Restless Giant is a fascinating account of the life and times of Jean Aberbach, the elusive music publishing legend who, with his brother Julian, built one of music history's most powerful popular music publishing companies: Hill and Range Songs. During the 1940s and 1950s music publishers, rather than artists and record companies, controlled the American hit-making machine. Using corporate records, Aberbach's daybooks, and extensive interviews with top performers and songwriters, Biszick-Lockwood weaves an adventure story that demystifies this occupation, showing how Aberbach's keen insights, behind-the-scenes manipulation, and bold business moves fundamentally changed the music industry and nurtured the careers of some of America's biggest popular performers and songwriters.
The Austrian-born Aberbach brothers overtook their American competitors, capturing entire genres of music to build a privately owned international "empire of song" while at the same time affording songwriters unmatched control over their work. This business model resulted in move than three hundred chart hits and the first-ever song royalties being paid to songwriters and performers including Bill Monroe and the Sons of the Pioneers. Biszick-Lockwood also brings new, intriguing material to the story of Elvis Presley, who shared ownership with the Aberbachs in two music publishing companies throughout his entire career.
About the Author
Bar Biszick-Lockwood founded Music Access, Inc., the first national service bureau for music clips, and she helped establish the nonprofit World Music Institute. She lives in Redmond, Washington, where she works as a program manager at Microsoft.
Read an Excerpt
Restless GiantTHE LIFE AND TIMES OF JEAN ABERBACH AND HILL AND RANGE SONGS
By BAR BISZICK-LOCKWOOD
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2010 the Estate of Joachim Jean Aberbach
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNo Wrong Turns
Vienna had always been a crown jewel of the Holy Roman Empire. It was strategically situated on the powerful Danube River—a major trade route to the Black Sea, itself the gateway to the Mediterranean and the rest of the civilized Christian world. Encouraged by this influx of strangers and goods, the city grew into a powerful trading hub between East and West, and within its markets precarious neutrality prevailed.
Vienna flourished as a center for the arts and culture, becoming one of the most opulent and progressive cities in the world. To support the aristocracy, an extensive service class emerged, and the Aberbach family was part of it. They had come from a region of Poland then encompassed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jean Aberbach's father and mother having been born and partly raised in Bolechow and Choroskow, respectively, before moving to Vienna. His grandfather died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-two, leaving his grandmother a widow with seven children dependent to some extent on her brother.
Among these original seven children was Aron Adolf—affectionately known as Dolfi. He courted Anna Schmetterling, then fourteen, and—never forgetting the crowded living conditions and destitute circumstances of his youth—vowed not to marry until he was financially secure. There was good opportunity in Vienna, and some of the aristocratic prosperity began to trickle down to this new business class. Dolfi worked in the credit field, selling jewelry on monthly terms. He was successful enough that, in 1902, Dolfi and Anna were wed.
But the world around them was swiftly changing. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian kingdom had extended its reach over Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and parts of Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. The empire's awesome power—especially when viewed in partnership with its Teutonic ally Germany—was much feared by the rest of Europe, especially by France, whose awareness of the growing military force just beyond its borders made it particularly uneasy. Territorial squabbles over trade routes and the rights to raw materials in Africa further heightened the unease. Internally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was experiencing its own problems as well. Inspired by the popular governments in France and elsewhere, a growing nationalism was chipping away at the Habsburg dynasty—especially in Serbia, where the dissenters were becoming overtly militant.
It was into this tumultuous world that Joachim "Jean" Aberbach was thrust on August 12, 1910. Born in Vöslau, he was the second of two children gratefully conceived after seven long years of disappointment that nearly destroyed the marriage. He followed his brother Julian, eighteen months his senior, who had been born on February 8, 1909.
Dolfi continued to build modest wealth until the outbreak of World War I, precipitated by the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Habsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. A man of no privilege but much ambition, Dolfi pursued lucrative opportunities during the war years. He founded a factory that manufactured leather goods for the Austro-Hungarian army—belts, saddles, and strap parcels used to carry provisions. The demand was so great that he added two other factories. By this time the Aberbachs were enjoying a fairly high standard of living despite a wartime economy, and their successful credit and manufacturing enterprises had even led to a partnership in one of the local banks. As the empire buckled under the weight of war, astute Viennese businessmen like Dolfi began to look for ways to protect their profits. They invested their savings in tangibles like real estate, fearful that the growing political instability might rob them of their hard-earned wealth.
Jean, only four at the time, spent much of World War I in Vienna. But as the conflict progressed, the family retreated to the resort town of Marienbad to escape the dispiriting atmosphere. The conflict had gone badly, and when it ended the empire was dissolved and its territories carved up for the victors. Austria was reduced to a fraction of its size and the economic effects were disastrous. Inflation reduced many fortunes to dust. Luckily Dolfi managed to weather the storm of devalued currency, working-class uprisings, and social distress by leveraging his real-estate holdings to raise the capital he needed to reopen his factories. One site was retooled to make inexpensive shoes and another turned out only those of the highest quality. Two others were refitted to manufacture luggage.
