The office was the size of two bedrooms, if memory serves. It was empty except for a desk, a chair and some shelves. Two secretaries sat just outside the door. That's TWO secretaries. To this day there is no obvious reason why more than one was needed.
Sitting at the desk, I tapped my fingers on the desk in the manner of a man just a bit bewildered, a bit lost.
The simple questions came to mind,
"What do I do now?".
That is the memory of my first day as Director of Publicity for Mercury Records.
I was twenty-five years old.
My second day was much the same with one major exception...
a phone call from England.
"Hello", said the voice from a great distance. This was in the days when an overseas call sounded like it was emanating from a crusty submarine, complete with echo, kind of scratchy and very distant.
"Hello" it yelled when i hadn't yet
said a word.
"Hello" said I without conviction. It is quite
possible this was my first overseas call. I thought I had received one once from Holland when i was the "Youth Editor" at the Detroit Free Press, my previous employer> who instead of a football field sized office had provided a desk in the corner, no walls. When the caller announced he was from Holland some, not all but some blood drained from my face and I sat in disbelief for several seconds. We then chatted for a bit and hung up. It took several hours for this newcomer to Detroit to find out there is a Holland, Michigan.
"Hello", the caller screamed from the other end in a strong British accent.
"Is that you Mike?"
"Yes, who is this'
"It's &((*^," an everything got muffled.
The was no way to make out who it was. I tried. I really tired.
"It'sr.....", and it all went awry again.
"Who?", I bellowed.
And then. Very clearly. Very loudly and somewhat agitated in a thick British accent came the words
"It's Rod Fucking Stewart!!"
"Oh, Hi Rod", I said. Calmly.
And thus began my career as a record executive in the great
American record industry.
Of course I was already twenty five. Things had got under
way long before that. Eleven years before, to be exact.
The Auditorium, or ‘The Aud’ as we called it, wasn’t
new. It had been standing, from my point of view, forever. It had certainly
been there all my life, which at the point of this story was about fourteen years.
In the winter it was a hockey rink.
In the summer there were flower shows and Gene Autry
brought his cowboy show in there once. The place kept busy,
but what that building was at other times meant nothing. The
important thing is where I lived, Ottawa, it had become the
home of rock ‘n roll, when the genre was being born. The
gods descended and could be seen up close. You feel their
energy. The point is that the weathered, insipid old
Auditorium, was rock’ n roll heaven. That’s where you
went to be blessed by the saints of rock. Live, on stage,
with us tonight Buddy Holly (two weeks before
he did the Ed Sullivan show), The Everly Bros. with their
pompadours to rival Mt. Olympus. Greasy hair swept back in waves., and
Chuck Berry (who in his book many years later said he was inspired by a
young fan the night he played there to write “Sweet Little Sixteen”). I saw The Champs
actually perform “Tequila”, Bob Luman sing “Let’s think about livin’, Let’s think about lovin’, Let’s think about the sighin’ and the cryin’ and the lovey-dovey-dovin’”--the first protest song ever ‘cause he was telling us also to “forget about the fellow with the switch-blade knife”. I took him for his word.
They would come in on buses, rickety looking chariots with
no heat, no air conditioning and no built in bathrooms, filled with
musicians and singers who were experiencing nirvana. That is, the hit
The cheap seats at The Aud were $1.50, but of course you
would be sitting behind the stage. Frankly, they were the best seats
in the house. The artist, the rock ‘n roll stars themselves would come out
from the dressing rooms through a tunnel used normally by stars of the ice. They
were practically within reach as they stood there, waiting for their introduction.
The view was from behind and slightly above the drummer so
in a way you were backstage. You were part of the entrance to the show.
There are memories of Paul Anka being booed during his
“triumphant” return to his home town. Not friendly. People booing and throwing things
at the poor bugger who was then a pop idol equal to any except maybe
Elvis. He should have come home to a ticker tape parade and his
picture on the front page of local newspapers. But his home town chose to
reject him and one assumes he left embarrassed in front of his family
and peers, and hurt. Actually I think a handful chose to reject him
and the rest of us beamed with pride, but I doubt he knows that.
But these musicians made any red-blooded North American boy
just want to put on a shark-skin suit with the legs tapered and get that
hair up high and travel the world singing rock’n roll. Problem was I
couldn’t sing, I wasn’t allowed to do anything with my hair. I was only ten years old when
my dad wouldn’t let me go see Elvis in that same building. Elvis. The King was just
blocks away, in a city that turned out to be one of only three outside of the U.S.
where he ever performed live, and I couldn’t go. He drove up from
Memphis in his pink Cadillac. There are pictures of him in the thing
outside the hotel where he stayed. I finally saw the car up close and
personal at Graceland in February, 1998. It wasn’t the same, though.
