By Patrick Prince
Music Industry Veteran Marshall Blonstein knows a good music business venture in the same way he can instinctually tell if a music artist is destined for greatness.
Making his mark in the ‘70s at Ode Records with such top-selling artists as Carole King and Cheech and Chong, and eventually serving as President of Island Records, Blonstein switched over to the unique business of audiophile imprints in the mid-’80s.
Today, his company Audio Fidelity produces wonderfully-packaged 4.0 and 5.1 multi-channel Hybrid SACDs and 180-gram audiophile vinyl of vintage music artists. And recently, Blonstein has developed a brand of retro-looking portable turntables equipped with Bluetooth technology labelled Rock ‘N’ Rolla (which we reviewed in our December 2016 issue).
In a Q&A with Goldmine, Blonstein shared his excitement about producing Audio Fidelity and Rock ‘N’ Rolla products.
GOLDMINE: Your work with Ode Records helped launch the careers of both Carole King and Cheech & Chong — two completely different artists. At that time, Carole King’s songwriting already seemed marked for success. Was it harder to predict that kind of success for Cheech & Chong?
Marshall Blonstein: Hindsight is always great. Other than Lou Adler, I don’t think anyone had the foresight to see Carole as a major recording artist. Carole was known as a songwriter. She had written some of the greatest songs of the 60s: “Locomotion,” “Natural Woman,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Hey Girl”… Her first attempt at being a solo artist was with the hit “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” but after that nothing really as an artist.
When Lou signed her, it was first with a group called The City, and then she went on her own with the album “Writer,” which barely made the Billboard charts, and then the historic record-setting “Tapestry.” So when you say she was marked for success, it took some time — a lot of work, the right songs and the right producer at the right time.
With Cheech & Chong, none of us had any idea they were going to change comedy forever. When Lou first saw them at the Troubadour doing a 15 minute set, he told me the next day he had just signed two comedians. At the time, comedy was really the domain of comedians such as Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, The Smothers Brothers, so I couldn’t imagine why Lou had signed two comedians. My thought was at the time, how am I ever going to get a comedy act played on the radio? When Lou took them in the studio, and I heard what they were doing, I got it immediately. I come from East LA, and we have plenty of characters like these two. The Low-Rider and the Doper. I got it, but I didn’t think anyone in Iowa, Kansas, Alabama or even Chicago could relate to a low-rider and his doper friend. When Lou finished the album, I took it around to all the promotion and sales people and our distributor A&M Records and played it for them. All I got was a blank stare and an “I don’t get it, and good luck.”
No one saw what was coming. These two changed comedy. People don’t realize but they had nine Top 40 chart singles along with five gold and platinum albums. There are some rock groups that can’t match that track record. They were a ball to work with.
GM: ‘How would Cheech & Chong do as a newly-signed act in today’s market?
MB: I think they would do well. The market for breaking a comedy act back in the ‘70s was very limited. There was FM radio, but they rarely played comedy and then there was the road. In order to make it on the road, you really needed airplay or TV exposure which was rare. To play anything other than small intimate clubs, usually the comedians were the opening acts. Because of their success through FM radio and eventually AM radio they were playing 10,000 seat arenas. They truly were hard rock comedy. They were rock ‘n’ roll comedians.
Today is much easier. You have comedy clubs all over America were comedians can get up on stage and perform. The internet allows anyone an opportunity to sing, be a comedian, whatever. YouTube generates millions of hits and people become stars off the internet. There are some comedians today who have HBO specials that I have never heard of so the opportunities today are much more vast than in the ‘70s when you had to count on just getting lucky at radio or getting on a TV show like Johnny Carson.
GM: Spirit was also on Ode for a few albums. The band never got the recognition they probably deserved — and now are more of a side note in rock history, as the band in the “Stairway To Heaven” lawsuit. Your opinion of them?
MB: I thought they were way ahead of their time. The group was made up of five unique musicians. John Lock had a background in jazz, Jay Ferguson was lead singer and had a voice that matched the times, Mark Andes played a mean bass, Ed Cassidy with his bald head and missing front teeth was the perfect complement to the band and gave them an edge. But the cherry on top was Randy California. He was made for rock ‘n’ roll. I can still see him pushing his wah wah pedal, hitting his guitar licks like Hendrix with his Jewish afro. I always felt they had the right musical balance just not the right temperament. I still listen to Spirit from time to time. The music holds up.
