Posted March, 2010
When one hears the words “publicity” or “public relations”, one normally doesn’t think of the people behind the scenes who craft and guide the activities that fall under those two umbrellas. One such person who is a legendary veteran of the crafts of publicity and PR is Jo-Ann Geffen, President of JAG Entertainment.
Since moving to the Los Angeles area from New York to open an office for the Commodores back in 1978, Jo-Ann’s finesse in the booking and PR field led her to represent such artists of interest to the Baby Boomer generation as: David Cassidy, Diahann Carroll, the Commodores, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Robin Gibb, Barbara Walters and Nancy Cartwright, to name just a few.
However, Ms. Geffen is more than a leader in the entertainment industry. She has recently become an author of note, writing a fascinating and captivating book in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series subtitled The Story Behind the Song. It provides the personal stories behind 101 songs such as My Way, She’s Gone, Cruisin’, The Heart of Rock n’ Roll, and many, many more (97 more, to be exact).
I recently spoke with Jo-Ann by phone about her book and her insights into the music industry. Speaking from her home in lovely Southern California, she graciously shared her time as well as her insights to her book and into the ever changing world of the entertainment business.
In telling me about the 90+ artists covered in the book, she explains that, “There are only a hand full who have multiple songs in the book. Lamont Dozier has two; Diane Warren has two; Richie Sambora has two; Melissa Manchester has two because they were so different. Other than those people, they were individual songwriters but mostly singer/songwriters”.
How did the book come about?
“I was invited to a meeting for publicity in Las Vegas. I was sitting in a room with a host of people and amongst them was one of the creators of the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand – he wrote the original books – and the gentleman who bought the publishing arm of the company.
“I was listening to them describe and discuss the Chicken Soup brand and all of the various titles they have. I was, frankly, shocked. I had no idea. I mean, I was familiar, certainly, with the brand. You would have to be under a rock not to be. Beyond that, I had no conception that they had touched so many different areas.
“They’ve got books for the golfer, the teenager, dog lover, whatever. They’ve got everything. But they had nothing that dealt with entertainment, specifically, celebrities or music. So, as I was sitting there, I was remembering some of the fabulous stories that I had heard – be it personally or on the radio or whatever – and thinking, ‘Wow! These are great inspirational stories! Why haven’t they done this?’
“So, when the meeting was over, I got to chat with the publisher, I asked, ‘Do you ever take outside ideas?’ He said, ‘Yeah, all the time!’ I said, ‘What do you think about Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Songs?’ He said, ‘Oh, my god! Let’s do it!’ It was really that simple!
“He said, ‘Get a list to me of the people you think you can get and I’ll put together a deal memo.’ That’s exactly how it happened.”
As a celebrity interviewer, I know that it can sometime be difficult to persuade people to chat about their work. They’ve been asked the same question a million times. I asked Jo-Ann if she encountered any difficulty in getting any of the artists to tell her their stories.
“Actually, it wasn’t. There were some people that I would’ve like to have had that I don’t but, you know, I’m very satisfied with everyone in it. I really like the fact that it does not align with any specific genre of music. It’s a fairly eclectic mix so it makes it, I think, more interesting. It also shows the commonalities between people.
“Just because one song is set to country music and one is set to rap or one is set to hard rock, it doesn’t mean that the sensibility is any different, that the emotions are any different or that the experiences are any different. The specific experience may be but, basically, human experience is human experience. We have love, we lose love. There are traumatic things that happen to a lot of these people just as they happen to each of us.
“We think that their lives are all rosy but the fact is that a lot of these people have overcome horrific, horrific experiences and very tough lives. We tend to forget that and expect them to be these iconic human beings who don’t have any baggage or don’t have any bad memories and they should be tolerant and patient and all loving. It’s a tall order.”
I wondered if, conversely, what the differences she views between the genres.
“I think you see a lot of different cultural history. In other words, some of the country artists describe lifestyles or homes that are very different than what I grew up in, for instance. I think it was Billy Bob Thornton or Tracy Lawrence who talks about a ‘shotgun house’. He simply describes what that is which is, simply, a one room house with a front door and back door that were parallel and, if the doors were open, you could shoot a shotgun straight through the house! That’s how it got its name. I never heard of that. I grew up in New York City.
“Things like that I found intriguing, interesting and informative. There were different experiences like that. There were a lot of Pop Culture references. There was Ray Stevens’, The Streak, so that kids, who weren’t around in the 70’s this ridiculous fad, would know what we’re talking about. It’s kind of fun that that’s the way it’s introduced to them.
“Of course, there’s very serious topics. You have Jewel talking about her homelessness and how, because she didn’t have health insurance, she almost died. It was only by the grace of a young doctor, who was caring, treated her laying in the street.
