I've covered popular music for 30 years.
Most managers get in your way and that's if you're lucky. I've lost track of unreturned phone calls and dark ports, but I won't forget when the Sun-Times sent me to Toronto to interview singer Robert Palmer. His manager told me that Palmer had throat problems and we would have to put off the conversation for a day. My editors told me to sit tight.
I spent an extra day in Toronto. I did some shopping and caught a movie. When I returned to the hotel, there was Robert Palmer in the bar yucking it up with his band. Maybe Robert Palmer didn't know of this end run, but it was the only time in my career I never got an interview.
Doc McGhee is not one of those guys.
Hell, a couple weeks ago he gave me his cell phone number in the sports bar of the Carnival Destiny where he was on board with Kiss somewhere in the Bahamas. I don't think he even knew I was a journalist. (But then, maybe that worked in my favor.)
McGhee has managed James Brown, Diana Ross, Motley Crue, Guns n' Roses, Hootie and the Blowfish and since 1996, the heavy rock band Kiss...........
McGhee, 61, has taken on folk hero status. With that resume he should.
He appeared in the VH 1 reality series "Supergroup" along with Ted Nugent, former Skid Row front man Sebastian Bach and Jason Bonham. In 1987 he was busted for conspiracy for helping a drug smuggling ring import 20 tons of marijuana into the United States. One writer recently called McGhee "Rock n' Roll's Cool Hand Luke."
A couple of weeks ago on the final rainy day of the first Kiss Kruise, McGhee appeared at a 90-minute Q and A with hundreds of the band's fans. The Criterion Lounge on the Carnival Destiny was standing room only.
His career path followed Bill Aucoin as Kiss's manager. Aucoin, who died last year at age 66, was a former television cameraman who first signed Kiss. He bankrolled the band's first tour on his American Express card. The band dismissed Aucoin in 1982.
Aucoin preached democracy and persuaded four original members Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to divide their profits equally---even individual songwriting royalties. Aucoin wanted to avoid the financial bickering that breaks apart so many bands.
Doc McGhee (second from right) and his friends. (Courtesy of Doc McGhee)
Simmons and Stanley are the last two original members of Kiss. Things have changed.
"Its all about Gene," McGhee told the crowd. "That's why the (A & E) TV show is called 'Gene Simmons: Family Jewels.' And that was Gene's idea. I didn't like the idea to begin with because I love Ozzy (Osbourne) and Ozzy did his thing (on his MTV show the "Osbournes") and it didn't do well for Ozzy. It forced the family to show a train wreck and all that stuff which is what television is about.
"But Gene's spin went on the angle of no matter how powerful you were or how important you are as a rock star, you go home, hang up your coat and hang your nuts up right next to it. Because he's just a regular idiot like the rest of us and you're family pummels you. It actually brought the family together to the point where he got married. I've been with Gene for 16 years and he was never there. He quit school because there was recess. That's why I think this show is very good for them and it shows a good side of people."
When Kiss broke out in the 1970s the band frightened people with its make up, music and pyrotechnics. Under McGhee's guidance, Kiss now matches Jimmy Buffett and the Grateful Dead in terms of merchandising to a commmunity of all ages, and even moreso globablly. An astounding 26 countries were represented on the Kiss Kruise, a high water mark in the 10 years Atlanta-based Sixthman has been producing rock cruises. There's Kiss comic books, pool cues, coffins, dart boards and now a fan cruise that is certainly will be repeated. "Kiss is very business oriented and Motley was never anything but a gang torturing people around the world," McGhee lovingly said of the Crue, whom he managed between 1982-89.
"Kiss comes to please people."
With the recent Kiss resurrection, there's rumblings about the band's induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. A 1977 Gallup Poll named Kiss as America's favorite band.
"You have to remember the hall of fame is made up of a boys club in New York," McGhee said as the crowd booed. "Seymour Stein, Jon Landau and Jann Wenner. This is their little club and they would rather take a Ethiopian sax player that played on some obscure fucking record than Kiss or Bon Jovi. Or Def Leppard. Its not really the rock n' roll hall of fame when you have Donna Summer. I'm not sure if we got into the rock n' roll hall of fame we would go because its such bullshit."
And the crowd cheered to all the hot stuff.
McGhee said his relationship with Kiss dates back to 1979 when he had Pat Travers open for the New York rockers. "Then we did a European tour with Motley Crue and then Bon Jovi with Kiss. We became friends and Gene would always say, 'I need to talk to you.' Okay, cool. I'd ask, 'Are you going to put your make up on?' 'No.' 'Then we have nothing to talk about.' That went on for about 10 years." McGhee said that Simmons him called again in early 1996. "I drove from Orange County up to Simmons' house and said, 'You're putting the make up on right?'."
