Wednesday, June 25, 2014

TMFW 42 - The Billionaire Who Started His Career With Mail Theft and Forgery

David Geffen is a bazillionaire.  Like, a baZILLionaire.  He founded three record labels - which released records from (and often discovered and first signed) The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, Counting Crows, Weezer, (TMFW all-time-favorite) Teenage Fanclub, Blink-182, and countless others - and is the "G" in DreamWorks SKG.    
Geffen has made a number of gaudy purchases: he owns two multi-hundred-million-dollar yachts (1, 2), set a record when he bought a $54M penthouse in New York, and is an avid collector of postwar American art, including a Jackson Pollock painting that he sold for $140 million (at the time, the most expensive art sale ever; Geffen still holds positions 2 and 3 on that list).  To be fair, Geffen has of late been a generous philanthropist, too: he's given $300,000,000 to the School of Medicine at UCLA and he pledged several years ago that all future earnings will be given to charity.
All of the above - all of the artists that Geffen discovered and promoted, all of the films that DreamWorks SKG released, all of the crazy art and boat purchases - might never have happened if it weren't for some criminal behavior on Geffen's part at the start of his career. 
As recounted in this New York Times article, and by Geffen himself in an interview (starting at 5:57 of the video), when Geffen applied for his first agency job at William Morris in New York City, he lied on his application and said that he had graduated from UCLA.  When he found out that a coworker had been fired for lying about his own credentials and that the agency was verifying education, Geffen understood that he too would be fired if the agency learned from UCLA that he had never graduated from - or for that matter, even attended - the university.  As a result, Geffen (who worked in the mailroom) arrived early each day for several months looking for an envelope from UCLA.  He eventually encountered one, "steamed" it open, and found a note from the university confirming that he was not ever enrolled there.  Geffen altered the letter to instead make it a confirmation of his degree, and routed the letter to its original recipient.   
In other words, Geffen committed mail theft and then forgery to keep a job that he lied to get in the first place.  And now, after 40+ years of incredible success, the story is told as a charming tale of moxie and ambition.  The moral, as always: become rich and everything is alright.  
(Note - not all (but many!) of the linked songs in the first paragraph were released on a Geffen label.  I just chose a favorite tune from each artist as the link.)
BONUS FACT:  In 1972, the five original members of The Byrds were contemplating a reunion and a new record.  All of the previous studio records that The Byrds made had been released on Columbia Records, and the band leader Roger McGuinn was still signed there.  But the remaining four members of the Byrds were signed with Geffen's Asylum label.  So there was some ambiguity about who would have the right to release the new album - the label that had both McGuinn and "The Byrds" as a band, or the label that had the rest of the musicians that made up the group.  In a recorded telephone conversation with Clive Davis, who was then the head of Columbia Records, Geffen offered to "flip a coin" for the right to release the record, with the winner getting the rights to the U.S. and Canada and the loser taking the rest of the world.  Davis declined, but ultimately Geffen won anyway.  "Byrds" was released in 1973 - worldwide - on Asylum Records.   
BONUS FACT 2: In 2012, Geffen was the subject of an in-depth (and very puffy) documentary that ran as part of PBS' "American Masters" series, which is the source of today's True Music Fact and the Bonus Fact above.  You can watch the documentary here on YouTube, or on PBS's app on Apple TV or Roku.  It's worth the time.
BONUS FACT 3:  This is only barely related, but here's a fun (and excellently-edited) video of Elton John playing "Your Song" across 30+ years
BONUS FACT 3.5:  "Your Song" was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the star of TMFW 33.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

