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The Ringmaster

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The Ringmaster


Neil Bogart’s investment in the career of KISS and many of Casablanca’s acts extended far beyond marketing dollars. He gave time and attention to his artists and producers, whereas many label presidents may not have even shown up to the office. He listened to ideas and suggested many more in return. As ringmaster of a show-stopping roster of acts, he also facilitated some of the most memorable shows of the 1970s when Parliament, KISS, Cameo, Angel, and Donna Summer went on the road.


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Aucoin: Anytime I walked into the building or KISS walked into the building, the whole building stopped. I think Neil had an unwritten law that if I walked in or KISS walked in, they had to call upstairs to his office immediately and let him know so he’d be prepared no matter what.


Donna Summer: Anybody that worked with Neil had the potential to go into his office. He wasn’t a person that was totally exclusive to anybody in the building. If you had an idea and you thought it would help the company and you thought it would do something, he’d listen. He was a listener. He was someone that could take your idea to the next 700 levels in about 40 seconds.


Bob Perry (Independent Promotion, Southeast): Neil’s thing was, “Bob, whatever it takes”. You could be creative. If you had an idea about getting the program directors, the music people, to the right place at the right time whether it was backstage or a meet and greet type thing or renting a bus and taking them up to a show, you could make things happen!


David Castle: I’ll never forget going into his office when he asked me to write some songs for Midnight Express (1978). He actually had a little button behind his desk and he’d push the button and his office door would close behind you as you came in to sit in his office. His office was totally done in the Casablanca style from the movie. He was a fun guy. He could be serious but most of the time he had a lightness about him, at least when I met with him.


Bob Esty: I would go into Neil’s office and play a D.C. LaRue album and he’d listen to the whole fucking thing and he would just dance all around his office, on the phone. He’d blast it loud with these big huge speakers. No other president of a record label does that. He got into it. He loved it. I don’t think I ever heard anything from him about changing anything. He was just very supportive.


Bobbi Cowan (Director of Publicity): Neil was always great at finding songs for people. Once he had a really good song, he could make a hit record. He knew commercial.


Artie Wayne: By learning what Neil liked, I was very conscious of, let’s say, the beats, the feel of something. I would listen to records that Neil would turn me on to and really figure out why they were hits and why people responded to them. He had an incredible sense of the market because he listened.


Tomi Jenkins (Cameo): Guys like Neil Bogart and Cecil Holmes were music guys, not lawyers. When you have that type of musicality coming from people who ran the label, they let you do what you wanted. They said, “I’m trusting your instincts to come up with some hits and I’m going to give you some time to do it. Your first album may not go gold”.  (Luckily, we had several gold albums in row.)


Bruce Sudano (Brooklyn Dreams): Marketing sense—I think that’s the thing Casablanca and Neil brought to things. That was probably the one area he never really found with Brooklyn Dreams. Donna had a specific image and Susan Munao was very involved with that. When Casablanca got an act, they really tried to create a unique image for that act. Obviously they accomplished it with Donna and KISS, which is why they are still household names. That was a very important aspect of Neil’s philosophy, whereas a lot of labels, at the time, didn’t do that.


Joe “Bean” Esposito (Brooklyn Dreams): Neil Bogart had to have a little hook, like KISS – they had the fire, they had the make-up. Brooklyn Dreams wasn’t a specialty act. We were good songwriters with good singing. We were R&B guys, so to him it was like, “We got to come up with something for you guys”. I remember Neil Bogart making comments saying, “Your album is good but it’s probably not going to make it. I need a disco record from you guys”. When I heard that, in the back of my mind – I was so excited about what was going on I didn’t want to be negative about it – I thought, “Uh-oh. Now we were in uncharted territory”.


Sudano: We started leaning more towards pop-disco just because of our affiliation with Donna. That’s how we slipped into doing the second record with Bob Esty. The third Brooklyn Dreams album we did with Juergen Koppers, who was Donna’s engineer, and by that time we were on the Casablanca treadmill where it was like, “You gotta have product now!”  We were writing songs as quickly as we could write them.


Frank DiMino (Angel): We had ideas and Neil was the kind of guy where you could sit down and have discussions. It was never like, “I think you guys you should do this”. It was never that kind of thing with what you usually get with a record company. It was always discussions, throwing ideas around, seeing what you think worked, what you felt comfortable with, what you didn’t think would work.


Aucoin: Neil felt that, “If we had so much success with KISS, I think maybe I could do the same with Angel. We’ll just take this mold and see if it works on the other side”. I don’t think anything is ever that easy. It never quite worked. It wasn’t the same type of group. Unfortunately, I think what happened was a lot of things got pushed on Angel that probably shouldn’t have been.


