HAROLD KUDLETS : THE MAN WHO BROUGHT ROCK-A-BILLY TO CANADA
By Bo Berglind
One of the unsung heros of rockabilly is Harold Kudlets as without him this vibrant form of music would have had a much tougher time getting established north of the American border. It is open to speculation but the career of quite a few of those who we regard to today as originators may well have taken a different course without the business courage and backing of Harold. One wonders if Conway Twitty would have written "It's Only Make Believe". But of course this is academic as it did happen and here's the story of how and why.
Glasgow-born Kudlets has lived in Hamilton, Ontario, since he was eight and schooldays bring back memories of the old Cannon and Hess Street School and Westdale Collegiate. Then came a number of jobs, mostly in his own, in the promotion business. In fact, the only time he has worked for anyone else was after Second World War when he went to Stelco for a spell, a job about which he commented:
-I think I was more a hindrance there then a help.
Steloc was otherwise known as The Steel Company of Canada and was one of the nartion's major employers. However like allsteel manufactuers the world over, it has now contracted in size.
Anyway, he got his start in 1946 as a manager of the Forum, the old Hamilton, Ontario ice palace on Barton Street between Sanford Avenue and Wentworth Street when it was a summer rolling rink. The Forum had an audience capacity of between 3,500 and 4,000 but was demolished in the mid seventies.
In July 1947 Harold booked the original Glenn Miller Orchestra with Tex Beneke. Kudlets also had his own act, a colored piano team known as "Mr. And Mrs. 88". That was the time when the issuing of liquor licenses to restaurants heralded the start of the bar industry:
-I think The Grange on King Street West was our first. You could only buy a drink if you ordered a meal. Beers cost 75 cents and an all-you-could-eat smorgasbord cost you 99 cents.
Kudlets went on to book acts like Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett and The Jack Benny Show in places like the Flamingo Lounge, the Golden Bell, the Armouries and the Forum.
-I remember when Louis Armstrong opened the Dundas Arena for me in May 1951. I though I was going to be a good promoter, and limit the crowd to about 3,500. Of course, by 8 oíclock, the tickets were all sold out, and there were thousands of people outside. Well, hell, they got in anyway.
Dundas was atown near Hamilton and had a population in excess of 20,000 people.
Harold Kudlets was the man to find work for starving musicians, he had them working for 40 to 50 weeks a year. Over 125 musicians have cause to be grateful to Harold. When interviewed in 1965 he said:
-There ís only a handful of agents who are honourable in this business. The business is built on honesty. A crook may gain some profit in the short run, but an honest man will make more profit for himself and others in the long run.
In the late 1950s Kudlets got the chance to book Conway Twitty (aka Harold Jenkins) a southern boy who patterned his tyle after Elvis Presley. Twitty wrote his song "It's Only Make Believe" at the long-gone Flamingo Lounge in downtown Hamilton, although some other sources have the location as Fischer Hotel in the same town. Conway was so impressed that he painted a picture of Canada as the promised land to another Arkansas rockabilly wildman, Ronnie Hawkins:
-Conway was booked into a hotel in Washington and after the third day, the club threw him out. He was not right for the room. Don Seat asked if I could keep Conway working for a few weeks until they got the contract sorted out. He stayed with me for two years and never had a day off.
-He never counted the money he made. Heíd just point to the pile and said: "Take your share". To be honest, I donít know whether to could or not
-Conway's group was entirely different to that of Levon (Helms) and The Hawks. Conway's group were all typical country boys. They were gentlemen all the way, particularly with women. Whereas Levon and his boys just give them a party.
Kudlets first brought Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks to Canada via Hamilton. Hawkins made the pilgrimage to Canada with his backup band the Hawks to the Golden Rail Tavern in 1958 and found a new home. In return, Hawkins and his Hawks nicknamed Kudlets The Colonel.
But there is one accomplishment of which Kudlets is more proud and this is his help in establishing Levon And The Hawks.. This is course the legenday Canadian outfit although initailly fronted by Levon Helm from Arkanas, who went from backing Ronnie Hawkins to backing Bob Dylan and then onto ensconcing themselves as one of the premier rock groups known as The Band.
-Says Kudlets at his Robinson Avenue bungalow: I was the one who started them, and I was the one who was there when it ended for a while.
Harold ws the guy who Levon Helm and Rick Danko approached when they became disenchanted with Hawkins:
-I had my office those days at the Royal Connaught Hotel. One day, Levon and the boys were sitting in the lobby waiting for me at 9 o'clock in the morning. And I thought, what gives? These guys did not usually go to bed until 9 a.m. in the morning.
