Monday, February 17, 2020

The Tin Pan Alley of Minneapolis

The Tin Pan Alley of Minneapolis

by Arlo Hennings

Thump Studios upper right window

The year was 1988 and I lived in Minneapolis the same apartment on west 25th Street for the past 10 years. The neighborhood was called the Wedge because of its shape. I was a block away from the corner of the Oarfolkjokeopus record store and the CC Tap. On the northern end of my neighborhood was the watering hole and my employer, Lyles Liquor Bar and Grill.

On a Friday or Saturday night, you could see any number of the rock underground famous as well as other artistic inclined tribes from the Guthrie Theater to local newspapers. While Peter Jesperson shot pool in one room, Leonard Nimoy and Tim Carr drank in the other. While Paul Westerberg. Chris Osgood and Bob Mould ordered burgers, I was hauling buckets of cold chicken wings through the crowd. Along with my Lyle’s waitress wife, we serviced Minneapolis’s bohemia for years. On my time off from Lyles, I built a small 8 track recording studio in the kitchen area of my one-bedroom apartment. The idea was to create a songwriting/demo lab versus a full-blown studio capable of recording a whole band at once.

Lyles Bar and Grill
My rent was $350 per month, which I was always months past due. My neighbor was a young blonde woman, Sue Mclean who worked as a booking agent. Luckily, my landlord was usually too drunk to care about the rent and I was living in the center of a music movement. Meanwhile, my wife helped the Minnesota Music Academy and went to school. I had been in the local music scene since 1967 in many roles from performer to music distributor and those details can be found in my biography. I never made it to Carnegie Hall but, I was proud of my achievements, and I wanted to do more. My new inspiration was to discover songwriters.

It took me the better part of a year to come up with the $3,000 from my short-order cook job to buy a used eight-track reel to reel, three signal processors, reverb, echo, 16-band parametric EQ, cords, and a patch bay. The 16 channel mixer cost $15,000 and that took getting a lease to pay for it.

Since my ratty apartment was not a recording studio, I began transforming it into one the best I could. I converted every inch into usable studio space, like hanging patch bay cords from the knobs of kitchen cupboards. To the dismay of my landlord, I punched several large holes through the kitchen wall into a sunroom, so two people could work at the same time. I did leave the bathroom intact, given that the tiled walls provided a ready-built reverb chamber. “Hand me that electrical tape,” I remember saying to a recording client who assisted with the setup. With one hand holding a microphone, I taped it to a broomstick handle. “That takes care of needing a mic stand.” Wiring the equipment together was like patching together a thousand stereos. In my sleep, I connected the outputs to the inputs and back again. Back again, because I did it backward by mistake. I spent three days trying to stop the buzz. The finishing touch was to equalize the room for maximum audio representation. I accomplished this by hanging a sleeping bag over the window, which helped absorb the bass. I then hung bed blankets to filter out unwanted high frequencies. I threaded a half-inch-sized reel of recording tape over the tape recorder heads to an empty take-up reel. Next, I assigned where I wanted the audio signal to go: the destination tracks. Set the record levels, stop and rewind, reassign the playback channels. The recording process, the manual instructed, is a matter of taste, not an exact science. I’ll never forget the first glorious sound my studio made. Over a microphone, through the mixer, with a pinch of reverb and echo, the essence of acoustic gold fell from the speaker’s cone. It was radioactive. On waves of sonic tapestry, I began to explore the universe of recorded music. Over the next two weeks, I learned to “overdub” myself, which meant adding a guitar part or a vocal harmony to my base track. With the magic of overdub, I could play all the parts myself—bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, even orchestra sounds—and sounded like an entire band. My mission was to lend a hand to artists; to provide opportunities for other artists to carve their own musical niche; to preserve fine expressions of the spirit calling unto itself.

