On May 3rd in Toronto, Lorne Saifer will be inducted into The Honour Roll of the Music Managers Forum Canada. He is certainly a very deserving recipient, as this industry veteran has achieved a level of international recognition equaled by very few other Canadian artist managers.
We reached the Winnipeg-raised Saifer in Los Angeles (his home since 1972) earlier this week for an extensive interview that proved he is a man with both great insights and stories.
He expressed gratitude at the MMF award, noting that “when it comes from people who do the same thing you do it means a lot. I’ve never paid much attention to any of these things [honours] really, but with Burton being honoured at The Junos this year I guess it raised things up a little bit.”
That is a reference to the induction of Saifer’s longtime close friend and management client Burton Cummings into The Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The bond between the two certainly transcends a mere business relationship, and it dates back to their teenage days in Winnipeg in the ‘60s.
“Not to give away my MMF speech, but it was a deep bond for a number of reasons,” Saifer tells us. “Burton’s dad left the family when he was about two. My dad died when I was five. My mother worked at Hudson’s Bay, Burton’s at Eaton’s. I think there was a certain bond there, both boys without fathers. And we were both extraordinarily interested in music. That was all Burton was interested in.”
Saifer recalls being 14 or 15 when he first saw Cummings perform. “The minute I heard him I knew this guy was different. He always had that magic about him visually and he had that energy and certainly the voice. You knew that was different. And he was a great piano player. He’d stand up at that piano playing. The first time I saw him I remember clear as a bell thinking ‘this guy is a cut above the rest.’"
In those heady days in the ‘Peg, Saifer also encountered Neil Young. “One day across the back alley from me I heard this band practicing. I went over and it was Neil Young and The Squires. From there it evolved into me booking the band and managing them. That’s if you call it management. I’d call it more like aggressive fumbling!,” he chuckles.
It may be hard to believe, but this bright young entrepreneur was just 15 at the time. Along with The Squires, he started managing such other local acts as the Mongrels and Haymarket Riot, as well as writing with and producing local bands and booking them into shows.
“I also started a record company and along with Randy Bachman a publishing company. He and I were producing all these bands in Winnipeg. The only place to produce records was the local radio stations. We used to go in late at night, give the engineer 10 or 20 bucks and he’d let you go in there and you’d bang around.
“Randy and I did that, because if a local band had a record on the radio, instead of making $75 for a show you could make $100. The local DJ would promote the show. That was a learning curve. I didn’t know anything about publishing, but I learned. I didn’t know anything about producing records, while Randy knew the basics of it. You learned your craft, and I started doing that at a young age.”
Saifer adds that “I wasn’t managing Burton at the time, but we’d go to all these community centre dances together.” To Saifer, “the very vital community centres thing going on was very important to the scene. They all had dances, and I started promoting them. The drinking age then was 21 so there was nowhere for people to go except for all these dances all the time.
At any given moment in Winnpeg when I was in my teens there was a band with Neil Young, a band with Randy Bachman, and one with Burton Cummings. It was an extraordinary time. There were probably 10-12 community dances every weekend, and the bands started experimenting with their own music. The young fans were very receptive to that at the shows, whereas in the pubs the owners just wanted the bands to cover the Top 40.
“So bands like Chad Allan and The Expressions, who subsequently became the Guess Who, went into their own material, as did The Squires and Burton’s band The Devrons.”
Saifer recalls that initially The Squires were an instrumental band and that he had an impact on Neil Young beginning to sing. “A friend of mine had gone to England and he brought back a record called Meet The Beatles. It wasn’t available in Canada then. I gave the record to Neil, cos I was absolutely blown away by it. The first song Neil Young ever sang publicly in his life was “It Won’t Be Long,” from that record. That made him start to realize he could sing. He was dabbling in songwriting to a degree but that was the spark that ignited him. That song was his first attempts at vocals.”
A young man of many talents, Lorne Saifer even helped dress the bands. “I was going to the University of Manitoba, and I was also working at a hip clothing store called The Stag Shop. We made the suits for all the bands. Like the Beatles they had to have a look, so it was the suits and Beatle boots. The guy who ran the store was a real character who rather left me to run the store. I was bringing in all these bands that were getting suits made. It was a good business.”
