But still, even to Elvis fans, he is something of a mystery figure.
And yet look in the index of any Elvis Presley biography and you will find references to him. He runs through Peter Guralnick's definitive biographies, 'Last Train To Memphis' and 'Careless Love', and, quite clearly, he is an essential component in the Elvis story. Just how important becomes clear when he said, quite matter of factly, 'For the first 12 years of Elvis' career with RCA, he wouldn't look at a song unless I had seen it first'.
Freddy Bienstock (left) with Elvis during his visit in Paris, 1959.
Interview with Freddy Bienstock
Today, Freddy's main concern is still music publishing and he has acquired - and sold - many copyrights over the years. When I asked him how many he owned, he said it was in excess of 100,000, but 'not all of them are hit songs. Some of them I can't even remember'. I found it hard to grasp just what Freddy now owned and what he had sold but certainly numerous standards, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, Burt Bacharach's compositions and the Motown catalogue are either in his hands or been sold at considerable profit. Freddy Bienstock speaks carefully and deliberately, but with much humour. He was born in Switzerland on April 24, 1928 but his parents moved to Vienna when he was three He recalls, 'I left Vienna at the beginning of 1939 to visit an uncle in the United States. Due to Hitler's entry into Vienna, my parents went back to Switzerland and I was meant to stay in America until they got settled, but then war broke out and my brother and were stuck in the States. My parents eventually came to America in 1941'.
Freddy spoke some English and he was soon able to fend for himself. 'Our uncle didn't want the responsibility of caring for us for a long period of time, so we moved out and took a little room in New Jersey - I was 13 at the time and my brother was 14, and nobody cared. It was marvellous as long as the money lasted, but then it became rather dodgy. There was a point when we didn't have enough money to eat and I would go to the delicatessen - Johnny was scared, he would wait around the corner - and I would tell the store to make up ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches with mustard, and when they were all smeared up, I would say that I couldn't pay and the owner was faced with the choice of eating it himself or throwing it away, and in most cases they were very nice, and said, 'Go ahead and take it and have a cupcake too'. After a while. I ran out of stories 'cause I could only do that once. The one positive thing from this time was that you could see a triple feature for 11 cents and I would go to a triple feature in the morning and one in the afternoon.
By the time I came home at night, my head was spinning'.
Freddy soon showed his skill as a fledgling entrepreneur. 'I had a job in a wholesale grocery company and when war broke out, they felt that it was too costly to service all the little stores, to send a salesman and have it delivered and wait for the money, so I told them that if they gave me the merchandise at cost or thereabouts, I would service them on my own account, so they would still keep the business. A friend of mine had a car and we worked at the wholesale grocery company from eight n the morning 'til three in the afternoon and then we delivered the groceries, and we did it all day Saturday and Sunday too.
I made a lot of money which I couldn't spend because I didn't have the time to spend it'.
$16 A Week
This job held little satisfaction and Freddy wanted to be in music publishing. 'I had a cousin in New York who had a job as a songplugger at Chappell Music and he would visit all these glorious bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and persuade them to play Chappell's songs on their radio broadcasts. This seemed the most heavenly thing one could possibly do, but when I asked him about a job, he said that I was too young. I had to wait until I was 16. In 1943. he told me that he had a job for me at Chappell's. starting in the stockroom. It was $16 a week and I was making $70 on my groceries, but I still came to New York and started to work in their stockroom. I got great satisfaction in 1984 when I bought Chappell'.
With much laughter. Freddy recalls his first day at Chappell. 'This man was being sacked and he said to the great Max Dreyfus who was sacking him, 'Mr, Dreyfus, my fate is in your hands'. He said, 'How can you say a thing like that? Don't you know your fate and my fate are in the hands of God?'
I thought, 'My god, he's firing him and he is passing the buck to God'.
Fortunately, Max Dreyfus didn't sack Freddy Bienstock. 'I was there for ten years. I had two years in the stockroom and worked my way up to become a songplugger. My job was to see the various bands who had air-time from the Waldorf Hotel, the Commodore and the like and ask them to play the songs that was assigned to promote. Chappell were promoting the songs of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter so it was a lovely, easy, glamorous existence. I didn't have to be at the office before 11 o'clock in the morning and I Would visit radio stations for daytime programming, and at night I would 90 from one nightclub to another. I would get paid for it and I had an expense account, so it was marvellous'.
Freddy left Chappell and after a short while working for himself, joined his cousins, Jean and Julian Aberbach, who were also in music publishing 'I went to work for my cousins at a company called Hill & Range, and they gave me a rhythm and blues company to run called St. Louis Music Hill & Range - as the name suggests - were primarily in country music, and through Colonel Parker, who was the manager of Eddy Arnold and became the manager of Elvis Presley, we became involved with Elvis'.
