Monday, August 22, 2011

Albert Grossman 1926-1986


Managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and others

ALBERT B. GROSSMAN, WHO AT ONE time was the most powerful and influential personal manger in pop music, died of a heart attack on January 25th while on a flight to London. He was fifty-nine years old.

Grossman, who at the beginning of the Sixties, recognized the genius of a scruffy folk singer named Bob Dylan and helped turn him into a rock icon, was traveling to MIDEM, an annual music-business convention in Cannes, France. “He just went to sleep on the plane and never work up,” said Bill Ader, a close friend of Grossman’s for over forty years. “Albert was a peaceful man, and he went in a peaceful way.”

A large man who tied his long, gray hair back in a ponytail, dressed casually and looked like a hippie Ben Franklin, Grossman rewrote the book on personal management during the Sixties, winning major increases in artists’ royalties and helping songwriters gain control of their publishing rights. “He was really on the front lines of the whole business revolution in the record industry,” said Robbie Robertson, who as a member of the Band was managed by Grossman during the late Sixties and early Seventies. “He was also a teacher. He taught me a tremendous amount about everything that you can imagine in life….I felt that he changed my life.”

In addition to Dylan and the Band, Grossman guided the careers of Peter, Paul and Mary, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, the Electric Flag, Gordon Lightfoot and Richie Havens. “He was an extremely astute picker of original and unique talent,” said the president of Arista Records, Clive Davis, who, as head of Columbia Records, worked closely with Grossman. “He was one of the most highly respected managers of his day.”

Grossman was born in Chicago on May 21, 1926, the child of Russian Jewish parents. While earning a degree in economics from Roosevelt College, he sold shoes for Bonwit Teller, then spent several years working for the Chicago Housing Authority. In the mid-Fifites, deciding he was better suited to private enterprise, Grossman opened the Gate of horn in Chicago, one of the first folk clubs in America. There he met, befriended and, in some cases, managed artists like Odetta, Big Bull Broonzy, Bob Gibson and Joan Baez. “Albert was a very generous man,” said Baez. “Though he never managed me, his cajoling me to perform at the Gate of Horn when I was eighteen marked the beginning of my career.”

Moving to New York at the end of the Fifties, Grossman co-directed the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, a pivotal event for the emerging folk movement. He also put together Peter, Paul and Mary and brought them Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of their biggest hits. “He elevated folk singers to a much higher status,” said David Braun, a top music-business attorney who represented Grossman for most of the Sixties. “He brought them into the pop field.”

The real jewel in Grossman’s management crown was Dylan. He lived in Grossman’s house off and on for almost two years, and the cover photo of Bringing It All Back Home was taken in Grossman’s living room. “He protected Bobby from all the crazy parts of the business, a world that could have terribly injured his growth as an artist,” said Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. “Bobby was allowed to be Bobby.”

Then there was Janis Joplin, whom Grossman courted around the time of the 1967 Pop Festival. “Janis adored Albert,” recalls Braun. “I remember once he was talking to Janis – we were walking down the street together. She asked him how come he never tried to put the make on her. And he said, without batting an eyelash, ‘Cause if I was bad, you’d never forgive me.’ Which I thought was a very funny, typical Albert Grossman remark.”

In 1969, Grossman’s music empire began to crumble. First Dylan decided not to renew his management contract. Next, in 1970, Peter, Paul and Mary split up. The worst blow came when Joplin died of a heroin overdose at the end of that year. Joplin’s death deeply affected Grossman. He withdrew from personal management and with his wife Sally, lived the life of a retired millionaire in Bearsville, a hamlet in the town of Woodstock in upstate New York. He built a recording studio and established a record company, Bearsville records, for which Todd Rundgrin, Jesse Winchester, Foghat and a select group of other artists recorded. He also opened to restaurants, the Bear CafĂ© and the Little Bear.

Grossman’s last public appearance came just two days prior to his death, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. He showed up for the black-tie affair wearing blue jeans and a peasant shirt. “He dressed like he always dressed,” said promoter Bill Graham, “It could have been an Indian wedding. With somebody else, you wouldn’t believe that was real, but that was really Albert. That’s who he was.” – Michael Goldberg. Rolling Stone Magazine Issue No. 469, March, 1986.

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