TMFW 41 - The Low-Power UHF Network That Made Hip Hop Careers


Four weeks ago, TMFW 37 told the story of how Spuds MacKenzie inspired Sir Mix-a-Lot to record "Baby Got Back."  Last week, the song made new headlines when a video of Mix-a-Lot performing the song with the Seattle Symphony (!) went viral. 
One of the write-ups on the unlikely collaboration between Mix-a-Lot and the orchestra focused on the similarly-unlikely vehicle that helped launch "Baby Got Back" when it was released in 1992: a network of "interactive video services" known as "The Box." 
Essentially, The Box was a video jukebox that was broadcast on television.  The production value was decidedly low-fi, and primarily consisted of video names and number codes flashing across the screen, with a 1-900 number to call to order up a selection.  Each call cost between $.99 and $3.99, and typically it took around 20 minutes from the initial call for the video selection to appear on screen.  In the early '90s, The Box was broadcast on obscure (and cheap) UHF stations; at its height there were over 150 different "Boxes" which were customized to serve up videos that were popular in each local broadcast area. 
What seems positively quaint now was revolutionary in its time.  A 1992 New York Times article on "The Box" network of channels noted that video requests skewed heavily toward rap and hip hop artists.  At a time when MTV relegated hip hop videos to a two-hour show, and applied an opaque set of rules to determine which videos were approved for broadcast and which were not, "The Box" offered viewers uncensored, on demand music.  People could hear and see what they wanted, when they wanted to.  As the Times article notes, its popularity "influenc[ed] the careers of dozens of artists, including Hammer, Ice Cube, Color Me Badd, Vanilla Ice, Queen Latifah, En Vogue, Soundgarden [??], Kris Kross and Shabba Ranks."  The article also specifically notes the success of "Baby Got Back," describing the song (as only the New York Times can) as "a paean to black women's posteriors" and reporting that Def American Recordings turned to The Box when its efforts to get mainstream airplay failed.  Within a week of its introduction to The Box, "Baby Got Back" was in the Top 10 on the channel.  A few months later, it was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.            
The Box's success was relatively short lived.  After it spread from UHF broadcasts to basic cable, The Box was bought by MTV in 1999.  In 2001, it was replaced by MTV 2.  It's no matter, though: "The Box" now lives on every smartphone and computer and tablet and internet television device, for free.  It's called "YouTube."
BONUS FACT:  I had completely forgotten about "The Box" until I read the story that inspired today's post.  But once I saw the logo, the memories came flooding back.  In St. Louis in the early '90s, "The Box" was a low-power UHF station that broadcasted at channel 58.  The low-quality graphics, low-power broadcast, and my 13" television with rabbit ears made the experience of watching seem particularly enthralling.  I remember distinctly tuning in to watch Madonna's banned-on-MTV "Justify My Love" video
BONUS FACT 2:  YouTube has little of "The Box" to offer, but this recording of the top 20 requests of 1993 from Lubbock, Texas is a delight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

TMFW 40 - Penny and the Quarters Get Their Big Break - 40 Years Later

Blue Valentine is a critically-acclaimed 2010 film starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.  It tells the story of Dean Pereira and Cindy Heller, a struggling couple whose troubled marriage appears to be irretrievably breaking.  The film alternates between the beginning of the couple's courtship and its end.  It's really well done - both Gosling and Williams were nominated for Golden Globe awards and Williams earned an Oscar nomination, too - and really really (really) depressing.
In a central scene in the movie (semi-NSFW), Dean tries to romance his wife by playing "their song," which we also see playing in happier times for the couple.  The song used in the film was "You and Me," by the group Penny and the Quarters.  The song's spartan arrangement and desperate lyrics fit beautifully in the movie, and one might think that it was created just for the film.  But in fact, the song was 40 years old when the film came out.  And remarkably, at the time of its inclusion in the movie, Penny and the Quarters were unknown.  
To clarify, the group was not "unknown" in the sense of "underappreciated" or even "unsigned."  They were "unknown" in the sense of "nobody had any idea who the people on the recording were." 
The mystery is well-described in this writeup in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and this one in The Guardian.  In short, the recording was contained in a box of tapes and acetates that were sold at the Columbus, Ohio estate sale of Clem Price, who was the co-owner of a recording studio that fed a small Columbus-based soul music label called Prix Records.  The box was first thought to be master tapes from Prix, but instead they were discovered to include a treasure trove of unreleased demos and related material.  The tapes ultimately found their way to The Numero Group, a Chicago record label that specializes in rare R&B and soul music.  Numero researched what they had - reaching out to "every willing lifer left on the Columbus soul scene, including retired DJs, producers, and important local artists" - and was able to identify most of the tracks.  But they found "not so much as a glimmer of recognition at the name Penny & the Quarters." 
Despite having no information on the artist, Numero included "You and Me" as track 18 of 19 on Eccentric Soul: the Prix Label, their compilation of Prix recordings.  The record sold only modestly, but Numero fan Ryan Gosling heard the album and fell in love with "You and Me."  He recommended it to the director of Blue Valentine, and the film licensed the song from Numero for $750. 
After Blue Valentine propelled the song to prominence, the mystery was written up all over the web and the search was on.  First, the songwriter (and lead Quarter) was discovered to be a man named Jay Robinson, who was an established Columbus songwriter but who had died one year earlier in 2009.  His widow did not have any information about who Penny or the remaining Quarters might be, but claimed that her husband named the group based on the quantity of his pocket change on the day the demo was recorded.
Several months later, the remainder of the mystery was solved.  Nannie "Penny" Sharpe and her three brothers rounded out the group. They had recorded the track in 1970 when Sharpe was 21 years old.  The recording was not a proper demo but instead was a rehearsal, and it was the first take of the song.  (According to Sharpe, the song and its "my my my my"s were chosen because they provided an opportunity for her to practice her enunciation.)  The song never went anywhere.  Sharpe and her brothers did some backup work for other Columbus acts, but it seems that they never worked as a standalone group outside of that one fateful day.
The mystery was solved when Sharpe's daughter read about the song on the internet and heard what was unmistakably her mother on the recording.  For her part, Sharpe was delighted that her song made the improbable journey from recorded rehearsal to dusty storage to estate sale offering to compilation release to major motion picture.  
Stories like this one give me hope that in 2035 a recording of my high school band's classic "Rye Bread World" will be rediscovered and will become similarly famous.  Dare to dream. 
BONUS FACT:  When "You and Me" blew up, The Numero Group released it as a 45.  For the B-side, they went back to the Prix tapes and extracted a second Penny and the Quarters song called "Some Other Kind of Love."
BONUS FACT 2:  In 8th grade, one of my very first girlfriends insisted that we must have a "song."  At her suggestion, it was Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush."  To this day, each time I hear that song or see Keanu Reeves in the James-Dean-inspired video, the memories comes rush (rush)ing back.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

