Elected! Rock and US Politics

After Jimmy Carter’s victory in the U.S. Presidential elections, Chris Charlesworth in New York investigates the role of rock in American politics…

MANY PEOPLE from the rock scene were out celebrating last Tuesday evening – and the reason was simple. Jimmy Carter, the Georgia Governor/peanut farmer, had been elected the 39th President of the United States, the first President to take any active interest in the music (and notably rock music) business.

From an outsider’s point of view (as the holder of a Temporary Immigrant visa, I must be considered an “outsider”), Jimmy Carter’s rise to power in this Bicentennial year rings out like a Cinderella rags-to-riches romance. The underdog with flair and a great deal of personal magnetism beat Ford, the incumbent favourite whose apparent dullness was too hard an obstacle to overcome.

Jimmy Carter takes over the Presidency on January 20 next year but whether his elevation to the most powerful position in the Western world will have any direct influence on rock is debatable. What isn’t debatable, though, is that Carter, throughout his campaigning, allied himself with the rock industry more than any other potential candidate.

It isn’t a new thing for Presidential campaigners to seek the help of show business personalities. Frank Sinatra was a close personal friend of the late President Kennedy. Four years ago, a number of contemporary artists – usually folkies like Peter, Paul and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel – raised money for the unsuccessful Democratic candidate, George McGovern.

Carter, though, went even further. His mainline connection with the rock world is through Phil Walden, manager of the now defunct Allman Brothers Band and head of Capricorn Records.

As Governor of Georgia, Carter was responsible for adding various anti-piracy (bootlegging) laws into the legislation, laws which obviously affected Walden’s record business. Thus the two were brought together in a mutually co-operative venture, and a close friendship developed.

Throughout this year a number of Capricorn acts have played benefit concerts to raise money for Carter’s campaign and Carter, in turn, has introduced the Allman Brothers on stage. He did this very simply.

“I’d like to say one thing,” he’d yell in his Southern accent to a stadium full of fans anticipating the ABB. “My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President. I’d like to introduce you to my friends, the Allman Brothers.”

Carter has stopped off at recording sessions with Dickie Betts in Macon, played host to Southern rock bands in the governor’s mansion and attended Capricorn’s annual outdoor barbecue.

In early 1974 Bob Dylan visited Carter during his tour with the Band. Walden set this one up, too, but Carter took things a stage further by quoting Dylan in his acceptance speech at the aforementioned Convention this year.

Using lines from ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, Carter told the cheering delegates at Madison Square Garden: “We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying.”

Dylan is quoted, too, in Carter’s autobiography Why Not The Best, where the singer is referred to “as a source of my understanding about what’s right and what’s wrong in this society.” Lines from Dylan’s ‘Song To Woody (Guthrie)’ occur on the opening pages.

It should be understood that although Carter sought more backing from rock people than any other candidate, he wasn’t the only politician to realise the potential vote-gathering influence that musicians could exercise.

Jerry Brown, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate from California, benefited from concerts by the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, and Ronee Blakely, of Nashville and Rolling Thunder Revue fame, actually sang at some of his speeches.

Even Ford has opened the doors of the White House to rock stars. When George Harrison toured the U.S. in 1974, he stopped off to pay his respects when in Washington, and Peter Frampton, whom Ford’s son Jack has described as his favourite rock star, had an audience with the President earlier this year. Bianca Jagger’s efforts to realise a similar ambition apparently failed.

But all this pales in comparison with Carter’s courting of the rock industry. Among those who have contributed financially to his campaign are James Brown, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Ron Delsener (New York promoter), Bill Graham (San Francisco impresario), Jerry Moss (the “M” of A&M Records), Jonny Podell (NY agent and manager of Lou Reed), Jerry Wexler (record producer) and Ashley Pandel (rock club owner in New York).

A standard in-joke within the US music industry this year has been that Greg Allman is in line to become Carter’s Food and Drug Administration boss.

When the news of Carter’s success became known I called a number of industry figures to inquire whether they thought Carter’s ascension to the White House would have a beneficial effect on the rock industry.

First on the list, of course, was Phil Walden, who has actively campaigned for Carter by mailing hundreds of letters to music industry colleagues asking for support. He spent Tuesday evening at the World Congress Centre in Atlanta, where Carter attended a victory party.

Walden was ecstatic. “My sincere thanks to the many friends in the music industry who supported Jimmy Carter’s candidacy,” he told the MM. “The President elect is a friend of the arts, be it performing, visual or recorded. I look forward to the Carter years.”

Former Allman Brother Chuck Leavell, now fronting his own band, Sea Level, was also at the party in Atlanta. He was rather less formal than Walden.

“It’s going to be good to have a country boy running the nation,” he said. “It’s nice to have a guy who cares about the music and who has grown out of the South. Sea Level wants to boogaloo down Pennsylvania Avenue.” (A reference to the address of the White House).

Walter Yetnikoff, head of Columbia Records, was also optimistic (it was difficult to find anyone who wasn’t). “I look at the Carter election optimistically with regard to the music industry,” he said. “Although I see no direct connection, Jimmy Carter has nevertheless made a point of identifying himself with the business.”

“He is personally close to it, as was seen by his attendance at this year’s NARM (National Association of Record Manufacturers) Convention. He obviously has friends in the business as well. We can be glad, I think, that he is going to the White House.”

New York’s top promoter, Ron Delsener, however, appeared to care very little about Carter’s victory. “I care more about what he does for the country than what he does for the music business,” he told me. “I’m not looking for any personal favours by getting involved with politics. I hope he will do something good for the country first and the world second.”

Jonny Podell, former agent for the Allman Brothers Band, Alice Cooper and various others, and now the manager of Lou Reed, shared the general optimistic view.

“I think it’s going to be good for the music business,” he told me. “Basically, he is more aware of the music industry than any of the other candidates, and he is probably more aware of some of the outdated laws that occasionally restrict the growth of the music business.”

Peter Rudge, British-born manager of the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, now based in New York, didn’t think Carter’s term would affect the music industry.

“I can see square dancing making a big comeback,” he told me in jocular mood, “and maybe Roy Clark will be invited to play the White House, along with some other country people. Seriously, I don’t think it will make any difference at all.”

Last word from Clive Davis, head of Arista Records, another rock mogul apparently unconcerned about the change of occupancy at the White House. “Will Carter be beneficial to the music industry?” I asked.

“Only if his royalty is 5 per cent and he will tour behind his album,” replied Davis.

© Chris CharlesworthMelody Maker, 13 November 1976

Leave a Comment