“I had no color in my eyes. I only heard. I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears. I did not see with my ears.” – Hy Weiss, on the diversity of artists he recorded
In the music industry, the word legend is thrown around fast and furiously, and the majority of those who can actually be classified as such are artists. One man who was an integral part of this business from the very beginning and achieved that status is Hy Weiss, owner of Old Town Records. While Mr. Weiss is best known for his work with The Solitaires, The Earls, The Capris and The Fiestas, his capacity in the trade was much greater than his independent label and the groups which it recorded. As a matter of fact, some of his best productions were not doo wopp or vocal group records at all. He is particularly proud of his records with blues great Arthur Prysock and a one-record deal he had with The Fairfield Four.
Public opinion of Hy Weiss is quite varied, but most comments from the artists with whom he has worked are favorable. Raoul Cita of The Harptones recalls of Weiss’s business ethics, “We were in the business for a year or two and he was the first one who paid us. He tried to be more honest than a lot of the other operators.” In addition, his musical impact on these artists is irrefutable. Cita continues, “He’s responsible for me writing ‘Life Is But A Dream’ when he asked me to give him another song like ‘My Memories Of You’.” Larry Chance of The Earls also sings Weiss’s praises, “He was one of a kind. He had great ear and knew a hit when he heard it. He also had the gift of gab. He could sell a song to a program director even though the song wasn’t that great. He knew his way around a studio and around the industry. It never ceased to amaze me how many friends he had. We’d been friends since 1962.”
Although Hy Weiss had been relatively inactive in the years before his passing in 2007, he kept his finger on the pulse of the business and especially on the material which he owns. Weiss was known for keeping to himself, not doing any kind of radio or print interviews. Thanks to an introduction by radio personality Don K. Reed, I met Hy Weiss and went on to spend many afternoons with him at his home on Long Island, chatting about the business then and now. On one afternoon, he agreed to the following very, very exclusive interview. — Joe Mirrione
JOE: How did you first become interested in this business?
HY WEISS: I never did. There was a job opening. I went for it and I got it.
JOE: Where was that?
HY WEISS: Exclusive Records. The first black-owned record company in the world.
JOE: What year are we talking about?
HY WEISS: 1954.
JOE: What made you go for that particular job?
HY. WEISS: I got tired of being a bartender and a bouncer at The White Rose Bar on 3rd Avenue.
JOE: So the interest in music came later?
HY WEISS: I always knew I had an interest in music. Every week I would win contests that Lucky Strike had. I would win cartons of cigarettes and sell them in the street since I didn’t smoke.
JOE: What did you do at Exclusive?
HY WEISS: I was a salesman in the Harlem area. Exclusive was a manufacturer which was owned by Léon René, who was a prolific songwriter. The 3 big acts on that label were Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers, Joe Liggins – “I Gotta Right To Cry” – and Herb Jeffry.
JOE: How did your interests change as time passed?
HY WEISS: Never did. Always stayed the same. Make a dollar. I wanted to make a living.
JOE: So the only motivation to continue was that you were making a few dollars? There was no personal attachment?
HY WEISS: No. There really wasn’t. If there was, I kept it sublimated.
JOE: What about satisfaction when you had a hit record?
HY WEISS: Yeah. It was alright. It wasn’t bad as long as the money came in. That was the only satisfaction because I didn’t have an ego to spur me on.
JOE: What was your first venture on your own?
HY WEISS: Well, I never worked for anybody in my life even when I worked as a salesman. The only time I worked for anyone was when I was a bouncer and I quit that. The guy couldn’t even talk English and he owned four square blocks on 34th Street.
JOE: What was the first business that you yourself set up?
HY WEISS: We had a mail order house selling Gospel records in a basement office on Clairmont Parkway in the Bronx.
JOE: Where did you go from there?
HY WEISS: My brother [Sam] and I distributed Apollo Records. We also had a great deal to do with the selling of Modern Records, which was another independent label. In fact, we were supposed to get the distribution of the label, but we never got it. Probably because we were underfinanced. We had BHS Distributing in the same building with Apollo Records. Because of me, The Larks covered “Eyesight To the Blind” which made a tremendous hit for Apollo Records and got them out of hock. Much later, I was responsible for The Orioles covering a country song, “Crying In The Chapel”, which got Jubilee back into the business.
