Monday, December 28, 2009

SHARON O'NEILL


Although Sharon O’Neill had been around the New Zealand local music scene for a few years I was not aware of her. Watching a talent contest show on TV, I came across Sharon singing “Lucks On Your Table”. I thought she was just fantastic and was surprised that her wonderful song and performance only got her only 3rd place. I was sure I had come across an artist who would be worth signing as our CBS New Zealand’s first local artist.
On inquiring I found that Dick La Forte, a Radio New Zealand music producer had actually completed a whole album with Sharon. Better still “Lucks On Your Table” was included. I negotiated an agreement with all concerned parties to release the album on CBS and with Sharon to sign with us for future recordings: Sharon also signed with us as a songwriter.

SHARON SIGNING WITH CBS RECORDS NEW ZEALAND
From Left: John McCready, Sharon O'Neill, Robyn Williams, Gaynor Crawford

The single “Lucks On Your Table” and the album “This Heart, This Song” became minor hits for us. I then started working with Sharon on choosing songs for her first CBS recorded album and in doing so realised that Sharon was a truly gifted singer-songwriter with a real “let’s do it” attitude. Sharon’s talent grew more evident as we worked and so did her will to be a success. This was an artist who knew how to work with a record company as a partner and would work hard to have an album we could all be proud of.
During the process leading up to the recording of the album TVNZ were building up to their 1979 Telethon and I got the idea of trying to convince the show’s producer of having Sharon do the official song.
On approaching them I was informed of the show’s aims. It was The International Year of The Child and the theme of Telethon would be “Don’t Say No To Tomorrow”. The producers agreed if Sharon could write a song with this theme and they liked it they would have it as the official song.
Sharon and I sat down and went through some of her newer compositions and we found one melody that Sharon thought could have the lyrics changed to embrace the Telethon theme. The result was “Don’t Say No To Tomorrow” which subsequently went on to reach No6 on the NZ charts and as a result of the Telethon exposure we established Sharon with a high profile.
Working with Sharon was a delight: she was a total professional and was one of those rare artists who understood the publicity and marketing process and managed to embrace it without compromising her own artistic integrity.


Determined to take no short cuts with her new album I hired USA producer Jay Lewis to produce and they proved to be a good mix. Jay with his brilliant production managed to enhance Sharon’s wonderful songs. The only problem created was that he worked the backing musicians relentlessly and as a consequence I had several unhappy guys on the phone complaining about the increased hours each session was taking. As a result we ended up (rightly) paying the musicians far more than our original budget and the final costs were huge for a New Zealand album.
During the sessions at Marmalade Studios in Wellington, an excited Jay phoned me: he believed one of the songs they were recording was a real gem. That song was “Asian Paradise” and still today I get goose bumps every time I hear it.
The new album “Sharon O’Neill” reached No3 on the album charts and the two singles “Words” and “Asian Paradise” both charted. Sharon’s song writing ability was evident throughout this wonderful album and it is probably somewhat ironic that in 1980 Sharon won an APRA Silver Scroll Award for “Face In A Rainbow” from her earlier album.
A key member of our small CBS team was our Publicity Manager, Gaynor Crawford who worked hard and enthusiastically with the press to promote Sharon. Gaynor’s work was a key factor in getting Sharon’s talent recognised by a wider audience.

Our success with Sharon probably lead to Rocky Douche from Wellington’s Marmalade Studio bringing my attention to a new artist he had discovered. On hearing the demo of Jon Stevens singing Jezebel I had no hesitation on signing Jon to a CBS contract and the final version of Jezebel went to No1 on the NZ charts.

Within a short time my wildest dreams had been realised; we had established CBS New Zealand as a significant recorder and promoter of Kiwi talent. We then decided to make a single with Sharon and Jon singing as a duo. The result was “Don’t Let Love Go” which reached No5 on the NZ charts in March 1980.
Sharon was voted Top Female Vocalist in both 1979 and 1980.



