New Jersey Stories: Music Executives Remember Their Formative Years in the Garden State

All this talk about Bruce Springsteen got us thinking of the people and the places that shaped the music scene in New Jersey — and those who graduated from the Garden State to hold important positions in the industry. Three such influencers — UMPG’s Jody Gerson, whose dad owned a popular South Jersey club; SiriusXM’s Steve Leeds, who took on MTV with a local cable access channel; and Matt Pinfield, the veteran radio personality-turned-author — shared a few of their Jersey memories with Variety….

Jody Gerson, Chairman/CEO Universal Music Publishing Group

I didn’t know people from New Jersey had a bad rap until I moved to New York and heard the term “bridge and tunnel crowd.” I grew up in Philadelphia where our New Jersey was a destination — South Jersey.

South Jersey was also the place my family had a nightclub called the Latin Casino. It was a dinner theater capable of seating 2,000 and, in its heyday, was compared to New York’s Copacabana. Every major star played at the Latin. Fans drove from all over to see their favorite acts — from as far as Baltimore and New York City, sometimes even in church buses. They came dressed in their finest clothes. Going to the Latin was a big night on the town.

Every Sunday, my mom would take my brother Billy and me to the Latin for dinner and to watch the matinee show with my father and grandpop Dallas. We would have to dress all fancy with our best shiny, shoes, and drive from our home on the Main Line over the Benjamin Franklin  Bridge that connects Philadelphia to Camden. I remember watching excitedly as our mom would throw coins into the toll booth before entering New Jersey.

Down Route 70, through the traffic circles, we’d pass the King of Pizza, liquor stores and various diners before arriving at the Latin. In those days, artists who performed at the club played seven-day engagements plus a matinee show on Sundays. From our ringside seats (see photo below), my brother and I would order our dinner, usually the Polynesian platter, which came with spare ribs, lo mein and egg rolls. If memory serves, my mom and dad had the steak. My brother drank a Roy Rogers and I would have a Shirley Temple. I’d bet that my parents ordered their share of vodka on the rocks.

My brother and I got to see some of the greatest entertainers of that time — among them: Diana Ross and the Supremes, all of the Motown acts, Richard Pryor, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Ray Charles,  Sammy Davis, Jr., Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Gladys Knight, to name a few. Each headliner was preceded by a comedian who served as the opening act. We saw Freddie Prinze, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Joey Bishop, Red buttons… Name a famous comedian of that time, and they played the Latin.

The Latin Casino
CREDIT: Courtesy of Jody Gerson

As a kid, I also spent a lot of time in another casino destination: Atlantic City. There, I remember long walks on the boardwalk, salt water taffies, miniature golf, Steel Pier, Lucy the Elephant, playing at the beach with all of my cousins and waiting anxiously for the ice cream man carrying his portable freezer on his back to come in our direction — not to mention the most delicious hoagies at the White House.

The Latin closed in 1978 and I’ve since moved to Los Angeles, where I raised my kids. It’s not coincidental that I chose to work in music. My memories of the club — and of New Jersey — remain magical to me.

* * *

Matt Pinfield, radio personality and host of Westwood One’s “Flashback”

I really have to laugh when people talk smack about New Jersey. First of all, we gave the world Einstein, Edison, and Nicholson just to name a few. So many talented people in every sector of arts and entertainment — and especially music — came from the Garden State. There was a reason for that: while growing up in the shadow of New York City and Philadelphia, it would be harder to break out as an artist, it also guaranteed access to some of the greatest live shows in music history. Not to mention proximity to some of the most cherished venues on the East Coast.

When I was program director of WHTG, a modern rock station at the Jersey Shore, I realized that New Jersey has some of the most proactive music fans in America — always out to support and sing the praises of new, up-and-coming touring artists, as well as the biggest acts in the world.

To share memories of amazing shows I attended is a history lesson in some of the most important performances the state has seen. Starting with Asbury Park, where the legendary Stone Pony still thrives, and has hosted thousands of shows throughout the years. It was the sort of place where you never knew when Bruce would join an artist to guest on a song or two. That made the club a destination, regardless of who was on the bill.

Just down the boardwalk is Asbury’s legendary Convention Hall, where I witnessed Bruce Springsteen perform an intimate Christmas show.

The now defunct Fast Lane was a place that brought in the latest New Wave, punk and post-punk bands. It’s also where Jon Bon Jovi cut his teeth as a performer and was the first place U2 played in Jersey on the American tour for their debut album “Boy.” At the Fast Lane, I also saw Springsteen jump on stage with the Stray Cats to perform “Fever”.

North Jersey had many great clubs, but it was the Capitol Theatre in Passaic where the Clash debuted the song “London Calling” live, and The Rolling Stones did their infamous Garden State ’78 show as a warmup for the “Some Girls” stadium tour.

The Garden State/PNC Arts Center was where I saw the late, great Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers deliver numerous unforgettable shows, even bringing the Replacements there on one tour.

Then there’s the beautiful Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank and the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, which has featured everyone from Stone Temple Pilots with Chester Bennington to Belleville, New Jersey’s own My Chemical Romance.

Rutgers and Princeton University had their share of incredible shows. One of my favorites was R.E.M. on the Rutgers lawn and Elvis Costello at Princeton’s Jadwin Hall for his piss and vinegar “This Year’s Model” tour.

City Gardens in Trenton had more incredible shows than I have time to mention and included a couple of notable employees: Jon Stewart, who, as a bartender there, would also mosh at punk rock shows in his college days; and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem who worked as an underage bouncer, dealing with skinheads and all matter of troublemakers.

Further north at the Meadowlands Arena and adjacent Giants Stadium was where I witnessed many great Springsteen and U2 shows, and saw The Who, Aerosmith, and Guns N’ Roses, on the day they shot their live Paradise City video.

