The 1985 American Music Awards made history for a few reasons. Lionel Richie won six awards, Prince took home three, and Michael Jackson was shut out. But that was just the opening act. Later that night, Richie, Jackson, and a number of other artists finished cutting a record that turned out to be a massive worldwide hit while throwing a focus on a humanitarian crisis. Here are 10 things you didn’t know, or maybe didn’t remember, about “We Are the World.”
1. It Followed the Lead of Band Aid.
The first big charity single of the 80s was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Released under a supergroup named Band Aid that was organized by Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats and star of the film Pink Floyd’s The Wall) and Midge Ure, the song featured members of U2, Wham!, Culture Club, Duran Duran, and a number of other stars from the UK. Geldof would perform on “We Are the World” as part of the chorus and later organize Live Aid and Live 8 with Ure.
2. Harry Belafonte Provided the American Spark.
Belafonte had the notion to put together a similar charity record using the biggest stars in America. Belafonte pitched the idea to music manager Ken Kragen, who took the idea to his clients, Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie. They brought in Stevie Wonder and producer Quincy Jones. Jones recruited Michael Jackson. By then, the momentum was unstoppable.
3. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie Did the Writing.
The official video for We Are the World. (Uploaded to YouTube by USAforAfricaVEVO)
To record a charity song … you have to have the song. Richie and Jackson teamed up, working on it for a week. Jackson took a version to Jones and Richie that included instrumentation and a chorus. They ended up reaching their final version of the song on January 21, 1985. Recording began the next day at Lion Share Recording Studio, which was owned by Rogers. The final night of vocals with soloists and the group chorus was set for the A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood after the AMAs when everyone would be in one place and would be more easily assembled and managed.
4. Prince Was Supposed to Be There.
While accounts vary as to why Prince ultimately wasn’t involved, the original plan had been to feature a section with he and Michael Jackson trading parts with each other. One story goes that Prince had to bail overzealous bodyguards out of jail after the AMAs, an event that was later parodied on Saturday Night Live in a sketch featuring Hulk Hogan and Mr. T as the bodyguards and Billy Crystal as Prince. Regardless, Prince and the Revolution did contribute a separate song to the We Are The World album, a number titled “4 the Tears in Your Eyes.”
5. And Madonna Wanted to Be.
For her part, Madonna was just making her commercial breakthrough, having just hit #1 for the first time with “Like A Virgin.” Jackson invited her, but her management advised her to decline because she’d have to cancel dates on her “Virgin Tour.” The thought was that, as a somewhat new artist with a big fresh hit, she needed to stick to the plan. It ended up working out for her, as her next single “Material Girl,” hit #2, and “Crazy for You” would replace “We Are the World” at #1 later in the spring.
6. One Sign Solved a lot of Problems.
When the artists began to gather, they found a sign on the studio door that read, “Check your egos at the door.” It was a funny and humbling reminder that the group was gathered for a larger purpose. It must have worked; while there were individual debates about how to sing certain parts or conferences over how to deliver certain lines, the group worked together all night, completing the song by the following morning.
7. The Cast Represented Multiple Generations.
The assembled array of talent was pretty incredible and spanned a number of genres, styles, and decades. Belafonte and Ray Charles were something of the elder statesmen. Jackson, Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross were among those that came up at Motown in the 60s and early 70s. Bob Dylan was, well, Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, and Lindsay Buckingham, among others, represented the rock side, for example, while Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings brought in the country. In all, more than 45 voices are heard on the track, with 21 having identifiable solo bits. The wide net led to some genuinely thrilling, unique moments, as when Dylan and Charles sing together.
8. Why in the name of the Blues Brothers was Dan Aykroyd There?
The way that Aykroyd himself tells the story, it was purely by accident. Though Aykroyd did have a music background as “Elwood Blues,” one half of The Blues Brothers with the late John Belushi, he basically wound up at the recording session by happenstance. Aykroyd was looking for a money manager and spoke to a talent manager that asked him if he wanted to join the group. So he did.
9. The Impact Was Immediate.
The single, credited to USA for Africa, hit stores in March; the initial pressing of 800,000 copies sold out in days. The single would go on to sell 8 million in the U.S. The song and the album would generate more than $75 million toward famine relief. The song has been updated at various times and used for other purposes, such as relief in Haiti.