During the course of their meeting, Kudlets agreed to take on Levon And The Hawks as a client. About a year later, he booked them for a New Jersey gig and someone from Bob Dylan's office heard them. Dylan gave Helm a call and hired the group as his backing band as he moved from acoustic to electric music.
In his heyday as a booking agent he had his office on the eighth floor of the Royal Connaught Hotel in downtown Hamilton. Behind the door bearing the lettering "Harold Kudlets Agency" was a room stacked with piles of promotion material, newspaper clippings and a desk full of contracts. This was the heart and nerve centre of Kudlets business empire. In the office were photos of the stars of the day along with busts of Chopin and Beethoveen. He was constantly on the look out for new acts with the end result that he had several that were the equal to any others on the Canadian entertainment scene. Among them were Ray Smith & His Rockin' Little Angels (ex-Sun/Judd artist) and Matt Lucas, both from the mid south of the USA.
In the mid sixties, Kudlet had a ready market for Canadian groups in the USA but getting them there was another thing. This was a source of constant irritation to him. Despite this,the majority of his acts in the sixties were Canadian, a fact about which he was and ishe was very proud:
-We can get an American group over here at almost ten minutesí notice. Canadian immigration bends over backwards to help. But it takes from three to ten weeks to get a Canadian group into the US. There are mountains of red tape.
Any group than can make it in Canada can make it anywhere. Stateside, most of the clubs have dancing and audiences only want to hear the beat. But here, here, there is very little dancing. Entertainment is the thing. As a result, the groups have to work very hard. They have to entertain.
Kudlets later had his business tentacles stretching throughout the United States and he became the booker for the Freemont Hotel in Las Vegas, the Golden Club in Reno, the Trophy Room in Sacramento, the A-Go-Go Room in Seattle and the chain of Peppermint Lounges in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Miami and Honolulu. He said the key to being a successful agent was putting the right group in the right room.
These New York agents, they could not care less. If the room called for classical music, they would send a rock band. Finally, the owners got so burned that when an agent came along whom they could trust, they would stick with him.
At one time, I was the one of the largest independent agents world wide. I am very proud of that. And about 95 per cent of the acts I booked were Canadian. It was a feather in my cap of being a little Canadian agent, and being with the big boys.
When disco became the rage in the mid-sevties, Kudlets found his livelihood diminishing as clubs looked for dick jockeys instead of musicians ans o went into a period of semi hibernation. However he came back into business in 1983 to help book the reformed Band, but retired again when his wife Pauline fell ill. Sadly, she passed away in April 1994.
Today, Harold wistfully says:
I am old enough to collect my pension - but if I had the opportunity to go back to the entertainment scene, I would jump at it. To leave the business cold, you just cannot do it.
If that is not possible, perhaps Harold will set about writing his memoirs, it will be a fascinating tale that is for sure. For now, thanks are due to Harold for his share in the founding of the music we all know and love, rock 'n' roll.
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The man who brought rock ‘n’ roll to Canada
Whitby columnist tells the Harold Kudlets story
Whitby This Week
In music management folklore of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Colonel Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley. Brian Epstein managed The Beatles. Pioneer agent and promoter Harold Kudlets had the wide open musical territory of Southern Ontario, resulting in the American invasion of rock ‘n’ roll into Canada.
Kudlets was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1916. When he was eight, his family moved to Hamilton, Ontario.
In 1946, he started out in the promotion business, when he became manager of the Forum Palace in Hamilton.
In 1947, Kudlets booked the Glenn Miller Orchestra with Ted Beneke as leader. From there on, he signed major big band and jazz acts like Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bobby Hackett, to name a few.
By the late 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll was in full bloom. Kudlets, through his Harold Kudlets Agency, booked singer Conway Twitty at the Flamingo Lounge in downtown Hamilton. This resulted in great success for both. The song, It’s Only Make Believe (1958), was composed by Twitty with his drummer Jack Vance during a short performance break. It was an enormous hit record that instantly established Twitty as a major recording star.
Twitty was very appreciative of Canada, so much so that he spread the word about Harold Kudlets to fellow rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins from Arkansas. With his backup band The Hawks, Hawkins traveled north to the land of opportunity, guided by the free hand of Kudlets, who wasted no time in arranging a stint for them at the Golden Rail at Diamond Jim’s. Shortly after, Kudlets took Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks to New York and had them sign a contract with Roulette Records.
Another notable milestone in the career of Kudlets was when he helped organize and manage Levon (Helm) and The Hawks (The Stones That I Throw - 1965). The group morphed into The Band and the famous Music From Big Pink (1968) album, after having served as backup band for Bob Dylan.
