C O P P E R H E A D - Cashing in chips

First of all, I'm not going to write about the aesthetics of Copperhead's performances, the material they play, or the musicianship they exhibit. Those are all legitimate topics, but leave them for now. They are a damned good rock and roll band, getting better with every month, and they are hot.

In less than a year they became one of the hottest attractions on the West Coast, the recording companies lined up outside the office of Copperhead's manager, Ron Polte, jostling booking agents for the chance to make an offer. And Polte is a master poker player.

He's a tough Chicago boy, grew up with Paul Butterfield and Nick Gravenites, migrated to San Francisco, and eventually became manager of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. He says, "That's where I made my mistakes, that's where I learned the music business".

The recording companies were interested in Copperhead even before the band played its first gig last Christmas (1971) - well over a year ago, when John Cipollina started to emerge from his post-Quicksilver isolation and talk to people about starting a new band, he had a feeler from Atlantic. And Jimmy McPherson, who eventually became Copperhead's leading song writer as well as performing with the group, was involved in a projected Capitol album. That never quite came off either.

But once the band got rolling, more and more inquiries came in. Cipollina had gotten Polte to emerge from his own post-Quicksilver seclusion to manage the new band, and Polte, having been through the mill, knows where the bodies are hidden, what the tricks are, whom to talk to and what to say.

For example: "I don't like to talk to anybody as father and son, big and little. I like to talk man to man. So - I want to talk to the president of any record company that wants to sign my band. I don't let 'em siphon me off into those little cubicles they call offices".

At least a dozen companies got past the casual feeler stage and into something resembling serious negotiations. Of those, almost half got as far as actual dollar offers. The rest? "I just simply rejected 'em," Polte says. "From the artist's point of view, a lot of companies are notorious for not dealing fairly". As of June, the survivors were Grunt, Mike Laing's new Just Sunshine label, Columbia, RCA (in addition to Grunt's bid), and A&M.

Regarding the offers, Polte says, "They're sealed bids. None of them knows what the others have offered. I like to keep 'em in the dark". Poker player.

But he concedes that the lowest offer carried front money of $75,000. The highest, $150,000. "But that's just a number", he says. "I could have $300,000 but what does it mean? The main reason for taking fat front money is that if you don't they won't perform you. I'm going into partnership with a record company, they have to put their efforts into my band. Too many good bands have had to struggle without proper support".

Let's back up a little. Partly to get their act together and partly to get some public exposure, Copperhead played a series of gigs last spring at the Long Branch, a dingy beer and wine club in a tough section of Berkeley. One night when the band was booked into the Long Branch I happened to bump into Polte early in the evening, and in the course of casual conversation he mentioned that he'd had a phone call from Jerry Moss of A&M that day. Jerry'd asked about coming over to hear Ron's new band. "That's fine", Polte said, "you'll run into Clive Davis, the president of Columbia". "In that case", Moss had replied, "let's make it next time. One president a night is enough"" Davis showed up, listened to Copperhead's first set, and left. On the way out he told Polte he'd heard enough, he wanted to sign the band, here was his offer, and good-night.

What did Polte do with the offer? "Why I thanked Clive for it, folded it up and put it with my other offers", he said.

That's where things still stood some weeks later, when I submitted an article about Copperhead to a national magazine. The editor called me up two days later and said, "What's all this Copperhead still shopping around, everybody knows they've signed with Columbia". Wham!! I got on the phone to Polte, braced him on the report, and he said, "Come on up to my place and I'll explain couple of things to you".

So I headed for Mill Valley and shortly was sitting in Polte's living room, drinking coffee with him, Gravenites, rock-and-dope lawyer Brian Rohan, photographer Sam Silver, and several members of Copperhead who drifted in and out. Polte asked me to repeat what I'd heard from my editor. I did so. "Clive Davis is a very smart man" said Polte. "Jive Davis", said Silver. "Crafty" said Gravenites. "Look", said Polte, "there are a lot of tricks that a record company uses to get a group they want to sign. Trick number one is to [create] the rumor that they have signed. They set up a meeting in the Francis or some other conspicuous spot. The hippy walks in head down, walks out head up, the word is spread, the competition eliminated. We have not signed with Columbia and after some of these tricks ... " What are the others? "They lend you money", Polte said, "I know that one and a bunch of others from six years' experience". Then when you have to pay it back, if you sign with them, you can work things out very nicely. If you don't want to ... "They take you into the studio", Polte went on. "Just cut a demo tape", they say. And there you are in a hundred-fifty-dollar-an-hour studio, and... " "Sure, the demo tape ripoff", Gravenites puts in. "Okay", Polte resumed, "if somebody offers studio time I won't necessarily send him away, but I'll get a written understanding first of exactly what the terms are, who owns the tape".