10. The Impact Continues.
Pink Floyd reunited with Roger Waters at Live 8 for global action against poverty. (Uploaded to YouTube by Pink Floyd)
The one-two punch of Band-Aid and USA for Africa provided the launch-pad for Geldof’s Live Aid, the first of the mega-charity concerts; held in London and Philadelphia, it was broadcast to nearly 2 billion people on July 13, 1985. The “World” session also gave Willie Nelson the idea for Farm Aid, the concert series aimed at helping farmers in America.
Remarkably, the “World” song and album still generate money for the charity today. It kickstarted a wave of charitable projects as well. The contemporaneous “Tears Are Not Enough” by a similar Canadian supergroup called Northern Lights (which included Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, and Geddy Lee of Rush, among others) was also included on the album. The heavy metal community put together their own famine-relief record, Hear’n Aid, the following year; it featured artists like Ronnie James Dio and members of Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and more, while boasting an ensemble of lead guitarists in addition to the vocalists. A wave of further singles continued throughout the 80s, targeted at a variety of issues. “That’s What Friends Are For” by Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight was a #1 hit for AmFAR (American Federation for AIDS Research), while “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid brought together artists from rock, rap, punk, jazz, funk, Latin, and world music to shine a light on the problems in South Africa. Charitable singles still abound, with the most recent high-visibility project being Lil Dicky’s star-filled “Earth” from 2019.
The Beatles conquered America in 1964. The British Invasion began in earnest that February, when the Fab Four appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show three times; that first appearance was watched by 73 million people. From there, The Beatles exploded into massive popularity that propelled a previously unfathomable chart accomplishment. By April 4, The Beatles occupied the top five slots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart simultaneously with “Can’t Buy Me Love“ at No. 1, “Twist and Shout” at No. 2, “She Loves You” at No. 3, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at No. 4, and “Please Please Me” at No. 5 (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” had already hit No. 1 in earlier weeks).
On the 55th anniversary of this achievement, we wondered about other acts that came close to repeating this incredible musical feat.
Elvis Presley (1956)
You had to know that The King would figure in somewhere. Before the charts were re-codified as the Hot 100 in 1958 — to create one unified chart of the most popular tunes — there were three chart systems used to track success: “Best Sellers in Stores,” “Most Played by Jockeys” (aka Radio Airplay), and “Most Played in Jukeboxes.” In October and November of 1956, Elvis dominated on the Best Sellers and Airplay lists with his one-two punch of double-single “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” at No. 1 and “Love Me Tender” at No. 2.
The Bee Gees (1978)
“Night Fever” by The Bee Gees (Uploaded to YouTube by beegees)
The Bee Gees were an undeniable hit-making machine, and that was never truer than during the Saturday Night Fever era. With the release of that film and soundtrack, the Brothers Gibb dominated much of the year on the charts. In March 1978, they had both the No. 1 and No. 2 songs with “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive.” For the Hot 100 in the week of March 25, five of the Top 10 songs were either performed or written by the band: “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “If I Can’t Have You” (performed by Yvonne Ellman), “Emotion,” and “Love Is Thicker Than Water” (a solo hit for the youngest Gibb brother, Andy). On the back of this, Barry Gibb became the first songwriter to have four consecutive No. 1 hits (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” “Night Fever,” and “If I Can’t Have You”).
“Hey Ya!” by Outkast (Uploaded to YouTube by OutKast)
The Atlanta hip-hip duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi made history with their 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. They’d taken three previous albums to No. 2, but this was their first disc to top the charts. It was an interesting experiment, too, as each member was essentially responsible for half of the set (Big Boi guided Speakerboxxx, while Andre 3000’s half was The Love Below). One single from each half, “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move,” saw release in the fall of 2003; both quickly raced up the charts. For eight weeks, “Hey Ya!” held the No. 1 spot, with “The Way You Move” locked in at No. 2. When their runs at the top ended, “Hey Ya!” had spent nine weeks at the top, while “The Way You Move” caught one week at No. 1 on its own.