Dolfi personifies the venerable tradition of the Viennese tradesman. Conducting business during dangerous times required knowledge, creativity, and confidence. Dolfi was a master diplomat who knew that best advantage is obtained by knowing your opponents and putting them at ease. Therefore, a practical education for his sons was essential, and it included mastering multiple languages, gaining appreciation of various cultures, and maintaining high standing in local society. These activities would occupy Jean and Julian throughout their youth.
Although the boys enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle, they never felt rich. Haunted by his impoverished youth, Dolfi allocated money only to necessities— never to luxuries. No mention was ever made of household servants or luxurious extravagances, but the boys had several private tutors. Jean would eventually master five languages.
Jean and Julian were eighteen months apart in age, but they might as well have been biological twins. The two seemed to know instinctively what the other was thinking. Where their opinions and attitudes differed, it was in a way that was most often complementary. They would explore ideas exhaustively from different perspectives and when there were disagreements they solved them quickly without a hint of tension. While both had plenty of ego to show the world, they felt no need for fruitless competition between themselves. Throughout their youth, they had mutual respect for each other. They were, in fact, the best of friends.
School presented little challenge for Jean. He could absorb material far faster than the classroom pace, and so he was accelerated one grade and joined Julian's class. To bring a little adventure to his studies, he progressively made it more difficult for himself by reducing the amount of time he allowed himself for learning the material. Only then could he be sure he was progressing—learning to work better, smarter, and faster than his peers.
Julian was the very same way. He could absorb the material quickly and would then become bored. This was very bad for their teachers. The boys looked like twins and often wore the same clothes. They took great pleasure in impersonating one another and confusing their teachers. For subjects in which they excelled, one could take the other's tests and not be noticed.
Eventually their classroom behavior became completely unmanageable. The more inept the teacher was, the bolder the boys became. Known as "the professor murderers," by their junior high school years, their pranks were legendary. To preserve what integrity was left of the Vienna public school system, the boys were finally separated and sent to different institutions. When they reached high school grade, however, there was no choice except to reunite them in the classroom at the Hundert Akademie—the commercial trade school that taught business skills.
By this time the boys were thoroughly disenchanted with schooling. They kept their grades up despite the fact that they were spending less and less time in the classroom. To fund their leisure time, Julian began charging their less fortunate cousins for the use of their home's indoor shower! At first they tried to hide their truancy from their father, but after a while it became obvious that they were not returning to school. One morning Dolfi stormed in, rousted them from bed, and declared, "That's it! You either go to school—or you work."
They landed jobs with a linen company that sent salesmen to remote alpine regions. Jean and Julian teamed up. They went away to the Tyrol Mountains for several months, selling sheets and pillowcases door to door in the resort villages and to the farmers' wives in the mountains surrounding Innsbruck.
On doorsteps of modest homes in the Tyrol, Jean and Julian Aberbach discovered their talent—the ability to sell anything. Alone, each of the boys had enough talent and confidence to rope in a sale. But together it became almost impossible to resist them. They worked the sale, volleying between them and assuming supporting roles as needed. If they warmed up to Jean, then Julian stepped into the shadows; other times Julian would take the lead role. Everything depended on making the customer comfortable enough to part with money. The two boys did quite well, but after a while the novelty wore off. Surely they were meant for greater things than this common, mundane, relatively low-paying work. They returned to Vienna to think things over.
Back in Vienna, Jean felt the walls closing in. He wanted to travel. Both he and Julian read voraciously, and an especially exciting subject for them was America. Books, newspaper accounts, and magazines told fascinating stories of America's Wild West—the dusty deserts and sweeping plains, wagon trains and gun-slinging buckaroos. Jean dreamed about going there someday.
His chance came unexpectedly. After living for a time with Dolfi's family, his orphaned cousin Ida had gone to America. There she met and married a hardworking Hungarian named Louie Terner. Louie worked in a bottle-washing factory and became wealthy after selling a huge quantity of bottles to the company that later became Kraft Foods. Ida and Louie had five children while under the care of her personal gynecologist Dr. Hamilton (first name unknown), who would travel with them. Dr. Hamilton took a liking to Jean while on a trip to Vienna in 1928 and invited him to come back to America with them.
Jean was thrilled! America was everything he had hoped and more. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's majestic bronze Statue of Liberty, the magnificent skyscrapers, the massive bridges over the East and Harlem rivers, and the underground subways were all monuments of modern technology that had no equal in Vienna. Jean had come during the school year and enrolled in courses, but he never completed them. Instead he secured a job in a furrier's shop, where he learned the skill of selecting quality pelts for coats and stoles. Six months later, the Terners closed up their Brooklyn house and left for their summer home in the country. Apparently Jean stayed for a while, but he eventually returned to Vienna, probably compelled by the devastating events after the great stock market crash in October 1929. Jean was fortunate to have experienced America at the height of its prosperity. After he tasted its freedom and adventure, things would never be the same for him again.
