By Bruce Spizer
On March 13, 2009, I received word that Alan Livingston had died. I wasn’t shocked. After all, he was 91 years old. But I was saddened. The fact that he had lived a remarkable life didn’t make me feel any better about his passing. I knew that I would be getting calls from the media to talk about his role in signing The Beatles to Capitol Records. And I knew that The Beatles were only a small part of his accomplishments. To refresh my memory, I pulled out a couple of my books to see what I wrote about him in 2000 and 2004. It brought memories of my visits to his home in Beverly Hills.
Although I wasn’t mainstream press and had only one self-published book under my belt, Alan was excited about my plan to write a book about The Beatles’ story on Capitol Records. He greeted me warmly and started with a brief summary about Vee-Jay and how the company had released Beatles records before Capitol. I politely listened for a few minutes and then told him that his information was wrong. Rather than scolding me or saying “I was there, you weren’t,” he asked me to tell him what my research had uncovered. After summarizing the convoluted story of Vee-Jay, Capitol and Swan, he was impressed with my knowledge and wondered why I needed to speak with him if I already knew what really happened.
I told Alan that I wanted to learn about the man who finally made the decision for Capitol to sign the Beatles and I wanted to know what influenced him to do so. Alan smiled and said, “Now that’s a story I can tell.”
I excitedly jotted down notes on his early life learning more than I could have ever imagined. Livingston began his career in the music business by leading his own big band orchestra while a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to receive a B.S. degree in economics from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. After serving as a lieutenant in the Army, he worked as a PR man for Calvert’s whiskey. Somehow this background convinced Capitol Records that he would be the perfect man to develop a catalog of children’s records for the company. Livingston’s first creation was Bozo the Clown, a character who would later become a television star and part of American culture. Bozo made his debut in 1946 on the Capitol album Bozo At The Circus, which was written and produced by Livingston. The album was an immediate hit, selling over 100,000 copies in its first month and quickly becoming a million seller.
Alan could tell I was surprised by his claim that he created Bozo the Clown, so he filled in some of the details. His motivation for creating children’s characters was to save Capitol licensing fees that were being paid for use of Disney and Warner Brothers characters. Although Bozo was his most famous creation, his favorite was Sparky and his Magic Piano. Capitol later sold the rights to Bozo the Capitol Clown to Larry Harmon, who took the character to the next level by making him a television star. Years later Harmon would tell the world that Bozo was his invention. When the Clown Hall of Fame learned that Harmon’s claims were false, its directors censured Harmon and ordered him to set the record straight. Livingston was promptly inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame as the creator of Bozo.
Subsequent research disclosed Capitol’s dominated the children’s record market under Livingston’s guidance. When the Best Selling Children’s Records chart made its debut in the June 12, 1948 issue of Billboard, eight of the top ten albums were Capitol releases, including the chart-topping Bozo At The Circus, the fantasy Bozo And His Rocket Ship and two other Livingston creations, Sparky’s Magic Piano and Rusty In Orchestraville. During 1949, there were many weeks when Bozo had four records in the top ten.
Livingston told me that he wrote and produced many of Capitol’s children’s records, including albums featuring Woody Woodpecker, Walt Disney properties and Warner Brothers cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny. He created the “Record-Reader,” a book and album combination that would be copied many times over. He also co-wrote the novelty tune “I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat,” which was a number nine pop hit for Mel Blanc in 1951.
Alan’s success with Capitol’s children’s record catalog earned him a promotion to vice-president. He moved from overseeing children’s records to working with adult artists such as Nat King Cole. I remember him telling me about an awkward situation he had with the singer. Alan’s bother, Jay Livingston, had written a song that Alan felt was a sure fire hit, but Cole would have nothing to do with it. Alan was reluctant to push too hard because it would appear as if he was only looking out for his brother. Eventually Cole agreed to record the song and allow it to be placed on the B-side of a track that Cole was convinced would be a hit. When the disc was released, DJs began flipping it over and playing the so-called B-side. The song was “Mona Lisa.” It raced up the charts, held the number one spot for eight weeks and went on to sell over three million copies.