Thump Studios

Networking was strong back in those days and it didn’t take long before the little studio called “Thump” buzzed with songwriters. I and friends produced hundreds of demo recordings and I came to believe that six artists had national potential. I selected their best songs and decided to try selling them. They were pop songs. However, I hadn’t a clue about how to do that. By magic, it seemed, an artist would get a music executive to listen to their recording or come to their show. The exec would be impressed and make an offer on the spot? The Wedge was a cool place to be a musician but it wasn’t Tin Pan Alley.

To begin my mission, I purchased a directory of Los Angeles record company talent scouts.

I rang my dad to see if his offer was still good to stay with him. Dad answered, “Tally ho!” over the phone. So I organized my artist’s cassettes by genre and packed up for the next stage in my music career. Kissing my wife and Minneapolis goodbye, I headed for the heart of the Hollywood Hills, where the names of stars are engraved on the sidewalks and the fast-food authentic Mexican.

On my first visit to Hollywood, courtesy of my dad’s car and home, I found myself lost on the L.A. freeways. I was a solitary, unknown voice in the slot machine of the entertainment industry. More happened in a single Hollywood hour than 10 years in Minneapolis. Looking out across the L.A. basin from the Hollywood sign at night, I saw a Milky Way of lights and an endless stream of cherry-colored brake lights, glowing like a tube of melted lipstick between the glass canyons.

What would I say to the record labels? I devised a script and rebuttals just as I had learned in sales school. My first hurdle was selling myself past the executive’s assistant’s desk. Then, the music had to sell itself.

The drive from my dad’s house in West Covina to the heart of Sunset Boulevard took four hours round trip. I timed my appointments between 10 am and 3 pm to avoid the worst of traffic. By the time I rolled back into my dad’s driveway, exhaust fumes filled my eyes—my days were often 15 hours long.

Similar to my work with Combined Insurance—I spent most of my day's cold calling, knocking on doors, waiting in reception areas, and chilling in a trendy coffee shop on Rodeo Drive. I took note of the clothes shops. When I made it big I’d buy my wife a really nice dress, I thought as I sipped my coffee, while gazing out the window in my daydream. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills is considered by many to be the world’s number one designer shopping destination.

On weekends during the winter months, I passed my days in joy, simply sitting in my dad’s backyard in shorts and a t-shirt, staring at a real palm tree, feeling grateful to be out of the Minnesota blizzards. However, even though we spoke on the telephone often, I missed my wife very much—we had been apart for far too long. I now recall the most memorable phone conversation we had during that time.

“How are you?” I asked her one day, as usual.

“I think I’m pregnant,” she joyfully replied.

I could see her smile through the phone.

“Are you sure?” I gulped, awaiting the good news.

“Well, okay...” she hesitated, “I’m not sure, yet.”

“So, I am not a father yet? I said, disappointed.

“Officially, no,” she lowered her voice.

“Another two weeks and I’ll be back. We can try again,” I assured her.

“Any luck with business?” she asked.

“My horoscope read that Saturn would align with Venus, and that means good for business,” I answered.

“I’ll keep the candle lighted,” she said.

“Love you,” I said and hung up.

On Monday mornings, I returned to the game of Hollywood Squares.

“Capitol Records, Mr. Big’s office,” said a sweet female secretary voice at the end of the phone line.

I took a deep breath.

“My name is Arlo, as in Arlo Guthrie. I am here from out of town and I have an artist Mr. Big needs to hear. Is he available at 3 pm today?” I alleged with an acquired silver tongue and a big grin through the phone. I did aim to manipulate my way in the door by using a twist on the truth as I’d learned through the training I had as an insurance salesman.

“Does he know who you are?” she snapped.

“Not exactly... and never mind that. I have another appointment with Mr. Deep Pockets at RCA at 5 pm, but I wanted Mr. Big to hear this music first,” I pushed. “He’d be very happy you made this appointment.”

“I’m sorry...” she replied in her Valley Girl accent, “we don’t accept unsolicited materials,” and hung up.

Being unknown had one distinct advantage—I hadn’t acquired a bad reputation. Through trial and error—after numerous rejections, I learned how to drop names, sometimes managing to get an appointment.

