Gene Norman, jazz impresario, disc jockey and record label owner, passed away peacefully at his home in Hollywood, California on 2 November 2015. He was 93.
Gene Norman was one of the very last “record men” of Hollywood’s golden era, that special group of individuals who massaged a fledgling mid-century music industry to become the billion-dollar behemoth it is today. Yet amongst his contemporaries - men such as Herb Newman, Lew Bedell, Alpert and Moss, Art Laboe, Bob Keane, Dootsie Williams and others, Norman was perhaps the most versatile, wearing the multi-faceted hats of promoter, disc jockey, nightclub entrepreneur and record label prez long in advance of his peers. It should be noted that he was also the most genial of this select group. A gentleman to the very end, with his GNP Crescendo label, Gene presided over an unusual and eclectic catalogue, one that is still extant – the last surviving, truly independent Los Angeles record company of its vintage.
Born Eugene Nabatoff in New Yorkon 30 January 1922, Gene began his radio career in San Francisco in the early 1940s, before a move to Los Angelesand establishing himself as one of the city’s leading disc jockeys, well-known for an engaging, deferential tone and his enthusiastic support of jazz in particular. Norman’s success on local stations such as KLAC and KFWB translated into his promotion of jazz concerts across southern California over the next two decades, at venues like Pasadena Civic and the Hollywood Bowl, showcasing artists such as Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Peggy Lee and Erroll Garner under the aegis of ‘Gene Norman Presents.’ His Blues Jubilee programmes at the Shrine Auditorium in the early 1950s were some of the first integrated jazz and blues concerts in the United States. Some of these shows were recorded and released on Decca, Capitol and Modern Records, presaging Norman’s later career as a record label owner.
With such a high profile, Gene Norman soon moved into local media, televising concerts on KTLA-TV and hosting ‘The Gene Norman Show’ and ‘Campus Club’ on KHJ. He also introduced the Snader Telescriptions, a prototype MTV-style film magazine that featured recording personalities of the era, for NBC. In 1954, Gene opened the Crescendo nightclub on the Sunset Strip which featured an upstairs venue, the Interlude. Over the next decade he presented virtually every record and comic star of the era, including Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Newhart, Johnny Mathis, Stan Kenton, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Rusty Warren, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen and Louis Armstrong.
However, Norman’s local media presence would lessen as he devoted his full attention to the object of his true legacy, the GNP Crescendo Records label. His early jazz recordings formed the base of what was to evolve into a vast and varied catalogue, including acts such as pre-Coasters vocal group the Robins, long-lived surf instrumentalists the Challengers, folk pioneers Joe & Eddie, Grammy-winning Zydeco legend Queen Ida, Wrecking Crew regular Billy Strange and many original film and television soundtracks. The label’s Top 40 singles presence was erratic but Norman bought into the album market early on and profited hugely over the next sixty years with consistent and considerable best sellers from such unlikely sources as polka favourites the Mom & Dads or Sky Saxon and the Seeds’ minimalist garage punk rock. Early on, he established licensing deals with foreign affiliates that maximized the global visibility of the company and scored him hits in markets like Australia and Japan.
As licensors, Ace has always had a long-lived and friendly relationship with GNP Crescendo and both Gene and his son, Neil, who now runs the label. Directors Ted and Roger tell lovely stories of breakfast meetings in the 1980s at industry showcase MIDEM with a gracious Gene, nattily resplendent in three piece suit and spats. My own more recent encounters with the man were similarly charming, despite his being advanced in years and less involved with day-to-day operations. As I embarked upon a major rehabilitation of the Seeds catalogue, he gave his full assent and despite a fading memory for specifics, Gene’s eyes sparkled when asked about the Seeds and why he signed an act that seemed incongruous compared to the rest of the Crescendo catalogue. “I enjoyed their intensity,” he told me modestly, recognizing the core component of any significant musical act, irrespective of genre. That was Gene Norman, not only a gentlemen but a true “record man.”
photo caption: Gene with Dinah Washington