A number of other artists have managed to pull off the No. 1/No. 2 trick, but not with Outkast’s staying power. Among the others are Puff Daddy (with “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” in 1997); Ja Rule (“Ain’t It Funny” and “Always on Time” in 2002); Ashanti (“Foolish” and “What’s Luv?” in 2002); Nelly (“Hot in Herre” and “Delimma” in 2002); Usher (“Burn” and “Confessions Part II” in 2004); Mariah Carey (“We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off” in 2005); Akon (who did it with “I Wanna Love You” and “Smack That” in 2006 and “Don’t Matter” and “The Sweet Escape” in 2007); T.I. (“Live Your Life” and “Whatever You Like” in 2008); the Black Eyed Peas (“Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling” in 2009, when both songs would occupy both slots); Pharrell Williams (“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” in 2013); Iggy Azalea (“Fancy” and “Problem” in 2014); The Weeknd (“I Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” in 2015); and Justin Bieber (twice in 2016 with “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” in February, followed by “Despacito” and “I’m the One” in July).
50 Cent (2005)
“Candy Shop” by 50 Cent (Uploaded to YouTube by 50 Cent)
Rapper Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent (or Fiddy if you’re qualified), notched three tunes in the Top Five during March of 2005. His solo hit “Candy Shop” took No. 1, while “Disco Inferno” landed at No. 5. The third hit was “How We Go,” a No. 4 hit by The Game with 50 Cent credited as a featured artist.
50 Cent is part of an elite club of artists who have had three or more songs in the Top 10 at the same time. In addition to The Beatles and The Bee Gees, that group includes Ashanti, Usher, Akon, T-Pain, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne (twice!), Adele, Iggy Azalea, Justin Bieber, The Chainsmokers, and Cardi B, as well as a few of the remaining artists on our list.
An Intermission for Streaming
In recent years, Billboard and other chart services have begun to factor streaming into the mix when compiling stats for the Hot 100. It’s an interesting evolution from the days when jukeboxes counted into the total. However, this now allows for a new phenomenon: Increasingly, it has become possible for many (or all) of the individual tracks from a single album to chart based on the strength of their streaming performance. When one accounts for physical sales, airplay, digital sales, and streams, that presents an entirely new picture of how popular a song might actually be during any given week. Digital releases have begun to affect the old records in a number of ways, with certain artists that were already popular making seismic impacts on the charts during the first few weeks after a release. With that in mind, we’ll look at some overachievers.
“God’s Plan” by Drake (Uploaded to YouTube by Drake)
The Recording Industry Association of America currently ranks Drake as the world’s mostly highly certified digital singles artist, with over 142 million units sold as of the end of March 2019 (only three other artists have broken the 100 million barrier: Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Eminem). These totals have had an enormous impact on Drake’s chart performance, allowing him feats like the most Hot 100 debuts in a week (22 in 2017) and the most songs in the Hot 100 in a single week (27 that same year). From April through June of 2018, Drake managed to keep five songs in the Top 10; amazingly, he bested that in July of that year by landing seven songs in the Top 10 at the same time. At present, Drake has hit the Hot 100 a whopping 186 times, with 31 Top 10 hits — six at No. 1.
The Weeknd (2016)
“Starboy” by The Weeknd (featuring Daft Punk)(Uploaded to YouTube by The Weeknd)
Canadian singer The Weeknd pulled a Drake-esque feat when his album Starboy was released. After three single releases, the remaining 15 songs joined the Hot 100, giving The Weeknd 18 placements in December 2016. While this amounted to six songs in the Top 40, he only had one in the Top 10 (“Starboy”). When 2018’s Dear Melancholy was released, The Weeknd had six songs debut in the Hot 100, joining “Pray for Me,” his team-up with Kendrick Lamar from the Black Panther soundtrack. At this point, while he isn’t landing as many songs at the top of the chart at the same time, The Weeknd remains a contender to continue with massive, multiple debuts in the future.
J. Cole (2018)
Cole already had three No. 1 albums by the time he released 4 Your Eyez Only in 2016. All 10 tracks, plus two additional songs that were recorded but not included on the album, hit the Hot 100 at the same time, with all 10 of the album tracks landing in the Top 40.
Two years later, he outdid that. J. Cole’s KOD became his fifth No. 1 album in 2018, but that pales to the singles trick he pulled off. Of the 12 tracks on the disc, Cole successfully placed three (“ATM,” “Kevin’s Heart,” and “KOD”) in the Top 10, with the other nine landing throughout the Hot 100.
