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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" David Wilkes

david wilkesSmitty:  It’s always extra special when my next guest stops by for a visit at Jazz  He’s a great friend and one of the icons in the business.  He has made major contributions to shaping and re-shaping the music world as we see it today.  He has done everything from producer to manager, he’s been in the publishing business, he’s done it all.  Currently presiding as VP A&R at Koch Records, please welcome the amazing Mr. David Wilkes.  Dave, how ya doing?

David Wilkes (DW):  Okay, I’m doing great.  Well, I definitely agree about a great friend of yours.  I don’t know about the icon.  (Both laughing.)  But I appreciate it.  It’s nice to hear that, and at least from somebody other than myself.

Smitty:  Oh man, yeah, it’s great to talk to you, man.

DW:  It is, Smitty.  Same here.

Smitty:  So things are really taking off and doing very well at Koch.  How’s things going for you?

DW:  Yeah, we’re really building a great roster of jazz artists, or I should say, adult artists, not X-rated, but… (Both laughing.)  I’m just getting some wonderful people to sign with us and we’re making just lovely records and we’re having good sound success with this area and I’m lucky that Koch wants to do this kind of music and they’re doing all kind of music and this is important to them as well.

Smitty:  Absolutely, and I’m just reflecting on some of the music just recently out there from Michael Franks, Jon Faddis, Nelson Rangell, Marcus Miller, Earl Klugh, Bob James

DW:  Earl Klugh, yeah, Marcus Miller…

Smitty:  Steve Oliver

DW:  Steve Oliver, Sophie Milman…I think you might’ve mentioned Sophie.

Smitty:  Yeah, Sophie, she’s a great artist.

DW:  Patches Stewart, just a whole bunch of really wonderful people and people that I always say….that I tell the artists that I don’t wanna sign anybody that I don’t wanna have dinner with.

Smitty:  There you go, man.  I like that.

DW:  And also you gotta mention one guy who’s not considered a jazz artist, but he’s such a great musician that I’d say he also could be jazz artist, and that’s Jerry Douglas.

Smitty:  Yeah, he’s got a great record out too.

DW: He’s touring as the opening act for Paul Simon.

Smitty:  Wow.

DW: He just did the Montreal Jazz Festival like three or four days ago, as did Sophie Milman singing with Aaron Neville.

Smitty:  Yeah, so things are very exciting over there right now and rightly so. What gave you the desire to get into the music business?  I mean, you could have probably done anything you wanted to, what gave you the desire to get into the music business?

DW:  When I was in college, it was during the days when folk music was such an important part of the social fabric of this country that it just became, next to breathing, it was music.  It was a political statement, it was the social scene surrounding the politics.  You had the Vietnam War going on, you had the civil rights movement, and you had the community feeling of this whole scene.  I guess I gotta maybe blame Pete Seeger for getting me involved in music, even when I was a kid going to camp, but I was always interested in the political side of music and the lyrics and how strong the music and song had influenced the shaping of America, so that was my direction right through college, although I didn’t know that there was a music business. All I knew about was the music.

Smitty:  Back in the sixties you started out in the business, too, in sort of an unusual way.  You started out at The Bitter End Café.

DW:  Right.

Smitty:  Talk to me a little bit about that.

DW:  After school I came back to New York and hung around The (Greenwich) Village while I was working and then I started an importing/exporting business.  My father was quite influential in the early days with the Japanese electronics and photographic business.  So I started a business and in the daytime I had my importing/exporting business, which was really uninspiring, and in the evening I’d go down to Greenwich Village….I had an apartment on 27th Street and Third Avenue….and I’d hang out at The Village all the time in all the music clubs.  The Bitter End was called The Cock & Bull at the time.  And I just went there so many times that the owner actually started to let me in for free. I’m not even sure that there was an admission charge, so maybe that’s why he let me in for free.  (Both laughing.)  Until we’re discussing it right now, I never figured that out.

But I met a young lady at a party, independently of going to the club, and she actually told me that she was the secretary to Fred Weintraub, who owned The Bitter End, and ask if I wanna be the master of ceremonies at The Bitter End, that they were looking for a master of ceremonies, so I said “Great!”  It ended up that they were looking for a doorman and I still said “Great!” and so I did that at night, had my importing/exporting company during the daytime, and gradually I would just kinda hang out with….John Denver came in to replace Chad Mitchell in the Chad Mitchell Trio, and I became friendly with him and became friendly with people like Mike Settle and even Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, and I would just kinda talk to these people and got friendly with them, especially during the winter time when there was nobody down there except me and the artists and a couple of people in the club.  And gradually heard from one musician, a guy named Dave Bromberg, that there was a guy named Jerry Jeff Walker in town who had a single that was playing on a local radio station called WBAI, and that song was “Mr. Bojangles,” and nobody was managing Jerry Jeff and nothing was happening with the song, it wasn’t even recorded yet, so I became Jerry’s first manager, and then through Jerry and Dave Bromberg, they told me about Emmy Lou Harris and I became her manager and made her first record deal, and then Paul Siebel and Frank Wakefield and The Greenbriar Boys. 

It was all really the singer/songwriter and the bluegrass bunch that The Bitter End was famous for.  It had nothing to do with jazz.  So I got into the management area and got so involved in that and had a couple of hits right off the bat that I gave up my importing/exporting business and went into management full-time, and by that time I was also managing The Bitter End.  And then from that point on The Bitter End started a publishing company which I ran because I also was involved in setting up my own publishing companies, and that led to my going up to MCA music with The Bitter End’s publishing companies as well and had a hit within the first six months with Linda Ronstadt on a song that I signed called “Long Long Time,” which was written by a guy named Gary White, who was in the same rock band that Jerry Jeff Walker was in.  That band was called Circus Maximus.  They were on Vanguard Records.  And then I signed Al Anderson and The Wildweeds at MCA Music and then signed them to Vanguard Records, and from MCA Music I went to Sire Records as the head of A&R for a very short period of time and then went over to Vanguard as VP of A&R.

Smitty:  Wow, you were moving and shakin’.

DW:  Basically kind of in a period of three kind of short steps all within, let’s say, three years I went from The Bitter End to MCA Music to Sire and then to Vanguard Records, and then I went out on my own. That was my early days in kinda starting out.  That was my point of entry which I kind of use in a lotta terms, but that was how I got in without even really realizing or having any plan whatsoever.

Smitty:  Yeah.  Was it difficult to manage back then opposed to today?  Was it different?

DW: No, I think it’s much easier.  First of all, the business wasn’t so sophisticated, it wasn’t so controlled by big corporations.  If an individual like myself who had basically no money, no investment, no backers could find an artist like Emmy Lou Harris or Jerry Jeff Walker, I could have a hit, I could go to a lawyer or to a record company and make a deal, and the fact that I was down in The Village and I was signing these acts, the record companies had their ears to the street so much better then that they could find you. You didn’t need to go through six secretaries, three receptionists, four VP’s just to get to somebody to sign you. And I’m sure you’ve heard of the person, the A&R person named John Hammond.

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