ABKCO: Always About the Song

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Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke

It’s impossible to walk into the offices of ABKCO Music & Records, Inc., on New York’s Broadway just north of Times Square, without feeling awestruck by a sense of history.  The lobby walls are covered floor to ceiling in BMI certificates, with titles that speak for themselves: “Be My Baby,” “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and more.  Taken as a whole, the ABKCO catalogue-which encompasses songs by Sam Cooke, Phil Spector, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and others-forms a stunning repository of popular music. Chances are you’ve already heard (or will hear) one of its copyrights in recent memory on the radio or in a TV commercial.

ABKCO’s story has never been as simple as the catchy titles would suggest.  Founded by Allen Klein, an eagle-eyed accountant who wrestled control of a music empire while still in his 30s, the company has been accused of everything from underhanded litigation to culpability for the breakup of The Beatles, whom Klein began managing in 1969.  Writers invariably describe “the infamous” Klein as a “tough guy” whose abrasive negotiating tactics have earned him no small amount of disdain.  At the same time, little is known about his quiet but frequent donations to charity, or the love and admiration he felt for his first big managerial client, Sam Cooke.  Perhaps it’s most accurate to sum Klein up as a contradiction, a product of a hardscrabble environment (he was raised, for much of his childhood, in an orphanage) who prospered in a cutthroat world by being smarter, faster and maybe just a bit more cutthroat than the rest.

Today ABKCO is overseen by Klein’s son, Jody, along with senior vice president Iris Keitel, as Klein has stepped away from an active role in daily office affairs. In contrast to the company’s fearsome reputation, Keitel and Klein are cordial, even gracious presences with a warm enthusiasm for the history that surrounds them.  Clad in his monogrammed shirt, Klein is serious but casual, and only when a sensitive topic arises-such as the oft-debated question of why the company took so long to release masters from the Cameo-Parkway label, one of its biggest holdings-does he respond with a polite but firm, “That’s for another interview.”

Keitel’s story is every bit as fascinating as Allen Klein’s; she has worked with him for 40 years and speaks fondly of the days when she would take producers around from one cubicle to another in the Brill Building, shopping for songs for Herman’s Hermits and the Animals.  Needless to say, much has changed in four decades, and today ABKCO is a small but thriving independent company that oversees publishing (some 2,000 songs), music releases and film production.

“We’re very fortunate, as we’re a private company,” Klein says.  “We do so many different things here.  Iris handles the marketing and promotion of our records but also handles and directs the placement of the music…in the synchronization and the covers by other artists.”

“I think what’s great about it,” adds Keitel, “is you learn the marriage of all these things-the value of the song with the recording, the value of the song on its own, what the song can bring if somebody else sings it, what song deserves to be a hit again.  Do we like to meet [sales] numbers?  Yeah.  But we’re not just about the numbers.”

It’s a personalized, small-scale approach that originated with the company’s founder, who never subscribed to orthodox philosophy.  Allen Klein’s early experiences at a newspaper (Essex County News) gave him an understanding of distribution-“how returns worked,” as his son puts it-and this in turn gave him special insight as an accountant.  In 1957 Klein set up his own firm, Allen Klein & Co., and quickly gained a reputation as a fearless entrepreneur who would go into battle with record companies for unpaid royalties. (His first star client was Bobby Darin.)  Five years later, Klein met Sam Cooke-already an established pop star-and became his manager, setting up a separate company (Tracey) so that Cooke could control his own masters.  It was an unprecedented arrangement that became the turning point in Klein’s career.

“[Allen] knew that if you owned the records and you controlled the manufacturing, you controlled the money,” Keitel explains.  “There was very little chance that anybody could steal from you.”  In 1967, Klein bought out an ailing record label, Cameo-Parkway of Philadelphia, and found himself the owner of hits like “Mashed Potato Time” and “96 Tears,” as well as all of Sam Cooke’s Tracey masters, which had passed into his hands after Cooke’s death in 1964.  By the end of the decade he was managing the Stones and The Beatles, and stories have long circulated of Klein’s battles with both groups-particularly the Stones-whose 1960s output ABKCO controls.  But Keitel insists that whatever problems they may have had are in the past.

“Contrary to popular opinion, we have a great relationship with the band and all their people,” Keitel insists. It’s an assessment Klein is quick to second. “There’s that continuity and that relationship that we have,” he says. “Sometimes it’s contentious, and a good time it’s contentious…” but still, “the history is there.”

“[Allen] always just shied away from the press…wasn’t self-promoting,” observes Keitel.  “That was a very big thing for him-that the artist is the artist; they’re the star; you are not.  So I think he allowed over the years a lot of things to be said about him that were untrue.”

“It was always about the song with my father,” Klein offers in a summation of the ABKCO philosophy.  When asked what his father is like as a boss, he responds harshly but with admiration.

“He’s a bastard!  He’s extremely demanding, item-specific, brilliant, difficult, charming…”  Keitel laughs, “It’s very disarming, to say the least. You have to be at your peak. You have to be the best. But he makes you feel that you’re really part of a family, and his door is always open.”

She also attests to his lack of prejudice at a time when women had few opportunities in the music business.  “Back when I started, he didn’t care if you were a man or woman; if you could do the job, you had it.”  Klein agrees.

“If you look at Iris and think of how, when she started, everyone used to call her ‘babe’ and give her a pat on the butt and all that sort of stuff when she was going around with [producer] Mickie Most…getting the songs for him so he could cut them with his artists, doing what publishers used to do…” Keitel jumps in, “They don’t do that anymore, and I miss that. That was my training-to learn like that!”

Klein is sensitive to how the business has changed since his father’s time.  In particular, he feels the contemporary singer/songwriter model stretches artists too thin, minimizing the importance of quality songs that stand on their own terms.

“Today a lot of artists have to be songwriters, have to be musicians, have to be computer operators…and sometimes when they can do all of those things, the package gets heard; the talent-the true talent, who is the songwriter-doesn’t get heard.”

ABKCO has eyes on the future through a planned film biography of Sam Cooke (“I know people have heard this before,” Keitel jokes, “but this time it’s real.”) and fresh recordings by young performers.  But Klein makes it clear that any new projects will have to fall in line with the company’s longstanding mission of honoring the song first and foremost. “We have a very special place in music history and are blessed with a great body of work, which we feel is like a Renoir or other classical pieces of art.”

As evidence Klein points to a small studio, where boxes of original Cameo-Parkway master tapes are grouped in a tall stack.  The same sense of joy comes across when he plays a rare early demo of Phil Spector singing “Spanish Harlem,” the familiar lyrics taking on new shades of romantic yearning. “Now you know the love that he felt for that woman.  You really feel it.  He’s signing, he’s playing his guitar, and it’s just magic.”

The demo will see the light of day on a forthcoming Spector retrospective, and Klein insists that any other lost treasures ABKCO holds will be presented with a similar degree of love and respect.

“We have a unique position in this business,” he says with pride.  “Our past is definitely our future.”


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