Chapter Six
From what little I know about Abe Stern, he was born in some little town in Hungary in 19224. His father, Mauri, was a successful baker, not because he was a great baker but a smart businessman capable of reading the winds of change.
Thus, he sensed an air of anti-semitism that was growing stronger with the growing power of the Nazi Party. He feared for the well-being of his family, sold his bakery at a decent profit that enabled him to book a passage on a freighter that landed him and his wife and two children at Ellis Island, New York, in 1938.
From there, he was able to make a hop to Chicago, where he and his family could stay for a few weeks at the apartment of his sister, who had left Hungary two years before Mauri.
He followed the lead of his sister, Rose, and shortened the family name to Stern from Sternokowski.
Mauri reasoned that they were starting fresh in a new land, but he remained sensitive to anti-semitism. Stern was easier to pronounce and would be a temporary mask of the Jewish blood. There would be no further alterations and, in fact, Abe was made more aware of his lineage.
In Chicago, Mauri was able to found a bakery, and it was here that Abe was exposed to blues produced mainly by Chess Records. Chess was an outgrowth of Aristocrat bought by Leonard and his brother, Phil and releasing records by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, written primarily by Willie Dixon.
Part of the reason he was drawn to blues was his Jewish ancestry. He understood racism; he understood the hardships that were the undercurrent of many songs. As a Jew, he’d encountered them himself.
His other reason for following blues was Chess itself. Abe had it in the back of his mind to start his own business and was inspired by the Chess brothers, immigrants like him.
Mauri was finding the bakery business in Chicago difficult. Bagels just didn’t sell.
He got a romantic vision of the West Coast as some kind of wild frontier , once again sold the bakery and moved the Sterns to Los Angeles. There, Abe met Barbara Rabin(owitz), dated the waitress for a short time, married her and, with Mauri’s encouragement and business acumen, founded his record label. Named after wife Barbara, Barb benefitted from that wild frontier attitude, as Abe learned about publishing, distribution and promotion. Abe tried to be fair and honest but stretched the rules if he had to. He didn’t see anything wrong with payola if greasing the palm of an influential disc jockey meant getting a record played on the radio. You just did what you had to do in order to survive and Barb was on a shoe string. The label had no hits and therefore no money.
It was needing money that Abe was able to justify taking so much ownership of songs for his publishing company. Aspiring “artists” came to him in the hope that Barb would have a hit with one of their songs.
It was needing hits that Abe would take part ownership of a song or songs, Barb would make a record and if it was a hit – always a possibility in the early 60s- both sides would profit.
He didn’t see that as exploitation and, at his most self-righteous, thought of this as saving the would-be artist from themselves.
Most of them didn’t know anything about the music business and therefore could easily be taken advantage of. Of course, Barb was taking advantage of this ignorance, too, but Abe insisted he was trying to provide some guidance and was taking care of his investment.
Barb’s first signing was a guy called Phil Donnelly. He belatedly patterned himself after Conway Twitty; his initial single sounding uncannily like It’s Only Make Believe. It got a little radio play around L.A. but bombed otherwise. Donnelly tried again, this time sounding like Neil Sedaka. Barb went along for a third single, which aped Buddy Knox. The feedback was that Donnelly could sing but lacked his own identity. When The Beatles led what became the British Invasion in 1964, Donnelly refused to change and was cast out.
When Abe met Jansen in 1965, he was 41, an old man by rock and roll standards, but still young enough to empathize with Jansen.
He saw someone as naive as most “artists” but, despite the mask of reserve, had drive. He wanted success and would work for it. That alone, gave Abe confidence.
Thus, Stern duly signed The Hi-Steppers, made a record, released a first single. When Living Without You bombed, he recoiled at first but not much. All of Barb’s releases so far had bombed, more or less, so Stern wasn’t surprised and instead readied another Hi-Steppers single.
This was Lonely Weekend although Jansen was pushing for 12 Step Program.
Stung by the failure of Living Without You, Stern hedged his bet and made 12 Step Program the b-side. That might make Jansen happy.
Almost. The song had had a charmed life so far. It had become the band’s most popular live number and seemed a favourite with Berk, at least, and Leven.
The only glitch Jansen had encountered was that Luke had trouble getting the sound Jansen wanted.
Try as he might, Luke couldn’t get the dirty overdriven whack of The Kinks’s You Really Got Me riff. Whatever he did with his amp and guitar, the best Luke could do was match The 13th Floor Elevators’s You’re Gonna Miss Me. That was ok, Jansen could live with that but he felt You Really Got Me was groundbreaking and therefore seminal. The song would have impact 20 years from now, maybe forever.
Years later, Bob and Luke learned that The Kinks’s Dave Davies had achieved the sound of You Really Got Me by shredding the cone on a little green practice amp and took that into the recording.
For this alone, Dave Davies became immortal.
Jansen wanted that but 12 Step Program was the only song he’d written. It was an inspiration. He learned he could write a song and that the act of creativity wasn’t the end result of some mysterious process. He had ideas for a few more but they could wait for the next album, providing there was one.