A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part V
A Philosophy of Management and Lurking Disasters.
By: David Wilson - May 26, 2012
With his feet planted firmly in several aspects of the music business, Herb found himself managing the careers of a number of artists. In this installment we talk a bit about his philosophy and style of management. While he had great successes, clearly there were instances when he had to swallow some pretty bitter pills.
David Wilson Give me an example of the guidance you were giving your clients at that time. Some of it was innovative and I know not always popular with an artist champing at the bit to become known.
Herb Gart One of the rules I had for my clients was to wait to record until we had two albums of great material ready because the artist has their entire lives to write the first album and only six months or so to write the second one. This approach soon became common practice throughout the music business, though it started with me.
DW I remember any number of acts in those days that had only a hit single.They then recorded albums with that one single and a lot of drek. Their concerts reflected the same lack of depth. Quick success caught them unprepared to cope or develop an extensive repertoire, and often they believed their own hype.
HG Another rule I had was to keep their feet on the ground and their heads out of the clouds by keeping everything real; no limos until it was appropriate and they could afford it, no pampering and no ‘yes’ men around them. When an artist had their first hit record, I would remind them that they had been wrong up until then, so they shouldn’t think that they now had all the answers. Besides, the first successful record was just the beginning, the first time anyone would pay attention to them and seriously listen to their music.
DW Good advice though I am sure it was hard to hear when they could see others with less talent being rewarded.
HG Another rule I had was for the artist to remain true to themselves and not try to fit in or imitate the latest fad. It is my opinion that that is the secret to long-term success - what the audience buys is what the artist is. Of course, it only works if the artist is exceptional.
Also, my rules were made to be broken on occasion; they were not inflexible. I don’t care how an artist works creatively as long as it works for them. One artist may only record one or two takes of a song (Don McLean) and another may work on it for weeks or even longer (Janis Ian). It is my job to understand how their individual creative process works and do all I can to nurture them on their own terms.
DW It seems a lot like parenting
HG As a manager, when you are representing great talent, it is your job to clear a path between the artist and their audience so that they can find each other and build a relationship. All the noise and clutter of the business from promotion men, A&R men, concert promoters, club owners, publicity people, critics,radio stations, publications and these days, the internet, are all means to the end of getting the artist and their audience together. The thing that is hard about this business is that most of the time those people are a hindrance and have no idea what the artist requires.
One small example: I booked Don McLean on a concert in Central Park and I booked Boz Scaggs and his large band with horns,as the opening act. My agent at the William Morris Agency told me I was crazy to have Don with his acoustic guitar have to follow such a high energy loud band. I told the agent that it would not be a problem; if the artist is great, he will not have a problem. The agent came to the Central Park concert to prove me wrong. Boz Scaggs did a great show and got a well-deserved encore. “See,” said the agent. “I told you so!” Don took the stage to a standing ovation as he walked to the microphone. He got two more standing ovations during his show and received three encores and could have taken another. The agent still said “See. I told you so!” It was as if he wasn’t at the same concert!
DW In truth, he wasn't. Sometimes it is difficult to convince agents and club owners of the merits of unknown performers.
HG I received a call from the Blue Dog in Baltimore and George Stevens said he was desperate. His headliner for that week had to cancel and the shows were sold out. He needed a replacement of such power that the audience would be satisfied. I told him not to worry, I had the perfect answer. “Who?” he asked. “George, just trust me” I sent him Jose Feliciano. Jose was in the dressing room and he heard George say “What! Gart sent me a blind Puerto Rican! Oh my God!” Jose quickly set his guitar out of tune and began to sing badly. George called me and cried on the phone. I was going to ruin him. “Trust me, George” and I hung up.
DW Jose was always a prankster. What happened?
HG George, who was a fine comedian, had to bring the blind Puerto Rican onto stage, sit him down, adjust the mikes and introduce him. Of course, Jose was a great hit and he and George became friends. But George wanted to even the score with Jose for his out-of-tune trick on opening night, so for the closing show George sat Jose down facing a wall!
George later went on tour with Jim Croce (whose producer, Tommy West, I had managed) and was one of the people on the plane that crashed.
DW Managers often get a bad rap, and I have known some unsavory ones, but most I have known were in the business because they loved the music and wanted to participate and contribute to the scene.
HG There are many stories about managers stealing from their clients or not advancing their career as had been promised. Most managers are honest but the artist often has no idea of how much money it costs to do his business, so they get suspicious because they don’t know where the money has gone.
Well, most of the time they spent it! Advancing a career includes the artist being ready to take advantage of opportunities and the timing and the situation being right. Most failed relationships between manager and artist are as simple as it just didn’t work out; the timing was off or the artist wasn’t as ready as he thought he was. I drove my clients crazy by taking my time to get it right, explaining that it may seem slow-going but with hindsight they will see that it was the fastest way to win the day.