TMFW 39 - Michael Jackson Broke Google

5 years ago this month, Michael Jackson died unexpectedly at his home in California.  MJ is a TMFW favorite - the easter egg from his "Thriller" video was the main feature in TMFW 6  - and news of his death came as a shock and surprise to me.  I remember that I was at work at the time I first heard, and so I took to Google for confirmation of the news.
Many, many others had the same instinct.  Google's servers - seeing the almost instantaneous tidal wave of searches for Jackson's name - assumed that the site was under attack and kicked back an error screen.  The screen (which can be seen above) noted that "your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application.  To protect our users, we can't process your request right now."  Google quickly realized that the searches were legitimate, and the site was back to fully functional just less than 30 minutes later. 
As best as my research can tell, Jackson's death is the one and only time that a legitimate search "broke" Google.  It was sufficiently newsworthy that Wired, CNET, and even Foreign Policy all featured short stories about the event.  Even in death, Michael Jackson was setting new records.
BONUS FACT:  In the wake of the racism fiasco involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, a market research company recently released poll findings that proclaimed Sterling the "most hated man in America."  Sterling had a 92% disapproval rating.  Looking at the top ten (bottom ten?) list, it is impressive to see that even five years later, Jackson's personal physician Conrad Murray placed third (tied with O.J. Simpson).  Murray was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the death of Jackson.
BONUS FACT 2:  Michael Jackson holds a huge number of awards, including 13 Grammy awards, 26 American Music Awards, and 8 Video Music Awards.  But it may surprise you that Jackson was also awarded a United States patent.  In 1993, Jackson and two co-inventors filed for and were issued a patent for a pair of shoes that can be used to create the illusion of anti-gravity.  Those shoes are what enabled Jackson to create his famous lean in "Smooth Criminal" (the dance move can be seen at 7:13 in that video).  Basically, the heel of the shoe had a hidden opening that allowed it to hook into a post that would come up from the floor, and the shoe had a built-in "sock" that gave the dancers support at their shins.  Once the dancers were hooked on to the post, they could lean waaaaay forward and return upright, as though by magic.
BONUS FACT 3:   The lyric "Annie are you okay" or a variant of it is repeated over forty times throughout "Smooth Criminal."  For anyone who has taken CPR class, the phrase is a familiar one: it comes from the 50+-year-old rescue mannequin Resusci Anne, which was introduced in Norway in 1960 and became the worldwide training standard.  The first step in CPR is to "establish unresponsiveness," and so asking a patient whether they are okay - ideally, using their name and asking insistently and repeatedly - is part of training.  Because the rescue doll was named "Anne," millions of people learned CPR by repeatedly asking "Annie, are you okay?"
BONUS FACT 3.5:  The head of Resusci Anne was modeled off of the "death mask" for "L'Inconnue de la Seine," an unidentified young woman who was found in the Seine river in Paris in the late 1800s.  The mask was very popular in European culture and the woman's history and circumstances were a subject of intrigue and speculation.  The Resusci Anne creator allegedly made the mannequin a young woman out of fear that male CPR students would resist applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a male dummy.
BONUS FACT 4:  One of the most popular YouTube videos of the last several weeks - with 15.7 million views in just two weeks - is a montage of highlights from a high school talent show.  The winning entry among various garage bands, gymnasts, and balladeers was a young man who reenacted MJ's famous "Billie Jean" performance from the Motown 25 television special.  Here is Jackson's original performance.  Here is the talent show highlight video (the dance starts at 1:11).  The kid does MJ proud.