“Then you have Christina Aguilera, who was abused as a kid and escaped her house and managed to still become successful. Therein lies the inspiration. What you see is not always what is. You have to explore peoples pasts, their nature and their experiences in order to understand them. And, also, that we can all, if we try hard enough and if we work towards it, can all overcome tragedy and horrific experiences. We just have to learn how to rise above it. Not IF we can, but HOW we can, and these are great examples because no one gave these celebrities anything. They pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and worked for their success.
“These are self-made people who have turned out to be happily married, with kids and successful. But the business success is almost secondary to the fact that they’ve even been able to succeed at life. These are very personal insights and the fact that they shared them, I thought, was very special.”
One of the more poignant chapters in The Story Behind the Song is the story behind the Commodores’ hit, Zoom, written by group member, Ronald LaPread. I won’t tell you the whole story here (you must buy the book!), but I will say that it is a real tear-jerker.
“I’d worked with the Commodores . . . since their first audition in life! I’ve known them all since we were all kids. I knew Ronald during this whole thing (the experience that lead to the writing of Zoom), and have remained friends with him, and I was actually shocked by some of the details. I was not aware of a lot of it.
“I knew that it was during the time that Cathy (LaPread’s late wife) was sick. I knew that she had passed away. I knew the song was a kind of tribute to her. I didn’t know how involved she was. I didn’t know what all he went through. I didn’t know about the kind of paranormal experiences he had. It was quite enlightening for me and I wound up saying to him, ‘I feel terrible! I wish that I had known. I would have been there for you more.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re here now’ and he just sort of laughed it off.
“Sometimes, you just have no idea. He (LaPread) is a very private person and really didn’t feel it necessary to discuss what was going on. The guys knew because they were right in the thick of it with him.”
Geffen went on to say that this story was one of the more personally enlightening pieces in the book. “I knew it but I didn’t know the details – quite how intense of an experience it was in the writing of that song in relation to her being sick.”
What were some of the more surprising tales in the book?
“Several were surprising to me. Jerry Cantrell’s (from Alice in Chains) was pretty amazing. His song, Rooster, is really about his dad who went off to Vietnam – obviously, not of his own volition. Jerry was a young guy at the time and really resented his dad for going. Also, when he came back, he was such a different human being that it was hard to comprehend. There was no communication between them.
“I guess that his dad didn’t have it within him to explain himself and Jerry never turned to him and said, ‘You know, I’m in pain. Help me. Talk to me.’ It took writing this song and playing it for his dad – his dad hugging him and began opening up and telling him what he went through and Jerry doing the same. It (the song) was the bridge that gapped their relationship. They’re now the best of friends and business partners.
Everything is great but it took this form of communication, this venting through music, to be able to actually open the door to that relationship again. You would never know any of this by listening to the song. ‘Rooster’ was his dad’s nickname – that’s where the name of the song came from.
“Art Alexakis, of Everclear, wrote Father of Mine. He came from a family where his father was a dead-beat dad. When he (Art) had his first child, he realized what an honor it was to be a parent – what a terrific experience he was having with it. He couldn’t understand how his dad could not have gotten that – how he could have walked away from that opportunity and not take any responsibility for it.
“Art has become an active spokesperson on behalf of people with deadbeat dads. He’s appeared before Congress and has done a whole lot to help in this area. The song is about both sides of his experience – being the victim of a deadbeat dad and being fortunate to be a father of young children.”
One of the stories behind the songs that I got a big kick out of, though it wasn’t a surprise to me at all, was Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, written by band member, Doug Ingle. Jo-Ann shares the story:
“There have rumors about the song but I don’t think they were ever definitive. When he (Ingle) was writing it, he and his pals were drinking up a storm, as many did in those days, and having a good ol’ time partying with some girls. He was on deadline to finish a song for the album because the album was almost finished.
“Interestingly, a lot of these songs were the last song on an album. Several were written under pressure. But in this case, Doug had told his band mates that he would get it done that night. He wrote a good part of the song and was intent on finishing it but as he was singing it, he was slurring his words so badly that they were almost indistinguishable.
“What he wanted to say was, ‘In The Garden of Eden’. Instead, it came out as ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. It became so catchy that they stuck with it! Night Ranger – the same thing. Sister Christian was supposed to be Sister Christy, Kelly Keagy’s sister’s name, but it came out sounding like Sister Christian and it sounded so much better and they stuck with it.”
In the course of our conversation, I asked Ms. Geffen if there were any songs covered in the book that were typically misunderstood. Her reply was interesting and insightful.
“I don’t think that there are any songs in the book that are misunderstood – just not understood but I don’t think that there are any that are so ‘polar’ from perception. I think that a lot of the ones we’ve mentioned were not understood. What the writers do is give more insight into the songs.
“For instance, Melissa Etheridge, Come To My Window. That’s quite interesting, too. Although, superficially, it was what it was, in that she was writing it about a bad relationship, as time passed, it took on whole other meanings. One was that it became an anthem of the Gay Rights movement.
