A Conversation with Herb Gart - Part III
By: David Wilson - May 06, 2012
With the decision to move his base of operations permanently to NYC, Herb finds his path beset with unexpected pitfalls from the very start. Of course he is not alone in the struggle and it is not long before he finds others depending on him. He also finds himself going head to head with some of the most powerful people in the industry.
David Wilson So what happened after the Little Sister’s fiasco? Were you ever tempted to give up?
Herb Gart Summer came and I moved to New York permanently. My friends at the Wireless Technical Institute made me a going away gift. They took a portable Wollensak tape recorder, replaced the recording heads with Ampex heads and replaced the tubes with industrial strength professional tubes; so what looked like an ordinary Wollensak was a supercharged tape recorder. What happened within one hour of my moving to New York should have been a warning. I moved into the Earle Hotel on Waverly, unpacked my stuff and plugged my Wollensak into the wall. That’s when I learned that the Earle Hotel was one of the few buildings in Manhattan still wired for DC current. I watched my tape recorder go up in smoke. The year was 1963 - in April. If I ever had any thoughts of giving up, it was then. The feeling passed in half an hour. I was in New York to stay.
DW How long did you keep your room at the Earle?
HG I lived there through part of the summer, living some of the time in the Gaslight Cafe kitchen.
DW You must have been having a lot of fun to hang on through the rough spots.
HG There could not have been a better moment to move into the Village. The place was alive with great talent - a true Renaissance of folk music and comedy. Within a few months I had signed Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mississippi John Hurt, Patrick Sky, The Greenbriar Boys, Jim and Jean and Tim Hardin. I also helped co-manage Jose Feliciano. By the end of the summer I looked from the outside like a successful manager; however, Bill Cosby was only making $10 a night and Buffy was only making $200 a week and the same applied to almost everyone except John Hurt. So I was a ‘successful’ manager who still had no money and lived part of the time in the Gaslight Cafe.
DW Those names are a litany of some of the most popular and influential names of that time and place. I am going to embed performance links to all of them at the end of this installment. Sorry to interrupt, please go on.
HG I was so inexperienced that I didn’t even know how to fill out a booking contract. I visited all the major folk managers to ask for advice. Since I was doing so well, most of them thought I was pulling their leg. A few were helpful. One contribution stood out: Harold Leventhal, who managed The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and Alan Arkin, told me that he had had some friends in college called The Weavers who were getting so many bookings that they asked Harold to take care of the business end of things. And, as Harold said, “They were so good that in spite of my mistakes they were successful and here I am.” Of course Len Rosenfeld befriended me and eventually shared my office space and the rent.
After I set up Alix Dobkin and Bill Cosby for the summer, I needed a job. I got an A&R job at Prestige Records, The first week I came in with audition tapes of Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Tim Hardin Trio with Karen Dalton, Fred Neil, The Greenbriar Boys and Tom Paxton . My boss told me to sign them all. I said there was just one small problem; I had promised them all that we would promote their records. In those days, promoting a folk record meant an ad in Sing Out Magazine. My boss said, “You’re supposed to be working for me, not them. You’re fired!” During that one week gig I did produce an album by The Gardners, which is still available today. So,back to the Gaslight.
One side-effect of my week at Prestige Records was that I helped get a lot of Boston folksingers signed by Prestige! I was replaced at Prestige by Paul Rothchild. He came down to the Village to find artists; the first one he approached was Buffy Sainte-Marie. She told him to talk to her manager, Herb Gart. The look on his face was very funny. He then approached another client of mine, Jim & Jean; they told him to talk to me. Again the look on his face was funny. Word got around the Village that if you told Paul to talk to Herb Gart, his reaction was funny. Every artist he approached told him to talk to Herb Gart. This not only included artists I didn’t represent, but it included artists I had never heard of. After a couple of weeks of that, he gave up and went to Boston to find artists.
DW He helped a number of our local performers to record, The Charles River Valley Boys come to mind and he was a prominent figure around Club 47 until his marijuana bust.
HG Eventually he went on to Elektra Records and signed The Doors.
DW I presume things were still a little tight money-wise for you.
HG Day-to-day living was difficult for quite awhile. However I could raid the kitchen at the Gaslight Cafe. On special Sundays when John Stauber, a fine guitarist backing Leon Bibb, was in town, he would treat me and Richard Graham to Sunday Brunch at the Coach House, a very special and expensive restaurant on Waverly across the street from the Earle Hotel. So though Richard and I barely had enough money for a hot dog, we ate like kings on special Sundays!
DW I have heard that you and Albert Grossman competed for a few artists.
