By Bruce Kimmel
Originally published in at www.haineshisway.com, May 10, 2013
Text reproduced by kind permission of the author Bruce Kimmel
Well, dear readers, sometimes milestones slip right by me. Yes, you heard it here, dear readers, sometimes milestones slip right by me. But this year is kind of a major milestone – in March of 1993, twenty years ago, I became a full-time real record producer, and right about now I was winging my way back to New York to produce my first two albums for Varese Sarabande – Unsung Sondheim and Liz Callaway’s Frank Loesser album. Before I continue, let me just give a warning: Long notes ahead.
Of course, I’d had already had a record label, Bay Cities, but after three years and ninety-something releases it was clear we were never going to grow in the way that I wanted us to grow and when Chris Kuchler at Varese offered me the chance to shut down Bay Cities and start my own division, where I could basically do whatever I wanted, I made the decision to do that. At the time it was a difficult and contentious decision and it caused a horrible rift with my wonderful friend Nick Redman. But he bounced back immediately and got the job of a lifetime at Twentieth Century-Fox and the rest is history. We didn’t speak for a few years, but at one of those Hollywood signing shows I was visiting my friend, singer Joanie Sommers, and Nick was there, and we just started talking and laughing and in a trice all was well, mostly because I think both of us knew that the decision I’d made had ultimately enabled both of us to find incredible success.
But it’s another anniversary this year – the 35th anniversary of Varese Sarabande. There is a concert tomorrow night celebrating that event. They have an absolutely amazing array of composers conducting and I’m sure it will be an incredible evening. The Varese soundtrack guy, Bob Townson will be there – he deserves a lot of praise for what he’s done for the company. He deserves all his kudos and the back patting that will occur. But, and it’s a big BUTT – he would never have had that opportunity if others hadn’t been there before him and forged the way. And it’s the others who have been forgotten, those who made the company what it was prior to Bob’s arrival and, in a certain way, after, if you want to consider that for seven glorious years Varese Sarabande was a premiere theatre music label, and during that time Varese also reissued a number of terrific pop albums and compilations supervised by Cary Mansfield.
I am fairly certain that my name, along with other names, will most likely not be invoked, because, well, Varese didn’t send me an invitation to the concert. Which brings us to revisionist history. I first became aware of revisionist history when I read Mr. George Orwell’s brilliant novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. So, even though I’ve written about the beginnings of Varese in both of my memoirs, I think it’s time to set the record straight in these here notes and online. Because the revisionist history of Varese Sarabande is kind of off-putting to me, in terms of my contribution and the contribution of others, without whom the company would not be what it is today.
So, for once, let’s look at the real history of Varese Sarabande. In 1978, I was in the midst of a somewhat successful acting career – I’d been working steadily since the end of 1970. I’d already written, directed and starred in my first film, which had been bought by Paramount. In those days, I hung out at various record stores, including Vogue Records in Westwood. There I became friendly with one of its employees, Tom Null. We’d talk about classical music a lot, and he’d suggest composers I should check out.
Eventually, he said to me one day that he and another couple of people were starting a record label – a put-together of two teeny-tiny labels, Varese International, and Tom’s own Sarabande Records. It was Tom, a fellow named Dub Taylor, who owned Varese International along with Chris Kuchler. The label was called Varese Sarabande and they were going to issue obscure classical recordings. I was asked if I wanted to become one of the owners – the cost would be $2,500. I met Chris and Dub. We chatted about everything. I thought about it. I thought about it some more. And I just couldn’t see how issuing obscure classical music would ever succeed beyond a tiny niche audience of record collectors. And so, in perhaps the stupidest decision of my life, I passed. Had I not passed, I would, most likely, be a millionaire today. But I don’t look back and I don’t regret.
And so, Varese Sarabande began, with their distinctive inkblot logo (courtesy of Dub Taylor, I believe) and their catchphrase, “Expect the Unexpected.” Right at the very beginning, I’d said to them that they had to think about other things and not just obscure classical releases. They asked what I meant and I told them they should think about soundtracks. Yes, the first time anyone at Varese Sarabande heard the word “soundtracks” was from my mouth. I told them there really was no niche soundtrack label and that I felt they could really serve a purpose to film music fans. And I told them that I could get them their very first soundtrack recording, which was, of course, the soundtrack to my film, The First Nudie Musical. And so, they took a chance and went down the road I was vociferously suggesting. The very first Varese Sarabande soundtrack release was The First Nudie Musical.
At that point, Tom Null was the major force in terms of artistic decisions – he was hands-on everything from packaging to mastering. He was a volatile person and he and Chris had some of the biggest knockdown drag-out fights I’ve ever seen – some witnessed personally and some told to me by other witnesses. Eventually, a man named Scot Holton was brought into the company. His is another name you will probably not hear at the concert, and yet without him Varese would not have gone to the next level. He got them several low-budget horror titles, including some John Carpenter and George Romero soundtracks, and those began to put Varese on the map. Scot was a wonderful man and a major asset to Varese Sarabande. And along they went.
Early on, even though I’d passed on being an owner of the company, I began getting them projects. A person I knew, Steve Harris, and I created a little thing called Cheshire Records (his name, not mine), but I did the bulk of the work. I’ve often been accused of having a huge ego and we’ll get to that in a bit, but the fact is you will find my name nowhere on any of the projects I got Varese, even though I got the projects, did the sequencing and saw the albums through from beginning to completion, receiving a royalty position for my trouble. I let Steve Harris have the credit because it seemed important to him, and that wasn’t my real line of work. I got them a five-LP series of music from The Twilight Zone – the first time any of that music had been available. I just picked up the phone one day and called CBS, got a man named Bob Drasnin on the phone, and asked him if I could license the music and he said yes immediately. Those were huge hits.
