An Excerpt From Omar Dykes: The Life & Times of a Poor and Almost Famous Bluesman
Hard truths about the music business by Kent “Omar” Dykes and spouse Issa Medrano as they revisit Glory Days (for Bruce Springsteen).
"On Hard Times in the Land of Plenty, Omar & the Howlers know exactly who they are: They're Creedence Clearwater Revival – revived. This legendary Texas blues band comes by its roots honestly. The populist title cut nearly out-Fogertys Fogerty, and if the loopy charm of 'Dancing in the Canebrake' – imagine Sam the Sham fronting the group – doesn't land the Howlers in the Top 10 this summer, then radio's even lamer than you feared." – Playboy, August 1987
In early 1986, executives from Columbia Records at CBS attended the Omar & the Howlers taping of Austin City Limits and a show in New Orleans at Tipitina's. They were impressed with what they saw and began working on a contract to sign the band to the label. The contract was for a three-record option agreement. We had several other labels to choose from that were interested in obtaining a recording contract with us, but we selected Columbia. The negotiations took place after the recording of Hard Times in the Land of Plenty on Austin Records. [My manager John] Doe negotiated a contract with Columbia Records (CBS) to take over Hard Times in the Land of Plenty. Herschel Cunningham reluctantly worked out a deal to relinquish ownership of Hard Times, and the band switched labels from Austin Records to Columbia.
This change should have been a big career break for us.
Doe called me to say that the contract with Columbia could not be signed and finalized unless the music was sent to CBS immediately, or the deal would be off. The problem was the music had not yet been mastered, and one of the stipulations to the contract was Columbia would receive a "ready to press" product. During the negotiations, Herschel stopped spending time and money on the record until he knew what the outcome was going to be, which was understandable. Most people don't know this, but the music was sent to Columbia without being mastered. It is also safe to say that Cunningham was eventually less than pleased with how the contract was finalized. He held out for $150,000 to be paid to him by CBS for the record. I didn't know until decades later that he "only" received $76,000 and was still complaining about it.
Let me get out my baby violin. Seems like a lot considering I got nothing at all.
Almost overnight, Omar & the Howlers became the next big thing. The label spent a small fortune promoting the release, but there was a catch. "If something seems too good to be true" ... well, you know the saying. Two divisions of CBS Records, Epic and Columbia, had a friendly competition to determine which division signed the most profitable artist. Epic signed Mason Ruffner, and Columbia signed us. From the start, there was a huge push for O&H so Columbia could win the label competition. There were huge shows, interviews with every major radio station in the country, and expensive luncheons and dinner parties for DJs, venue owners, label executives, and music industry moguls. I was on a brutal schedule, sent by limos or planes to attend countless PR events all over the United States. The true life of a rock star.
Charles Comer, a huge name in the music industry as a well-known and successful publicist, started working on my behalf. Charles was an interesting character who wore thick glasses, an Australian outback hat, and a khaki safari uniform. He would pick me up and take me to radio stations to do interviews. I called our times together "The Adventures of Omer and Comer," because Charles always called me "Omer." We first met at the Summit in Houston at a concert where we opened for Stevie Ray Vaughan. Doe told me I would be meeting my new publicist at the Summit show and to be looking for him. I noticed a strange man following me around, mumbling, and I thought he was a fan. It was Charles, and we hit it off right away.
One time while in New York City, Charles picked me up and told me that we were going for an interview at radio station WNEW. The band was playing that night, but I told Charles I didn't know there was an interview. Charles told me not to worry about it. We went upstairs to the radio station and Charles greeted the receptionist like an old friend. He said we were there for my interview with the deejay. The receptionist told Charles that my name wasn't in her appointment book. Charles said he called, talked to someone, and was told he could come by for an interview, which was total horse hockey.
The receptionist called and told the disc jockey that Charles Comer and Omar Dykes were there for the interview. We went back and were on the air within minutes. Charles was a charmer and had a lot of pull within the industry, which helped me tremendously.
There was an incident at a breakfast meeting scheduled at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta with a CBS executive, Paul Rappaport, Doe, and me. I showed up decked out in my black suit, black boots, and bolo tie. The maître d' told me that I had to wear a tie to eat in the dining room.
"I AM wearing a tie," I said.
The maître d' said, "The restaurant does not recognize the bolo as a tie, sir, but you can borrow one of the ties the restaurant keeps in the back so patrons will be compliant with the dress code."
As he was babbling that crap, I spotted a Shoney's restaurant across the street through the Ritz Carlton window. I told them all, "A bolo is recognized as a tie in Texas. I'm going across the street to eat." Of course, Rappaport and Doe stayed at the Ritz, and they charged the meal on my tab with CBS. Bon appétit and screw me again.
