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‘What Would Gary Stewart Do?’: Exec’s Music Evangelism, Social Activism Celebrated

The late creative force behind Rhino Records' and iTunes' heydays was feted by more than 1,000 at Skirball Center.

The late Gary Stewart drew a crowd in death, as he did at the parties he threw in life, attracting more than 1,000 mourners to a standing-room-only Herscher Hall on the grounds of Skirball Cultural Center Saturday. The assembled crowd ranged from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers John Densmore and Blondie’s Clem Burke, along with the Go-Gos’ Charlotte Caffey and one-time major label heads Jeff Ayeroff and Jay Boberg, among many others, including Gary’s younger brother Mark.

A month and a half after Stewart taking his own life at age 62 stunned both the local music and social justice communities, his Rhino colleagues Richard Foos and Harold Bronson joined with former Warner Bros. Records EVP/GM Jeff Gold and top manager John Silva to organize a “Celebration of the Life of Gary Stewart.”

Foos, who sold Rhino Records to Time Warner in 1998 with partner Bronson, then left in 2003 to start Shout! Factory, joked about Gary’s love for one-hit wonders like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods and the Starland Vocal Band, as well as the Top 40 mainstays of his youth, Three Dog Night and the Guess Who.

“I opened the Rhino Records store in 1973, and shortly after, Gary became a regular customer,” noted Foos, choking up as he recalled how the then-high school student would arrive on his bicycle. “And for the rest of my life, he was always there.” The physically imposing Stewart, a management trainee at McDonald’s, would often hold court in the store, according to Foos. “You could hear him passionately discussing issues like, ‘Were the Bay City Rollers really a glam band?’ At that point, we figured, if we moved him from the front of the counter to the back, we’d have room for more customers.”

His boyhood pal Joey Schimmel remembered his days in the same West L.A. Boy Scout troop as Gary, who tried to get him to join the Record Club of America so he could receive the free bonus album. “While he wasn’t yet the Gary Stewart, he was on his way to becoming Gary Stewart, learning to work the angles of the record business.”

“To Gary, music was not just something to listen to for enjoyment, but a much-needed outlet for his intellect,” said his longtime friend. “The more facts and information you knew about the artist, the more you’d appreciate the music. Gary turned me into a music nerd.”

CREDIT: Chris Willman

Jeff Gold, who first met Gary some 45 years ago while working at the Rhino store on Westwood Blvd., touched on his many different personas: “The musical savant. The social justice warrior. The guy with the trunkload of CDs,” he said, to much laughter. “The Gary I met in 1974 was a goofy, 17-year-old pop music fanatic. Even then he marched to his own drummer. He became a true evangelist for the underappreciated, both in music and the larger world around him.”

David Gorman, Stewart’s colleague at Rhino, Apple and their own co-venture, Trunkworthy, touched on his first encounter with Gary while applying for his “dream” job at the reissue label.

“We plunged straight from ‘nice to meet you’ to arguing over which songs I thought were missing from a Sam & Dave greatest hits collection,” mused Gorman. “He inspired so many of us to join his holy war to re-write the history of pop music in ways that enrich people’s lives and reactivate artists’ careers.  He created those reissues in a thoughtful way, that restored context and demanded discovery. Forgotten songs gained new power and relevance. Gary forced an entire industry to value its past as much as its present.”

At that point, Steven McCarthy, singer/songwriter of the Long Ryders, one of Gary’s favorite local bands, took the stage with drummer Johnny Hott, one-half of Rhino signing House of Freaks, to perform that band’s “40 Years,” a song which captured the somber but not incongruously light-hearted mood. It also implicitly acknowledged the memory of the other half of that band, Bryan Harvey, who was tragically murdered with his family in their Richmond, VA, home on New Year’s Day, 2006.

“A million hearts, a million minds / Have loved and died in 40 years / Pray for yourself and for your memories / And be thankful that we’ve had 40 years,” McCarthy sang

Liberty Hill’s director of the common agenda, Michele Prichard, and colleague Larry Frank were next up, to represent Gary’s devotion to non-profits like Community Coalition and LAANE.

Stewart first learned of the organization when he walked in off the street, asking for any volunteer task they might give him. They had little idea then they were dealing with a high-powered music exec who would later come to be crucial on their board. “Gary brought his whole being, his entire self to our organization,” said Prichard. “He was passionately involved in tackling homelessness and youth violence. He held us all to the highest standards and push us to do our best.”

Added Frank: “He talked about searching for the Democratic party and discovering the Movement.  He compared it to loving the Who and then hearing the Clash.”

