Posted September, 2009
At some time or another, have you ever fantasized about being on a first name basis with a certain celebrity? During your youth, did you ever dream about hanging out with your favorite movie, sports or music star?
Admit it. You would have loved to wow your friends and family with a celebrity knowing who you are and calling you by your first name or inviting you over to their place for dinner, wouldn’t you?
Well, if you are Ken Mansfield, you would have experienced just such a life many times over. At one time, Mansfield was considered good friends with three of the four Beatles. No, really, he was. Not only that, he was head of the U.S. arm of their record label, Apple Records and was present during the much bootlegged video shoot of their last concert on the rooftop of Apple Records in London (viewable here on YouTube. Ken is the one in the white jacket).
As the old Ronco commercials of the seventies use to say, “But, wait! There’s more!”
Mansfield was a high flying executive and producer for, among other companies, Capitol Records and on first name basis with many artists such as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Andy Williams, David Cassidy, Don Ho, among many, many more.
Kinda makes one want to put away those old fantasies for good, doesn’t it?
Ken Mansfield shares what amounts to 30 years of his life in three books. They are (in order of publication), “The Beatles, The Bible and Bodega Bay”, “The White Book” and, the recently released, “Between Wyomings”. All three tomes shed light on Mansfield’s illustrious career in the music industry.
With sales of “Between Wyomings” already doing well, this promises to be a very successful conclusion to Mansfield’s trilogy of life in the very fast lane of the music business. It was to discuss Ken’s new book that a recent phone conversation took place between the legendary producer and I. We also managed to talk about the music industry today and how it compares to how it was in the 60’s and 70’s.
I start off by asking Ken what the response has been like regarding his new book.
“It’s very, very strange. Like in ‘The Beatles, The Bible and Bodega Bay’, it got three kinds of responses. I’ve heard from people who loved the whole thing and the whole idea. And then I have people that really like the show business-travelogue part and don’t really care that much about the spiritual chapters. And others that just think the spiritual chapters are the whole thing and not that excited about the show business stuff.
Concluding the thought with a chuckle he says, “So, it’s been three ways and it shows where their true interests lie. And, so what I’m e-mailing my agent about is that I really feel that this is meant to be a CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) book that would cross back over into the secular field, more or less like Donald Miller’s, “Blue Like Jazz” and “A Same Kind as Different As Me”. I fear that, because of my previous books, it more or less, landed more to the secular side, which I think is not the side to get its initial acceptance. So I do have a good basis because of the readers of the previous books. I just think that we really need to concentrate more on the CBA.” He also lamented the back-of-the-store placement of his books in the large bookselling chains that create obstacles to sales of his book.
There is an especially poignant story in the book that involves Mansfield hopping a plane to London and, miraculously getting access to the famous roof top of the former Apple Records building. I posit the observation that “Between Wyomings” comes across that he is now trading what the roof top Beatles concert represents for new, more spiritual “roof top experiences”.
His answer just might disappoint the segment of his readers who only like the music industry travelogue portions of his writings.
“I have to say that’s basically what the idea is. In going to the roof and wrapping everything up there is me saying good-bye to these kinds of memoirs and that portion of my life and the struggle of back and forth with that. I’m an ordained minister. I’m what I’d like to consider to be a Christian author. I speak at churches and that’s really where I’m heading.
Ken goes on to describe that the book he’s currently working on is going to be in the in the style of “The Shack” or “Tuesday’s With Morrie”, concluding that “it’s going to be more in that direction and just totally leave anything to do with my background and business. I’m moving myself out of those (kinds of) books.”
I had to wonder, though, if his readers would even allow him to leave his past behind. His answer is refreshingly honest, forthright and delivered with a chuckle. “Well, I think so, because, if I was one of them, I would think that I was kind of tired hearing about me. And, I’m tired of talking about me and I’m already on the edge of repeating stories, you know.
Turning to a more introspective tone, he continues: “I think what I had to say – basically, what the books are, they are three books that are testimonies. And I’m moving from testimonies to story-telling and preaching, that kind of thing. I’m an evangelist. That’s what I am and so the purpose of the first book and the third book was really an evangelistic tool where I could draw people in for other reasons, you know? “ He concludes his thoughts by adding that it is his hope that he can hold the reader’s attention with the stories of his past while conveying the message of his spiritual journey and insights. Mansfield illustrates what he’s talking about with a story from his days as a sought after record producer and song writer.
