Thursday, March 8, 2012

The rock-n-roll side of Rich Podolsky: Sportswriter pens Don Kirshner biography

So, what was it that made Philadelphia-native sportswriter Rich Podolsky want to tell the story of Don Kirshner, also known as “The Man with the Golden Ear” just released by music publisher Hal Leonard Books? Before Podolsky ever thought about writing about the beloved record producer of Brill Building fame, he was waxing some kind of wonderful about the Boston Celtics.

In fact, for over 30 years of his professional career, Podolsky’s journalistic talents have taken him around the sports world—college basketball, college football, golf, and horse racing. His ability to pick winning college football teams found him, as of 2009, with his selections published by ESPN, AOL among others, and his talents didn’t just center on football.

For many years, Podolsky’s sports acumen was an integral part of CBS Sports (working with Jimmy the Greek and Beano Cook),, ESPN Insider, and AOL. Now you know one side to the Podolsky, the journalist.

But, it’s often said that a good writer can write about anything, particularly any subject for which there is passion. His book that was in the making for seven years, “Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear,” really originated in the mind and heart of a young teenager from Philadelphia. So, what is it that made Podolsky jump over to write about rock and roll? One reason: music empresario Don Kirshner was Podolsky’s hero.

Here was a Baby Boomer teenager like any other, listening to his beloved Philco radio in his bedroom, getting ready for school, and when he’d matured to driving age, he’d be found motoring around Philly streets, blasting out the sounds of WIBG (Wibbage) Radio, with DJs Hy Lit and Joe Niagara, New York’s WABC go-to, Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow), as well as Jerry Blavat (WHAT). Today, WIBBAGE FM, 94.3 plays a popular 60s and 70s format with DJs like Philly Bill Culp, Jerry Beebe, syndicated favorites including John Records Landecker on Saturday night and Dave the Rave’s Relics and Rarities. Takes you back to ...back in the day, where every song you heard in high school and college had a meaning, had a part of your heart wrapped around it, and therein was the genesis for Richard Podolsky finding a backbeat to his youth.

As he shares, teenage Podolsky was fortunate that his father was a record buyer for Sun Rae, a Philadelphia record store chain. Enthusiastic discussions between father and son led to an early opportunity for Rich to start picking hits (long before he developed a knack for picking winning football teams). In his book’s foreword, he writes that his father had brought home a “pile of 45s that were untried and untested. He didn’t know if any of them were good, and assumed he might not recognize if they were since they weren’t his style.”

Rich’s first freelance discovery was “If I Had a Hammer” by a (then) unknown Peter, Paul, and Mary. Podolsky’s dad listened, and bought copies for the racks of all his stores. Within six weeks, it was a certified Top 10 hit because others discovered it, same as Podolsky. And thus began a lifetime of immersion in the music for young Rich Podolsky. Not long after, in the Spring of 1962, Rich’s dad invited him to attend a dinner sponsored by Cameo Parkway Records where they were introducing Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time”). He was thrilled to meet Chubby Checker that night, never dreaming that some 45 years later, he’d be on a radio program with him, discussing the greatest days of the music. Life’s funny that way.

Podolsky continues, of that night, “And then I saw him—Don Kirshner. There he was, walking toward us, looking larger than life. Kirshner was only twenty-seven then, but his song publishing firm, Aldon Music, was the talk of the business. He had that something that made people want to be around him.”

This biography was not the result of a longtime personal friendship between Podolsky and Kirshner. In fact it would take 40 years before Podolsky would consider writing the book in the first place, and it wasn’t until a long way into researching and interviewing hitmaking, ultratalented songwriters that he could even connect with Kirshner to learn if he would be willing to cooperate in telling his story. Based on reading the book, it’s easy to see that Podolsky’s respect and regard for the “man with the golden ear” is such that he would have written it with or without Kirshner’s help.

And yet, one day, skipping past months of attempts, e-mails, phone calls and messages via friends, and friends of friends, Podolsky’s phone rang, and the voice on the other end was indeed Kirshner’s. After an initial conversation, Kirshner agreed to share his memories with Podolsky. He writes, “Every Sunday morning for six months we’d chat over coffee and bagels, 1,300 miles apart.”

In Hal Leonard Books, Podolsky found a natural publishing partner to tell the story of a beloved man of music who is held in regard, respect, and just plain loved by the luminaries of the soundtrack of your life, if you’re any kind of Baby Boomer at all. Hal Leonard is as well known for music publishing as Campbell’s is for soup.

