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People Top 5
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- May 14, 1979
- Vol. 11
- No. 19
Al Coury Is the Frankenstein of the Record Business: at R.s.o., He Makes Monsters
What Al Coury presides over is not a sex club franchise but Robert Stigwood's RSO Records, headquartered on Sunset Boulevard. The high rollers of the music industry have an argot, evoking images of sex and violence like the music itself. Coury—fiercely competitive and comically profane—is fluent in the strange tongue. At the moment he is talking charts and bullets, legs (a record's staying power), a surge at the racks, a breakout in the South, kicking in, stretching out, killers, monsters, gorillas and stiffs.
On the other end of the line is a promotion man in the East, one of Coury's infantrymen who will hawk, howl, hyperventilate, hold a .45 to his head—do anything Al Coury asks to persuade a local radio programmer to add a tune to the play list. Coury inflames, incites, mesmerizes. "I wanna see numbers in Providence," he says. "Crack a whip, work each jock there differently. Perform some bleepin' miracles for me, will ya?"
However outrageous the demands he makes on his small staff (of just 68), Coury puts still greater pressure on himself in a fanatic drive for supremacy. Barely three years ago Stigwood picked Coury, then 42, to be the president of his label. Coury had just been passed over for the top job at Capitol records, where he had toiled in promotion for 17 years. RSO was the perfect deal—a selective label, with Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees already signed, freedom to handpick a staff, and a "generous" percent of the earnings. Or as Stigwood dryly puts it, "an incentive deal."
Since the early days, when Disco Duck was "happening" for RSO, Coury's genius for spotting a hit, getting it played and working the "product" on the streets has turned his piece of the action into a million-plus fortune. Last year RSO had the largest-selling albums ever recorded, the sound tracks from Saturday Night Fever (27 million worldwide) and Grease (22 million), and the company held down No. 1 on the LP chart for 36 weeks. Six consecutive No. 1 singles were on RSO, also a precedent. Despite this astonishing record, by year's end only 10 RSO albums had been released while earnings had soared to nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. By comparison, CBS released 35 times as many albums but earned only about four times as much.
When Fever passed Frampton Comes Alive and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours as the all-time best-seller, it radically altered the definition of success in the industry. Gold (500,000 LPs sold) and platinum (one million) became almost meaningless terms. Along the way Coury's marketing stratagems forged an extraordinary new relationship between Hollywood and music. With shrewd timing he used singles to presell sound-track LPs, LPs to presell films, and films to hype sound-track albums and subsequent singles from them. (Example: How Deep Is Your Love and Stayin' Alive led to sales of one million sound-track LPs weeks before the movie Saturday Night Fever was even released.)
Shamelessly, Coury still proclaims that he's "hungry. I don't ever want to lose contact with the street." When a national promotion man comes into Coury's unremarkable second-floor office to report that the Bee Gees' new LP, Spirits Having Flown, has been bumped in Billboard to No. 2 after five weeks at the top, Coury becomes livid. "Call them up," he orders. "Create a crisis. They usually respond very well to crisis. Explain to them that in retail it may be nip and tuck, but in wholesale we're ahead 2 or 3 to 1. It's not fair."
A trade paper editor calls Coury the Vince Lombardi of the record business. Almost. Winning isn't really the only thing for Coury. Winning big is. "Al's energy," says his national promotion director, Bob Smith, "is frightening—but beautiful." Those on the receiving end of Coury tirades may take exception. Capitol vice-president Bruce Wendell, who once served as a promo man under Coury at Capitol, says, "Al stepped on a lot of toes. He pushed aside the lame and the slow. He put sledgehammers on our desks to remind us to hammer, hammer." Bob Wilson, editor of the trade paper Radio & Records, explains, "Al gets his men to bang on the door, kick ass and kill for him. There's no way to calm Coury. You wait it out."
Coury's is not an imperial presidency. No limos. Rare lunches out. No lunches catered in. He wears non-designer jeans, T-shirts, boots, no gold chains and throws his black leather jacket over a chair at the office. He's up at 6 a.m. to call promo men in the East, working three lines in his home. He labors nights, weekends and is "not averse" to asking his promo men to pay visits to radio stations on national holidays. No aspect of the label's operations eludes his scrutiny. A space-age promotional button for the new group Rockets "looks more like a turkey," Coury tells his director of creative services. Advised that RSO's Linda Clifford is in town, he orders his PR director to "take her to pop stations. Bring a photographer along. Make sure she looks beautiful—in a dress, you know."
All day long secretaries and department heads wait their turn in line, walk in, ask questions, get answers. The phone rings twice a minute. Hip, smooth-rapping lawyers, producers, managers, agents and Coury's own talent scouts appear with tapes to play for him. He rarely leaves his office. The action these days is coming to him. "My neighbor's ex-gardener sent me a tape," says Al. "There was a bird in the background, chirping away. The guy called me and asked what I thought. I told him it was fine. I think I'll sign the bleepin' bird."
The director of creative services throws Coury a butane lighter. "We can print logos on this," he says. Al looks at it, turns it around. "Unbelievable," he says sarcastically. "Fabulous. How much?" "$2.25." Al tosses it back. "It's not that great."
