I remember the first time I met Russ Regan. I had just moved to California, and I went up to Uni Records to let him hear a master I had just produced. Before he played it I said, "I swear this sounds like a number one record to me!" After he'd listened to it, he looked me square in the eye and said, "You're right. It sounds like a number one record to me too. I just can't figure out which number one record it sounds like!" When I decided to write a series of articles on unsung heroes, the powerful men and women behind the scenes in the music business, Russ was one of the first people I wanted to interview. The general public may not know his name, but the former head of Uni and 20th Century Fox Records has been responsible for selling over a billion records and CDs in his career! He's the man who signed Elton John, Neil Diamond, Olivia Newton-John and Barry White, as well as green-lighting 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. I asked friends and members of Spectropop to assist me in coming up with questions for my old pal, which makes me look like I've done my homework. The interview begins with Russ in his Southern California office and me in my California desert retreat.
Artie Wayne: Russ, how ya' doin''? It's been a long time.
Russ Regan: Really, it's good to talk to you too.
AW: Well, let's get started. First, Spectropopper Alan V. Carr wants to know, is it true that you named the Beach Boys?
AW: That's cool. Now I want to ask about your songwriting career. Rex Strother on Spectropop wants to know about a song so innocent that he's surprised it didn't wind up in some cutesy movie like Pleasantville. Do you remember 'Honey Baby'?
RR: [Laughs] 'Honey Baby'! That was years ago. I hardly remember that!
AW: Well, which of your songs do you remember that all of us might know?
RR: I wrote 'The Happy Reindeer', which was a hit back in 1959.
AW: Sure …
RR: It was one of the last big Christmas hits. It sold about 800,000 copies! The year before, they had 'The Chipmunk Song'. If chipmunks can sing, why can't reindeer? We had Dancer, Prancer and Nervous.
AW: [Laughs] And you had a few other hits.
RR: As a songwriter I had 'Cinnamon Cinder', which I wrote by myself. I also produced that one on the Pastel Six. 'Calling All Cars', which Sonny Bono produced for me with Jack Nitzsche doing the arrangements. I also co-wrote 'The Flower Children' by Marcia Strassman, which was one of the first songs about flower power.
AW: Although I once co-wrote a song with you and the late Gary Zekley, until now I never knew that you had this kind of a background as a songwriter. Now Clark Besch, another Spectropopper, wants to know about the early days at Uni Records and the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
RR: Dave Diamond, a disk jockey at KROC in Los Angeles, called me up and told me about a record that Frank Slay, Jr. had produced, 'Incense And Peppermints', which was getting a lot of phone calls at the radio station. Frank, who wrote and produced numerous hits with Bob Crewe, sold me the master for $2,500 … and believe or not I almost got fired!
AW: Really? Why?
RR: There was a kid in the mailroom at Uni Records whose father was a good friend of Lew Wasserman [head of Universal]. This kid hated 'Incense And Peppermints' and told his dad that Russ Regan didn't know what he was doing, and he ought to get fired! So I get a call from my boss at that time, Ned Tannen, who said, "What the hell did you do to so and so? This guy wants you to get fired 'cause you bought this record 'Incense And Peppermints'." I said, "Guess what? This record's gonna be a monster!" Luckily, it was a big hit, so I wound up firing the kid!
AW: What can you tell us about Patti Dahlstrom? Did you know that I got her to write the English lyric to a French song by Veronique Sanson that eventually became her first 20th Century Fox release?
RR: Wow! Patti Dahlstrom, who I love, had her first album with me at Uni and she did three more albums when I went over to 20th Century Fox. You know, in my career there are two female singer/songwriters who I signed, that should've been stars, Patti Dahlstrom and Harriet Shock. If 'Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady' had been Harriet's first single from her album, it might not have been covered so quickly by Helen Reddy. 'Emotion' was also covered by Helen Reddy.
AW: I know. I gave it to her. [Laughs] Now we have Spectropopper Regina Litman, who says that she has read in a few places that in early 1968 you and other executives at Uni held a meeting in which you all made a list of three acts that you most wanted the company to sign. The only name on all of the lists was Neil Diamond, whom the label did end up signing shortly afterwards.
RR: That's true! Bert Berns was good friend of mine, a great writer and producer and one of the best music men of all time. He had Neil signed exclusively to his label, Bang Records, but Neil had a 'main man' clause in his agreement, which meant when Bert Berns passed away, Neil became free. When we made that list up at Uni, he was at the top of each of our wish lists. At the time, he was considered a singles artists with Top 40 hits like 'Cherry, Cherry' and 'Solitary Man', but we knew he could sell albums just as easily. Now, why did David Braun, one of the greatest music lawyers of all time, bring Neil to a little label like Uni? Because five major labels turned him down!
AW: I didn't realize that.