JOE: How is that?
HY WEISS: I heard a record that I thought would be a good idea to cover. I was pretty good at that. I had a knack for putting songs and artists together.
JOE: You had a good ear?
HY WEISS: I always had an ear for music since the day I was born.
JOE: Are you saying that you could predict what would be a hit?
HY WEISS: Very much so. In fact, later on working for Cosnat, Atlantic would call me and ask me what records they should work on. I also started to get calls from the manufacturers that were distributed by Cosnat. One record I remember was “Oh Happy Day” by a young man by the last name of Howard. The label’s owner was Dave Miller. I put forty or fifty thousand pieces in the stores months before the record started to sell and for months, the dealers kept calling Cosnat asking what they were going to do with all this stock. I would tell them, “Don’t worry about it.” A few months later, that record busted wide open and they called me a genius.
JOE: How did you start your first label?
HY WEISS: I was waiting for a meeting at Cosnat and this group came walking down the street. It was The Five Crowns. Lover Patterson, Doc Green, “Younkie” [Wilbur Paul], James Clark and Nicky Clark. So I said, “Let me see if I can record them”, without knowing what the hell I was doing. I used the name Old Town because my brother had Old Town Carbon Paper and it looked nice as a letterhead.
JOE: You put that record out and funded it yourself?
HY WEISS: Yes. It sold about 300 copies a month. The same 300. I would sell it to the five and dime store then pick up the 300 for a dime a piece later. Then I would sell them back to Cosnat, owned by Jerry Blaine, and the same 300 would go right back to the same store. I had to make money somehow to keep the label going.
JOE: You were distributing the record yourself?
HY WEISS: Through Cosnat. After I closed up my own distribution, I was with Cosnat for a while. That was the distributor. I told him to give me the goods because nobody could do it as well as me and he did. I was selling more goods out of the back of my car than I was selling for him. I bought and sold. I told you I never worked for anybody. They may have had the illusion that I was working for them, but the reality was I never worked for anyone.
JOE: How did you find your groups after The Five Crowns?
HY WEISS: I kept a little office on 125th Street in the Tri-Boro Theater. We would interview groups and they could see a motion picture at night, too. Isn’t that great?
JOE: What made the small label do so well in that time?
HY WEISS: They really didn’t do that well as compared to today…
JOE: But at that time, you were up against Mercury, Decca, CBS…
HY WEISS: All the major companies never knew what they had and they still don’t know what they have today. Even the major companies with the oldies stuff don’t know what the hell they’re doing. MCA finally got smart and started to lash out at people handling their goods. Other companies lost millions of dollars before they got smart. Most people are licensing now instead of just using things. Maybe I forced them into that. You never know. Do you?
JOE: How do you feel about the amount of bootlegging going on today?
HY WEISS: I hate bootleggers with a passion. The fact of it is that I would do things to them that I can’t talk about. It’s as much as coming into my house and robbing my house.
JOE: How did you decide what to leave on the shelf? You say some of the best stuff never came out. Why?
HY WEISS: I was too busy working with the other stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t put out that’s just as good as what I did put out. How much can one man do?
JOE: You were basically a one-man operation?
HY WEISS: I refused to do anything with anybody with the exception of my brother and even that was a major mistake. I wasn’t looking to build the company, but I should have been. If I had been more diligent, I would have had a Motown.
JOE: But since profit was so important, why didn’t you?
HY WEISS: I didn’t look at it that way. I didn’t look to get rich. I just looked to enjoy myself and live with it.
JOE: So you never wanted to expand beyond your own personal capacity?
HY WEISS: No. I made a mistake. I had the capability of building a company as big as anything in the world but I never wanted to work.
JOE: Old Town could have been one of the big boys?
