It was a good time to be in the music industry! I got to go to Paris with the Velvet Underground, first class tickets, 4-star hotel the whole deal...
Editors Note:We have asked our pal, Disques Sinthomme/Ghost Town honcho Dennis Kane to contribute pieces and ideas to Magnetic from time to time, when at BPM his Study Masters column was one of our favorite features. Here he sits down with Texas/LA legend, journalist, label man, and producer Bill Bentley. Dennis met Bill when working to get the rights for the release of two Jerry Williams songs. The songs and re-edits are on his Ghost Town label.
For the average fan, the music industry is this vague machination from which acts emerge to achieve varying levels of success or infamy. There is an awareness, however nebulous, of lawyers, publicists, impresarios, directors, managers and producers, and now in its skeletal state probably a recognition of the licensing dept. or some brand marketing gurus. There was a time however when labels had a rostrum of very talented and passionate people who served many roles and were driven by something bigger than stock options or office size. It was a far less jaded time when ideas were paramount and these hard working denizens were driven to help artists hone their skills, realize their vision and reach their full potential.
Bill Bentley is one of those people. From his early days at the Austin Sun, to his years helping build up the LA Weekly, and then promoting various club shows, to his work helping Slash records flourish, and his years at Warner Bros., and now at Vanguard, Bill has always been driven by his love of the music and absolute respect for the musicians. You talk to Bill and his passion and sympathy toward the difficulties of achieving work of the highest level is evident. Bill has written about music, promoted it, signed bands, put together shows and produced records, he has done it all in a career that goes back to the mid-70’s and spans a golden era in the LA music scene. I met Bill working on the Jerry Williams release; Bill was a huge fan and friend of Jerry’s, and a constant source of support and counsel for me in getting the rights to work on the tracks. Over time it become apparent we had an easy rapport, so I called him one day to discuss his life and work in music.
Dennis Kane: Heya Bill
Bill Bentley: Mr. Kane, what is the good word?
Well let’s start at the beginning if you don’t mind how did music come find you?
Well Elvis, those early Sun Recordings, they were like fire, just a total shock and something you couldn’t get enough of. At 13 my brother took me to the Palladium Ballroom to see James Brown, this was right after he had recorded Live at the Apollo, so it was the full JB experience. The night just blew my mind; it was a whole new level.
Being 13 in an all black club, drinking a beer, listening to James Brown play in 1963 had better blow your mind!!! (laughter)
I knew I wanted to play the drums; we would go to Galveston to see this guy named Bongo Joe, he would play on oil drums with these mallets full of BB’s, it was insane. I was absorbing all the music I could and I really identified with Charlie Watts, he could swing so well, he really was a trip hammer for that band. I got my first set of Ludwig drums, which is what he was using early on, in 1965.
So you got your first band going…
Yeah The Aggregation, we were so-so, but it was so much fun, there was another local band called The Coachmen, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top was in that band, we would do shows together, music started to feel like a way of life. I joined another group at U of T called the Bizarros, we were the odd literary nerds (laughs), Sterling Morrison who had been in The Velvet Underground joined our group after he left New York and moved to Austin.
Did you have a plan for what you wanted to be?
No it was really more intuitive, I just loved music, I had interned at a radio station, and I had learned how to do typesetting, which pre Macintosh was very important. It led to a gig at the Austin Sun, it was a bi-weekly and I quickly was writing reviews and features. Then I got to be a publicist for the PBS station in Austin, which produced Austin City Limits.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson?
Among others, that show encompassed and continues to cover a whole range of music. One thing I was always impressed by was the range of sounds in Texas; from Tejano to the blues, soul and funk, jazz, bluegrass, country—a whole spectrum and then these tremendous cross-pollinations.
Like Jerry Williams
Certainly Jerry had it all…
More about him later, how did the move to LA happen?
Well I remember being in my apartment one day in Austin and getting a phone call from the editor of a paper saying, “do you want to come to LA and start working on this paper?” I had never been to LA, so I said “sure”! Next thing I know I was the music editor of the LA Weekly. There was some sense of continuum from my work in Austin, but the scale was very different...
And it’s a time when so much stuff is starting to jump off in LA….
Oh man it was amazing; I was going out every night. There was such a range of music and tremendous sense of energy. There was so much happening, it was hard to keep up, there was a core of established bands, and tons of new stuff edging in. I was starting to build contacts with all the labels….
Is that how you moved to Slash?
