Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Elektra’s Late Seventies
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
Each year, in Manhattan, Warner Communications sat, one after one, with its companies (whether movie or record labels or others) to review each company’s financials. Top record label executives flew in for a one-day conference room session at a 20’ round table. Three or four reps from each label facing five or six from WCI.
In 1976, WCI had bought a small video-game company up in Silicon Valley. Atari. WCI execs had seen an Atari coin-op game - Pong it was called – housed in bars and cafes, played with a quarter a game. A machine would cost $4500, and some were taking in $250,000 a year. “Now that’s my kind of business,” Steve Ross had said.
Ross had not bought a company in the last four years. Atari would cost WCI $12 million in cash and another $16 million in futures (debentures). At the time of the deal, 1977, Atari’s revenues were $39 million, and its profit $3.5 million. Atari agreed to the offer.
Atari vs. Records
The Record Group was doing OK, too, but would not experience the growth that Atari enjoyed. Hits? From Pong to Pac-Man to Space Invaders to Missile Command, and the cash poured forth.
To executives in the big record business, such “coin op” companies felt old-fashioned, like juke boxes. With bad audio.
When the annual report came out from WCI, the record labels were stunned at the growth contrast:
Revenue ($000) 1978 1979 1980
Atari $177,900 $238,000 $512,000
Record Group $394,500 $400,000 $445.900
At their individual meetings in Manhattan, the growth percentages felt stunning. After the meeting with Warner Bros. Records, which went without any throwing of stones, Steve Ross asked Mo, solo, to step into his office. The two sat for a moment, then Ross said, simply, “Mo, the name of the game is profits.”
Mo nodded. Enough said.
Most stunned of the three labels was Elektra Records, the smallest of the three, with the least upside to its artist catalogue.
At the Elektra session, Joe Smith was already aware that the year had been so-so. He explained that artists enjoying big royalties got less determined to record that next album. Or, to quote him in Joe-Speak, “Jackson Browne makes a record every time Halley’s Comet comes around.” And Linda Ronstadt, off to Manhattan to star in Pirates of Penzance. And Carly Simon moving from Elektra, joining hubby James Taylor over at Warner Bros. Records.
But Joe could only do what good record company presidents do: sign more talent. Sometimes, these signings would never mean diddly-squat. Elektra and its distributed-Planet label had its share (or more): the Cretones (one single: “Empty Heart”), and Sue Saad & the Next (one album, #131 on the chart), and Helmet Boy’s “Poster Girl.”
Listen to Helmet Boy's "Poster Girl":
Elektra kept reaching out, signing, often singing acts now identifiable only by their dental records. Bands whose record careers lasted as long as ice cubes in August.
But Joe knew his job. He felt a bit helpless. But he knew: Keep signing.
Some New Elektra Signings
Hank Williams, Jr. (the son of the legendary dad) took off in his own country music direction: a hard-edge, outlaw mix of country and blues. His records had a new energy compared to Nashville’s traditional blow-dry hair and rhinestones lasses.
Jimmy Bowen, now heading up Elektra’s Country division made a deal with Hank Jr.’s label, Curb Records, which had signed Williams after five years he spent on MGM Records.
Back to the late ‘70s. Bowen agreed to produce Williams Jr.’s records for Curb’s label, and came up with new country albums, one after another, all for Elektra distribution: Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, then 1980’s Rowdy, then 1981’s The Pressure Is On.
From Hank “Bocephus” Williams, Jr.’s LPs:
#1 Country singles hits emerged: “Texas Woman,” “Dixie on My Mind,” and “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down).” (In 1984, that last title was changed when Williams sang “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” as the intro theme for “Monday Night Football.” It got an Emmy. But no Grammy.
Watch an early 80s performance of "“All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)":
Then, Williams Jr.’s Greatest Hits album for Elektra went five times platinum.
Deals and Labels
Elektra’s outreach moved in other directions, like “a jazz label.” Joe Smith hired Don Mizell away from A&M to start those signings. Major deals followed, with Grover Washington, Jr., Dee Dee Bridgewater, Donald Byrd, and Patrice Rushen.
Looking back on all this signing, Elektra’s #2 exec, Mel Posner, recalled “We were paying over the top on jazz artists who had already peaked. Suddenly, when we started signing all these things, it started to go the other way. All those deals were problems.” From jazz had come Grover Washington’s single, “Just the Two of Us,” with vocalist Bill Withers. But...No more.
One of the earliest outreach deals to flop had been black-music’s Solar Records. Elektra had overspent, even building offices for Solar on Cahuenga Blvd. But ...No hits.
Joe’s Best Year
Despite the costs of new acts that flopped, despite the record business falling behind Atari and disco manias, as our calendar turns to 1980, Elektra has a strong year. It’s strong, long-term artists showed up again on the release and receipts sheets.
Joe still felt wary, but 1980 saw renewed hits like:
Jackson Brown’s Hold Out was his first album to go platinum. It came out in June, 1980, with strong singles of “Boulevard” and “That Girl Could Sing.”
Talk about celestial bodies
And your angels on the wing
She wasn't much good at stickin' around...but
She could sing...
The Eagles Live, including “Seven Bridges Road” released Nov. 7, 1980. The single became a Top 40 hit, with the full band singing in close harmony, all five of them.
There are stars in the Southern sky
And if ever you decide
You should go
There is a taste of thyme sweetened honey
Down the Seven Bridges Road
Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light, released in September 1980. The album compiled many live recordings she’d made on her tour following the death of her jazz mentor, Charlie Mingus.
Why do fools fall in love?
Why do birds sing so gay
And lovers await the break of day
Why do they fall in love
Why does the rain fall from up above
Why do fools fall in love
Why do they fall in love
Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love, including “How Do I Make You” and “Hurt So Bad.” Out in April 1980, her Grammy-nominated “punk rock” album hit the chart tops, her seventh consecutive million-seller. Her two single hits (listed above) both went Top Ten.
You put your head on my pillow and you're fast asleep
But how do I make you
How do I make you
How do I make you dream about me?
Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. The veteran keyboard band member, from the Everly Brothers forward, was his best-seller for Elektra. Included his single “A Certain Girl.”
Well, there's a certain girl I've been in love with a long, long time
What's her name? I can't tell you
I can't reveal her name until she's mine
What's her name? I can't tell you
Joe Wants Out
Tiring of the Elektra business, in 1981 Joe Smith asked his boss, Steve Ross, about “trying something else.” He told Ross that he’d lost his fire, despite having three more years on his contract.
Ross, despite the record business’ slow pace, hardly wanted Joe out on the market for others to hire.
“No, you’re family,” Ross answered. They talked on. Maybe WCI could have a “Sports Division”? “We could buy some teams,” Ross speculated.
But what would become of Elektra without Joe.
Joe suggested some names. Just, for now, talk, shared in the back seats of limousines.
-- Stay Tuned