Singer Matt Lucas also benefited from Kudlets. Lucas’s biggest hit was a radical, rocking cover of Hank Snow’s I’m Moving On (1963).
When I recently spoke to Matt Lucas he said, “I talked to my old friend Harold Kudlets yesterday. He was the man who brought rock ‘n’ roll to Canada. Yes, he brought all of us to Canada when there was no rock ‘n’ roll in Canada. He is still sharp as a tack and turned 97 on November 9th, 2013.”
Lucas quipped, “I’ve got a pretty good memory also as I remember his office phone number from 55 years ago, JA 20-900!”
Kudlets, who still lives in Hamilton, retired in the mid-80s. During a brief phone conversation with him I sensed a yearning for the past. He now has the accolades and warm memories of a fantastic career.
-- Andrew Merey is a Whitby resident who’s interested in music and movie history. He has contributed articles to This Week since 2003. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
MAHONEY: Book ’em Harold — oh, he did
By Jeff Mahoney
Many of the big names he represented are gone, too often before their time. Sadly, that's sometimes the flip side of tall candles; short wicks and high flames that burn fast.
But Harold Kudlets, impresario extraordinaire, is alive and well (as they used to say of Jacques Brel) and living in Shalom Village, where his cheesecake is legendary.
At 98, you're going to outlast a lot of people. Still, Harold wishes people like Conway Twitty (he died at 60) and some of the "boys" he helped bring along — you know them as The Band — hadn't left quite so soon.
Often with creativity, says Harold, come oversized energies and money blindness. "The alcohol and the drugs," says Harold. "They (some of his clients) would go through money. It's an attitude that the picnic will never end. Levon Helm (drummer for The Band) would tip five people before he ever got to his hotel room."
He sometimes had to send airline tickets to fairly well-known acts because they'd blown through fortunes.
"Do you like cheesecake?" Harold asks me, in his handsome apartment with the memorabilia and the numerous pictures and articles mounted on the wall, chronicling a career that began in 1947.
That's when he found himself booking the Glenn Miller band into the old Barton Street roller rink, which he managed for an owner who "won it in a card game, I think." (Before that, he'd run a short-lived hamburger joint on the beach that got eclipsed by another you might have heard of, Hutch's.)
"A couple of gentlemen came in to the rink one day with these big window cards for the band and told me the promoter had quit; would I like to take over the contract?" says Harold. He had no idea then where his answer, yes, would take him. All over the world.
On the wall there's a picture of Harold in New York City in the early 1980s with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm. He either represented or booked everyone from Jack Benny ("great man, not cheap at all like he made out"), Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Harry James, to Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, Bill Haley and the Comets, Billie Holiday, Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead (but no, not Jacques Brel).
He booked Frank Sinatra into the Barton roller rink, but then got served a cease-and-desist order from the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto, whose contract with Old Blue Eyes stipulated no one could book him within 10 days, either side, or 50 miles, any direction, of his performance there. Otherwise he could've added the "Chairman of the Board" to his roster.
"I love cheesecake," I tell Harold.
"I'll keep a piece for you. I'm making some for Passover," says Harold, who remembers his mother finding an apartment in the east end in the 1920s, after they'd arrived from Glasgow (where he was born); neighbours took up a petition to keep the Jewish family out.
Times have changed, but Harold remembers it all.
If he remembers, Harold is in turn remembered, probably best for representing Conway Twitty and The Band. He was celebrated in 2006 with lifetime achievement honours at the Hamilton Music Awards.
"I got a call. A club owner in Washington cancelled Conway's contract and could I help by booking him in Hamilton?" Harold remembers.
"I booked him for $375 and it changed both our lives. He was held over and he ended up living in Hamilton for a time. It's where he wrote "It's Only Make Believe," which went on to make millions."
Harold built on that rockabilly strength with his next act, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.
"They were such a show group," says Harold. "Ronnie did back flips and somersaults and his camel walk (precursor to Michael Jackson's Moonwalk)."
Harold pulls more yarn from the endless spool of his memory. I listen, along with Harold's friend, Jim Kennelly.
"Oh, I had some novelty acts too — a one-legged tap dancer; Tiny Grimes, who played the piano with his feet, from a bench high over the keyboard." And, of course, Chesty Morgan.
Jim shakes his head, smiling. He's heard so many of the stories, before but there's always something new.
"You've really gotta try his cheesecake," says Jim.
DEO: Legendary promoter Harold Kudlets
The Spec's Jeff Mahoney sits down with Harold Kudlets, former show promoter for the Royal Connaught
John Rennison,The Hamilton Spectator