HG Albert Grossman was the most important manager in folk music at the time, representing Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan. He wanted to steal Bill Cosby from me and courted Bill. I told Bill to play along and see what we could get Albert to do. Albert brought down agents and record company people to see Bill until he realized that I was using him. There ensued an intense, but friendly competition to sign artists. Albert wanted most of the artists I represented and every time we competed for a client, I won. I won because the artists realized that I understood where they were coming from and where they were going from a creative standpoint as well as business. At one point, when Albert was touring Europe with Peter, Paul and Mary, his partner John Court “discovered” my client Biff Rose, a brilliant comedian/folksinger. Biff was in his last few months in the Army and could come to New York on occasional weekend passes. Court approached him with great enthusiasm at Gerdes Folk City. I told Biff what I had done with Bill Cosby and Albert. Biff immediately started to get John Court to pay for his trip to New York, including a hotel room, and bring down a lot of people to see Biff. When I finally broke the news to John Court that Biff was my client, he was embarrassed and upset.
In the meanwhile, after a concert in Paris, Albert and Peter, Paul & Mary visited a club on the Left Bank and saw a 13 year old girl sing brilliant songs and play brilliant guitar with a heavenly voice. After her set, he approached her and her mother and was told to talk to her manager in New York - Herb Gart! Albert got so upset that he turned red in the face and stomped out of the club without waiting for PP&M. Actually I wasn’t her manager; she was a genius who at the age of 13 was studying Physics at a University in Switzerland. Folk music was a hobby. Her mother was a neighbor of mine from Philadelphia. I gave her my cards so she could keep the business people at bay.
When Albert got back to New York and found that John Court had paid money to court Biff Rose, he was not a happy man. At around the time that Dylan wrote “With God On My Side” another incident occurred that led to a phone call to Albert. Remember that Gibson and Camp was my introduction to folk music? Well, unbeknownst to me, a man who worked for me, Richmond Shepard was a close friend of Hamilton Camp. Camp was on Broadway in a satirical revue called The Committee. The show was about to end and he had 2 offers to consider; one was from Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) who wanted to write Camp into a new musical. The other offer was from Albert Grossman to do a reunion tour with Bob Gibson; it would pay well. Well, Hamilton didn’t want to get back together with Gibson because of Gibson’s intense drug scene - but the money and music were good. He didn’t know which to do, so Richmond Shepard suggested he talk to me about it.. He refused, because Herb Gart wasn’t interested in him and had not made any overtures to sign him. Richmond insisted, so they went down to their Subud place, Subud being a theosophy that had Bob Camp change his name to Hamilton, Lionel Shepard to Richmond and Jim McGuinn to Roger. They ’tested’ on what Hamilton should do. Understand that I didn’t know this was going on. The first I knew was when at 3, a short man walked into my office and said “Hi. I’m Hamilton Camp and I’m a client of yours!” Of course I knew who he was and said “Sit down”. As we talked I began to realize that he was supposed to show up at Albert’s office at 3 to commit to the Gibson tour. Whatever the ‘test’ was, the results were 100% Gart and definitely not Grossman. So I had a picture in my mind of Albert sitting there waiting for Hamilton. “Hamilton,” I said. “This might be the shortest time I have ever had a client, but there is something I have to do.” I called Albert and said “Albert, it will be a few days before you understand this, but “God Is On MY Side”!” When we met in the Village a few days later, we both broke up laughing.
DW How long was it before you began to get your head above water?
HG It was late Fall before I was making enough money to find a regular place to live. Before then, I shared 2 rooms on East 11th Street with the son of Alfred Knopf, the publisher. We both went away for 10 days or so without any electricity in the pad. When we returned, and opened the refrigerator, the stink of rotten eggs emptied out the whole building. I found a great apartment on 53rd Street that had its own private entrance on the street. I couldn’t afford it on my own, but Len Rosenfeld agreed to share it.
Part of the Village migrated up to 229 East 53rd Street late at night (early morning) to crash at my office. Every piece of furniture I had in the office could be slept on, in, or under. For awhile Buffy Sainte-Marie, Patrick Sky and Jose Feliciano lived there. Jose told a constant stream of bad jokes, primarily as his radar to keep track of you. He and his girlfriend Hilda skipped out in the middle of the night after I jokingly told them I was going to charge rent. His girlfriend was homely and I’m sure she thought that if Jose wasn’t blind, he would have nothing to do with her. I’m not so sure; she cared about him and for him and he could trust her. One day, about 6 am the doorbell rang. None of my crashed guests would get up to answer the door. Finally I crawled out of my bed and grumpily answered the door. Standing there was a man I had never seen, wearing a bathrobe and towel with a bar of soap in his hand. He asked to use my shower! After I sputtered for a moment, the whole place broke into laughter. Lucky thing I had a sense of humor or the pad would have become off limits to everybody.
In the next installment Herb talks about how he added concert producing to his ever broadening hat rack. Meanwhile here are the performance samples I promised above.
Mississippi John Hurt
Jim & Jean
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