Post Malone (2018)
“Psycho” by Post Malone (featuring Ty Dolla $ign)(Uploaded to YouTube by Post Malone)
Post Malone’s chart career stretches all the way back to … 2015. So yes, he’s one of the newer talents, but he hasn’t let that stop him in terms of achievement. When Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys dropped in 2018, nine of the songs landed in the Top 20, with a total of 18 carving out spots in the Hot 100; “Psycho,” “Better Now,” and “Rockstar” simultaneously made the Top 10.
Ariana Grande (2019)
“7 Rings” by Ariana Grande (Uploaded to YouTube by Ariana Grande)
Which brings us to pop princess Ariana Grande, and her stab at taking all of the top slots at once. In 2014, she put together three tunes in the Top 10, but the big deal came this year. In February, Grande began a run that saw her take the top three spots on the Hot 100 simultaneously. At No. 1 was “7 Rings,” followed by “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” and “Thank U Next.” That makes her the first act since The Beatles to line up No. 1 through No. 3. (The Bee Gees and Drake both managed to grab No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4, but didn’t land the elusive hat trick.) Grande’s list of accolades is only going to grow. Among her other record breaking: She’s the first performer to have a single debut in the Top 10 from each of her first five albums. She continues to break streaming records (“7 Rings” streamed more 15 million times in its first 24 hours of release) and will headline at both Coachella in April and Lollapalooza in August.
Though many artists have tried, that Beatles record still seems like a big mountain to climb. It’s possible that one of these younger artists, or an as-yet-undiscovered talent on the horizon, could topple the Liverpool Lads from their peak, but it hasn’t happened yet. For now, the charts are just going to have to look at that record and, yes, let it be.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Growing up, I could never escape Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway.” On long road trips and commutes to school, the anguished refrain and keyboard solo followed me everywhere. My father, a baby boomer, couldn’t get enough of the song, and he played it compulsively in lieu of the ’90s music on the radio.
My parents had strong opinions about the then-omnipresent stylings of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, let alone the rapper Ja Rule. They thought pop music had degraded over the years into an industry of predictable tunes and vapid lyrics, a common stance on the top 40 that seems to renew itself every generation. Pop music today might be cloying and formulaic, but that’s always been the case.
Some selective amnesia appears to be at work in the claims that music is getting worse. Instead of comparing every recent pop party anthem with “Good Vibrations,” perhaps we should stack them up against the Playmates’ unlistenable 1958 hit “Beep, Beep.” The Beatles were still penning meaningful and experimental lyrics in 1969, but the No. 1 song of the year was “Sugar, Sugar,” a saccharine testament to “the loveliness of loving you” by a cartoon band.
Some selective amnesia appears to be at work in the claims that music is getting worse.
Nostalgia’s ability to cloud judgment is particularly strong when it comes to music. This might be due to the physiology of the human brain. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explores the psychology of musical taste in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, and he cites adolescence as a formative period for acquiring musical preferences: “Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.”
Dick Clark defended young people’s music in this magazine almost 60 years ago when pressed about the dangers of rock ’n’ roll, saying, “As we grow older our minds close in certain areas, music among them. The real truth is that you adults are more preoccupied with rock ’n’ roll than the teenagers.” The societal switch from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Elvis and the Everly Brothers wasn’t a smooth one, but Clark’s American Bandstand always kept its finger on the pulse of youth culture. In the 1980s, he was booking Madonna and Run-D.M.C.
We might feel as though we’re in control of our own musical proclivities, but they’re probably thrust upon us. It’s only natural to long for the sounds of Motown or bubblegum pop if they provided the soundtrack to your first courtship. Just the same, millions of young people will eventually feel the same way about “Call Me Maybe” or “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” After all, does Rihanna’s “Umbrella” differ all that much from Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”? Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” may as well be a modern “Red Rubber Ball.”
As a music lover, I didn’t escape indoctrination in my own tastes. Years of exposure in adolescence made me love songs like “Runaway.”
Kanye West’s “Runaway,” that is.
*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
This article is an expanded version of the interview that appears in the September/October 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
[Editor’s note: Alfred G. Aronowitz’s “Pop Music: The Most? Or Just a Mess?” was first published in the July 15, 1967, edition of the Post. We republish it here as part of our 50th anniversary commemoration of the Summer of Love. Scroll to the bottom to see this story as it appeared in the magazine.]
