Gary James' Interview With
The Co-founder Of Casablanca Records
Casablanca Records was formed 1973. Five years later, it was the "hottest" record label in the world. And why wouldn't it be? They only had Kiss, Donna Summer, Village People and Parliament / Funkadelic signed to the label, not to mention Cher, The Captain And Tennille, Rodney Dangerfield, Lipps Inc. and Katey Sagal when she was the girlfriend of Gene Simmons.
How did Casablanca Record do it?
Larry Harris, Casablanca's co-founder and former senior vice-president and managing director has written the inside story of Casablanca Records titled And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records. (Backbeat Books / Hal Leonard) Larry talked with us about his book.
Q - Was there a film released, a documentary on the history of Casablanca Records?
A - No. That's a piece of crap. It's just some old footage people found, put it together sloppily. It has nothing to do really with anybody who was ever associated with Casablanca. It's really just some promotional film footage that people can look on our website
www.CasablancaBook.com and see a lot of that. We have like seventy-five videos on there.
Q - How much money did it take to launch Casablanca Records? I think you stated in the book it was a seven figure amount?
A - What it was, was Warner Brothers put up the initial money to launch Casablanca. By the time we left Warners, less than a year after starting, we owed them $750,000. So, you can think that's what it might have cost, but we were in debt to a lot more people than them at that point. So, it was at least couple of million.
Q - Because Neil Bogart (founder of Casablanca Records) was under so much stress, do you think that contributed to his death at 39?
A - Well, he died of cancer and so far they haven't hooked cancer up to stress, I don't think. But in my mind, it could have been. Stress is so bad for you, you don't know what it does to you. It can do all kinds of weird things. The medical community haven't really figured out all the bad things. I mean, they know it can contribute to heart disease, but I don't know that they know it can contribute to cancer or not.
Q - Could Casablanca Records have continued even though Neil Bogart died?
A - When Neil died, he owned Boardwalk Records, Casablanca was long gone. Polygram had kicked him out of Casablanca like two years before. So Casablanca was part of Polygram at that point.
Q - Page 13, "Before the music business became attractive to corporate America, organized crime had established a strong foothold in the industry." Explain that, because I know of only one suspect record company and that was Roulette Records.
A - Oh, no, no, no. Atlantic. There was mob money all over the place. Paramount. There was mob money all over the place in those days from probably the 1940s in one way, shape or form of another.
Q - I can understand the mob being in gambling and loan-sharking. But the record business? It's such an "iffy" business. How do you know what's a "hit" and what isn't? Why would they want to be in that business?
A - Well, they loved hanging out with Sinatra and Dean Martin and the whole Rat Pack thing. The mob owned most of the big nightclubs throughout the country - Chicago, Cleveland, New York. Those were mob owned clubs that these people would play at and to say nothing about Las Vegas.
Q - Nightclubs are one thing. But record companies are another thing. I don't have to tell you. That's your business.
A - Yeah, but they were drawn to the celebrity of it. They were drawn to the fact that they could then hang out with people like Sinatra and Dean Martin and Tony Bennett. But I talk about it in the book. Kama Sutra Records, right before Buddah (Records) was started, was owned by a guy named John "Sonny" Franzese, who was (with the) Colombo Family. Believe me, there were a lot of labels that were in one way, shape or another connected with the mob.
Q - Did the artists necessarily know that?
A - I don't know. I really don't know what the artists know on that level.
Q - How about their agents and / or managers?
A - I would assume if they had managers who were around for awhile they would know it, but again, it's not something I was privy to. I just heard about a lot of that stuff before the time I joined.
Q - You talk in the book about Casablanca wanting and getting a number one album on the Billboard charts ("Thank God It's Friday" sound track album) What difference does it make if it's number one, number two?
A - It's ego. It's bragging rights. Everybody's got an ego.
Q - Would having a number one on Billboard translate to record sales?
A - Top Ten translated to record sales, not number one necessarily. When you got to be even Top 20, you could get your product into the Wal-Marts and K-Marts of the world because they carried so few titles. They were rack jobs. In other words, a company like Handleman out of Detroit was in charge of selling and figuring out what product went into Wal-Mart. So, they wouldn't even consider a product unless it was Top 20.
Q - I was surprised to read in your book about someone from Warner Brothers Records calling Neil Bogart telling him to tell Kiss to drop their make-up.
A - Right.
Q - That was on January 8th, 1974.
A - Before their album even came out.
Q - What if Kiss had said OK? How would that have affected their career?
A - I think it would have hurt it tremendously. They probably wouldn't have had a career.
Q - It would've been a one-shot deal.
A - Yup.
Q - Who was it that made that phone call?
A - I don't remember who it was to be honest.
Q - And Kiss' first album was so unique, both the record and the album cover.
A - Oh, yeah. There were some people who were using some make-up, but nobody as over the top as Kiss.
Q - And that's what made them so unique.
A - Well that and all the spitting fire and spitting blood. The stage antics as well.
Q - What did Bill Aucoin do for Neil Bogart that Neil Bogart would sign Kiss?
A - Bill Aucoin was partners with Joyce Bayewitz in Kiss. Joyce Bayewitz was Neil's mistress.
Q - I guess that explains it.
A - It helped.
Q - I see in the early days you were getting airplay for Kiss on WOUR in Utica, New York.
