Part One: Leading the Camel to Water, 1974-1975

Christian John Wikane

Casablanca was not an instant success but Neil Bogart, a dreamer and a doer, was undeterred. Part I examines how the sheik of Casablanca led his camel out of the desert.

Everyone knew Neil Bogart. His zest for business, promotional acumen, and bottomless reservoir of energy were renowned in the music industry well before he established Casablanca. Rob Gold, a former Director of Marketing at Casablanca, makes an appropriate analogy. "The record business is very much like professional sports -- you're always keeping an eye on the players", he says. "It was really difficult to miss Neil because he was a showman and he would make sure that his name was in print and radio. He always seemed to be there".

By the time Casablanca debuted in 1974, the Brooklyn-born Bogart had already reinvented himself a number of times: first as 18-year old crooner "Neil Scott", earning a minor hit in 1961 with "Bobby", and then as an ad salesman for industry trade magazine, Cash Box. Shortly thereafter, Bogart worked promotion at MGM Records, then moved onto Cameo-Parkway and, later, Buddah (sic) Records as a top executive. During his ascension, he was crowned "King of Bubblegum" for his success with acts like the Lemon Pipers, 1910 Fruitgum Company, and Ohio Express.

However, the "King of Bubblegum" moniker dwarfed Bogart's true talent of spinning gold from emerging talent and nurturing established artists alike. While Bogart presided at Buddah, Curtis Mayfield (Curtom), Bill Withers (Sussex), the Isley Brothers (T-Neck), and Holland-Dozier-Holland (Hot Wax/Invictus) found a new home at the label through distribution deals and hit songs like "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" by Melanie, the Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child", and the Grammy-winning "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers further expanded the label's profile.

Despite earning millions of dollars for Buddah, Bogart's greatest career achievements were still years ahead. After Long Island, New York-owned Viewlex bought Buddah in 1973, Bogart reinvented himself yet again and decided to do what he had long desired and was certainly qualified to do -- create his own record label. Enlisting a team of partners that included Larry Harris and Cecil Holmes (his close friend and colleague from Cameo-Parkway and Buddah), Neil Bogart introduced the world to his unique vision of all that a record company could be -- a trans-continental crossroads where one could find Fanny, Peter Noone, and Hugh Masekela with equal probability. Drawing inspiration from both Rick's Café and the exotic landscape of Northeast Africa, he called it "Casablanca".

+ + +

Cecil Holmes (Partner/Senior Vice President): We were driving in to Buddah one day and Neil says to me, "Cecil, I think this is the time to form our own company. Would you be interested in going now?" I said, "Whatever you want to do", because I really loved the guy. He was so talented and my career was really set up by him. He gave me the opportunity to really flourish when we were together. I would have followed him to the end of the world. That's when we decided that we would make a move.

Bill Aucoin (Manager, KISS): I got to know Neil Bogart through this television show I was writing and producing, a show called Flipside. It was kind of this young show that was supposed to keep younger audiences attracted to the network. One of the people I invited to come to the show was Neil Bogart and to discuss what it's like for the artists and the company and so forth, which he did. We kind of built a rapport. By the time I'd finished the first 13 weeks of the show, I decided the music industry was much more exciting. One of the artists that wrote to me every week, these little handwritten notes, was KISS, especially Gene Simmons.

Holmes: Neil had talked with Warner Bros. about distributing the label and Warner Bros. was interested. Originally, the first name of the company was supposed to be "Emerald City". The only thing was we couldn't get the clearance on the name so that's when Neil decided on "Casablanca". I knew that he was a Humphrey Bogart fan and I feel that had something to do with it. Warner Bros. owned Casablanca (1942), the movie, so we didn't have any problems with the clearances and all of that.

David Edward Byrd (Artist): Neil had become aware of me through the Fillmore East and some of my early Broadway posters. His office at Buddah wasn't far from the Winter Garden where Follies opened so he'd seen the poster everyday. Neil saw a portrait of himself as the Humphrey Bogart character, Rick. I did a little sketch of Neil. Then I did a painting of that and it was included on the original label.

Holmes: We moved out to California and we started our label. We were on Sherbourne Drive in West Hollywood. We wanted to have a balanced label. We admired A&M Records' Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. We admired Jerry Wexler and Atlantic. We kind of wanted to have our company like that, an all-facets type of company. Atlantic had more of an R&B feel at the beginning and then developed to becoming a major company.

Aucoin: I called Neil and I'm telling him about this group KISS and he said, "You know Bill, I've just been asked by Warner Bros. to start a label out on the west coast and this sounds very exciting. Maybe they would be good for my new label". He played the tracks for some of his A&R people and they said, "Yeah this sounds like a rock and roll band. We should have rock and roll on the label, Neil. Why don't we do this?" Neil said okay, we're going to do it. He didn't really know KISS that well. He was taking a shot.

Byrd: Neil called me and said, "I've signed this group, KISS. He wanted me to come up to 57th St. to this photo studio because they were doing the photo shoot for their first album. I went up there and I met these four characters who were doing all this make-up. I helped Peter Criss with his cat nose. I really didn't get it because at the time, the trend was towards the "new elegant" -- I had just done a lot of stuff for the launch of Polo by Ralph Lauren and also the Fitzgerald movie was out with Robert Redford -- and these guys were not it. I thought, "Oh Boy Neil's going to lose his shirt". (Needless to say, I was quite wrong.)


Jean Millington (Fanny): With glam-rock happening at that time, we had put together a rock and roll show with masks and capes and it was like a rock opera. There was excitement at the time with the show -- the costume changes, there were a lot of light changes. It was definitely geared towards being a theatrical piece. I think our management thought that maybe a new, smaller record company could be possibly more attentive to what the different direction was.

Brett Hudson (The Hudson Brothers): We were on Rocket Records, which was Elton John's record company. We had just cut an album called Totally Out of Control (1974) and we got into a creative difference, not with Bernie Taupin who was our producer and not with Elton, but with the other powers that be that were running the label. We basically parted ways and we didn't re-sign with them. Then we got a television show. Then everybody, typical of show business, came out of the woodwork: "We'll sign you!" Ed Leffler, who ended up managing Van Halen, managed us at the time. Ed was talking to an Australian gentleman by the name of David Joseph. He said, "I'll tell you what's perfect for the boys is Neil Bogart's label, Casablanca". Ed set up a meeting. My brothers and I went in. We talked to Neil and we told him where our heads were. He said, "Well did you bring anything?" We played him a demo tape that had about 20 songs on it that ended up being our first album (Hollywood Situation, 1974).

Holmes: I had known George Clinton for years from back in the early days in New Jersey. George was a writer for Jobete Music, which was Motown's publishing company. I had a relationship with him. The Parliaments had some success with "I Wanna Testify". Then came the Jimi Hendrix era and they changed their music. They went to Europe. When they came back, they had this new group called Parliament-Funkadelic. When we went to get them, they had already made a deal with Westbound for Funkadelic. Parliament was still available so we signed Parliament.

Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic): As everyone knows, George is shrewd, so what he couldn't get released on one label, he came up with the brilliant idea of using the same people but on another label. That helped because we could do one genre of music on one label and another genre on another label but that would still encompass a bunch of material.

Holmes: In some kind of way, Neil had gotten a relationship with Barry White through his management. Barry said that he had this girl, Gloria Scott, and he produced this record. We heard the record, liked the record, and that was that. What Am I Gonna Do (1974) was one of the first records we had.

Next Page

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.