Eight stories over Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and 6,000 miles from his native Liverpool, press agent Derek Taylor looked out his window and muttered that it was the 20th of the month and none of his accounts in the pop-music business had paid him yet. It was the beginning of 1967, and the pop-music world that Taylor had felt so conveniently at his fingertips suddenly seemed to be moving beyond his grasp. In London, there were rumors that the Beatles would never perform again in public. In New York, Herman was said to be looking for a TV job — without his Hermits. The Young Rascals, once heralded as the American group most likely to succeed the Beatles, had just returned from a European tour that lost $22,000. Mod shops were thinking about stocking cowboy shirts. Groupies were torn between reading Hermann Hesse’s mystical Siddhartha and the monosyllabic teenybopper bible, 16 Magazine.
Outside Taylor’s window, the afternoon glowed the way Marilyn Monroe’s hair did when she rode down the Sunset Strip in a convertible. In a couple of hours, the glow would vanish, and the Strip would become a battleground, the cops versus the mini-masses, long-haired, bell-bottomed teenagers who have become the shock troops of Hollywood’s psychedelic revolution. Once upon a time Derek Taylor was the press officer for one group, the Beatles, but now he was the publicity man for a dozen Top 40 recording stars. He knew the pop-music world as well as anyone, but still confessed his bewilderment. “The industry,” he said, “is booming. It should do a billion dollars this year. But it is not in good shape.”
By the middle of 1967, America’s pop-music scene has become as incomprehensible to the people who dreamed it all up as it is to the people who are sleeping through it. A new generation of music critics is hard at work trying to institutionalize the confusion by grinding out such vague descriptive labels as acid rock, raga rock, jug rock, Broadway rock, Latin rock, shock rock, and rock ’n’ wreck. They also have come up with old time, good time, soul, blue-eyed soul, psychedelic surf, and flower power. It is as if some magician had started pulling tricks out of a hat and found, to his amazement, that the hat contained more surprises than his magic could account for. Composers and performers are blending baroque fugues with science-fiction tape-recorder sounds. Teenage analysts are writing long treatises about the difference between the metallic sound of the Rolling Stones and the kinetic sound of the Four Tops. An English group called the Who is smashing its instruments into hemidemisemisplinters as a regular part of its act. The Beach Boys have spent an astonishing 90 hours in a recording studio to grind out one 45-rpm single. A pop audience that once cheered the extraordinary Beatles is now rooting for the ordinary Monkees. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass have become the Lawrence Welk of the Acid Age. And San Francisco has proclaimed itself the new Liverpool.
With the sale of single records dropping significantly from the previous year, the radio stations that program the Top 40 can no longer claim they are accurately reflecting the musical tastes of their audience. That audience is buying more and more albums, which the Top 40 stations rarely play. The shrieking mobs which once flung themselves at Bob Dylan, besieged the Beatles, and rushed the stage of the Rolling Stones, are three years older now. Their teenage scream has become a Golden Oldie. In place of the original teenyboppers, there are now teenyweenyboppers with a roster of new heroes — the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Moby Grape, and Country Joe and the Fish — to baffle not only their parents but also their older sisters. The younger generation suddenly has found that it has its own generational gap. Meanwhile, a new wave of salesmen is figuring out ways of extracting dollars from the word psychedelic.
It has been 15 years now since rock ’n’ roll was laughed off as just another fad. Frank Sinatra called it “the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” The police in Atlanta, Georgia, ruled that teenagers couldn’t dance to it without written parental consent. Roman Catholic leaders in Boston called for a boycott of it, to be enforced by a censor. And the head of the White Citizens Council in Alabama saw it as part of a Negro plot to “mongrelize America.”
But what the older generation thinks is increasingly irrelevant to what the younger generation does. The music that was supposed to go in one ear and out the other now has become the major form of communication among the young.
“Rock is absorbing everything,” explains 18-year-old Paul Williams, the editor and publisher of Crawdaddy!, a rock-’n’-roll magazine. “But that doesn’t eliminate everything else. It just means the people who are into rock are becoming more open-minded toward what’s really good, and they get very turned on to other assorted things, like Billie Holliday, John Handy, even early baroque. As a result, contemporary jazz and classical composers must try to measure up.”
