When I worked at Saturn Records in 1968 my father was sort of the unofficial distributor of King Records and to my recollection they only had one act worth mentioning, James Brown. I don’t remember the exact date, but Martin Luther King was still alive. James had somehow insulted the station manager at KGFJ, the R & B station in L.A. and in retaliation they’d decided not to play his records.
Bad news for James Brown. If they didn’t play him on KGFJ they didn’t hear him in L.A. James and his manager, a guy named Bud Hobgood, came to town to fix it. I remember the four of them, James, Bud, my dad and his partner, a guy named Jack Frost, no lie, that was his name, sitting in my dad’s office trying to decide what to do. I sort of drifted in and out, so I don’t really know who got the idea, but, when the meeting was over, all of a sudden James was gonna be the righter of a horrible wrong. Not only was KGFJ not playing him, they weren’t playing Bill Medley’s, “Brown Eyed Woman” and Jose Feliciano’s, “Star Spangled Banner,” either. They had a policy back then. Only black acts on their station. Mr. Medley and Mr. Feliciano didn’t fit the bill. But they probably didn’t care, as every other station in America was all over those records. But James cared, nobody in L.A. was playing his.
Their idea was to round up a bunch of black kids and make a record with them. James would sing, they’d chime in on the chorus. They’d take an ad out in the black papers, linking James with Bill and Jose, call the station raciest, force them to play James’ records.
So Godfrey Kerr, a local DJ on a small FM station, and myself took Jack’s kids, (Jack was—and if he’s still alive, still is—a white guy and one of the greatest human beings to ever grace God’s earth. His wife was black though, Eunice of Gene and Eunice fame, so his kids qualified.) and a load of their friends to Vox studios in Burbank. They were so excited, they were going to meet James Brown.
When we got there the band was already set up. They had chairs for us and the kids. The kids sat. The band tuned up. Then James came in. Mr. Electricity himself. It doesn’t make any difference if you like his music or not, when you see him in a room, you like him. There’s an aura about the guy that sucks you right in. An audience of one or a hundred thousand, it makes no difference, when James Brown is on, he’s got you by the guts, you’re his till he lets you go, but you don’t care, because the ride’s worth it.
He started right in on this new song. We were told that whenever he sang out, “Say it loud,” we were to shout back. “I’m black and I’m proud.” Godfrey and I were the only two white faces in the studio, but we shouted along. James noticed us in the middle of the song, stopped the music, came over, shook our hands and said, “It’s okay, sing it out.” The guy might’ve had problems, but he was a class act.
A couple weeks later, “I’m black and I’m Proud” was out and James was back on the radio in Los Angeles. Not only that, KGFJ started playing Bill and Jose, too. This was my introduction to how records were made.
The record business didn’t exist in a vacuum. There was other stuff going on in the country, the world. Garbage workers were striking in Memphis. Martin Luther King, on his way to somewhere else, stopped by to lend his support and there he lost his life.
A couple days later Bud Hobgood showed up at Saturn with a tape of MLK at some convention in Cincinnati. Bud was the kind of guy that could sell you a new Lincoln when you showed up at the car lot to buy a used Ford. He was excited, he wanted to be the first to hit the streets with a King record. It never dawned on me that he had his own record label, why’d he have to come to L.A. Ah well, maybe it was all on the up and up, I don’t know. Anyway the two Jacks (my father’s name was Jack, too) arranged for him to have it pressed at a plant in Los Angeles. But none of them wanted to go to the plant and pick up the records, so they sent me. Then they sent me out to pick up the black and white covers they’d had printed up. And then they had me stuff the records into the jackets. They sold a lot of that record, what happened to the money, I don’t know, but I know this, my education was complete.
I remember Bobby, tears in his eyes as he spoke the eulogy at Martin’s funeral service. It was dark, raining I think, his voice cracked. A few months later a guy that worked for Bud was in L.A. doing some business for James. My dad delegated me as his driver. Before taking care of business, he wanted to stop by the Ambassador Hotel and maybe get a look at Bobby. We were there, then at the hospital, then at the Hyatt on Sunset, a zoo. There were people from all walks of life crammed in there on that sad night. Anyway this black guy talked to us for a few minutes about Aretha Franklin and what a great voice she had. When he left, the guy I was with said, “Aretha, you should meet her, that woman does what she wants, when she wants to do it.” Then he said, “I wish I had that kind of courage.”
I don’t know if he really knew Aretha, but he worked for James Brown, so maybe he did. But whether he did or not, I thought he did and I thought what he said was true. I was living in sort of an LSD induced haze at the time, so those words seemed perhaps more profound then they should’ve. I wasn’t on drugs that night, thank God. But most nights I was. And from that night on, for about a year, whenever a joint or a hit of acid would come my way, I’d think, what would Aretha do. Stupid, I know now, and I guess I knew it then.
Vesta didn’t like me taking drugs, well on occasion it was okay, if I did it with her, but this business of doing it on the freeway to and from work and coming home stoned more nights than not was getting to her. She had a point, she was at home with the kids all day and I was out working, stoned, having fun, living the rock and roll life from the sidelines. I was on the fast track to nowhere and I was about to become unemployed. I’d lost the job I’d had at the Gas Company, fixing heaters and stoves, because I was incompetent. That’s what they said, incoherent’s closer to the truth. I probably would’ve wound up as a janitor somewhere, but my dad gave me a job. I guess he felt he owed it to me, because right after I turned seventeen he tricked me into joining the Marine Corps. I wasn’t a bright kid. And I was screwing up the best job a kid cold possibly have at the end of the 60’s. He was gonna fire me, I knew it. It was just a matter of time.
Then I met Dub.
