Joe “Bubba” Summers — one of Canada’s great ‘record’ men — passed away from cancer at a health centre in Bowmanville, ON, surrounded by family on the morning of Friday, May 28. He was 75.
Starting from humble beginnings in Detroit where he quit school before graduating, he worked his way up the ranks at Capitol, Decca, and Rare Earth, to VP of Sales for Motown Records before coming to Canada and joining Gerry Lacoursiere at A&M Records as National Sales Manager in 1972. He retired, as Chairman of PolyGram of Canada, in 1997.
It was Summers years at A&M that most will remembering him by, although his earlier life in the American Northeast was as colourful and entertaining. It was at Decca where he first ran into Lacoursiere who was doing marketing and promotion for the label. Recalling those times, Lacoursiere remembers working a record by Guy Lombardo in Toledo: “Joe managed to get five music store windows promoting the record and I got a radio station to play nothing but Guy Lombardo for 24 hours. I think the guy was fired for that.”
The two hit it off immediately. Both had quit school, both had young families, both were ambitious and passionate about the records they promoted and both loved the record business.
When Lacoursiere was approached to set up A&M in Canada one of his first hiring was his old friend Joe Summers.
“In September 1972 I was on the phone with my long-time friend Joe. He was telling me that Motown wanted him to move to L.A. as they were moving their headquarters there. I mentioned that I was looking to hire a National Sales Manager for A&M and asked if he would be interested,” Lacoursiere remembers. “He was, so I invited him to come to Toronto to discuss the position. He showed up on a Friday with (his wife) Gloria & five children.
“We spent the weekend socializing and discussing the responsibilities and his interest. I offered him the position along with the salary. His comment was ‘how much is the take home pay?’ I replied ‘here’s what I will pay you, what you take home is after the deduction of the taxes’. We negotiated until I agreed to guarantee him the amount of his take home pay.”
Continuing, “Dave Strom the buyer at Handleman Detroit had counseled him on the high rate of Canadian taxes. On Monday morning Joe and his family left to return to Detroit, taking my son Dean with them as insurance so I would not change my mind. He never knew how much he made, just his take home pay. This was the continuation of a great friendship and the next step to the success of A&M Records Canada.”
The story characterizes Summers, as a family man, a tough, often times single-minded negotiator and a person who stood by his word and commanded loyalty. To those who didn’t know him, Summers could be intimidating with his large frame, lumbering John Wayne gait and Mafiosi-style shades that he wore indoors.
Though tough, as any of the major retail chain owners would have told you during his tenure at A&M, he was also known to be fair and honest, and he knew most of his accounts across the country by name—and their wives and children’s names, too. He could also be charming and courteous and always seemed to find time to council those in need, offering instructive insights about the business to those just starting off.
His reputation as a great record man came from the yin and yang relationship that he and Lacoursiere had working together in building a hit record machine that was the envy of A&M in Los Angeles and a frustration to its competitors in Canada. The company’s mantra was ‘Let’s make it happen’ and together they created a marketing, promotion and sales team that was seemingly unstoppable, breaking acts and delivering the first hits for a procession of acts that included Nazareth, Styx, The Police, and Supertramp.
There were a great many Canadian acts too — the most successful being Bryan Adams — but others included Lawrence Hud, Keith Hampshire, David Bradstreet, the Hometown Band, Valdy, Cano, Payola$, Arrows, Paul Janz, and Veronique Beliveau. In their time, they delivered million selling albums for Adams (Reckless and Waking Up the Neighbours), Supertramp (Crime of the Century and Breakfast In America).
CARAS and Juno Awards’ CEO Allan Reid, writing on Facebook, remembers this “larger than life character” who transferred him from Vancouver to head-office in Toronto “to educate me about the business, more often than not at the pool table at 939 Warden Ave,” adding that Summers “epitomized the classic record man.”
Q107 morning man John Derringer, again on Facebook, posted: ‘A & M Records Canada had a tremendous crew back in the day. Gerry Lacoursiere, JP Guilbert, Bill Ott, Allan Reid and so many other great folks made it a real pleasure to deal with them. Joe Summers was a terrific guy and was both a businessman and music lover. A rare combination indeed. Joe will be missed.”
Ray Pettinger, former owner of Vancouver-based Casino Records (distributed by A&M in Canada): “Gerry. I was thinking of you today and remembering some great times with you and Joe and the A&M family. I always remember the slogan for the 1973 national sales meeting…MAKE IT HAPPEN. You and Joe sure did. My thoughts are with you at this time. God bless!”
Former music distributor and retailer William Sportello: “A good man to have on your side. From the early days of Alpert & Moss to the time he retired, Joe was teacher in the music biz. Just ask Steve Kane. Both of you were founders! Sad to see Joe pass away.
Daughter Michelle Summers Henderson, also writing on Facebook, shared that “My Dad didn’t want a funeral. For as long as I can remember, he has wanted a big party so that we can celebrate his life together.”
That celebration takes place on Sunday June 14th at Hayden Shore Pavilion (589 Water St.) in Whitby ON., from 1pm to 6pm. Condolences and donations to the Canadian Cancer Society can be made online at The Northcutt Elliott Funeral Home website. - David Farrell
The Billboard obituary, penned by Karen Bliss, can be found here.