My dad’s reaction to rock ‘n roll wasn’t abnormal for
dads of the 50’s and early 60’s. Although you would think a little bit of
understanding would have come from him. He wrote, more as a hobby, for Variety magazine and he was a musician. Oh he made his living writing for newspapers and doing PR for the Canadian government, but basically he was a musician and a lover of “show biz”. My dad, Paul Gormley gave the aforementioned Anka what must have been
his first ever review in an entertainment trade paper after seeing him
sing at a side-show tent at the Ottawa’s summer fair, known as
“The Ex”. This would have been around 1955 or so.My dad grew up in a
little town of Morrisburg, Ontario and his childhood girlfriend became the
mother of Jane and Peter Fonda. He played drums, piano etc.
He could pick up a piece of plastic with a hole in it and
play a tune and his power as a pianist meant when he showed
up at parties you knew at some point the words “Paul, play us a
tune” would ring out. Sometimes, sitting around our small living room
he would fondly remember the vaudeville acts that had come
through his small town. Something like my encounters at The
Auditorium I guess. Smaller scale I think. But not to him.
In fact his work with Variety came in handy. Because of it
he was known throughout any “show biz” type people in Ottawa. I use
the term “show biz” loosely but there were radio DJ’s, writers, people
like Rich Little starting out and Paul Anka. Even the Ponderosa actor Lorne
Greene was then a radio announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Anyway, a lot of people knew my dad around town. I made use of that
when I started feeling less than content to just watch those rock
stars on the stage. I wanted to meet them, see them offstage in a more
relaxed mode being real, not stars. So I became a groupie. Have to be
careful with the use of that word. First, it didn’t come into
existence until later in the 60’s and had a very heavy sexual meaning. The goal
here wasn’t sex with a rock star. It was just to stand beside them.
Just be there.
The great palace of rock, The Auditorium, was the scene of
a very important encounter for me and the Variety connection was
the key. (Auditorium pic here)
Rock had been around for a while but it was still young. I
was fourteen, already around 6 feet tall and looking a little
older for my age which I would enhance by wearing a suit and tie. Well,
I thought it made me look older.
Brenda Lee was in town. Today, if you go to the web site
www.brendalee.com, you are greeted with the words “The
Newest Member of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall Fame”. She was
already in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly
Hall of Fame. You can read about it in her book “Little Miss Dynamite: The Life
and Times of Brenda Lee,”. (brenda lee pic)
The new book and the well deserved accolade from the Rock
Hall of Fame conjured up one particular encounter for this writer with
Little Miss Dynamite. Brenda, years later, said she remembered the
incident. I’ll go with that.
It was about 1960 and Brenda Lee at that time was a giant
in the music industry. A giant. A four foot giant. By the time she was
16 she had sold 15 million discs for Decca Records including “I’m
Sorry”, “Sweet Nothin’s”, “Coming On Strong” and the still
annually popular “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (which she recorded when she
was about twelve). The girl didn’t even have a record contract when
she appeared for the first time on the massively successful and vital Ed
Sullivan show. Nobody at the age of fourteen should have that
powerful a voice, in fact until Leanne Rimes came along I don’t think
anybody had. In a recent interview Brenda talked about that power and style.
“I’ve always just had the style that I have. I was just born with it.
God given, as every gift is.”
Brenda’s wasn’t the usual rock show that had ten acts
each with a couple hits who would come out, do two songs and make room
for the next performer. Brenda starred in her own show and as I recall
there was only one opening act, Bob Beckham, who never had a smash hit
but charted with “Crazy Arms “ and “Just As Much As Ever”. I
remember seeing him stand off stage ready to go on in front of a sold out,
He was tall and stately, slim and powerful holding his
guitar and ready to step on stage. He had to be wearing a shark-skinned suit
with tapered pants. The man was cool. I actually can prove this scene
because in 1996 I was in Nashville on business and one of my meetings was
with---the short, fat, balding Bob Beckham who was wearing an old
sweater and baggy pants. But he had made millions in music publishing and we
actually had a great little chat about music in general. Then I
surprised him by revealing that I’d seem him play live once. He said, “I
used to open for Brenda Lee all the time”. That was him.
