“A man walks down the street,
He says, Why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard!
I need a photo-opportunity,
I want a shot at redemption!
Don’t want to end up a cartoon,
In a cartoon graveyard ….. “
—–“You Can Call Me Al”, Paul Simon
Transitions: Niles Siegel. One night about many weeks ago, I woke up at 3:15AM in the morning, sat straight up in bed and started worrying.
I was worried that I had not heard in a couple of days from a long-time friend, Niles Siegel. A friend from the old days in New York when Siegel and I and Brad Olsen-Ecker and a few other young creatives prowled the streets of Manhattan, taking in concerts at Fillmore East and just enjoying being young, and working in cool jobs, and living in the city. I had the best job of the group because I worked in Peter Max’s studio and had a salary and everyone else was a free-lance creative or photographer or art director or writer. But who did what didn’t matter. It was a magical time.
Money was not important but friends were and we were all the best of friends, and put ourselves in all kinds of interesting situations on a regular basis. Maybe it was because I realized that the type of freedom we had was not going to be available forever, that we were riding a wave and knew it and that made us dangerous—at least creatively—at the time.
Siegel was a photographer. He had photographed a major campaign for some new Vodka (or maybe it was an old one, the facts do not shine through) and made a bunch of money doing it. It was that time when art directors and designers hired hot young photographers and tossed a lot of money at them for all types of rights and so if you did a couple of big jobs a year, you lived well. As I remember, Siegel lived downtown,in a loft, near the Village. He lived well.
But it was a brutal business and a hot photographer could shoot a big campaign and then cool off, and not work for a long stretch of time. There was a lot of competition and tastes in photography shifted like the wind. Siegel hit a slow period and started running out of money, which was not good because he was young and responsible and had a family, a wife and a young son, Evan.
Niles Siegel was not the type to ever ask for assistance. Ever. He was a true New Yorker, a child of the city, and he reveled in his ability to know the city and navigate his life in the cultural turmoil that is New York.
One day, I got a phone call from him and he asked me what I thought about the music business.
Loved it. I said, or at least loved the music. But it was a tough business, very competitive, full of people who got things done and could make things happen. But…brutal, too. Well, Siegel told me, he had received a tip on a great job at Elektra Records, which was the company founded and managed by the legendary Jac Holtzman. There was a position open for a record promoter-the guy who could get records and songs played on radio stations at a time when radio actually mattered—and Siegel had been granted an interview. Don’t know how he got his name in play, but Niles was very connected in the city and he did know his music. He had great taste and was spot on in his evaluations of who would make it and who would not.
“Would I come down to his loft to talk about the interview and how to handle it?” he asked, and, of course, I said yes. Peter Max—who had more influence on me than my own family, for which I am and will be eternally grateful– was very supportive of me and very generous and he told me to go and help my friend and come back to the studio when I was finished. I figured I’d be gone about an hour and a half.
I arrived at Siegel’s place at about 2PM and his interview was at 3:30. We talked about the possible questions he might be asked, about the artists currently on the Elektra roster (Bread, Carly Simon, The Doors, among others) and about Holtzman’s reputation (ferocious businessman, but very fair). Then it was time to go and we walked downstairs and onto the street and started heading toward 6th avenue. Elektra was at Columbus Circle, in the Gulf+Western Building (the first conglomerate, assembled and run by the charismatic Charles Bluhdorn about whom another post shall be produced) and as we got closer to Sixth Avenue, I saw Siegel take a turn for the 6th Avenue subway which went right to 59th Street and Columbus Circle.
Where are you going, I asked him.
“Got to catch the train,” he said.
“No man, you need to take a cab and arrive cool and rested for the interview. This is a big deal..”
He gave me a bit of a blank look and I realized what the look meant. He didn’t have the money to take a cab.
Without a second’s hesitation, I Pulled a 20 out of my pocket and gave it to him and said, “Take the cab.”
Sheepishly, he took the bill, gave me a big smile, stepped into the street and hailed a taxi and was gone to meet his destiny. I walked a few blocks and then grabbed a cab of my own for the ride back to Peter’s studio on the Upper West Side, simultaneously nervous for my friend and hopeful for him.
