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NEAR TRUTHS: THE HITS KEEP COMING (PART TWO)

What follows is intended as a companion piece to the Rob Light career saga presented here.

VISION QUEST: The beginning of Rob’s story in 1978 coincides with another long-running narrative. Lenny Beer had just been fired from 20th Century Records by Alan Livingston, best known as the guy who passed on The Beatles and Frank Sinatra when he was at Capitol. Dennis Lavinthal was working for Leber Krebs Management, having been brought in to run the company’s West Coast offices—across the street from ICM, where he got to know the agency's erstwhile music head, Tom Ross, and his agents quite well.

Lavinthal was sent to pop into some stadium dates for clients Aerosmith and Ted Nugent; in St. Louis, he was told by a tour manager that the band wouldn’t be going on the following night unless they got some smack. Lavinthal turned around and booked a flight home and settled out his contract. He was owed a hefty chunk of change by LKM and had leased a handsome tomato-red Mercedes as a company car, and there was some wrangling over both the payment of the aforementioned chunk and the return of the vehicle.

TRY THE BANZINO: What transpired next is lost to the sands of time, but legend has it that once the Mercedes was returned and a Leber Krebs functionary was tasked with driving it back to the NYC offices, a foul, piscine odor began to waft from somewhere within. The wharf-esque funk intensified with each passing mile, and by the time the Benz was parked in its midtown Manhattan garage it was positively swarming with neighborhood felines. A diligent dissection of the interior yielded no answers until at last the door panels were removed. To this day, the whole scaly story remains shrouded in mystery, but eventually company attorneys were required to parse the sordid tale in some truly classic correspondence.

Soon thereafter, during a lunch at Art’s Deli in the Valley that would prove to be a watershed moment, Beer and Lavinthal, both out of work, decided to go into business together. Beer was a chart savant with heavy-duty connections to radio promotion and retail; Lavinthal had a strong Rolodex, having grown up in the biz and then having had a successful run at ABC/Dunhill. Beer had an idea: to get small radio stations on board and drive records up the back page of R&R, making those records into “breakers”—and once that happened, big stations would come on board.

The resulting venture, Music Vision, became a juggernaut of radio promotion. They hired a core team and a network of people inside and outside the company, which cultivated a rich, nourishing alphabet soup of stations up and down the country. Choosing to work only tracks they felt were hits, they became in Lavinthal’s words, “too successful.” Virtually every label and manager in the business wanted them working their records, and the price of poker had been gradually escalating.

In 1986, Brian Ross’ four-part NBC-TV exposé on the music biz and the mob—focused on some unsavory players, including CBS Records CEO Walter Yetnikoff, one of the most powerful figures in the biz and a former big user of sports medicine—was the prime motivator for CBS and Warner Bros., among others, to cut ties with indie promo. The various investigations were a key factor, but so was a wobbly economic landscape.

On 1/23 of that year, the day after the inaugural Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, at which footage for the NBC special was captured, Lavinthal was summoned to the presidential suite of the Helmsley Palace Hotel. There, at a meeting later referred to by some uninformed tabloids as Little Appalachia, representatives of all the big indie promotion companies were gathered; this, too, was featured on the TV exposé—and chronicled in Fredric Dannen’s infamous book, Hit Men. The following Monday the space shuttle Challenger blew up. This tragedy seemed to close an era.

Beer had another idea: “Let’s start a magazine.” He had experience with a trade—Record World was his first music-biz gig, and his chart work there had been virtually revolutionary. A tour of the labels with the hybrid notion of a mag that would also work your records engendered some bewilderment, but most pledged their support, swayed by the pitch that this new entity would be entertaining and informative and would ultimately change the game. (Any post-exposé jitters were calmed by assurances that none of the players had ever had any mob connections.)

And so the beast called HITS was born.

TAGS: I.B. Bad
HITS LIST:
HOME RUN DERBY
Going yard (7/11a)
SONG REVENUE:
SCHLEMIEL, SHABOOZEY
Th epitome of new country (7/11a)
GRAMMY PRE-CHEW:
THREE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIG 4
On your Marks, get set, go. (7/8a)
TOWARD A FRUITFUL GRAMMY SEASON
Our editurr in chief has something on his mined. (7/10a)
SABRINA TO REACH NEW HEIGHTS WITH TOUR MERCH?
Her table's stacked. (7/10a)
THE GRAMMY SHORT LIST
Who's already a lock?
COUNTRY'S NEWEST DISRUPTOR
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
AI IS ALREADY EATING YOUR LUNCH
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
INDIE DISTRIBUTION'S RISE TO GLORY
The discovery engine is revving higher.
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