Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bill Lawrence

Image from the Doo Wop Shoo Bop.

Back in the early sixties, it was easy enough for local groups to get recorded; there were studios and labels galore. The labels may have been regional in reach, but getting on vinyl could at least get a band some local airtime, and that led to steady gigs.

They could even launch chart-landing careers, like Joe Averbach's Fee Bee did with the Del Vikings, Herb Cohen and Nick Cenci's Co & Ce did with Lou Christie and the Vogues, Lou Guarino's World Artist did with Chad & Jeremy, and Lou Caposi & Bill Lawrence's Calico did with the Skyliners.

Today we're gonna take a quick peep at Lawrence, who is often the forgotten guy among Pittsburgh's early rock entrepreneurs.

Bill Lawrence was a South Side kid who came up when times were tough during the Depression, scuffling for nickels and dimes. Entertainment is often an economic driver out of the 'hood, and Bill had a voice that helped punch his ticket. He went from singing telegrams to a spot on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in New York, taking first place on the nationally broadcast CBS Radio show.

That led Lawrence on a barnstorming career as a big band leader, but making music wouldn't end up his calling card. As the curtain closed on the big band era, he moved on to the industry side of the business in the early fifties.

He started out as the sales director of Chicago's United Record Distributors, then went on to become CBS/Columbia Records as a Promo and Sales exec, pushing acts like Johnny Ray and Guy Mitchell. Next, Lawrence jumped to the new Epic label, where he became an A&R guy, the National Director of Artists Relations and was in charge of pop single sales.

But like many Pittsburgh guys, he discovered that the grass wasn't any greener in the outside world, and came back to the City in 1956. He converted partial ownership of Pittsburgh's Portal Distributorship into a company of his own, the One Stop Record Distribution Company. It had a pretty solid stable of labels to push, including Epic, ABC, London, Okeh, Vic, and Zephyr.

About the same time, Lawrence and attorney Lou Caposi set up Calico Records, with Lenny Martin as A&R head, arranger and part owner. In 1958, they fell into a rose garden when Joe Rock brought in the Crescents, fresh off a baker's dozen rejections from national labels, for a knockout demo. They quickly took them to New York's Capitol Studios and recorded “Since I Don’t Have You.” Oh, they also changed the group's name while in the Big Apple, to the Skyliners.

The Skyliners were the mainstays of the label, which also recorded local acts like Canonsburg's Donnybrooks and Walt Maddox. Then in late 1959, Lawrence pulled the plug on Calico after the Skyliners jumped to Columbia Pictures Colpix label and started Alanna Records, named after his wife. That label also focused on local performers like ElRoy (Leroy Grammer) & the Excitements, Chuck Edwards and Baldwin's Four Seasons.

He also started up the Western World label and its subsidiary Super M in the seventies with Lou Gaurino, veering off the beaten path by recording funk artists BlackLove and George Bacasa's cutting edge jazz group The Silhouettes.

While none of Lawrence's labels exactly sent shivers of fear up the spines of the national behemoths, there are two things that have to be remembered. His bread-and-butter was his distribution business, not the labels. And secondly, of all the labels that were jostling for acts in the sixties, Lawrence's Alanna is the only one that is still standing today.

By the early sixties (“Alanna Records Presents - Pittsburgh Rhythm and Blues/Rock 1959-1963” was their last pop release), Lawrence transformed Alanna into an almost boutique label. He made the Fifth Avenue shop a home for the music he appreciated - jazz, big band, swing and adult contemporary with a limited catalog of some 60 titles.

A niche market, to be sure, but one that supported itself. The label was even a pacesetter as a big fish in a small pond. Ed Salamon wrote that "Alanna’s success with The Spitfire Band and their Laurie Bower Singers almost single handedly reestablished the market for authentic Big Band music."

The independent model has its supporters. In 2005, Lawrence finally handed over Alanna's reins to Digital Dynamics Audio Inc., a recording and design group that wants to establish a jazz/classical label. Thomas Kikta, Digital Dynamics president, told the Pittsburgh Business Times that the deal enabled his company to "cover the chain from studio to retailer."

So when you look over your pile of old Pittsburgh-sound 45s, remember that Bill Lawrence not only was responsible for the music on a lot of those scratchy disks; his company was probably the one that got it to the store you bought it from. And of all those labels of yore, his is the only one left in the City.

We'd like to thank again Ed Salamon, whose article gave us a framework to built the post. Ed is a Brookline guy with a influential spot in radio broadcasting history and the author of "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio."

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