Harold Thau, an accountant turned business manager and producer whose clients included stars from Nina Simone to John Denver, has written an autobiography that feels like two separate books. The first 40 pages resemble a gently reflective memory play, and the remainder shifts into showbiz mode. Thau (with collaborator Arthur Tobier), comes up with some graceful passages, but mostly his prose is dry and distant. It rarely infuses events with flesh-and-blood drama.
His early look at a Bronx boyhood features a few colorful characters — Jake the pickle man, Bobby the rebel friend who encouraged him to steal from the school principal’s office. But clashes between his heavy-drinking father and more practical mother lack power, and he refers to valuable friendships without individualizing the relationships to convey their meaning. Only one description, about the subway, which he describes as “the sensation of one’s life hanging by a thread,” evokes the Bronx in a way we can see, smell and feel it.
The story gains urgency when Thau portrays the various entertainers he represented. His portrait of the gifted Simone, analyzed as “a volatile lady with manic depressive swings,” is an arresting study of self-destructiveness. The tale of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal’s nightclub, which failed when he refused, as a Muslim, to serve liquor, presents an intriguing view of religion vs. business savvy.
Guitarist Wes Montgomery is poignantly pictured as a great musician who drove himself to death playing “every rat dive, juke joint and smelly club.” The affection Thau retains for these clients when they overspend, misbehave or fail to express appreciation seeps through, even when the storytelling maintains its clinically objective tone.
A chapter on his courtship with wife Dorothy could have used some juice and humor. The pace picks up, though, with Thau’s closeup of comedian Jackie Vernon and his perceptive analysis of comedians in general. He highlights their naked need for laughter and the terror when laughter doesn’t come.
As if suddenly springing awake after sleepwalking, Thau seizes the dramatic reins and becomes intensely emotional and angry when he zeroes in on Jerry Weintraub. The manager is grimly defined as a treacherous Sammy Glick, a man of “incipient megalomania,” out for his own glory at the expense of his clients. Shown here as a self-proclaimed and -tailored god, master manipulator and credit taker, Weintraub gives a shot of compelling villainy to this low-key saga.
Denver dominates the last portion of the book. His stratospheric rise and unexpected descent are sensitively told. Since the singer is shown as a genuinely moral, deeply principled man, we feel a strong sense of satisfaction following his triumphs. Our identification makes the bleak final phases of his career — bitterness when record sales plummet, escalating self-pity, constant complaining — particularly painful. Denver is the one character we come to know intimately, and his mysterious death is the book’s most moving moment.
The climactic section of Thau’s narrative deals briefly with his theater producing and current life in Aspen. “Bronx To Broadway” benefits from its star profiles, but neither the Bronx nor Broadway ever explodes enough to attain a mythic, gritty stature that would get under the reader’s skin.