RR: Yes, five labels turned him down! When he came to us we eagerly signed him, and he agreed to give us three albums a year, for five years. Three albums a year! Fifteen albums over a five year period! That's unheard of. Luckily each album would only cost $25,000, which was reasonable at the time. After 'Cracklin' Rosie' broke loose, Neil was travelling a lot and doing all kinds of stuff, which gave him little time to write. He came to me and said, "Russ, I don't think I can deliver three albums a year! Impossible, I just can't do it! Can we knock five albums off the contract?" I had to go to a guy at MCA, Burl Addams, to see if I could get Neil what he wanted. He told me from a business standpoint that we had an agreement. We gave him what he asked for, and we should hold him to his agreement. I told Burl if we hold him to his agreement, he's gonna give us three lousy albums. He's not going to be able to deliver three great albums! We've gotta let him out of one of those albums a year. I'd rather get two albums a year that are great, than three lousy albums! He said, "OK. Give it back to him." I don't know if that's ever been done before. I reached out and gave Neil five albums back and in return he gave us ten great albums!
AW: Wow! Now Phil X. Milstein wants to know about Elton John's early career, and Patti Dahlstrom wants to hear your favourite story about him?
RR: My favourite story about Elton John … well, we were in Philadelphia and he hadn't broken loose yet. We had just done the Troubadour in Los Angeles, which was a huge success. August 5, 1970 was considered one of the greatest nights in rock'n'roll history! Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times wrote about Elton big time and that started the buzz! We went to San Francisco, where we did moderately well. In New York they booked us into the Playboy Club, which was the wrong venue for him to be in. Then we went to Philadelphia to appear at the Electric Factory. It must have held 1,500-2,000 kids! Then we had a big press party over at the Marriot Hotel. You know those little club sandwiches, how they cut 'em up in little wedges, great for parties. I was ordering big plates of them and drinks for everybody! All of a sudden, I get a phone call from the controller at MCA. He said, "What the hell are you doing? Have you gone mad? You're out there spending all this money on this Englishman?" I said, "But the Englishman's going to be a big star!" [To which he replied], "You know what they're calling your big English star here at the tower? They're calling him Regan's folly! That's what they're calling him, Regan's folly!" I had a temper in those days, and I just went bezerk! I called him every name in the book and told him to tell everybody else to go **** themselves, and I hung up!
RR: Then I went next door to where Elton was staying, and told him what had happened. He looked at me and said, "Russ, tonight I'm gonna burn the city of Philadelphia down!" He had a song called 'Burn Down The Mission'. He got on stage that night and saved that song for his last number. Then he sang it for 20 minutes. He was on top of the piano, beneath the piano, out in the audience. The Electric Factory went ballistic! It was 10 times the reaction he had at the Troubadour - everyone was going crazy! I couldn't get to sleep until 5 am. Then the next morning at 10:30, I got a call from Sam Pasmano, with MCA Distribution in Philadelphia. He said, "Russ, I hate to wake you, but I just had to call and tell you I had to order 5,000 Elton John albums this morning!" I said, "Sam, you can wake me up with news like that anytime!" [Laughs] I fall asleep again and Sam calls back an hour and a half later, "I hate to wake you up again, but I had to order another 5,000 albums!" Just before we checked out of the hotel, I called the MCA controller, I won't mention his name. I told him what had happened in Philadelphia, and for him to tell everybody out there that Regan's Folly is coming home! Then I hung up! [Laughs] I've often thought of that song, 'Philadelphia Freedom', and wondered if it was about that night in Philadelphia when Elton broke free.
AW: Do you have a story about Olivia Newton-John? How did you sign her to Uni?
RR: A young man in MCA's office in England sent me a copy of Olivia's "If Not For You", along with her picture, which was gorgeous. We got the whole deal for about $20,000, and it became a big hit everywhere but New Orleans. I kept calling the program director down there, week after week, but he just wouldn't play it. Finally, when it was top five, he called me and said he was gonna play it. I told him, "If you play that record, I'm gonna sue you! If you put that on the air, Uni Records is gonna sue your station!" The program director said, "Can that be done?" I said, "We'll find out!" He had never had record executive talk to him like that before. [Laughs] That guy, by the way, wound up becoming a good friend of mine. But how can you turn your back on a hit record?
AW: When I was running A&M's publishing company, I gave Olivia Newton-John "I Honestly Love You", and MCA thought it was too slow to put it out as a single. Jerry Moss let me use his promotion staff to break it out of the album and it became Record of the Year!
RR: Everybody thinks they're an A&R man. I can honestly say that I've been second-guessed all my life.
AW: Did I hear something about the Barry White story being made into a movie?
RR: Making a movie about anything is difficult, but I've been talking to trustees, members of Barry's estate, and Glodean White, his widow, who have the rights to the Barry White Story. I'd rather not say anymore about it right now.
AW: Who do you see playing Barry?
RR: Cedric the Entertainer!
AW: That's a fantastic idea!
RR: He's got the look, the build, the attitude. He doesn't sing but he could lip synch to Barry's records.
AW: Now, you and Barry were friends?