“Then, secondarily, after she had her cancer surgery, she and some friends were at home and they were trying to entertain her. And one of the friends said, ‘Have you ever listened to all of your recordings back to back chronologically?’ She said, ‘No, why would I?’
“So, they did and it took three days because they talked about the songs. When Come To My Window came on, there’s a phrase in there that refers to removing the blackness from her chest. She, of course, was talking about her heart, her soul, her third eye kind of thing, in terms of removing the emotional pain. But, she just had the ‘blackness’ in her chest removed and it was prophetic in that sense and took on a whole new meaning for her. I had not thought of that part of it before but it was quite enlightening and special.”
As we wrapped up talking about Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song and move on to other industry related questions, I asked Jo-Ann if there was a sequel planned for the book.
“I don’t know. Hopefully. I guess it’s a matter of how well it sells and if they want to do another one. But, yeah, it would be fun! There are certainly a lot more people to talk to!”
As we turned to discussing the music business in general, I asked Ms. Geffen some of the same questions that I have asked others in the business, starting with if she thought that the music today was lacking the same “meat” and substance that “our” music did in the 60’s and 70’s.
“Well, as I was saying with Art Alexakis and Father of Mine, maybe not as lyrically articulate, should we say? Maybe not Paul Williams’ style of being that lyrical but certainly I think that the essence is there. I think that a lot of it has to do with the music because we don’t hear the lyrics as clearly now – or, at least I don’t. I can only speak subjectively.
“But, when I’m listening to songs, I just kind of hear the beat more than the words. But when we heard ballads or even Ray Stevens type of songs – country songs you can still pretty much hear the words. But a lot of the Pop and Rock, you just don’t. You never did but you really don’t now. Some of these songs are really impactful but you have to get past the drums and the guitars! You have to try that much harder to get the words. Before, the melody line was the key. That was the first thing you heard but now it’s not, at least as far as I’m concerned.”
The second standard question I asked Jo-Ann was what did she see as the biggest positive change in the music business?
“I guess the ability to say almost anything you want to say. I mean, I don’t approve of everything being said. I think that a lot of the offensive and murderous language could be curtailed. I don’t think they should be provocative in the sense that it incites people to do something that they might not ordinarily do in terms of violence or things that can provoke people to that point.
“Having said that, we do have freedom of speech and it does allow us to say, ‘Oh, my god, I’m not the only one who thinks that!’ It doesn’t mean I have to act on it. I think that, as much as society is open with our feelings, the music is reflecting that. So, it’s become more insightful and more personal and more open, I think.
“I do prefer the days, for instance, when the Commodores were in the studio with six guys who just played their instruments and that was it . . . and played them simultaneously! I think there’s a synergy that’s reflected in the music itself when people work together, literally in concert. They can make changes as they go. It makes the groups more cohesive, too, because they’re on the same page.”
I wrapped up our conversation with asking Jo-Ann Geffen a question that I’ve never had the privilege of asking others I’ve interviewed: If there was one thing from her perspective as a PR guru, what would she like to tell Boomerocity readers about celebrities? Before I could even finish the question, she answered with point blank precision.
“That they’re human. They are human! Our expectations of them can only be what we expect of ourselves. You have to think about the responsibilities that they have and the work load they have. Yes, they have a lot of money and, yes, they have fame. But there is a price that’s attached to that and I think that we have to respect that.
“I think that too many people think that they can run up to a celebrity while they’re in the middle of changing a diaper or having dinner with their wife or husband or exhausted after a show where they’ve put everything into it and they’ve been on the road for weeks. They expect them to stop everything and pay attention to them, take a picture, kiss their babies. Sometimes that will happen if they’re able to pull it off but sometimes they’re just too bloody tired. Or, they’ve been through a traumatic experience that they try to cover up on stage but they can’t cover up one-on-one.
“I think we really need to think about people – not just as objects and not just as our personal entertainment but they’re human beings! Yes, we’re paying for it and, yes, we deserve to have a great show. But, that doesn’t mean that we have to be personally entertained on their time. I think there’s a fine line that has to be drawn and respected.
“There’s nothing wrong with going up, politely, and saying to someone, ‘I just want to tell you that I’m an admirer.’ That’s always appreciated but you also can’t get angry if they say, ‘Would you mind? I’ve really got to go.’ I think that, if that is the response, that people should respect that and understand it.”
After our conversation, I couldn’t help but think of the music this legendary woman witnessed, promoted and influenced in her life and career. Yet, rather than draw attention to herself in her first book, she, being the consummate professional, promotes others and their work. A lot can be said about putting others first and Jo-Ann Geffen does so in a classy and intriguing way in her book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song.
Why don’t you pick up a copy for yourself? While you’re at it, why not pick up extra copies to give to family and friends who might enjoy the incredible stories behind their favorite songs?