One day I found my way to the Island Records building on the Beverly Hills edge of West Hollywood. It was comparatively small in the shadow of the giant Capitol Records tower. I approached a security door and pressed the “open sesame” button.

“I have a 2 pm appointment with Benny,” I said into the intercom. Benny had the distinction of being a vice president as opposed to a general low-end talent scout. The latter usually came with no budget and a propensity for the Hollyweird shuffle—the longer you don’t make a decision, the longer you keep your job.

The greeting secretary was young and gorgeous, typical of all the women who worked at these record companies. The office was full of scantily clad females who dressed like lingerie models. As a reminder of what happens to unsolicited materials, a not-so-pretty bucket displayed discarded dreams that would never be heard.

I sat on a waiting room couch and admired the vast gallery of record awards that covered the hallway. As I was reading a table copy of Billboard Magazine, Chris Blackwell walked by. He was the owner of Island Records, which broke the careers of top artists, including U2, and Bob Marley. He glanced at me in my red suit and nodded. I would have given anything for five minutes of his time.

“Benny’s office is this way,” said a young woman, who looked like she’d just stepped off the set of Baywatch to guide me down the hallway.

When I sat down at Benny’s desk he was on the phone, feet propped up on his desk. One never knew how these people got their jobs. Sometimes, they worked their way up from the mailroom, slept with a rock star or the boss, or had a relative in the camp. Benny couldn’t have been older than 21. He had straggly, shoulder-length hair, and looked as though he’d just rolled out of bed in his t-shirt and sneakers. He had all of the pizzazz of another opinionated butt kisser in the music business.

“Hello, I’m Benny, A and R director, Island Records,” he said, putting down the phone, “What brings you to the Island, dude?”

“My name is Arlo,” I replied, “and I’m the A and R manager for the Arlo Hennings Publishing Company, Minneapolis division.”

“Minneapolis?” he snickered. “How many people live there... about one million people?”

After many of these appointments, I learned how to take the demeaning Hollywood jokes and jabs in stride. I’d become immune to rejection and learned how to stay focused under their pressure.

“Technically, two million people live there,” I responded, matter-of-factly, “but I didn’t come here to sell you lake-front property.”

I unfolded the Billboard magazine and placed it on his desk.

“Have you looked at the pop charts lately? Notice that half of the Top 10 have been produced in or are from Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Sound is the rage.” I was aware that the label had already signed a Minneapolis artist, named Peter Himmelman. I didn’t want to wind up fighting. However, these people were rude and they expected me to be rude, too. If I wasn’t pushy they’d blow me off.

“Benny, it says here on your business card that you’re a talent scout,” I queried. “I have highly talented artists to share with you... so how about you scout them?”

“Well then, do you have some of their music to play for me?” he inquired sleepily, as he yawned and rubbed his wooden puppet face. I opened my briefcase and began with Gina. He set up the tape on his macho sound system.

“Oh, I can’t stand her voice,” he said after two of Gina’s songs. Benny continued to play several songs by each artist, sometimes nodding his head, and other times sitting expressionless. The audition lasted about 30 minutes.

“I can tell you this music is personally not my bag. However, Kevin next door to me does house music and might like it. We’re pretty booked up all the way around and I don’t know if anyone has the budget right now,” he told me, shaking his head.

I never believed in taking no for an answer.

“I’m in no rush. These things take time. I just wanted to meet you. I heard you’re the best A and R in town,” I said, giving him the BS line.

“Sure Arlo, whatever,” Benny chuckled, kicking his feet up onto his desk, and did not get up to see me out.

His secretary was just outside his door and heard everything. As I was packing up to leave she butted in, “That music by Dan Presley is really good,” she said, shaking her head at Benny. “You haven’t signed anyone in a year.” She closed his door and escorted me back to the entryway, and looking at me with sorrowful eyes, she consoled, “Don’t give up.”

Calling upon my positive mental attitude power, cold-call, door-to-door skills—I was finally able to get my foot in the door with Dean Kay, who was a major music company president. Did I mention name dropping? I told him a little white lie that I knew Prince. I didn’t know Prince, exactly. However, Janice’s cousin was in his band and that was close enough.

