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"But he came back," recalls Livingston, "and said, 'They won't make a deal with Capitol.' 'Why not?,' I asked. He answered, 'They think we're a square company.' So I said, 'Well, I'm gonna go up and meet them.' I went to San Francisco and we started to party. I was out until four in the morning for three nights in a row with these kids. They introduced me to Allen Ginsberg. They were smoking pot I'm sure. I didn't. Who knows what else they were taking? It was not really my scene I must tell you. But I made it appear that it was. We made a deal. I signed them both and they were delighted. Here was the president of Capitol Records partying with these kids."
Livingston's Summer of Love adventure in San Francisco was but one gamble in a long history of similar corporate risk taking. In fact, the biggest act in the history of Capitol--and the record business for that matter---came about in similar daring Livingston fashion. He explains:
"I read the English music press and about a group that were doing well on EMI Records in England. EMI was our major stockholder and Capitol had an agreement with them. EMI had the right of first refusal throughout the world to release any of our product. And we had the right to release any EMI product in the United States. I named one of my producers, Dave Dexter, to screen EMI product. He would suggest something now and then and nothing would happen. Nothing [Cliff Richard, et al] sold." I said at Capitol's weekly meeting of record producers to Dave Dexter, 'Dex, what about this group called the Beatles that I read about?'"
"'Alan,' Dexter said to Livingston, "they're a bunch of long-haired kids who are nothing. Forget it. '"
Livingston had no reason to doubt Dexter, one of the finest producers in the label's history, and who handled such artists as Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, and Stan Kenton. Looking back now, Dexter was apparently not the right person to pass judgment on what must have sounded like, at the time, Music from Mars.
"I continued reading about the Beatles," Livingston says. "Two weeks later I brought it up again. I said, 'Dex, are you SURE?' Because I was getting pressure from England to put the records out. He said, 'Alan. Please take my word for it.' I hadn't even listened to them. So that was that. We passed on the Beatles."
"And so did," according to Livingston, "every other major record label. They went to RCA Victor, CBS Columbia, Decca. All turned them down. Finally, EMI was so anxious to get a record out that they gave them first to a little black-owned Chicago label on the verge of bankruptcy, Vee-Jay and then to a company in Philadelphia called Swan Records. Nothing happened, nothing sold on Vee-Jay or Swan. The Beatles were dead in the U.S."
Until! One day Livingston was sitting in his twelfth floor office in Hollywood's Capitol Tower when his secretary entered:
"There's a call from London from a man called Brian Epstein."
Livingston had never heard of Epstein, but took the call. "Mr. Livingston!," Epstein said, "We don't understand why you don't put the Beatles out." "Well, frankly, I haven't heard them."
"Please listen and call me back."
"So," says Livingston, "I sent down to Dex's office and got some records and sat and listened. I heard SOME-thing. I called Epstein back."
"I'll put them out," Livingston told the Beatles' manager. "I felt that there was a shot and I was going to take it. Then I took a [British] Beatles record home and played it for Nancy [Livingston's wife of 38 years and former move actress Nancy Olson ("Sunset Boulevard"]. 'I want you to listen to this.' And I can quote exactly, I said, 'I think it's going to change the whole record business.' She said, "Realllly. Let me hear it.' I played it for her and she said [very derisively] 'I Wannnnnnna Hold Your Hand. Are you kidding?' And I thought, 'Maybe I made a mistake.' But I put the record out anyway," Livingston laughs.
Livingston's seemingly magic touch seems to be in operation even when he's not thinking about it. Witness:
"My son was rummaging around in my area where I had all my albums and he found some albums of the butcher cover. The butcher cover. . .the Beatles always said to me they'd like to do their own covers. Capitol always did the covers. I said, "Fine. You can do them." And they would send us final artwork from London. And once they sent an album cover which was a picture of them sitting in white smocks holding parts, dismembered parts of dolls, bloody looking. And I looked at it and said, "What is this!?" And I called them and they said, That's our comment on war." I don't want to put this out." They insisted. I had the contractual right to stop it. But I didn't want to do that. So I finally, in desperation, said, 'What we will do is to put out a few hundred of them at most, send them to dealers and have them take them to the stores and see what the reaction is.' Well the word came back in no uncertain terms. The stores said we won't put it on our shelves. We won't sell it. Now a Beatles album is obviously worth a lot of money to them. But they refused to sell it so I called London. I was dealing with Brian Epstein, I said, "We won't put the album out. We can't do it.' Finally he came back and gave us a new cover. I had no other way of dealing with the situation.
