Elektra: The House That Jac Built

The story of Elektra, one of rock’s most influential labels. As told to Loraine Alterman by founder JAC HOLZMAN

JAC HOLZMAN, the tall, casually but elegantly attired 40-year-old president and founder of Elektra Records, sits in his New York office talking about the company he started nearly 22 years ago.

From his comfortable leather swivel chair Holzman can see the bulky dull metal Magnecord tape recorder with one microphone that he used to make his first recordings.

On one side of Holzman is a sweep of windows looking right down into Central Park, the prime view for any New York executive. But that simple old tape recorder tells more about Holzman and his company than does his classy leather and wood furnished office.

Despite the great financial success Elektra has enjoyed with artists like the Doors, Judy Collins, Bread and Carly Simon and despite the fact that Elektra is now owned by the giant Warner Communications conglomerate, it still has the feel of a small family company where everyone really cares about making good music.

The key to all this is, of course, Holzman. Most record companies play games of musical chairs with their executives every few years, and Holzman is one of the few who has remained president of an important company for so long. Both his dedication to good music and his business savvy have given Elektra its continuity over the years.

“One of the most important things,” says Holzman in his even, urbane voice, “is do what you thing is right and to hell with what everybody else thinks. I think one of the great things is if you are attentive to business — and I don’t mean necessarily financial — but, if you’re really on the case and exercise reasonable standards of taste and you are tenacious, you’re bound to be standing in the right place at the right time once. If you blow it after that, you’re got only yourself to blame.”

While still in college at St. John’s in Annapolis, Maryland, Holzman knew exactly what he wanted to do and he did it. As a kid raised in New York the only thing that really interested him was his disc recording machine which he used to copy records or broadcasts from the radio. Because his grandmother was a well-known American radio commentator, Holzman grew up around broadcasting.

“Making records was the only thing which combined two personal interests of mine which was the love of English and the love of pure engineering,” explains Holzman.

“The great advantage was that in 1948 the confluence of tape recording and the development of the LP record by Dr. Goldmark made it possible for someone as an independent to go into the ‘record business’. Suddenly these plants which had been designed to press three or four 78’s to fit into one album only had to press one LP which meant that there was a large press capacity available and you could go and say please press 500 of these LP’s for me.

“So I started. I had a few hundred dollars saved and a friend of mine had a few hundred dollars saved so we put out an album of art songs which was a disaster. We recorded it in New York in a matter of two hours.”

It took Holzman about a year to recoup his losses, but in the meantime he left school at the end of his third year to devote himself to music. A college friend introduced Holzman, a classical music fan, to folk music and hearing people like Woody Guthre, Leadbelly, Andrew Rowland Simmers and John Jacob Niles convinced Holzman that he should be recording folk music.

“Folk music was cheap to record,” Holzman points out, “I didn’t need a studio. I could go take a machine directly into somebody’s house and that’s how I made all my records in the early years. I would strap that old original Magnecord to the back of my motor scooter and would go off to an artist’s house with my knapsack full of tapes. I’d sit there, record and then edit the album right there. We’d program the album and then I would take it and master it. The first folk artist recorded was Jean Ritchie.”

A friend, a music critic named Edward Tatnell Canby, introduced Holzman to Jean Ritchie and by hanging around Greenwich Village in the early fifties he ran into other artists whom he recorded: Cynthia Gooding, Frank Warner, Harry Wood, Oscar Brand, Susan Reed. Because he had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Josh White couldn’t get a recording deal anywhere, but in 1955 Holzman paid him the highest advance he had ever paid until that time — $100.

“He made thousands and thousands of dollars from the album,” says Holzman, “but at that time giving an advance was a new thing for us.”

Making an album in those days cost Holzman about $50. The only cost was for the tapes and whenever possible, Holzman avoided recording in a studio in favour of doing it in the artist’s home or a place with a good acoustic environment like Steinway and Judson Halls in Manhattan.

Stereo really put Elektra into the studio although stereo didn’t become important until about 1958 when stereo discs were made available to the public. Elektra recorded in stereo from 1954 on, even though much of the stuff never was released.

That same year Holzman originated the sampler concept to give people a sampling of different songs and artists on one disc. Not until 1956 did Elektra begin to break even financially as artists like Theodore Bikel began to sell. In 1957 Elektra finally started to make a little money.

“At that time,” Holzman remembers, “the company consisted of me, my wife then who worked part-time with me and a part-time guy to help pack the records. The records came in raw from the record plant and you had to slip them in these glassine bags and then put them in the jacket which came from another plant.”

Continuing, Holzman says: “By 1958 we were solidly launched and on our way. We paid off all the people we owed money to and were considered a very nice quality small speciality folk label. Eight years of struggling to get to that small point, and it continued on in that way.

“In 1963 I heard an album which was a great turning point for me personally. An audition record came in by ‘Spider’ John Koerner, ‘Snaker’ Dave Ray and Tony Glover which did a lot for my head. I went out to find out about them and was most impressed. I put out the first famous Blues, Rags And Hollers album which was John Lennon’s favourite record at that time and I began to get interested in blues, funk and electric music.”

