Ron Weisner is used to having demanding clients.
After all, he’s a music manager.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, he traveled the world with the likes of Michael Jackson (“obsessive perfectionist”), Paul McCartney (“zero ego”) and Madonna (“never grateful”).
“The music business isn’t normal on a good day,” Weisner, author of “Listen Out Loud,” told IBD. “Managing artists is like owning a chain of 7-Elevens — you’re on call all the time and have to be there for one emergency after another. But I was fortunate in having clients who made timeless music.”
He got out of artist management 15 years ago. Now he organizes arena concerts for corporations featuring top artists such as Beyonce and the Eagles. He also produces specials for BET, MTV and VH1.
Grow With The Beat
Weisner, 69, grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where during the summer everyone played music with the windows open, mixing Elvis with Jamaican calypso, Motown and the Four Tops.
In his teens, he would sneak over to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to catch concerts by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Little Stevie Wonder, and was usually the only white kid in the audience.
“There’s a whole generation of listeners who haven’t experienced what it’s like to see a tight, well-rehearsed band blow the roof off a theater, and it breaks my heart that today it’s considered a successful show when the prerecorded vocal track to which the singer is lip-synching doesn’t crap out in the middle of a song,” Weisner wrote.
In 1966 he got a job in the mailroom at MGM Records. He spent loads of time in the office of Harold Berkman, head of promotions, listening to how he pitched stations for new releases. Berkman decided to make Weisner his assistant.
Weisner saw how singers did interviews with the press and noted that MGM’s units worked closely together (“there were no divas”).
After a year with Berkman, Weisner shifted to marketing in the Verve label, where he learned about distribution, production quality control and the label’s artist and repertoire segment, which was signing new acts like Richie Havens, Janis Ian and the Velvet Underground.
In 1969, Weisner followed two colleagues from MGM to Buddah Records (later renamed Buddha).
“We knew that to survive, we’d have to outhustle and outthink the major labels, but we thought we could develop a reputation for being more artist friendly,” he said.
One of Buddah’s most important clients was Curtis Mayfield, who had composed many of the anthems of the civil rights movement.
“One of the great wordsmiths of our era,” said Weisner.
Mayfield and two other Buddah performers, Gladys Knight and Sha Na Na, became Weisner’s first management clients.
“What I wanted to do was to nurture the best talent, helping them put on brilliant live shows and build a following over the long run,” said Weisner, who moved his management business to Los Angeles in 1972.
“The first thing that grabbed me about Ron is how much he loved music,” wrote Knight in the foreword to Weisner’s memoir. “When I asked him to be my manager, he said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ He didn’t talk a big game like some managers do. The passion and loyalty he has for his artists, his business associates and his friends are unmatched.”
Sha Na Na was a dozen guys who put on 250 shows a year, but each had a different idea of what the band should be doing.
Weisner had to constantly intervene in their arguments while making their 1950s doo-wop style famous with their appearance in the 1978 movie “Grease.”
He also signed a syndication deal for a TV variety series for them, but it needed a sponsor. Weisner approached some Procter & Gamble (PG) executives, but they were skeptical about the group’s appeal.
Weisner came up with a flashy idea. He arranged for them to fly to New York so the P&G suits could see Sha Na Na perform, then called a billboard company. As the execs were driven up Sixth Avenue, the electronic billboards flashed pictures of the performers.
P&G signed, and the show ran for four seasons.
In 1977, Weisner got a call from a friend who said a group of brothers called the Jackson 5 needed help. They had left Motown for Epic Records, and their career had stalled because their light pop style had lost its appeal.
The problem was that their dad and manager, Joe Jackson, didn’t care what they sang, as long as he could squeeze every dollar out of the deal. They were petrified of him.
“I knew I was walking into a minefield and became their manager anyway,” Weisner said. “Joe and I had constant fights, and my only real concern was that I could keep these away from Michael, who could make magic when he was in the studio.”
Feet On The Ground
Weisner found Michael to be a serious student of entertainment who had studied how Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin and James Brown danced and moved.
“His energy level was off the charts, unmatched by anyone I’ve seen before or since,” Weisner said. “He wanted to be the best, then go beyond that.”
Against the wishes of Epic, which thought Quincy Jones was too old to produce a record for what they thought was Michael’s preteen audience, Weisner arranged for him to handle Jackson’s solo record “Off the Wall.”
The process proved worth it.
After it was released in 1979, “Off the Wall” sold 20 million copies — compared with the 1.3 million the label had expected.
Jackson’s next album, “Thriller,” was the ultimate smash after coming out in 1982. It sold 110 million copies, the greatest number ever.
Michael had been calling Weisner 20 times a day when suddenly he stopped in 1984, after Joe Jackson reasserted his control over his son’s careers.
Downs And Ups
By then, Weisner had brought on a partner, Freddy DeMann, but by 1985 they had different visions for the business and decided to divvy up the clients.
One of those clients was Madonna, and Weisner happily let DeMann have her.
The singer had topped the charts the year before, but her demeanor wasn’t for Weisner.
“Sure I want to help my family have the good life, but I also want me to have a good life, and if Madonna were part of it, no amount of money was worth the headache,” Weisner wrote.
Paul McCartney sparked the opposite experience.
“He was, without fail, a joy to work with — professional, energized and punctual,” Weisner wrote. “From him I learned that you must persevere not only when things are at their worst, but also when they’re at their best. I learned that it’s possible to balance your show business with your personal life and remain at the top of your game in both. I learned that entertainment is a noble profession.”
Larry Schweikart, director of the independent film “Rockin’ the Wall,” said: “In interviewing musicians for our documentary on how rock music helped bring down the Iron Curtain, I learned that almost all of them had a very difficult time finding a manager they could trust. Ron Weisner was known for having built his success on being absolutely honest and always putting the client’s benefit before his own. That’s a lesson that can be applied to any profession.”
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