When my son found them, a box of them, he said, "don't you know what these are worth?" I said, "No." He said, "I can get 5 to 1 0,000 each for these. So I gave him a number of them and he went back to New York where he was living and was selling them off like crazy. And eventually I sold a few myself. I now have only one left."
"When they came to Los Angeles after they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show they were absolutely tops in this country. After they did Sullivan, I said I would appreciate it if you would do a benefit for me. I had a particular charity I was interested in. They said, "Oh,
Alan don't ask us to do that." So I said, "I'll tell you what. Just volunteer, you don't have to play. So Nancy's mother had a huge garden out in Brentwood and I said we'll do it there. And all I want you to do is sit on a chair so that kids can shake hands with you. It will be by invitation only and we'll charge---I could have charged anything, I charged 25 dollars a child---plus an adult had to be with them. It was by invitation and the location was kept secret. But it got out and I had calls from everyone. We took a picture of the Beatles with each kid We took it to capacity. And then we had to call the riot squad. They came up and hid in the garage waiting in case there was anything gone wrong. They roped the place off, mobs of kids were trying to get in. The Beatles walked through and I had a cameraman that took a picture of every child as they came through the line. The pictures will be on the wall at Capitol records in two weeks and you can order prints. Well what could be more appealing, and kids went through that line crying, emotional, hysterical. I never saw anything like it.
"I got to know the Beatles pretty well. I got along best with Paul. He would sit at the piano and play songs for me. That was one trip when I had them in a house in Bel Air. I could't put them in a hotel anymore so I rented a house for them. Secretly. No one knew where they were and I would go out and sit and talk with them. I never understood whether John was putting on an act or that was his real self. He was reasonable at first. But more and more took on an attitude that was anti a lot of things. He was strange, remote. Ringo was just a happy go lucky guy. George I never had much contact with.
One day when they were in the Bel Air house. I came home from the office one day. It was about six o'clock. I came in the front door and just as I shut the front door the doorbell rang and I opened it and there was a camera in my face. It was CBS. They said, "You have BeatIes here?" I said, "Yes." They said, "Where are they staying?" I said, "I don't know." They said, "Come nowwww! Certainly you know where they're staying." I said, "I don't know where they're staying" They finally went off. Then I'm watching television that night and I see my face and they're asking me and I say that I don't know where they're staying. Then there's a shot of my twelve-year-old daughter in front of the house saying, "I know where they're staying." She didn't really know.
In Dave Dexter's autobiography, published in 1992 shortly before his death, he takes almost sole credit for signing the BeatIes. Livingston just smiles and shrugs it off. He knows that his place in Beatle history is secure. As is the part he played in the resurrection of Frank Sinatra's sagging pre-From Here to Eternity fortunes in the early 1950s.
"When I was at Capitol, Sinatra was in the doldrums. He couldn't get a job in a nightclub, Ava Gardner had left him, he was despondent, he was drinking heavily, they SAID he'd lost his voice. He was in bad shape but he certainly hadn't lost his voice. He had been at Columbia Records, and Mitch Miller who was the head of that label made records with him that didn't sell at all. "
The most notorious example of what Sinatra was asked to record toward the end of his stay at Columbia is the now-infamous novelty tune "Mama Will Bark" which features him and fleeting early 50s US TV sensation Dagmar singing a love duet in the personae of canines. Sprinkled throughout are the sounds of a male dog barking voiced by Sinatra. Not only is it inarguably the worst record he ever recorded, also it is one of the worst recordings of all time. . .by anybody. After this record tanked, according to Livingston, "Mitch Miller finally gave up and let him go. Then one day I'm sitting in my office and I get a call from the president of William Morris Agency. He said, 'Alan we just took on management of Frank Sinatra' and I said, 'Realllly.' He said, 'Would you consider signing him?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, [incredulously] 'You would?' A half-century later, Livingston chuckles and says, 'Some agent!' I signed Frank to a seven year contract with a union scale advance. Right after that I went to a sales meeting in New York and when I made the announcement everybody moaned---Ughhh---I didn't know how to answer it at first and then I said, 'I only know one thing. He's a great talent.' Instead of trying to make hits for him we started to make albums. Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. All the great American classic songs and Frank sang them, like nobody else."
Livingston was not only a driving force behind Sinatra and the Beatles but such varied, influential and varied recording acts as Les Paul and Mary Ford, June Christy, Stan Kenton, George Shearing, Nat "King" Cole and come the second wave of rock and roll in the mid-1960s, the Beach Boys. With the latter, Livingston didn't play such a hands-on role, but the success of this great group happened on his watch.