RR: I almost didn't have Barry White on 20th Century Fox Records. I had the Love Unlimited Orchestra on Uni … 'Walkin' In The Rain With The One I Love', a huge hit! When I went to 20th Century Fox, Barry came to see me. He told me he wanted to make a record himself. I didn't even know he could sing! I asked him why he didn't tell me you could sing before? He said he wasn't ready before. I thought, let's do it! I'm the president of the company, and I can do whatever I want to do. Barry said he wanted $27,000 to do five sides, so I gave it to him. The first track he finished was 'I'm Gonna Love You' and I went out of my mind! How lucky can one guy get? The next day, I get a call from Barry's lawyer who wants to re-negotiate his contract.
AW: About a month ago Hip-O Records re-released an album my late partner Lou Reizner produced for you, 'All This And World War II'.
RR: I loved Lou Reizner. I consider that a classic album. It's one of the best collections of Beatle cover songs ever done!
AW: I always thought it was ahead of its time. I remember Rod Stewart had a hit in the UK with 'Get Back', you had cuts by Leo Sayer, Tina Turner …
RR: Yeah, Elton John let me use his number one hit, 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds', on the album and in the soundtrack of the movie. We also had Frankie Valli, the Four Seasons, the greatest Lennon & McCartney songs, all playing over old newsreel footage of World War II. My dream is to buy that film back from 20th Century Fox and four-wall it at some theatre in LA. I'd do Friday and Saturday midnight shows, with a great sound system. It would be mind boggling! It'd be another 'Rocky Horror Show'.
AW: You're absolutely right! Have you told anybody about that?
RR: As a matter of fact, Artie, you're the first to hear about it!
AW: Another exclusive for Artie Wayne on the web Spectropop! By the way, Allan Rinde and Don Williams say hello. When I told you last week that the three of us were credited by MCA, Tim Rice, and Andrew Lloyd Webber for breaking 'Jesus Christ Superstar', you told me something that was quite surprising.
RR: Yeah, I was the one who originally green-lighted the project when I was at Uni. Brian Brawley, at the MCA offices in London, sent me a copy of 'Jesus Christ Superstar', which was a single by Murray Head. I put it on my turntable and it was incredible! What a piece of work! But I said to myself, "Is this sacrilegious?" I called Rick Frio into my office, who was my national sales manager, who also is Catholic. I asked him to take the acetate and play it for the priest down at the Catholic Church on Sunset and see what he thinks. About an hour and a half later, Rick calls me and says, "Go for it, man. The Priest says that Jesus Christ was a Superstar!" I called Brian Brawley up, told him we love it, and asked, "What's the deal?" He said that the composers had all the songs, and wanted to do a double album. He told me it would cost $175,000. I said, "No problem," and drew up the papers. As we got into the project, I got a call from Mike Maitland, president of MCA, who said to me, "You've got Neil Diamond and Elton John. We want 'Jesus Christ Superstar' to be on MCA." I said, "But this a Uni project! I paid for it out of my budget. This is my baby!" To which he replied, "Well, I'm the boss, and I'm taking it away from you. I'll give you back your $175,000." To make a long story short, I was hurt by the whole situation, because my bonus would've been tied into it, and everything else. Anyway, it wound up on MCA Records, and the rest everybody knows. It did go over budget by $75,000, and Mike Maitland fired Brian Brawley because of it! Brian eventually wound up running Andrew Lloyd Webber's companies, so he came out all right.
AW: Which brings us up to today.
RR: 35 years later, a couple of guys come knocking on our door at Velocity and bring us 'The Red Letters Project'.
AW: I've been hearing about this. What is 'The Red Letters Project'?
RR: In the new living translation of the New Testament, in the book of Matthew, the Red Letters are the translated words of Jesus from the original language of Aramaic into English. Dennis Duncan and Mario Canido have taken these words that Jesus spoke, and wrote the music for 34 songs that are unbelievable! It's gonna wind up being a road show. It's not going to be just a double CD, we're gonna stage it with big screens and everything!
AW: You've got to do something special with something this big!
RR: We're having animation done for each song as well as using, Hollywood archives, Biblical footage. It's gonna be spectacular!
AW: Sounds like it! When will it be released?
RR: The double CD of 'The Red Letters Project' will be on the market Nov. 1st, 2006
AW: Is there anyway we can have a preview of it?
RR: You can listen to four of Brian Duncan and Mario Canido's recordings from 'The Red Letters Project' at myspace.com. Nobody's ever done this before, the two CDs are phenomenal pieces of work, but the dream is the road show. We want people all over the world to come and have a spiritual and inspirational experience.
AW: Thank you, Russ. You've given so much to the world of music, and to the world at large. I hope 'The Red Letters Project' becomes your crowning achievement and your greatest success!
RR: Thanks, Artie. I've been very fortunate in doing what I'm doing for over 40 years. When your vocation is your vacation, you've got a good thing going.
COPYRIGHT ARTIE WAYNE 2006
With special thanks to Clark Besch, Patti Dahlstrom,
Alan V. Karr, Regina Litman,
PRESENTED BY THE SPECTROPOP TEAM