The boundary lines between jazz, classical, and pop are becoming increasingly indefinable. Jazz innovator Ornette Coleman is conducting symphony orchestras in his own compositions. Folk singer Odetta is recording high-camp songs like the ancient Shirley Temple hit “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Old-time jazz altoman Cannonball Adderley is placing singles on the Top 40 charts. New-time jazz tenorman Charles Lloyd is playing in rock clubs. The Fugs, a group of Lower East Side poets with indelicate lyrics and a name that some disc jockeys won’t even pronounce, have succeeded in getting a $25,000 contract with Atlantic Records and an album on the best-seller charts. Ravi Shankar, India’s most celebrated classical musician, has become, at the age of 47, an American folk hero of sorts and an English pop star, with teenyboppers in his audiences and Beatle guitarist George Harrison sitting at his feet. Harrison is a dedicated student of Shankar’s instrument, the sitar. In India, the sitar is a holy instrument. In England and America, the sitar is used on rock-’n’-roll records. “It is silly, it is childish, it is a gimmick,” comments Shankar with a smile that spreads across his face like a rope climbing into air.
“Everybody is articulating in a different way,” says New York disc jockey Murray (The K) Kaufman. One of the pioneers of hysterical rock-’n’-roll programming, Murray is trying out his new subdued voice on New York’s WOR-FM, which is threatening to revolutionize radio by playing pop music for adults in the same dignified format that FM usually reserves for classical music. “We’re creating a new frame of reference,” says Murray, “for the Bob Dylans, the Peter, Paul and Marys, the Ian and Sylvias, the Lovin’ Spoonfuls, and particularly the Beatles, because the excitement of a couple of years ago, that kind of radio, is passé, and what they’re saying musically and lyrically now is so different and so honest. They’re really poets who are reflecting a new attitude which demands a new form of presentation on the air.”
However rampant the confusion, one aspect has remained constant. For most kids, the pop-music business is still what it always was: a fairy tale.
In the square-ruled towns and dead-end-street suburbias of America, the guitarist is on his way to replacing the football player as the local teenage idol. The sale of guitars and amplifiers has more than doubled since the advent of the Beatles. Every neighborhood has its rock-’n’-roll group, and every rock-’n’-roll group has its share of the neighborhood’s screaming Beatlemania remnants. And in the corners of drive-in America, a new storefront is making its gypsy appearance. With a musical clef painted on the door, with little more than eggcrate liners tacked on the wall for soundproofing, the store calls itself a recording studio.
The music business is the only place in which storefront churches still can be turned into overnight cathedrals. Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records is a typical example. The electronic miracle of Gordy’s astonishingly successful Motown Sound is still emanating from what was once a photographer’s shop on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard. It was only in 1959 that Gordy, with a $700 family loan, reconverted that shop into a company which now has an estimated value of $15 million. The Supremes, the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations all were launched from that shop.
It was into one of these neighborhood recording studios near Saginaw, Michigan, that 22-year-old Rudy Martinez brought his band of musicians one day last year to record a song he had written. The recording cost Martinez $50, which is approximately what RCA Victor would pay for a small filing cabinet. The Martinez group was well known in the local firehouse halls and Friday night gyms where the children of immigrant Mexican auto workers held their dances, so Martinez took his recording to Saginaw’s Joe Gonzalez. A dabbler in real estate, owner of the Mexican Food Products Co., and operator of a motel, Gonzalez had a lucrative sideline — putting out Mexican records on his Pa-Go-Go and Be-Go labels. Gonzalez released Martinez’s recording on Pa-Go- Go, and it immediately started up the sales charts in the cities of Michigan’s Bay area. Soon it began to stir up gossip among the young men in the quicksilver suits who run the nation’s pop-record industry from New York. It was on a Friday afternoon that Neil Bogart, 23-year-old director of sales and promotion and first lieutenant in charge of everything at Cameo-Parkway Records, decided to call up Gonzalez. Joe wasn’t home, he was attending to some business in McAllen, Texas, and his wife, Lillie, answered the phone. Bogart offered her a $500 deal for Martinez’s recording, and she accepted. Over the next several hours she also accepted an offer of $1,500 from Roulette Records, a second offer of $1,750 from Bogart, and a second offer of $2,500 from Roulette. She turned down a couple of $2,000 offers from Laurie Records and M-G-M Records, but they were still ringing her phone. By five o’clock Bogart realized he had better do business with Joe. Equipped with two blank checks and a set of contracts, he flew to Texas and closed the deal for $2,500. By Monday morning, the tape was at a pressing plant in Philadelphia. By Monday afternoon, Bogart had an order for 13,000 copies of the record from his Detroit distributor. By the end of the year, the song, “Ninety-Six Tears,” had sold more than one million records, and Rudy Martinez and his group had become famous under the enigmatic name of ‘? and the Mysterians.’