“The reason I was successful as a record producer is I could never make a record that was just exactly on with what everybody else was doing. I always tried to make a record where I could grab more than one audience. That’s why I was starting to do the crossover records, you know, to where it would go into both the country market and the pop market, that kind of thing. I was looking for – especially with this last book, “Between Wyomings”, I’m looking at three markets. People that like to get into the travel type books. If you get me to read a travel type book – even if it’s bad, I just want to know what’s next. So, it’s got that aspect in it and it’s got the spiritual aspect and it’s got the show business/inside story thing.”
Furthermore, Ken relays that he has come to learn a lot about his writing style from the feedback he has received from his readers. He learned that he wrote books like he wrote songs. He is, in fact, a very lyrical writer, which he acknowledges. He has also come to realize that each sentence had a unique structure that was then mimicked in the resulting paragraphs, with the paragraphs arranged in a deliberate structure and story. He concludes, “I used to do arrangements, and write songs. I would write a good intro. Then a verse would bump into a chorus and then back to a verse. Then, two choruses and then out to a tag ending. People will always write in dichotomies. I think I always do that. I like to juxtapose things against each other. Like wearing an overcoat in warm weather, it’s just doesn’t make sense but there’s a reason for it. “Later, he states that “I write like a Christian on acid. “
In “Between Wyomings”, Mansfield relays details of the crash of his legendary career, where he landed, and the lessons that he gleaned from the experience. To the latter point, he unashamedly states that the lessons in humility were both necessary and priceless. My favorite of the stories involves an event that took place during a Whitney Houston concert. This and two other related stories can be helpful and instructive to any of us who have found ourselves un-, or under, employed. I asked him if he found that the stories resonate with his readers as well as listeners during his speaking engagements.
“I tell that story from the platform. It just blows everybody away. I’m really able to tell the story. I’m standing up there, usually with monitors and stuff, so I’m really able to tell the story because I have the props with me. It’s very natural because I’m telling the story from the stage, looking into the front row and audience, with stage monitors in front of them. I think THAT is probably one of the biggest points in the book, is the willingness to get down on your knees and not only in front of God Almighty, but in front of people and to have the humility and guts to be able to say, “Okay, here I am. I lay it down before you, Lord.” I’m not doing it in private because I didn’t do the other things in private. I did all of my decadence in front of thousands of people, so I’m laying it down in front of thousands of people, too. I think that’s a major point. “
With self-effacing humor, Mansfield ties in two similar stories that involve Julian Lennon and James Taylor. “I had three real biggies there. It was God saying, ‘I’m going to prick this thing about your pride. Okay, here’s a one punch. Here’s a two punch and a knock-out punch.’ The Julian thing was behind the amphitheater in the afternoon. The James Taylor thing was on stage with him and his band and few other people around. And then the Whitney thing was in front of ten or twenty thousand people. So, He (God) kinda ratched it up! So I thought, ‘Okay, duh!’”.
With Mansfield’s incredible experience in the music business, I just knew that he had to miss being “behind the glass” of the recording studio or hob-knobbing with the rich and famous. When I asked him if this was the case, his response was equally surprising, thoughtful, humorous and realistic.
“I did if it for 30 years. I’m done. Maybe, if Clapton called, I MIGHT do it. But, I got to thinking about it the other day and I don’t even think if Clapton called that I would want to do it. I’m just so focused on my ministry and my writing. I feel it’s like being like a pitcher in the major leagues. They can only throw so long and so hard before their arm starts giving out and I think I did that. I don’t think I have the “speed on the ball” that I use to have.”
I couldn’t resist referring to a comment he made towards the end of “The White Book” regarding Ringo Starr, I asked him if he and the former Beatle ever rekindled their close friendship.
“No, I’m afraid not. I was a bit surprised by the atmosphere when we last met. When we first met each other in 1965, we were young guys in our twenties and were together on so many different levels. We spent time together and our lives even fell apart together. And, obviously, we were part of the inner circle after the Beatles. I represented him in the 90’s and we went through our drug thing and mutual marriage ups and downs together. “We had so much history with each other and because he was a very common person, in a way, it made a friendship with him very easy.”
Ken also thinks that the passage of time coupled with the dichotomy of Ringo still performing and Mansfield now in the ministry has prevented the two from re-establishing any kind of relationship. That said, he laments, “I thought our history was something that we’d always have in common and be very close. We both felt awkward and I really didn’t feel like I had a desire to continue it. I think it was almost a known good-bye, in a way.”