Saifer next set his sights Stateside. “I decided that I would live in LA, with no more winters! Back then, you’d run out, start the car, run back in and let it run for 20 minutes. I left and moved to LA in 1972.”
He soon found a gig in A and R at Columbia Records, and he reminisces about a memorable first meeting there. “I walk in and there’s John Hammond. I’m speechless as I know who he is. He had signed Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Much as Clive Davis takes credit for everything, including inventing the world, he had nothing to do with Springsteen signing. It was all John Hammond.”
In LA, Saifer kept in close touch with pal Cummings. “Burton was touring with the Guess Who, who were very successful, so he’d spend a lot of time in LA and we’d have dinner together. There’s a comfort zone you have with people who know where you come from, so we had that emotional connection.
“I kept telling Burton at the time ‘you’ve got to get out of this band.’ I could see he was progressively unhappier with the way the band was going creatively. Not only that but they were living on the road. Everybody was making money except the band. The agent, the manager, the record company. That wasn’t an unfamiliar story for bands in that era. They were all broke unless they wrote songs.”
Saifer recalls one occasion that “I’ll never forget. I was heading up to Carmel with a girlfriend. You’d run to the phone to check your answering machine in those days. I was on the road. I stopped halfway up and called my machine. The first message on there was from Burton. He said “Lorne, I’m in Winnipeg. I’ve left the Guess Who. Can you call me?”
I did immediately. I said 'don’t answer the phone, don’t do anything. Who’s involved?' He said ‘nobody, I just walked away from it all.' I said ‘don’t move, I’ll be there tomorrow.’”
I told my girlfriend ‘we’re not going to Carmel. I’m going to Winnipeg.’ I got on a plane the next morning, and talked to Burton about it and how he didn’t see any future in the band creatively. For Burton it’s always been about the music. He was never motivated by money.
I told Burton we had to figure this out. The Guess Who was signed to RCA and they had a leaving member clause. That meant any member leaving, RCA had the first rights for that artist. You couldn’t just walk away from the contract.
“We then began plotting and we subsequently talked RCA into letting him go. Insane if you think about it. They weren’t really record companiy guys there. RCA was never really on a par with the A&Ms or Columbias or Warner Brothers. They were part of NBC, run by corporate guys. They could have been selling refrigerators.”
Saifer immediately signed Cummings to Columbia imprint Portrait, and they set to work on his debut solo album. “We got Richard Perry to produce the record. One of the few plans that once in a while worked,” he laughs. That self-titled 1976 album, was a double-platinum smash in Canada, with hit single “Stand Tall” leading the way.
Doing A & R at Columbia, Saifer played a crucial role in the creation of some of the biggest and best records of the ‘70s, including Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Boz Skaggs' Silk Degrees.
“The funny thing about Billy Joel was that when I went to work at Columbia, I was the young A & R guy on the West Coast. Every A & R guy was given a roster of artists to work with. As the new kid in town everybody dumped what they didn’t want on me. They didn’t want to work with Andy Williams or Johnny Mathis or Roger Miller. I ended up with them, but in that group was a young guy named Billy Joel who hadn’t made his record yet.
“I worked with his producer, Michael Stewart, as his A & R guy, so we went through the process of making Piano Man in 1973. I knew Billy Joel was something special. Very much like Burton. Driven, a great piano player and singer, but his lyrics always got me. I’ve always been a lyrics guy.”
Saifer recalls that for the Boz Skaggs project, “a record producer had come over to the label from Warners, Joe Wissert, so I worked with him. We made Silk Degrees and the band we put together were the players who became Toto. That group evolved out of those sessions.”
In that era, A & R involved being in the studio with the artist. “You were charged with that responsibility. It is always a fine line as you don’t want to interfere. In those days it wasn’t such a big deal, as it was way more of a companionship. It’s not like you were the corporate guy. You were the same age as these guys. You’d be involved in the discussions with the producer and artist about making the record.
