A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part IV
Putting Programming Experience to Use
By: David Wilson - May 13, 2012
As Herb begins to get used to the folk and the recording culture of New York, other opportunities start to open up. He finds ways to put his programming experience to good use and in one instance discovers that what he thought he knew about “standing ovations” was a pale shadow of what could be.
David Wilson When did you start producing concerts?
Herb Gart In 1965 I was asked to book a folk festival at Carnegie Hall.
DW Was that a surprise or something you had been working towards? Did you know these people?
HG It was somewhat of a surprise because Manheim Fox and Sid Bernstein could have asked others but they chose me. I jumped on it as an opportunity to express myself and my view of folk music.
DW I can imagine what it would be like to have Sid Bernstein solicit me for one of his projects. Actually, I cannot imagine that. What did you do?
HG The first thing I did was go to the New York folk managers and try to book their clients - Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and others. However, for whatever reason, they turned me down flat. I then, out of necessity, had to prove that a few managers in New York didn’t ‘own’ the folk scene. I added to my definition of folk music Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, and Chuck Berry; I developed themes for each concert: The Evolution of Funk; From Country to Bluegrass to Nashville; the Contemporary Singer-Songwriter Composer; and Carl Sandberg’s American Songbag which featured songs from his collection sung by many of the artists in a theatrical setting, where the spotlight landed on one while others were on stage in the dark and illuminated when their turn came to sing . It was a beautiful concert featuring Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash, Jesse Colin Young, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, and many other first-rate artists singing songs other than their own. Also they were not introduced as the spotlight fell on them, so the songs were the stars of the evening. The Songbag concert was the idea of one of the producers of the Festival, Manheim Fox, and due to his theatrical background, the format and pin spotlight on each performer as their turn came was his idea. The choice of songs and who sang what and the artists to perform were chosen by me. All the other events were solely my bailiwick.
The “Country to Bluegrass to Nashville” concert opened with Almeda Riddle singing a high mountain ballad a capella to Mac Wiseman and Earl Scruggs doing Bluegrass until finally Johnny Cash. “The Evolution of Funk” started with Son House and Mississippi John Hurt to Muddy Waters and The Staple Singers to Dave Van Ronk to Ray Bryant and Nina Simone.
The Newport Folk Festival tried to copy the concept that year but it was not successful because it couldn’t be booked by a committee.
DW Thinking about the Song Bag idea, the folk scene in those days was really split between performers who sang traditional material and performers who wrote their own songs.
HG One of the ways that critics identified folk singers at that time was to call them ‘protest singers’ for the most part; the fact that they wrote their own songs was new to the critics. Although some critics occasionally called one or another a Songwriter-Singer, as soon as the first ads for “The Contemporary Singer-Songwriter Composer” came out, most critics overnight shifted gears and called most folksingers Singer-Songwriters and called just a few ‘protest singers’- Pete Seeger, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and a few others. My point for “The Contemporary Singer-Songwriter Composer” concert was to show that older artists were still creating new songs as well as the younger artists, so I had Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash sing songs they had recently written.
DW Forgive my interruption, you were talking about the Carnegie Hall Series…
HG When The Staple Singers performed, I got to experience the real meaning of a standing ovation. They were doing a steamy ballad called White Horses. The Staple Singers were so intense that in the middle of the song the audience stood up and stayed standing the rest of the song. They stood up not to say “Bravo!” but because they couldn’t stay seated. It was an incredible experience. Now that’s what I call a standing ovation!
DW Looking at the line-up, I cannot imagine everything went smoothly.
HG At the Singer-Songwriter concert, Chuck Berry, famous for giving everyone a hard time, especially about money, announced an hour before he was to perform that he wasn’t going to play because he didn’t like the bass player. I asked him why Muddy Water’s bass player wasn’t good enough for him and what did he want in a bass player. He said “I just want a player with rock solid timing!” I told him that he should prepare to perform and I will have a bass player with perfect timing out there to back him. If he didn’t think the bass player had great timing, he could stop the show, blame it on me, and leave the stage. He agreed. When he got on stage, he found that Johnny Cash’s country bass player was there - with perfect timing. He knew he had been bested at his own game and played just great.
I became his Manager that night - but only for a few months. I booked him at the Newport Folk Festival where he would have been a sensation and it would have led to many gigs on the college circuit which is where the money was at that time. I did break him into the college market as the “King of Rock & Roll”, but Newport was the way to explode onto the college scene. However, Chuck plays for money and Newport paid everyone the same amount no matter how famous they were. Chuck couldn’t figure out why it was worth playing Newport for so little money; I explained it to him many times and each time he came around and said he would do it. On the day he was to take a plane to Newport, I called him in St. Louis to make sure he hadn’t changed his mind. He said he was coming. I waited until I knew he had to be on his way to the airport and called again to be sure. He wasn’t home. Half-way to the airport he turned around! End of Management!
DW And people wonder why managers get paid… back to the Carnegie Hall Festival
HG I had several of my clients on the program and to avoid claims of favoritism I put each of them in the worst possible position with Buffy following Phil Ochs and Patrick following The Staple Singers. Each Artist was unique, so they had no problem following such strong performers.