The Doors’ John Densmore admitted to hanging around the famed trunk to Gary’s car, stocking up on box sets that he so meticulously curated. “Gary was a mensch,” he said before reciting a poem, “Bones of My Father,” by Etheridge Knight, an African-American writer who rose to prominence with the 1968 publication of his book, “Poems from Prison,” written while jailed for an attempted robbery. He accompanied it by beating on a djemba. “It’s about the search for our ancestors, our true leaders and mentors,” said Densmore. “Gary is here with us, behind those speakers. He just broke on through to the other side with angel wings, like he’s been cast in a remake of Wim Wenders’ ‘Wings of Desire.’”

John Densmore of the Doors at Gary Stewart memorial
CREDIT: Chris Willman / Variety

Rhino co-founder Harold Bronson admitted, “We were all impressed by Gary’s eagerness to learn and his positive attitude,” recounting how Stewart was hired to work in the store on January 7, 1977, “which Gary noted was (also) ‘the day I saw the Bay City Rollers at the Santa Monica Civic.’’ Stewart eventually managed the store, then segued to the fledgling record label as head of sales and eventually A&R.

“The world is a poorer place without Gary Stewart,” said Bronson. “Let him continue to be an inspiration to us all.”

Cindy Lee Berryhill, one of Gary’s new artist signings at Rhino, was next, saying, “I had a succession of father figures in my life, and one … was Gary Stewart. Now Gary wasn’t that much older than me, but there was something very fatherly, and I was just a humble, obscure unknown artist that met him on a fluke. … I was one of the only people that lived with Gary… Being a poor musician right before making the record, I needed a place to crash so he had this room full of vinyl.” She recalled that Stewart was stricken by hepatitis at the time, and “he passed through a delirium and he would talk in his room while he was supposedly asleep, and so often it was ‘I’m sorry… I’m sorry’,” she recalled. “This song is for the community of those of us that knew Gary Stewart, whose light lit our lamp, and we carry that forward.” Berryhill performed an unreleased song, “Soundtrack (Who We Are),” backed by Renatta Bratt on cello and Robert Lloyd, who as a critic reviewed her Rhino album, on glockenspiel and mandolin.

For the musical finale, a reconstituted version of L.A. power-pop group the Quick, one of Gary’s favorites, was introduced, featuring original guitarist Steve Hufsteter (later of the Cruzados) and drummer Danny Benair, joined by with Redd Kross’ Jeff McDonald, Jellyfish bassist Jason Falkner and Brian Wilson/Wondermints keyboardist Darian Sahanaja.

“Gary’s mind would have been blown by this,” said Gold, noting how Stewart helped finance and promote last year’s re-release of the Quick’s undervalued 1976 debut, “Mondo Deco.”

With McDonald on lead vocals, this semi-reunited band tore through the Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long,” then Falkner took over for “You Yeah You,” followed by a wrenching “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a photo of Gary with his own beatific, larger-than-life presence beamed down on the proceedings.

Ironically, on the very weekend that Gary Stewart was honored, Apple was reported to be ready to pull the plug on iTunes, which Stewart helped popularize with his “Essentials” playlists.

Gorman described his friend and ex-business partner’s strengths as “his unswerving commitment to excellence, his unwillingness to compromise his vision to the pressures other people used to justify mediocrity. His insistence, most importantly, on taking care of the people who helped him achieve his success, even if it meant paying them out of his own pocket.”

Afterward, custom CDs were stocked in the facsimile of the back of his car, dubbed “Gary Stewart Trunk Sounds,” patterned after the artwork, appropriately enough, on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album. Included were 24 songs and/or acts Stewart was known to have proselytized for, including overlooked gems like Glen Campbell’s “Guess I’m Dumb,” Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” Three Dog Night’s “Out in the Country” and the Bobby Fuller Four’s appropriate “Never to Be Forgotten.”

Richard Foos pointed to the late arts patron and enthusiast as a moral and ethical touchstone in his own life. “Whenever I’m stuck in a quandary or have a difficult decision to make, I ask myself, ‘What would Gary do?’ and I know I’ll always choose the righteous path. Living with that mantra is the best way to honor him.”

And then he played one of Gary’s favorite songs on the PA… Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”

CREDIT: Chris Willman

The event followed a smaller gathering last month at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, just up the street from Stewart’s longtime Santa Monica home, which included musical tributes from Peter Case, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, Billy Vera, Wednesday Week, Syd Straw, Steve Wynn and Three Dog Night’s Chuck Negron, all of them associated with Gary, either professionally or personally or both.

 

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