For millions of young people like Rudy Martinez, this is what the record business is all about. Pop music has become the pill you swallow to dream the American dream. It has become the only possible profession for someone with no other ambition than to be a teenage millionaire.
The Lovin’ Spoonful, four countrified city boys, were ladling out their “good-time music” on Kama-Sutra Records to an America so in need of good times that M-G-M Records confidently paid them a $1 million advance in its rush to sign them to a recording contract that won’t go into effect until 1970. The Mamas and the Papas, a quartet that somehow manages to be both grotesque and angelic, has become so rich so fast that, just on a whim, they bought out New York’s Carnegie Hall to produce their own concert, flew in from Los Angeles for the night, arrived to find sidewalk scalpers hawking tickets at three times the fixed price, and then winged home again, falling asleep on the plane to mutual nods about what a nice time they’d had. James Brown, an ex-shoeshine boy who has become the king of rhythm and blues, has been vapor-trailing across America in his private jet, traveling to 335 one-nighters a year, and collecting more than $1 million at the box office. Nancy Sinatra, Frank’s 27-year-old daughter, the convenient discovery of a record company owned by her father, and the protest balladeer of all the underprivileged girls of Bel Air, has already collected three gold singles, which is two more than Frank Sinatra ever got in his entire 26-year career. (When the two of them recorded a love duet together — “Something Stupid” — hip teenyboppers immediately started referring to it as “the incest song.”)
And then there are the Monkees. Picked out of a group of 437 youths who answered a newspaper ad, publicized with a $250,000 fund, backed by expert musicians and blessed with some of America’s most experienced songwriters, all of whom were instructed to “make it sound fresh, like early Beatles,” the four Monkees in six months became the most popular group in the world.
For the Monkees, that wasn’t good enough. Esthetically they were prisoners in the palace the Beatles had built, and commercially they received a minuscule share of the profits. “The amusing thing about all this,” taunted the magazine Crawdaddy!, “is its supreme unimportance — after it’s all over, and they’ve outsold everyone else in history, the Monkees will still leave absolutely no mark on American music.”
Recently, Don Kirshner, the man who helped lay the cornerstone of the Monkee empire, was fired by his partners from his jobs as Monkee music supervisor and president of Colgems, the firm that produces Monkee records. Kirshner, once known as the Man With the Golden Ear, immediately sued for $35.5 million.
To increasing numbers of musicians, the pop-music business may be a serious art form. To millions of fans, it may be a fairy tale. But to the men who run it, the pop-music business is still a business. There is a story of one record company’s attempt to manufacture a group by picking five expert musicians off the streets of Greenwich Village. The quintet signed a contract guaranteeing them more than $100,000 in advances. But after three successive flops, the company lost interest, and the group broke up. Its members are now back on the streets of the Village, claiming they never saw more than a flash of the $100,000.
“There are so many groups now, and the competition is so rough,” reports one manager, “that anyone starting out has to expect to be treated like dirt. When my group signed a contract, we were supposed to get $2,500 immediately. The company only gave us $1,500. One of them said, ‘We don’t give a damn about the contract.’ If they don’t give a damn now, how can I expect them to pay off the royalties when and if we hit?”
Whether you are at the bottom or at the top, just to keep going requires the same messianic energy. “All these people who think it’s just fun and games,” says Bob Dylan, “if they ever get famous, they’ll find out it’s not.”
Three years ago, before the British captured the pop charts, and pop began captivating much of the world, some 200 new record releases a week would arrive at the average radio station. There wasn’t enough time available to play more than three or four new ones. Currently, the number of new record releases has grown to about 260 a week. But there still isn’t enough time to play more than three or four. Like Rudy Martinez’s $50 fantasy, success in the business comes in the most unexpected ways because it is hardly to be expected at all. And even when it does come, it may not seem worth the dues.