In 1963 Paul Rothchild joined Elektra as a staff producer. Until then Holzman himself and Mark Abramson had done all of the record production and Rothchild really proved his worth early in 1965 by signing Paul Butterffeld.

“I was in London and had heard about this artist and asked Paul to check him out,” recalls Holzman.

“I came back two weeks later and the record was made. He had the right to sign the artist.” Holzman revealed that Butterfield’s original album was really recorded three times. They weren’t satisfied with the first recording and then Mike Bloomfleld joined the band so they recorded again. Before that album was ready, Butterfield did extremely well at the Newport folk festival and so Elektra decided to make more changes in the album. The final result was an album taking the best of the second and third efforts.

“With Butterfield,” says Holzman, “the whole picture at Elektra changed because we were then 14 years old, we had really gotten involved with folk artists and singer songwriters and we recorded Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. I was interested in documenting that thing that I saw happening. In 1962 I was living in California and was unaware of Dylan. I came back, met Dylan and found out about the Dylan thing and said I better get into this so I recorded those people at that time.

“I waited for Tom Rush’s Prestige contract to be over because I wanted to record him. He was an old friend of Paul Rothchild’s. John Sebastian was hanging around learning as much as he could from his friend Rothchild and he played in all kinds of sessions and watched Paul edit.

“It was a very interesting scene then and we were beginning to come into our own into another whole area of music,” Holzman continues. “I wanted a first class rock band. The first one I saw that did anything to me was the Lovin’ Spoonful. John Sebastian was delighted because he was an old friend. I met the managers the next day to finish it up and they told me they had made a deal elsewhere. I was heartbroken because I realised that ‘Do You Believe In Magic’ was a hit song.”

Actually Holzman managed to work out a deal where the Spoonful recorded some tracks for a special album called What’s Shakin’ that also had tracks by Eric Clapton, Al Kooper, Butterfield and Tom Rush.

Finally in September 1965 in Los Angeles Holzman heard the band he was looking for — Love.

“It was one of England’s favourite bands. I mean Arthur Lee, what can I say about Arthur Lee that I haven’t said already?

“I made a deal with Arthur who had been offered a deal by every single record company in town but they had offered him only to record singles and I realized then that rock ‘n’ roll was more than a singles game. It was LP’s and an opportunity for an artist to develop over the length of playing time that an LP provides. I committed to an album on the spot at $5,000 which was an unheard of advance in those days.”

One night Holzman stopped in to see Love at the Whiskey A Go Go and caught a group called The Doors who had just gotten a release from Columbia Records who had never done anything with them.

Although Holzman didn’t find them particularly impressive, he went back for four nights in a row to hear them and finally made them an offer. Paul Rothchild, who was assigned to produce the album, didn’t think much of them, but he produced them and during those sessions the Doors really jelled.

“During the middle of the sessions,” Holzman says, “Rothchild called me up and said we’ve got ourselves a winner. This is something. They had recorded the end of one piece and he said this was just extraordinary, the most important thing he had ever been involved with and he was just knocked out.”

What made Holzman go back to see the Doors? He answers: “It was three things. One was the first classical keyboard approach to rock that I had ever heard. They did introductions to songs like ‘Light My Fire’ and things that the public never got to hear beyond the Whiskey, but they were experimenting. It was a highly eclectic approach to rock ‘n’ roll.

“Second, there was the fact that Morrison had a presence even though the stage show was screwed up. Third was that Arthur Lee had a very high opinion of them and he knew them a lot better than I did and I had a very high opinion of Arthur Lee’s opinion.

“From the time the Doors really launched, it was the dynamic growth period of the company. We had grown steadily but we needed one cosmic artist to really break us through so that everybody could pay attention to us and really take us seriously so that we would lose the image of being only a folk label.”

In addition to the Elektra label, Holzman in 1964 had introduced a subsidiary, the Nonesuch label devoted to inexpensive records of fine and unusual classical repertoire.

“One of the important things about Nonesuch was that it was so successful in 1964 that it gave us a fair amount of money to begin to develop our whole involvement with rock. Usually it’s the other way around. Popular music pays for the classical records that a record company might do. This was a case where classical music paid for the rock records. It’s the only time that I’ve ever known that to happen.”

Two years ago Elektra became part of the Warner Communications (then called Kinney) conglomerate, but to Holzman, although the decision to merge his “baby” was difficult, the business advantages were clear. He had always been close friends with the heads of Warner Bros, and Atlantic and Holzman says he had “the desire to play in the same band as my brothers.

“Why not be in business with your friends? It’s better than hanging out there naked by yourself. I have never regretted the decision. It was absolutely the right thing to do. They’ve left me totally alone yet they’ve given me all kinds of advantages.”

The merger helped Elektra straighten out its somewhat muddled history in England where distribution had not been what it should have been.

Holzman, who makes about three trips a year across the Atlantic and is due to be in London at the end of the month, notes: “I don’t spend as much time in London as I’d like to and London is important to us. We have six English artists, none of whom I’m ashamed of. We have yet to break Lindisfarne here but we’re getting close. I can smell it happening. But remember, no English group has ever broken in this country who has not been a ‘flash’ group. This will be the first one and our job is a very very difficult one.”

