July 5, 2016
When first named President of Atlantic Records in 1974 at the age of 32, The New Haven, CT-born Greenberg was the youngest to ever attain that post in the record industry. He went on to head his own Mirage Music, MGM/UA, Atco, WTG Records (with Walter Yetnikoff and Tommy Motolla) and Michael Jackson's MJJ Music. After launching an Ibiza-based EDM label last year, Jerry is currently putting the finishing touches on the documentary of his life, "Man Behind The Music," and a reboot of his Mirage label in partnership with WorldArts, an online music platform for emerging artists started by serial entrepreneur Larry Underwood. He's working closely with the company's COO/Exec. Creative Dir. Jayson Won, who spent seven years as a creative consultant to Steve Jobs at Apple, helping develop the prototype for iDVD and then iTunes, which the late tech guru referred to as "building the world's biggest jukebox." Greenberg may be in his 70s, but he still has the boundless energy of someone half his age ... and he always returns phone calls.
How is the documentary about your life going?
We've been working on this for the past four years. It could be anything from a TV documentary to a theatrical movie. We have enough interviews and material that it could be a multi-part feature, just focusing on the Atlantic Records years - the English rock scene; the dance scene; the soundtrack business, with Jerry Weintraub and Diane Warren talking about how important music is to film. The five stars of the film are Michael Jackson, ABBA, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC... you could do a documentary on any one of them alone.
My goal is to show my role in making dreams come true, my role in making important decisions - I did the edit on "Whole Lotta Love" that got played on AM radio. I got Tony Scotti talking on camera about how we broke ABBA. How we broke the Rolling Stones. How I put Mutt Lange with AC/DC for "Highway To Hell." Signing Genesis. It's a documentary that illustrates the history of the music business from the late '60s to the present-day.
You started out as a drummer before joining Atlantic Records in 1967 as Jerry Wexler's assistant.
The Jerry Green Combo. We were like Duane Eddy, a rockabilly twang band. I started taking drum lessons when I was 13, and by the time I was 14 years old, played my first gig on New Year's Eve, and came home with $60, which was more than my father made in a week. I was making records when I was 18, pressing them up on my own label. We were the top band in New Haven, playing all the frat parties, like "Animal House," making 100 bucks a night. We were the back-up band for The Drifters, The Ronettes, Chuck Berry ... We were signed to Atlantic. I developed a feel for what were hits on the radio. When Jerry Wexler sent me a dub of Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," I knew it was going to be a smash. I got it played on the local New Haven radio station and the phones lit up. That's why he hired me. While I was at the distributor, I overheard Wexler on the phone say he was looking for a new promotion man, and I thought, what about me? I was doing just that on my own, except for my own records.
As someone who lived through it, what did you think of "Vinyl?"
I didn't care for it. I thought Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano were great. And Mick's kid [James Jagger] is a superstar. It was based on some of the things that may or may not have happened during that time. By the third week, I looked at my wife and said, "I don't know ... I'm falling asleep." I get a name check in the last episode. It's hysterical. The indie promo guy comes into Richie's office and says, "I just left Atlantic Records. I met with Jerry Greenberg. The f**king kid looks 16 years old. He wants me to work the Hall and Oates record." It was a little too inside, meaning the guy sitting in Wisconsin has no idea what cleans are.
Unfortunately, it didn't do as well as they wanted, so maybe they can improve it for the second season with a new writing team.
What did you learn working with people like Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun?
I got a great my promotional and A&R sense from Jerry, and I learned watching Ahmet negotiate. He gave me the respect for the artist. If there's a tie, it goes to the artist.
You made some offbeat signings at Atlantic, like Redd Foxx, The Muppets and the Blues Brothers.
I saw Wexler make the Little David deal, which brought us George Carlin and Flip Wilson, so I got a feel that comedy records could do good business. When I told Jerry and Ahmet there was a hit single on The Muppets album by Kermit the Frog, they looked at me like I was crazy. And Michael Klenfner, who was good friends with John Belushi, came to me with the Blues Brothers, "They're making this 'Soul Man' record ..." and I said, "Get me Bernie Brillstein's number." You got to go from your gut, your heart and your beliefs.
What did you hear in ABBA?
They had won the Eurovision Song Contest. Nesuhi Ertegun, who was then head of Warner International, told me about them, and said he was giving the record to Phil Carson, head of our European operation, who send it to me. When I heard "Waterloo," to me, it reminded me of a Phil Spector Wall of Sound record.
What is your take on Michael Jackson's legacy?
The most creative, most talented, biggest visionary next to people like Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. His whole vision when he brought me in was that he wanted to form a film studio, produce Broadway theater - he had a whole business plan.
What was his Achilles heel?
He trusted everybody. I was with Michael in Australia, and he showed up, in the middle of all his legal problems, trailed by a group of kids. And I said to him, "Ya know, Michael, with everything that's going on, is it so smart to have this group of children around you?" And he said, "Jerry, they're the only people that tell me the truth." He had lawyers, managers, yes men and con men around him, but a 12-year-old will tell you whether a record is good or not. As far as the kids go, I think he was just an innocent guy. If I'd had a nine-year-old son, I'd have had no problem sending him to Neverland... I wouldn't worry about him. There's never been real evidence that there was any wrongdoing. And all those legal issues drove him from America. The day I found out he died, my blood pressure rose so high, I tore my aorta, and was rushed to the hospital, where I actually flat-lined for 17 seconds.
Why are you restarting Mirage at this point in time?
There is such an explosion of young talent who are channeling their parents' music on shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice." I see YouTube videos of eight-year-olds drumming to Led Zeppelin. I've been working for a couple of years with this 16-year-old girl, Avonlea, who grew up listening to Billy Joel and is writing classic songs. We're also putting out a cover of an unreleased song Michael Jackson wrote "with a twist." We're talking with Desmond Child about another band. I don't play golf. I'm not going to just sit around and watch the grass grow. What do I know? What do I love? How can I continue to make dreams come true? Doug Morris is still doing it. Clive's still doing it.
It's a singles business again, so I'm going to start small with a boutique operation that caters to the artist. These young artists want to pick my brain and learn from my experience. I still think I can tell the good shit from the bad. We want to have it all under one roof - management, merchandising, publishing, a 360-degree company, where the artist is paid fairly. Like Phil Walden and Allman Brothers at Capricorn. Robert Stigwood with Clapton and the Bee Gees. Geffen and Jackson Browne and The Eagles. That's the model.
We want to offer our expertise to help develop talent, which is something that isn't really done in today's record business. We want to find the next Adele. Now is a better time than it's ever been. I'm still on the street and I'm smart enough to surround myself with talent that can hear and tip me to stuff that's happening. That's the key. I'll still get up at 2 in the morning to check out a band if someone tells me they're unbelievable.
Any take on the Led Zeppelin plagiarism trial?
I hear it's a hot-shot lawyer looking to make a name for himself. Jimmy Page and Jonesy would never steal anybody's music. They're too creative. They're musical geniuses. This was a bullshit suit.
Do you feel something's been lost in today's record business?
Absolutely, no question. Holding that album cover in your hand, reading about the artist, wanting to go see them play. My 12-year-old granddaughter just bought her first vinyl album, Imagine Dragons. But generally, music has been devalued by its very accessibility.
Are you bullish on the music industry?
I'm still filled with so much passion and love of working with artists. But all I really ever wanted to do was go on the road and play drums with the Stones.