And when did Freddy first hear of Elvis?
'This was prior to 'Heartbreak Hotel' and he was not yet well known in New York Colonel Parker was managing Hank Snow and he hired Elvis as the opening act for the Hank Snow tour because he had heard about this young man from Memphis, who was recording for Sam Phillips. Elvis went over so big that after the first week or so, fans would leave the theatre after he performed to look for him backstage, and Hank Snow was playing to empty houses. A disc jockey by the name of Bill Randle had him come to his studio in New York, and Colonel Parker could see he was going to become a big star. My cousins used to test the popularity of an artist by publishing a music folio of his pictures and songs, and we printed an Elvis folio. With the exception of Memphis and Texas, where it sold very well, we couldn't give them away.
Nobody cared about Elvis Presley in big centres like Cleveland and Chicago'.
'He Had Such Control Over His Audiences'
Freddy Brenstock was converted as soon as he saw Elvis perform. 'Colonel Parker introduced me to him and I went to Texas for my first Elvis concert, which was in a huge football stadium. Elvis drove into that stadium in a white convertible and the audience Went mad. He had the most unbelievable charismatic quality on personal appearances: he had such control over his audiences, and I was always amazed. He could do anything and the audience would go mad. That even applied at the end when he was unattractive and overweight'.
It was evident why Elvis wasn't selling in New York 'Wherever Elvis was doing personal appearances, he would immediately have a tremendous following The folio was selling because the Hank Snow tour went through Texas, and it is after that tour that Colonel Parker realised that all he had to do was to expose him nationally. He put him on the Jackie Gleason television show two Saturdays in a row and that was all Elvis needed. Elvis signed the record contract with RCA and as soon as 'Heartbreak Hotel' came out, it was a hit'.
I wondered if Freddy liked the new rock n roll music himself as he had been raised on standards and big band music. 'That's true. I was not enamoured with rock n roll at first, but I changed after a while. By listening to the songs that were submitted to me for Elvis, I soon had a pretty good idea as to what he wanted. With Colonel Parker's assistance, we organised two publishing companies. one ASCAP and one BMI. and Elvis had a 50% interest and the Aberbachs the other 50%. As Elvis was more or less my age. I was the one who worked with Elvis, and I selected most of the songs for him.
I would take demos to Memphis and have him select the songs he wanted to do at the recording sessions'.
I asked about the first success that Freddy had with Elvis.
'The first song was 'Don't Be Cruel', which was on the backside of 'Hound Dog', which was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were good friends of mine. Otis Blackwell wrote Don't Be Cruel' and he also wrote a few other songs for Elvis like 'All Shook Up' and 'Paralysed'. Otis was a very Sweet, small, black fellow'.
At this point, Freddy pointed to a Picasso litho on his wall.
'My office was way down the hall. I came back to my office once and Otis was already inside. I could hear him saying to his co- writer. 'His kid must have done this one', and I knew instantly what he was talking about. He said to me. 'Hey, man, who did this. Caroline or Rob- ert?'. I told him it was a Picasso but I don't think he knew who Picasso was, and he said. 'What does it mean?'. I said, 'Well, in the catalogue, it was described as a man sitting and a woman lying down'. He looked at it again and said. 'Beautiful broad'. I always laugh at the humour of that. Otis was a very sweet man and he was extremely talented'.
Although Otis Blackwell wrote 'Don't Be Cruel', 'All Shook Up' and 'Paralysed' himself, the label says 'Blackwell - Presley'. Elvis, it appeared to me, was doing nothing new: Al Jolson used to claim credits on songs he didn't write. Freddy disagreed 'It's not quite the same thing. In the early days. Elvis would show dissatisfaction with some lines and he would make alterations, so it wasn't just what is known as a 'cut-in'. His name did not appear after the first year. but if Elvis liked the song, the writers would be offered a guaran tee of a million records and they would surrender a third of their royalties to Elvis'. That seemed greedy to me - after all, Elvis would sell a million, no matter what - and I wondered if all the songwriters agreed to this. 'Oh, of course. To have a guaranteed million sales meant an awful lot of money for them'. I was surprised by that answer as I had thought Leiber & Stoller had stopped writing for Elvis for that very reason. 'No. They stopped writing for Elvis because they wanted to live in New York and they didn't want to come out to California'.
