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Dick Lapalm: 1927-2013

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Dick LaPalm, one of the music industry's most committed and knowledgeable record promoters who ensured that singles and albums by jazz and pop artists such as Nat King Cole, Ahmad Jamal, Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Rollins and many others were played on the air, died October 7. He was 86. [Photo of Dick LaPalm, left, and Nat King Cole in Chicago]

Dick's skills were honed in an age before the Internet, when music appeared on vinyl and the only way to expose the public to recordings was to convince radio stations to play them. Born June 23, 1927 in Chicago, Dick learned the value of a reptuation early. In the '50s, when payola was rampant, Dick [above, far right] steered clear of offering disc jockeys hefty gifts, girls and cash—the currency of pay-for-play radio. Instead, he told me, he relied on charm and old fashioned “you help me and I'll help you." What this meant, Dick said, was providing disc jockeys with invitations backstage to meet performers, in-station appearances by artists, photo opportunities and exclusives on new releases. [Photo above: The Chess Records staff in 1963, courtesy of the Chess Family Archives. From left: unknown, Esmond Edwards, Marshall Chess, Leonard Chess (sitting), Phil Chess, Max Cooperstein, Dick Lapalm.]

Back in the 1950s, a record promoter's job was pretty straightforward but required careful strategy and enormous clout. When an artist recorded a single or album, Dick would be called in to plug it at radio stations. But he had to know which stations were ideal to break a record and which “big mouth" disck jockeys would influence others. Then Dick would have to make sure local record stores were well stocked when the recording was played on the radio, which meant strong ties to the label. This is all before cellphones and emails, which meant Dick needed a pocketful of nickels and a great black book. He also had to know when to nudge a little and when to back off, particularly if he wasn't that hot on the record.

As the need for Dick's craft began to wane in the 1990s with the advent of the CD and then downloads, he became a self-proclaimed “jazz lobbyist"—a tongue-in-check job description since advocating on behalf of jazz was an almost tireless and fruitless task.

Nevertheless, Dick was a fervent champion of jazz and absolutely loved the music. And not just everyday jazz. He knew his John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as well as Count Basie and Dakota Staton. To Dick, jazz artists were heroes and improvisational geniuses who deserved his efforts, even if all he could do is wax passionately about them and influence radio hosts. [Pictured above: Tony Bennett and Dick LaPalm]

I first met Dick over the phone in 2010, when Stan Cooper, a long-time music publishing executive, urged me to call him. Once we connected, not a week went by without Dick calling to rave about something I had posted here or written about in the Wall Street Journal. The little game we had going (which I'm sure he instituted with others in the media and radio) was to call and say, “Hey, it's Johnny Bothwell" or “Hey, it's Charlie O'Kane." The trick was to come up with increasingly obscure jazz  famous jazz saxophonist. The farther out the name, the greater the laugh on the other end when Dick called back.

Before smartphones and email, Dick all but invented social networking. By working the phone and doing a ton of reading, Dick had befriended key radio personalities at virtually every major radio station in the country. Even as late as last year, he still knew the right buttons to push, volunteering to line up radio-interview opportunities for me when my book was published.  [Pictured above: jazz record producer Joe Fields and Dick LaPalm]

About a year ago, Dick sent me an envelope out of the blue. When I opened it, there was a rose-red Post-it on a three-page document typed in all caps. The note said, “Marc, found this in a very old file. Thought you'd enjoy reading it. Dick." It was a speech he had given in late May 1959 at the Second Annual Disc Jockey Convention at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach. I set the pages aside until now. The speech provides a sense of who Dick was as an ardent broker and skilled bridge-builder. 

A bit of background first. When Dick gave this speech, most record promotion men were viewed by disc jockeys either as used car salesmen or cash cows, depending on your ethics. In 1959, Congress was on the verge of a full-blown investigation into the pay-for-play practice and the disc jockeys who were reaping tens of thousands of dollars from promoters to play records. The thinking was that the more a record was played, the greater the odds people would want to buy it. The hearings that would come in 1960 resulted in major changes in radio—including charts that reflected a standardized system of national sales and the rise of radio programmers who decided which records were aired based on sales, not the whims or size of payoffs made to disc jockeys. 

Here's Dick's 1959 speech... 

“With all you disc jockeys present, can you possibly imagine how much I must regret having signed an affidavit promising not to talk about Nat King Cole and some of my other clients? What an opportunity for a promotion man!

