Jul 31, 2012

1971: The Sunflower Records Story


SAN FRANCISCO - All Bob Cohen knows is that he didn't mean for it to happen, and he wishes the Grateful Dead wouldn't give him such weird looks whenever he's around them.
Cohen is a sound man, and he was half-owner, with Chet Holms, of the Family Dog, back in the days of the Avalon Ballroom. As such, Cohen made, saved, and owns a pile of tapes of most of the bands that played there - the Grateful Dead among them.
And when Cohen was approached, in spring of 1969, by a Los Angeles record company to sell some of his tapes for an anthology of circa-hippie San Francisco bands, he could see no problem. It was Howard Wolf doing the talking, and Wolf's immediate past included the two Great Society albums Columbia had issued. And he was representing Together Records, a frisky new label headed by Gary Usher, former producer of the Byrds and Firesign Theatre, among others. In fact, the Dead saw no problems either when they were asked to sign releases for nine cuts. "We didn't dig the tapes, the quality that much," said Rock Scully, "but we thought it'd be nice to have this anthology of all the bands." With the Dead set, all Together had to do was get releases from enough of the other groups, like Big Brother, Moby Grape, Steve Miller, Quicksilver, Great Society, and Daily Flash. The idea was a three-LP package.
But, Cohen said, "they had trouble getting those releases." Then, "all of a sudden I find out that in one day Together ceased to exist! To settle everything, Gary Usher should have told me to get my tapes; I assumed the deal was off. My tapes are sitting there. But when I try to get them, I can't. MGM bought them."
A year later, out of the blue, there's an album on the market, Vintage Dead, on another new label, Sunflower (with MGM Records taking manufacturing and distributing credits) - not an anthology but, rather, a Dead album featuring five cuts, all Cohen's, along with, strangely enough, liner notes signed by Cohen. The Dead are wondering. Then, three months ago, another album, Historic Dead, four cuts, two credited to Cohen, two to Peter Abram, owner and tape machine-operator at the old Matrix club. It is absolute bottom of the bag, the four songs totalling 29 minutes. Warner Bros., trying to sell contemporary Dead, are pissed. ("The Dead were freaked out because of the timing," Cohen said. Vintage was released in fall of 1970, just after Warners had put out Workingman's Dead. Vintage Dead has sold more than 74,000 according to the latest word from Rick Sidoti, general manager of Sunflower Records.) The Dead, not knowing what's happening and not wanting to sound like they're being milked by the phone company, are pissed. And Cohen is suffering from this persecution complex, spinning around dizzily, wondering where to point his finger.
Actually, the Dead are more upset with Sunflower/MGM than with Cohen. "We feel they've perpetuated a hoax on us," said Scully, once a manager of the band. "At the very least, it was a misrepresentation." The Dead just recently got hold of copies of the contract, the original having vanished with Lenny Hart, the ex-manager they recently filed embezzlement charges against. Hart was the Dead representative in the deal, Scully said. "We found that those masters they said we'd signed for had all been penciled in," he said. "Everybody who signed swears there were three masters in there now that weren't in there before." But the fact is, they signed, and there's little, legally, that they can do.
Sunflower Records actually paid royalties to the band, $3650.51 in April for 51,683 albums sold between September 1st, 1970, and February 8th, 1971.
Another statement to Cohen, citing identical sales figures, didn't include a check, instead claiming that a $5000 advance cancelled out any money owed. Which got Cohen further upset. "I haven't got any money from them," he claimed, and when he wrote to Sunflower about it, "they called me up and said they're putting out another album. Now they've told me they're going to take both of them and put them together as a two-LP package for Christmas!"
So Cohen was thinking about legal action. His friend and attorney, Creighton Churchill, exchanged letters with Sunflower, and he learned that the advance promised to Cohen was contingent on releases being secured from all the bands on the 37 cuts Cohen had provided, and that Sunflower, in the middle of the Together-to-MGM transaction, thought a payment had been made. "So he can get the royalties," Churchill said, "if he's lucky." Churchill also said that Cohen had in fact been paid a separate fee of $1500 for giving the tapes to Together.