HY WEISS: Absolutely. It’s still carrying its weight. It’s strange. Isn’t it? I just found stuff I recorded with Willie Dixon and Roscoe Gordon. I have masters that you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got so much garbage I don’t even know about half this stuff.
JOE: What would you consider one of your most interesting finds?
HY WEISS: I heard this group singing in the toilet next to my office. I took them into the studio the same day and I cut “So Fine” with the Fiestas. It cost me $40 and it took me a year to break it. I didn’t especially work on it. It finally came through in Paris, Texas. The rest is history.
JOE: What was your theory about breaking a record?
HY WEISS: I believed if you put a hit up against the wall, it’ll show up. Take a glass and put a ball under water, it pops right to the top. It rises up fast. The same thing with a record. If it has no merit, it dies…in dirty water.
JOE: How did you find The Solitaires?
HY WEISS: Buzzy Willis came to me. Buzzy is now involved with Kool & The Gang and is a well-versed record man in his own right.
JOE: Who were the original Solitaires?
HY WEISS: The original guys were Buzzy Willis, Herman Dunham, Bobby Baylor, Bobby Williams and Pat Gaston. Freddy Barksdale and Milton Love weren’t [founding] originals. I also recorded Milton as The Casinos, you know.
JOE: Where did Ruth McFadden come from?
HY WEISS: That girl could sing! She could still be a star today. When I finally got an office downtown, she was sent up to me from the Apollo Theater. She came up to my office, I liked her and I recorded her. I had an open-door policy. There was no one barred from coming in to see me. I was at 1697 Broadway. I first opened up at 701 7th Avenue.
JOE: Where did the idea of intermingling the artists like Ruth McFadden & The Supremes come from?
HY WEISS: That was my idea. I didn’t know what a genius I was. (Laughs)
JOE: Are there any groups that stick out in your mind?
HY WEISS: The only one that sticks in my mind is the one that makes me money.
JOE: Never a personal favorite?
HY WEISS: I loved them all, but in particular, I have a great love for Robert & Johnny. They had great talent as writers and as singers.
JOE: Who was the most profitable?
HY WEISS: I was the most profitable. I’m gonna be perfectly frank. That’s the truth.
JOE: Who sold the most records for you?
HY WEISS: Whoever I wanted to.
JOE: Who actually did?
HY WEISS: The biggest records were “So Fine”, “Let The Little Girl Dance” and “Dear One”, but that wasn’t a group record. Also, “When Love Was New” and “It’s Too Late Baby”, which aren’t group records.
JOE: What about “Remember Then”?
HY WEISS: “Remember Then” was killed by The Beatles. They killed it. The Earls would have been the number one group in the world.
JOE: How did you manage to have so many groups at so many different times? The Harptones, The Valentines…
HY WEISS: They came up and if I liked them, I recorded them.
JOE: How come many of them were just for one record?
HY WEISS: I did ten groups a night. I couldn’t work on all of them.
JOE: Were there any groups out there who you wanted to work with but never did?
HY WEISS: No. I was satisfied with whatever I had.
JOE: Do you keep in touch with any of the artists?
HY WEISS: All of them. Every one. They’re all good friends of mine. I like them all.
JOE: Did you, yourself, prefer a black group to a white group or vice-versa?
HY WEISS: I had no color in my eyes. I only heard. I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears. I did not see with my ears.
JOE: As long as it sounded good?
HY WEISS: Yeah. I was pretty good with songs. Those songs live on today.
JOE: What were your other labels?
HY WEISS: Barry Records, which I wanted to put together for my son. I had hopes for him being a big record man, which he is today. He’s probably the hottest kid in the country. His label is the hottest there is – Jive Records. We also put out as a company called Win. I was not only a group-orientated label.
JOE: You also did a lot of blues. Am I right?
HY WEISS: Yes.
JOE: Was there an equal balance of blues and rock and roll on Old Town?
HY WEISS: I would say pretty even. I even have country and western stuff. It sold records.
JOE: Were you always the producer and the arranger?
HY WEISS: Yes. Except for one or two things.
JOE: Where were most of your sessions?
HY WEISS: Bell Sound.
JOE: Any reason?