But for me, the venues that meant the most were the smallest: New Brunswick’s Court Tavern, and the legendary Melody Bar (pictured below), where I DJ’d three nights a week for 13 years, and played host to many area bands such as Gaslight Anthem, Midtown and Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group.

I could go on and on, but by now I’m sure you get my point: that New Jersey was the greatest place to live because there was no limit to the brilliant, life-changing live shows you could experience.

Certainly, they shaped my world. As a music obsessed geek growing up in East Brunswick, I never dreamed that one day I would introduce 20-plus rock concerts from the stage at Madison Square Garden — and even see my friend get engaged onstage with Van Halen. Still, nothing compares to the vibrant live performances I’ve experienced in Jersey.

Outside the Melody in New Brunswick, NJ
CREDIT: Courtesy of Matt Pinfield

* * * 

Steve Leeds, Vice President, Talent & Industry Affairs, SiriusXM

It was the summer of 1985 and I was working with Leber Krebs management, helping launch Blackheart Records and doing some freelance independent radio promotion. At that time, cable television was not available in Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Staten Island and most of New Jersey. So when MTV launched in 1981, many folks in the tri-state area couldn’t even watch it.

Wometco owned two UHF stations in the region: channel 67 in Smithtown, Long Island and channel 68 broadcasting from the top of the Empire State Building and realized there was a consumer appetite for music videos.

They approached several music companies, including what was then CBS Records, and were told that they would need a license for any music videos and some sort of structure or familiar industry person involved. One of the key executives at CBS Records, Jerry Villacres, suggested that perhaps they hire someone from the business. They asked for a suggestion and lo and behold my name came up.

At the Newark headquarters of channel 68, I met with the General Manager, Jim Flynn, who explained what they wanted to do. They offered me the job on the spot to be the Program Director of U68. We agreed to a deal that permitted me to work every day from noon till midnight. Living in the city, this was a reverse commute for me and an ideal situation.

During the interview, I asked to see the music library. I was taken down to the basement of the building where I was brought into a room that had steel gray industrial shelves and cinderblock walls but was totally barren. I asked, ‘Where are the videos?’ The response was, “Oh, well that’s your job.” I said, “OK, and when do you want to be on the air with this new format?” They answered, “By Monday.” Yipes! I had to get to work quickly.

My friends at CBS Records sent over several boxes of music videos and that became the beginnings of U68, the first local music video broadcast outlet.

So we got on the air that Monday… How? I built 15 minute blocks of music videos and had enough of them to rotate to make six unique hours of programming. Those six unique hours would then repeat over the 18-hour broadcast day. Eventually some of the other labels came to the party and provided music videos.

Obviously this did not please our competitor MTV. Back then, the FCC had a ruling that if you were local broadcast outlet, the cable systems in that area must carry your signal. And MTV’s parent company had to spend a lot of time nurturing and paying for relationships with cable systems to carry the channel’s programming. This gave us a distinct advantage as far as coverage. Later, Viacom petitioned the FCC claiming this was an unfair advantage and it changed the whole must-carry rules.

We had no marketing or promotional budget but how did we combat the big corporate guys? We gave away free UHF antennas – you know those little circular devices that came with the TV but inevitably you threw out. But you needed that to get our signal. We made bumper stickers — that was our marketing campaign! That’s all we had, and eventually some of the artists woke up and got involved.

I recall one of the first artists to come to the studios in Newark was Jon Bon Jovi. He drove up the turnpike to Newark, and wearing a captain’s cap, came in and recorded some station IDs and a introduction to his one video at the time “Runaway.” Later on more artists stopped in.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Steve Leeds

An early highlight was the then-unknown Beastie Boys who came to Newark with Rick Rubin and brought their first video, “Fight for Your Right to Party.” Their visit was before Hanukkah, so we pre-taped eight different candle lighting segments for each night of Hanukkah. The Beastie Boys lit Hanukkah candles, but they pretended to fight over whose turn it was to light the candle for that particular night. At sundown, during the eight days of the holiday, we played a different  prerecorded segment. Rick Rubin took advantage of the trip to Newark and brought along their fellow Def Jam artist LL Cool J, who, pre-“Rock the Bells,” was just launching his career.  Shortly thereafter we were fortunate enough to get a visit from Run DMC who wanted to promote their video for “Rockbox” as MTV was not yet airing rap videos.

Another artist who was a huge fan of channel 68 was Johnny Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon. He lived in Brooklyn; having no cable he was an avid fan and even found time to come to Newark and play guest DJ and play his favorite videos, including at the time Whitney Houston!  We had newscasts anchored by Uncle Floyd and his puppet — Oogie. We hosted long-form concert sets with the likes of Carolyn Maas, Pig Vomit, Aztec Two Step and the Minutemen. Anything to be different was the mantra.

We showed many local bands’ videos, such as the Cucumbers, Trixter, Kid ‘n’ Play, Dramarama and the Bongos. We also showcased hardcore and heavy metal videos in a nightly feature entitled The Power Hour. How did we differentiate U68 from MTV? Each video was preceded by displaying the cover of the album — striving to help the industry sell more music! We also teamed with local radio such as WBLS and WNEW FM, utilizing their on-air talent to gain more cred and publicity.

U68 enjoyed a successful, if brief, time as the tri-state’s local music video outlet. Eventually there were the inevitable commercials and even a tiny sales staff. But in early October of 1986, fifteen months after the first video was played on U68, the channel aired its last clip: “Shop it Around” by Jason and the Scorchers.

While I was on my honeymoon, I received a call that U68 was sold to HSN… the Home Shopping Network.

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