So what do Prince, Jimmy Buffet, and Tupac Shakur have in common (besides sharing space on my iPod)? The answer is Gary Katz. In addition to producing some of the greatest albums to ever grace the modern music industry—including the seven original Steely Dan records, all but one of which were nominated for the Grammy for Best Album of the Year—Katz was a premier member of Warner Bros Records A&R staff and was also was responsible for signing Jimmy Buffet, Chaka Khan (Rufus), and Jim Croce to Dunhill Records. He is now the man behind Let’s Finish This, a company calling for an end to the dramatic polarization of America, proving that not only does he know a good band when he hears one, he knows a good idea, too.

LA Music Blog recently talked to Gary Katz about his new venture, the current state of the music industry, and the pain-in-the-ass correspondence that got him a job working for the president of Dunhill Records.

Gary Katz

Can you give us a brief background of how you got your start in music?

I always loved music and went everywhere to listen to music. I remember when, quote, rock and roll first started. I would sit up on my roof. I was like 12 or 13, and I smoked cigarettes with my transistor radio and listened to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my closest friends were Jay and the Americans, a singing group that had multiple top10 records. This friendship gave me instant access into the studio, meet lots of people and introduce me to the music business. JerryLeiber and Mike Stoller actually produced a couple of their early records and they had at the time produced my favorite records with the Drifters, Coasters and many others. Both Mike and Jerry befriended me, which was a dream come true.. They gave me entrée into the studio, and it became addictive. It was just something I always wanted to do.

I graduated school, and I got a job working for Bobby Darin, which I loved. Then Bobby, who was the head of the Robert Kennedy committee here in New York when Robert Kennedy was running for President and was shot and killed, he sort of just said, “I’m giving it all up.” He sold the companies, bought a van, went out to the desert, did what he did, and I lost that job.

I wound up getting another job with Hugo and Luigi at Avco Embassy, and that lasted a couple of years ’til they went out of business. Then I was out of work, and I didn’t know if I was gonna get work. I have a close friend that I grew up with who was living in LA named Eddie Lambert, who’ was in the business and working at Dunhill Records, which at the time was a really successful company with The Mamas and Papas,Three Dog Night,Steppenwolf and more.

He called me one night and said, “Write the president a letter, and I’ll talk to him.” I remember saying to him, “You want me to write him a cold letter?” He said, “Yeah, just write him a letter. I’ll talk to him.” So I did. I scribbled a hand-written letter on a lined legal pad to Jay Lasker, who was the president of Dunhill at the time and then became president of Motown and a pretty well-known guy in our business. I remember saying, “Dear Jay, Writing this letter to you right now is a much bigger pain in the ass for me than it is for you sitting in your chair reading it. This is my name. This is what I do. I work with two guys who I think are the greatest. If you have any interest, call me.”

I sent the letter and didn’t think anything about it. Two days later he called me and said, “So I have no idea who you are. I’m still laughing at your letter. There’s a ticket at the airport. Be here in the morning.” I got on a plane. I went to Ed’s house for the night. I went to Jay’s office in the morning, and six minutes later he said, “Okay.” He gave me a job, and I had a career.

Steely Dan - Pretzel Logic

When you first got your start, did you think producing would be something that you would get into or was that something that came at a later time?

It was the only thing I was interested in doing. As I said, I was fortunate enough to have entrée into the studio with Leiber and Stoller. I loved the music, and I saw Jerry wasn’t formally trained in music, he did it with his ear. They’d be working, and he would explain it in some way that he and Mike communicated, and I said, “You know, I can do that.” I always wanted to produce records. The job I had with Bobby Darin was in publishing, and I really didn’t have nearly the interest in that that I did in wanting to produce

What led you from producing to the A&R side of the business?

It was all in one. When I started working at ABC, A&R and producing were one job. I worked there with Steve Barri, who at the time was one of the main people in the music business. We basically did the same thing, we would A&R in the morning and went to the studio in the afternoon.

How do you feel A&R differs today in comparison to when you first got into it?

I’ll try and be diplomatic as best I can. I don’t think there is any A&R-ing anymore, as we knew it. When I left ABC and I went to Warner Brothers, where there were six or seven of us. It was Lenny Waronker, Ted Templeman , myself, Steve Barri , Russ Titelman , Richard Perry, and Tommy LiPuma. There was no genre of music that could get by us. There was somebody there for everything. People in the studio, people who worked with musicians, people who understood and who had a good feel for what would be successful or not. We were extraordinarily successful at Warner Brothers during those 10 years, and now I think the criteria is you have to wear black and smoke cigarettes.

Working in the A&R world, is there one band that you’ve signed over the years that just still sticks out in your mind?

Well, like I said, I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of successful artists. I was partly or fully responsible for artists that I still listen to today, whether it’s Rickie Lee Jones, Prince, Dire Straits, Chaka Khan (Rufus) or Jimmy Buffett. When I see these artists that continue to perform at a high level, it’s rewarding to know that I was involved in some way of helping them.

What do you feel that the labels look for today within their A&R departments to find new acts?

