The sale to PolyGram, the death of Neil Bogart -- the dawn of the 1980s signaled the end of an era for Casablanca. Three decades since the label's fearless leader last stood inside the Casbah, artists and executives explain his genius and define the legacy of the label.
Closing up the Casbah
It all seemed to come undone at once. Neil Bogart sold the remaining 50 percent of Casablanca to PolyGram. While it was a lucrative deal, Bogart relinquished the kind of creativity that he'd used to build a wholly unique and successful record company. After his relationship with PolyGram became strained, he left in February 1980 and started a new label, Boardwalk.
PolyGram dissolved Casablanca's staff and many artists either fled from the new regime or were dropped altogether. Following number one hits by Lipps, Inc. ("Funkytown") and Captain & Tennille ("Do That to Me One More Time"), a few more singles by the Four Tops, Pure Prairie League, and Dr. Hook kept the Casablanca imprint in circulation through 1982. Russ Regan, who had helmed the Casablanca-distributed Parachute label between 1977-1979, later led Casablanca back to the top of the charts with the blockbuster Flashdance (1983) soundtrack before the label ceased releasing original product in 1986 (Animotion, Strange Behavior). Despite intermittent success, Casablanca was never the same without Neil Bogart.
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Cecil Holmes (Partner/Senior Vice President): When you get these companies, they always tell you, "You'll be able to run this and you'll be able to do exactly what you please." Those were suits. Our success was that we were able to do what we wanted to do. All they knew was the bottom line. No way would they have let us spend the money on Donna Summer and KISS. They would see the figures and say, "This guy spends too much money," but then there was one guy who would always say, "Yeah but we'll get him or we'll control him." Eventually, they figured that we were spending too much money and they weren't making the money that they wanted to make. When it was just us, we didn't care if we had a lot of money in the bank as long as everybody was taken care of at the company. Believe me, we were. I was paid very well. All the top executives were paid very well with very big bonuses. The money always went back into the company. It wasn't until we got older and that we started to think, "Maybe we should start thinking about our future".
Bill Aucoin (Manager, KISS): It was a payday for everyone and we understood that. PolyGram didn't have much of a choice. They had to negotiate with us. We made an incredible deal with PolyGram for KISS. From that point of view, it was good for KISS. It was right after Dynasty (1979). We made a terrific contract with PolyGram. Donna decided not to and she kind of fought to get off the label and she did.
Donna Summer: I was one of the people that were selling mega-records at the time but I wasn't being compensated for them. Let's put it like this, my original contract was not up to par and so there was a deficiency in what I should have been making. I was making the money for them, millions of dollars, which I wasn't seeing. At some point, I got a lawyer and started to investigate what was going on and it wasn't pretty.
Holmes: It just got to a point where Neil felt uncomfortable being with PolyGram. He wasn't able to do the things he wanted to do. Casablanca was his company but PolyGram owned it. They started to put restraints on him, moreso financially whereas with Warner Bros. the main issue was we were just too aggressive.
Frank DiMino (Angel): I remember our last meeting with Neil, which was a good healthy meeting. He apologized for a lot of the stuff that he didn't do that he knew he should have done but couldn't and explained to us a lot of the reasons. It was a really good conversation and we felt like everything was going to get back on track. Unfortunately it didn't.
Bob Esty: When Casablanca was sold to PolyGram and Neil left the label, I just figured what's the point? I didn't like their business and I knew that there was a big backlash going on.
Dennis Wheeler (Promotion Manager, Special Projects): The music changed. The company was swallowed up. If it wasn't sold it could have gone on and on for years. PolyGram bought it for the catalog… and then it was dismantled. A lot of people were let go, I happened to be one of the last. The reason for that was because "Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc. was being promoted at the time and basically we were told that, "Your job is safe. Keep working it." The second week that it went number one, and crossed to the Top 40 chart, I got my pink slip like an hour after the charts came in.
Michele Hart-Winer (Director of Special Projects): Bruce Bird (who replaced Neil as President) and Larry Harris (Senior Vice President/Managing Director) were still there. I had been working with them. They wanted me to stay. I stayed but I couldn't do disco anymore. I was in radio. That was awful. I did not like radio. We had "Funkytown" with my buddy Steve Greenberg and that crossed-over but that's when they were starting to bury disco. They were putting trucks over disco records. There was that huge backlash. Neil already had Boardwalk going. They kept me because I was a good promotion person, if I do say so myself, and I had good rapport but radio was a world I didn't know very well, honestly. They knew that I didn't know what I was doing and it was really uncomfortable. When I just kept at it and started to talk to these people, I said, "I can't do this everyday. It's awful."
Worthy Patterson (Vice President, Sales and Promotion): PolyGram started putting PolyGram people in. They turned a very successful record label into a logo. Forget it. It was a waste of time after that. That's the attitude of those people -- they think they can do anything. Little did they know that the name of the game is relationships. We were able to do what we needed to do to break records. No one ever, ever in the whole time I was in business there, ever asked you what the price of anything was. We were mavericks, which is why they kicked us out.
