Part One

Leading the Camel to Water, 1974-1975

by Christian John Wikane

16 August 2009


The Sheik Leads the Camel to Water

The Hudson Brothers

The Hudson Brothers

The Sheik Leads the Camel to Water

Holmes: We had gone back to independent distribution, where we were very successful at Buddah, basically using the same independent distributors. At that time, independent distributors were looking for labels because they weren’t really doing that well. They had a few, like Motown, but everybody was going to the major labels. They were happy to have us. They would advance us “x” amount of dollars to have the right to distribute the label. That’s how we raised the money and Neil was able to pay Warner Bros. back their money.

Hudson: Neil got a car and drove with his Visa card and went from city to city in the east, from Cleveland to upstate New York, all over that whole section in the northeast, going to individual distributors state by state, and signing direct deals with them. That was unheard of at the time. He was a really smart guy and he was in the right place at the right time with the right acts. That’s the truth.

Marc Nathan (National and Regional Promotion): Neil was very singles-oriented. We were just shoveling out 45’s on a weekly basis. You wanted to create the illusion that you were a major label and labels like Warner Bros. and Columbia were always in the game with a lot of records. If you were an independent label that only put out a record every three or four weeks, it was very difficult to gain traction at radio.

Sain: I wasn’t just calling radio stations. I had a network with retail. I spoke to my retailers. I had a list of all the stores, the addresses and phone numbers that reported to each radio station. I always told my radio stations, once they added the record, “Okay, I’m sending five free records to these stores so that we can find out if we’ve got a record or not” so that the store didn’t have to buy-in something that they didn’t know from a company that they didn’t know. Forget about getting to buy half a dozen records through Warner Bros. distribution—that salesman wants to take an order for 100. Panama City, that’s a small market. They don’t want to buy 100 records. They may not sell 100 records if it’s a number one record. You got to remember those numbers and remember what those towns were like 30-something years ago. Neil understood that I got it. 

Bob Perry (Independent Record Promotion, Southeast): God, there were so many singles. I worked every thing from KISS to Hugh Masekela to James & Bobby Purify. Pretty much everything that came down the pike, I ran with.

Millington: At that time, I was kind of dating David Bowie. “Butter Boy” was kind of a tongue-in-cheek song about our relationship, all of that rock and roll stardom.

Perry: Larry Santos was a tough record. They were real high on that because he was a good writer but that doesn’t always translate. That was one of Neil’s pet projects, I remember. He really wanted that. I got airplay but it never really resulted in sales.

Sain: The first thing that I remember working on was a Simon Stokes record, “Captain Howdy”. It was one of Casablanca’s first. I concentrated on radio stations that reported to The Gavin Report (radio trade publication). My job always was to get the front page of The Gavin Report and to do that you have to focus on a piece of product so my job was usually to take the strongest thing we had. Neil did do a lot of product. The Hudson Brothers were pop, so that was a lot easier to get played.

Hudson: My brothers and I sold more records than people know. Reason being? Neil realized that our audience at the time was young girls from a Saturday morning show and a nighttime primetime show. Back then, Billboard, Cash Box, and Record World counted if you moved up the charts. Well, no one had put records into supermarkets. Neil figured moms will be there after school with their kids, and if our faces are on the counter in a rack, selling the 45 single for .99, we would sell them in bushels. We did. Unfortunately it wasn’t counted because the one-stops couldn’t report. The records were shipped directly to the supermarkets. We sold like 700,000 legitimately of “So You Are a Star”. If you add what went into the supermarket, I have no idea what that would be. They were pressing and shipping records out in gigantic boxes to all these supermarkets. In hindsight, I think that was really smart. I laughed when I read about the Wal-Mart deal that The Eagles made. It is exactly the same, except now it’s chartable and countable.

Tom Moulton: It was sort of like Neil was doing his Buddah thing all over again. Whatever sticks to the wall, we’ll jump on it.

Holmes: When we first went independent, Neil had this big idea about doing a Johnny Carson album, Magic Moments from The Tonight Show (1974). We figured that would be a big hit because of Johnny. We figured that was going to get us across the hump. The distributors were down with it. They bought up all these records. All of a sudden, the thing didn’t sell.

Sain: The whole idea was amazing. It was really, really good. If the marketing plan had been able to be executed the way it was planned, it would have made multi-million dollars immediately, which Neil was not wrong about. The plan was that Johnny would mention it and he would give it away as gifts to the people that came on who he was interviewing. I remember the first show or two that he mentioned it, we couldn’t handle all the phone calls. It was really a great reaction. It was exactly what we wanted and then NBC said, “Oh, no, no, no”. I can’t remember if they were owned by RCA, but I think there was a conflict and they told Johnny, “No, you can’t do that”. The records were pressed and ready to ship. Nowadays, it wouldn’t have been a problem. You’d throw up a website and video clips and off you go, but the media then was expensive and Neil was running out of money.

Perry: That cost him a fortune because he had to get clearances from Groucho Marx’s estate and Lenny Bruce’s estate. That thing shipped gold and came back platinum. What were people gonna say? “Hey come over and listen to my Johnny Carson record?” It ain’t Chocolate City! Distributors bought that in heavy. The incentive on that was crazy. Whatever you bought, Casablanca matched it. There were so much free goods on the streets. Let’s say you ordered 2,000 pieces, Casablanca would throw in like 1,000 or 500. You still see tons of those things everywhere you go. There were so many returns on that record.

Holmes: We couldn’t get it to sell and we were really starting to panic but the distributors were really cool. In those days they had return privileges and they could end up returning everything if they were in good shape with the company. If they returned everything right away, we would have been out of business but they decided not to return everything right away. They returned percentages of it at a time. I remember Neil saying the distributors had to help us because we owed them the money so they weren’t going to turn their backs on us. They were with us because they had this inventory that they’re sitting with and if we weren’t successful, they would end up eating all that stuff.

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