Livingston was also responsible for bringing Frank Sinatra to Capitol. He spoke of the day he got a call from Sammy Weisbourg, president of the William Morris Agency, who had recently signed the singer. At the time, Sinatra’s career was at an all-time low, having been dumped by Columbia Records. Weisbourg asked whether Capitol would consider signing Sinatra. When Livingston said yes, the shocked Weisbourg replied “you would?” Some of Capitol’s employees wondered why the label should invest in Sinatra. Livingston’s answer was simple. Sinatra was a great singer and, if given the proper material and appropriate instrumental backing, he could once again sell records. On Livingston’s recommendation, Capitol signed Sinatra to a seven-year contract in early 1953.
Livingston wanted Sinatra to work with Nelson Riddle; however, the singer refused to do so out of his loyalty to arranger Alex Stordahl, with whom he had worked with for most of his career. When the first Sinatra-Stordahl recordings for Capitol failed to capture the magic Livingston and producer Voyle Gilmore were looking for, Sinatra reluctantly agreed to try a session with Riddle on April 30, 1953. That session produced the classic “I’ve Got The World On A String.” Another session yielded “Young-At-Heart,” which became the defining moment in Frank Sinatra’s comeback, peaking at number two during its 22-week run on the charts in spring, 1954.
In 1953, Alan Livingston brought Frank Sinatra to Capitol, and paired him with Nelson Riddle (at left with Sinatra). Young-At-Heart, arranged by Nelson Riddle, left no doubt that the “Chairman of the Board” was back.
After ten years with Capitol, Livingston left the record business to work for the National Broadcasting Company in 1956. While at NBC, he produced the pilot for a series that no one was interested it. Those were the days when television networks had to find a sponsor for a show. Despite the negative feedback, Alan believed in the series and convinced NBC’s parent company, RCA, to sponsor the show so it could get on the air. The series, complete with a catchy title song written by his brother Jay, quickly found an audience and ran for 14 years, becoming NBC’s longest running hour show—Bonanza.
In 1961, Capitol persuaded Livingston to return to the company as its president. But before getting to The Beatles, Alan told me a colorful story about Frank Sinatra. While at NBC, Capitol and the singer were locked in a stalemate over Sinatra’s desire to set up his own record company. Capitol was not receptive to the idea, so Sinatra retaliated by refusing to record. Alan called him up, expecting Frank to be excited about his return to Capitol. Alan was confident that he could get Ole Blue Eyes back in the studio. But when he called Sinatra, Livingston learned that even he could not repair the rift. Frank told Alan that Capitol could take its Tower with the spire and shove it up their collective ass.
After we both had a good laugh, Alan finally told the story I had traveled from New Orleans to Beverly Hills to hear. Capitol Records, as a subsidiary of EMI, had a right of first refusal to issue recordings by artists signed to EMI, which at the time was the world’s largest recording organization. Capitol assigned the task of reviewing all foreign product to Dave Dexter, whose background was in jazz and R&B recordings. In the forties, Dexter produced sessions for Capitol with Julia Lee that yielded songs full of sexual innuendoes. (“Snatch It And Grab It” spent 12 weeks as a number one R&B hit and “King Size Papa” topped the R&B charts for nine weeks.) But Dexter just didn’t get rock ’n’ roll. Even more important, the few times Capitol released recordings by British artists, the records usually flopped. Although Cliff Richard was a huge star in the U.K., his Capitol releases failed to chart. The lone exception was Laurie London’s “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” a number one hit in 1958.
