The Second Disc Interview #1: A Soulful Chat with Harry Weinger
It is with the greatest pride that The Second Disc presents its first-ever interview, bringing you closer to the catalogue music world we all love so much.
Our first interviewee is one of the most notable names from the world of reissues. Harry Weinger, vice-president of A&R for Universal Music Enterprises, has been part of the music business for more than 30 years, writing for publications like Rolling Stone, Vibe, Billboard and Cashbox before becoming a staff writer for PolyGram’s publicity team. After some time penning press releases and liner notes, Weinger became part of the creative force for Star Time, a sprawling four-disc overview of James Brown’s influential discography. It won him a Grammy, and it’s been strength to strength since then. The early 2000s saw Weinger, by then a full member of the Universal Music Group family, not only continue to maintain the catalogue of Mr. Brown, but a wide range of artists on the Motown and Verve labels. He’s since picked up another Grammy (for the Standing in the Shadows of Motown soundtrack) and a NAACP Image Award and continues to compile fantastic product for casual and hardcore fans (notably the Complete Motown Singles box sets).
After the jump, Weinger shares some great stories and news about Michael Jackson, Barry White, some great upcoming projects and the future of the catalogue industry.
One of your most recent successes was The Jackson 5′s double-live set Live at The Forum. Can you give some background on the recordings from the L.A. Forum?
You wonder what the intention was. It’s possible they were looking at doing some sort of live release. But these things were recorded to hear what the group sounded like. They also recorded in Philadelphia, the first official Motown show. It was filmed as well – if you look at the Going Back to Indiana TV special, there’s footage of them coming from the airport – that’s all from Philadelphia.
We were thinking of including one track from Philly as a bonus, but the actual live show is not that great. They’re really raw, it’s really rough, there’s some distortion, they’re a little bit out of tune and not yet polished. They aren’t quite polished at The Forum either, but their energy is extraordinary and the excitement is palpable. Suzanne de Passe had clearly worked out the structure of the show. In Philly, “I Want You Back” was fourth, and they moved it to right after “Stand.” Right into your first hit – what group does that now? You really have to hand it to Suzanne for helping that show work a bit better.
So they recorded for a few purposes: how did they sound, and could they make [a release] out of this. But of course they were on the hits train. There was no stopping them by then.
Was there ever talk of releasing them before?
It had been looked at during the construction of the Soulsation! box set that Monty Seward produced. That’s part of the reason why I knew it was there. When I had started going through some of the research, Monty had done some rough mixes of various things, one of which was the 1972 show.
This is not the first package Hip-O Select has put together for Michael Jackson. In 2009, pre-orders for Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection were being taken weeks before Jackson died. What was putting that together – and the events that followed – like?
I started putting Hello World together for Michael’s 50th birthday. And there was some delay – we wanted to do a special package, I wanted to make sure the notes were right, that we had the right pictures – and by then we had the tour, so we thought it was just perfect. And then it was not so perfect.
On June 25, I was in Los Angeles working on the Barry White box set (Unlimited) with Jack Perry, Barry’s co-producer and musical director for many years. We were recording commentary for the DVD in the box set. I took a break and got a notification on my smartphone that Michael had died. I thought someone was kidding around – CNN had downplayed it, saying he was taken to the hospital. I turned to Jack and said, “There’s a rumor…” and he got very quiet and very upset, as we all were – but Barry and Michael were friends. So there was a sense of heaviness in the air for a lot of reasons. Jack said, “I’m just going to wait until someone confirms it.” So we went back and worked a little more, but when it was confirmed we just couldn’t work anymore.
Along with Hello World and Live at the Forum, Motown also released I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters last year. What is it like to be one of the gatekeepers to MJ’s artistic legacy?
You have your own personal reaction, then this cynical reaction, because you see the feeding frenzy that moves in – then talk of what you’re going to do with product. And it’s understandable. People are feeling emotional and they want to have a piece of that.
The best thing about what happened is you look at Michael’s artistic career in a new light. His troubles in recent years had overshadowed that. But in death, everyone embraced the music again. It was incredibly refreshing. I’m sorry it happened now, and for the wrong reason – but listening to him as a young man, you can’t believe how great he was.
You think about all the different kinds of configurations you can do. There are a few more tracks in the vault, still to come. So do you just throw everything into the pot, with the Forum? I didn’t want it to be too expensive, and the consensus of the very smart people who work in sales, marketing and publicity felt that the Forum shows would have a good focus.
The unreleased ones we were working on before he died. Anyone who saw the publicity materials note that we talk about the 40th anniversary of The Jackson 5. It was meant to be a celebration.
In the past decade, there’s been a lot of Motown product, from compilations to box sets to great collector’s products. What’s the next step?
