My career began about 30 years ago. I had just become head of Columbia Records, I had never signed any artist, and I found myself in December ’67 at the Monterey Pop Festival. I saw a group that was incredibly charismatic, with a lead singer who was breathtaking and soulful and just the best white soul singer imaginable, but with a rock edge. And she of course turned out to be Janis Joplin, and the group was Big Brother and the Holding Company. That event proved to be the catalyst for my awareness that a tremendous change was taking place in society, certainly among youth. Very shortly thereafter, I went down to the Village to see an unknown group, Blood, Sweat and Tears – the original group, with Al Kooper and the former members of the Blues Project. I was very involved with the signing. Then I signed Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen in ’72.
Nothing succeeds like success, and these artists, with their first releases, became household names. It was a shock to me, but it gave me the confidence to start a company from scratch, which is what Arista Records is: a company that I founded in 1975, right here in New York. The song that launched Arista was “Mandy.” I had found the song and given it to Barry Manilow. He does write – over the years, he has written “Copacabana” and “This One’s for You.” But the reason I signed him was that he is a showman. So I gave him “Mandy,” and our first record went to No. 1.
The principles are still the same as with “Mandy”: You gotta find artists who are unique, who could be headliners; you gotta find material that could become standards. Yes, there’s always the one-hit wonder. Yes, there’s always the one that appears more artificial or manufactured. But you’re really looking for the unique talent, whether or not they can write their own material. If they can write it, it’s better, because you don’t have to look for it and it expresses who they are. Ultimately, it’s no fun to be in this business if you don’t have hits.
Interviewed by Ethan Smith