The list of those whose careers collided and excelled is long and strong. Don Kirshner made such an impact on the music of the 60s, by giving young songwriters their first breaks, their first chances, and fair profits and a nurturing environment in which to be creative. Kirshner partnered in business with a savvy businessman and gentleman, Al Nevins, and together they built an empire of publishing that was fueled and propelled to success by teenage songwriters.

The songwriters’ list is legendary: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Jack Keller, Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole Bayer Sager, on and on. The recording artists who were most impacted by Kirshner’s talents include some of Podolsky’s favorites: Connie Francis, The Monkees, The Archies, and Tony Orlando.

Orlando is more than a fan of Kirshner’s; he considers he owes his career to the “man with the golden ear,” a moniker given Kirshner by Time Magazine. Orlando’s foreword for the book notes Kirshner as a gentleman who “opened the door to independent record producers, allowing young record producers to be able to create and sell their works to major record companies.” Of course, fans of Orlando know him as a young demo singer who found a tremendous career that continues today when he was paired with studio singers Joyce Vincent Wilson and Telma Hopkins, better known as Dawn.

Speaking of better known, Podolsky’s book is a compendium of all the songs, songwriters, producers and music that the young man was memorizing alongside college courses, attaining the virtual equivalent of a PhD in rock and roll along the way. In a lovely section of the book, information is shared that perhaps any true 60s fan and proud owner of virtually every song that Podolsky describes, doesn’t realize is there.

The timing of the book’s release, by sheer happenstance, is made more poignant in last week’s unexpected passing of singer Davy Jones of The Monkees. Kirshner was instrumental in selecting the body of songs that The Monkees would record and perform on their Screen Gems TV Show.

One of the most influential producers Kirshner brought in was the great Jeff Barry, who had a string of hits already to his producer credit (The Crystals, The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes), today a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but even moreso, Kirshner had access, via Barry, to his friends and colleagues among the best New York studio musicians.

It was just a matter of time before Monkee magic turned into Monkeemania, given the on-camera chemistry and underlying musical talent of Davy, Mickey, Peter, and Mike, which at the onset had not even yet been tapped. Kirshner and his team of creatives provided a springboard from which this group propelled to superstardom, and they’re not alone.

But, as Podolsky describes, Kirshner was not always beloved by the performers, which is entirely understandable, as there is always a chance for newfound stardom to convince a talented person that they could have reached those heights, no matter what. The relationship between Kirshner and The Monkees was not always a lovefest, and emotions run high even this week in the blogworld as to exactly how individual and collective Monkees felt (at different times) about Kirshner as producer. Podolsky shared with me, that when Jones was appearing as the Artful Dodger in “Oliver” on Broadway in 1964, “Don Kirshner had signed Jones” and later “was very influential in choosing Jones during the national casting call for The Monkees.”

Even before there was a Monkee madness, there was much more to Don Kirshner, and his ability to pick out talent by watching performers early on in their careers, foster that talent and put them together with the best writers, producers and arrangers to create vinyl magic for the artists, while Aldon Music published all of them, hitmakers indeed.

Among all the stories Kirshner and his friends share with Podolsky, the most heartwarming surely has to be how Kirshner sat in Kurtzman’s Candy Store in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Kirshner’s friend, Natalie, described a friend of hers she was bringing over to meet him, as “the most talented human being she’d ever met.” At first meeting, that friend was a frightning sight of a frail, emotionless young man, who seemed ever older than his years.

He was introduced to “Kirsh,” the new name that the young man would give him, quickly, as Walden Robert Cassotto. After a brief discussion, the three went to Natalie’s house, wherein the man they would come to call Bobby Darin would blow Kirshner off the sofa and into full alert as he watched him play “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.”

As he performed, Kirshner saw “that something special” the young man possessed. The two became enjoined in creating music history, and engendered a lifetime of goodwill and best results for other talents in the music industry, e.g., Connie Francis as a new singer and a girl who’d fall madly in love with Darin, and Artie Wayne as a young songwriter, whom Darin sent to see Kirshner about a job, the first real break of his career. Ron Dante and Toni Wine are two more talents whose voices were part of American life, but not their names, yet who remain steadfast in their acknowledgment of Kirshner as mentor and friend.

