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A Talent Agent’s Amazing Journey

06:01 PM Wednesday 11/10/10 | |

Dick Alen has been with talent agency William Morris (now William Morris Endeavor) for 39 years and has spent 60 years in the entertainment industry.

Among the artists Alen is associated with are Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, who has been a client of Alen’s for more than 50 years. He also brought Jose Carreras, Julio Iglesias, Tom Jones and Juanes to the agency and has represented Cheech & Chong, Rod Stewart, Barry White and Enrique Iglesias. Alen will now be a consultant to WME as well as an adviser to Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry.

Alen’s career began in 1952 working at Shaw Artists and handled acts like Fats Domino, Ray Charles, The Clovers and The Orioles. He is considered a pioneer in getting R&B acts on television. His history includes being road manager for Woody Herman and, in 1958, working at Universal Attractions repping acts like James Brown, Dinah Washington and Hank Ballard. He and Jack Bart eventually purchased Universal and signed Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and Johnny Taylor among others.

There is so much we could have asked and we wanted to, but this rather lengthy interview conducted shortly after he announced his retirement from the agency game is just some of what Alen had to offer:

First off, your farewell statement said you’re ready for the “next step” in your career. What is it?

Next step is to relax. I’ve been doing this for 60-odd years.

But there is a consultancy involved with at least two of your clients – Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry. Are you thinking about hanging out another shingle at some point?

No, no. I certainly do not want to go into management. It’s a case of advising them and helping them with their relationship with Will-Me (William Morris Endeavor).

It would be so much easier to interview you for days, as a ghostwriter for your autobiography, than it would be to ask you for a few vignettes from such a rich background.

Well, the background comes down to this: By accident, I wound up working for a two-man agency back in 1948-49. It was Roy Gerber and Norman Weiss [Note: Gerber was the inspiration for the character Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”] Both went on to big careers. Norm Weiss eventually signed The Beatles to GAC [the agency General Artists Corp.]. Roy Gerber was the booking agent for most of the big variety television shows.

And from there I went on to work for the company Shaw Artists and they were the first big R&B/jazz company. At the time they probably had seven out of the 10 top acts. They had Ray Charles. They had Fats Domino. They had The Orioles, The Clovers. And I was hired by them to do television. That was a time when Steve Allen was doing “The Tonight Show.” R&B and jazz acts were not popular on TV – everyone wanted the white-bread acts. It was mainly the late-night shows, the daytime shows. We were bringing people on TV who almost never had a TV basis. But the one thing I learned while I was at Shaw Artists is that the TV agents who were selling acts to scale didn’t make any money. So therefore, I made barely any commissions. So the first chance I had I moved on to being a regular salesman with a territory.

From there, I went with one of my clients, Woody Herman, as a road manager. That’s one reason why it became easier to book one-nighters because, for four years, we drove back and forth across the country doing one-nighters. Until you see America from the driver’s seat of a car, doing 300-400 miles a night you don’t really know Show Business America.

You were a pioneer in getting R&B acts on television. What were some of the hard-fought fights?

All of it. I mean, television – now, I’m talking early ’50s – television is a white-bread industry. They’re looking to please a middle-America audience, and R&B acts and jazz acts, which is a fringe part of both show business and the audience’s preference, were not favorites. There’s also a great resistance, always, in those days to black artists on TV.

Unless it was someone like a Steve Allen who was a music nut, it was very, very difficult. The only black artists they really wanted were Sammy Davis or Harry Belafonte or Nat Cole. But the Fats Dominos or Ray Charles? They were not looked upon with favor by the advertising agencies.

At some point here, you arrived at Universal Attractions.

Right. When I did get off the road with Woody Herman – I had been on the road or in his management office for four years – I got married. The wife said, “You should stay home.” When I got married, I got off the road on a Friday, got married on Sunday. The music business is not exactly friendly to wives. So I went to work at Universal again selling rhythm and blues acts. They had Dinah Washington, they had James Brown, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters.

I sold the entire list to my territory. And this was almost strictly R&B.

At what point did you and Jack Bart buy out the company?

