Tales of Rock: Who’s Libretto?

Philadelphia, PA – 1968

My uncle Jack used to work for Columbia Records back in the 60s. He was a well-known producer and had lots of connections in the music industry. When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 80s he was out there on business and called me to meet up with him for lunch.

I was happy to meet up with him. It would be nice to not only see a member of my family because it was my first time far away from home. But also because he was my favorite uncle. He was a brilliant guy with a lightning-fast wit. He was an easy-going dude that everybody liked.

I drove out to Century City in my 1969 VW minibus to meet him for lunch. We were joined by the former president of Columbia Records who was a buddy of my uncle’s. I remember it was cool to hang out with these guys and listen to their stories of the glory days of popular music in the 60s.

During his time in the business, my uncle met many musicians and celebrities like Andy Williams, and Barbra Streisand.

One story that stand out in my mind is when his buddy told a story about how the Jefferson Airplane had recorded a demo for Columbia and they didn’t like it and turned it down flat for a record deal. He said one of the guys in the band urinated into the planter in the corner of his office upon hearing the news. He said they later signed with RCA Victor and got an unheard of $25k advance to get on board with them. (which was a fortune in 1965)  “They were a bunch of crazy people.” he said about the band.

Anyway, I always loved my uncle and still miss his wry wit to this day. But back to the story at hand.

Because my uncle was in the industry he would be given lots of vinyl demo albums to check out and review. Anything that was popular or mainstream he could relate to, but when he was given anything relating to classical music or opera, he would give them to his brother.

Which was my father. My dad loved classical music and opera and it was probably his favorite kind of music. Since my uncle was clueless to that kind of music he’d pass them to my dad to give him the lowdown on each orchestra and album.

This went on for many years and my dad got loads of free music to add to his collection. As a kid, I always wondered why on many of his record albums there was always a red stamp on the back. It read: “Not for Sale. This album is for demonstration purposes only.” Those were the ones my uncle gave him. If for some reason there was some unknown rock band in one of the many albums he gave him, my dad would pass it to me. Even as far forward as the late 70s. I remember my dad handing me the soundtrack to the animated film, Heavy Metal based on the comic magazine. It’s where I first heard the song, Mob Rules by Black Sabbath. There was even a record that consisted of a collection of songs by different artists, and one of them was a really old recording from the German metal band Scorpions (Whom I loved) it was a song called “Am I Going Mad?” from the album Lonesome Crow, which I didn’t even know existed back then.

Anyway, back in 1968, my uncle was chatting with my dad about music, and an interesting question came up. He said he had a buddy over at Decca Records that was working with a somewhat popular band from the UK. The group had been generating some buzz as an up-and-coming mod/rock band. They were trying to find their voice and identity and had released a few small hits.

Back in the 50s and early 60s, bands and singers only released singles. Short songs that were never longer than 3 minutes long. If that artist had generated enough popular songs in a period of time, the label l would put the songs out as a collection on an LP.

But the Beatles changed all that when they started to release albums of all-new material. No longer would albums be collections of hits but bonafide creative works of music.

But the main guy in the band over at Decca was a brilliant songwriter and wanted to take his band’s music to the next level. He came up with a unique concept. He ran the idea and played a few songs for his producer. It was a groundbreaking idea for an album that hadn’t ever been done before.

The producer over at Decca ran the idea by my uncle to get his thoughts on the subject. He of course spoke to his brother, (my dad) about it. My father listened intently to the idea and gave him this response:

“Do they have a libretto?”

“A what?”

A libretto. Every opera has a libretto. It’s the text and the substantive ideas that inspire the composition, including the dramatic structure, characters and scenario of the opera.

“Okay…”

“Well, tell your friend that if this band is going to do some kind of opera, they’ll need a libretto so when people buy the record they can read along and know what’s going on with the story of the songs even if it’s in a different language.”

So my uncle goes back and tells all of this to his buddy over at Decca, and he tells the guy in the band who’s writing the album. He loves the idea and they decide to include a libretto with the new album. My uncle tells my dad and he’s happy he was able to help out based on his expertise with classical music and opera.

“By the way, Jack, what’s the opera about?”

“It’s about a deaf, mute, and blind boy who is abused as a child and becomes an incredible player at the game of pinball.”

“Okay, well that seems a little weird, but I hope they have success with that. Glad I could help.”

My dad obviously got a free demo copy of the album before it came out and turned me on to this incredible band and their music.

So my father had something to do with the creation of Tommy by The Who.

 

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Author: phicklephilly

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