It’s all about getting those breaks, those chances, those meetings that turns potential into reality. Listening, hearing, seeing, believing. Never more clear is it, than through this compelling volume is the music industry revealed to be a family with the circle growing smaller and tighter as the intermingling of people, places, faces and spaces intersects time and again to create magic. And there was Don Kirshner in the middle.

Sadly, Kirshner died before the book was published, and he also will miss this year’s planned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 14th. Life comes full circle and great music always comes back around again. The music his father listened to because son Rich suggested it as a winner has won once again, in the biography of Don Kirshner.

Joyfully, today Rich has 14-year-old twins, whose musical tastes keep him at the top of today’ pop charts. His current favorites? Says Podolsky, “Adele, Taylor Swift and Cee-lo,” but he also confesses to having seen Little Anthony and the Imperials in a perfect show (“they can still hit all the notes”) and he’s delighted Steve Lawrence cut a new album (“I’d go just about anywhere to see him because he still sings lights out”). Talk about things coming back around again, just last night, Podolsky was a guest on Jerry Blavat’s radio program, an anniversary show with Chubby Checker, something that 16-year-old Podolsky would have never imagined happening back in the day.

Good music is timeless. Classic (rock) music is forever. And forever inscribed in the history books of rock and roll will be the name of Don Kirshner, a young man with a dream who lived to make others’ dreams happen alongside his own. Surely, it was the ride of a lifetime for many. And Rich Podolsky lived out his own dream, in writing Kirshner’s story.

Just makes you feel good to think about it. Now, someone turn up that radio, and let’s have a party, up on the roof, one fine day, because we have a groovy kind of love, and love will keep us together. Thank you, Don Kirshner.

Photo: Rich Podolsky is the author of Don Kirshner, The Man with the Golden Ear, Hal Leonard Books, published March, 2012. Review originally published on and registered

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Almost $10,000 raised in 24 hours for Lester Chambers, says nonprofit exec

For classic rock musician Lester Chambers, it only took 24 hours and one picture posted on Facebook to raise almost $10,000 to help a beloved, but almost overlooked, musician with greatly needed funds for living expenses thanks to a nonprofit organization that exists to help musicians across the country.

After just 24 hours of the post going viral across Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, in an exclusive interview today, Rob Max, Executive Director of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, shared that Lester’s fund received close to $10,000 in just one day, which will go directly to help Chambers with his living and medical expenses.

Max noted that the donations came in from “around the world, including Australia, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.” Several key figures well known in the music world made Lester Chambers’ cause their own, and made early and repeated recent donations to his fund as well. Max said, “We received an e-mail from Yoko Ono’s office this morning, and they were glad to see that the word was getting out and hoped that Lester’s cause would get more attention now” that the message was spreading via Facebook and social media.

The picture (seen left) that struck a chord with so many has a poignant sign, hand-printed in pencil, taped to a RIAA gold record, being held up by a man whose face is unseen. The sign reads:

“I am the former lead singer of a 60’s Band. I performed before thousands at Atlanta Pop 2, Miami Pop, Newport Pop, Atlantic Pop. I did not squander my money on drugs or a fancy home. I went from 1967-1994 before I saw my first royalty check. The music giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my albums. I have never seen a penny in royalties from my other 10 albums I recorded. Our hit song was licensed to over 100 films, TV & commercials without our permission. One major TV network used our song for a national commercial and my payment was $625 dollars. I am now 72, trying to live on $1200 a month. Sweet Relief, a music charity is taking donations for me. Only the 1% of artists can afford to sue. I AM THE 99%.”

The photograph has the following Facebook message underneath (sic) by Lester Chambers:

“If you feel moved by this outrage please share this with the world! Its TIME to tell the truth!!! HELP Me make this VIRAL so everyone pays attention to the Artist who bring joy to life...I’m about to be 72.....IT’S TIME!!!”

Underneath the post on my Facebook screen it shows “Artie Wayne and 11,978 others like this.” Additional Facebook details note that the picture has been shared 9,479 times, and there are presently 2,358 comments of encouragement written to and about Lester.

Chambers’ wife Lola (who lives separately from Lester) was the one who’d initially contacted the organization on his behalf to share Lester’s situation with them for consideration. They were indeed receptive.

“When I first got in touch with him two years ago, he was living in a house that someone gave him to stay in, but it was under construction and it had no roof, so there he was, 70 years old, sleeping on an air mattress in a house up north of San Francisco,” laments Max.