No, I left LA Weekly because I didn’t really like the day-to-day work of being an editor, and I started producing concerts. I had set up at a place called Club Lingerie, I was throwing these events that represented the New Orleans scene, we had Lee Dorsey, Frogman Henry, Harold Battiste, Leo Nocentelli from the Meters, it was an impressive line up. I also did a Texas night as well; we had Delbert McClinton, Omar and the Howlers, Doug Sahm and a young Dwight Yoakam opening for Billy Joe Shaver.
It was a progression from doing those nights and promoting them that I moved over to Slash Records to be their publicist.
Did you meet Jerry Williams at this time?
I first met Jerry at a Leon Russell show, there was this guy in the back, wearing a cape and shades, he had “star presence” his vibe was always heavy.
He had been staying at Shangri La, The Band’s old hangout in Malibu, and his problems with Warner Bros. had already burned him. Jerry was really his own man, out on his own path, even in a crowd he stood out. He had started to write songs for other people, Delbert McClinton, Bonnie Raitt, and Clapton. He would roll with Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson, they were both 5’9” or so and behind them would be Jerry at 6’5”
In a cape!
You know it! Jerry wrote several tracks on Clapton’s Behind the Sun LP, and later the Journeyman album. He was so talented, I had so wished for him to get his proper dues. I’m happy you have the 12” out. I know there is some more stuff in the vault.
What were some of the highlights at Slash?
Well certainly Los Lobos, working with them when they first got signed, they were so great right away, I remember we did a show of Los Lobos and PIL, truly amazing night, in 1980 right when I moved out to L.A. The Blasters were another great band. X were really the big stars and we had L7 as well. The label had a strong Los Angeles core. It was very exciting to help these acts, the groups were really enthused and there was a great communal vibe. I remember going on the road with X, The Blasters and the Go Go’s and having a ball.
How was the move to Warners?
Warners had a great reputation as a wonderful place to work, sort of a family vibe. And it was all true. I started doing publicity there, I worked on Elvis Costello, The Replacements and Lou Reed’s albums straight off, I was doing press and publicity. I also worked on stuff for R.E.M and the Chili Peppers. I remember Green Day signing their deal on my desk.
Being at Warners did the perks get better?
(Laughs) It was a good time to be in the music industry! I got to go to Paris with the Velvet Underground, first class tickets, 4 star hotel the whole deal, The Cartier Foundation had a Warhol exhibit and brought them over. One afternoon they got on stage and performed “Heroin” it was unbelievable.
How did the Roky Erickson stuff happen?
Well I had been a huge fan of The 13th Floor Elevators, and I knew Roky from following around the band in Houston when I was in high school during the ‘60s. I knew he had fallen on some hard times, and he was really a giant…
“Click Your Fingers Applauding The Play” what a jam!
He has many and The Elevators were very influential. I was able to put together a tribute on Sire (Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye), later I helped produce a retrospective comp of his work on Shout! Factory Records.
To be honest I only knew a few of his tunes, and The 13th Floor Elevators—talking to you got me digging around, he has a standout catalogue.
We did a party for the Sire release in Austin in 1990, Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, Lou Ann Barton, Doug Sahm, Chris Thomas, an amazing group of people. A woman came up to Roky and asked him to sign her arm. He looked at her and politely said “Sorry Ma’am but I don’t sign flesh”
Words to live by! You also helped on the Jimmy Scot All the Way album at Sire, I remember that record coming out and getting a lot of attention.
I saw him in NY, he sang for me and three other fans at The Ballroom. It was empty!
Heartbreaking voice, his version of “Angel Eyes” is staggering.
He was trying to make a comeback….
He had a cool celebrity following in NYC
Yes Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, Liza Minelli: he had serious fans, how could he not the way he sounded? Doc Pomus had asked that Jimmy sing at his funeral, there were so many big wigs at the funeral, and they all heard him perform, it helped plenty. Jimmy used to say; “Doc got me a gig from beyond the grave”
So now you are at Vanguard, what goes on?
My new project is a Chris Isaak look into the early Sun records catalogue, really his investigation into certain songs, playing them his way, using the inspiration he got from them when he was young and making them his own.
Takes you back to the early Elvis stuff!
Yeah I guess, truthfully you never seem to leave anything you work with, being with all this great music and all the talented people with which I have gotten to collaborate. It feels like a continuum and a larger project with a lot of different components.
Well said, thank you for your time Bill, I’ll see you in LA soon!
You got it D.
JERRY WILLIAMS "Easy On Yourself" (Beat Broker's Remix)