Continuing on that thought, he goes on to say, “It’s very strange. I’ve written before that, when I worked for the Beatles, it was so cool. It wasn’t like, “I’m a Beatle and you’re not”, you know? It was just so easy. But when we met up, I’m standing there and I almost felt like, ‘He’s a Beatle and I’m not’, you know? It was a strange feeling because, in the beginning, I think, in some ways, he was more enamored with me than I was with him. So, I don’t know. It’s very strange.”
Ken then concludes the “Ringo Story” with this introspective thought: “And I felt that was . . . one of the many little pieces of the severance from the past. I don’t care anymore. I don’t care if I go backstage anymore. I don’t care if they go, “Hey, Ken! How ya doin’?” I don’t care anymore.”
I move the topic of conversation to the state of music and the music industry. I lead off by telling Ken that some of my other interview subjects have said to me that they prefer going “analog” versus “digital.
Mansfield jumps right on the question. “Yeah, and I think that it’s more than the technology being analog. I think the emphasis of what they’re saying is really on the environment of how we use to record. It was very real. It was very natural. I think that’s what they mean by the analog experience. I totally understand that.
“I have been approached recently by a Christian project that is probably the only thing that I would consider. And the reason I would consider it is because it would done in that manner, like we use to do in the old days. I mean, it’s not that we’re not going to use the technology and all that is available to us. But I really want to go back to the “analog” atmosphere. That’s what I’m comfortable with.
This subject then leads me to the more routine questions that I ask in my interviews. I start off by asking Ken if he agrees with the line of thinking that the 60’s and 70’s generated music with more meat and substance than is produced today. His answer is quite thought provoking and is sure to step on the toes of artists and industry executives alike.
“I would agree to that and I think there’s an absolute reason for it. I don’t think that I’m even second guessing this. I think it’s because we worked harder at it. I think it meant more to us, and I think the music is what drove us and not the fame and finances.
“We got to pick our own band mates and these were people we got along with, who we had history with and spent five years in the back of the van with. Kind of like how the Beatles were playing 10 shows a night in the Cavern – that little stinky, dark, dirty, smoky place, all that time. I think in those days, bands earned their stripes and put themselves together. I think if you had a band mate that wasn’t holding his own, he was out. It was a very strong work ethic.
“So many people that I’ve talked to have the same feelings. I got into music because I was into music. I was actually embarrassed the first time somebody paid me money for making music because I’d do that anyway! Give me a paycheck and then let me be on an expense account and let me hang out with famous people and let me hear all this music and travel? I get PAID for this?
“But, anyway, I think that’s why any time you look at the five biggest concert grosses of the year – every year – it’s all guys in their sixties and fifties these days. It’s the Bruce Springsteen’s and the Rolling Stones, the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s, those kind of acts. Pink Floyd coming back out and stuff. It’s the bands. “
The fuse is lit and so he continues, “I asked my youngest son, ‘Why are you buying Iron Butterfly and Doors and records like that?’ He said, ‘Dad, you have better music than we do.’ The producer of the Doors told me – this was many years ago – he made much more money on re-releases from young people coming to the music than when he did when the Doors were famous and on the charts.”
Becoming a little more pensive, he states, “I think, maybe, if you had to put it down in three words, it would be, ‘We had heart.’ We weren’t run by a group of accountants, lawyers, and investors who picked a guy from Cincinnati and that guy from Ft. Lauderdale because he has curly hair and this guy has a high voice. We just came together and made it happen.”
With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this year, I asked him where he thought, back then, society would be 40 years later and did we make it there.
“Well, I didn’t think any of us were going to be past 30 so I never thought that far ahead. Until we got to 30 we thought we were invincible and that the whole dream was going to go on forever. I knew (Woodstock creator and promoter) Artie Kornfeld through all of that stuff. I was supposed to be there and wasn’t because I was involved in a Beatles thing and I had to make my choice. But I think that there is a current and a revolution, a revitalization of the music out of that era in both secular and Christian genres. “
Mansfield latches on to that latter genre, which I get the impression is his new, real musical passion.
“This Friday, I’m going to have the experience of my life. Love Song (a Christian rock group popular in the early 70’s) is reuniting at Chuck Smith’s church in Costa Mesa. That’s where the whole thing started, in part, because of Chuck Smith and the whole Calvary Chapel thing came about. They (Love Song) were the Beatles of Christian music. They’re getting back together and I think something’s going to come out of that.”