Livingston's strong suit, and where he also functioned as a hands-on producer, were comedy, i.e., Stan Freberg, the 2,000 Year Old Man, etc, and childrens' records, including Bozo, the successful recording clown on whose multi-colored coattails Livingston rode to the eventual presidency of Capitol Records, and early Warner Bros and Capitol cartoon recordings, etc. He even co-wrote a hit song "I Taut I Taw a Pussy Cat" rendered at the top of the hit parade in 1950 by cartoon voice legend Mel Blanc, singing as Warners' Tweety Bird." A minor novelty trifle, but not exactly a classic in the Great American Songbook Nancy Olson Livingston reminds me that her former husband, Alan Jay Lerner, just so happened to have co-written "My Fair Lady." "I went from 'I Could Have Danced All Night' to 'I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat'," Olson laughs.
In the late fifties RCA Records began a campaign to lure Livingston away from Capitol. He turned them down. Happy at Capitol, he didn't want to move sideways. "Why go from one record company to another. I kept turning them down until finally they said, 'How would you like to be in television?' I'd been in the record business nearly twenty years. This was a challenge. It excited me. I went to NBC as head of programming. The first thing they wanted was a western. I finished the pilot for Bonanaza, but couldn't sell it. That was the end of Bonanza. Eventually though, it went on the air for RCA and it ran for seven years. Henry Mancini, who got very sick before he died, called me in one day and said, "Alan, I always neglected to thank you." I said, "what for?" And he said, Peter Gunn. Somebody brought him to me to compose the score. I knew that was it." Risk-taker Alan Livingston struck again! Up to that time, 1958, the notion of a jazz score for a TV show was unheard of. (In 1961 returned to Capitol for a final stay of seven years.)
There are those who might say that even Livingston's farsightedness in regard to Sinatra and the Beatles pales in comparison to an act he signed to Capitol in 1952.
"I can tell you the story. I had a man who was head of the New York office. He said somebody brought me in this woman, a Peruvian Indian, who had a 4-octave range. She has an amazing voice quality. She doesn't speak any English. I don't know what to do with her. He sent me some tapes. There was no music on them, nothing that you could put your finger on. Her Somebody tired to do something with her on another label nothing had happened. She came to California and I met with her and her husband, Moises Vivanco who was a musician and a guitar player. He spoke English. I said, I'd like to try something with her and we made a deal. I hired the composer/arranger Les Baxter. And I said, "I want you to work with me and her and see if we can come up with something that will be appealing. She couldn't read music, we didn't know where to start. We had her sing all the various things she did which had no form of any kind. Les sat down and wrote a score based on what she was singing. Then I went into the studio with them and an orchestra and we began recording the whole thing live and literally we were dealing with pieces of tape that were [hold out his hands one foot from each other] this long. We'd get something, then say okay, then go from there. We sat and worked and worked and it was driving me crazy. I thought we would never get finished. But we did finish and had come up with an unusual album of effects and sounds. Now what to we call this. I asked Moises. What is this music known as? Tell me about her background. Well, she came from the hills of Peru. She's an Indian and they called it the music of Xtabay. What does that mean? Well, it has a significant meaning to them. I don't know exactly. Well I said, "We're going to call it Voice a/the Xtabay. And we put it out and promoted it as something unusual. And it caught on." A typical Livingston understatement: if there every was one: Sumac went on to become perhaps the most successful offbeat act in Pop history .
I interviewed Alan Livingston in the Beverly Hills home, where the Beatles partied till dawn during their second visit to California in 1966, and in which he has lived for nearly half-a-century. Early in our first conversation I said to him:
"Depending on one's particular point of view you could be be considered either the great destroyer of American popular music, or its great savior."
"What do you mean?," Livingston asks curiously.
"You signed Frank Sinatra to a recording contract at the lowest point in his career, in the early 1950s. In turn, he begin a series of recordings that almost (along with Ella Fitzgerald) single-handedly held the line of the Great American Songbook of Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Hammerstein et al against the overwhelming tide of rock and roll in the 1950s."
"That's the 'savior' part, right?," he muses.
"Yes, many would say that, I believe."
"And the destroyer part?"
"Ten years after you signed Sinatra, the Beatles came along and launched a second offensive (many would view it that way) from which non-rock American pop and jazz has yet, more than thirty years later, to---many would say---" recover."
"Hmmm, I never thought of THAT before." It is a remark typical of this uncommonly modest and low-key Captain of American Industry.