Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Fantasy (almost?) on the block ... the first time

Google Books’ massive wealth of material includes the complete archives of Billboard magazine, free for anybody to peruse. It’s easy to spend several hours (days?) tripping down musical memory lane, and of course these archives also are an invaluable resource; I used them extensively while researching information for my Guaraldi bio.

Until just the other day, though, I hadn’t considered investigating a search on Fantasy Records. Most of the results were too tangential for my purposes, but I did learn a few helpful details. The first was a squib from March 12, 1955, headlined Zaentz Heads Fantasy Sales. In entirety, the little piece informed readers that “Saul Zaentz has been named national sales manager for Fantasy Records. He formerly held sales and promotion posts with Clef and Norgran. Zaentz’s Fantasy duties will also include deejay relations.”

A little more than a month later, on April 23, that week’s Jazz Best Sellers — a listing always subdivided by label — gave Fantasy’s street address: 654 Natoma Street, in San Francisco. Although I already knew that Fantasy was on Natoma Street in the mid-1950s, I’d never had the actual number. (Yes, I do obsess over such details.)

The most interesting tidbit, however, unfolded during slightly more than four months, starting on New Year’s Eve in 1966 ... when Fantasy Records supposedly was purchased by a rival label (!).

Now, it’s well known that Max and Soul (Sol) Weiss sold Fantasy on September 1, 1967, to a consortium of distributors headed by Zaentz. But I had no idea that an entirely different offer had been floated nine months earlier.

On top of which, this earlier potential deal apparently blew up quite spectacularly.

It started when Billboard reported, on December 31, 1966, that — according to “reliable sources” — Audio Fidelity Records had bought Fantasy. “Contracts have been signed,” the article went on, “and Audio Fidelity is expected to take title in a few days. The label will be moved to New York, and Orrin Keppnews, former Riverside Records executive recently hired by AF, is expected to be Fantasy a&r vice president. The move is AF’s second major acquisition since Herman Gimbel took over the reins of the company. The first was the expansion into the country field with Little Darlin’ Records.”

As Mr. Spock had just begun to say, every Thursday evening that TV season, Fascinating...

At that point in time, Audio Fidelity’s major claim to fame was having released the United States’ first mass-produced stereophonic long-playing record, in November 1957. Under original owner Sidney Frey, the label signed a respectable collection of jazz musicians, including Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Elmo Hope and Lalo Schifrin. In 1962, Frey became one of the first U.S. record company owners to aggressively pursue bossa nova and Brazilian jazz, releasing LPs by João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Oscar Castro-Neves and several others.

Frey sold the company in 1965 to Gimbel, who expanded inventory and artists; even so, he never became a major player during the rapidly expanding rock era. Ironically, most of the Audio Fidelity LPs found in home libraries in the 1970s weren’t music at all; the label did quite well by its extremely popular line of sound-effects albums. Audio Fidelity was folded into Milestone Records in 1985, and eventually went bankrupt in 1997.

But back to our story...

Despite the apparent haste with which Audio Fidelity’s deal with Fantasy was expected to take place, nothing happened for several months. Then, on March 25, 1967, Billboard unveiled fresh information beneath the headline A Disagreement Stops Buying of Fantasy by AF.

“The acquisition has failed to materialize,” the article began. “Herman Gimbel, AF president, had flown to San Francisco last week to close the deal. Gimbel returned without the acquisition, charging that Fantasy failed to deliver assets provided for in the agreement. These assets, according to Gimbel, include ‘full use of a quantity of masters — including all of the Dave Brubeck material, which is unquestionably the heart of the Fantasy catalog.’ Gimbel added that record club and tape cartridge deals had been negotiated for the expected new Fantasy operation.”

The next step was inevitable: Gimbel sued.

On May 13, 1967, Billboard broke this news under the headline AF Charges Fantasy Welched on Contract. “Audio Fidelity has sought recourse through the courts,” the article began. “The deal allegedly was set by both parties, when, according to AF President Herman Gimbel, Fantasy backed out.

“According to the complaint, the defendants entered into a written contract with Gimbel for the sale of their music and sound recording business. Sale price was allegedly $235,000, with another $200,000 for royalties to be paid over a five-year period. Gimbel said he made a $5,000 down payment last November.

“Gimbel charges that on March 9 he met with the defendants in San Francisco, to sign the final contract, but that the defendants refused to deliver the business and assets.”

The rest of the article specifies various sidebar details, including advance orders that Gimbel already had taken for the expected Fantasy library, which “would have yielded him a net profit of at least $70,000” (and which sounds rather like counting one’s chickens before they’ve hatched).

“Gimbel seeks an accounting of the Fantasy operation for 1967,” the article concludes, “along with court costs, and, if the court rules that the contract cannot be performed, damages of $95,974.32 and such additional damages as may be established by the evidence.”

I’d love to know how they came up with that 32 cents...

All kidding aside, I was struck by what seems to have been Fantasy’s rather modest value. Just a quarter-million for the whole shebang, plus not quite that much in royalties? Seriously? I know everything cost less back in 1967, but that still seems low.

Maybe it was, and maybe that’s why Soul and Max backed out. Alas, we’ll never know. That was the last Billboard reported of the matter, which suggests things were settled out of court.

Zaentz and his fellow investors were more successful a few months later, paying $325,000 for the label and all its assets ... which, on the surface, seems a worse deal than Soul and Max were offered by Audio Fidelity. As history quickly demonstrated, Zaentz made one helluva deal. Thanks to the incredible popularity of Creedence Clearwater Revival, he was able to pay off the five-year note in 18 months. As quoted in Billboard on May 3, 1969, Zaentz now insisted that he “wouldn’t take $6 million for Fantasy.”

Zaentz’s subsequent adventures with Creedence and John Fogerty, of course, became an entirely different story, and the stuff of both rock and precedent-establishing courtroom legend. If you’re curious, check it out here.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to note that the Audio Fidelity imbroglio was taking place at the same time that Guaraldi had filed his own lawsuit against Fantasy, seeking release from his oppressive contract. That suit wasn’t resolved until December 27, 1967, shortly after Zaentz took over the label. (I remain convinced that Zaentz, far smarter about such things than the Weiss brothers, recognized and quickly dealt with what almost certainly would have been an embarrassing courtroom loss for Fantasy).

As journalist Linda Ellerbee is so fond of saying, And so it goes...


The Possum said...

I've had a copy of that 1958 Cal Tjader - Stan Getz Sextet LP for over 30 years and recently bought it on CD to play in the car. What a great record! The opening track (Guaraldi's "Ginza") swings as hard as anything in the history of jazz, and Vince's funky turn on "Crow's Nest" may be my favorite of all his recorded solos.

Derrick Bang said...

No argument from me; it's one impressive album!

The Possum said...

Look what we have here . . . sorry it's only the first half:

Derrick Bang said...

Actually, it's only the first half of the first third of Ralph Gleason's three-part documentary, "Anatomy of a Hit," which profiles (after the fact) the creation of Guaraldi's hit song, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." And this clip's presence on YouTube isn't likely to last, as it's copyrighted material ... but yes, it's an engaging blast from the past!

The Possum said...

I figured it wouldn't be up very long. Maybe the OP will post the rest of it before it all disappears again. :) It was great just to see this much! I Googled the street address seen in the clip. (368 Skyline in Daly City) Except for the little palm trees it looks eerily the same.