Jac Holzman’s job was working with the artists. He loved pairing a musician with the right producer. He said last night at the 92Y’s celebration of 60 years of Elektra Records (Jac founded the label) that finding that perfect collaboration was probably the most challenging part of his job. He told the crowd that he wanted the label to make enough money so that he could continue to put out the music that needed to be heard.
Lenny Kaye was superb in his conversation with Jac. They have a history. Among other things, Lenny assembled the Nuggets compilations, which were a packaging of the best songs from the albums Elektra released. 1948 was a pivotal year for both Jac and music. The 33 1/3 album was now available and this changed the music business, much like digital files have today. The early 50’s saw the rise of independent record labels. Lenny and Jac both commented on how similar that era is to today. Jac’s first release was a John Gruen record with soprano Georgiana Bannister, from there it became the premier label for folk music. Lenny pointed out that just about every important folk singer was on the label. Jac commented that he missed one: Bob Dylan. Jac still seems to be beating himself up for missing the Dylan train. At the time Dylan was playing Greenwich Village, Jac felt that New York City was being plucked from all angles, so he took a year and moved to LA to check out the scene there. He didn’t find the music he was looking for and by the time he returned to New York, Dylan was signed to Columbia Records.
When John Sebastian (before The Lovin’ Spoonful, he played on a lot of Elektra’s recordings) mentioned to Jac in the early 60’s that they were running out of folk songs to record, the light bulb went off and Jac realized he had to sign folk singers who were recording their own compositions. Till that point, a folk song in the strict sense of the word, was a tune that was handed down from a generation that lived it. Now with recorded music, the dynamics changed. Songs were there to be heard as they were originally written and sung. They no longer had to be handed down to be reinterpreted. Tom Rush, Phil Ochs and Tim Buckley were the new folk paradigm. Judy Collins recorded Leonard Cohen songs. Folk music had changed.
Jac wanted to sign a rock band. He went back to LA and as he told it, he went through the local papers and circled the names of any artists he had never heard of and decided to go see them live. Love caught his eye. “What a great name for a band” he told the audience. Love’s leader Arthur Lee was wearing prismatic glasses, doing a rock version of My Little Red Book. Jac was sold after seeing them at Bido Lido's in Hollywood. Arthur wanted $5000 in cash to sign. The deal was done. Love was never a huge hit despite being an amazing rock band. Jac thinks part of it might be that it was a racially mixed band, which meant nothing to him growing up in the melting pot of New York City. Arthur was instrumental in Elektra’s biggest success.
At the urging of Arthur, Jac came early to a Love show to see the opening act, The Doors. Jac didn’t really get them the first time he saw them, but Arthur’s passion for the band led him to see them a few more times and when he heard them perform Alabama Song, he got what they were doing. Unbeknownst to Jac, the band had just been dropped from Columbia Records the week before and were leery of record companies. The band was a fan of the world music albums Jac was releasing on his sister label Nonesuch Records. They liked that Love was on Elektra. Jac was very close to signing them when he decided to get into their heads and think as musicians. What would they want? He decided it was a full on commitment to release three albums no matter what the situation. This hadn’t been done before and it worked. Jac thought like an artist. He let the artist be him/herself. He was very hands on in the studio, with the artwork and with the marketing, but at the core, he let the musicians make their own music.
The next step in Jac’s work with The Doors was to pair them with the reluctant Paul Rothchild to produce the record. Jac thought he would be perfect even though Paul did not. He was someone who was as smart as the band and it probably didn’t hurt his standing with them that he had been arrested for marijuana possession. The Doors had never been into a recording studio before making the landmark Doors record in 1967. As Jac explained it, it took them about two hours to get it and feel comfortable. They recorded at Sunset Sound where Jim Morrison was enamored by using the same mic that Frank Sinatra used. He was a big fan.
Towards the end of the program two Elektra artists, Jackson Browne and Natalie Merchant took the stage and talked about their experiences with Elektra and then performed. Jackson started off with My Opening Farewell. Nathalie sang a song of Jackson’s These Days that she recorded for an Elektra 40th Anniversary record. Browne accompanied her on guitar. Her voice is nothing short of a force of nature. She exudes feeling and it seems effortless. She’s a natural talent. One that I’m sure Jac would have signed if he hadn’t left the company years before.
Jac is truly a music man. He said numerous times how lucky he is to do what he does. His true passion came through when he talked about why he signed an artist. If the hairs on the back of his neck stood up when listening to her/him, the artist was worthy of a record. He said that there had to be joy in wanting to work with these artists. Maybe that is really his genius, letting us all in on his joy.