GOLD RECORDS FOR SHARON AND JON
From Left: Sharon, John, Jon and Gaynor Crawford

My belief that Sharon was a major recording star was total and I was determined to break her in Australia. My view was that my Australian colleagues would only embrace Sharon and her talent if they had ownership and Sharon became theirs. New Zealander, Peter Dawkins was having success with CBS Australia as producer of Dragon and Mi-Sex and as I had the highest regard for him both as a producer and a talent spotter I sought his support. Sharon and I went to Sydney to meet with Peter and after our meeting he agreed to produce a single for Australia and both Sharon and I agreed that Sharon would sign direct with CBS Australia, which was after all the parent company of CBS New Zealand.
“How Do You Talk To Boys”, the first Australian produced Sharon O’Neill track was one of the only songs performed by Sharon that she had not written: however it worked and charted in Australia. CBS Australia then repackaged our New Zealand album including the new track and called it “Words”.

At this time I thought, with some sadness, that my working relationship with Sharon would be a distant one. To my surprise I was then approached by Bill Smith, The Chairman of CBS Australia and invited to transfer to Australia as Director of Marketing for six months then a promotion to Managing Director. The current MD, Paul Russell was moving to be MD of CBS UK and I had been chosen to replace him in Australia.
So within a very short time I was again working closely with Sharon. Sharon put together a band in Sydney and started the hard slog of playing the Australian pub and Leagues Club circuits. I remember a time I went to see her playing at an RSL Club and as in that then Australian environment women were not allowed in the main room Sharon had to get to the theatre auditorium at the back of the complex by a very roundabout route rather than being able to take the band's gear the short way. As usual Sharon handled all that with total professionalism and later in the evening totally won over the dominantly male audience.
WITH SHARON AT A SYDNEY PARTY ON MY APPOINTMENT TO MD CBS RECORDS


Our A&R team and Sharon started work on her 3rd but her 1st official Australian CBS album “Maybe”. To coincide with the album and single release we organised Sharon and her band to support our major artist Boz Scaggs on his Australian tour. It all worked and the single made the Australian charts: the album established Sharon as a major Australian artist.


Following the establishment of Sharon in Australia we started work on the album “Foreign Affairs”. For family reasons I decided to move back to New Zealand. Michael Wall heard I was on the way back and I was offered and accepted the job of managing Radio Hauraki. The once top radio station was falling in ratings and I was given the task of directing it back to the top.
Months later and after Sharon’s album “Foreign Affairs” and the single “Maxine” proved to be Sharon’s biggest yet I had dinner in Auckland with Bob Jamison, an American and my successor as MD of CBS Australia. To my surprise Bob said “Thanks a lot for Sharon O’Neill”, but not in a nice way. He then started to slag her both as an artist and a person. I didn't like him or his attitude and told him so. We departed on less than friendly terms.

I never found out what happened between Sharon and CBS after I left but Sharon’s career with CBS was clearly at an end. Whatever the dispute was, it lasted and Sharon was unable to record for five years.
Sharon O’Neill is the best singer/songwriter I have ever worked with and totally professional as an artist. It is with much regret that my time working with her was only such a short period of around 3-4 years and that her contract with CBS ended so badly for her. For me her songs have stood the test of time.

Link to Sharon O'Neill story AudioCulture

http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/sharon-o-neill

Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE WRATH OF SOLOMON PT 2 "BREAK A LEG"

photo above: KEN EAST

So here I am in London with no employment, no income, the family to provide for and having just recently taken on a large mortgage. Was I worried? For some inexplicable reason I wasn't. It was though, an odd feeling departing Phonogram in London at the age of 34 after joining them as a 16 year old in New Zealand.

One day, the phone rings and on the line is Ken East. Ken is an industry legend, having been MD of EMI in the heyday of The Beatles. “I had a hard job finding you”, he says. “Those bastards at Phonogram told me you had gone back to New Zealand and it was only by chance I bumped into a guy who had your phone number. Any way I have taken over as MD at Decca and want you to be my Marketing Manager”.

I first met Ken in New Zealand when he looked me up when he was visiting EMI there. A big and tall, softly spoken Aussie he has a real presence about him and although warm and friendly you know this is not a guy you cross. He treats everyone with total respect until they deserve otherwise.

Next day I meet with Ken and we agree a salary and responsibilities. My job is overseeing the pop music division with the emphasis of choosing product and marketing it to media and the public. The Retail Sales Division is under him and he will have final say on local recordings. This is OK by me as the brief is right where my skills are.