GM: As President of Island Records it must have been exciting with artists like Bob Marley and U2 coming on the music scene, no? Shouldn’t the ‘80s be given more credit for the music that developed during that time?
MB: I was President at Island while Bob Marley was there. U2 came after I had left the company. Chris Blackwell is one of the most interesting men I have ever met. His taste in music and being able to spot talent made him one of a kind. Chris had homes in London, the Bahamas, Jamaica and New York. I never knew when I would get a call from Chris calling a meeting in the Bahamas, Jamaica or London to listen to a new group Chris was considering signing. We worked with some really interesting artists along with Bob Marley, Robert Palmer, Grace Jones, Third World, Toots and the Maytals and a host of Jamaican artists that kept you busy day and night.
I think the ‘80s take a hit because of the big hair bands. That is what people think of when they think of the’ 80s. Some great music came out of the ‘80s and great artists such as Prince, AC/DC, U2, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Madonna, The Clash. I think that era and those artists made a great contribution to rock ‘n’ roll and helped spread the musical landscape.
GM: Explain your industry work with the Sinatra family a little bit.
MB: Someone had mentioned to me that Nancy Sinatra was looking for a label to distribute an upcoming album. I didn’t feel that Nancy really fit into what we were doing at DCC Compact Classics at the time, but I thought it was worth taking a meeting. I heard she was a terrific person and one never knows. After we met. I still wasn’t convinced we were the right fit for her music, but she mentioned I should go meet with her attorney Bob Finkelstein who handled all the music for the Sinatra estate. Bob and I hit it off. I was very surprised, for an attorney, Bob had a great sense of music and where he felt Frank’s music should fit into the future. We started off talking about Nancy and wound up discussing all of Frank’s unreleased recordings. Frank had recorded every performance for a number of years and they were all just sitting in a vault. Once Bob and I got to know each other and he understood what we were doing at DCC, we struck a deal to release a number of Frank’s unreleased live concerts. We decided on the name Artanis for the label, which is Sinatra spelled backwards. I think we released four or five recordings and we released a duet with Nancy and Frank.
GM: What made you get into audiophile imprints, especially with the reissues you have chosen to release?
MB: After leaving Island Records, I was in Shelley’s Stereo, and I heard a compact disc for the first time. That was in 1986. I couldn’t believe the sound. I immediately bought a system and there were only a handful of CDs available, I bought them as well. I had the system put into my home, and I fell in love with the whole idea of the compact disc. The music industry had vinyl, 8-track and cassettes for decades. I felt that the compact disc was unique enough that it could be the format of the future. At the same time, I did my research and found that there were only about 100 titles available for compact disc, all by contemporary artists, classical or jazz. No one was covering the music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. That was a niche that I went after. The challenge was not only selecting the right artists, but tracking down the original master tapes. In many cases, the master tapes no longer existed. I remember someone suggesting to me that we do an album by Rosie and the Originals. She had the hit song “Angel Baby” in the ‘60s. When we searched for the tape, we found out that the single was recorded in a small church and the tape was later thrown away after they released the single. As the compact disc gave the greatest opportunity for sound, I always wanted to make sure we only used the original master. We had a great mastering engineer, Steve Hoffman, who loved music as much as I did and really knew how to get the most out of the masters without altering or changing the original intent of the artist or group.
GM: How did you go from DCC Compact Classics to Audio Fidelity?
MB: After a number of years at DCC, we built our reputation and revenue from licensing titles from the major labels. At some point, we hit a plateau as far as our bottom line. We couldn’t seem to get above a certain level as we were hindered by some of the artists that we didn’t have access to. In order to grow the company, we started an audio book company and we purchased a disposable camera company. Looking back, neither made any sense. But again, hindsight is always great. After a few years, we became less a music company and more an audiobook and camera company looking to fit into the market. The people I was in business with wanted to continue adding new ventures and relying less on music. We came to a crossroads as I love music and came to hate audiobooks and cameras. It was time to leave. It was 15 great years, but it was time to move on.
A good friend of mine is John Paul DeJoria, who is a fanatic when it comes to music and has great taste. John Paul owns Patron Tequila and John Paul Mitchell hair care systems. We got to talking one day about music, and he said why don’t we start a music company? I couldn’t think of a more perfect partner or a better time to continue what I had started at DCC Compact Classics. So, Audio Fidelity was born.
GM: Is it relatively easy to work with artists regarding the logistics of reissues?