He continues, “My original goal is that I wanted to build a fund that would support Lester’s living expenses for 5-10 years. But I want to make it clear that our organization pays bills directly for the artist. We pay rent, we pay hospital bills and for medicines, we pay for surgery; we are a good steward with the monies that come in.”

During the 60s, Chambers had made many friends in the music business, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as Shep Gordon, who Chambers personally introduced to singer Alice Cooper in the 70s. Gordon has been Cooper’s manager ever since. Max noted that Yoko Ono “was the one who originally gave us $20,000 to help get Lester’s fund started” two years ago.

Gordon and Cooper also “made a contribution two years ago, and we rented a nice house for Lester, used the funds for his medical treatment and we got him on his feet again,” said Max.

Things were going well for a while, and because Chambers didn’t feel comfortable relying on charity support, he tried to get back into the music game himself, when some folks came along and wanted to bring Lester back out into the music world. As Max explains, after five months their abilities didn’t match their intentions, and “there wasn’t enough money left at the end of a few gigs to help Lester pay medical bills much less living expenses.” Then Sweet Relief Musicians Fund stepped back into the picture to help.

Fortunately, today, Lester can still sing, and although he performs in select engagements and benefits when possible, it’s still hard for him to get to shows. As Max explains, when they first met almost two years ago, Lester “had cancer three different times, he was on the verge of losing his eyesight; he had cataracts and desperately needed treatment that was beyond what Medicare was offering, and he’d actually become homeless.”

Today, Lester’s son Dylan lives with him and is his primary caregiver, an indication of the love behind people who want to help the one they love. Max expresses great admiration for Lester Chambers: “Here’s a man whose music career has been now going on for 60 years; he started singing gospel when he was 9 years old, and there’s not many people alive with a music career like Lester Chambers.”

In the past 24 hours following Chambers’ post, many others active in the music industry are sharing Lester’s story with all of their Facebook friends, responding to Chambers' requests to “help me go viral.”

Musician Julian Lennon also made the cause his own on his Facebook page, posting today, “some things never change” along with Chambers' picture.

Music industry former executive Artie Wayne, whose own public battle for royalties is well known across social media, knows well what it means to “go viral.” Wayne took personal interest in Chambers’ cause and devoted his blog post to it yesterday, titled, “Hang On Lester Chambers...Help is On the Way.” Surely we are, like the song by songwriters Alan O’Day, Artie Wayne and Sally Stevens says, livin’ in a Facebook world.

Max noted that in the beginning of their nonprofit, the record labels were most generous among the donors to care for musicians. The mission of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund “provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. In other words, Healing Musicians in Need. We all have received so much out of music. It’s time to give a little back!”

One important distinction should be made, lest people who see the Facebook picture think that Sweet Relief Musicians Fund is an organization waving a flag and carrying a sword against the music labels. That is absolutely not the case. “We are not involved in any way with what Lester is trying to do with his royalties, but we wish him all the success, always.” says Max.

The music for which Lester Chambers has become known and ‘almost famous’ in the past 40 years especially began with a song recorded by the Chambers Brothers in 1966, which reached new heights in 1968, “Time Has Come Today.” Credited on the label as co-written by Chambers’ brothers Joe and Willie, the second verse is the one that proved prophetically autobiographical:

“The rules have changed today; I have no place to stay, I’m thinking about the subway; My love has flown away; My tears have come and gone; Oh my Lord I have to roam.”

Thanks to Bill Bennett, Rob Max and the team at Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, plus the generous donations of celebrity friends and strangers, Lester Chambers roams no more; today he has a safe, warm place to live.

The journey for funds, though, is not over. At age 72, Lester can still anticipate needing funds for medical bills and costly prescriptions that his social security simply cannot cover. If you’ve ever loved the music of the 60s; if you’ve ever hit a cowbell and sung along with Lester, on “Time Has Come Today” on your radio; if you’ve ever known what it’s like to have more bills than income, any donation in any amount will be welcomed. The direct link to Lester’s fund is .

A fitting soundtrack is in the accompanying video from The Chambers Brothers’ 1965 appearance on the old “Shindig” TV show doing Curtis Mayfield’s song, “People Get Ready.” Thanks to Facebook, thanks to Lester Chambers’ courage in sharing his situation, thanks to the generosity of Yoko Ono, Julian Lennon, Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper and the thousands of people who gave from the heart, the train continues rolling down the track, for Lester’s sake.