Ben Fong-Torres SFGAte.com 01/19/14
When Bruce Hix died late last year, he was mentioned in the Sporting Green. Hix, who was 65 and died of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease, was a star athlete at Westmoor High and was in the Giants’ organization in the late 1960s. I got a note from Jeff Trager, saying Hix also had strong radio connections, as a record promoter for 15 years.
“He was one of the best promotion people,” Trager said. “Any musician or group would give their eyeteeth to have a promo man work their records like Bruce did. He was a pit bull when he believed that a radio station should be playing his records.”
“Promo man.” The term connotes a slick-talking guy carrying stacks of new records into a radio station, trying to persuade the program or music director to add them to the station’s playlist.
“It was your job to get it played, amid all the competition,” said Trager, a promoter from 1967 to 1992. The promo men – and, until the mid-’70s, women were scarce in the profession – faced long odds. A typical Top 40 station, playing safe with listeners, added only three or four new titles per week, according to Dave Sholin, former music director and program director at KFRC. Every Monday, he’d get visits or calls from a dozen or so promoters pitching upward of 60 new releases.
Sholin, who attended Westmoor High in Daly City with Hix, admired his classmate. “It was take-no-prisoners with him,” he said. “He had facts to convince me to add a record. If not, he knew he had to come in with all guns blazing.” And if he was rejected: “We were still friends.”
One time, Trager recalled, a program director in Salinas turned down a record Hix had brought in and Hix took it back. “This is my property,” he said. The two men argued, and the program director had to call the police to get Hix out of the station.
Trager, said Sholin, “is another one who’ll say, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ There was a song that was near No. 1 in the country in 1979; we never played it. (It was “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills.) He had a portrait done of us with a gold record for that artist.” But Sholin didn’t budge. “It didn’t fit what we were doing.”
A native San Franciscan, Trager, 70, was a jazz fan as a kid. He attended City College but had no career ambitions. In the mid-’60s, he was a bellboy at the old Jack Tar Hotel, where George Moscone, then a state senator, got haircuts. Moscone connected him with a friend who worked with A&M Records in Hollywood. Soon, Trager was working for a record distributor, selling records to stores. From there, he became a promoter.
Trager’s success stories include Joni Mitchell’s 1974 single “Help Me,” which had been selling nicely in various big cities, but which he was having a hard time pitching locally, in part because Mitchell had been branded a folk artist. He brought sales figures into KFRC, where Sholin was music director.
“He was unrelenting,” Sholin said. But he trusted Trager’s ears and added the record. Soon, “Help Me” was on playlists around the country and sold more than 3 million copies. Said Trager: “It makes Joni Mitchell a hit pop artist.” Trager said he also convinced labels to release the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” as a single and championed the equally unorthodox theme from “Chariots of Fire.” Both were smash hits.
He remembers meeting Tina Turner backstage at the Fillmore West in 1969, after he’d promoted the Ike and Tina single “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” It got plentiful FM play, and the Turners were booked for the Rolling Stones’ U.S. tour in late 1969. “She grabbed my hand,” Trager recalls. “She said, ‘A couple of years ago we were playing bowling alleys; you breaking that record meant a lot to us.’ It’s cornball, but we made a difference in people’s lives.” Trager worked until 1992 and now produces fundraising concerts for various causes.
Other promo men and women Trager and Sholin noted included Johnny Barbis (now a chairman of Elton John’s management group), the Galliani brothers (Lou, Bob and Rick), Bill Perasso (whom Trager credits with breaking non-pop hits such as “Walk on the Wild Side” by Jimmy Smith), Beverly Stephens, Don Graham (credited with breaking “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” on KYA in 1959), and the late, great and always tanned Pete Marino. “He wasn’t a music guy; he promoted Pete. But he was well respected, and he broke Peter, Paul and Mary.”)
Today, says Sholin, a DJ at KSJJ in Bend, Ore., and a record promoter on the side, there are fewer promotion people. New technology and social media have changed the ways music fans can discover music, and have affected radio. But, Sholin says, “research on ‘where do you get music from?’ shows that it’s radio by a wide margin. Radio use is at an all-time high.”
And stations continue to get visits from promo people. “Johnny Barbis says that promo guys are still getting records played,” Trager says.
Tags: Record Promo