MB: We deal directly with the record companies in licensing the titles. We rarely have the opportunity to interface with the artist. The biggest challenge is still selecting the artist that the labels are willing to license and then finding the original master sources. We always make an effort to recreate the original artwork. When Motown originally released Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” LP, there was Braille spelling out Stevie’s name and a message. When originally released, only the first 25,000 copies had the Braille. When we released Stevie’s “Talking Book,” we recreated the Braille on every copy we produced. We worked with the Braille Institute to insure the accuracy. On occasion, we get to work with the artist, but generally it’s with the record labels unless we license a title directly from an artist like Jesse Colin Young.
GM: Which audiophile reissue are you most proud of … the one that really deserved a release?
MB: There are so many titles I think we gave new life to by reissuing them in the CD format or the 180gram vinyl format. If I had to choose, I think it would be our first audiophile release, which was Cream “Wheels of Fire.” As we wanted to enter the audiophile arena with a bang, we chose one of the most difficult challenges. This was a two-LP set, and Steve (Hoffman) worked wonders on really bringing out the sound. There was a new dimension added to what was on the original masters. The real challenge and why we chose “Wheels of Fire” was the packaging. Originally the album was in tin foil with tie-dye colors that they just didn’t make anymore. We had to find someone in Pittsburgh to do the tin foil for us and then have someone from San Francisco to recreate the tie-dye color to match the album perfectly. When we hit the market, we had rave reviews for the sound and the packaging. Also, The Doors “The Doors” and the box set we put together called “Club Verboten,” Ten Years After’s “A Space In Time” and all the Stevie Wonder titles. On the vinyl side, The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Metallica “Metallica,” Kate Bush’ “Hounds Of Love” and the Blade Runner soundtrack all stand out.
GM: Explain your venture into Rock ’N’ Rolla portable record players. In your mind, what is the appeal of portable record players today as compared to decades ago?
MB: My involvement with the Rock ‘N’ Rolla started with a lunch with an old friend of mine Jonathan Kendrick, whose daughter Maisy Kay was going to be releasing an album and Jonathan wanted my opinion on the album. He also mentioned he was thinking of a new venture in portable record players that would take advantage of the resurgence in vinyl. A decade ago, vinyl didn’t have the cache or the sales surge that it has today. I had seen and read about portable record players and thought they were pretty cool. After researching the market, I felt there was a real opportunity because the players in the market seemed to be very cool looking, but they didn’t operate on a consistent basis. So we formed Rock ‘N’ Rolla with the goal in mind to have the cool look but be reliable and to merge the Rock ‘N’ Rolla with our vinyl titles which makes for a nice marriage.
GM: What makes Rock ’N’ Rolla players different and special to today’s vinyl consumer?
MB: With the Rock ‘N’Rolla, we wanted to insure that very cool retro look, but we wanted reliability so every time you put on an album you knew you were going to get your money’s worth. With our Premium model, which has a 4-hour battery pack, you can take it anywhere, to the park, the beach, if you are a college student you can carry it around from dorm room to dorm room. With the resurgence of vinyl, we found that there are a lot of 50, 60 and 70 year olds who bought albums in the day and somehow just couldn’t get rid of them. They were like old friends. They didn’t want to invest in an expensive stereo system, so the Rock ‘N’ Rolla was just what they were looking for. Even if they didn’t know it. A chance to reacquaint themselves playing their old vinyl LPs again. For the millennials, it’s a very cool way to take your vinyl with you wherever you go and be able to play it.
GM: How far does the retro aspect play on the consumer? After all, Rock ’N’ Rolla turntables are modernized with Bluetooth as well. It’s not a total replica of ‘60s portables.
MB: The Rock ‘N’ Rolla’s retro look is really the hook that gets your interest along with the portability. They are really designed more in the ‘50s look than the’ 60s. We wanted to have that look, but we also wanted to make sure that your ears were going to be satisfied as well as your eyes. We made sure all the components inside the Rock ‘N’ Rolla, from the heat-tested belts to the motor, to the speakers, to the balanced tone arm, to the diamond-tipped needle, all matched quality-wise the very cool look of the outside.
GM: What venture do you go into next? Do you have a bucket list for future accomplishments?
MB: I wake up every morning looking forward to working with great music, great artists, and now Rock ‘N’ Rolla. My day is full and very satisfying. We’ll see what the future brings but I am enjoying today.
GM: And, lastly, a fun question: Working in the record industry since the mid-‘60s, what was your impression of the HBO series Vinyl?