In February, 1996 the four original Kiss members reunited at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards show in Los Angeles in full make up and costume, for the first time in 17 years.
Kiss played two masked and one unmasked acoustic show on the cruise. Simmons and Stanley made no other public appearances. Drummer Eric Singer was spotted in the casino and guitarist Tommy Thayer hosted a putt-putt golf tournament, no doubt to help whet the appetite for the upcoming Kiss indoor miniature golf course across from the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas.
* * *
Doc McGhee does not kiss ass.
"If you manage them by their throat they will beat you down about the waist in about ten years," he said. "But if you start at the feet, you stand up to them. Just be honest. Treat them like regular people and don't let them get out there with the whole rock star mentality, then they won't. But if you enable them, they can become terrible. And we've had several artists we can't work with. We assess.
"When they come into our office we ask, 'Are your parents alive?' 'Yes.' Then we ask if they have anything to do with their career. If they says 'Yes' again, we say, 'Nice meeting you.' Its so difficult with parents, husbands, wives, boyfriends. All these geniuses have opinions of what they're going to do. When Bon Jovi and I split (in 1991) it was over his acting career. I told him, 'You stink.' He said he wanted to be in the movies and we had huge fights over it. I didn't talk to him for two years."
Bon Jovi and McGhee bumped into each other checking into their hotel rooms in Japan, where McGhee asked the New Jersey rocker to be on a television show he was hosting. "Jon said, 'You could have been Colonel Parker'," McGhee recalled. "Then I said, 'But I would have needed an Elvis.' We've been friends ever since."
According to last year's "Sex, Drugs and Bon Jovi," penned by Bon Jovi's former tour manager Rich Bozzett, Bon Jovi composed a six-page hand written letter asking a judge for lenience in McGhee's pot bust, Bon Jovi wrote in part, "You see your honor, Doc did in fact commit a crime and I realize the severity of his case. But a man with his knowledge and commitment to the music industry can do so much good as a public servant." Bozzett wrote that the North Carolina judge complied and placed McGhee on multi-year probation. McGhee has since raised money for an anti-drug documentary on MTV.
"I just signed this band Vintage Trouble, but its like Otis Redding and very different than what we're doing here," McGhee said." Here's Vintage Trouble's "Not Alright By Me." Curtis Mayfield would be proud.
(On Columbus Day Vintage Trouble made its Chicago debut opening for the Bangles). McGhee said, " When I found Vintage Trouble I walked into Harvelle's in Santa Monica. They had been together like three months. I don't sign anything, but I went because (M.C.) Hammer (who does his own 'Family Jewels' A & E show called 'Hammertime") said, 'You gotta see them, they're amazing.' And I signed them right there."
McGhee told the audience he had lived in Nashville for the last five years, which raised a lot of grease-painted eyebrows.
"Nashville is such a musical city and it's not just country," he explained. "I manage Darius Rucker and Clint Black but Nashville is a melting pot of musicians from around the world. With Darius, our dobro and steel player is from Russia. Everybody comes to Nashville to try and make it happen. Remember, Cage the Elephant is from Nashville. Paramore. Kings of Leon. There's something going on every night. You go downtown, its country, but most of the clubs away from that is all rock stuff.
"Kiss was the only band I signed in the '90s. People said, 'Why didn't you sign anything in the '90s? I said, 'Pearl Jam was gone. Rage Against the Machine was signed. Dave Matthews was signed. They had managers and were on their way. The rest of the stuff was crap.
"Its not so much about an artist I didn't get. Its about artists I had that didn't happen. That's the hard part. We had an artist Bonnie McKee we signed at 17. We had a record out on Warner Brothers ("Trouble," released in 2004)---it was stillborn, which we regret. We loved the girl. Now she wrote one of the hits on Katy Perry's last record "Teenage Dream") and she wrote Britney Spears last single ("Hold It Against Me"). She's flourishing, but I don't have her anymore."
McKee was next signed to Reprise Records, which became the centerpiece of the Chris Anderson book "The Long Tail" about how the internet inspired Reprise to alter the way she was marketed, from women in their 30s and 40s to the 20-something audience. McKee was dropped from Reprise in 2007.
"We're like handicappers and have to pick the best horse to ride," McGhee said. "Finding the connection between the people and the band is the most important thing, not whether someone can play music well. When I signed Motley Crue I couldn't understand what the fuck they were playing, they were rolling around on the stage. But I saw thousands of kids going out of their minds. "