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David Wilkes interview page 2

Smitty:  Yeah.

DW:  He was the famous guy who signed Billie Holiday, also signed Bob Dylan.

Smitty:  Yeah.

DW:  By the way, he was a very successful socialite.  I mean, like he was a Vanderbilt. He wasn’t like just a street person and yet he had the ability to know what was going on in the street and deal with the president of Columbia Records as well, and he heard about me and one of the things that I was kinda proud of, I was in The Village, my reputation was that I actually could speak directly to so many people above 14th Street.  (Both laughing.)  And John Hammond was one of those people. And I had Jerry Jeff Walker, even though I signed him to Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, I also brought him up to John Hammond.  And even people like Clive Davis were accessible and reachable.  They’d call you back, you could see them, and it wasn’t like a big, big corporation. It was about finding and developing artists rather than what’s this quarter’s bottom line?

Smitty:  Yeah.  So that had to be cool to be able to interact with people of that level and make things happen.

DW:  It was great. You know, the people that made this whole industry.

Smitty:  Yes.

DW:  I mean, these were the great record people who loved music and who loved going out at night and finding acts and hanging out with other musicians and people in the business and discussing things and talking.

Smitty:  Yeah, and I think there was a different mentality then, like you said.  I think there was a greater love for music itself back then, not that it doesn’t exist today, but I think it was a greater love back then, and I think that was more of a driving force for signing artists.

DW:  Absolutely.  Almost every record company was an independent company and it was started more as a love for a certain kind of music, whether it was (Jerry) Wexler or Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun starting a blues label, Atlantic Records, or all those great guys who started those jazz labels….I can’t even think of all the names, but you know all the labels and people don’t know who started them and why they started them. It was a love of a certain kind of music.

Smitty:  Yeah.

DW:  Vanguard Records was owned by the Solomon Brothers and that was basically one brother who loved classical music and one brother who loved the folk music. Elektra Records, Jac Holzman, same thing:  he started with this love of folk music. And Bel Records which became Arista. These guys were all music lovers.

Smitty:  Yeah. You started something very cool back then called the Coffee House Circuit.

DW:  Right.

Smitty:  Talk to me about how that got started.

DW:  Well, The Bitter End owner, Fred Weintraub, and myself and the organization of colleges, which I think it was called the NEC, National Entertainment Conference or something like that, wanted to have a place to bring artists like the ones you would see in Greenwich Village onto their campuses.  Since The Bitter End was “the” folk club and the comedy club in the United States, we supplied the schools with songwriters, comedians, folk artists, even some groups that would tour the various colleges on a regional basis.  So let’s say they would go to SUNY Albany for three days and then they had a day of travel, and then they would go to RPI for three days and then they’d have a day of travel, and then they would go to SUNY Buffalo.  Just to show you….talk about the New York State region.  And so there was very little traveling expenses and the schools would put up these people in the dormitories and they’d take their meals with the students, and every night they were performing at the coffee house that was on the campus.  If they didn’t have a coffee house, it could be the chapel, it could be the gymnasium, and it could even be in the lunch room.  And they mingled with these students and they got paid. They got paid a livable wage.

Smitty:  That’s a fascinating concept.

DW:  So people were paid by the number of people in the group.  It wasn’t like Jerry Jeff Walker got more money than Jim Croce and Jim Croce got more money than Harry Chapin and Emmy Lou Harris got a little more or a little less.  If I remember, it was $75 for the first person in the group plus a room and board and a travel allotment, and then $100 for every person beyond that or somewhat similar to that.  And they would do their shows and this whole thing would be coordinated by the student activity directors on those campuses and there would be one regional student director that would kind of coordinate with the schools in that region so they could get the acts in there.  They would agree upon a schedule of acts, and we went from New York State and across the country.  I mean, we went as far as Alaska.  Davidson University was the school that kinda founded this thing with us. It was just an amazing thing.  And then the military also got involved and jumped in, so we actually took people to Diego Garcia, that base in the Pacific Islands where there were G.I.’s and US sailors based, and Guam. So these people would be working a year or two years or three years in a row and never have to worry about not having work and not getting paid.

Smitty: Nice.

DW:  And while they were doing this and making a living, they were also honing their art, and becoming better and better and better, and I mentioned Jim Croce, Harry Chapin or comedians.  I think Flip Wilson did it.  Oh, I mean, people who are amazingly talented artists many of which are still sucessful today.

Smitty:  That’s a nice concept.

DW:  We should do it again, by the way, because where does anybody get to see these people anymore?

Smitty:  I like that, yeah.  I think it’s a great idea.  Let’s do it!

DW:  Well, I’m game.  (Both laughing.)

Smitty:  Okay.

DW:  It is a great concept and it could work again because things are so expensive that these artists can’t live.

Smitty:  Yeah.

DW:  And, you know, limited at their craft, and all you really get to see is the big name artists in gigantic stadiums and you have no relationship with them.  You’re sitting 500 or 1,000 feet away. You can hardly hear them.

Smitty: Yes. It just seems that you’ve been involved in every facet of the music business.

DW:  Just about, yeah, just about.

Smitty:  From publishing, producing, managing.  Is there one in particular that you love the most?

DW:  You know, I actually like being an A&R person the best because you’re always discovering artists, whether it’s new artists or you’re rediscovering older artists, and then you’re kind of giving them a certain support system, helping them find songs if they need that help and then kind of overseeing the record company on an unofficial basis, but a very important basis for the artist. And I act not as a manager, but I act as a support system for the manager if there is a manager.  If there’s not a manager, I take the side of the artist with the record company in most cases, which can be a little hairy at times, but I feel that the goal is to make the record successful.

Smitty: Nice approach.

DW:  We’re all working for the same goal and sometimes you gotta go at it from different perspectives.

Smitty:  Absolutely.  So you’re coming into the jazz scene…

DW:  Right.

Smitty:  And what would you say is the striking difference from what you’ve seen in jazz in the past versus today?

DW:  Well, it’s a much more pop-oriented sort of a direction from what jazz has been in the last, let’s say, 30 years, so as far as I’m concerned and the things that I’m doing, especially in the Smooth Jazz area, it’s a more accessible area. What I’m doing is not the improvisational side of jazz; it’s more of the melodic jazz and, of course, I’m doing some vocals as well, and those vocals, even though they’re a little bit retro like Sophie Milman….she’s singing great songs, some of them are original, some of them are covers, and she’s a young person doing songs that most young people haven’t heard, so it’s new to them. That makes it a new thing again, although it’s not really a new thing, and Sophie is kind of a pop artist in that respect, so that’s kind of a throwback to the Ella days or the days when jazz was pop music and people actually danced to jazz music, right?

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