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