Back in Vienna, Jean tried to reintegrate into society but found it difficult. While Julian moved gracefully among Viennese society, Jean was straining at the bit. Except for a failed scholarly career, some fur pelts, and few Tyrolian bed linens, he was acutely aware that his life was unremarkable. Every day he bent farther and farther under the weight of waiting for his career to begin.
In the end, Jean couldn't contain his impatience. Armed with a letter of reference from his kind friend Dr. Hamilton, Jean boarded a sooty train for Berlin one morning, ready to meet the rest of his life. He had no idea what to expect. He had never before visited Berlin, but for months had dreamed of escaping there, urged on by a fabulous letter from a relative, on whose hospitality he would depend until he could find a job and a suitable living situation.
Unfortunately, when he arrived, he did not find his friend swimming in money. In fact, by this time the poor boy had hocked most everything he owned at the neighborhood pawnbroker. He could not support himself, let alone put up Jean for any length of time. After a fitful night's sleep, Jean had more or less recovered from his shock.
Berlin was a place of affluence, purpose, and opportunity. Bereft of cash, Jean was nevertheless flush with youthful ambition. Confident that great and prosperous things were shortly in store for him, he headed directly to the Kurfürstendamm (familiarly known as the Ku'Damm)—the main street. Rather than seeking a reasonably priced room in a moderate district, he cast caution to the wind and arranged credit for a high-priced apartment. The cost was absurd—but then, so was his situation. The irony was delicious and he savored every moment.
Wandering the seedy streets in the nightclub district, he found himself drawn to a building with large windows. There was a good deal of activity in and out of the front door, mostly by groups of attractive, well-dressed women. Jean stepped into the Kakadu dance hall and scanned the interior with interest. There were far too many women for the number of men. In fact, the odds were remarkably favorable! There never seemed a moment that a young man wasn't dancing. It was not long before he was approached by the proprietor: "A young, elegant gentleman like you would do well in a place like this. How would you like a job?"
The very first money Jean Aberbach made was as an escort dancer at the Kakadu dance hall. It seemed altogether outrageous to him that he should be paid money to do what he enjoyed most and what came naturally to him—dancing day and night with an endless parade of wealthy and attractive women—but Jean attacked this challenge with no less vigor than he would any other in his life. It took only a day or two to learn the tricks of the trade. He observed—with some amusement—how the other dancers competed to attract the best-looking women and capture the best tips. Their chief weapon was a skillful lesson in practical economy—a large sausage down their trousers by day became their dinner at night!
Although the ladies were thrilled with him, the proprietor was not. Jean was too quick to charm, whisking the wealthy ladies off to the dance floor before they had a chance to order food and drinks which translated into the better part of the Kakadu's profit margin. Jean was a fantastic charmer and a good enough dancer, but he was altogether bad for business. Perhaps a less enthusiastic temperament for customer service was required for this profession.
So sometime in 1931, Jean retrieved Dr. Hamilton's letter of reference and made his way to the address he found in it. At the top of the stairs, he mistakenly turned left instead of right and entered the offices of Will Meisel, a well-known composer of popular operettas and film music. Most people would have politely apologized and left, but Jean recognized his mistake had opened the door to an opportunity. His intelligence, wit, and self-confidence made a good impression, and he was hired on the spot as a production assistant.
It always amused Jean that his career was launched by accidentally stepping inside the wrong office. Embracing a mistake turned out to be exactly what was needed to jump-start his career in music. His boundless ambition blinded him to the fact that he was inexperienced and destitute. Instead, he saw the world around him as full of possibilities. He dreamed big, trusted his abilities, gave himself up to the moment, and was presented with the opportunity he needed. By the time he was working for Will Meisel, there was one thing of which he was certain: If you trust your instincts, in life there will be no wrong turns.
Excerpted from Restless Giant by BAR BISZICK-LOCKWOOD Copyright © 2010 by the Estate of Joachim Jean Aberbach. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 No Wrong Turns 1
2 Happenstance 8
3 The Revolving Door 12
4 Destiny 19
5 Eye of the Needle 31
6 Ambition 37
7 The Rebbe Sleeps 50
8 Betting the Farm 62
9 Hardy's Horsemeat 72
10 A View from the Bridge 78
11 The Hired Band 86
12 Nashville Steamroller 99
13 The Disappearing Act 112
14 Waltzing to the Brink 127
15 Keyhole Logic 136
16 Johnny Taps 148
17 Mr. Brums 161
18 Diamond in the Rough 171
19 Under Pressure 191
20 Restless Giant 216
21 The Art of Life 229
Appendix A Chart Hits: 1954-75 245
Appendix B Companies 254