So it was no surprise when Dexter turned down The Beatles first two singles, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” The latter song and the next single, “From Me To You,” ended up on Vee-Jay Records. But Capitol would again have the opportunity to release Beatles recordings in the States when Vee-Jay encountered financial difficulties and failed to pay its royalties on its Beatles releases. When Dexter turned down the next single, “She Loves You,” EMI began pressuring Capitol to reverse its decision and put out the song. When Livingston asked Dexter why he turned down The Beatles, Dexter replied, “Alan, they’re a bunch of long-haired kids. They’re nothing. Forget It.” So Livingston stood by his employee’s judgment and “She Loves You” ended up on Swan Records.
When Dexter later passed on “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” Beatles manager Brian Epstein took matters into his own hands. Livingston recalls getting a call from Epstein asking him why Capitol refused to issue the group’s records. Alan confessed that he had not heard the records. When Brian asked him to give them a listen, Alan called Dexter and asked him to bring him some Beatles discs so he could judge them himself. Livingston told me that he liked what he heard. “I thought they were something different. I can’t tell you in all honesty I knew how big they’d be, but I thought this is worth a shot.” When he called Epstein back to inform him that Capitol would issue the new single, Brian insisted that Capitol spend $40,000 to promote the first single. Although Brian was in no position to make such a demand, Livingston agreed.
Alan told me that he brought the single home for his wife, Nancy Olson, to hear. He was anxious for her opinion as she had an excellent ear and followed the popular music scene. After telling his wife that the single had the potential to change the music business, she listened to the song. Alan smiled as he told me of her response. “She said, ’I Want To Hold Your Haaaaaand, are you kidding?’ So I thought, maybe I made a mistake. We put the record out. I never got through the $40,000. The record exploded. And the rest is history.”
Just as he finished the story, his wife Nancy entered the room and told me her recollections. “Alan’s too modest.” She went on to explain that he was the one at Capitol who heard the group’s potential and arranged for the company to put its full resources behind The Beatles. She laughed as she recounted her initial reaction to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” telling the story from her perspective, but giving me the same facts. She scoffed at others such as Dave Dexter, who later took credit for signing The Beatles to Capitol. I remember her pointing her hand at me and saying, “Now you be sure to get the story right!”
After she left the room, Alan told me about The Beatles Campaign, which marked the first time that a record company marketed its artists and recordings directly to the consumer. Prior to that time, record companies did little more than place ads in the music trade magazines, figuring that they had done their job by getting word out to distributors, record stores and disc jockeys. That cost about a thousand dollars. But Alan had promised Brian that Capitol would spend $40,000, so the company had to get creative and come up with effective ways to apply the money on promoting the band. Although Livingston authorized the promotional campaign, he credits Brown Meggs, assisted by Freddie Martin, with putting it all together.
On December 4, 1963, Capitol released a press release on its signing of The Beatles, which contained the following quote from Livingston: “With their popularity in England and the promotion we’re going to put behind them here, I have every reason to believe The Beatles will be just as successful in the United States.” His bold prediction sounded like typical record company hype at the time, but it quickly proved true.
Although Dexter had been wrong about his assessment of The Beatles musical ability, Livingston did not fire or reassign him. Out of loyalty and faith, Livingston gave Dexter the task of compiling the group’s albums in America and selecting tracks for single release. While Capitol is often vilified for its dissection of The Beatles albums, the company’s decision to place hit singles on albums helped fuel album sales. Under Livingston’s guidance, Capitol sold millions of Beatles records as the group compiled gold record after gold record.
During his stay at Capitol, Livingston made sure that the label retained the right to issue the group’s records in America. Although others thought the group could not sustain its incredible success, he disagreed. “I made sure Capitol kept The Beatles because I knew the songwriting talents of John and Paul would keep them successful.” When Capitol resigned the group to a lucrative contract in 1968 that included a huge upfront bonus, the chairman of EMI criticized the move, telling him, “They’ve peaked, you won’t get your money back.” Livingston, of course, was right as the label got its money back on the first release under the deal.