Ken wraps up his thoughts about the 70’s Christian music business by expressing his love and admiration for stalwarts like Chuck Girard, Randy Stonehill and a mutual favorite of ours, guitar phenomena, Phil Keaggy.
I wrap up our conversation with a couple of more questions, starting with, “What do you see as the single, most positive change in the music, or music business, since you were involved in it?”
Mansfield is ready to answer. “ Well, there’s a couple of things and they’re things I don’t understand. I think the fact that the record company is no longer king and people do have – if they’re turned down or rejected - they’re not dependent on the record company signing them. And they’re also not dependent on finances. These kids can get back in their bedroom with ProTools and start making these (CD’s).
“And ,I think also, hand in hand in with that is, the electronics and the ease can really be – “ Stopping mid-sentence, Ken drills in to the meat of his point. “You know, if a guy isn’t really a string arranger, he can still hear something and still accomplish it on his own through technology. All the toys he has to use allow somebody to really be fully creative beyond their physical abilities.”
Still on a roll, Mansfield reveals a little secret about his days in the studio. “I use to arrange all my own records. I can’t write music. On string arrangements, what I would do is sing them in somebody else’s ear that could write it down.”
I then asked Ken the converse question: What are the negatives that he sees in music, and the music business, today compared to his days in the business?
“I’m really going to get into something here. I just think that the morality and the greed of our society with the young people . . . they’re different now. They want something and they want it right now and they want it to shine and they want it to go fast and then they’ll forget about it. It doesn’t mean as much to them.
“I think, the corporations have ruined themselves. When I was in the music business, people had heart. They had an idea. People would just go with something. The record companies were music people and they would go, “I see something in this kid.” The kid didn’t have to have a full management team with agents, a record already made, a concert tour in effect, or whatever.
“As a producer, independent producer, I was able to walk in to (former Capitol Records executive) Al Coury’s office and say, ‘I got this guy and I have been looking at him and here’s what he brings to the table and here’s what I think I can do with him.’ And we would make an album deal on the artist based on my conversation because Al Coury trusted me and he knew and liked the concept I had. I validated the artists. I played a couple of his tapes so he could hear what the artist sounded like and make a deal on that.”
We close our conversation by talking about some of the artists today that commands his attention. Not surprisingly, he’s on top of a lot that’s going on, especially in the fields of Alternative and Country music.
“What’s happened to me is I love alternative radio. I love the bands I’m hearing and their creativity. Sometimes, I’ll hear a new band, and I’ll hear the intro and I’ll hear Led Zeppelin, the Beatles or, I don’t know, Waylon Jennings in there. I just see this creativity.
“And the problem is, maybe they’ll ‘back announce’ it on the radio sometimes they don’t so I don’t even know who it is. I try and track it down online and I can’t find it. And the problem is, even though it’s a great band, they’re not consistent and it’s to the point where they don’t have success that keeps it ongoing to where you can stand back, getting into the band. But, I just love what’s happening with all the alternative music.
“There’s a group called Amos in Ohio, and I cannot find anything out about them. I heard probably the best alternative record I’ve ever heard as I was going across the country one day when we were on tour. I tried everything to find that record.”
Are you hearing this, Amos in Ohio? You heard it here first.
He wraps up by chatting briefly about current country guitarists Brad Paisley and Keith Urban and then tying a nice little bow around it by invoking the band, Foreigner.
Mansfield says that “he (Paisley) is one of the best guitarist around. Keith Urban and him got together on one of these shows recently and it was just super. They play their guitars without looking at the frets. I like that! They really know their instrument, you know? Both Keith and Paisley have that special thing and so does Keaggy.
“Get the album, The Best of Foreigner, and you’re going to be floored when you put their hits together, how good they were (chuckles). I didn’t realize how good they were when they were big and it, just in retrospect, I go, ‘Whoa! These guys had powerful production and songs and performance.’ Amazing!”
Talking with Ken Mansfield is a treat for those of us who get off on hearing the people behind the scenes share their thoughts and insights about what was, what is and what should be. There’s a lot more where this interview came from. To learn more, I would highly recommend reading all three of Ken’s books and in order of publication. However, if you must pick one, I would strongly suggest reading “Between Wyomings”.