“It wasn’t like you came on to watch the pennies. You just didn’t in those days. So that’s the world I came from. It was an artist-friendly world. A different time and of course the sales were different.”
During twelve years spent at Columbia, Saifer made such notable signings as Bill Withers and Heart, but then chose to return to his original role, that of artist manager.
Looking back, he says “I have to admit that part of it was likely ego and arrogance. At a record company like Columbia, likely most of them, everything was in a compartment. As an A & R guy, once the record was made, you had to hand it off. Now it was the marketing department. If you disagreed with their creative process of marketing the record, you didn’t have any say. Or if the promotion department decided to go with another single from the one you and the artist and producer thought it should be, you didn’t have much say. So there was frustration.
“And I was watching people like Irving Azoff with The Eagles, a fabulous manager, and he was ripping record labels apart to get what he wanted. I was watching managers come into the Columbia building. As the A & R guy you’d have an affinity with the manager as you’d be the first guy at the record company the manager would be in contact with. You’d be the signer.
I was watching managers become effective. I realized early on that if you look at any great artist. connected to them is a manager prepared to go through fire for them. Elvis and Colonel Tom, The Beatles and Brian Epstein, Dylan and Albert Grossman, the Eagles and Irving Azoff. There are countless examples of that. The great acts usually have not had more than one manager.”
Saifer made the jump back to artist management by joining the elite management company Stiefel Phillips Entertainment. Their star-studded roster included Rod Stewart, The Bangles, Simple Minds, and Prince. “We had Guns ‘N Roses for 15 minutes,” says Saifer.
In this new role, he travelled the world on tours with the likes of Rod Stewart, Prince, and even Little Richard, as well as continuing to work closely with Burton Cummings.
Saifer also handled all of Lionel Richie’s publishing for quite some time. “I didn’t manage him, but I have great affection for him. Lionel is a special guy. He’s very funny, he could have been a stand-up comedian. I have an affinity with all the artists I have worked with because of their artistry.”
On the publishing side, Saifer and Burton Cummings have their own publishing company, repping all Cummings’ material.
Saifer recalls that “in terms of management, I have been out on the road with so many artists, working with them, making records and seeing their processes. I think I grew up in the music business in its golden years, the 70s and the 80s in LA.”
He does have cogent advice for the younger generation of managers. “I think the young managers today are in a better position than ever. My key advice is, you have to believe. You can look at somebody and go 'I can make money with them.' That will carry you so far, but for me as a manager I really had to honestly believe in an act. Stay with something you truly believe in.
"There’ll be a rough road, a lot of valleys before a lot of hills. It is the belief in the artistry that will carry you forward, not the belief in the business. That is what it takes, along with not taking no for an answer. What will fuel you to do that is your belief in the artist.
Saifer cites Cummings as his best example of this. “I truly believe, and always did, in his artistry, to this day. When he steps on that stage he doesn’t leave anything. He gives his all. I know the kind of respect he has for what he does. That allows me to fight for him. I know I have to deliver the same level of performance with what I do.
“I look at young managers starting out and I’m jealous in the sense of all the control they have. Record companies used to say sign here – without the cigar – and they basically took over your life. The royalty rate they paid you was obviously smoke and mirrors. They told you how they were going to market the record. There were exceptions, like Warner Brothers.
Today the economics have changed and you can keep the majority of the money.The record companies controlled distribution and that is how they had you. They don’t control it any more. As a manager today you have control.”
Saifer also stresses that “a young act today should have a young manager who’s willing to do whatever it takes and to be on the road with them.”
“I can’t count the number of vans I’ve slept in or the equipment I’ve carried upstairs. I’m not sleeping in the back of a van anymore, though I still love going on the road with Burton [his sole management client now].”
He recalls that “as a young guy in Winnipeg putting on these bands for 35c a ticket admission at community centres, just before the show would go on I’d get this queasy little feeling of excitement in my stomach. I still get that!”
At 69, he looks back on his career with real gratitude. “I’ve never had to work for a living. I’ve always truly loved what I’ve done.
I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be involved in a business not only that I love but that I have so much respect for. I’ve always loved being so close to artistry and seeing that creative genius.”