Pittsburgh’s April 4 Rockin’ Reunion Show Triggers Memories of the Music Business – Then and Now

lou-christieLou Christie, one of the greatest singers, performers and songwriters ever to come out of Pittsburgh, is returning home to perform in Pittsburgh’s Rockin’ Reunion show on April 4, 2015. The concert, which also stars Jimmy Beaumont and The Skyliners, Donnie Iris, Chuck Blasko’s Vogues, Jimmie Ross’s Jaggerz, and The Marcels, takes place at the beautiful Benedum Center in Pittsburgh.

The concert is the brainchild of one of Pittsburgh’s best promoters, my good friend Charlie Pappas.  He believes in this concert so much that he is presenting two shows, one at 4:00 pm and the other at 8:00.

All of these acts are from Pittsburgh, and this is the first time they’re all performing together. It’s amazing that this never happened before Charlie Pappas thought of it.  I’ve had personal relationships with all of this show’s artists, including The Marcels, who have been around since 1961.  I had the pleasure of handling the act during the ‘60s. They were a favorite on my college tours.  Marcel singer Walt Maddox and I are still close friends to this day.  In fact, I’m his daughter’s Godfather.

This upcoming concert brings to mind the early days of the music business, and how much it’s changed in the 50-plus years since I first entered it. First, a bit of personal history, starting with some background on my lifelong mentor Tim Tormey.

Tim was my partner on The Beatles 1964 Pittsburgh show, and he set me on the path to where I am today. He was a forerunner in every area of music, from record distribution to concert promotion to artist management (he managed Lou Christie, among others). I give Tim credit for practically creating the concert business, as we know it today. I was fortunate to have worked for him when I first got out of high school. In my book “Hard Days Hard Nights,” I tell a story about my earliest encounter with him: He asked me if I had a suit, and when I told him I didn’t, he reached into his pocket and gave me a hundred dollars and told me to go out and by a suit, shirt, a tie and shoes.  You could buy all of that in the 1950s for $100. He made me the youngest record promoter in the business.  I was 18 at the time.  My job involved driving to radio stations and record stores in the Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia area, trying to make hits out of the records our company represented.

voguesNick Cenci, known for introducing The Vogues and Lou Christie to stardom, was a guy I admired for his knowledge of the record business.  He was an innovator in the area of record promotion. Let me tell you a little about how the record business operated. In the early days before recording music was popular, “song pluggers” were responsible for promoting music, which was primarily sheet music.

If a songwriter had a new song, he could take the sheet music to a music publisher and hope the publisher would “buy” the song.  That meant that the songwriter could get some up-front money as an advance against future royalties from sales.  Usually, the songwriter could play an instrument, in most cases a piano, and sing the song to the publisher.  If the publisher liked it, he would sign a publishing agreement, which gave him the right to represent the music.  Usually they agreed to split the sales of the sheet music, 50-50.

The publisher would have the song-plugging promotion man visit music stores and radio stations to promote and sell the sheet music.

In the ‘40s, recorded music became very popular with the formation of major labels like RCA Victor and Columbia. The popularity of recorded music started to surpass live music performance, which was the standard on radio.  It’s hard to imagine that happening today.  The network radio station would actually have a full orchestra and vocalists performing in the studio, and would broadcast it live to the listening audience.

porky-chedwickAs more independent record labels started to blossom, more stations began to program and play recorded music.  I always credit the independent labels for producing and popularizing black music. Aside from a few brave DJs like Pittsburgh’s legendary Porky Chedwick, radio station jocks were not permitted by the stations to play what were known as “race records” – music that appealed to a black audience.  One of the reasons, in my opinion, is that radio stations wanted to appeal to an audience based upon their advertisers’ preferences.  The advertisers appealed to people who bought higher priced items like cars and appliances – big-ticket items that teenagers and blacks couldn’t afford to purchase. Therefore radio stations chose music based on its appeal to the more affluent audience.

That, however, began to change in the early ‘50s.  At this time, AM radio was king.  People didn’t even have the ability to tune into FM. Small daytime radio stations could play rock music that appealed to blacks and teenagers.  As these smaller stations became more popular, they began to capture a little more of the listening audience, and they rose in the rankings.  This forced the large stations to pay attention and to widen their playlists to include the smaller independent labels.

This created a need for more record promoters, and guys like Nick Cenci, Joe Rock, Tom Cossie, Frank Di Leo and myself filled the need in the Pittsburgh area.  We were record promoters from Pittsburgh, but in our own ways, we all made a mark on the national scene.

Nick Cenci had produced hits for The Vogues, such as “You’re The One,” “5 O’Clock World,” “Magic Town,” and “Turn Around, Look at Me.” He also produced songs for Lou Christie, including the hits “The Gypsy Cried” and “Two Faces Have I.”

skylinersJoe Rock co-wrote “Since I Don’t Have You” and several others for Jimmy Beaumont and The Skyliners.  He also managed The Jaggerz for a while.

Tom Cossie was responsible for the very successful disco record “La Freak” by Chic.

Frank Di Leo began managing Michael Jackson after his hugely successful “Thriller” album, and was with Michael till the day he died.

After my brief stint writing songs for The Del Vikings, I went on to become a concert promoter, a role I continue to this day in conjunction with my new career as a writer.  Unfortunately, my friends Nick Cenci, Joe Rock and Frank Di Leo have all passed away. Tom Cossie is in a completely different field.

Today, the concert business, the record business and the radio business are all completely different.  The role of a record promoter does not exist the way it did when we guys virtually invented the job back in the early days.

Today, large conglomerates own multiple radio stations. This was not permitted in the ‘50s.  A person or a large corporation could only own one station.  When the large corporations began buying several stations in each market, they controlled the playlists, as well as the prices that advertisers paid. Back when I bought a 60-second radio spot to announce concerts, I was able to advertise two or more of my upcoming concerts all within that one 60-second spot.  This brought my expenses down, and that allowed me to keep my ticket prices lower.

Now, the station will only sell a 30-second and a 15-second spot. The price per spot is still high and you can barely get your message out there with any music added.

In addition, the station has a tight playlist.  It is almost impossible for a new artist to become known, because these large broadcasting conglomerates won’t add any new material.  They feel if they play the big hits more often, it will appeal to their listeners.  Why take a chance with a new unproven artist?  Why risk the chance of the listener switching to a different station? Also, some people don’t even listen to radio today to get their music. The have Internet choices and can download what they want, creating their own playlists.  Personally, I listen to Pandora.

Rrockin-reunion-posterecord stores do not exist. If they did, it would give new acts a better opportunity to promote their music.  Today, artists can put their music on YouTube, promote themselves through social media, sell their music online directly to the consumer, and make more money.

Well, I ended up giving you a short history of the record business – memories triggered by the announcement of Charlie Pappas’ exciting new show on April 4. If you love the music of the golden age of rock-n-roll, and you respect the enormous contributions of Pittsburgh artists, please attend his event at the Benedum on April 4. This show is sure to sell out, so get your tickets soon at www.trustarts.com. This will be a great opportunity to experience the cream of the crop of Pittsburgh talent! Kudos to promoter Charlie Pappas!

By the way, I’ll be at the 4:00 and 8:00 pm shows, selling copies of my book “Hard Days Hard Nights,” which is available at this link via Amazon.com. Please stop by and say hello. I’d love to rap with you about this amazing gathering of local legends.

Here’s the great Lou Christie in a clip from American Bandstand.

And here are The Marcels with the crowd-pleasing “Blue Moon.”

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