Elektra’s other English artists are Audience, Plainsong, Atomic Rooster, John Kongos and the New Seekers.

London is also important to Holzman because Elektra has made records there including Carly Simon’s last LP and David Ackles current American Gothic. Ackles came to Elektra first as a songwriter and then signed as a singer.

“David is now on his second contract with Elektra. I think it’s one thing that Elektra does have a history of and that is sticking with the artists it believes in. David had gone through one four year contract and two highly unsuccessful and very expensive albums but we had to re-sign him because we knew if we didn’t, we’d regret it. His moment was going to come. Artistically the moment is on the American Gothic album. David went to London because he felt that he needed a perspective. Because it’s a little cheaper to record there, it would give him the chance to experiment and the ability to throw things away.

“That’s one of the very important things about making records that I think most people don’t realize and it’s that you’ve got to be able to afford to throw away the efforts that don’t make it and not feel a compulsion to release them. And if you make mistakes you ought to be able to quietly bury your mistakes so the public doesn’t see them.”

Judy Collins is another Elektra artist who took time to develop. “She had signed with us in 1960,” says Holzman, “and by 1963 had just begun to establish a reputation. It wasn’t until 1968 that she had a hit of any magnitude with ‘Both Sides Now’.”

Carly Simon, on the other hand, established her name more quickly. Jerry Brandt, the manager of the Voices of East Harlem, told Holzman that he wanted him to hear a girl named Carly Simon.

“I said Carly Simon, Simon Sisters, reached into my record collection and pulled out the original album she had made for Kapp because there was a song ‘Winken, Blinken and Nod’ that really knocked me out on that record years ago. I said fine. So I went over to his office, met her and he gave me an audition tape that she had made. I was on my way to Japan and I always carry a cassette machine with me. I was lying on the floor of a Japanese inn, not a phone anywhere around and put this Carly Simon tape on.

“There was a song on it called ‘Please Take Me Home To Bed’ which just wiped me out. A real torch song. I hadn’t heard a torch song in years and the organ break was fantastic. I was really knocked out by it and as soon as I came back to the United States, I signed her. It was just one of those things.”

Though Elektra is headquartered in a brand new New York skyscraper, Holzman spends about a third of his time in his Los Angeles office. A serious, intense man, Holzman tries to divide his days up so that he gets all his paperwork and letter writing done in the morning and then has the rest of the day to work with artists, listen to material and talk to people. He manages to get out to clubs a couple of times a week to hear both his own artists and new ones.

“I enjoy it,” he says. “I find auditions fun. Every time I go to see an artist, I learn something. The experience is good. I consider how an artist performs very important. It’s rare that I’ll sign an artist without seeing him perform.”

Holzman maintains close personal relationships with almost all of his artists and functions as an executive producer. From the start he is involved in helping to select the right producer and going over the material to be recorded.

Then Holzman either listens to some tapes mid-session or waits until they’re done. If he doesn’t like what he hears, he lives with the tapes. He’s got a small four track studio in his country home where he can work on the albums.

“I really believe in over recording for a record so that an artist is not encouraged to release just what he has. I prefer to go in and record 14 things of which we might release between 10 and 12. No album gets out of here that I haven’t spent a lot of time on and paid a lot of attention to. It’s rare that one will sneak by.”

Since he’s been in the record business for two decades, Holzman is realistic about the future of his performers. Asked where he thinks people like Carly Simon or David Ackles will be in 10 or 20 years, Holzman answers: “The artists are getting older and so is the audience and it will depend upon how open the artist is to new ideas and new material.

“Historically recording artists don’t tend to have long cycles. The longest cycle that I can think of in the experience of Elektra has been Judy Collins who is still a very important person after 13 years of being with us and she’s got a number of years left in her cycle.

“People tend to burn themselves out. You have these great flashes were people do one thing particularly well but then the time when that thing they do is congruent with what people want to see is sometimes very limited unless they can exhibit some kind of growth and go on. I mean Alice Cooper is going to have to get out from under the boa constrictor at some point, but if you take all of that away and just listen to School’s Out as an album, it’s a knock-out album and I think Alice Cooper’s got that ability to grow. David Bowie also is one of my favourite artists.

“I think it’s very important for an artist not to get locked into any one thing so identifiably that his fans rebel against his growth. You really can’t listen to your fans. You’ve got to listen to yourself. I would suggest that Marc Bolan heed that.”

Holzman is looking forward to a series about Elektra that is being done by the BBC in the fall. “I’ve heard one of the six programs. They run about 45 minutes a piece and seem to deal most significantly with that period of time in our history beginning with the Butterfield Blues Band.”

It’s a long way from a tape recorder strapped on the back of a motor scooter to a record company with offices in New York, Los Angeles and London. But because Holzman has managed to retain his dedication to good music and human values, Elektra still stands for quality as its quarter century mark approaches.

© Loraine AltermanMelody Maker, 23 September 1972

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