Well, after 11 years, we had built up a good company. We had James, of course, and Joe Tex and Solomon Burke. It was still hard work; it was mainly black acts for black audiences. And I just decided I wanted to try something else. One of the things I did at Universal was I put together some of those big touring packages – same as Irvin Feld [of Super Attractions before his Ringling Bros. legacy]. We’d put together our packages, rotate our headliners – Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex – and these would be eight- and 10-act shows, going on the road for 30, 40, 60 days. This was hard work. So I just decided after a while that if I could put together rock ‘n’ roll touring shows, if I could produce those, why couldn’t I produce movies? It looked like a better business.

So we sold out, picked up, moved to California and found out I can’t produce movies.

How did you arrive at William Morris?

I moved to California hoping I could do something in motion picture production. By this time, I’m just about 40 years old, have never been in the motion picture business. I’ve done a couple of TV things with Pigmeat Markham or the movies with Chuck Berry, where they were guests. I found out I couldn’t do it. It’s a whole different industry that had no care of my history of doing live shows.

So, because of my history as a one-night salesman, I was hired by CMA, which had known me because I was with GAC for a while. So they hired me as a territorial agent and, about a year and a half later, William Morris recruited me for music.

You start at a company as a territorial agent. If I remember correctly it was California and the Southwest but, while I was there, I signed artists to the company and the company appreciates when you bring money to them. So I was moved up until eventually I became head of the West Coast, then head of the music department worldwide.

Let’s back up. You consented to having two acts you didn’t know – The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – to open for your clients. Were they tough sells?

Well, this was at Universal. One of the things I was doing to try and expand our business was to move our artists into Europe. In fact, all overseas, which was very uncommon. In England, especially. The young people there had a great acceptance of R&B acts. We were playing 500-, 600-seat clubs. This was not like playing Wembley today. In those days there were drinking clubs and music clubs. You’d bring an artist over for eight or 10 days. Then they’d start do to tours in the smaller buildings and we were just asked about having an English act as the opening act.

I had no idea at the time we were doing anything special. We had an English buyer say, “Hey, I got this act called The Rolling Stones. They love Chuck Berry. Can I buy them to open for you on the tour?”

I asked, “Are they going to help sell tickets? Are they going to help bring people in?”

“I think so.”

“Well, fine then. Go do it.” It wasn’t the case that I was being a music critic. I was listening to the local person who was going to help Chuck Berry sell more tickets in England.

And the same with The Beatles…

Yeah. I’m pretty sure the promoter was Arthur Howes. He was also doing Little Richard for me. He said he wanted to put The Beatles on the tour and I said fine.

The thing is, it’s only unusual today because you know who they are. I had another artist there called Billy Stewart, who had the record “Summertime.” He had three or four tours over there and the piano player for the backup group would go by himself and hire English backup singers. His name was Reginald Dwight. He was the piano player for Billy Stewart. He became Elton John. Who knew?

For someone who was planning on staying home in the ’50s, it sure didn’t work out that way.

Yeah, but it wasn’t like being on the road, once at a time, when you’re with a band as a road manager. You’re playing 5-6 nights a week and you’re gone for months. And in those days you traveled by land. Woody was always in a car; I was the road manager so I was the driver. Until you’ve driven to Mississippi in August without air conditioning, you haven’t lived!

Going to Dakar and all those places for the first time is a lot better than going to Ames, Iowa, on a Tuesday.

Certainly there will be a lot you’ll look back at over the years and miss, but what are some of the things you won’t miss?

I’ll tell you. There’s no list of things you won’t miss. When you’re in a service business, working for artists, which I’ve done for the last number of years, you get every kind of question – sweet and dumb and nasty – you just deal with it. You don’t think about it. You just try to make sure your artist is not affected by what you’re doing. You just make sure it doesn’t bother you. If you do, you go crazy. That’s when people burn out and say they have to leave the business. I had to leave the business because I got old!

Looking back on the past couple of years versus the first couple, what are the most significant changes?

