Larry Harris

Larry Harris broke into the record business in 1971 when his cousin, Buddah Records bigwig Neil Bogart, gave him a shot at local radio promotion—Harris became Bogart’s right-hand man. He moved with Bogart from New York to Los Angeles in 1973 to co-found the legendary Casablanca Records, which later expanded to include a movie company that produced The Deep, Midnight Express, and Thank God It’s Friday, the lattermost essentially a 90-minute ad for the record label. Casablanca at its height hardly needed the exposure: Its signings included Kiss, Parliament, Donna Summer, Cher, and The Village People, as well as the early comedy records of Robin Williams. Casablanca was also notoriously profligate, spending lavishly and doing whatever it took to appear luxuriantly successful—something that was seldom the case on paper. The company typified late-’70s excess: drugs, especially cocaine and Quaaludes, proliferated. Employees were having sex on desktops (sometimes with help from the musicians), when Bogart wasn’t setting fire to them. And until co-owner and distributor PolyGram stepped in to put the overspending to a halt, free-flowing finances were the order of the day.

All this is detailed in no-holds-barred fashion in Harris’ new memoir, And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records, co-written with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs. The most dirt-filled music book since Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt, And Party Every Day is always entertaining and frequently jaw-dropping, from Harris’ description of acting as runner for an enormous amount of cocaine for Curtis Mayfield and several female hotel guests during the Buddah days to tales of calling his own positions on the Billboard charts. The A.V. Club spoke with Harris over lunch at a deli in midtown Manhattan about Gene Simmons’ business acumen, George Clinton’s drug habits, wet T-shirt contests, and much, much more. 

The A.V. Club: Leaving aside the obvious question of your age, if we were conducting this interview in 1978, how would it be different? 

Larry Harris: Well, Casablanca would be riding the wave, especially in 1978. Disco was king. Kiss was still huge—they’re pretty big now, but not huge like they were. And I’d probably be slurring on Quaaludes.

AVC: Was this book the first time you’d attempted to tell this story? 

LH: When anybody new I met found out that I was running Casablanca, they’d always say, “How was it?” I would tell them little bits and pieces of the story, and they’d inevitably say, “You should write a book.” Then one day, about 12 years ago, I started stream-of-consciousness just writing, from the beginning. Then I put it away, took it out, put it away. I’d tell other people stories, and then I’d remember stories I’d forgotten about. Since the book was written, a lot of people I used to work with call up and say, “Hey, you didn’t have this story in.” 

I sent it to some publishers, and they said “No.” Then I got a call from Lydia Criss, [Kiss drummer] Peter Criss’ wife, who’d written a book three years ago called Sealed With A Kiss. It’s this six-pound, 1,500 pictures, unbelievable book. There were a couple pictures they didn’t know the people in. So her co-writers [Gooch and Suhs] got in contact with me. I said, “By the way, I’ve got a book I wrote.” Doesn’t everybody? I sent them my draft, and asked if they wanted to work on it with me. Even after they touched it up a little, still—nobody. We talked to people who were 22—never heard of Casablanca, never heard of Donna Summer. Then this guy at Backbeat Books, Mike Edison. Of all the artists we had, he was a Parliament fan. That’s how we got the deal. 

AVC: The book is obviously Kiss-heavy. Was that because of your co-authors? 

LH: They didn’t change anything. What they did for me is a lot of research. I didn’t remember the dates. I didn’t know if it was May 15 or April 3. I mean, I knew what year it was, but I don’t remember that after 30 years. They tightened up a few places. They interviewed a few people that we put into the book. They got me to do interviews with some of the people I worked with, which I hadn’t done. I always felt it should be like a fly on the wall. Even though I was involved with all this stuff, it was kind of surrealistic. I speak to Gene Simmons, or I did, every six months, until he promised he would do the foreword, and then he backed out.

AVC: Did he read what you’d written about him as unflattering? 

