In the 1950s and 1960s, few wielded more influence in Britain’s music industry than Richard “Dick” Rowe. The head of Decca Records’ A&R (artists and repertoire), Rowe’s job was to find new artists who showed promise. Although he became infamous for an epically bad call, Rowe was overall pretty good at what he did. He signed The Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, Cat Stevens, The Animals, and Them, the band that launched Van Morrison, among others. Unfortunately, his reputation and name are forever tied with the one group he failed to sign.
After a long drive through a snowstorm just to reach Decca Records on time, the members of Brian Epstein’s group were annoyed when the man who had invited them, Mike Smith, showed up late. Smith, who had apparently partied hard the night before, unnerved the young musicians even more when he refused to let the group use their own amplifiers. Instead, he demanded that they use Decca’s amplifiers, which he deemed to be superior to those used by Epstein’s charges.
After they set up, tuned and strung their guitars and cleared their throats, the group performed about fifteen songs before Smith and his boss Dick Rowe. The group was nervous. Between the drive through a snow storm, the late arrival of their host, and the use of different amplifiers, they were not at their best. Nonetheless, they thought that they had done well enough to secure a contract. After the audition, however, Rowe decided to pass on the group and declined to sign them, with the airy remark that “guitar groups are on the way out, Mister Epstein“. As seen below, that might have been the worst decision in the music business.
Epstein’s group left Decca Records dejected that their New Year had started with a rejection. Not so Dick Rowe, who figured that 1962 began auspiciously for him and his label. That same day, he had listened to another auditioning band, liked what he heard, and signed up Brian Poole and the Tremeloes to a deal with Decca. As Rowe recalled later, he had told his A&R subordinate Mike Smith to decide between Epstein’s group and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes: “He said, ‘They’re both good, but one’s a local group, the other comes from Liverpool.’ We decided it was better to take the local group. We could work with them more easily and stay closer in touch as they came from Dagenham.”
Signing up the Tremeloes was not a bad decision in of itself, as the band had some success. In 1963, they entered the UK charts with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout, and followed it up with a UK chart-topping cover of the Contours’ Do You Love Me. A year later, their cover of Roy Orbison’s Candy Man pleased the Brits, and a cover of the Crickets’ Someone, Someone made it to number 2 on the UK charts. Rowe’s screwup was his failure to sign the other band that had auditioned the same day as the Tremoloes: The Silver Beatles, who soon shortened their name to The Beatles.
Leslie Harvey (1944 – 1972) was a Scottish guitarist who played for a number of bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most notably the blues rock band Stone the Crows, which he had co-founded in 1969. Born in Glasgow, Harvey’s music career was full of mishaps and misfortunes, culminating with the final one that took his life. In the 1960s, Harvey was asked to the join The Animals, but turned down the opportunity to stay in his brother’s band. The Animals went on to become superstars, with hits that became classics such as House of the Rising Sun, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. The gig with his brother’s band did not work out, so Harvey joined another band, Blues Council.
However, soon after they made their first album, the band’s tour van crashed. The lead vocalist and bassist were killed, and the survivors went their separate ways. In 1969, Harvey co-founded Stone the Crows, which steadily climbed the rock ladder. Managed by Led Zeppelin’s legendary Peter Grant, it was about to break out in 1972, fresh off a successful 1971 album, Teenage Kicks. On May 3rd, 1972, the band were preparing for a show before a crowd at the Swansea Ballroom in Swansea, Wales, when Harvey’s ill fortune struck one last time. It was a rainy day, with puddles on the stage, and he came in contact with a poorly grounded microphone to perform a sound check while tuning his guitar. Harvey touched the microphone with wet hands, and was electrocuted to death, live onstage before thousands of horrified onlookers.
Michael Jackson and Prince took different paths to reach the top. MJ was successful as a child singer with his brothers in the Jackson 5. He smoothly transitioned into an even more successful adult singer when he went solo and released Off the Wall in 1979. He followed that up with the best-selling album of all time, Thriller. Prince took a grittier path, with a series of underground albums, before he had his first hit single. By the early 1980s, when Prince was about to take off, MJ was already a music giant. In 1983, Michael Jackson was at the top of the world after the release of Thriller. Prince was not in the same league, but was about to take off thanks to hits such Little Red Corvette and 1999.