HY WEISS: Al Weintraub was probably the best engineer in the world at the time. He was the guy who actually did the producing.
JOE: What happened to Old Town after ’65?
HY WEISS: I just got tired of the whole shabangee. I kept the label, though.
JOE: Any experiences that stick out in your mind?
HY WEISS: Too many to tell you about right now. It would take four books and you’re not writing an encyclopedia.
JOE: Ever think about writing a book?
HY WEISS: They’re trying to get me to but I don’t think I was that important.
JOE: I would say you’re a link to a by-gone era to say the least.
HY WEISS: I don’t wanna be a lost link – I wanna be young again. (Laughs)
JOE: Any experience that you feel made you a better businessman?
HY WEISS: The only thing that made me a better businessman was getting robbed in the beginning.
JOE: What are some of things that you’re involved in today?
HY WEISS: Motion pictures, advertising and getting my songs into packages. “Life Is But A Dream” was used in Goodfellas. “We Belong Together” was used in La Bamba even though it wasn’t Robert & Johnny. I get a few pennies here and there. How else am I gonna pay for that coffee you’re drinking there?
JOE: Have any of the things you own been used for commercials?
HY WEISS: “Remember Then” was used. I got a stipend. I haven’t gotten the big one yet but I will.
JOE: You’re name still pops up every now and then on a package…
HY WEISS: If my name pops up, you can rest assured that it’s legitimate. If it doesn’t pop up, then somebody’s gotta worry.
JOE: From the point of view of a person who has been in this business since before the beginning of rock and roll, what do you think of today’s music in general?
HY WEISS: I like the good songs and I hate the bad ones. Good songs are showing up. Over in Europe, they’re selling ballroom dancing which is gonna be the next thing here. Watch and see. It’s gonna sweep right through the pop. When you see a guy like the guy on CBS who got caught with the gun – Harry Connick – these guys are selling millions of records, it’s a good sign. It’s good news. It’s time for good songs and I own some great songs.
JOE: How do you feel about the new groups like Boyz II Men?
HY WEISS: Great. It brings the songs back into focus. T here’s no telling when one of my songs will be done by a major group and we’ve got some great songs.
JOE: Do you like “In The Still Of The Night”?
HY WEISS: I got one just as good as that.
JOE: What’s your opinion on rap?
HY WEISS: Great. It makes my son a lot of money.
JOE: How do you feel about it?
HY WEISS: Good. I told you I’m a commercial guy. Whatever brings in the change.
JOE: Knowing what you know about the business then and the business now, is there anything that has really changed?
HY WEISS: No. Good songs will always make it.
JOE: Isn’t it harder today?
HY WEISS: People got it in their mind that it’s hard.
JOE: Doesn’t it take more money today?
HY WEISS: Yes, so you do it the same way we did years ago. Go to an isolated territory and work the area where it’s not as expensive. If it has any merit, that’s an indication to go further.
JOE: Can you really do that?
HY WEISS: People think you can’t, but I think you can.
JOE: Can the independent label make it today?
HY WEISS: The ones that are out there are making it alright. They’re doing pretty well.
JOE: Aren’t they mostly subsidiaries connected with the larger labels?
HY WEISS: So it takes a bit of a different form. There are changes in the business every so often, but then it sweeps itself clean, then you go back another way. Same bullshit. You just gotta watch the changes and go with the flow. There’s a guy up at bat – just hit the ball. Don’t look for the home run, just hit the ball.
JOE: Does a group today have to have a video plus a record?
HY WEISS: Not necessarily. It’ll help because of today’s world of promotion. Instead of giving a disc jockey five thousand, you make a video. Then you gotta worry about somebody playing it. If you notice in the rap business, songs are making it by word of mouth. The rock business has slowed down, though.
JOE: How do you feel about MTV for example and the music videos of today?
HY WEISS: It’s OK. I really don’t care one way or the other. I don’t watch MTV, but I will be on MTV. I was interviewed with the Atlantic story. It’s supposed to be presented here and in Europe.
JOE: Have you gone to any revival concerts?