But about those offers - what does Polte care about in dealing with a company? The front money is only an advance, of course, and in his opinion it should be an advance for the first year only of the contract. The advance is earned back on the basis of a percentage of sales revenues. "A typical contract gives the artist sixteen percent of the wholesale price of his record sales. That makes 32 cents on an album", Polte says, "for Copperhead I won't talk anybody for under 40 cents.

"Then we talk about rights - the mechanical license or publishing fee and performance rights. Record companies like to take [a] bite of those things. I think they legitimately belong to the artist.

"We have to talk about the length of the contract, maybe one-year contract with four one-year options, maybe 100,000 at each period, plus an increase in the royalty percentage. And we have to determine how much product the band has to produce.

"And a guaranteed promotion budget. How much are they go to spend on your product, how much are they going to give you to record?" Polte deals with booking agents the same way he does recording companies. Some people in the industry call him a tough and ruthless man. It seems to me that he's looking out for the interests of his artists, something that not all managers are known for doing - and that in his dealings, while he demands plenty, he's scrupulously honest and reliable, characteristics for which band managers are less than notorious.

"You go to a booking agent hat-in-hand", Polte says, "and if he takes you at all it'll be for fifteen percent plus expenses. You play where he tells you for whatever money he gets you. When you're hot it's a whole different story". Copperhead is hot.

"I won't sign for a long term with any agent. They can freelance for me. I'll tell an agent 'You can have the last two weeks in July'. I don't have to headline yet, but I'll only play with bands that I approve in advance".

So far Copperhead has taken billing under Stoneground, Hot Tuna, Dave Mason, the Chambers Brothers. They won't touch any violent downer bands that are big this year.

"And the agent can pay his own expenses", Polte continues "and he can book us for five percent".

And on those terms the agents are falling over each other to book Copperhead. When you're hot you're hot.

The band itself is going through some changes right now. As originally projected early in 1971 it was to consist of John Cipollina on guitar, Jim Murray (an early member of Quicksilver) also on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Cipollina's half-brother Mario on bass, and Dave Webber, a drummer from Boston. By the time the band actually went before an audience it consisted of Cipollina, Gary Philippet as second guitar, Jim McPherson and Pete Sears alternating on bass and piano, and Webber. At the end of May Sears left to join a new band that Hopkins is starting under the sponsorship of George Harrison. All friendly and with regrets expressed both sides: "I really like this band and the guys in it", Sears said, "but Hopkins is kind of my hero and I couldn't pass up this opportunity". Still it left serious questions for the band and for their manager. "None of the record people pulled back when Pete left", Polte says. "In fact, the only change was in one offer where the money was good but the terms were unsatisfactory. That company revised its terms".

With Nicky Hopkins touring with the Rolling Stones in June July, Sears stayed around and continued to appear with Copperhead while the band looked around for a replacement. Finally, late in June, Polte announced the contract: Just Sunshine.

But there's that super smell around this band. America has never quite produced a band to equal the Beatles and the Stones, the American bands that have come closest were all forged in the San Francisco psychedelic crucible: the Dead, the Airplane, Quicksilver at one time, Big Brother when they were with Janis. But that's five years ago. There's been nobody since, well, maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but they're forever saying that they're not a band, and acting unstable enough to convince people that they mean it.

Copperhead - maybe - will go all the way. That's worth $300,000 and a gilt-edged contract. The band was in and out of studio all summer, doing test tracks, auditioning studios and engineers as much as getting themselves ready to record. They emerged from time to time to jam, to work a little with Nick Gravenites in getting his new band, Blue Gravy, ready to roll, to do a promo for the Roller Derby in Oakland. They set a schedule of cutting the album itself in September. One problem they won't face is material - they have a repertoire of some thirty-five songs, of which ten or fewer will be on the album. The title will be 'SEALED FOR YOUR PROTECTION'.

By Mid-October the album should be ready for release, a new fifth member should be chosen, and the band will be ready to make its first national tour.