I got them into Paramount, getting them the soundtracks to Bloodline (by Morricone) and An Almost Perfect Affair (Delerue). But the most important thing I got them happened very early on in the company’s second year – the soundtrack to a Warner Bros. film called A Little Romance, with music by Georges Delerue. The film became a huge hit and the album sold very well. One day, I went into Chris and told him to send LPs to every member of the music branch of the Academy. Such things were not the norm back then, but I felt strongly about it – he balked, he argued, I was relentless, and he did it. And the film got nominated for Best Score. It was a Varese first. And then I told him to send hundreds of more copies to the general Academy membership. He balked, he argued, I was relentless, and he did it. And so, in a year that included amongst the Best Score nominees Jerry Goldsmith for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, A Little Romance, despite having half its music by Vivaldi, won Georges Delerue the Oscar for Best Score. Within a year of my get-into-soundtracks suggestion, Varese Sarabande had an Academy Award-winning soundtrack on their label.
Scot Holton had a sad and early end – he died very young. After him, a young film music fan, Richard Kraft, went to work for Varese and he was responsible, as Scot had done before him, of taking Varese to the next level, only in a much bigger way. His tenure at Varese made them a major player in the soundtrack game, and when Varese teamed up with Universal for distribution, they were suddenly a major label. A MAJOR soundtrack label with an incredible output of titles. But Richard eventually wanted to branch out and become a film music agent – he’d made good relationships with any number of composers. And that’s what he did – he left the company and became a successful film music agent. At that point I received a phone call from Chris asking me if I would take over the soundtracks from Richard. He really wanted me to do it and asked me to really give it some thought. I did, but ultimately said no because I was not quite in the place where I was ready to give up what I still thought of as my real career. In a way, I’m glad I made the decision, even though my life would have been much easier had I switched careers right then and there.
And that’s where Bob Townson enters the picture. Because I turned down the job, he was asked to take over. He was a very young turk in Canada who had produced a few things on a label called Masters Film Music. And so, he came to the company and continued getting good projects. Tom Null was eventually bought out of the company for a considerable amount of money. And on they went. Then in 1988 we started Bay Cities and became a thorn in the side of Varese, getting several soundtrack projects that Varese wanted, because they either hadn’t thought of them, or somehow thought that the mountain was going to come to them rather than them going to the mountain. Word was Varese was very irritated with us. And that’s one of the main reasons Chris called me in late 1992 about shutting down Bay Cities and joining them full time, to start my own division where I could do anything I wanted to.
When I came to Varese in March of 1993, Bob’s reaction to me was cool and standoffish. I am a very friendly person, but it was difficult to break through to him. That is, until I began praising his work and talking soundtracks. That he liked very much. And all during the seven years I was there, whether I liked or didn’t like what he was doing in terms of his projects, I was always positive, always went in his office and told him how much I enjoyed things. That he liked very much. He was annoyed when I’d do the odd film music project, even though I was allowed to do them because they sold well. In fact, in the late 1990s I produced one of the biggest selling film music albums they had, my Titanic: The Ultimate Collection, which sold huge numbers, made Varese a ton of cash, and spent forty-two weeks on the Billboard Classical Crossover Chart. Not a word of praise. And not even a thank you from Chris Kuchler. Ever.
Bob is a talented fellow, but he thinks Varese’s success is mostly, if not solely, due to him, but that’s not the case. While I was there, I turned that company into a hugely successful producer of theatre music, revered by one and all.
Varese has been part of my life for thirty-five years, since the day they opened their doors. I knew and was friends with both Mr. Null and Mr. Holton, both of whom should be mentioned with reverence tomorrow night, but who probably won’t be. Should I be? Well, I don’t know – I think since I produced over 130 albums before Mr. Kuchler made the incredibly stupid decision to shut down the Broadway division in 2000 (had he just hung on two more years, the business model of how cast albums are produced changed and we would have OWNED Broadway) and since I was a major force for those seven years, in addition to being there at the beginning, getting them great projects and getting them on the road to what made them famous – well, maybe I should be mentioned, you know, just in passing. Better yet, maybe I should have been invited to the concert. Varese Sarabande was sold this year and Chris is now gone. It is the end of an era. And there you have it: the non-revisionist history of Varese Sarabande.
My goodness, that was long, wasn’t it? I think I’d better breeze through the rest of these here notes, don’t you? So, let me just say I got to sleep late, woke up at four, went back to sleep at five-thirty and slept till just before noon. I did a three-mile jog, had lunch, picked up no packages, finished a complicated set of liner notes and sent them to the designer, listened to the master of our upcoming release and approved it, and spent ninety minutes writing The Revisionist History of Varese Sarabande.
After that, I watched a motion picture on DVD that gets better every time I watch it – Black Widow, starring Theresa Russell and Debra Winger. I didn’t love it when it first came out, but these days it looks like a minor masterpiece, with a good script, elegant direction by Bob Rafelson, gorgeous photography by Conrad Hall, and a stunning production design by Gene Callahan, not to mention a brilliant score by Michael Small. I watch it at least once a year now and it is highly recommended by the likes of me.
- For more information on “The Story of Varese Sarabande”, see also Randall D. Larson’s article