In the 70s and 8os, when record companies warred against each other like lumbering dinosaurs, there were some real unsavory characters in the business. I’ve met and worked with quite a few of them, and to say I counted my fingers after a handshake is putting it mildly.
But among the stories of the ridiculously rich and powerful were the occasional feel-good stories of when David beat Goliath. Of course these days, that happens daily – the major label stranglehold on music is all but dead.
But when little Cleveland International Records started up, they could have never imagined that they would stumble across one of the most monumental albums of the rock era, especially after most of the supposedly smarter majors passed on it.
Steve Popovich had the career I thought I wanted a the time, a VP of a major label in his twenties with the ability to sign artists and help share them with the world. Any of us who are fans of music have our truckload of underappreciated musicians and writers and singers who would surely be megastars if only given the break. Working under Clive Davis at Columbia Records and then A&R with Ron Alexexburg at their sister label Epic, he was able to help launch or maximize the careers of artists like Cheap Trick, Brice Springsteen, Mott The Hoople, Johnny Winter, Southside Johnny and many of my favorites.
When he struck out to form Cleveland International Records, he used his old school local promotion skills to work an odd and obtuse album called Bat Out Of Hell month after month, slowly building an expanding regional base until radio finally fanned the spark into a flame. I was working in a record store at the time, and I remember how often labels would get all excited about a new record only to ignore it three months later if it didn’t catch on. Popovich believed in the record, believed in Meat Loaf, believed in Jim Steinman. He followed his gut instincts, and the rest is history.
He also gave us Ellen Foley’s majestic Night Out, and when Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson wanted assistance post-Mott, it was Steve they turned to for direction. He had the reputation as a man who would invest in the artist in ways far beyond financial.
Steve Popovich passed away today at the age of 69.
When Joe Grushecky first came pumping out of my car radio, two things immediately caught my attention. First, here was a real blue-collar rocker with a soulful sound and a band that played straight from the heart, and the songs were exciting. And second…was this really being played on the radio in Syracuse, New York in 1979?
I guess you could say Bruce Springsteen had most recently kicked the door down, although local rockers like The Works and Joe Whiting had been stirring up the same kind of bar room fury on local stages for years. Like the mythical Eddie and The Cruisers, these bands had been lighting up shot-and-beer joints night after night, piling into vans and crisscrossing the East Coast. It wasn’t easy; you had to pull and keep a crowd on a Tuesday and Wednesday night because the weekend money just wasn’t quite enough to get you by. And like Eddie and that mythical band, what drove you and kept you alive was the camaraderie with your band mates and an unbending faith that if you kept punching over and over and over again, one day it would be worth it.
In Pittsburgh, that band was Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers, and that day did come, albeit temporarily. A documentary about Joe and his career was released in 2007 called A Good Life: The Joe Grushecky Story and is now available on DVD. While the film is interesting and heartfelt, the real treasure in the package is a bonus live CD from a 1985 hometown show, featuring friend and fan Bruce Springsteen.
While not quite a rags-to-riches story, we learn how the band followed the usual path of becoming the big fish in the small pond, friends in a rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood with huge dreams. How “Heroes are Hard to Find” caught the ear of Cleveland International’s Steve Popovich, who believed in Joe and financed some sessions that led to the first album getting released. How the lengthy process of working the record one town and one AOR station at a time led to five-star reviews for Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive and what looked like the start of a lifelong ride at the top…only to be derailed by a changing industry, an imploding label (MCA) and a few poor and impatient personal decisions.
Read the rest of my review at PopMatters
The Grushecky/Houserockers Wikipedia page.
“Pumping Iron” and “Little Queenie” (live in 1988)
“Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive” (live in 2005)