Dub Michael Taylor. He worked for one of the record stores that bought at Saturn. Six feet, thin, hair down his back. He knew records, nothing else, but nothing else mattered, so we hired him. Ask him about the Lakers and he’d answer back, I don’t follow baseball. But he followed Rock ’n’ Roll. He moved in kind of a slow way around the one stop that drove my dad nuts. It was like he didn’t care if it took him half the afternoon to get a Pepsi out of the fridge. It seemed he was stoned all the time, but he wasn’t. His mind worked, just not the same as anybody else’s.
I was beginning to like the music. Dub showed me how to love it. And he made me look good at work, that’s what I really liked about him. My work habits hadn’t improved, it’s just that he was so much more screwed up then me, that I kind of looked normal. And the really amazing thing about him was that he managed to be that way without taking any chemicals.
Oh sure, he had flashbacks, but who didn’t?
Until Dub came to work at Saturn I used to go missing in action a lot. Someone like Ted from Records and Supertape would show up and we’d take off to somewhere like Dodger Stadium and smoke a couple joints, then my work for the rest of the day would be in the toilet, but after Dub arrived on the scene I mostly stayed at work, cut way back on the grass and stopped LSD altogether.
Coherent now, I started to take in the world around me and it was all about music, mostly John Wesley Harding and why it wasn’t any good. I loved that album right from the get go. This was how the electric Bob Dylan was supposed to sound. Dub, however, was a Highway 61 and Blond on Blond person and we used to argue about that all the time. Somebody gave him the 61 Minnesota stuff. He called me late at night and played some of it over the phone. I liked the acoustic Dylan, Dub liked the electric, it was something else we used to argue about. Dylan wise we couldn’t agree about anything, as far as I was concerned he could’ve gone right from the acoustic half of Bringing it All Back Home straight to JWH. Dub though JWH better left on the studio floor. However when Nashville Skyline came out there was finally something we could agree on. We didn’t like it.
So we started to conspire.
At first it was, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had this stuff on a record? That way it’d last forever.” We thought vinyl was permanent, a much better medium for storing rare stuff on than tape. We were in the back of Saturn, doing returns for the majors and talking about this when Sam Billis came on back.
“It could be done,” he said, after eavesdropping for a few minutes. Sam later went on to open the Soul City One Stop after Saturn went out of business. Who knew how high he’d rise. Soul City turned into Sound Music Sales and they sold more records than Saturn ever dreamed of and Saturn was big. “All we have to do is find someone to master it.”
I thought about taking it out where James Brown did, “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but it was Bob Dylan, everybody knew what he sounded like. They’d call the cops, we’d all go to jail. That was a bad idea. We knew where to get it pressed, where to get the jackets, but getting the master was a problem. Then Sam saved the day.
“There’s this guy Jewel, that comes in here a lot. He can get it done. Jewel, at least I think that was his name if my memory serves me, was a slightly overweight black guy who never took off this huge white Stetson. He’d had this hit single, “The Birds and the Bees.” I think that was the name of it. He’d sing it on occasion as he moved about the one stop. “Let me tell you about the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees—” well, you get the picture. Anyway, Sam said he could get it done for four hundred bucks. We didn’t know it then, but that was about four times what we shoulda paid. Anyway, Sam figured out how much the whole shebang would run, mastering, mothering, plates, records and jackets and he loaned us the money.
Now all we had to do was figure out what to do with the things after we got them. We needed to sell four hundred double records for Dub and I to get five copies each, get Sam’s money back and maybe make a few bucks. Easier said than done. We were convinced this was some kind of heinous crime, so we couldn’t just walk into a record store and offer them for sale. Everybody in L.A., everybody that counted anyway, knew us. I was willing to go to the pressing plant and the jacket place, Dub was too, but we weren’t going into any stores. Dub solved the problem. His friend Jim was fresh out of bootcamp and decided he didn’t like the Army and would probably hate Viet Nam. So he deserted by moving in with his parents. When the FBI came looking, he said he was his brother and that he hadn’t seen himself in months. Really, how do they ever catch anybody?
Having faced down the FBI on his doorstep, Jim was more than willing to take the records around to the stores. However, we still didn’t think it was going to happen till Jewel came in one night before closing with the master. We sat around and drank beer, not Dub, he didn’t drink either, and talked about how we were so slick. I got a little drunk, I didn’t do that a lot, because you do stupid things when you drink too much. I pulled off Jewel’s cowboy hat and we went a little crazy. Turns out he was bald and didn’t want anyone to know. I’ve seen ugly rugs, but a white hat the size of Texas, that’ll hide it.
The next morning my splitting headache and I drove them out to Korelich Engineering and gave the masters to Pete.
Pete seemed old even then. He’d always seemed old to me, was old twenty years later when I showed up at his plant again to make records, but back then nobody’d ever heard of a bootleg, heck we hadn’t either, hadn’t even thought of what we were doing as bootlegging.
“What are you gonna use for labels?” Pete asked me.
“We hadn’t thought of that.”
“Can’t make a record without labels.”
“Put on anything you’ve got lying around.” I meant for him to reverse them so that the labels would be plain white, but he didn’t understand.
“You can sell them that way?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find out.” And for years Pete would introduce me to his other customers as the guy who made music so good he doesn't need labels. He never did understand that it was supposed to be a secret.
Five days later I went to pick up the records and was shocked to find Rocoulion labels on them, with song titles I’d never heard of, that nobody’d ever heard of.
“You said anything I had left over.” Pete looked at me, arms wide, palms open.
“Yeah, I did. Don’t worry about it.”
“I won’t.” Pete never worried about anything. He was that kind of man.
I handed the records over to Jim the deserter. His first stop was Vogue Records on Hollywood Boulevard. Bill Bowers bought them all and I’d forgotten to take out the copies for me and Dub.
We were gonna have to do it again.