LH: I didn’t think I said anything unflattering about them, really. We chose the chapters we sent him very carefully. He said his publisher wouldn’t let him do it. I told that to [former Kiss manager] Bill Aucoin, and Aucoin said, “That’s bullshit.” I told that to [former Kiss manager] Joyce Biawitz, who also said, “That’s ridiculous. He’s writing two pages? Why would his fucking publisher care?” And I did speak to Paul [Stanley]. He was on a friend of mine’s radio show promoting his artwork; he’s an artist now. My friend said, “Oh, we have a call from a listener.” I got on and said, “I took you to a Who show in 1973.” The Who is my favorite band. The show was at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and that’s where I decided, and where we all decided, that they should be breaking guitars. When I first saw Kiss, they were pretty unable to move around. They were in black leather; Ace [Frehley] and Paul and probably Gene weren’t used to wearing platforms all the time. Early pictures of them, they wore regular street shoes. At some point, even when they were out of makeup, they wore the platforms just so they could be larger than life. 

AVC: You were backstage with a lot of these bands. Kiss in particular was notorious for groupies. What was a typical backstage at a Kiss show like? 

LH: It wasn’t as bad as I’ve seen with other bands, because Kiss’ security was really well trained. The groupies were kept off in a separate area. They weren’t allowed to come where they were putting on makeup and getting dressed. I mean, Gene and Paul—that was serious. That was business. And if nothing else, Gene is very business-conscious. What Gene did do—and there are stories and stories about it—is have the roadies set up his hotel with video cameras first thing; that was their first job. But I’ve been backstage with a lot of bands where the groupies would get in the way, just be underfoot all the time, just be a pain in the ass. Not with Kiss. They were not allowed that access at all. 

AVC: Which groups had them underfoot?

LH: Sha Na Na—their groupies wore poodle skirts, which was kind of funny. There were 12 guys in Sha Na Na, and they had no security whatsoever. 

AVC: How about at a P-Funk show? 

LH: I didn’t go backstage with them that often. Robert Klein had groupies. Comedians had groupies. 

AVC: One of the surprising things about the book is how levelheaded George Clinton comes across.

LH: He’s brilliant. He was out there. He still does, from what I understand, a lot of cocaine. 

AVC: There was a GQ profile of him two years ago where he just lit up a crack pipe in front of the reporter, like, “This is what I do. Deal with it.” 

LH: Well, it is what he does. I always thought that George was a brilliant artist. Unlike Kiss—we did not hold Kiss in awe, in any respect. But in a lot of respects, we held George in awe. Clinton was actually creating something new. I mean, who would have heard of funk? Without Clinton, rap wouldn’t have happened the way it did, just because of the amount of sampling. That was amazing. George did walk around with an entourage—at least one guy, sometimes three or four. I still see pictures of his managers at the time—the guys who I describe as the Detroit Purple Gang. This is L.A., it’s 80 degrees out, and they’re walking with black, long raincoats and hats, fedoras. They weren’t Mafia guys—they were really nice guys, actually. But it always struck me. 

AVC: How many people were on the Clinton payroll at its height? 

LH: We paid him and he paid whomever he paid. But there must have—oh my God, with a stage crew and that kind of show? There had to be at least 20, 30 people onstage. I mean, the guy with the diaper… He was spending money like water. But then, so were we.

AVC: You talk in the book about seeing the Mothership for the first time. Did you have to make a special trip to see it? 

LH: I was going to New York anyway for meetings I don’t remember—that doesn’t stand out in my mind like seeing the Mothership come down. I shot over to the [New Jersey] Air Force base [where it was stored]. It was also interesting being one of the only white people in the audience in those days. The other thing I loved about George is that he had the brains, the balls, and the guts to have the same group—the exact same group—signed to two different labels with two different names and perform together in a show. I’m sure a lot of his hardcore fans knew it was the same group, but I’m sure half the people were expecting two different groups to perform. 

AVC: There were more than two groups. Funkadelic was signed to Warner Bros. and Parliament to Casablanca, but you also signed Parlet, the girl-group P-Funk spin-off. Do you recall the meeting when he brought them in? 

LH: You know, I do. He walked in with these drawn cartoons. 

AVC: By Pedro Bell? He drew the cover of Parliament’s 1978 album Motor-Booty Affair

LH: It must have been the same guy. I should have kept it, but I didn’t, because this is what we did every day. He brings this comic strip to me and I’m trying to make sense of what he’s saying, but once he said Parlet, I said, “That was brilliant.” Parliament and a girl group? I loved it. Not that it mattered if I did—we didn’t want him signing to Warners another group of his, because Parliament and Funkadelic albums were both very successful. 