I tell this story now as a preamble to my remembrance of Niles Siegel, not to make me look good, because it was the type of thing that anyone with a good friend in need would do, but because of what happened afterwards, in his interview with the legendary Jac Holzman.
As it was relayed to me, Siegel did great in his interviews and was passed from room to room and person to person until, at the end of the day, he was in a conference room with The Man, Mr. Jac Holzman. Holzman looked Siegel over and he recognized him—the type at least—a young, hustling, talented, Jewish kid with something to prove and the drive and chutzpah to do it.
They hit it off, and Holzman offered Siegel a position as a record promoter. The deal was by any standard a sweet one. Record promoters lived off their company expense account and could bank their salaries. It was classic and it was just what Siegel needed—a regular check and a chance to make a name in a new field.
But there was a hitch. Siegel balked at the salary. Holzman was taken aback, and simply could not believe it. Here was a kid who knew nothing about the business but was already asking for a bump in compensation—and Holzman certainly didn’t know that Siegel didn’t even have cab fare to get to the interview. There was, I suspect, a bit of a stare down, and then Holzman, with a smile, basically said, “OK, kid, I like your style and your nerve. Now let’s see if you can back it up.” Holtzman gave him the higher base salary and brought him onboard.
Jac Holzman is one of the entertainment industry’s all-time greats and he wasted no time testing the brash young hire. After a few weeks of training and grooming, Holzman put Siegel on the toughest assignment at Elektra.
The company had signed a brilliant young artist named Harry Chapin, and Chapin had a song, “Taxi”, that Holzman was convinced would be a huge hit if it could just get played. But no radio station in America would play it because it was a 6:44 (six minutes forty-four seconds) song in a world in which the standard single record was just two minutes and thirty seconds….No matter how great the song, the length was a problem.
Somehow, Siegel got it on the air. I don’t even remember where it played first…perhaps Boston. And then he domino’d it, pushing it from one station to another, across America, like a cold wave sweeping the country. That was the way the music business worked then, when the stations were programmed by Program Directors with taste and connections who took pride in “breaking” a new artist. The process was simple to explain, but brutal to execute: get your record played on one of the key stations in America and the other stations—not so key and in smaller markets—would take up the cause and play the record and before you knew it, the record was playing in every major market. With enough exposure, a song could become a hit and a new artist’s career could launch.
The success of “Taxi” made two careers: Niles Siegel’s and Harry Chapin’s. Chapin went on to modest fame and an early exit (he died in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway, driving to a benefit concert—Chapin was known, not coincidently, as a terrible driver).
Siegel’s career was no less dramatic. He eventually left Elektra (among the acts he promoted were Phoebe Snow and Leon Russell) and moved to other positions in the record industry. He managed the Atlanta Rhythm Section(“So Into You” is one of the great rock anthems), famed for their booming bass and lyrical songs. In addition to Elektra, he worked at Polydor, Shelter, Paramount, and RCA, where he was in power when Elvis Presley died and RCA had their biggest year ever.
Siegel did music, I did publishing and he stayed in New York and I moved from New York to Boston, Washington, Chicago, and assignments in Europe. By the oddest of coincidences, we both ended up in New England at one point. At that time, Siegel was head of Playboy Records, given the task of bringing a primarily low volume jazz based label into the mainstream. He pushed and he pulled but a lot of work had to be done in the A&R (Artist and Repertoire) area…i.e. Playboy had no big names on their roster (this is not to discount Cy Coleman’s excellent piano composition, Playboy’s Theme). I remember going over to his home outside of Boston, where he had created a very nifty office complete with a massive desk (which Playboy had purchased for him), and he was pounding away on his typewriter. “Whatcha writing?” I asked.
“My resignation”, he said. “They just don’t get it”.