Ken asks me to review all artist contracts and make some decisions about terminating those that were not working for us and those we didn’t think had a future. What do you know, I find that, exactly like the Phonogram “arrangement”, Phil Solomon has a contract to deliver Decca six singles a year. And just like the Phonogram recordings all those delivered are duds.

I bring this to Ken’s attention and once more I’m told to terminate the contract with Phil Solomon. I arrange a formal legal letter and send it off. Phil is soon on the phone to Ken. Unlike AJ Morris at Phonogram, Ken does not back away and tells Phil that we at Decca don’t want to deal with him and the contract is cancelled. Ken tells Phil that he is fully behind the decision and that I have his total confidence and support.

A couple of weeks later Ken calls me to his office where I meet a friend of Ken’s who is a music publisher. This guy was brought up in London’s East End and is still in touch with old friends connected to the seedier side of the music business. He informs me that there is a contract out for me to receive a beating and a few broken bones. Of course Ken and I feel we know who may be behind this.

I’m terrified and worried. Ken advises me to stay away from anywhere that is not busy with people. We arrange to have my car parked in the Decca yard, rather than the company garage, which is located in a rather dark back street a five-minute walk away.

So, I keep a low profile and stick with plenty of people around me when out at gigs. The scary part was getting into our home late at night from parking the car, as the only resident parking in our Barnes street is out on the street itself.

A couple of weeks later Ken gives me good news: His friend has had discussions with East End contacts and a deal has been agreed. I’m off the hit list and safe. I’m only safe thanks to Ken and his powerful influence and standing in the UK music business: and to his music publisher friend for using his boyhood connections to pull a favour.

Friday, December 11, 2009

THE WRATH OF SOLOMON

LONDON 1974

Irish Entrepreneur Phil Solomon was a major player in the UK artist management/producing scene. Powerful would be an understated description of his standing in the business, with The Bachelors, Them (featuring Van Morrison) just two of the big names he had managed. In the 1960’s Phil had his own label Major Minor and was a major shareholder and influence on Radio Caroline. Phil and his wife Dorothy managed Lena Zavaroni*.

Lena was currently our hottest act, having just completed a five-week run on the TV talent show OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS and now with the charting single and album, "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me".

A priority responsibility of mine, as Director of A&R, was the management of artist and production contracts and controlling our very large recording budget. My boss and MD of the company, AJ (Morris), was complaining about recording budget over-expenditures. “You have to reduce our costs and get rid of non-productive contracts,” said AJ.

So, off I go tracing the paper trail of contracts against results. There were a lot of dud deals and one in particular stood out as a big loser. Phil Solomon, separate from the Lena Zavaroni contract, had a deal to supply us with six singles per year via producer Tommy Scott. On the delivery of each single we would pay an advance against royalties of several thousand pounds. The contract made no sense, as there was no artist development or album spin off. All of the singles delivered in the past year were flops. We were out of pocket on this deal for thousands!

I bring this to AJ’s attention, knowing that Phil was a real power in the business and important to us. “Tell him we are not going to re-new next year” he directs. I phone Phil and give him the news. He takes this calmer than expected and suggests we should have lunch and get to know each other better. “I’ll pick you up outside your front entrance tomorrow at noon; I’ll be driving a Rolls” he says.

Next day at noon there is the man himself behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce convertible and he takes me to a very up market restaurant in Mayfair. Through the meal we make small talk and give each other a brief history of our backgrounds and future plans. It was all very cordial.

Phil says with my experience I should do well in the UK record business and welcomes me aboard. As far as the annual contract for the six singles a year is concerned I am obviously are not aware of the finer points of the deal or I would not be dropping the contract. Apparently it is very simple; I re-sign the deal for the next year and what do you know? I’m a songwriter! I get credited with one of the songs on the B-side of a major selling act and accordingly to get the royalties due, which are exactly the same amount as the A-side hit. I would have a new line of income and as the years go by and the deal continues I could make some major money.

I am stunned. I’m just a Kiwi lad and have never been exposed to such a crooked offer**; I decline and confirm we would not be continuing this particular contract.