Cohen himself says Howard Wolf got the most money - "about $10,000 in fees and expenses." But Cohen did more than his share of work. After learning about Sunflower's plans for the Dead cuts, he said, "I talked them into at least making it groovy. I put together the Vintage album, because they would've put it out anyway, with or without me. They were gonna put it out as a bootleg. There was no way I could stop them."
So he joined them - after one desperate attempt at sabotage. He had given Together a set of mix masters, keeping the original tapes himself. "I went to their studios," ostensibly to identify tapes for MGM. "I looked at each box, and I had a big magnet with me and erased the tapes." To no avail. "They had quarter-track dubs made, too, and they were going to release those." Still, he contributed the liner notes for the Vintage album. He said he refused to do anything on the second one, which carries no information on recording dates or places.
"We had no liner information," Sunflower's Sidoti claimed, "because we didn't want to take away from the artwork."
Sidoti said he couldn't help Cohen point fingers. "There was nobody involved in the Dead albums from the executive standpoint," he said. "This was a deal made by Together and we just picked up the contract. When Together was disbanded or whatever, the tapes were laying around in the Transcontinental office, and Mac Davis [the veteran songwriter and president of the eight-month-old Sunflower label] bought the tapes from Transcon."
Transcontinental Investment Corporation is the holding group that formed Transcontinental Entertainment Corporation and hired young Mike Curb, now president of MGM Records, to be its head. Curb in turn, hired Gary Usher to form "an avant-garde artist-oriented record label, a division of TEC," as Usher put it. "They made a lot of promises - $1 million to work with, total autonomy, and a three-year minimum. TEC owned 40 percent of the racks in the country; they had lots of money." Usher had been successful with the Beach Boys, co-writing some tunes with Brian Wilson, as well as with the Byrds and Chad and Jeremy (as a producer). He was looking to do something different.
"I always wanted to do a series called 'Archives.'" In fact, Together put out two interesting collections, one of the Pre-Flyte Byrds, and one of various L.A.-area artists and bands. "Pre-Flyte sold well, it got the company off, and other people started bringing me tapes - Lord Buckley and good material like that." That's when he told Howard Wolf about "Archives" and sent him off to San Francisco.
But six months into Together's existence, Usher said, "Transcon started fudging with money, saying, 'We think the San Francisco scene is bullshit and we don't know who Howard Wolf is.' [Wolf, Usher said, had been advanced $5000 on the project.] I took Howard over there, he explained it, and they bought the idea of one full album from the Grateful Dead." Transcon stock then dropped, Usher said, and Curb split. "I simply walked out of there and went to RCA. I signed all my rights and interest over to TEC, who then sold out of the record business, and MGM took over all the properties."
So now you have MGM Records, whose president had so loudly announced a purge of all MGM artists who "advocate and exploit drugs," squeezing out every acidic second of Grateful Dead music that they can.
Sidoti says Sunflower is "a solely-owned label owned by Mac David." But MGM, it says on the liners, manufactures and distributes, and even the lion head appears on the two Dead albums. "Well, it's a joint venture with MGM." Watch your choice of words.
"Mike Curb has nothing to do with it," Sidoti continued. "There's lots of controvery surrounding whatever he does. God bless Mike Curb, whatever his thing is."
But how do you justify putting out shit and misrepresenting a group at the same time?
"There was no motive of hurting the Grateful Dead," Sidoti said. Earlier in our conversation - and this helps explain the motive - he had said, "Since the first one sold well, we decided to go ahead with another. We had four masters left over - they were decent tapes. There were a lot of dropouts on the tape, but we got rid of all those. I really think this helped the group. Actually the record buyer would have to be a Grateful Dead freak to be interested, and there's an X amount of people who otherwise couldn't buy the LP and compare."