“You wonder, ‘Have I really made it?’” says one British pop star. “And then you wonder, ‘Am I going to keep on making it?’ And you think, ‘Well, if I’m so blasted gloomy now, could I feel any worse without the money?’ What’s the big thing about having a bunch of teenyboppers screaming outside your window or trying to crawl into your bed? And for this, you spend your life imprisoned on airplanes and in hotel rooms being slave-driven and cheated by cold-blooded businessmen who don’t give a damn what kind of hell you have to go through to keep their pockets jingling.” Worn out by compromises, driven to the brink of emotional bankruptcy by the demands of their fame, some of the best of the British groups are giving up. As for the Beatles, John is beginning an acting career, Paul is writing the musical score of a movie, George is listening to his sitar records, and Ringo is planning a big family. Last fall promoter Sid Bernstein offered Beatle manager Brian Epstein a $1 million guarantee for a Beatle performance in New York’s Shea Stadium this summer. “In view of the circumstances,” Epstein replied, “it’s silly right now to discuss it.”
When Bernstein promoted the Beatles’ performances in Shea Stadium last summer, the show grossed $250,000, but Bernstein ended up with a net loss of $680. “The Beatles are quite wise not to come back,” said David Crosby of the Byrds, another group which is weary of touring, sick of being screamed at, and would rather record albums at home. “If the Beatles toured America now there’d be a lot of empty seats. The same with the Stones. The kids aren’t going to pay all that money for another 29-minute show in a ball park. They’ve seen those four dots before.”
There are some American groups, like Paul Revere and the Raiders, that are capable of going on the road and drawing well, but even they are beginning to look at their music and wonder if it’s good enough. “Look down the list,” says one rock-’n’-roll booking agent. “It’s all the same story. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, another giant of personal appearances, have disbanded, and Mitch Ryder is touring with a 10-piece orchestra. Herman’s Hermits? Still strong but dwindling. The Supremes wouldn’t look at a one-nighter; they’ll do the good nightclubs and good TV. Petula Clark, who may be the No. 1 female vocalist, is working in a movie. Simon and Garfunkel? Colleges and concerts, probably the best duo around. Donovan? He’s Alexander the Smooth, England’s Bob Dylan. He has a lot of hit records and a big underground following, but he just canceled an American tour.”
As for Dylan, probably the most influential voice in contemporary music, the industry is still waiting for his next move. In Woodstock, New York, where he is convalescing from a broken neck suffered in a motorcycle accident, Dylan remains mysteriously incommunicado. He is writing at least 10 new songs a week, rehearsing them with his band, and completing a one-hour TV special. He also is growing a beard.
From San Francisco, where music is being mixed with psychedelic light shows, and dance halls like the Fillmore Auditorium are packing thousands into what its owner calls “a party scene,” the new sound of groups such as the Moby Grape, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead, featuring a 200-pound bearded singer named Pig Pen, is making its claim on the pop-music future. In London, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein is concentrating on the Lomax Alliance, the first major Anglo-American pop group, and the Bee Gees, whom he optimistically labels the biggest thing since the Beatles. In New York, the management firm of Albert B. Grossman, fueled by the power of clients such as Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary, is pushing folk-rock singer Richie Havens, and the Paupers, a new quartet from Toronto, which is becoming one of the music capitals of North America.
“It’s as if everybody’s done everything,” said one rock guitarist, “and it’s getting harder and harder to think of new things to do.”
There are some observers who look upon the current aches of the business as mere growing pains. And a good case can be made for signs of approaching adulthood. Pop has begun to throw off the flummery of Moon and June, and increasingly is singing songs of life, death, existence, heroism, and mystery. It may be in danger of becoming too self-conscious, but there is no denying its positive virtues: Never before has music been so complete an expression of its time or been so knowing of the needs of its audience. The fans who once trampled one another just to see their heroes are now listening to them.
Where is pop going? Well, this year the record industry should gross, as Derek Taylor said, about $1 billion, a tidy sum in any industry, whatever the surface confusion. And beneath that surface there are stirrings. There is a push among the best of the rock and pop stars toward quality. The competition among the best — Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones among them — is no longer for money. They already have enough of that. The competition is in music.
By the summer of 1967, even press agent Taylor had decided to give up his dozen Top 40 clients to concentrate on quality. “I became bored,” he explained. “I became bored with a performer’s pet loves, and pet hates, and what he eats for breakfast. The best artists in the business — the aristocracy — are moving into positions of power. They’re making fewer and fewer compromises with commercialism. There’s hardly anything interesting happening outside this exclusive circle. But what’s happening inside may be the most remarkable story of our time.”
This article is featured in the July/August 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.