There’s still so many things that haven’t come out in terms of traditional CDs. There are plenty of artists who haven’t have their full catalogue available in awhile – Jr. Walker, The Miracles, Teena Marie, Diana Ross. Just looking at the major artists, there’s still plenty of holes. For me, there’s a sense of wanting to take care of the basics. In all the years of compilations there’s albums and artists that just aren’t available. It’s a combination of taking care of the new generations rediscovering the hits, taking care of the wonderful core fans looking for things that are missing from their collections, things that no one’s ever heard before. And you also just want to have archived the original albums. That’s why the Michael Jackson set was the complete albums. The Marvelettes are going to be the complete albums. The Supremes, we’re going one by one through the albums. We’ve done Marvin Gaye in the ‘70s, we’d now like to go through the ‘60s.
Whether we’ll get to it all? I don’t know. There’s just some acts you can’t physically get to. There’s just not enough days in the year or enough bodies to work on it all. So you look at other labels that might want to reissue stuff. Artists like Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, Thelma Houston.
James Brown arguably kick-started your career as a reissue producer. The JB singles set are going strong, not to mention some other great product through Hip-o Select. What’s next?
The Singles will finish with Volume 11. We’re doing the complete Christmas collection – we do have a compilation, but there were three albums, non-LP singles and some unreleased stuff, which hopefully I can talk about on our forthcoming James Brown blog. There’s never enough James Brown.
You’ve been known as an R&B/soul reissue producer, but you crossed over into the rock world earlier this year with a series of Bon Jovi reissues. What was that like.
I like all types of music, but I’m particularly drawn to traditions of jazz and R&B. That was always my thing.
I was part of the publicity team who had worked on New Jersey. When I started there (at PolyGram), I remember vividly 7800 Fahrenheit was winding down and they were anticipating the band’s next record, Slippery When Wet. I remember seeing the original album cover and thinking, “Are they really going to do that?” Almost 25 years later, we had an opportunity to work with the band on some catalogue pieces. The label put me in touch with Obie O’Brien – talk about one of the greatest ambassadors for Bon Jovi’s music and Bon Jovi in general. He’s a really great guy, infused with the spirit of the music, very protective of their sound and very good at what he does. He and I collaborated on the special editions, which were a lot of fun.
To hear some of their stuff in the moment that those original records were hits, there’s so much energy and drive. Jon always carried that feeling that he was going to make it, even after he made it. They still have that sense of showing you how good they can be. And I like that, because that’s a Berry Gordy kind of thing, just keeping at it because No. 1 once isn’t good enough. It was great to go to the studio with Obie because you knew that day you were going to do something great.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the industry lately, in terms of catalogue music?
The very first (catalogue) thing I’d ever worked on was a Donna Summer dance collection I’d written liner notes for. I’d done some editing with a couple of James Brown things at Polygram. I’d really wanted to reissue Live at the Apollo, but we’d been told for years the tapes don’t sound good. We found the original tapes, it sold out its first run within a week. We were getting pitches for all these other people, and Bill Levenson said “It looks like it’ll be a box set.”
You start pitching things where there’s holes. I think R&B music had been underserved, and that was something I was interested in, since the rock arena was fairly well-covered by my colleagues. There was an opportunity to pitch things I thought should come out on CD. You take advice from fans and colleagues and begin to build a repertoire of stuff. We did the Funk Essentials line, which really hit a moment of great interest – The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times had written about it.
Any of us who are contributing to the business have seen changes. I had a poster on my wall at Polygram that said, “Now available on Mercury Cassettes, Records and CDs.” Two months later, we replaced it with a poster that said “Now available on Mercury CDs, Cassettes and Records.” Now we see a shift in business where the digital side is pretty dominant. For me, the physical discs feed the digital inventory. We do really cool things with our digital partners, (but) to do the complete James Brown singles on iTunes…you don’t have the context for it. Those things can become digital items because you’ve got the physical thing as your standard.
What keeps you, as a producer, from abandoning physical altogether?
It’s not like taking the tape off the shelf, and just digitizing it and throwing it up there. Is it the right tape? Is it mastered properly? Is it the right version? Who are the writers and producers? What album is it from? How you translate that into a digital world is what we’re transitioning into.
Reissues often come under fire for less-than-stellar remastering, or poor condition of the original tapes. How do you, as a producer, work to get around that?
I don’t think I’m golden I’m this one. I do my best, and we have terrific engineers – Kevin (Reeves) and Seth (Foster) and Ellen (Fitton) are terrific. Sometimes the source material can handcuff you. But we’ve done everything from 1930s or 1940s acetates to digital masters that come from CD masters, with no analogue step.