There was never a black promotion team at any record label, ever, like the guys we had. [Casablanca co-founder] Cecil Holmes was there. [New York DJ] Frankie Crocker was busted [for payola], and Cecil was called in front of the grand jury, so Cecil was kind of laying back. That really scared him. So we hired Jheryl Busby, who ended up running Motown. A guy named Ruben Rodriguez, who still does promotion in New York; Ruben found Digable Planets and a bunch of others—he’s an incredible promotion man. Ernie Singleton, who wound up running MCA’s black division. Eddie Pugh, who wound up running Sony’s black division. Each of them alone could have been the promotion department. When it came to black records, we could do no wrong. And that’s when Cameo broke. Larry Blackmon was pretty brilliant—the Cameo stuff was very creative. 

AVC: You held George Clinton in awe. Did you hold Giorgio Moroder in awe, too? 

LH: No, though it wasn’t all that easy to understand him either—that heavy German accent. It was always more arm’s-length with Giorgio. Not the warmest guy in the world. Whereas George Clinton would walk in and he’d be… he’d be George. He’d be laughing and joking and fooling around with people and “Hey, brother!” George was a really warm, friendly guy, and very down to earth. There was no pretense with George. If he wanted to say “fuck,” he said “fuck,” whereas Giorgio was very reserved. 

AVC: With The Village People, did you deal strictly with Jacques Morali, their creator and producer? 

LH: Mostly Jacques. Not his partner, Henri Belolo. Jacques was the creative one of the pair, and also very vocal; he’d break into hysterics every once in a while. Jacques could be a raver at times. 

AVC: There’s a story in the book about one of the label’s employees bent over his desk being fucked by a member of an unnamed act, in full costume. Was that a Village Person? 

LH: [Pauses.] Well, since he’s already said he did want to be mentioned in the book, let’s just say he wore feathers. 

AVC: Casablanca may be the only label where the rumors don’t measure up to the facts. Has there been a rumor so outlandish that it goes beyond what actually happened?

LH: I think there’s a book coming out by Jon Peters, and I think he has a Jeff Wald story in there, I’m not sure, of walking down the hall in the Casablanca offices and seeing bowls of cocaine. First of all, if you did blow, and even if you did it out in the open, there were never fucking bowls. It was in little vials, or folded up in a piece of paper. Number two, Jeff Wald was Donna Summer’s co-manager for maybe five minutes; he never came up those stairs where the promotion guys and me and Neil were, that I ever saw. The only time I ever met with Jeff was in the lawyer’s office downstairs, and he used to carry a gun in an ankle holster, because he’s an idiot. The stories of a girl walking around taking orders for drugs—it never happened. 

But the cocaine thing—yeah, we did cocaine. I had a drawer full of drugs: I kept grass there, and Quaaludes. It was only the promotion department that did it. It wasn’t the sales department, it wasn’t the press department—though I’m sure somebody in press did blow. It was part of the times. We did blow with bankers and accountants. One of the high points in my life was smoking a joint with David Janssen from The Fugitive. It was a show I grew up watching, amazed, and then I was sitting on a floor smoking a joint with this guy? Wow. 

AVC: Was there any point writing the book where you felt a pang of longing for that time again? 

LH: Constantly. I mean, when you go through those things in life, you don’t appreciate them as much because you’re doing it. It’s part of your job. It’s what you do. But when you look back at it, especially decades later—wow. It’s amazing that we did that. But at the time, it wasn’t amazing. Hanging out backstage with Kiss wasn’t amazing. But what was amazing was the Woodstock story—even back then, I knew that was amazing.

AVC: You ended up backstage at Woodstock because you happened to book yourself into the same hotel where the acts were staying, and you wound up befriending and hanging out with them. 

LH: I was a dumb kid living in Queens. It was surrealistic. When you hear stories—even today, if a kid ran into, I don’t know, the Foo Fighters by mistake and got to stay at their hotel, it would probably be really cool, something they’d never forget. 

AVC: At that time, you weren’t yet working for Buddah, where you began your career with Neil Bogart, your cousin. Buddah was a fascinating label—it was where Bogart invented bubblegum pop, releasing music by The Ohio Express and The 1910 Fruitgum Co. 

