Alexander Mair – Drop the Needle!
Submitted by Bill King
Editor’s Note: Bill King had the opportunity to interview one of Canada’s music industry pioneers Alexander Mair on his radio show and provided this one on one story to Cashbox Canada.
Bill King: At ten years old you said you began buying 78’s. What was the fascination?
Alexander Mair: This was around 1950 and obviously before rock broke through and every Sunday at Noon radio station CHML in Hamilton played the Top Ten in descending order. Sundays I’d situate myself in front of the old Philco radio and listen to the Top Ten which at that time was called ‘middle of the road.’ I also discovered WUFO in Buffalo and WOWO in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. WUFO was a black station in Buffalo which had an announcer called George “the Hound” Lorenz. WOWO would have been called a Top Forty station at that time. Both stations opened my ears to a lot of music that wasn’t available in Canada, at least on radio but possibly in record stores, if you found the right record stores.
B.K.: Is this is where your fascination with R&B began - the “doo-wop” era?
A.M.: Yes. At that time the Billboard chart was called the Race Records chart. No so called white radio station would play a black artist, so white artists would have hits covering the black hits particularly two artists from Toronto – the Diamonds and the Crew Cuts. Both built their careers almost exclusively on songs written and recorded by black artists.
B.K.: Where did you grow up in Toronto?
A.M.: It was in the west end – Keele and Bloor. I went to Humberside Collegiate. When I was twelve I got hired by the local record store. The owner decided to move into Cloverdale Mall and still owned a record store at Runnymede and Bloor so at twelve he hired me because I knew so much about music.
It was fun. People would come in and pick a record and go into a listening booth and decide yes or no and one was the bass singer with the Crew Cuts. He always came in looking for new R&B stuff, maybe the Crew Cuts could cover. I suspect a few of the songs I turned them on to appear on their albums.
B.K.: I had this fascination with B-sides. I thought maybe there was something our band in Louisville could record. I thought maybe they were A sides that were rejected.
A.M.: A good example, and he is a Canadian who lives outside Detroit, was Jack Scott. He had a single called “Leroy” an up tempo track being pushed on radio. The record store where I worked had a guy who DJ’ed at night and I started D J’ing on the weekend – dances and we turned over “Leroy” and the song was called “My True Love” and when we finally convinced the record company to turn it over, it went on to become Jack’s biggest hit.
B.K.: What was going on at home? How did the parents handle you being out there at twelve?
A.M.: Fortunately, my parents were quite supportive. The first time Elvis was on Ed Sullivan my father thought he was a good singer. There’s no musical talent in the family. I played guitar a bit and realized early on I had no future as a guitar player and fortunately, I could switch to the other side of the desk.
B.K.: After the record store what did you do?
A.M.: After high school I applied at Ryerson for the Radio and Television Arts course and got turned down. I didn’t know I could appeal at the time so I enrolled in night school at the University of Toronto and began studying accounting because that was the only night school course that would lead to a degree. After one two hour lesson I applied to Capitol Records as a royalty accountant, and because I knew the catalogues so well, I got hired at Capitol as a royalty accountant and six months later in sales.
B.K.: What a great start and perfect set-up to what was to come. There where?
A.M.: From there I moved on to London Records for almost two weeks. I quit three times and was rehired twice. They had some hits from England and the guy who ran it Max Zimmerman whose son Earl Mann is an announcer here in Toronto. Max had a cigar store in Parkdale and somehow met the head of London Records in England and they became friends and he was given a franchise for Ontario. He was a thrifty man and his instructions were, call a radio station and hold the receiver by the record player and if they agreed to add it; I could send it to them. If I send it to them and they don’t play, it was expected I would ask them to send it back.
B.K.: That didn’t go well.
A.M.: Not at all. A friend tipped me off at Capitol Records I should call a gentleman by the name George Offer who ran the Ontario branch which is now Universal Music and I called up George, had the meeting and he created a job for me on the spot.
I became promotion manager for Ontario; then from that to national promotion manager, then to vice president of promotion. During this period we distributed a label called United Artists which is now defunct and the main artist for Canada was Gordon Lightfoot. I met Gordon at the time when he was playing the Steeles Tavern on Yonge Street and started promoting him. Over time he reached a point where he could play concert halls from coast to coast.
He then asked me if I would leave the record company and come work for him and handle his business affairs so I did that in 1968 and worked with him until 1976. During that period I realized I didn’t want to be that closely involved in someone’s personal life.
What I wanted to do was have my own record company. A friend of mine I helped get a job at Warner Music, Tom Williams – he and I sat down that Friday – he had quit that day, and decided if we were to ever start a record company, now’s the time. So, on the Saturday we wrote out a business plan, never seeing such a document before yet did it in logical sequence. Then on the Sunday an accountant came over, keep in mind this was pre computers. He had a book keeping machine that was at least a yard wide and possibly electric. Anyways, we did budget projections for five years and by then we’d all be millionaires and living off the fat of the land so to speak. On Monday, I called Allan Slaight. I had invested some Lightfoot money in a broadcasting operation Allan owned. I approached him about being a share holder and he said he’d just bought another radio station and suggested I meet with one of the other directors of his broadcasting operation who had been chair of the Toronto Stock Exchange.
I called him, we met on the Tuesday and he said he thought he knew somebody who would be interested in helping fund the operation, would you like me to introduce you? We were naive and didn’t understand he wanted a piece of the action. He made the call to the 17th floor. We went up and spent the afternoon with a venture capital – very conservative, that was owned by Sun Life, Bell Telephone, a rug company. We sat for three hours and at the end of the conversation they said they were in. They asked for us to give them a list of twenty names who (1) say this can be done. (2) you are the guys who can do it. We supplied the twenty names and raised $300,000. We weren’t the only Indy but the first to have funding. We didn’t want to be a Mickey Mouse label struggling to make the next single.
B.K.: Back to Gordon.
A.M.: I started working with Gordon on his first album called “Lightfoot.” I go back to 1968. The first single came out in Canada and there wasn’t going to be a second then a radio station in Seattle started playing, “If You Could Read My Mine” off the album to great response so Warner’s rushed out the single and the rest is history.
B.K.: Getting music played across the border was incredibly challenging.
A.M.: Historically, that’s changed the last couple years in a big way. Being signed to a Canadian label – a major; Canada was not looked at as being an artist source by the parent company. It was difficult for an artist signed to a Columbia or Capitol Canada to get a U.S. release. There were a couple – Anne Murray and Edward Bear who were signed to Capitol Canada by Paul White. We as an independent could deal with anybody in the States. We had contracts with RCA, Capitol, Epic etc.
B.K.: Whatever label took an interest in one of your artists?
A.M.: Yes. Both Tom and I were singer-songwriter oriented so the first artist we signed to Attic was Ron Nigrini, then Ken Tobias then Shirley Eikhard. In Ron’s case we did a deal with RCA U.S. With Ken and Hagood Hardy we did deals with Capitol U.S. Shirley we did a deal with Epic U.S. We had a shot internationally with those artists. The only one that came through was Hagood Hardy. That was our first hit.
A.M.: Yes. Probably with all the versions and repackaging Hagood had done, it had to be 300,000 sold in Canada alone. We cracked the Top 50 in U.S. made it to #47 then we were victim of a power struggle with Capitol L.A. between head of promotion and head of marketing both, who wanted to be president of the company. The head of marketing won and basically flushed all the artists signed by head of promotion down the drain. So we went from #47 with a bullet with Hagood to #75, then off. Hagood did win the artist instrumental of the year award from Billboard for “The Homecoming.”
B.K.: The licensing on that song must have been quite lucrative?
A.M.: It started as a tea commercial - a thirty second commercial for Salada Tea. People were calling radio stations asking where they could buy it and it wasn’t available. The ad agency hired Hagood to record an extended version of the commercial and anyone that got in contact with them were sent a free ’45.
I met Hagood in Cannes, France and asked him what he was doing and he said he had this single. I called all the major labels in Canada and none were interested. I listened and told him we’d put it out just call me when you get back to Toronto. Fortunately, he did and the rest is history.
B.K.: Attic Records - one hundred and fourteen hits?
A.M.: Gold, Platinum and Multi–Platinum.
B.K.: How did you get away with that?
A. M: Having funding helped in being able to do foreign deals, not necessarily big money deals but it also helped us grow. We learned early on the singer-songwriter thing was not going to be the way to go. A couple of musicians; a bass player and drummer met with my partner Tom and had a concept of creating another power trio ‘a la Rush.’ There was a guitar player in a band that was signed to Capitol Records and he had said to these two gentlemen if they got a record deal he’d leave the band he was with and join them. Rik Emmett left the band he was with and joined the other two; Mike Levine and Gil Moore and formed Triumph.
B.K.: They were willing to slog it out on the road.
A.M.: When they approached us they didn’t ask for any advance and just wanted a record out. They had made a record, a single with another singer and said just release it. In the seventies, if you had a record out you could get a lot of work across Canada; northern Ontario and Quebec. We put the single out and nobody played it but they were able to get gigs. They were being presented by local radio stations – possibly some short term play.
They spent six or eight months playing bars and always acted like they were putting on a concert. They were never a bar band. They had the big Marshall stacks, airplane runway lights and did everything. When they came back it was time to release the first album and we had them do three dates in Toronto; the Knob Hill in Scarborough, Gasworks downtown and Queensbury Arms in the west end. Those three dates launched Triumph.
B.K.: Negotiating with major American labels could be difficult. How did you manage that?
A.M.: We had an advantage; we didn’t necessarily need their money. It was more about let’s get something out and happening in the States, rather than a large advance.
An example; we did a deal for Hagood Hardy. To reproduce that the American’s would have to have spent $75,000 in the studio bringing in players and what have you. We licensed to them for $25,000 and they were quite happy to pay the $25,000.
As for Triumph, we told them lower than what we would normally ask in advance but we got a two album commitment from RCA and that was important. They took what was the “best” of the first two Canadian albums, assembled and put it out in the States and then funded the next album and that funding went to build Metalworks Studio.
B.K.: Of all your bands which had the best business sense?
A.M.: Definitely Triumph! They were as much businessmen as musicians.
B.K.: Maestro Fresh-Wes. How did that come about?
A.M.: Maestro had a produced album and hadn’t shopped. He ran into Steve Waxman who had seen him live and gave him his business card and told him to call, which he didn’t do. There was an American rap act here doing City TV and Wes gave him a cassette to give to his record company in the States – a small company called LMR. L & M stood for Lefrak - Moelis who are very big in New York real estate owning office buildings, but didn’t put any money to speak of into the label.
We got a call – they had sampled a group called Haywire – “Drop the Needle.” This had been sampled by Wes without permission. So I called the American label and told them this was a sample of one of our bands, Haywire. They said they didn’t know. We worked out a deal for them to use the sample and then I asked about Canadian distribution. He didn’t know anything about Canada. We ran down who we were and our distributor. We licensed the album for the same amount we charged for the sample. The rest is history. “Let You Backbone Slide” is the first hip hop side by a Canadian artist to go gold, then platinum then double platinum.
B.K.: Going in you must believe every song you release is a hit.
A.M.: Or there’s a market for it. We put out all sorts or weird and wonderful acts. Soundtracks and others and they sold.
B.K.: You sold Attic in 2000.
A.M.: I was glad I got out then.
B.K.: Have a memorable moment from the past?
A.M.: Two come to mind. Our first single was by Fludd, a song called “Brother and Me’ and they were performing a free concert at Nathan Phillips Square. We’d only been in business a few months and we hired a plane to fly over – Mariposa was on the island the same weekend. There are forty or fifty thousand kids at Nathan Phillips Square and the plane flies over and says “Fludd Wishes You a Happy Summer” – a beautiful sunny day and we were on our way. Second would probably be Teenage Head at Ontario Place Forum. Frankie Venom the lead singer who unfortunately passed a number of years ago played that crowd so well. It was reported in the paper the next day to be a near riot. If you remember the rotating stage, Frankie stood on the barrier and walked around and people were grabbing him.
I guess a third would be Katrina and the Waves who we had signed and brought them over to Canada to perform. We hired a tour boat and took media around the harbor then pulled up by the Forum and took them in and the place just exploded for the band. There’s a picture of kids coming over the barriers holding on to Katrina and she was standing higher than they were. We ran a full page ad in Billboard with that photo.