Well, the most significant is the increase in the amount of tickets and business that music artists can sell. When I was sending James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Joe Tex to England the first time, we were working in clubs. We were doing 500-600 seaters, working six or eight different cities. Now, if Michael Jackson hadn’t passed away, he would be doing six months in a 20,000-seater. The amount of the acceptance of the audience is incredible.

Also, the cost of doing a show. When Billy Stewart went to England, he went with a suitcase and we picked up a six-piece band. Now, when Juanes goes on the road, we’re arguing whether we should have four trucks or 10 trucks.

At least Chuck Berry’s still old-school.

Very much so, yeah. But see, he doesn’t tour. What Chuck does, and has for a number of years, he plays a date when it comes up. It’s not touring. He gets an offer, he gets the money he wants, sings his 60 minutes and goes home. He’s not trying to sell more of his records. He’s hired to do a job and he does it. Not like Juanes or Aretha, even, who are selling themselves on every single date to try and make more friends.

Any other cool vignettes?

To me, the interesting part of my William Morris experience, which in my mind has been wonderful, it was the chance to get into the country business. I came out of the R&B, one-nighter business. You’re self-trained, but this is what my training was.

This is how I got into the country business and how I helped William Morris get into the country business. When I was at Universal – we’re talking the early ’60s – I hear a record on the R&B station in New York that I just loved called “Mohair Sam.” And it’s a good-swinging record. Good R&B record. It was on a small label out of Nashville. I called the label, called the manager, the lawyer etc. In any case, I became the agent of the singer, a young kid named Charlie Rich. The only trouble with this is, when you listen to the song, you know it’s a black singer. And in those days there were no e-mails with instant pictures going back and forth.

So I’m assuming he’s a black singer. The song’s on the R&B stations in New York. I sell it to the Apollo Theatre. They just know it’s on the charts, the money’s not that bad, he can be one of the eight acts on the show – and so we bring Charlie Rich into the Apollo Theatre. Lo and behold, he’s a country white boy.

Which shocked everybody but, hey, we did the show. Everything was fine.

I guess about 10 years later I get a call from the same lawyer. I’m now at William Morris. “Charlie has just made a new record and you always took good care of us when you were working with us. We want to send you the record.”

So they send me the dub on “Behind Closed Doors.” I said, “Geez, I love this song and would love to work with you but we’re not in the country business. But I think I can help. I’ll be happy to sign you to William Morris.”

We had television, we had all the little things you never had at a little, independent company. So they sent in an agreement, a three-year contract. They said they were coming to L.A. and would bring it to me. It just so happened that when they came to L.A., I happened to be out of town. So they still tell the story about Charlie and his manager walking down the halls of William Morris, calling my name out, “Where’s Dick Alen? We’ve got the papers for him!”

Of course, “Behind Closed Doors” went on to become a huge record and Rich became a huge country act. So I go to the powers that be at William Morris and say, “Hey, you know, this Nashville is getting bigger and bigger. Let’s open up an outpost in Nashville.”

They investigated, decided to do it and it was pretty quickly done, although I was handling Charlie for about a year from California. We wind up buying the Bob Neal Agency and that’s the start of major agencies being in Nashville.

Any other stories?

Sure, there’s the story about how we got into the Latin business.

I was flying to Chile, to the Viña del Mar Festival. I’m with a number of artists we have on the show and we land in Santiago. And the tarmac is just black with people. I mean, it was scary.

I was with about two or three American artists who each thought the crowd was for them. And in those days you went down the ramp, not into the terminal. So everybody gets all spiffed up and walks down the steps and are completely ignored.

So I get to our record company man ask who they were all waiting for.

“They’re waiting for Julio.”

I say, “Julio who?”

He says, “Julio! Everybody knows Julio!”

I said, “Everybody may know him, but I don’t know who the hell you’re talking about.”

“Oh, it’s Julio Iglesias.”

I said, “These people are all here for Julio Iglesias and we’ve never heard of him in America?”

So, to make a long story short, I chased him down – it took me almost a year – and we make an agreement over the phone. We had met once or twice. I fly up to Montreal where he’s doing a series of dates, and we make an arrangement to be his agent. And I guess we were together for about 10 years.