To be perfectly honest with you, the business is drastically different than when I first started; the business has taken a tremendous hit. It doesn’t bear any resemblance to the day-to-day operations that I know, and to be perfectly honest, I have no idea what their criteria for new artists are these days. Very few get signed, and very few get supported.

I don’t know what the criteria is for signing new acts because what I hear is so repetitive to what I heard last night. This is the old story of, “It sounds like a record that was a hit yesterday, so let’s sign it.” There’s nothing adventuresome about signing these new acts anymore. Nothing out of the mainstream. If you were to look at it and be honest about it, so many of the artists that we call classic and who are fabulous artists would never have been signed today. Steely Dan never would have been signed, the Allman Brothers—none of these bands would get signed today.

They don’t develop artists anymore. Nobody can claim they develop artists. If they do, they’re just lying to themselves. We would have A&R meetings, and I can remember conversations taking place where we’d hear an act and I’d say, “You know, I kind of like it. They sound good. Maybe by their third album they’re gonna be hot.” There is no such thing today. It’s one album and out. There’s no development.

Lets Finish This

Can you tell us about the project you’re currently working?

I am, like a lot of others, really frustrated by this sense of polarization that’s been created in the country that is only increasing,and that I don’t see not continuing. I think it’s a really dangerous time that’s being fueled by extremes, probably on both sides, and nothing getting done. The idea of the shirt was that it’s like the Civil War never ended. The only thing that’s different is that no one’s holding guns, and I use the word “yet” at the end of that. Just two months ago, they had a demonstration in front of the White House, where it was “bring the heaviest armament you have and stand in front of the White House.”

That’s just crazy stuff to me, and I think the only way that you can find a path so that this really heightened polarization takes a back step is to accept the fact that not only is compromise a day-to-day tool in every portion of life you live—whether it be with your wife or your boss or just internally—but this country was formed on compromise. When they were writing the Constitution, at the end of the last day, there was no agreement, and there wasn’t going to be a finalized Constitution because they could not agree on language for representation and slavery issues.

They all left the room with the idea that they weren’t going to be able to agree, and George Washington came in and oversaw what’s called the “Great Compromise,” which allowed them to agree and finish the writing of the Constitution. The Great Compromise was the idea that you can’t allow an issue,any one issue, to stop the advancement of this country, but the fact is that the Constitution was completed in great part because of what’s called the Great Compromise.

Right now, there needs to be a sense of danger here. No civilization has been able to flourish just because it says, “We’re the best.” To get up in the morning and say, “We’re the greatest country in the world. We have freedom,” it doesn’t matter. All civilizations came to an end for a reason, whether it be the Roman Empire or the Egyptian Empire. We’re no different. Although I don’t think anybody thinks that’s possible, I do. I think that unless there’s a sense of resolution to the polarization, it will eventually lead to something like a civil war again. That’s where that shirt comes from.

The line is called Let’s Finish This, and it seems like it’s already sparked a little controversy just because most people don’t completely understand it yet.

It was intended to get attention. That was the intent. It does not mean we should start the Civil War again. I’m trying through the line to create a conversation to prevent that. What it means, literally, is rather than having to think about it, let’s finish this. It can’t continue. It is a call to unity.

How did you originally come up with this idea?

Last summer I was out in LA visiting a close friend, an ex-partner of mine who’s really funny and smart and very successful. He invented independent PR in the music business many years ago. I saw a Tea Party rally the night before I flew in, and as we were having lunch, I said, “As far as I’m concerned, the Civil War never ended, so maybe we should finish it.” He laughed. He thought it was funny. He said, “That’d make a good bumper sticker,” so from a one-liner in a conversation, it developed into what you see now.

As you mentioned before, the ultimate goal is to reignite conversation—not start problems, not start issues—but get people to open back up the conversation.

But not in a benign way. This isn’t about having a commission or a group of people. This is about a call to danger, that the situation that exists today is growing and it’s dangerous. I think it’s dangerous. If you don’t learn from history, you’re about to repeat it. We’ve been a country for 200 and 30 years. Nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket. I’m talking about civilizations, the Roman Empire or the Egyptian Empire, that lasted for thousands of years, but when the shit hit the fan, it was over. Anybody that thinks this country is immune to that kind of dynamic is walking in the world with blinders.

Now people can pick up the shirts or learn a little bit more about the idea at letsfinishthis.com, correct?

Yes. The project right now revolves around the shirts and the idea. I don’t want to start an organization. I’m not the leader of any organization. I’m not trying to be. I am trying to be a voice to say, “Take heed. Do something about this. Don’t talk about it. You gotta do something about it because the people who are extreme are doers.”

It seems like a lot of people are on the Facebook page and are really trying to open up the conversation again.

That’s what it was intended to do. The intent is to get people to just recognize this for more than a two-minute news story on Fox News or MSNBC. It will and does affect everybody’s life and will continue to even more so as time goes by. All you have to do is see problems that are occurring now, whether it be financially or the oil spill or any issue. There is not one issue that the two sides can agree to. That’s a recipe for absolute disaster. If anyone thinks that’s not so, I’d like to hear about it. It is a path to disaster.

Lets Finish This

For more info on Lets Finish This, check out:

http://www.facebook.com/letsfinishthis

or

http://www.backstreet-merch.com/bands/lets/default.asp