Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen- When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead – Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man (Twelve Books)

When I was still in college in the early 80s, I had the opportunity to work in the promotions department of a local concert promoter and ticket agent in Buffalo, New York. Along the way I had the opportunity to work with a number incredible musical acts and music industry legends.

No one was more legendary than Jerry Weintraub. Around the arenas we worked with, Weintraub's name was uttered alternately with awe or derision depending on the speaker's point of view. Weintraub was a consummate wheeler dealer, out to make big bucks for not only the acts he represented, but also for himself. He is a pioneer, who cut a wide swath of deal-making through the heart of American popular culture.

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead, is the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised tale of Weintraub's meteoric rise and entertaining life in the entertainment biz. It reads like a who's who of show business, spanning Weintraub's careers in music, film, Broadway and sports.

The names include Elvis, Sinatra, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, John Denver, Pitt, Clooney, Belushi, Cary Grant and on and on. The curve balls include; America's sweetheart, Olympic skating champion Dorothy Hamill. Who could forget the Short 'n Sassy campaign with Bristol Myers, a deal Weintraub engineered that made Hamill a millionaire. Weintraub isn't shy about including stories detailing the millions of dollars he “made” for the people he worked with and often had a hand in creating.

The most twisted tale is Weintraub's adventure with chess grand master Bobby Fischer. Weintraub was so taken by what he called Fischer's “rock star” quality, that he hopped a plane to Iceland to meet with the eccentric chess wizard during his legendary battle with Soviet champion Boris Spassky. Weintraub recounts how he worked his magic to win the troubled Fischer's confidence and struck a deal with Warner Brothers to record an album of chess instruction, that would include a chess board and pieces so young players could learn the game from the master. Later Fischer became so un-glued that the deal was sunk.

While the behind the scenes stories are equally fascinating and entertaining, it is the second half of the book's title, Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man, that I found so intriguing. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook and Web-based marketing, Weintraub shows how he created buzz the old-fashioned way; by begging, borrowing, cajoling and whatever else it took to get the word out on his latest project.

Weintraub pre-dated the guerrilla marketing phenomenon, planting seeds in movers and shaker's minds about up and coming talent; like having Elvis mention John Denver in a TV interview and staging a “concert” by Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues, where he played the debut album of their side project, the Blue Jays, through a full concert sound system, for music industry insiders. Irate reviewers ripped Weintraub for the faux-show, but also wrote positively about the record; for Weintraub it was mission accomplished.

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead is a portrait of a self-made, hard-working, often shameless promoter, who always looked for the angle that would garner the most impact for his client and himself. It is a classic American tale and one we won't likely see repeated anytime soon.

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