When his wife Nancy reentered the room, I took the opportunity to ask about the fundraiser she and Alan hosted during The Beatles first U.S. tour. The afternoon garden party was held at the home of her mother in Brentwood, California. Alan arranged for the group to appear at a fundraiser, which was held for the benefit of the Hemophilia Foundation. This was a charity close to the Livngstons as their son was a hemophiliac. In order to attend the exclusive event, an adult had to contribute at least $25 and bring a child. Approximately 500 people attended, including several Hollywood stars. The Beatles were there for an hour, shaking hands and signing autographs for the kids working their way through the receiving line. Nancy told me how much it meant to the children and how it helped the group’s image. Alan recalled Paul’s confession that “It would have been easier to do a concert.” Nancy then left to run some errands and Alan and I forged onward.
Livingston’s recollections about the butcher cover would take up an article in itself. The short story is that Livingston knew the cover was a problem, but had no choice but to follow The Beatles wishes that the cover to Capitol’s “Yesterday And Today” album feature a picture of the group in butcher smocks draped with slabs of raw beef and baby doll parts. He argued with Brian, but The Beatles manager held firm. When distributors and disc jockeys slammed the cover after receiving pre-release copies of the album, Capitol had to pull the album from its distribution pipeline and prepare a new cover, costing Capitol over $200,000. After a few gut-churning days most copies of the album had been recovered (pun intended), leaving Livingston mentally exhausted. When an employee brought a box containing about twenty mono and four stereo copies of the album into Livingston’s office, he told the employee to take them out as he never wanted to see a Butcher cover again. The employee told him that he should take the albums home and save them, so Livingston brought the box home and placed it in his closet.
Twenty years later, in November, 1986, he turned the albums over to his son, Peter, to dispose of as he wished. To confirm the authenticity and origin of each album, Livingston prepared an affidavit stating that the sealed album was from his private collection and that he was “confident that the albums are among the few, if not the only, genuine remaining editions, in mint condition, and hope that you will treat and respect them accordingly.” The first few were sold by Peter at the Los Angeles Beatlefest, with later copies sold to collectors and dealers. These sealed albums are known among collectors as “Livingston Butchers” and are considered pedigree copies. Today mono copies sell for $25,000 to $30,000. Although none of the stereo Livingston Butchers have changed hands for a while, a collector recently turned down an offer to sell his copy for $80,000.
Livingston left Capitol in 1968 to establish his own production company, Mediarts, Inc., which was involved with film, records and music publishing. Two of the company’s successful projects were the film “Downhill Racer,” starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman, and Don McLean’s song “American Pie,” which was a number one hit in 1972. Livingston was president of the Entertainment Group of 20th Century Fox during the time “Star Wars” was developed. In 1988, Livingston published the novel “Ronnie Finkelhof, Superstar,” which tells the story of a Harvard pre-law student who becomes an overnight success as a rock musician.
My first visit gave me a treasure trove of interesting stories for my Capitol books. I went back to see him a few months later for follow up questions and to ask a big favor. I wanted to prepare a special edition of the Capitol books that would give collector’s something extra—Alan’s autograph. He agreed to this and signed 220 cover slicks that would be pasted on a cardboard slipcase housing both Capitol books. He never complaining during the signing and continued telling me stories about Sinatra and The Beatles. He also agreed to write the forewords for both of the Capitol books.
I went back to his Beverly Hills home a few years later with a Canadian journalist, Doug Thompson. Because we allowed extra time due to a severe morning thunder storm, we arrived about 15 minutes early. Nancy opened the door wearing her robe and informed us that “In Beverly Hills, it is better to be 30 minutes late than 10 minutes early.” After accepting our apologies for the sin of being early, she let us in and chatted with us until Alan’s arrival in the living room. Alan answered all of our questions and graciously signed some Bozo and Beatles albums for Doug. We both left with wide smiles on our face—the kind that children had after meeting Bozo the Clown in person.
Friday the 13th was the day Alan Livingston died. Although I received bad news on an unlucky day, I knew it was time for him to move on. I felt privileged to have known this remarkable man who went from Bozo to The Beatles, with Sinatra thrown in for good measure.