HY WEISS: Have you ever seen me there? Only when I’m looking for bootlegged merchandise. It makes me nauseous.
JOE: Because it’s nostalgia…
HY WEISS: I have no nostalgia. You’ve had your time, now get out. Some people stick around and believe they’re as big as Elvis Presley. They live in that particular illusion and they have nowhere to go. I can’t blame them and it’s a shame, too. Once in a while, you get a call from a guy who thinks he sold a hundred million records and thinks he got robbed. Meanwhile, you know what he really sold and you just can’t tell the guy that he’s really off base because you know emotionally he’s living with it. So you lie and say, “Yeah. I beat you for a million.” It makes him feel better. If you beat him for a thousand, it doesn’t make him feel good, but if you tell him you beat him for a million, it makes him feel invincible. He’ll go out and say, “He beat me for a million.” It gives him something to talk about. It’ a shame the way the emotions become dreams and dreams become nightmares.
JOE: Do you ever think about the fans out there who are still buying your products after 30-some-odd years? How does that make you feel?
HY WEISS: Very good. I’m amazed. God bless them.
JOE: Because it puts money in your pocket?
HY WEISS: Not necessarily so. It’s nice. Songs live. Artists die. Elvis Presley wanted half of my song, “My Special Prayer”, and I wouldn’t give it to him. To this day, I’m happy I didn’t do it. I would have made a lot of money, though. I told this Colonel Parker and Lucky Carl, “No”. I knew him, you know.
JOE: You knew the Colonel?
HY WEISS: No, Presley.
JOE: Who do you recall as being the guys who really made it happen? Your contemporaries?
HY WEISS: Oh, come on. There were a lot of guys that deserve all the credit that they’re trying to put on my ass which I don’t deserve. Lew Chud, Leonard Chess, Art Rupe, Sid Nathan, Johnny Vincent, Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Herman Lubinsky, Stan Lewis…there were a lot of guys.
JOE: Ever think about recording again?
HY WEISS: I’ve got a group I’m working with right now. I’ll play it for you. You’ll die. I think I’ll give it to my son.
JOE: How did you come across it?
HY WEISS: I get more tapes in here than the record companies do. I have enough here to start fourteen labels. They’re pretty good, too. Great stuff. Especially when they come back and do these songs again.
JOE: Besides not expanding beyond your own means, is there anything else you would have done differently?
HY WEISS: No, because it’s passed. Yesterday’s gone, today is here and tomorrow’s an illusion. Why talk about yesterday? What’s the sense? It’s “fait accompli”. Doesn’t that sound nice?
JOE: Is there anything that you look at today and say, “I had that idea 30 or 35 years ago”?
HY WEISS: No. I was always aware of what was coming down the pike, though. I’m always one step ahead. Watch what I tell you now, a year from today, ballroom music. Bang! In fact, I wanted to do an album in France because it’s cheap $30,000. I’ve got one of my arrangers there but I don’t want to go back into the collection and fighting with disc jockeys and con artists and laughing with guys you don’t wanna laugh with and talking to guys you don’t wanna talk to and you can’t understand them, anyhow…
JOE: That’s the reason you wouldn’t get back into it?
HY WEISS: I’m 70 years old. Isn’t that the best reason?
JOE: When all is said and done, for what would you like to be remembered?
HY WEISS: I really couldn’t give a damn. As long as my kids remember me. That’s the important thing. As long as somebody says a kaddish for me when I’m dead. That’s important. The other stuff doesn’t mean anything.
JOE: What legacy do you feel you’ve left?
HY WEISS: Children that graduated college and are doing very well and have MBAs and education, a son and daughter who have good marriages, great grandchildren…What else is more important?
JOE: How do feel you’ve left a legacy, musically speaking?
HY WEISS: By accident.
JOE: It doesn’t phase you?
HY WEISS: It’s not that important.
HY WEISS: What? You want the truth or you want to hear somebody talk just to hear himself? You want me to go into the great “I am”, “I is”, “I was”? It’ll never happen.
“Had Damon Runyon known Hy Weiss, he would have written another book.” – Larry Chance