Meanwhile on a sylvan hillside in suburban Marin County, there can be heard the smooth but powerful hum of the Polte machine starting to go into gear on behalf of Gravenites and Blue Gravy.

It's a small, new label, but it has some things going for [it]. For one, it's part of the Gulf & Western - Famous Music group, along with Blue Thumb, Paramount, and Neighborhood Records. So there will be enough bucks and man-power available to get the album promoted and marketed properly. For another, the money went up to that $300,000 figure, on a four-album deal, and there are a lot of nice little clauses about things like tape cassettes and cartridges that have been overlooked - to the detriment of the artists - in traditional contracts.

But most important, from Polte's viewpoint, is his relationship with the president of Just Sunshine, Mike Laing. Laing is the young madman or genius who put together Woodstock back in 1969, and has been hot himself ever since. Pope trusts Laing, and one thing he doesn't want is to sign with Laing's label and have something happen to Mike, leaving Copperhead to deal with some Gulf & Western bigshot called in from the oilfields of Tulsa.

So Copperhead's contract with Just Sunshine says that if Laing leaves the label for another record company, Copperhead goes along, provided the new company meets or betters their terms with Just Sunshine. Failing that - or should Laing wind up in the walkaway shrimp cocktail business, for example - Copperhead becomes a free agent, able to negotiate a new deal with anybody they like!

Why did they get the terms they wanted? Partly because they have Polte fronting them, but also because recording outfits are after a new superband. They like individual stars, which John Cipollina legitimately is. And they like solid bands, which Copperhead undeniably is.

After Copperhead went into the studio in anticipation of signing, things kept reversing polarity. They did sign with Just Sunshine for a supposed $300,000 plus other concessions, such as promised support to promote the band and its "product" - its records. With Peter Sears pointed for the new Harrison-Hopkins superband, Copperhead auditioned for a new bass player and finally selected an old friend of Dave Webber's from Boston to do some guest appearances in their rare live performances and to work on their album as a studio man. The new man - Jim "Hutchinson - worked in well, and became a full member of the band.

Meanwhile the Harrison-Hopkins band never got off the ground, leaving poor Sears high and dry (and broke).

Simultaneously, the Just Sunshine deal was souring. After the contract was signed and it was time for Just Sunshine to deliver, there was an embarrassed silence. Money was not forthcoming. Promo support did not appear. Gordon Kennerly, Copperhead's road manager said "They talked fine, got our signatures, and then they just didn't deliver".

Polte swung back into action. Clive Davis, who had been rejected in the previous bidding, came back into the game. Polte set about cancelling the Just Sunshine contract. Rumor spread that Columbia had now offered around a million dollars. Amidst general confusion, Copperhead's office and Columbia announced that Copperhead had signed with Columbia. Famous Music Corporation was so far out of touch that their publicity department in New York phoned a freelance journalist in San Francisco to find out they were losing their hottest band.

By March the Copperhead album was finally completed. The band celebrated the release of a single, "Roller Derby Star", with a return to live performances. Backstage at one of the first, Polte was obviously in a relieved state of mind, and prepared to give some information he'd been holding close to his chest. For one thing he had turned over Nick Gravenites' Blue Gravy Band to George Smith, a long time friend and associate. "George will do a good job for them", Polte said, "and I just can't handle both bands and do justice by them".

Regarding the fabled million-dollar Columbia deal, he grinned and rubbed his chin and said "I wouldn't really want to say in print that we got any million dollars". Then, half under his breath "but you might say it was a bit more than that".

There's no particular love between Polte and Davis, or between Copperhead and Columbia. Polte has stated repeatedly that Columbia has the best system in the industry for distributing, promoting, and selling records. Columbia is hungry for what seems a potential superstar attraction. They'll get along, keeping close watch on each other.

Six years ago, San Francisco psychedelic music entered its great heyday of peace and love and brotherhood. In 1973, the marriage between Copperhead and Columbia is strictly one of convenience.

 - Dick Lupoff.

Most of the above article originally appeared in San Francisco's 'SunDance' Magazine, to whom we extend our grateful thanks for  permission to reprint the article.

Fat Angel, #10, 1972

[Thanks to Keith Hunter for doing the original scan & OCR, and giving permission for me to add the article to my site.]

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Last updated: 20-Oct-2002