You’re wearing two or three hats. One is I’m now getting this and listening, and I’m reading the notes. What did they do? Use the original master tapes? Tape copies? I want to know. You have a way to inform the fans about the providence of the tapes and, sometimes, what happens to tapes. They aren’t just tapes on a shelf. You have to research. And sometimes, with time and molecules and air and physical space, things go away. If you’re shipping a master to Europe, it may be in a vault – but you can’t always find it.
For Motown Around the World, those tracks had come out but they were alternate mixes. I was dumbfounded when I heard the original 45s. We had to put those out. That’s how they were supposed to sound!
I can tell you a story about Live at the Forum: we mixed it, we were in a time crunch. I kept pushing and pushing. I got my refs – it was going to the plant – I had to call and say stop. We had just gone off in the wrong direction. I felt like we could wait. That’s why it was delayed a week. We would not be celebrating how fun that record is. And I’m just glad I held my ground.
What else can fans expect from UMe and Hip-o Select in the future?
We’re currently in production on The Supremes’ ‘70s collection. We might have a delay – and I know the fans are always getting on our case about us promising – but our e-mail (email@example.com) is out there. If anyone has a question, I answer that e-mail. But you go in the vault with a track list, but you find there’s more. So there’s liner notes that have to change. The work is being done. We’re working on Marvelettes Volume 2, which we decided to expand the basic collection. We’re going to add a disc of unreleased Marvelettes – and there’s plenty. Whether that all comes together in time for the end of the year remains to be seen. A Lionel Richie box set might happen next year.
At Verve Select we have a couple of great projects. We’re doing Stan Getz from the early ‘50s, and the really fun part of this is not only the music but the beautiful original artwork, so much of which gets lost when you do so many compilations. Like Motown, we’re trying to recreate those album experiences as best we can. So these Getz albums with these David Stone Martin illustrations – when’s the last time you’ve seen these? I’m kind of inspired by the artwork. I’d say two-thirds of this material is not available on CD right now. We’ve covered bossa nova, we’ve covered the ‘60s – let’s go back.
Dinah Washington – we’re looking at Dinah and Sarah and Ella, we did that great Ella Fitzgerald box. Looking at Dinah, I wanted to go back to those original Dinah Washington complete Mercury box sets that were done in Japan more than 20 years ago. We started looking and doing a lot of deconstructing, and with Dinah – Richard Seidel came to me and noted Dinah recorded for singles. The moment she stepped into the studio to record an album, that’s where we stop. Everything before that is singles, and prior to Mercury, she did one single for Decca with Lionel Hampton and four singles for Keynote that were re-released on Mercury. So it’s the complete Mercury singles for the first ten years and the Decca one-off in the middle (which was actually released two years after it was recorded). We’ve also been finding that Mercury did release 10-inch LPs. They’re so rare and so great. Then there are EPs with different covers. There are all these different permutations.
Fans are dying to know about the next entry in The Complete Motown Singles. Any update?
The Motown singles series is intending to end with Volumes 12A and 12B. We just keep waiting for the sign-offs we need. Once you get into the ‘70s and forward, the artist contracts are different. We could accomplish what we wanted through ’71; in ’72 there’s a switch. The company’s in L.A. and there are different contracts. We’re working as best we can to get the sign-offs we need and get the record out there. I don’t want to put out The Complete Singles Volume 12A and 12B with an asterisk. We did that before with the Rare Earth singles that weren’t Motown recordings. We don’t own them. There were a few one-offs here and there we licensed in the early days, but this was clearly a group of records that were licensed in to beef up the catalogue. I was okay with not including them. The records now are homegrown Motown records that you can’t ignore.
A fan favorite from Motown that hasn’t been deluxe-ified is Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man.
We did seemingly skip Trouble Man, which is a very complex set of recordings. There is more than enough for a deluxe or expanded edition. We’re almost in the homestretch. I’m not sure if it would come out this year – it might be next year – but it’s great stuff. There are snatches of unreleased vocals, there are orchestra and band recordings that we’re sifting through. When you watch the film then listen to the soundtrack, the music is different. So what Marvin did was smooth out the mix and did some overdubs for the released album, which he wanted to stand on its own. We’ve gone back through the multis and matched them up to the music cues in the film. There are some definitive versions of those recordings in the film, plus some extra stuff that they recorded but didn’t use in the film.
Barry White’s I’ve Got So Much to Give was just reissued on CD. Any plans for the rest of the BW catalogue?
Some of the albums are now out of print, so there has been talk with Jack Perry about keeping it going. The instrumentals would be a cool compilation. There’s a lot of them, some of which we incorporated in the box.
Any final thoughts about your work?
You get into interesting situations, where one day you’re dealing with a current artist and the next day you’re researching rare Stan Getz EPs. Universal has a great catalogue, there’s a lot of great people in the mix who are doing great things.