Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Have I Lost My Mind?

Photo of: Rhys on I-94
Photo by: Mike Schneidler

I am sitting here listening to “Lucy Bluebird” and drifting back in time. Remembering one the greatest assemblage of musicians with which I ever had the pleasure of working. Thinking about each individual now brings a smile to my face. I think about our first meeting and what a fool I made of myself. I’ll tell you about that sometime.

There is tragedy here and I know it. The reality is this….in the entertainment business, nothing is fair. A friend of mine once said, “Who says you get what you deserve.” If any group of human beings ever deserved to be able to make a living doing what they loved best, these gentlemen did. Hard as they tried they were continually broke, borrowing from loan-sharks to pay their bills. This was just the way it was in those days for musicians trying to steer the course to stardom. Some got lucky and the others….well….the others didn’t. But it usually wasn’t for a lack of trying.

I promoted records for a long time during the early part of my career and I listened to a lot of records made by some tremendously talented people and it always amazed me how many people it took to make any piece of product sell. The big record companies poured untold wealth behind some folks that didn’t make the grade but they also poured car loads of money on some that did. To the record companies it was basically a crap shoot. The ones that made it paid for those that didn’t. It was that simple. Just business. I would never treat the business and those in it that way. Never could.

When I worked for Warner Brothers Records in Detroit, sometime during the month, I would receive an envelope with three sheets of paper enclosed. They called them “work lists” but they were really suggestions that if followed, would work best financially for the company. For instance….The “A” List was the major artists releases. The performers into whom they were dropping the most cash. Then the “B” List was people on the way up or the way down. Get them airplay if you could. Now….the most interesting list of all….the “C” List. The “C” List was made up of newly signed artists. It was fairly simple to get a Frank Sinatra record played from the “A“ List. Not so easy getting a group called Gary Lewis and The Playboys played from the “C“ List. It was fun to try.

Rastus should have been on a “C” List somewhere. Perhaps they were. I know that “Warm” was high on a chart on a station in New Orleans. What happened? These are things I am attempting to investigate. I was with them from the beginning and I don’t know the full story. I’m not sure any one person does. I tell you that I will bring this band to the attention of everyone I can. I will repay all those good people who have brought so much joy to my life. Those here and those who have gone before. Not only the musicians from Rastus but all their friends and family who treated me so well during those magical days when we all contributed to the music we loved and a band called ….Rastus.

God Bless You All....
John Rhys

Friday, April 17, 2009

Columbia Records Denies Tower Of Power Challenge!

It is now early 1971 and the first Rastus LP has just been released. The band, Jim Cantale and I are locked in the farmhouse in Chardon, Ohio. The weather is frightful. We have sustained near blizzard conditions for nearly two weeks. It's bloody cold! Rehearsal goes on....and on....and on. Funds get tighter and tighter all the time. "Where's my deuce?"

(The above paragraph is from Rhys' Diary.)

The radio is tuned to one of the local rock stations in Cleveland so that we can hear the first time a Rastus record is performed on the air. When we do, we are thoroughly disappointed. The output level is significantly lower than the previous record played and also lower than the record following. We, as yet, have not received test pressings as the company had said we would. They have already released the record without our final approval.

We finally received test pressings in the form of actual releases with jackets and everything. It was then that I realized why the level discrepancy was so drastic. The fools at GRT had decided to put everything we gave them on the disc. The total time on the studio sides were approximately 20 minutes per side. Normal length of an LP at the time was 15/16 minutes for delivery at maximum volume. 19/20 minutes per side meant the groove depth had to be much more shallow, thus minimizing the level output when played. The company had sacrificed output level for more product delivery. What did they care. They had no intention of promoting Rastus. Rastus was simply a write-off for the holding company. In essence....Rastus records sounded weak in comparison to the records delivered at full volume. If you want, add up the total time on any of the first LPs sides. You will see for yourself.

Photo of: Smokey Smelko recording first LP.
Photo by: Mike Schneidler

About a week later, Smokey came in with a copy of Billboard Magazine. We all plowed through the Billboard to see if there were any listings anywhere. When we came to the back cover there was an ad placed by Columbia Records stating that Columbia and a band called Tower Of Power challenged any group to perform after said band. Upon consulting with the band and their manager, Angelo Crimi, I called a friend at Columbia Records and told him we would be anywhere at any time to follow Tower Of Power. He asked that we send our LP so they could hear it and see if the gig would be viable. We sent a copy to The Black Rock (the CBS building in Manhattan) overnight. About a week later I received a call from my friend at Columbia Records stating that they had made a mistake in releasing that advertisement and that they were sorry we had gone to so much trouble.

Photo of: Angelo Crimi, Rastus' Manager.
Photo by: Mike Schneidler

Now we all know Tower Of Power is one hell of a band but Rastus would have driven their raggedy-ass bus all the way across the country just to play with this other horn band. We later found that it was Columbia who refused to deliver on the ad after hearing Rastus' second record in the package. The live recording. Why should they promote a Tower Of Power competitor on another label?

We had never really intended releasing the live record until sometime later. However, GRT with their all knowing minds decided more was better and that is why the first Rastus LP release has two LPs instead of one. Naturally, there was more to "write-off".

Rastus was deadly live. No one who knew the band wanted to play after they had performed. It was hopeless and many a band fell into the trap of "headliner". Rastus didn't care either way. As long as they got to play. That was all they lived for at that time. When Rastus hit the stage....they killed!

It would have been a great concert had Rastus been allowed to perform with Tower Of Power.

John Rhys