DiMino: Personally I think it’s a myth. I never got that translation from Neil. Maybe he might have in his head, maybe he thought of that, I don’t know. All I can tell you is from our discussions of putting a show together, what we wanted to do and his input, I never felt like it was something based off of good and bad or good and evil. We were basing our whole stuff on ideas that we had when were in that club in D.C.  Sometimes I ask people, “What were our ideas back then because you seem to know better than I do”. There’s so many different things that you hear that went on with that whole Angel/KISS thing and Casablanca. Everyone’s got a different story.


D’Ariano: Angel was a great group. Going along with the Casablanca live philosophy, they were a great live show. Unfortunately for Angel, and this is just a point of view, KISS was on the label. They were too similar. They may have fared better somewhere else. To this day they have cult following. Trigger was lost on the shuffle too. They were a really good rock group. We had such a heavy, heavy disco image and I really think that hurt the rock groups. This is strictly my opinion, and it wasn’t my job, but I think there was resentment against Casablanca from FM AOR stations, so if you’re an Angel or a Trigger, there was a credibility problem. It’s almost like, “You’re on Casablanca. Why don’t you make a disco record? You’ll have a much better shot”. Meanwhile, Love & Kisses are being played at every club in town.


DiMino: Obviously, you always wanted a little bit more promotion, what all of us were looking for. What can you do? It is what it is. As far as making our decision of going with Casablanca, I would never change that. I wish things went a little bit differently but all in all I would rather have been with Neil than anyone else.


Summer: When I was onstage and I was first starting out, Neil would go to every show. He would watch my performances, he would walk the entire theater and pace, and wherever I saw him, he wanted me to work that end of the stage. I had to look for him in the audience. He would be smiling. He would walk it while I was onstage so if I could see him, I’d know what to do. I think he probably, in some ways, single-handedly – him and along with the expertise of Michael Peters, who was my dear friend and choreographer in the beginning—just prepared me for my life onstage. I had been in theater performing most of my late-teens into mid-twenties so I was savvy in terms of being onstage and audiences. I wasn’t afraid of audiences or anything like that. I was very used to holding my own in that context but I wasn’t used to performing alone for a whole hour and a half and maintaining a person’s focus all that time.


David Hodo (Village People “Construction Worker”): We always prided ourselves in not needing special effects. We considered ourselves our only special effect although on our national tour we did have a full-blown battleship on stage complete with sailors and cannons that shot confetti at the audience. Other that that I think the only special effect we ever used was a strobe light.


Alex Briley (Village People “GI”): Picture a construction worker kicking the door open of a portosan, the biker/leatherman on a Harley, a Native American coming out of a teepee, cowboy coming through saloon doors with guns blazing, cop on a motorcycle and so on. It’s been said we’re a three-ring circus.


Jenkins: Oh, man. You’d see some craziness there. Craziness. Seriously. We toured for a year with Parliament-Funkadelic. That was our first tour. We opened the show with a casket being rolled out. You know the song “Funk Funk”. We had guys that came out with black robes with the hoods like the grim reaper and pushed a coffin that was encased with glass that glittered. The lights bounced off of it. We also had dry ice through it so there was fog covering the whole stage. There was fog inside the coffin. They wheeled it out, pushed to the front of the stage, and hyrdolics lifted the coffin up. Gregory Johnson was inside the coffin. During “Funk Funk”, he’d open the door and come out and…it was ridiculous. We had that and there was another point where Nathan Leftenant, because he was our showman, he came out onstage during the intro with a fake joint and it was overtly large so everybody could see it from way in the back. Of course it wasn’t a joint. He lit that and the crowd went absolutely crazy. Those were the types of openings and shows. It was totally non-stop energy, just pure entertainment. It was like 25 guys onstage going crazy.


Bernie Worrell(Parliament-Funkadelic): It was a circus. I was always trying to get George to cut it down, you don’t need all that personnel. Sometimes I’d get a little irate. I know that I could get the same big sound out of four people. It was a waste of money. He could pay his musicians a little more with less people. No man, George liked all that confusion.


DiMino: If you saw an Angel show, it was a great show. An 11-foot logo would rise and talk to the audience. We started off with the 20 tubes on the stage and the narration. Three guys that were on the crew came out all dressed in black jumpsuits and as the narration started, they would take four tubes and build a tower with it. Then they would plug it in, chaser lights would go around the tower, and the narration would announce the first guy, Greg Giuffria, and lights go on inside the tower and magically Greg is in there and he walks out. They start to build the next tower so you get five chances to try and figure out how we’re doing this. It was great because you see everyone in front looking at each one going, “I’m going to get it now, how are they doing this one?” It was always a great thing to listen to everyone at the end of the show – “I know how you did that, I was watching”. At the end of the show, whatever album cover it was at the time, would come down, we would go into the album cover, the album cover would rise and explode, and open and we were gone.


Angel - “The Tower”

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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