Dean’s office was the largest I had seen. It could have passed for a condominium. The most prominent fixture on his desk was not his own pair of feet, but a photo of his wife and daughter. I estimated him to be in his late 50s. He had a genuine persona about him that came across in his wide smile, handshake, professional causal dress, short, white hair, and basketball-star height. He didn’t waste any time and started to play my cassettes. The more cassettes Dean popped into his stereo, the more his mood shifted from hurried to tell his secretary to hold his calls.

“Your songs sound like finished records,” Dean said, impressed, “Where are you from again?”

“Minneapolis,” I answered. “It’s the hometown of Prince and 10,000 other bands. The reason they're so many great songwriters there is because it’s so cold you can’t go outside most of the year, so people get creative and write a lot of songs.”

He stopped the cassette player.

“You don’t say?” Dean remarked, with a big shiny white smile reflecting off his positively glowing California tanned features.

“In the winter, I have to light a pan of charcoal and place it beneath the car’s engine block or it won’t start. When I turn the ignition the motor often grumbles ‘not today,’” I said, talking Minnesotan.

“Is it cold there now?” Dean looked worried.

“No, because it’s June,” I replied, “and the beginning of the summer season, but there are only a couple months left before it’s time to break out the parkas.”

“What are you looking for?” Dean examined a cassette.

“I would like to sign my songwriters to your company so I can share their music with the world,” I explained.

“How many songwriters do you represent?” Dean probed.

“I am currently working with six songwriters,” I told him with growing confidence in my tone.

Dean nodded his head and picked up his phone, “Change my next flight to New York for a stopover in Minneapolis.” Standing with respect to shake my hand again, he added with reassurance in his tone, “We’ll see what happens, okay?”

Dean co-wrote the song “That’s Life,” with Kelly Gordon, which was first recorded by Marion Montgomery. The most famous recorded version sang by Frank Sinatra, was released on his 1966 album of the same name. Both album and song confirmed profitable triumph for Sinatra. This same song became Aretha Franklin’s very first recording with Atlantic Records in 1967.

Fortunately for me, Dean Kay was a songwriter, performer, and recording artist, as well as a suit. Throughout his career, he nurtured the careers of many other songwriters, recording artists, and music industry executives. He purchased more than 100 music-publishing catalogs involving more than 100,000 copyrights.

As noted on Dean Kay’s website: he has been the chief caretaker of the creative treasures of many songwriters including Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Johnny Horton, Don Williams, Bob McDill, Wayland Holyfield, Ricky Skaggs, and Rick Springfield to name a few. Kay was a living legacy of the great American songwriter tradition. Getting to work with him was an amazing breakthrough, and better than I could have ever imagined.

In 1989, after several months of negotiations and expensive lawyers, PolyGram Music International signed my company and the songwriters to one of the largest music production contracts in the history of the Minneapolis music scene. I had finally “arrived” in the world of music executives, and now I got to ride around, for a while, in style.

Feature story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press - touted as one of the largest music production contracts in the history of the Minneapolis music scene.

Dean lived next door to Bob Hope’s home in Burbank, and we were going to see how the remodeling on his 16-bedroom mansion was doing. An earthquake destroyed it and he had to start over. I stepped into Dean’s customized Jaguar and closed the door.

“Dean scolded me, “Gently, please. Close the door with one finger. Try it again. There, the doors are as light as a feather. Everyone wants to treat my car like a truck.”

I couldn’t believe I was riding with the millionaire president of one of the largest music publishers in the world. I hid my wide eyes behind a pair of sunglasses as we drove past the TV and movie production companies that lined Olive Street in Burbank. Limousines cluttered the lanes of traffic. Paramount was filming the next blockbuster.

“They all need good songs,” Dean said, as he waved his hand across the sleek dashboard. “I really like that project you’re doing with Laura,” he continued. “I would like to hear more. I think you got a winner there.”

