're collector's albums today, especially the 4 picture discs that we came out with to further hype the release.

Did the disco explosion, which occurred just a couple of years after KISS's debut album was released in early 1974, affect KISS's overall record sales in a significant way?

Disco made Casablanca a much more influential company within the music world. We could get our product paid attention to quicker by radio and we had the ability to trade off our big disco acts for favors on other acts. Some of that is covered in the book.

Basically, disco's success and its tie-in with Casablanca helped KISS sell more albums and gave the company a reputation that almost everything we touched turned to gold. We were now in a position, instead of begging for the big record chains to carry our product, we could almost demand that they do. Comedy also helped. With the success of Robin Williams' and Rodney Dangerfield's albums, we were beginning to get a reputation as a great comedy label. Keep in mind that albums by Donna Summer, Parliament and The Village People were even outselling the KISS albums by 1978.

Why exactly did you leave Casablanca in 1979?

I guess I was just exhausted. And also, the company was turning into something that I began not to like. As close as Neil and I had become, he was being pulled in too many directions and most frightening was that he was beginning to believe the press that we were creating about him and that is always dangerous. As I mention in the book, one day, I asked him why he was signing people like Mac Davis and The Captain & Tennille. I was a bit taken aback when he said that if he hung out with famous people, he would be famous. That was not the music business I loved, it was the artist who we were supposed to help become famous, not us. I also cringed at the fact that Neil had ordered me to massively fudge the sales projections that we had to give Polygram every quarter so we could squeeze more money out of them. I knew it was wrong and things just started to build in a not happy way in my brain. I was also not happy about some great bands that we passed on because Neil, at that point, thought that disco was going to last forever and he really did not want to sign other types of music unless it was a band with an already established fan base. I was also just burned out after 5 years of 24/7 effort. As much as I appreciated disco and what a force it had become, I was a rocker inside and having to deal with the disco lip syncing and that constant incessant beat was not what I had signed up for. I was also doing less of the promotion that I loved and more of the management side of the company and that was getting boring.

What are some of your favorite Casablanca releases and why?

My favorites include KISS, Larry Santos, Santa Esmeralda and a number of Donna Summer and Parliament albums. The stuff that I had the honor to work with Neil at Buddah includes Brewer & Shipley, Shanana, Bill Withers and Robert Klein comedy albums and the incredibly talented Genesis and the unheralded but great Steve Goodman.

Are there currently any plans for any of the many out of print Casablanca releases to be reissued in physical or digital form (or both)? If so, please discuss.

Neil's sons Tim, Evan and Brad are going to be coming out with a movie starring Justin Timberlake as Neil (more info on that here - http://www.movieweb.com/news/justin-timberlake-set-for-spinning-gold), so there will be Casablanca music coming. And don’t be surprised if some contemporary stars are doing those older songs.

What is your current relationship with the surviving Casablanca staff and bands/artists?

I speak to many of the Casablanca people. We have been in touch quite a bit recently since the book came out in 2009. Facebook has made connections easier as well. We all realize what a great and special place it was to work and a very special time in the music industry when almost anything was possible (including dealing with the Mafia and other unsavory characters) and having a creative force like Neil to give us the rope to either succeed or to hang ourselves. We succeeded for a while and had fun doing it. To this day, people who are in the music biz today have heard the stories about how it was and always mention to me that they wish they were in the business then as opposed to now, when everything is so corporate and homogenized and locked into the new computer age, which has certainly brought major problems and make people wonder what, eventually, the business will look like in 5 years with almost all music going strictly electronic. Car manufacturers are beginning to NOT put CD players in cars - that will put the final nails into the coffin of the music industry as we have known it.

What were the circumstances that led you, Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs to collaborate on the book And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records?

I had written the book years before I had even heard of Jeff or Curt. They happened to call me when they were helping Lydia Criss with her book and asked me some questions and we started to talk and they wanted to help me polish the book up with dates and places that I did not remember and had no desire to do the research. Since they were also huge KISS fans and knew all about that, we came to a deal.

How has the book been received by both people who were there and outsiders?

So far, the reviews from people in and out of the music biz have been great, much better than I ever expected since many publishing companies rejected the book until we found an editor who actually was a big Parliament fan and I think that clinched the deal. Life is strange. I even got an email from Monte Lipman, the President of Universal Republic (home of Taylor Swift, among others) who loved the book and told me that he was now a fan of mine. That made me prouder than any of the reviews we have gotten. It is all about PEER recognition.

1 comment:

Guy Chaifetz said...

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