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 companyâs financials. Top record label executives flew in for a one-day conference room session at a 20â 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 â 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. âNow thatâs my kind of business,â 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, Atariâs 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 âcoin opâ 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, âMo, the name of the game is profits.â
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, âJackson Browne makes a record every time Halleyâs Comet comes around.â 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: âEmpty Heartâ), and Sue Saad & the Next (one album, #131 on the chart), and Helmet Boyâs âPoster Girl.â
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 Nashvilleâs traditional blow-dry hair and rhinestones lasses.
Jimmy Bowen, now heading up Elektraâs Country division made a deal with Hank Jr.âs label, Curb Records, which had signed Williams after five years he spent on MGM Records.
Back to the late â70s. Bowen agreed to produce Williams Jr.âs records for Curbâs label, and came up with new country albums, one after another, all for Elektra distribution: Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, then 1980âs Rowdy, then 1981âs The Pressure Is On.
From Hank âBocephusâ Williams, Jr.âs LPs:
#1 Country singles hits emerged: âTexas Woman,â âDixie on My Mind,â and âAll My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down).â (In 1984, that last title was changed when Williams sang âAll My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonightâ as the intro theme for âMonday Night Football.â It got an Emmy. But no Grammy.
Watch an early 80s performance of "âAll My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)":
Then, Williams Jr.âs Greatest Hits album for Elektra went five times platinum.
Deals and Labels
Elektraâs outreach moved in other directions, like âa jazz label.â 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, Elektraâs #2 exec, Mel Posner, recalled âWe 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.â From jazz had come Grover Washingtonâs single, âJust the Two of Us,â with vocalist Bill Withers. But...No more.
One of the earliest outreach deals to flop had been black-musicâs Solar Records. Elektra had overspent, even building offices for Solar on Cahuenga Blvd. But ...No hits.
Joeâs 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. Itâs strong, long-term artists showed up again on the release and receipts sheets.
Joe still felt wary, but 1980 saw renewed hits like:
Jackson Brownâs Hold Out was his first album to go platinum. It came out in June, 1980, with strong singles of âBoulevardâ and âThat Girl Could Sing.â
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 âSeven Bridges Roadâ 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 Mitchellâs Shadows and Light, released in September 1980. The album compiled many live recordings sheâd 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 Ronstadtâs Mad Love, including âHow Do I Make Youâ and âHurt So Bad.â Out in April 1980, her Grammy-nominated âpunk rockâ 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 Zevonâs 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 âA Certain Girl.â
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 âtrying something else.â He told Ross that heâd lost his fire, despite having three more years on his contract.
Ross, despite the record businessâ slow pace, hardly wanted Joe out on the market for others to hire.
âNo, youâre family,â Ross answered. They talked on. Maybe WCI could have a âSports Divisionâ? âWe could buy some teams,â 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