D.C. LaRue: PolyGram ripped everything out from the bare walls and painted everything white with Formica tables and chrome legs. I walked into Neil Bogart's office and what was an enchanting step into the past, into a movie set (you expected Ingrid Bergman to walk out of the office), it was a white room and Bruce Bird sitting behind a desk and nobody there. The offices were totally empty.
Phyllis Chotin (Vice President, Creative Services): PolyGram came out and was inventorying everything. I remember being around for when the cars all got picked up, all the leased cars. When everybody was gone, I was still there and one of my staff was still there. I remember they offered me a job to stay. My assistant at the time was a single mother and I asked them, "If I leave, will you put her in that job?" They said yes so that's when I left. I think it was March of '81. I started my own thing then.
Pattie Brooks: All of the artists, I can't even tell you how many have gone through that where they were dropped in the middle of their project because of changeover. It was a mess.
David Castle: When a deal like that ends, so does the money so I had to really quickly rearrange my life. When you go from an experience like being with Casablanca and touring and being on TV shows and being on the charts and then falling off into the black hole of space, it's a whole other reality so it took me some time to adjust everything that I had experienced.
Bruce Sudano (Brooklyn Dreams): I think that we had a three-album deal for Casablanca and we did those three albums. At the end of that time, the deal was over, Neil had left and Bruce Bird was running the company. It was not what it was. We kind of had our shot and never really broke out and it just dissolved.
DiMino: We owed one more album to Casablanca. We were looking for a producer. I had been talking to Jack Douglas. I knew Jack from Eddie Leonetti who did our White Hot (1977) and Sinful (1979) albums. PolyGram said, "We're not going to pay that much for a producer," but Jack Douglas is a name producer so it's not going to be as cheap as someone who doesn't have a name. Now we find ourselves negotiating on an album that we thought was the last thing that we would have to do. We said, "Why don't you just let us out of the deal?" We thought we'll get out of the deal and we can go to Neil at Boardwalk. They said, "No we're not going to let you out of the deal. We want the record." It was one of those classic stalemates going back and forth where the only one who suffers is the band. We're in a state of limbo. Time passes. It's one of those classic endings where neither side is giving in. The communication just wasn't working. Every step along the way, it just wasn't working. Why not just cut us loose? I can never figure out the deal with record companies. I guess they have some sort of idea of what they want to do but I never can figure it out.
Aucoin: KISS was burnt out. The Elder (1980) was a great moment of no one wanting to do anything. Ace didn't want to be with them and Gene and Paul really didn't feel like they wanted to go back into the studio and have to write an album when they really weren't prepared. It wasn't a very good time. It was an album that had to be delivered to the record label. It's a good example of, "You gotta deliver an album, you're gonna get paid so much, the record company wants it, you have to do it, you have to deliver it by a certain time." In those days, we were bound by that. If I had my druthers and I could go back in time, I'd say, "I'm sorry but you're not getting an album until they actually do a really good tune." They were lucky that they had such a brilliant producer to make an album happen otherwise it wouldn't have been an album at all. Of course PolyGram hated the album. When we had our meeting with PolyGram to play it, they said, "We'll give you the money to do another album." At that point, there was no way that was going to happen. We just said "no" and I knew there was no way they were going to get back into the studio. It was hard enough just to get through The Elder.
Chris Bennett: Keb' Mo', who has gone on to have a big career as a blues singer (he's won several Grammys), we got to be friends and I produced his first album when he was Kevin Moore from Compton. Because of the publishing deal I had with Casablanca, I had some money and I took the demos I did of Keb' Mo' to this guy named Steve Badelli and he said, "Oh you should take it next door to Chocolate City." I walked out of there with an $80,000 record deal, which was big money in those days. We produced a really beautiful album called Rainmaker (1980). My boyfriend at the time was this guy Brian Avnet, who used to manage Manhattan Transfer and now he manages Josh Groban and a bunch of other people. I had him help me and we went in with Kevin Moore. I'll never forget Russ Regan said, "I don't really hear any hits." I remember looking over and seeing a big old crocodile tear run down Kevin's face. They didn't really do anything with it. Bless his heart, he just kept at it. He sold cars. He fixed computers. I'd call him once in awhile and say, "If I had your talent, I wouldn't be fixing any damn cars." He went down to New Orleans and learned the blues. He's a full-blown blues singer. He's still a great pop singer/songwriter. Rainmaker still had some classic songs on it. We got the top people in town on that. None of us made any money.
LaRue: The guy who had just taken over PolyGram in New York City came from a real rock/folk background and he hated disco. When I recorded Star, Baby (1981), I was trying to make a transition. There was no record company when that came out. I had one more recording to do and I was with Morris Levy. He called up this guy and we were on a speaker-phone. Morris said, "I'm sitting here with D.C. LaRue. He's got one more album to do for Casablanca," and the guy said, "Tell that faggot we don't want him on the label anymore." Morris said, "D.C. 's here. He can hear you." The guy said, "I don't give a fuck. Tell the faggot we don't want him with the record company anymore. Disco's over." Nobody could get a deal. It was such a nightmare. All the fucking records I sold and nobody wanted to pick up the phone. It was so depressing. I don't even know how I managed to live through it. I had to have been a very strong human being.