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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Summer Reading List

In My Life

Don’t know where you live, but in the Washington, D.C. area where I reside, we have had a very hot summer. The temperature seems to hovering in the 90 – 100 degree range every day. The best antidote for me in times like these is to pack up and go to the beach. At the beach, I like to sit under a large umbrella, have my i-Pod firmly positioned in my ears to get the optimum level of sound, have a cooler filled with beverages and snacks by my side, sunglasses, baseball hat and read an entertaining book. Entertaining is the key word since I really do not want to sit on the beach with my toes in the sand and expect to contemplate the rigors of life. Just give me sunshine (and shield me from those rays of the sun), blue skies, cool ocean breezes, a good book and I am happy.

Even though the summer of 2010 is partially behind us, we still have August to plan that trip to the shore with reading material in hand. Books about rock ‘n’ roll and music related topics are excellent for those lazy, hazy days by the beach enjoying the surf and sand. Today, I am going to give you my recommendations for light, entertaining summer reading.

Like him or hate him, Tommy James sold over 100 million records on a global basis. He had 14 Top 40 hits between 1966 – 1969 along with 23 gold singles and nine platinum albums. He recorded for NY based record company called Roulette Records which was owned by a guy named Morris Levy. Levy was representative of the rough and tumble record company owner before the music industry was taken over by large corporations, lawyers and people with MBA degrees from Ivy League schools. Levy was reputed to have had ties to mobsters. Writing in the July 30th issue of Goldmine magazine, author Mike Greenblatt points out that the Heshie Rabkin character in the TV hit series, “The Sopranos” was modeled after Levy. Morris Levy owned record labels, publishing companies, and night clubs and fought his way to prominence in the record business in the 50’s and 60’s.

Levy was so powerful in the music business that even an icon like John Lennon could not avoid him. When Levy heard “Come Together” by the Beatles on the Abbey Road album, he filed a lawsuit. He was the publisher of a little known Chuck Berry song called “You Can’t Catch Me” that, to him sounded similar to the Beatles song. Rather than get involved in a protracted legal struggle, or any struggle for that matter, Lennon agreed to record an album that would include three of Levy’s published songs. The result was the release of Lennon’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” album. You didn’t want to mess around with Morris Levy. For more detailed information about the life and times of Morris Levy, the Fredric Dannen book, “Hitmen” gives an almost chilling account of the life of Morris Levy and his influence on a myriad amount of rock stars, their managers, promo guys and record company executives all of whom may or may not have had the misfortune to cross his path.

Imagine spending a significant part of a recording career with Morris Levy as your boss. Tommy James did and relates some unbelievable stories in his new book called Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride. Tommy talks about the cast of characters that frequented the Roulette offices in New York. How he sometimes had a tough time collecting all the money owed to him, how he once had to “leave town” unexpectedly for a short time, but in the end, had a great time and of course, enjoyed incredible success as a writer and performer.

From the same era that saw Morris Levy establish Roulette, Jac Holzman became the founder of Elektra Records. Levy founded Roulette in 1956; Jac began Elektra Records in 1950 at age 19. What began as primarily as an ethnic folk music label turned into one of the foremost music labels in the world recording such as acts as The Doors, Judy Collins, Love, Harry Chapin, Queen, Carly Simon, MC5, Butterfield Blues Band, etc. and the list just goes on and on and on. When rummaging through the bins at any record store, even if I didn’t know the act, if it was on Elektra there was a better than 50/50 chance that the album was going to be a keeper. More often than not it was. Groups like Rhinoceros, Clear Light, and Simms Brothers are still favorites of my LP collection, purchased primarily because of the Elektra label.

In his book, Follow the Music Jac takes you though the beginning days of the business located in Greenwich Village, when he was just trying to make some money and make ends meet. He then takes you through the mid 70’s when Elektra finally became part of the Warner/ Elektra/ Asylum empire generating multi millions of dollars and hit records. Much like the Morris Levy story, but without the gangsters, Jac came along at a time when any young person with enough guts and guile could start a record company and not only dream of success, but also had a fighting chance to make it big in the music business.

My favorite parts of the book are the chapters devoted to The Doors. January 4, 1967 marked the release of the first Doors album. “Break on Through” was to be the first single record release. It received modest airplay, but didn’t even make into the Top 100. Not wanting to lose any momentum for this new group, Jac decided that “Light My Fire” would be the second single released. We all know how that turned out! The Doors were still unknown, so Jac phoned Bill Graham and pleaded for Bill to book this band at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The deal was that the Doors would play two dates at the Fillmore, six months apart and that both gigs would be for scale, which was almost enough money to cover their airline fares. At the first gig, The Doors were the opening act for the Rascals and the Sopwith Camel. The audience was stunned by the Doors and broke into cheers and shouts and screams. The group went on to international fame and played both Fillmore dates for the same low amount of money.

Holzman’s book is filled with anecdotes, stories and interviews with all the people that touched his Elektra Records life. There is even a CD included highlighting some of the early acts on his label. Insights and interviews into the work done in the studio with the session musicians and the producers and engineers makes this book just wonderful and entertaining summer reading on the beach or by the pool.

Finally, no summer rock ‘n’ roll reading list would be complete without including the epic story written by Bob Spitz simply called The Beatles; The Biography. Having read a fair amount of books about the lads, this book spans the lives of each of the Beatles from their birth to the dissolution of the group in close to 1,000 pages of remarkable detail. Spitz is a master researcher. For any true Beatles fan, this book is a “must have”.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Spitz book is his incredible detail into the personal lives of the lads. We all know their public personas, but this book delves into their fears, loves and personalities. I found it fascinating to know about the real interaction between John and Paul as they wrote their songs. How they competed with one another, what jealousies and rivalries were created and how they really felt about each other are all evident in the book.

As fans of rock stars and their music, we devour whatever information we can find out about our heroes. More often than not, we are confined to the information written on album cover sleeves and whatever gossip (true or not) contained on the television tabloid programs. “The Beatles, The Biography” book is well worth the time spent to get to the truth about the group that forever changed the way artists record their music and how we listen to them.

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