Talk that Prince might become the next MJ did not sit well with the King of Pop. Both revered and were influenced by James Brown. At one of his concerts that year that was attended by MJ and Prince, the funk legend invited MJ onstage to sing and dance. MJ killed it. He then whispered to James Brown: “Call Prince up – I dare him to follow me“. James Brown did not yet know who Prince was, and asked “who?” After MJ repeated it a few times, Brown told the audience that somebody named Prince would join them onstage. Prince was delighted to share the stage with his idol, did a decent Jimi Hendrix impression, and performed some promiscuous dance moves. Then things went spectacularly bad for him.
Prince tried to involve the crowd, but they were unenthusiastic. So he decided to call it a day. As he exited the stage, he leaned against a prop lamppost, stumbled, and fell into the crowd with the prop. Michael Jackson was delighted, and his glee at the Purple One’s humiliation fueled a lifelong beef. Years later, MJ still savored his rival’s literal fall. As he described it: “He made a fool of himself! He was a joke … People were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed. It was all on video“. Understandably, Prince was mortified. He was embarrassed not only before a crowd, but in front of his idol, James Brown, and his rival, MJ. So he decided to run him over. Per music producer Quincy Jones, a livid Prince waited in a limo outside the concert venue, and planned to run MJ over when he came out.
It is unclear if Prince actually made the attempt, but as Jones told QG in an interview, he fully intended to do so. By the late 1980s, the King of Pop and the Purple One were at the top of their game. Despite the bad blood, Quincy Jones tried to bring them together in a collaboration. His first attempt was the charity single We Are the World, which Michael Jackson co-wrote and performed in. Prince promptly refused to participate. A few years later, Jones tried to bring them together on the song Bad, to sing opposite each other and perform jointly on the music video. Prince expressed some interest, but eventually declined. So MJ did the video with Wesley Snipes.
Prince did not forget about the feud amidst the negotiations about a duet on Bad. He showed up at Michael Jackson’s home one day in an overcoat, with a white box labeled “Camille” – Prince’s nickname for MJ. Its contents terrified his rival. Per Quincy Jones: “The box had all kinds of stuff—some cuff links with Tootsie Rolls on them. Michael was scared to death—he thought there was some voodoo in there. I wanted to take it, because I knew Michael was gonna throw it away“. MJ eventually came to see his feud with Prince as a one-sided beef that he simply could not understand or explain. As he told an interviewer: “I have proven myself since I was real little. It’s not fair. He feels like I’m his opponent…I hope he changes because boy, he’s gonna get hurt.
He’sthe type that might commit suicide or something…I don’t like to be compared to Prince.” He described Prince as “one of the rudest people I have ever met,” and that he had been “mean and nasty to my family“. By the twenty first century, things had thawed a bit, but Prince had not forgotten. In 2006, Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am invited MJ to a Prince performance in Las Vegas. When Prince discovered that his old rival there, he walked out into the audience, and began to play bass in his face. As Rolling Stone editor Steve Knopper put it, it was “like aggressive bass slap“. An outraged MJ asked Will, “Will, why do you think Prince was playing bass in my face? … Prince has always been a meanie. He’s just a big meanie. He’s always been not nice to me“.
More than half a century after their 1960s heyday, it is hard to grasp just how big the Beatles were. As their popularity grew in Britain, fueled by hit singles like She Loves You, Please Please Me, and From Me to You, words failed to adequately express the fans’ frenzied adulation. So journalists coined the term “Beatlemania” to describe the hysteria and high pitched screams that accompanied the group wherever they went. That intensity was compared to religious fervor, and for good reason: some fans actually believed that the band had supernatural healing powers.
When they crossed the Pond in early 1964, the Beatles took America by storm. Their performance before an audience of 55,000 at Shea Stadium was the first time that an outdoor stadium had been put to such use. For protection from the crush of their fans, both figurative and literal, the Beatles traveled to their concerts in armored cars. As teenagers screamed with delight, their parents just screamed, unsure what to make of the shaggy-topped foursome. Then in March, 1966, John Lennon said in an interview that the Beatles seemed to be “more popular than Jesus“. As seen below, that created a furor.