LH: As much as I talk about Casablanca being kind of like a family, the Buddah thing was much more like a family. It wasn’t as big. Neil wasn’t as crazed living in New York [as in L.A.]. He was more normal—he had a house in Jersey. He would go home when he wasn’t fucking around or going to a show. He’d have his kids there and be a normal dad. We would just hang out after work. We’d smoke joints, have a little wine, we’d talk about music, we’d listen to music, and there were maybe a half-dozen people in the room doing this. That was pretty much the core of the company. Casablanca in the very beginning might have been more of a family, but it grew to these extraordinary numbers of people and artists. It was just so different. [In New York] we used to go down to the Bitter End to see our artists. We never went to the same club to see an artist in L.A. 

AVC: You grew up in Queens, right?

LH: I grew up out on 98th in Flushing. My babysitter was [musician] Al Kooper, who I later signed to Casablanca. I have a picture of me as a 5-year-old and Al as a 10-year-old, walking down the street together in these ’50s, stupid-looking outfits. In high school, there was this kid who lived near us, a year or two younger, that I used to drive to school every day. His name was Joey Rizzo. His father was Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s best friend, who owned Jilly’s Bar in New York and Miami. One night Joey and I were hanging out at the New York Jilly’s and it was closed already, and his father and Sinatra and a bunch of their buddies came in, and they were the only customers. The bartenders had left. So Joey and I were bringing them drinks. It was the first time in my life I ever made a lot of money. Sinatra gave me the first $100 bill I ever saw, as a tip. 

AVC: You mentioned Al Kooper. Did you read his book, Backstage Passes—

LH: …and Bastards and Bluh-Bluh-Bluh-Bluh-Bluh-Bluh? [The actual title is Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards. —ed.] No, but Al and I talked about it a little.

AVC: Was there any particular book that you modeled yours on?

LH: No. The one other reason I wanted to write this book is that I always wanted to debunk [Frederic Dannen’s] Hit Men, because I knew he was lying. First of all, how could anybody say that Neil Bogart didn’t have an ear? In the short life he had, look at all the stuff he signed. 

AVC: Joan Jett took “I Love Rock N’ Roll” to a bunch of different labels before Bogart signed her to Boardwalk, and that was huge. 

LH: It hit No. 1 the day he died. I love listening to that song. He signed Gladys Knight, Brewer & Shipley. The Stories only had one hit, but it was a good hit—“Brother Louie.” I would watch Neil, with almost everybody but Curtis Mayfield, somebody would break it down and say, “Look, on the bridge, do this,” or, “Bring this in earlier.” Neil knew how to make a hit song. He produced one of the Kiss albums.

AVC: You write about Bill Wardlow, the Billboard editor whom you say essentially handed you the chart positions you asked for during the late ’70s. That was surprising, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. 

LH: He did it because he was a 40- or 50-year-old out-of-shape gay guy who wanted to be popular in the disco community so he could have dates. He wanted to be famous, like so many other people. We could get him into Studio 54. He held his Disco Forums for Billboard. We got him all the artists to perform at it. He was very much like Neil: If he was famous, it made him feel good. We never paid him a nickel. Later on, people did. He realized what he was doing for us was worth money. That’s why Billboard eventually fired him, because he was taking money. I’m not going to mention who, because I’ll get shot, but it was an independent guy who really got his hooks into Wardlow. He would call the label and say, “You want a bullet? It’ll cost you five grand.” [A bullet on the Billboard charts signifies a significant jump from the previous week—ed.] But for us, never a nickel. Yeah, we invited him to all the parties, and made a fuss over him and stuff like that. I’d call him and say “This is what I want,” and it would be there the next day.

AVC: So this was mostly due to disco? It didn’t go back to, say, Buddah?

LH: No, no, no, no. It was all due to disco. It didn’t happen to us the first two years of the label. It was after Donna Summer hit, and The Village People, that’s when I had the control. 

AVC: You mentioned that you heard stories after the book came out that you weren’t able to include. Can you remember any? 

LH: When The Deep came out, we were the first people to promote a movie using radio as a main thrust. We also had a contact sheet that Jacqueline Bisset had okayed pictures of. She didn’t look very closely, I guess. There was one picture of her coming out of the water with her nipples popping out of her shirt. Starting from that, we were the first ones to hold wet T-shirt contests, because of the movie. It became this big fad, and people still do it. We hired a real news guy in L.A.—he was on the 11 o’clock news—to work our product, because if a news guy calls another news guy, they do each other favors. Chuck Ashman, whose news broadcast went on right behind Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman—it was called Metro News, Metro News. Chuck would do things like figure out, “Okay, we’ve got a movie coming out, how do we get news across the country to carry it?” No one, I think, has done it since, and we got tons of coverage. 