The Brill Building
Freddy's office was in the Brill Building. 'The Brill Building was the home of all the main music publishers and a songwriter might start on the penthouse floor where we had our office and if we didn't take his songs, he would go to the 11th floor and so on until they found a home. There's a legend around Walter Donaldson who was always betting on racehorses and always needed money. He would sell a song like 'My Blue Heaven' to three different publishers and then they would have to sort out their interests'.
Wouldn't he be blacklisted for that? 'No, because he was too talented a writer. Of course the publishers should have been furious with him but they weren't as they wanted his next songs. He was a great writer'.
Some writers were exclusively assigned to one publisher. 'We didn't have to have too many exclusive writers and we didn't need to as everybody wanted a record with Elvis. We had Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and we also had writers in California.
Pomus and Shuman were very prolific: we expected them to bring us songs every week and they often developed a relationship with particular artists. Doc had been a blues singer who was playing in nightclubs and he met Mort in our office and they started to collaborate on teenage songs'.
Freddy continued, 'Everything was done on a much more personal basis at that time - now it's all about money and guarantees and so forth. I also think that the quality of the songs was higher. A song was presented to a publisher and it was discussed and then given to an artist, who had some input into it, and so by the time Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra or Perry Como recorded the song, the song had been fashioned into something that was quite right. The standards fell with the advent of albums as so many more songs were needed and it was difficult to cherry pick in the same way. Very often the performer or his advisers thought they could write them themselves. That is why we have so few new standards nowadays'.
Serving Uncle Sam
In 1958, at the height of his career, Elvis Presley was drafted. He could have avoided it by doing special concerts for the troops. Did Freddy think that Colonel Parker had made a crazy move, or not?
'No, the Colonel advised him correctly'.
'And anyway, Elvis felt that it was his duty to go into the Army and his popularity didn't suffer at all. He was in the Army for two years in Germany, and articles about him appeared all the time. RCA had enough records in the can for his career to continue, and by the time he came out his popularity was enormous.
Did Freddy go and see Elvis in Germany?
'Yes, I went to Bad Nauheim where he was stationed a couple of times and one time, when he had leave for ten days, I took him and his friends to Paris. He took half the top floor of the Prince de Galles. His friend, Lamar Fike, was a big fat boy and a natural fuck-up. He lost his passport on the train and you need your passport to check into the hotel, and so I had to go back with him to the train and with a flashlight, we found it which was amazing. On the first night we went to this night club on the Champs-Elysees, the Lido, and there was a chorus line of 24 girls, called the Bluebelles, who were all English.
Elvis was there for ten days and he made it with 22 of the 24 girls. It was unbelievable because as one was coming in the front door, another would be leaving by the back. Every night he would go to the Lido. After the second or third night I got bored with it, but Elvis had a marvellous time'.
In-between all this activity, did Elvis find enough time to discuss songs with Freddy? 'Hardly, he would sleep until midday or one o'clock and then he would fool around in the afternoon. We didn't go out very much. We only went sightseeing once. He wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, and he took one look at it and said, 'Well, that's it, let's move on'. He didn't want to go to the Louvre, and he had no feeling for museums at all'.
Was that due to a lack of education? 'Well, he had only had limited education, but he had been to high school and he was very street smart. He was clever in that respect. You couldn't fool him and he had a terrific song sense. I once played a song for him and after eight bars he took it off and said, 'That's not for me'. I was sure that it was a good song for him so I put it aside, and about nine months later, I thought I would re-submit it. put it on and he listened to the first eight bars and then said, 'I didn't like it the first time and I don't like it now'. I was stunned that he would have remembered those eight bars, I was embarrassed about that'.
Freddy remembered an amusing story from Elvis' Army days.
When Elvis was in the Army, Lamar Fike came to London with Mort Shuman and he became like a valet to him. He went with him to Birmingham I think for a show, and it was cold and Mort wanted his scarf. There was a big argument and Lamar said, 'Well take the scarf and shove it up your ass, I'm leaving', He didn't mind doing things for Elvis but he certainly wasn't going to be a valet for Mort Shuman'.
'I Liked Mort A Lot'
Freddy continued, 'Mort loved Europe and he went to France and became a big recording artist and even made some motion pictures in French. I liked Mort a lot as he was an hilarious character with lots of charisma.
Some years later, he came to Nashville for an award for an old song that had had a revival and we were staying in the same hotel. He wore a big cowboy hat and the reporters leapt upon him as they assumed he was a big star'.
Elvis' first post-Army single, 'Stuck On You', was written by J. Leslie McFarland, who by all accounts was a Grade A nutcase. 'Leslie would come up to the office and say, 'Have you got some time for me?'. He would be looking for sympathy as he would have his arm in a sling. The following week he would appear with his other arm in a sling as he had forgotten which arm he had put in the sling the first time. He was a crazy guy, but he wasn't as crazy as another songwriter, John 0. Loudermilk in Nashville.