(by Ben Fong-Torres, from Rolling Stone, October 28 1971)



  1. Record company machinations are always depressing to read about...

    I've also posted an earlier review of Vintage Dead, and Bob Weir talks about it in his Feb '71 interview.

    From Nick Meriwether's article on this "classic tale of music industry chicanery" in the Taping Compendium, p.116:
    "Originally part of a project that was to release live albums from a host of the San Francisco bands, the Dead's albums were all that was salvaged. Robert Cohen, Chet Helms' partner in the Avalon Ballroom, was hired to engineer and master the tapes, and completed work on not only the Dead's tracks but a number of others as well, including some from the Charlatans and the Airplane. The original project fell through, however, and when the studio where Cohen had done the mastering was not paid, they held the masters as collateral against their fees. MGM, one of several labels with allegedly shady distribution connections at the time, bought the tapes and contacted Cohen, blithely announcing their impending release, over Cohen's protests. With releases from the band - a point disputed by them, though under Lenny Hart's management they certainly signed other poor contracts - the two albums were completed, with Cohen's production. When Cohen found out that MGM planned to release other tapes from the original project without the bands' permissions, he took matters into his own hands and erased the tapes...
    Cohen left the music business entirely and now refers to the entire debacle as 'that ill-fated nightmare.'"

    It is a murky question how many Avalon shows Cohen recorded, how many he erased, and how many survive. (If "survive" is the word for tapes that may never be heard, if they're still playable.)
    Nonetheless, thanks to record-company greed, we have these fragments of '66 Dead shows - Cohen's only Dead recordings to have surfaced.

    9/16/66 is thought to be the date for the Vintage Dead tracks, since the album features the poster for that show - the same poster the Dead later used for their 1971 live album.

  2. We thought it was great ! Really our first bootleg. Just hearing how the boys used to sound was great for us in 71

  3. iirc, Vintage Dead is mastered a bit fast. Winch down the tempo a bit, and it sounds more natural.

    I like the playing on the record a lot, too. Nice up-tempo version of "Baby Blue". The playing was crisp. Tight combo.

  4. Jerry is asked about the Sunflower LPs in a KSAN interview from 1972-06-13 and comes up with a different angle. He says it was originally intended to be a fundraiser for the Family Dog on the Great Highway / The Common. Here's a transcript from fanzine "Hot Angel" No 9.

    KSAN: What did you think - I don't want to get into areas of controversy but - what did you think of the live Dead? A couple of albums that were done for MGM - one I think and maybe another one in the works or something?
    Jerry: There's the Historic and the Vintage.
    KSAN: Bob Cohen asked for your permission I recall.
    Jerry: Yeah well, see the thing was it was originally gonna be a whole different thing. It was originally gonna be - this was back in the days when there was a sort of a - an attempt to sort of communityise the Family Dog. It was after the - in the wake of that whole light show strike and all that stuff that was going on, and originally that record was gonna be made - the proceeds were gonna go toward keeping the Family Dog running at the time, and it was originally a whole different record company. But that - the record company that was originally doing it was bought up by MGM, there was some weird swindle went down and actually, as far as the music goes, well it's what we were doing in 66 and we weren't as good then of course as we are now, and - you know, but it is what it is.

    1. Interesting how everyone has their own perspective. I don't think I've read about any Family Dog connection before, but maybe that's what he was told. Later on he told Rolling Stone the albums were just an embarrassment.

      Weir's comments from his Harvard Independent interview:
      "We didn't put out the Vintage album... Bob Cohen burned us and in turn got burned - he wanted, for curiosity's sake or whatever, to put out an album of our old music for the collectors to buy and listen to and say "My, haven't they come a long way"... He used to do the sound at the Avalon Ballroom, and he had a bunch of old tapes, and he came over with a guy named Wolf and played a bunch of tapes he'd gotten of some of our old performances at the Matrix and a couple of our performances at the Avalon; and we said "OK sure, make an album," they weren't disgusting. And so we signed releases on that and apparently signed releases on a bunch of other material he was going to make a follow-up album out of, with some reticence. Then he somehow drifted out of the whole bargaining, and Bob Cohen's tapes from the Avalon came in and apparently we'd signed releases for some of the material. MGM got a hold of it and somehow they had some screws to put on Cohen or something. A very confusing story and not a particularly pleasant one as the outcome was that they put out that fucking record... Vintage Dead was a most unfortunate thing to happen, but apparently it's over now and nobody's buying it."

    2. Garcia was pretty involved in the Common, so I suspect there is a kernel of truth to it, but I dunno. I doubt Cohen wanted to release it as a mere curiosity.

  5. See also this 1970 interview with Bob Cohen about early days at the Avalon:
    "I recorded the shows as often as I could. I had no idea that they would have any value... The Columbia people are coming to listen to some Janis Joplin tapes I have. They were her last performance with Big Brother about three or four months ago. I had tapes of some of the first shows she did, but they are too far in the past and they are nothing really great. I also have tapes of Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Taj Mahal, and Steve Miller."

    1. Bob Cohen is referring to the December 1, 1968 show which was Janis Joplin's last show eith Big Brother and The Holding Company - and also a Family Dog Benefit - and effectively the penultimate Family Dog show at the Avalon.

    2. LIA - the BC interview must have been 1969 and not 1970 or his timeline is skewed rather.

    3. That Cohen quote is from an interview in the UCSF student newspaper the Synapse, printed Dec 4, 1970, after the release of Vintage Dead. Cohen's remarks don't sound like they're earlier than that, so it's puzzling he refers to a Dec '68 show as "3 or 4 months ago," unless that's a misprint.