I imagined a camera following me, recording my one minute of fame. I didn’t know if I’d get another 14 minutes, as Andy Warhol had predicted for everyone. I was ready for my close-up. I was ready for anything.

Fifteen years earlier, I had run away from home with my sister’s “toy” guitar and a passion for music. Now, I returned to my Dad’s place with a contract from a major music company in one hand and a six-figure check in the other. Dad was stunned, my mother and brother scoffed at the news, my sisters didn’t know what to make of it, but my wife was very proud of me.

Minneapolis tried to welcome me back to the usual unforgiving pimply concrete, the walk from the CC Tap bar to my recording studio apartment. The feelings of my achievement changed all that. The sidewalk had turned into a surreal marshmallow-like texture. I was walking on spongy air. My steps sparkled like a shiny beacon into the night. Adrenaline rushed through my veins and filled me with a false sense of long-term success. So intense the blaring horns, I became emboldened to do crazy things—like buy a house in the suburb.

“You’re part of the Polydent family now,” Dean exclaimed, with his big white smile. Why he compared PolyGram to a dentures cleaner was an inside joke, yet for me to understand. More like PolyGlam, because the music contract honeymoon myth was true. I was being wined and dined by top music biz shakers in ivory towers decorated by gold and platinum record awards. How deluded I was to think that my name might someday hang on the wall of moguls? Not everyone cared, however. Hollyweird had a meat-wagon element: either on your way up or on your way out in this trendy, back-stabbing, flavor-of-the-month club. Despite the headaches of trying to win in this game, I had finally realized my dream of working in the music business. I was—for the first time—truly in harmony with what I loved to do.

I rented an office suite in Minneapolis that belonged to Owen Husney, the former manager for Prince. During my time as co-publisher and A&R rep (Artist and Repertoire aka arguments and recriminations), I placed several artists on major labels and saved the independent label Twin Tone Records from bankruptcy—the Jayhawks, Replacements, Suburbs, Soul Asylum, and Ween—by finding a new national distribution deal on Restless Records. In addition, the local Minnesota Music Awards asked me to present the Artist of the Year Award to Red House Records winner Ann Reed. I was feeling so much like part of the PolyDent family now that I expected we’d all share a dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. Then I got a call from the Dean’s office.

“I have had enough of your partner’s shenanigans,” Dean told me, sounding very irritated, “Telling the president of Island Records that he’s an idiot is the last straw. I’m sorry, but I have no choice other than to terminate your contract.”

My contract ended in 1992.

The songwriters looked more like a reality TV show drama than tomorrow’s hitmakers. They all so badly wanted a break took off in default of their contracts. One headed to L.A., to follow her own Hollywood dream to be a piano teacher? One got into drugs and joined a motorbike club. Another, whose demo tape I gave to a record company, snagged a recording contract, forgot who I was. A guitarist who joined Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and became Cher’s music director made sure his number was lost. Another one who also signed to a major label legally owed his music publishing to me. My partner confessed that he robbed me. And so it went. I wanted to see “my” artists succeed, but had hoped they’d at least acknowledge the guy who helped launch their musical careers and dreams. Flabbergasted to realize many could not seem to find the space to credit me in their liner notes.

Dean Kay, President, PolyGram, Dave Barry, Laura Schlieske, Marty Weintraub, Marko Dardanis,
Arlo Hennings, Gina Felicetta, Bob Kirsch, VP PolyGram, Nashville (left to right)
What happened to me I learned was par for the course in the crazy, upside down, unpredictable music business. "Making it" was more 2/3 luck and 1/3 hard work. Prince's Paisley Park operation was called by those who worked there a "plantation" for its slavery under the whip master Prince but I can understand what he had to do to keep people in line.

Dean Kay later lost his job, as well, due to a merger among PolyGram, Island, A&M Records, and Motown. He maintained his position as being on the Board of Directors for ASAP and kept his own publishing company.

The lyrics to "That's Life" would fit the ending of this story better than anything but I didn't want to pay the license fee to use the words.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Dean Kay with Arlo Hennings holding "Guitarlo"

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

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