[New York radio DJ] Scott Shannon called me: “The book’s great.” He used to work for Casablanca. I said, “You know, Scott, there’s a story I wanted to put in about you, but I figured you’d sue me.” He says, “What’s that?” Keep in mind that at Casablanca, we flew first class all the time. I said, “Well, you were on a 747, got drunk, went upstairs, and fucked a 70-year-old woman.” And he goes, “Yeah, you’re right, and you could have put it in the book, because I left her up there unconscious.” 

AVC: How did you respond when Kiss came in and said they wanted to release four solo albums? 

LH: The band never came in. It was the management. Basically, we weren’t given a choice. It was, “The band’s gonna break up, and the only way we can think of keeping them together is these solo albums. It’ll buy us time.” We didn’t think it was a good idea. You know, they were arguably our biggest act—at that point, The Village People may have been selling more product. Actually, the biggest record we really ever had was Santa Esmeralda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” disco. That was a no-brainer; it just exploded. But it couldn’t be followed up, because they were so terrible. But they lucked out to pick the right song at the right time.

Anyway, knowing Kiss was our first act, and Neil being a very positive thinker and an inveterate gambler, he made himself believe that this was a good idea. I went along with it at that point; I couldn’t tell him it wasn’t, because he wouldn’t have wanted to hear it. Neil didn’t like negativity at all. The problem was, because it was Neil, for years we hadn’t shipped less than a million on any Kiss album, and every one of these [solo albums] now had to be shipped a million, even though by contract we didn’t have to. Every one had to have a half-million dollars spent on it in advertising by contract, but that was probably tripled, because if Neil was going to do it, he was going to do it. That kind of stuff was starting to piss me off. 

AVC: You got out of Casablanca about a year before—

LH: Six months before Neil got kicked out. 

AVC: You write about having a premonition that things were about to go bad. Did you think it was just Casablanca? Because the music business as a whole basically collapsed around the same time the label did. Did you see that happening all around, or was it mostly your own backyard?

LH: Mostly in my backyard, because I knew Donna Summer was leaving us; she was suing to get off the label. The Village People had fallen, or were starting to fall. Of course, Kiss had fallen with the four solo albums. The Robin Williams album had just come out and was doing well, so that was a positive. But the transition I saw was, we were starting to hear about this new thing called the CD. It was being explained to us by people smarter than us, like this guy Stan Cornyn, who used to work at Warner Bros. Cornyn was a really bright guy—he made his money, actually, being a stamp collector more than anything else. He happened to live next door to me. We would, on the weekends once in a while, see each other, and he’d explain to me what this CD was going to be doing. I was like, “An encyclopedia can be on one disc? Really?” I started thinking about that, and I started thinking, “Things are really going to change once something like that comes into being.”

I already lived through the 8-track going bye-bye, the cassette coming in—I knew things were going to change. By the time I left, [the business] was starting to be in a recession. But I didn’t think the industry would fall apart, because there’d been other, smaller recessions over the years. I figured, “Okay, it’ll be fine. Yeah, there’ll be some backlash, a little bit. People might not buy as much.” But the recession was a pretty bad recession, actually, the early ’80s. It did affect the record business. Also, the CD started moving in at that point, and you know, I didn’t have a crystal ball, really. It was just gut. 

AVC: Have you been surprised by the endurance of Casablanca’s legacy? 

LH: Since the book, a guy writes me an e-mail and sends me pictures. He’s got “Casablanca” tattooed across his forearm; he’s got [Casablanca subsidiary] Oasis Records tattooed across his back, the logo. Another guy writes me and sends a picture; he’s married, has two kids, and one of the rooms in his house is a Donna Summer shrine. He’s got stuff from Casablanca that I didn’t know anybody kept—every jacket we ever made, every T-shirt. He’s got a plaque that says, “This stereo system is specifically designed for Neil Bogart,” with the Casablanca logo. And why? It’s amazing. You don’t know these people are out there until they send this kind of stuff. I mean, I knew there were Kiss freaks. That, I knew all along. But I never realized that the disco stuff had so many followers still.