The Bee Gees, he is told, want to produce a short promo film for brother Andy Gibb. "They're liable to make Gone With the Wind—three and a half hours," Coury cracks. He holds up a small black purse. "It's a little stash bag for lipstick. It's plastic, it's nice. It's got a string to go around your wrist in discos. It's for guys."
In the late afternoon Coury begins to unwind. He pours himself Perrier or sometimes champagne, lights a cigar, looks out over Sunset Boulevard. "It's like Fairyland here in Hollywood. Yesterday I signed royalty checks for Fever and Grease for over a million dollars." Then one last call comes in. A smile. "Great, terrific. Finally, some bleepin' good news." He hangs up. "That really makes my day," he says. "Four season tickets to all 81 Dodger home games, right behind the dugout. That's the most important business transaction of the day."
When Coury leaves RSO's brick office building in his silver Mercedes, he drives into the San Fernando Valley "to the sane world"—wife Mary Ann, 32, son Bert, 10, and daughter Kacy, 11. "I lead two different lives," he says. Though he could erect a baronial, electronically guarded monument to himself near the office, he is at home among the quiet, middle-class residents of Woodland Hills, less than 20 miles northwest of Hollywood. "It would be more convenient to live in Beverly Hills," he admits, "but not good for the kids. There's no one on the streets there. The cops would arrest a kid for walking on the streets." Coury is vehemently committed to raising unspoiled children. "They don't think I'm anything special," he says, "except they get free albums."
The Courys met in 1966 when Al, as a Boston promo man, had to introduce a local contest winner to Wayne Newton after a show. The winner brought along her best friend, Mary Ann, whose camera Al borrowed to shoot pictures. When he took Mary Ann out for dinner some weeks later, she charged him $9 for developing the film. "I knew then I should marry this girl," he says. "She knew the value of a dollar." They live in the same modestly furnished house Al bought 10 years ago when he was earning $18,000 a year. Mary Ann runs the house on a small budget, doing the cooking, housework and sewing. The Courys are active in the 100-member Van Nuys Greek Orthodox congregation and attend every Sunday. "In Hollywood you just don't find a lot of real people," Al says. "The bottom line is my wife, the kids, the family's future."
For now the future seems pretty secure, with rumors (he won't comment) of a recent $1 million bonus from Stigwood. Coury also has investments in condos and malls, but leaves the tending of his money to accountants. He would rather putter around the garden, cultivating roses, pomegranates, Santa Rosa plums, Alberta peaches, apricots and the 21 citrus trees Stigwood gave him. "It's a thrill for me to take a lemon just off a tree and garlic from the garden and put them into a salad," Coury says.
When he isn't at Dodger games, Coury follows the Boston Red Sox. His bittersweet affair with that baseball team ("They break my heart") dates from his Worcester, Mass. childhood. His Lebanese father, a disabled World War I veteran, was a tailor who died when Al was 18. After high school, Coury ushered in local theaters and managed a theater in Hartford. His first assignments for Capitol were in what he jokingly calls the "heavy markets" like Burlington, Vt. and Pittsburgh, N.Y.
A year and a half later Coury was promoted to Boston. Then and now, he believes, "It is impossible for me not to convince others if I'm enthusiastic. Programmers detect insincerity. Your credibility is tarnished." Coury holds that if a song is bad "no amount of promotion or hype will save it. But, with records that are 6 to 5 and pick 'em, promotion helps," he says.
If a promo man has only stiffs to hype in a given week, Coury suggests "talking up somebody else's product—Ronstadt, Dire Straits. He'll remember you for making him a better programmer, by turning him onto something new. We'd be crazy to think—as many large-label people do—that all the good music comes from one outfit. Some companies call that dedication. I call it hypocrisy."
But the failures make Coury hurt: "These younger guys talk about stress tests. Sh**, I have a stress test in the office every week. I lose a bullet, I get a pain. I lose two radio stations, I lose four pounds. I fight and scrap and scuffle—never assuming that even the Bee Gees will get to, and stay at, the top. But I love the heartaches." However, he could have done without the two-record Sgt. Pepper sound-track debacle—four million units shipped out at $15.98 retail. Coury says, "We did double platinum—in returns. I call that a stiff." That quickly taught him the flip side of pre-selling a film—that savage reviews can kill a movie and take the LP with it.
Coury now faces the deflating reality that, as Stigwood says, "Fever's 27 million is not a yardstick we can expect to use with all records." After those gargantuans, Coury is turning to "the lifeblood of any label—breaking in new acts"—like Suzi Quatro and Linda Clifford (on the subsidiary Curtom label). "We've got a goal of $100 million for RSO for this year," Al says. "That's not too shabby."
Despite his fascination now, Coury figures he will be "bored" by the record biz in five years. Would he cross over to film production? "I've seen many executives try to transcend the music business and get burned," he says. What does that leave? Well, the consummate promotion man will have to be selling something. "I might," he says, taking a deep breath of orange blossoms, "just open up a fruit stand."
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