So you repped him Worldwide?

See, he came with me only to be in North America, because he was hot in Europe and he wasn’t hot at all in America. And, by the way, he himself, in his own mind, is a public relations genius. We were together months before he did his first job in America. He hired Rogers & Cowan. We worked out at thing where he did a major charity showcase in Los Angeles. He had worked here on Latin packages that the Anglos never saw but from that charity event we just built up the Latin business. We got Miami Sound Machine, then Gloria Estefan. Jose Luis Rodriguez. A number of artists came. And, after Julio, his son Enrique, whom I had known since he was 10 years old came to me, and gave me his demo.

And that’s how we got into the Latin business. Going on today we have Juanes, who’s my client, who is one of the biggest worldwide Latin artists.

So it was a different time introducing Julio to a Hispanic market in America? They didn’t know through word of mouth?

In general, there was no knowledge at all that there was a Latin audience. You know, agents and promoters are very democratic. We’ll go to anybody who’ll buy tickets and, at that time, the Latin business was controlled by just a couple of Latin promoters who only wanted to appeal to the Latin audience. And, of course, the population was a lot smaller then and, I would say, not as wealthy as it is today.

Does that mean you had to work with those Latin promoters to get Iglesias into the market?

Well, again, for the most part what he wanted to do, and he really was the trailblazer for all of them – Ricky Martin, Mana, for everybody – the first phase is to get to the younger Latin crowd. At that time the big appeal was to an older group. Also, to get the Anglo audience to appreciate a Julio. And, of course, Julio went on to make great records in English. And, of course, he did the Willie Nelson thing that put him over the top.

So your roster – where’s it heading?

The roster I’m working closely with now is all staying with William Morris. Aretha Franklin, Chuck and Little Richard will be with Kenny DiCamillo in New York. Greg Oswald will take care of – which he’s mainly done – Hank Williams Jr. in Nashville. Paul Moore in Nashville does Sandi Patty and Oak Ridge Boys. Michel Vega in Miami will be the main agent on Juanes and Jose Carreras.

By the way, how many agents can say they were the exclusive agent for Jose Carreras and Chuck Berry?

Zero. It must be challenging to figure out so many different demographics. Like how Latin audiences tend to buy tickets at walkup.

Well, luckily, when it comes to the bigger buildings, it’s changing. When you go into the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden, the audience – especially the young, bilingual audience that the Latin business has to go after today – these young people who go to see Juanes will go to see U2, and they’ll go see The Killers. Because they’re playing all of that on Latin radio now. So now they’re buying tickets in advance because they know otherwise they won’t get the good seats.

So now it’s homogenizing. Whether that’s great or not, I’m not sure. It’s the way the 21st Century is. Big business. William Morris, a huge agency, merges with Endeavor, which is a big agency. It just makes big bigger. We won’t even discuss Live Nation and all those permeations. There used to be 20 independent companies across the nation from Ron Delsener to Jam to Jack Boyle. Nederlander. Each one had their own particular market.

Now it’s all IBM!

Which is good and bad?

Yeah. As the business grew up, the money got both bigger and guaranteed. In the early days, you sit at the box office and hope enough money came in to pay the act.

Of course, we’ve heard over the years that the loss of the “regional promoter” system loses a lot of the flavor of the business.

Yeah, I think so. But I’m old. I mean, I grew up with these guys. We had our wars. Albert King was on the first Bill Graham show at the Fillmore. With Bill, it was almost fun to scream at each other. But, hey, that was then. Business is different today. Better? Worse? There is no better or worse. This is what the 21st Century is; that is what was going on in the ’60s.

Now it’s just the e-mails that are nasty. You don’t have to yell at each other over the phone.

Right. I miss that.


  1. 2for2true wrote:

    08:29 AM, Nov 11, 2010

    True story:

    Man walks into Wells Fargo Bank, holds a gun to to the teller's head and says, "This is a stick-up".....He walks out with over $500,000.00. Then he steps across the street, walks into the William Morris Agency, signs a ten year contract...and is never heard from again!

    True story, I tell ya!