A - I certainly was. Jeff Chard used to own that station.
Q - How about Syracuse? Was any station playing Kiss?
A - (W)SYR might have been.
Q - Page 69, "The members of Kiss, behind the make-up, were some of the worst looking guys I'd ever seen." What members of the group are you talking about?
A - Peter, Paul, Ace and Gene. (laughs) This was not Led Zeppelin or anybody that looked beautiful. Marc Bolan was really a handsome, good-looking guy.
Q - Paul Stanley looked like a guy who could be a Rock star with or without the make-up.
A - Not in those days. Complexion problems, although the make-up made it worse 'cause they put it on so heavy. (laughs)
Q - Something must've happened to straighten that problem out.
A - I don't know. I never thought of them as the kind of band girls would swoon over.
Q - Yet, they didn't seem to have any trouble getting women, did they?
A - No. They're Rock stars. Geddy Lee can get women.
Q - Genesis, Queen, Aerosmith. None of those guys would take on Kiss as an opening act. That had to be a problem for Casablanca Records early on when you're trying to promote their first album.
A - Well, I talk about that in the book too 'cause what we had to do was pay a lot of money to have Kiss headline their own shows when they probably weren't really ready to fan-wise. I talk extensively how we made deals with radio stations all over the country, promised promoters we'd pay any money they lost if they put the band on as headliners. It cost us a fortune to do that, but it worked.
Q - And Casablanca put a lot of money behind Angel, and for some reason...
A - Their songs weren't as accessible.
Q - And you write in the book they couldn't use their full stage set-up when they were opening for somebody else.
A - Well, absolutely. Very little of it usually. And also, they were a good looking band. Talk about good looking. They were all really good looking guys.
Q - What's Punky Meadow doing these days? Is she still in the business?
A - No. Last I heard he owns somewhere in Washington D.C or Delaware some dry-cleaning establishments.
Q - That's about as far away from being in a Rock band as you can get.
A - (laughs) And he was a good guitar player too.
Q - I know the 'live' album broke Kiss through to the Rock audience, but what did "Beth" do for Kiss?
A - "Beth" opened them up to a whole, a much larger audience base. I those days especially, having airplay on Top 40, which "Beth" afforded them 'cause they never really got much on any of the other songs, made them a household word really.
Q - That was an odd song for Kiss to break through with, wasn't it?
A - Yeah, 'cause it was a ballad. That's not what they were known for and it was written by Peter as opposed to Gene or Paul, which at that point was also for the band a whole different thing.
Q - You write "it took no experience or industry acumen whatsoever to see that the key to Kiss was their live performance." When a song of theirs comes over the airwaves, you can't see them performing, so really it all comes down to their music, doesn't it?
A - Well, there's an old record industry term; "it's gotta be in the grooves." Obviously today they don't have grooves. In those days they did. Of course the music comes first. But if you're boring and you can't back it up live, you're not going to keep your audience. I always kind of speak about Peter Frampton. He had in those days probably the biggest album ever when he came out with "Frampton Comes Alive", but going to see him 'live' onstage, although he was a great guitar player, he didn't move. It wasn't like we were watching somebody dynamic like Bruce Springsteen or anybody who gets you going and gets you crazy. I think that hurt Frampton's career because he never had success near that.
Q - "Neil (Bogart) always tried to be positive. Positive people were successful people as far as he was concerned." So, that was the key to Neil Bogart's success?
A - Well, one of them. There was a also a lot of luck involved.
Q - What mystified me is how you describe the widespread use of drugs in the offices of Casablanca Records. If you're high, stoned, doped up, how can you conduct business?
A - Easy.
Q - How?
A - I never had a problem. Neil never had a problem. It depends how high and how stoned you are. If you get a little buzz on... We wouldn't walk around, crawling on the floor stoned. But if you had a little buzz on, sometimes it actually helped. It worked for us. Everybody was getting loaded in those days.
Q - Isn't it strange that it always seems to fall on a smaller label like Casablanca to discover a Kiss or Donna Summer? Where are the bigger labels?
A - They weren't interested in those people. You see, major labels have never broken a genre, whether it goes back to Elvis from the very beginning or you go away to Disco or Rap, major labels always come in later. They always wait for somebody else to be the guy out in front. They wait for an act to happen and then buy it, 'cause they got the money. And they've done that consistently, whether it be Heart or... there are tons of bands that's happened with.
Q - Are you still in touch with some of the acts what were on Casablanca?
A - Yeah. I still speak to Gregg Giuffria periodically. I speak to Gene, I don't know, every six to eight months. I spoke to Paul about six to eight months ago also.
Q - How about Donna Summer?
A - I saw her a few years ago.
Q - What kind of reviews have you been getting about this book?
A - Oh, I've gotten great reviews. Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune. Very happy. Actually the book is going to be made into a movie.
Q - A made for TV movie?
A - No. No. No. A major motion picture.
Q - Will somebody be playing you?
A - Yeah, but I don't know who. (laughs) I'm just offered a deal. I'm not the one who picks the artists.
Q - Do you know the title of the movie?
A - No. Actually the paperwork is done. But the title is not in the paperwork, so I don't know what they'll choose.
Q - And Party Every Day is the definitive book on Casablanca Records, isn't it? You didn't hold back so there will be a follow-up, did you?
A - No. I went through everything and I was honest as I could be.