The atmosphere at the table suddenly became very frosty. I am called an inexperienced idiot who will never get along in the UK recording scene and would soon learn to either join in with the system or become an outsider going nowhere. I was not offered a ride back to the office.

Subsequently we inform Phil officially that the singles contract will not be ongoing.

Time goes by and Lena’s new record album is overdue for delivery and we are in danger of not having the income included in our quarterly sales. AJ and I discuss the situation and I am instructed to inform Phil that he is in breach of contract and that we will take the legal action to have delivery of the recording.

I phone Phil several times and he refuses to take my calls. Late morning I call again and leave a message with his assistant that we will take legal action for the contract’s fulfilment.

Early afternoon I’m chairing a meeting of my A&R team discussing progress on our current productions. I hear a shout outside the meeting room; “Where’s that fucking McCready?”

The door bursts open and charging in is an enraged Phil Solomon. “There you are you bastard” is directed at me, as is a flying briefcase that collects me full in the face. Blows from Phil’s fists then attack me. At first I just keep the seemingly mad man at bay by pushing him away; but as more damage is done to my body and pride (the 10 or so staff are cowering in fear and amazement); I counter attack and bodily pick Phil up and hurl him over the conference table, scattering chairs and staff in the process. He is down on the other side of the table, not moving. I’m now worried, what have I done? I move round to his prone body and inquire, “Phil, are you OK?” Suddenly I’m the recipient of a well-placed kick to my groin area.

Now I’m angry too and I have had enough. I wrestle with him, grab him in a bear hug, turn him around and with a “Full Nelson” hold on his back and neck I run him out of the room, down the corridor, out the main door of the building and hurl him down the steps towards his illegally parked Rolls Royce. Cheers accompany this from the now large group of Phonogram staffers who have come to watch the show.

Timing is everything.

Arriving at the bottom of the stairs simultaneously and returning from a lunch is AJ. Naturally he is surprised to witness a very important artist manager being tossed out of the building by the company’s A & R Director.

In AJ’s office I am given a shot of whiskey to calm me down as I’m shaken and shaking from the physical altercation.

To my surprise AJ, after hearing the story, takes the view that we should hush this up and implies the fault is mine. I am horrified and suggest that Solomon be banned from the building and that the police are informed so that assault charges are considered against Phil for this unprovoked attack on me at my place of work. AJ and I are at odds and I tell him he and the company should support me. I don't believe I can continue working for him if he does not support me. He suggests I go home and calm down. I do so.

Early next morning there is a knock on the door of our home. I answer it. A chap advises me he has come to pick up the company car. I give him the keys (was I wise?).

I phone AJ who advises me he has issued a release saying I am no longer with Phonogram UK. Did I resign or was I fired? I’m not sure. One thing that was certain is that AJ never wanted me on his team and had taken the opportunity to get me out.

My employment at Phonogram UK was arranged by our International office so I phone my regional manager Reinhard Klassen in Baarn, to appraise him of the situation. As usual Reinhard is the master of listening and patience. He suggests that as obviously AJ does not want me back I should come and work at head office for a period until another suitable posting in one of our many International companies is available. I take a day to think this over and decide no; I am better suited to day-to-day “hands on” music management than a head office role. Also, we had just purchased a home in Barnes and the children were at last settled into London. After discussion between legal’s for me and Phonogram we agree a financial settlement and I am now officially unemployed.

Ken East contacts me and I get offered the position of Marketing Manager at Decca. What do you know, Phil Solomon has an identical contract with Decca and I'm again given the task of getting rid of it.....but that's another story.

*Lena Zavaroni died in 1999 aged 35 after a 22-year battle with anorexia and after contracting pneumonia following an operation.

**Am I right to say Phil Solomon was crooked? I certainly found him so. It was with interest I noted on an interview with influential record producer Shel Talmy that he made the following comment on his Phil Solomon experience:

“One of the first persons I ran into was Phil Solomon, who has quite a reputation in the English music business. He was one of the biggest crooks of all time. The Bachelors were his band. I had to sue Phil to get my royalties--although they were coming from Decca, part of them was coming from Phil. Dick [Rowe] tried to remain neutral, but things got difficult for him, and I said, fine, I'll go out and see what else I can hustle up. So I really became an independent producer, doing things for a couple of labels at the same time.