I also had a blues workshop on Saturday afternoon with Eric Von Schmidt as host. I always found it amusing that the college crowd who loved the blues chose to stereotype these old men and not realize that a lot of them were more worldly than their ‘image’. To that end, I got Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt to play a blues version of Silent Night on piano and guitar, which completely surprised everyone and was the big hit of the blues workshop.
When I had first brought Mississippi John Hurt to New York to appear at the Gaslight Cafe, the room was packed. John did his first show to tumultuous applause. While standing backstage with me he looked troubled and perplexed. I asked him what was wrong and he said that he was playing dance music and all the college kids did was sit silently and applaud between songs. I explained what a white college crowd was like and how much they appreciated and loved his music. We decided together to gradually expand the audiences’ horizons, which led to Silent Night at the blues workshop.
DW John Hurt was someone who charmed everybody whom he met. Thanks to you, I brought him to Boston and a week at the Café Yana. It was the most successful event I had ever been part of up to that point. Of course, his appearance on the Johnny Carson Show a week before did not hurt.
HG I booked John on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He sat on a stool in front of the curtain and sang “Nobody’s Dirty Business” and then he looked at the audience and said in his kind, mellow voice “Now I know you know this song, so please sing it with me” and he sang “You Are My Sunshine” to a standing ovation and Johnny Carson had tears in his eyes. A few days later I called the Tonight Show to arrange another appearance. Johnny Carson personally got on the phone with me to tell me an astounding story. They couldn’t book John Hurt back on the show because they received hundreds of letters and phone calls and telegrams complaining that the show was exploiting this wonderful old man by having him sing, sitting on a bail of cotton! He was sitting on a wooden stool, but thousands of people saw him sitting on a bale of cotton, and they were upset and angry about the way Mississippi John Hurt was being treated! Mass hypnosis of some kind - so John Hurt was one of the very few artists in the history of the Tonight Show to receive a standing ovation, but he couldn’t be invited back!!
DW It’s a crazy world. Was it after the festival that you started the Central Park concerts?
HG As a result of my doing a good job of booking the Folk Festival, Ron Delsener had me book his Friday night concerts in Central Park. I also booked his opening night show with Dionne Warwick and The Youngbloods. A very musical evening.
DW Speaking of the Youngbloods, that’s when you stole Jerry Corbitt away from me.
HG (Sorry about that.) The Youngbloods were formed on a Saturday afternoon when my client Jesse Colin Young and his friend Jerry Corbitt, your client, decided they would like to work together and go electric. I thought it was a great idea, so we had the Jerry Corbitt Trio come down from Boston to the Gaslight Cafe to form the group with Jesse. Banana brought with him a friend, a bluesy singer Tommy Flanders. I knew that the guitarist Danny Kalb wanted to put together a blues band, so I got him together with Tommy. So on the same Saturday afternoon, both The Youngbloods and The Blues Project were formed!
DW It must have seemed by then that you indeed did have the largest stable of folk performers. Didn’t anyone escape your clutches?
HG I hired a Canadian, Warren Haller, as an assistant. He brought with him a tape of the then unknown Joni Mitchell. I loved her work and found that some of my clients knew and admired her, especially Buffy Sainte-Marie. Pat Sky and Dave Van Ronk were fans and they gave Joni their typical friendly hard time. She sang Circle Game for them backstage at the Purple Onion in Toronto. She was shy and hoping for approval. When she finished the song, with perfect timing Pat Sky said “Gawsh, that sucks!” After she was crestfallen, Pat and Dave laughed and became her good friends as well as fans.
DW I can actually hear Patrick saying that in my head and imagine Van Ronk going along with it. Go on.
HG I took her tape to Maynard Solomon at Vanguard Records and he turned her down. Then Buffy, who recorded for Vanguard, and I went back into Maynard’s office and made a strong case for Joni. Still he turned her down! In the meantime, Joni in Toronto didn’t even know that we were trying to get her a record deal. I often helped artists I admired without it being a business move.
DW I’ll bet Maynard kicked himself many times over that. But you brought him other acts.
HG While I signed Buffy Sainte-Marie, Patrick Sky and The Greenbriar Boys to Vanguard, I tried to get him to take Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley to no avail.
I brought the Lost Sea Dreamers to NYC from Austin; they included Jerry Jeff Walker and they later changed their name to Circus Maximus and signed to Vanguard though I had nothing to do with that. I knew they were good, so I booked them into the Night Owl on 3rd Street.
Paul Rothchild, at that time an A&R man at Elektra Records, asked me to help book the Paul Butterfield Blues Band from Chicago, so I booked them into the Gaslight Cafe and the Village Gate.
I talked up artists I liked, not concerned with the fact that they were not my clients. I believe that if the artist is unique, one of a kind, then the artist had no competition. If you had Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Prince at the same table, each would be secure in the knowledge that the others couldn’t do what they did, no matter how much they might want to.
In our next installment I ask Herb to share some of his perceptions and conclusions about the mechanics of management and we discuss some of the pitfalls and pratfalls of predicting human behavior.
Johnny Cash sings Peter LaFarge
Staple Singers Medley
A Conversation With Herb Gart – Part I
A Conversation With Herb Gart – Part II
A Conversation With Herb Gart – Part III
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part IV
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part V
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VI
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VII
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VIII