Siegel had only been in the position for a couple of months but already he had hit a roadblock in the upper echelons of Playboy management: he had found a band, Bjorn and Benny, that he was convinced was going to be huge and he wanted Playboy records to go all in on the band. There were a couple of girl singers involved, the band was from Scandinavia and Niles was positive they were going to be massive world-wide hits. Playboy Records was small and wouldn’t make the necessary promotional commitment and Siegel was frustrated. He couldn’t get the budget masters to back him and the band and he was furious. He finished off the resignation letter and, a couple of days later, he sent the letter—nailed to the top of his desk—back to Playboy Records headquarters in Chicago.
Siegel was right about Bjorn and Bennie—they changed their name to ABBA and became one of the biggest bands in history, selling over 370 million albums.
Niles was like that a lot : right about talent and ahead of his time.
In the MTV years, he was one of the first producer/directors to realize the value of the medium. On his resume are some of the all time great videos: The Bangles “Walk Like An Egyptian”; the Beastie Boys “Fight For Your Right to Party” and my favorite—the classic Paul Simon/Chevy Chase video of “You Can Call Me Al”
Niles was never shy about what he did but he was not a major self-promoter either. He had brilliant radar for talent and would stretch himself to exhaustion for artists he believed in.
Niles Siegel died 3 years ago, on May 12th, 2013. I had known him since 1969 and he was one of my oldest and very best friends.
Although we talked a couple of times a year, for reasons I cannot explain, it suddenly, urgently, seemed important that I call him in the beginning of 2013.
When I did, the news I got was not good. He was sick—again—and it was serious this time, cancer. He was getting treatment. It would be OK. He’d been through these things before, he said.
Siegel was never really in good health. The music industry doesn’t encourage a healthy lifestyle. He had an endless series of very difficult issues with his stomach and digestive tract, but—despite the vast number of operations he endured—he always seemed upward and onward.
I started calling him on a regular basis and through those phone calls, I saw the arc of life of my friend turn irretrievably downward. The doctor visits turned into short hospital stays. He was living on his own with a girlfriend, but she left—the medical drama apparently too much. I started calling once a week, then twice, then more. The hospital stays got longer. He become a patient at Sloan-Kettering in New York—one of the world’s great cancer centers. The cancer “jumped”…metastasized.. went from his gut—always his weak spot—into his bones. My calls became more frequent and I got worried when I could not get him on the phone.
But he always popped up—sometimes via video chat on the Apple, sometimes via good ole landline phone. One of his kids was with him. People were looking after him. “It’s OK Pierce,” he said. “I’ll be fine”.
And then—one last phone call, while he was at Sloan-Kettering—when he told me that things had improved and that he was going home, they were going to release him from the hospital. “Talk to you in a few days”. He sent a shot of him in a bed, surrounded by tubes and machines, holding up his iPhone, smiling. “It will be OK”….no reason not to believe him, he had always made it before
And then…in a few days…when I had not heard from him, I woke up at 3:15AM in the morning and started worrying. Siegel had not called; had not answered my calls. I sensed a disturbance in the Force. I could not connect with him.
A couple of days later, on a Sunday, May 12th, I received word from another friend—a musician who Siegel had helped—that Niles had passed.
There wasn’t a lot in the papers about Niles’ passing. It doesn’t seem fair, really. He was an important guy in a dynamic industry and he made things happen for himself and his artists through creativity and sheer force of will. So it falls on me to write his tribute and relay to his friends and family and bands just how special he was and how positive he was until the very end, how considerate of everyone else he was so that no one would worry about him. He would fib and bend the truth about how bad things were so that his pals wouldn’t be distressed.
“Don’t worry. I can handle it. I’ve always handled it.”
That was Niles. Classic Niles Siegel.
But if you didn’t know him—weren’t around the energy, the early velocity of his life, and that incredible New York -smart street sense that he had—the tendency would be to just see the credits and miss the art of his life. Not happening on my watch.
I suggest you get a look into his spirit and clean, streamlined, creative heart by just clicking here: and watching the “You Can Call Me Al” video. It’s one of the most famous music videos of all time. You’ll recognize the participants; and, if you knew Niles Siegel, who was the producer for this classic music video (Gary Weis was the director), you would recognize the Siegel trademarks: a very simple idea maxed to the point of art.
That should leave you with the right impression of Niles Siegel.
It’s what I watch when I think about Niles and I always feel better afterwards.