“Seriously, I want to express my thanks to all of you for this opportunity to address this group. I consider it a great honor. Because the topic—'How Promotion Men Can Work for You'—is so obviously of great personal interest to me, I am tempted to recite for you a long litany of our virtues, to present a roll-call of the different kinds of things we do that relate in some direct or indirect way to the job of the disc jockey.

“But my time is limited, and I would like instead to share with you some thoughts I have regarding both the role of the disc jockey in American society and of the promotion man, insofar as what he does relates to the disc jockey.

“First, I want to voice here what must be increasingly apparent to all of you: you represent a respected profession—a profession that is likely to be around for many years and will probably continue to play an even greater role in what I would call the creation and dissemination of the public's taste in popular music. You have an impact, and a strong one, and for this reason, every one of you has, in my judgment, a very serious responsibility to the audience you serve. How can this responsibility be described?

“In the first place, you have the responsibility of the critic. Because you cannot play everything, you must, to some degree, be selective in the fare you offer. We promotion men can be of help to you in this function by playing it absolutely straight regarding the caliber of a record and regarding how poorly or well the record may be doing in other places. Some of you will say that promotion men aren't always as candid as they should be on these vital points. I would reply that failure to establish a relationship of trust with the disc jockeys who the promotion man services will (and should) eventually destroy the very thing on which his own survival depends.

“The disc jockey is a vital link in the massive commutations network that permits the nationalization of musical tastes and trends in this county. I assume that the promotion man, because he travels or is constantly talking [by phone] via long distance to jockeys around the country, can be of enormous value to you in calling new records and new trends in pop music to your attention. If the promotion man is sufficiently observant, you can count on him to get the necessary information to you on a regular basis.

“In reporting trends to others, the promotion man, is, in a sense, also a public relations vehicle for those radio stations and disc jockeys who are experimenting with some new things, who are striking out in novel entertainment directions and that may have appeal to other stations and disc jockeys. This kind of information carrying is an inevitable part of the promotion man's work, and I have had many occasions to learn how much my own disc jockey friends appreciate it. I like to think that the promotion men and the disc jockeys constitute a team in the communicating of the latest word in popular music.

“Many of you know that as an information carrier, the promotion man is also a personnel man who brings outstanding local disc jockeys to the attention of prospective employers in other communities. This is not a function particular to our industry. Even in the university teaching profession, which I know something about indirectly, the traveling reps of book-publishing companies help to bring up-and-coming young scholars to the attention of university officials in search of new talent. I believe that, among our important functions, we promotion men are for the disc jockey what the publishers' reps are for the university profession. If I have had anything to do with helping the carrier of a single successful disc jockey, this is an item of great personal satisfaction to me. It is one of the psychological fringe benefits of my job that I did not anticipate when I got into this business.

“I could go on to illustrate what I call the services-to-disc-jockey aspect of the promotion man's activity. Many of you, for example, have had occasion to call on a promotion man for voice tracks of recording artists or have worked with the promotion man in the preparation of releases regarding a particular show. In my own experience, I have also been called in to advise on the organization of record hops, special dances or special promotional shows. And, incidentally, it is information regarding how things like this have come in other places that the promotion man can fruitfully communicate to the disc jockey in need of assistance.

“My time is running out and I want to summarize. What I am saying is that it is important to see the relationship between promotion man and disc jockey not merely as one involving the promotion man asking the disc jockey to expose his clients' records. Obviously, this is what the promotion man must do, and he does it. One wonderful reward of these contacts would be the many personal friendships that the active promotion man is able to make among the disc jockeys around the country.

“But there is much more to the relationship. The promotion man has  a crucial role to play in that he can help the disc jockey carry out more meaningfully his own important role in mass-media entertainment. As I have tried to show, the promotion man can help the disc jockey be a more incisive critic of talent and music; he can transmit information the disc jockey needs in order to be abreast of the latest developments; he can carry on a public relations function on behalf of stations and the disc jockeys who are doing exciting, creative things; he can help the stations find new disc jockey talent; and he can provide a host of little services to the stations or the disc jockeys who are in need of advice.

“Frankly, gentlemen, I am very proud to be part of this business and of the people I represent. As I try to peer into the future, my cloudy crystal ball lights up enough to assure me at least of this: the recording industry, the disc jockeys, the promotion men and the general public are all likely to benefit enormously from the kind of close-knit cooperation among us that will produce better and better fare to the popular music market."

JazzWax note: You can read my past posts on Dick LaPalm here, here, here and here.

Here's an interview with Dick on a Bob Dylan recording.

Here's more information on Dick's life from blogger Tom Reney.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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