As I said, when I went to these shows I just wasn’t
satisfied being out front with the rest of the crowd. I had to get
backstage and get close to what was going on there. Just to be behind the
scenes, in with the in-crowd. There was nothing to do but talk my way
backstage. Brenda Lee was then a star. The crowd had literally screamed for
her and practically chased her offstage they got so excited. This
was the big time, and I’m going back stage.
Today, getting behind the scenes takes nerves of steel and
a deep understanding of military strategy. In the early 60’s it
meant talking to one person of authority. In this case it was Ottawa DJ
local legend-to-be Gord Atkinson. He was a big name in town and
was friends with Bing Crosby. But he also played rock on the radio at
the time. Not all day, but at certain times and the result was he MC’d
a lot of the shows in town. He even interviewed Elvis. He knew my dad.
He knew Variety. I had the connection.
So here it goes. Fourteen years old and dressed in my fines
I approached Mr. DJ at the end of Brenda’s show. “Hi. My
name is Mike Gormley. I believe you know my dad, Paul”.
“Hi Mike”, he said. I thought that was friendly. He
admitted knowing my dad with an agreeable nod of his head.
Or at least I decided it was a nod of agreement.
“He wanted to cover this show for Variety but, you know,
he doesn’t like rock ‘n roll. So he sent me down.”
Gord nodded. To add to my authenticity, by the way, I had a
pencil and paper in hand.
“I would like to ask Brenda a few questions.”
Moment of truth. A nod of the head that would open the
doors to Lee-land or a finger pointing to the exit.
Unbelievable! I was in.
Now what do I do?
“She’s right over there, Mike”.
Good God! She was right over there. Right there. Twenty
feet from where I stood and nothing was there to stop me. With pen and
paper in hand I slowly walked towards the person the entire building full
of people would die to be anywhere near. We weren’t alone although
I don’t remember who else was there. I do remember that I have
never seen a smaller teenager in all my life. That voice came out of
that shrimp?? I really remember her fingers. So small they looked like
stubs. I don’t mean that cruelly because she was rather cute, but I’m
talking small fingers here.
The introduction was a nervous “hi” from me. I have no
idea whether I ever mentioned Variety but she just smiled and said,
“Hi.” She must have said more, I have no idea. But I did pull it together
and ask two questions. I don’t remember what they were. Something
really lame like how old are you and where do you perform next. But I wrote
down the answers and I swear to you I carried that paper with her
answers on them in my pocket for years. Years! I wish I still had that
piece of paper but I think at some point I gave in and threw it out.
Now like a good little groupie I had penetrated the inner sanctum and I
wasn’t about to leave. And nobody seemed to be worried
about me being there so upon completion of my “interview” I went over
to a corner spot and sat down. They had the poor girl’s dressing room set
up where the men’s hockey team donned their skates and pads and there was a
wooden bench painted green going completely around the
perimeter of the room. I found a spot and sat there. And stared. At the four foot giant rock ‘n roll star. I stared and listened. She was telling somebody she was going
to Europe and I thought, “My god she’s fourteen and going to
Europe”. (In fact she triumphed over there appearing at the Olympia Theater in
Paris where her show was held over for five weeks!). Hey. My friend Brenda.
I knew she’d do well.
Since I’m here today I assume I left that dressing room.
Somehow. I have no memory of that. There is no memory of that evening
coming to an end but she did go to Paris and I did move on in life. In
fact about eight years later I spent a morning with her in Detroit.
She and I did a morning radio show together (there are photos) and I told
her about our first encounter. “I thought you looked familiar”, she
said. Show biz bull but it was nice of her to try. By then she was
married, the hits had stopped, she lived in Nashville and by her hair style
and clothing I’m sure she voted Republican, but the voice could still
topple tall buildings. Maybe I’ll see her again someday and she will
tell me she remembers me from Detroit. I’ll go along with it. If my
buddy Brenda wants to bullshit me, I’m there for her.
The Auditorium is long gone. In its spot stands a nice,
clean, brick YMCA. It isn’t a building you notice as you drive by. The
soul is long gone. Brenda, Chuck or Don and Phil wouldn’t recognize
it. When they get to Ottawa now they arrive in slick giants of the air or
buses that are mansions on wheels. And they play a clean, curtained,
carpeted, cushy National Arts Center. I don’t begrudge them that, but it
just isn’t the same. That edge is missing and so is the
youth, the excitement of a musical style being born and nowadays there aren’t
any cheap seats. You can’t sit behind the stage. Maybe in this time
of security, if Gord Atkinson was still around he wouldn’t let me back
stage. Nah. I’d make it. I’ll tell him my son doesn’t
like old rock ‘n roll and he sent me down to cover it for him.