He once went to a motorpark inn and fired a shotgun down the hallway. The police came running and he said, 'The guy who fired it went that way. I'll show you'.
After 'Stuck On You', Elvis turned to more adult material with 'It's Now Or Never'. 'That song was very important in re-establishing his popularity and it was based on '0 Sole Mio'. Elvis liked '0 Sole Mio' very much. I had heard him fool around with it on the piano, and so I had some English adaptations written. I asked three or four different teams of songwriters to come up with something and he decided to record 'It's Now Or Never' by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold, which was a huge hit. His record sales had been going down up 'til then'.
So this is how the Brill Building works. You tell a bunch of writers what you're looking for and it's up to them to deliver. 'Right, and a lot of it comes out of necessity. Elvis had contracts to make three motion pictures a year, and to be honest, there was never enough time to do them properly. I was given the script and we always managed to find a title song. The scripts never indicated where the songs should be, and I had to mark up where songs were possible. I would then distribute 12 scripts to 12 different teams, and tell them to work on songs for certain situations. I would get four or five songs for each situation and I would take them to Elvis who would select the songs. Both the mass production and the fact of being tied down to titles like 'Kissin' Cousins', 'Wild In The Country' and 'Harum Scarum' made everything very difficult. It was difficult to get hit songs, and the quality of his songs suffered during the period of time when he was only doing motion pictures. Of course, there are exceptions - 'Return To Sender' was a marvellous song'.
Freddy has always owned Carlin Music. 'When I bought the original Hill & Range company in England, which was called Belinda, I changed the name as I wanted to call it 'Caroline' after my daughter. There already was a Caroline Music so I took a few letters off the name and called it Carlin'.
One of Freddy's first signings was Ray Davies so he struck gold once again. He says. 'I was involved in all Elvis' pictures and I was also involved in 'The Young Ones' and 'Summer Holiday'. I gave Cliff a very good song. 'Travelling Light' by Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett. I'm surprised that he didn't get established in the States until he did that duet with Olivia Newton-John many years later. We also gave some songs to The Animals and Mort and Leslie McFarland wrote a No. I hit for Billy J. Kramer. 'Little Children'.
Unfortunately, my time with Freddy Bienstock was drawing to a close as it was time for his lunch engagement Any interview with him is bound to be unsatisfactory as there is so much to ask him and he is such a good talker. Although his time can be spent so productively in looking after his copyrights, I hope that he will write his autobiography. 'A lot of people have asked me to do that but I haven't really considered it. If I look back, I know I have had a marvellous life and a very interesting one and I've met a lot of interesting people'.
New opportunities are always presenting themselves.
'After I acquired Chappell in 1984, I became aware of U2 and I started to negotiate with their management. We did this for a year and came to a deal which was a three-album deal for $5m. I told the board that I had made this deal with U2 and one of the bankers came to me afterwards He thought that I had made the deal with the U2 pilot who had been shot down over Russia and he wasn't sure what I was going to do with him. I had to explain that U2 was also the name of a group. It was a gamble but as we were publishing all the songs, we were getting 50 cents an album, and within eight months, 'The Joshua Tree' had sold 14 million albums and we had $7m back on a guaranteed $5m, It happened to be a very good deal'.
Finally, I asked Freddy it he thought of Elvis everyday. 'No, not everyday. I have very fond memories of him, of course, and I have very fond memories of Colonel Parker who was a close friend. Even in his later years when he was retired, if ever I was in California, I would go to Las Vegas for a couple of days to see him. I was very fond of Colonel Parker. But I accept that he was a difficult man.
Colonel Parker was like Elvis' security blanket and Elvis knew that he could never have had that amount of success without Colonel Parker, Perhaps he took too much commission. but he was loyal to Elvis. When Brian Epstein died, The Beatles came to California to talk to him. They would have liked him to become their manager, but he turned them down. He devoted all his time and energy to Elvis'.
If you like reading this article, you will love the book; Writing For The King - a 400 page Book with more than 140 interviews with songwriters like Paul McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James and Tony Joe White. Included are two CDs, the first contains previously unreleased RCA recordings of Elvis performing live in Las Vegas (1969 through 1972), the second a selection of the original demos submitted to Elvis.
The demo CD takes us from Heartbreak Hotel through classics like Teddy Bear, Trouble, Burning Love and Way Down.
'Writing for the King' by Ken Sharp is a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of politics, money, inspiration and great trivia about Elvis and the songs he turned into classics. plus Ken's new book; Elvis, Vegas '69.
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