John Lennon’s comment that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was uncontroversial when published in Britain. When republished in America a few months later, however, it outraged many. Lennon’s statement was made in the context of a free-ranging interview with him and Paul McCartney. In it, McCartney criticized America’s widespread racism and mistreatment of blacks: “It’s a lousy country where anybody black is a dirty [n-slur]!” he fumed. When the interview was republished in the American teen magazine Datebook on July 29th, 1966, McCartney’s comment led, and only his face appeared on the cover.
Datebook’s editors assumed that McCartney’s statement would create the most controversy. However, his words about America’s race relations were widely ignored. Instead, moralists zeroed in on Lennon’s comment about the band being more popular than Jesus. Outrage swept through Christian communities across the country, especially in the Bible Belt. The storm erupted amid the band’s 1966 US Tour, and overshadowed much of it. As seen below, the heated reaction led to a dose of comic karma – not against the Beatles, but against their outraged critics.
John Lennon tried to explain that his comment that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was taken out of context. He had actually ridiculed the notion that a music band was worshipped. In a series of press conferences, he denied that he had compared himself to Christ, and apologized. Neither explanations nor apologies calmed the furor. Protests were held, threats were made, and editorials called for the band’s deportation, The Ku Klux Klan began to picket Beatles concerts, and some radio stations stopped playing their songs. Some stations went further and organized “Beatles bonfires” – public burnings of the band’s records. One such in Longview, Texas, KLUE, invited listeners to burn the band’s records and other symbols of their popularity on August 13th, 1966.
Beatles LPs and merchandise were burned, amidst imprecations and predictions made that lightning would strike the group for their blasphemy. Attendees included a KKK Grand Dragon, who nailed a Beatles record to a wooden cross. In that time and place, a KKK Grand Dragon’s participation was positive PR for the radio station rather than negative. However, whatever PR benefit was gleaned by KLUE did not last long. Lightning did not strike the Beatles. Instead, the very next day lightning struck that station’s transmission tower. It knocked out KLUE’s news editor, and knocked the station off the air for quite some time.
Jean Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) was a musical giant in his lifetime – a master of French baroque and the most successful musician of his era. Lully was a French court and opera composer, instrumentalist, and dancer who spent most of his career in the court of King Louis XIV of France. From 1662, he completely dominated French court music, and such prominence in the Sun King’s court, Europe’s most splendid, led to widespread imitation of Lully’s style throughout Europe.
Born in Florence as Giovanni Battista Lulli, he later Gallicized his name when was naturalized as a French subject. His rise began when at age fourteen, he was clowning with a violin on the street, and attracted the attention of a visiting French duke. The nobleman took him back with him to France so his niece could have someone to converse with in Italian. Lully honed his skills in the lady’s household, and soon gained renown as a genius violinist, guitarist, and dancer. In an unfortunate twist of fate, he is remembered nowadays more for his odd death than the accomplishments of his life.
In 1653, Lully attracted the attention of fourteen-year-old King Louis XIV, with whom he danced at a ball. He was soon thereafter appointed royal composer for instrumental music. Lully became one of the king’s closest companions and friends, and spent the remainder of his career and life at court. There, he earned a reputation as a libertine, with many romantic and physical relationships with both men and women. By 1686, Louis had started to sour on Lully and his increasingly dissolute lifestyle and homosexual escapades.
On March 22nd, 1687, Lully conducted a Te Deum to celebrate the king’s recovery from a surgery. He tried too hard to regain Louis’ favor with a fervent display of happiness at his royal patron’s return to health. Lully got carried away as he enthusiastically kept the beat by banging a long staff on the floor, and accidentally smashed it hard on his big toe. The toe became gangrenous, and it spread to his leg. Lully did not want to give up dancing, and refused to have the leg amputated. The gangrene spread into his body, and killed him.
As seen in an earlier entry, the rejection of the Beatles made Dick Rowe and Decca Records synonymous with bad business moves and catastrophic commercial misjudgments. Incredibly, Rowe’s decision to pass on the biggest band of all time – which was bad enough in of itself to enshrine his name in the Bad Business Decisions Hall of Fame – was not his sole episode of monumental shortsightedness. Five years after he failed to sign The Beatles, Rowe turned down another musical icon.
In late 1966, Jimi Hendrix arrived in London and instantly created a stir. At his debut in the British capital before an audience that included Eric Clapton, Hendrix’s guitar play blew everybody away. A bassist and drummer were quickly rounded up to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they recorded their first single, Hey Joe. Then their manager Michael Jeffrey approached Dick Rowe to try and get a record deal. Decca Records’ A&R man passed. Hendrix ended up at the recently-launched Track Records, instead.
Jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959), born Eleanora Fagan and nicknamed “Lady Day”, led a turbulent life. She was raised in a brothel, and her own mother turned out Holiday for sex work in her childhood. She was further traumatized by the death of her ill father, after he was denied medical care in a whites-only hospital because of segregation. That pain is reflected in Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit, a song about the lynching of blacks that she made her own, and that became an anthem of the budding civil rights movement.
Unsurprisingly, Holiday turned to drugs to cope with the pain. The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a 2021 autobiographical release, addresses her addiction struggles. A main theme revolves around Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger’s relentless pursuit of Holiday. Among other things, he pressures people in Holiday’s life to set her up for possession charges, has her trailed by his agents, and appoints one of them to go undercover to gather evidence against her. How much of that was real?
Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who held that job for 32 years and spearheaded the criminalization of drugs, was an awful person. An extreme racist and bigot, even by his era’s standards, Anslinger demonized racial minorities and immigrants. He also hated jazz, a mongrel music of African, Caribbean, and European origins mating on American soil. It was the opposite of all that Anslinger believed in. He thought it was musical anarchy, and proof of primitive impulses in black people, about to erupt. As he described it in internal memos: “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of night“.
Anslinger also believed that marijuana made people insane. That combined with his racism to produce a toxic mix. He once stated: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men“. Jazz musicians habitually smoked the stuff, and their music sounded freakish to his ears. So he saw jazz as proof that marijuana caused insanity, and targeted jazz musicians. He wrote his agents to: “prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons in a single day“. When congressmen questioned his vendetta, he reassured them that his crackdown focused not on: “the good musicians, but the jazz type“. Billie Holiday was one of his main targets.
In real life, as in The United States vs Billie Holiday, Harry J. Anslinger sent black undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher to target the singer. Fletcher is depicted as becoming romantically involved with Holiday. However, it is unclear whether that happened in real life. Whatever the relationship, Fletcher got close enough to Holiday to bust her on a drug possession charge in 1947 that got her a year in prison. It also got her a felony record that limited the venues in which she could perform. In 1949, agent Fletcher once again busted Holiday on a possession charge after she was set up.
The movie shows a repentant Fletcher deliberately tank the case on the witness stand. There is no evidence that Fletcher threw the case, but Holiday was acquitted. In the movie, Fletcher then trails Holiday for years, and has a long affair with her. The historic record is silent as to whether such an affair occurred, but Fletcher was assigned to Holiday for years. It is also historic fact that, as depicted in the movie, Anslinger hounded Holiday until her final breath. In 1959, as she lay dying of cirrhosis, her hospital room was raided. She was kept under police guard until she died.
Prince’s beef with Michael Jackson was not his only one. Early in his rise, there was another rivalry with Rick James – although most of it was driven by James. A brilliant but seriously troubled artist who was eventually undone by his addiction to drugs and alcohol, the Give it to Me Baby and Super Freak singer liked Prince when he was a relative unknown. He brought him on as his opening act in a 1980 tour, but the admiration soon morphed into a love-hate relationship, and then into a feud.
Rick James was territorial, and he got mad when Prince copied some of his concert moves. As James’ manager put it: “Rick would go ooh-ooh!, and his audience would go crazy every time he would do that, and Prince would start doing the ooh-ooh! before Rick would come out. Rick was like, ‘Man, you can’t do that ooh-ooh! stuff, that’s what I do!’ And Prince was like, ‘Dude, you don’t have a monopoly on ooh-ooh! I can do what the f**k I wanna do!’” Things got worse.
In his autobiography, Rick James recounted the time when he almost beat up Prince: “I chased after that little turd. I caught up with him and was about to lay him out when his manager stepped in. “What the hell is wrong with you, Rick?” asked the manager. I told him Prince had dissed Mom and that I was gonna kick his scrawny ass. Prince explained that he didn’t know who Mom was. “Well, now you know, motherf**ker,” I said. “Prince will be happy to apologize to your mother,” said the manager, “and he will be happy to apologize to you.” Prince apologized to Mom and apologized to me. I was a little disappointed ’cause I really did wanna kick his ass.”
Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins recalled that “Rick definitely had an attitude with Prince … I remember being on shows with Rick and Prince, and they would pull plugs on each other, gettin’ ready to go to blows“. Fortunately, the feud never reached the physical violence stage, thanks to peacemakers such as Nile Rodgers of Chic: “I used to always say to Rick, ‘We all are just doing our own kind of thing. Prince is Prince, you’re you—we all have our own identity when it comes to the world of funk“.
Marathon dances became a big thing in the 1920s and 1930s. They were endurance events, in which couples competed with each other, and prizes went to whichever duo had the legs to outlast the rest. This odd pastime started in 1923, when a woman named Alma Cummings outlasted six partners and danced for 27 consecutive hours at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. That inspired others, and dance marathon contests quickly spread across the US, as competitors tried to break Cummings’ record.
The competitions became spectator events, publicized in the press and hyped up by promoters and sponsors. The happy-go-lucky Roaring Twenties ended with the stock market crash of 1929. In the resultant Great Depression, dance marathons took on a sadder and grimmer tone. Competitions once driven by a desire to break records now took on a sadder cast, with dancers desperate to win prize money. Even if they lost, they would at least spend a few days out of the elements, with free meals and a roof over their heads.
Most dance marathon competitors in the Great Depression were no longer in it for the fun of it. They did not even bother to dance. They wanted the prize money, or to at least spend as much time as possible indoors and fed by the event’s sponsors. So they expended as little energy as possible while sticking to the letter of the rules. Generally, the rules held that the dancers could not fall asleep and remain stationary, but must move constantly. Some competitions however allowed one partner to sleep, so long as the other was awake and kept the pair moving. Thus, dance partners slowly shuffled around the dance floor, adhering to the rules about maintaining a hold upon each other, without their knees touching the floor.
In some competitions, contestants got fifteen minutes’ rest each hour, during which they rushed to sleep on cots. Other competitions had no hourly breaks, and allowed dancers to leave the floor only for bathroom breaks, medical purposes, or to change clothes. Once back on the dance floor, they took turns supporting each other’s weight to keep their partner upright, as he or she got some extra rest and shuteye while being propped and shuffled around. The popularity of dance marathons declined in the 1930s, as they grew increasingly controversial and came under increased criticism. Aside from the immorality of exploiting destitute dancers to entertain spectators, there were concerns about the exhibition of female bodies and potential exploitation. By the end of WWII, dance marathons had largely vanished.
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998) is not as well known today as he was in his mid-twentieth century heyday. Ever since, the man known as Ole Blue Eyes and Chairman of the Board has captured the hearts of music lovers around the world. His music sold about 150 million records, which puts him among history’s top artists by volume of sales. When he died in 1998, Sinatra had already established himself as an iconic figure in the same league as a Marilyn Monroe or Elvis.
Sinatra had an abundance of self-respect. Early in his career, at a time of significant anti-Italian sentiment, bandleader Harry James recommended that Sinatra change his name because it was “too Italian”. He replied: “No way, baby. My name is Sinatra. Frank f**king Sinatra“. It’s a good thing he kept the name: bobby soxers, enthusiastic 1940s teenage female fans of pop music, loved it and him. Their passion never dimmed for the rest of their and his life. Sinatra was a class act, but he did have an iffy side. For example, as seen below, he was once arrested for “seduction” of a reputable woman.
Frank Sinatra had a criminal rap sheet. Not a long sheet, but he had one. In 1938, when he was 23-years-old, Sinatra was arrested in New Jersey for the seduction of a reputable woman. Seduction was a crime back then, and an old girlfriend accused him of breach of a marriage promise to get back at him. Per FBI reports: “On the second and ninth days of November 1938 at the Borough of Lodi … under the promise of marriage [Sinatra] did then and there have sexual intercourse with the said complainant, who was then and there a single female of good repute“.
Sinatra was booked for seduction, and released on a $1500 bond. The charge was dismissed when it turned out that his supposedly single accuser had actually been married when she got it on with him. Presumably, the fact that she had broken her marital vows meant that she was not “of good repute“. However, that was not the end of Sinatra’s troubles. A month later, the charges were amended, and he was arrested again, this time for adultery. He was released on a $500 bond. Eventually, that charge, too, was dismissed, and Ole Blue Eyes was free to go on with his seductive ways.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading