Veteran disc jockey Jim LaBarbara's book The Music Professor: A Life Amplified Through Radio and Rock 'n' Roll (Little Miami Publishing) is terrific. It is also a finalist for an Ohioana book award, sponsored by the State of Ohio's library. Jim was kind enough to share an excerpt here, which I chose. I recommend the book to anyone interested in radio, vintage sounds, and the history of modern music. In the following story, early rock DJ Bill Randle explains how Columbia had a chance to sign Elvis before RCA got him from Sun Records. But Mitch Miller, who ran Columbia, was a middle-of-the-road guy. Recollections from the late Mr. Randle are interesting to anyone who has followed music history. Randle was one of the early rock 'n' roll DJs who worked in cities such as New York (WCBS) and Cleveland. Randle, who was also a lawyer, saw some of the greats come and go. He is known for bringing Elvis to Cleveland in the early days of Elvis's career. He was good friends with Jim, who writes about Randle's influence.
How Columbia Records Lost Elvis
By Jim LaBarbara
Bill Randle had a lot to do with Elvis's early success, and he told me in great detail how he became involved with Elvis.
"I read about a riot in a small Florida town," Bill said. "Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black had played a gig in that town, and like most hillbilly or country artists, they sold pictures and records out of the back of their car. Presley had an old pink Cadillac at the time. He had started to get interested in strippers. Most people aren't aware he had dated strippers, and he had seen strippers work. He started to implement some of the bumps and grinds into the act. It just had these kids crazy that night. They had rushed the car. They were breaking the records, and so it made the wires. I thought anybody who would do this . . . and the name fascinated me, Elvis Presley.
"Arnold Shaw, who worked for the music publisher Edward B. Marks, was very tight with the artists and repertoire (A&R) guy Steve Sholes at RCA. [Steve was the producer in charge of the label's Country and Western Department.] I asked Arnold if he could get me some records at Sun. I had seen some blues records on Sun, but we didn't have access to Sun Records. Arnold was on his way to Nashville, and he heard Presley work. He bought the one song 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget' for publishing. He brought me the records. At first I didn't play them in New York because of CBS; it would have been unthinkable to play them [at that time]. I had a free hand. I'd play 'Honky Tonk' by Bill Doggett, but a down-country artist like Presley's 'That's All Right'--the crudity of the record was just too much. [In addition,] Technically, the records didn't meet CBS performance sound standards. . .
"This was mid-1955, because by the time of the Country Music Convention that summer, Presley records weren't even being played in country [radio]. Billboard magazine carried a story. Presley won some small award. [The story stated,] 'Even a disc jockey like Bill Randle thinks that Elvis Presley is going to be a big star.' It was an unusual thing to play country music at the time."
Bill was there, and he explained how Elvis went from Sun to RCA: "Okay, what really happened? [One] Saturday afternoon Freddy Bienstock and Gene and Julian Alberbach [Gene and Julian were brothers who owned Hill and Range Music Publishing Company. Freddy was their nephew] came in, and they were signing me to a twenty-page contract on things that later on would have been constituted to be illegal. I had found so many records that they wanted to pay me literally a royalty for X thousands of dollars for anything that I brought to them that grossed over fifty thousand dollars--if I gave them information first. The first piece of information I gave them was Elvis Presley. I said, "There's a kid in the South who's the biggest thing I've ever seen in my life" . . . Freddy Bienstock had a date that night with a blonde lady who was very important to him. Gene and Julian Alderbach, very German, very rich heads of this music corporation, told Freddy, 'You get on an airplane, and you go down, and you sign him [Elvis] as a writer because of this other song, 'I Forgot to Remember.' So Freddy, grumbling and groaning, goes down, and he signs him as a songwriter. At that time, Presley was managed by a local deejay, Bob Neal. Colonel Parker was with Eddy Arnold at the time. This is how the Alderbachs come in, and the real deal went down. Gene and Julian signed Presley to a publishing deal, but Steven Sholes was a part of their deal. They had contracts with everybody . . . Mitch Miller of Columbia [also] had a deal with the Alderbachs. They were very influential people at the time, so they signed Elvis as a writer. They brought Sholes in to make the deal with RCA Victor, and Victor put up some of the money for the buy-out from Sun Records and so did the Alderbachs with some royalties and things. . . So that was the package: Steven Sholes, who had never heard of Elvis until that time; the Alderbachs, the two German heads of a publishing company; Freddy Bienstock, who missed a date with his gorgeous blonde to sign this million-dollar thing; and Bob Neal, who was the manager. Then they closed him out . . . Colonel Parker became the head honcho because the Colonel was Steven Sholes's guy, and they were all in bed together, and that was the history of Elvis. Parker did run his career, and it was at that time that I stopped having anything to do with Presley on the level of things we were doing. I did the first concert with Presley at the Arena in Cleveland, but by then the relationship with Parker was very strained. . ."
Bill Randle told me the deal to get Elvis to RCA went down for forty thousand dollars. Bill added, "We offered him to Mitch Miller at Columbia Records first. I was doing a film called The Pied Piper of Cleveland for what's now MCA, but it was Universal [then]. In the film were Bill Haley and the Comets; Pat Boone, the little girl singer Priscilla Wright from Canada; the Four Lads; and Elvis Presley, with Bill Black and Scotty Moore [appearing at the Circle Theater in Cleveland at the time]. We shot the film on October 20, 1955, at Brooklyn High School and at Saint Michael's Church hall. Pat Boone talked about it in a Rolling Stone article where he said it was the first time he ever worked with Presley. We did the film with Elvis, paid him two hundred dollars to do the film. At that time, the Four Lads were managed by Michael Stewart, who was the president of United Artists. Mike Stewart afterward came up to me and said, 'You don't want to be associated with that kind of music.' Presley, by the way, had on red suede shoes, red socks, red shirt, red tie, and a red suit. That was it, a little gross for 1955, right?" He laughed. "At any rate, I said, 'Mike, this kid's going to be the biggest thing you ever saw.' Then Mike saw the reaction of the students --three thousand students. He called Mitch Miller, and Mitch got the [Presley] records and turned them down. So Mitch had the first crack at Elvis even with Freddy hustling because Columbia was such a big record company. That was a little before Freddy went down [to Nashville], so Mitch had a clear shot at him [Presley]."
Bill said nobody knew Elvis, but when he sang, the kids went wild. "They went berserk; it was just a madhouse."
Copyright 2011 by Jim LaBarbara. Excerpted from The Music Professor: A Life Amplified Through Radio and Rock 'n' Roll by Jim LaBarbara. Published by Little Miami Publishing, 19 Water St., P.O. Box 588, Milford, Ohio 45150. Price: $28; hardbound; 381 pages. For more information or to order a book, see www.littlemiamibooks.com.
Jim LaBarbara on the air.
(Photo courtesy Jim LaBarbara)