All the expenses for every event were added to my account for recoupment before I would ever receive a cent. I had no idea that all airfare, dinners, lunches, limos, and everything else was charged to the artist (me) in the name of marketing. You wouldn't believe how many free meals and parties I paid for CBS executives to enjoy. The debt was becoming astronomical, but I was too naïve and busy to realize what was happening.
The single "Hard Times in the Land of Plenty" was getting a lot of airplay, and CBS had a music video made of the single, taped in a club in downtown Austin and charged to my account. The club was completely dismantled and rearranged, including building a new stage, for the filming (also charged to my account). The video was produced by Kate Thorn and directed by Ralph Ziman, and aired extensively on MTV and on the Canadian Music Channel, Much Music. The "Hard Times" single was included in the 1987 motion picture Like Father, Like Son, starring Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron. It was during this time that I did one of the first "Don't Mess with Texas" radio spots, before the campaign commercials were televised.
Now it was time to choose another single for radio. The dilemma was whether to choose a track for AOR radio or a song for Pop radio. AOR, or "album-oriented radio," was a format that allowed on-air staff to reserve the right to play whatever he/she wanted to play off the album, which sometimes were singles and sometimes were not. Pop radio played suggested singles from sources such as tip sheets. A tip sheet was intended to be used as a guide for radio stations to determine what newly released songs had the potential for being hits. Omar & the Howlers appeared on the tip sheet FMQB (Friday Morning Quarterback) published out of New Jersey in 1987 for airplay of "Mississippi Hoo Doo Man" on Hard Times in the Land of Plenty. Because of the amount of money involved in the competitive industry, most recording firms gave sizable monetary bribes or gifts to independent promoters, who spent that money as payola for disc jockeys and radio station program directors to give airplay to specific songs.
The term payola – a combination of the words "pay" and "Victrola" – was coined in the late Fifties for money accepted by radio interests from record companies in return for playing their music on the air. Congress outlawed the practice in 1960. So it was illegal, but that didn't stop it from happening.
Even though it was denied publicly, payola was a real thing that happened all the time. I saw it happen myself when representatives from CBS were pushing the music of Terence Trent D'Arby and Tommy Conwell & the Rumblers. The CBS regional executive in one of the Southern states took me to a radio station for an interview and told the disc jockey he had a song he wanted played on the air. The guy said he already had his Top 10 list for the next week. The CBS guy gave him a pair of lizard-skin cowboy boots and tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert.
"I guess you're going to have 11 songs on your Top 10 list," he said.
The deejay said, "Okay, then."
This all took place before my interview. It was humiliating and I wanted to say, "Hey! Why aren't you giving them expensive gifts to play MY music?"
AOR was starting to die out, and any decision regarding what song to choose and what format of radio to use was critical to the success of the airplay for the next song. John Doe and I decided to go with "Dancing in the Canebrake" on Pop radio. The AOR song would have been "Mississippi Hoo Doo Man." Unfortunately, I found out after a concert at the Concord Pavilion near San Francisco when playing with Stevie Ray that the CBS exec who was assigned to promote "Dancing in the Canebrake" (being released the next day) was leaving on a two-week vacation with his family.
The exec being on vacation for two weeks at the beginning of the song's release played a crucial role in the lack of attention the song received. As it turned out, the song slid into the abyss. Looking back, I think we made the wrong choice and going with AOR would have done better because the success of the song would have depended on the deejays' choice and not on the CBS promoter's availability, but hindsight doesn't count.
The label spared no expense on [follow-up album] Wall of Pride, to the tune of $150,000. I was set up in Memphis in a rented apartment with a car for four months to co-write with Terry Manning, producer of ZZ Top's Eliminator, who had been hired as the producer and engineer. Three songs we co-wrote made it on the release ("Rattlesnake Shake," "Don't Lead Me On," "Rock It While You Can"). The band came to town for a month to record the basic tracks, and I stayed there to add vocals and overdub guitar parts.
Jimi Jamison, lead singer of the band Survivor ("Eye of the Tiger") sang backup vocals on the project. The new album was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN. Terry was great friends with Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and he had the keys to Billy's equipment locker where he kept a lot of his guitars and amps. I got to play several of Billy's guitars and use some of his amps during the recordings.
That was a special experience for me! I was adding up a huge tab like the national debt, but I had fun doing it.
To purchase a signed copy of Omar Dykes: The Life and Times of a Poor and Almost Famous Bluesman, stop by the now-opened (and distanced) Antone’s Records, where the softback became a local bestseller over the summer. Also available on Amazon.