There are managers who are crooks, but that is a very small number - and most managers are just not that good. Most artists who will become great are just not that good while they are finding their voice, their identity.
DW That seems to lead to lots of misunderstandings. Sometimes the artists think that your criticisms and reservations reflect a lack of faith in them.
HG Misunderstanding is the rule. I had a terrible misunderstanding with Buffy Sainte-Marie. She had a boyfriend - Indios - who treated her rough and took most of her money. One day Buffy asked me to hide half of her earnings and just tell her she was getting paid half as much as she actually was and put the money aside; the reason being that she was a lousy liar and when Indios asked her how much she made, she couldn’t lie to him. So it fell to me to tell Buffy she made $1500 when she actually made $3000. We referred to this as her Gypsy Boy money. To be safe, every time I deposited any Buffy money I would fill in all the details on the deposit stub so that every penny was accounted for. Indios was a nasty tyrant and he held sway over Buffy for a few years. One day he convinced Buffy to change managers and he wanted to see my books. If he saw the truth he would hurt Buffy, so I had an assistant,(Warren Haller, who brought me the Joni Mitchell tapes,) go through my check stubs and create a false set of books that reflected Buffy receiving $1500 instead of $3000. Warren didn’t believe me and secretly told Buffy and Indios that I was falsifying the books. Buffy acted as if I had stolen from her and I went along with it to protect her from Indios. When her attorney called, I showed him my check stubs with the exact amounts written out and I knew exactly how much money I was holding for her. We ‘settled’ by my giving back her publishing and my share of the record royalties. I didn’t want to do that but the only way to avoid it would have put Buffy at serious risk with Indios. I assumed that she would someday down the line break off with Indios and then we could get back together. It never happened. She had long forgotten our Gypsy Boy arrangement; I assume because of LSD or some other drugs that were popular among musicians at that time (mid 60s). Whatever the reason, she actually thought I had stolen money from her and she told some people so.
I lost a client, Patrick Sky, because of it. I should have kept the publishing and let her face Indios’ wrath - but that’s with hindsight. So a girl whose talent I loved and cared for and worked for selflessly left thinking I had betrayed her trust.
DW I remember that period in Buffy’s life and I also experienced the effect of her isolating herself from many of her friends as a result of that relationship. I can only imagine how much of a slap in the face it must have seemed to you.
HG There are probably hundreds of stories like that where nothing really happened, but the artist complained bitterly. The opposite story occurs as often and the manager complains bitterly. Most of the time, it’s not true or it’s exaggerated way out of proportion. Being a manager is often a thankless job.
DW It is no secret that we all like to remember things in a way that allows us to feel comfortable about ourselves and losing a client seldom bolsters our self image.
HG Managers lose their clients with some regularity. As often as not, the breakup is due to a misunderstanding. After 4 or 5 years, on average, the artist changes managers, often because they are frustrated with how their careers are going. They could be at the top of the charts and selling out concerts, but from their perspective it’s not good enough. Also as they become successful there are all sorts of people actively working to take an artist away for themselves. This includes record company people, agents, road managers, publicists and lawyers. It is easy to criticize any decision with hindsight. Most artists are insecure and are ready to believe the worst; very few are loyal. Some are, but most are not.
DW With the music business in such turmoil, there must have been a lot of turnover in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s
HG I lost The Youngbloods to their road manager when they moved to San Francisco though I still maintained Youngblood member Jerry Corbitt as a client. Though I had a new client, Don McLean, I was looking towards an incredible year of Don being turned down by every record company executive in the United States and a few in Europe. Don was rejected 72 times and the company we finally signed with did not exist when we had started looking! At that point EVERY record company CEO had personally turned Don down!
During that year I was in bad financial straits as there was very little money coming in. My wife made me promise that if things didn’t change by a certain date, that I would give up the business and get a regular job. I promised, though I had no intention of quitting. I had done well in the 60s and I was confident I would do well again, and I had Tony Bird, who was about to be signed to Bob Dylan’s new label.
That label was aborted at the last moment, but his album “Tony Bird of Paradise” was nominated as one of the 10 best albums of all time in People Magazine.
Within a month of my wife’s deadline I got Don McLean his record deal, although we had to start recording it before the deal was done. We went to San Francisco and had Jerry Corbitt produce it. It was called “Tapestry” and got excellent reviews and some airplay including a minor hit with “Castles In The Air” and of course his second album was “American Pie”. The fallow time period resolved with my comeback being stronger than ever. Don remained my client for over 18 years.
In our next Installment Herb talks more about his long term relationship with Don McLean, about the difficulties of maintaining a personal life and his great fortune in having one.
Don McLean - A medley of If We Try and Empty Chairs
Boz Scaggs - Lowdown
Tony Bird - Sorry Africa
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 VI
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VII
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VIII
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part IX