Lady Gaga’s First Manager Discusses an Early Chapter in the History of Contemporary Pop
With Lady Gaga set to perform at the Grammys and being featured on the TV show 60 Minutes tomorrow, let’s take a step back in time to focus on the role played in the creation of Lady Gaga by her first manager, Bob Leone.
By Mathieu Deflem | Published: February 12, 2011
Lady Gaga fans will have heard of Bob Leone since at least October of 2010, when he placed various early Lady Gaga demos and memorabilia for sale through an auction organized by GottaHaveRockandRoll.com. The auction, containing early Stefani Germanotta recordings dating back to 2002, was a much publicized event, noted in various publications such as People Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, but the items were eventually withdrawn when Lady Gaga herself bought her early recordings back. Relying on an exclusive interview with Mr. Leone, this article on gagafrontrow.net may shed a little more light on an intriguing early episode in the history of Lady Gaga.
Bob Leone hails from New York City, where he obtained a graduate degree in Psychology from the City University of New York. In the 1970s, he played in the band Flame. The band was formed in 1975 and featured Janis Joplin-styled vocalist Marge Raymond (who had been in the 60s-band Margie and the Formations and later sang on records by ELO and others). Besides Bob on keyboards, other band members included John Paul Fetta, Frank Ruby, Thommy Price, who later played with Joan Jett, and guitarist Jimmy Crespo, who would join Aerosmith for a few years to replace Joe Perry. Flame released two albums on RCA: Queen of the Neighborhood in 1977 and a self-titled album in 1978. The first record featured contributions by Luther Vandross and E Streeters Steven Van Zandt and Clarence Clemmons.
More than interesting is that Flame’s first record was produced by Jimmy Iovine, a childhood friend of Mr. Leone’s. “We grew up on the same block in Brooklyn and played on the same softball team,” Mr. Leone says. “We even played in a band together. It was called Chazz. Jimmy was the bass guitarist and I played a Hammond organ. Flame was the first band that Jimmy Iovine ever produced. He also co-managed the band; another first for him. When Jimmy decided he wanted a keyboard player in Flame, he called me and offered me the job.” In 1990, Iovine formed Interscope Records and, as fans will know, he would go on to sign Lady Gaga to a record deal in 2007.
Between 1981 and 1988, Mr. Leone became the National Projects Director at the Songwriters Guild of America and, subsequently, at the Songwriters Hall of Fameand its parent organization, the National Academy of Popular Music, in which function he remained until 2006. It was during that year that he became the first manager of the singer now known as Lady Gaga. “I was her first manager,” says Mr. Leone. “Prior to me, her dad looked after her. But she decided she wanted a music industry professional whom she could trust, and I was the guy. In the six months I was Stefani’s manager (March to August 2006), it was on a part-time basis, because I was working full-time at the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF).”
Mr. Leone was asked to manage the singer then known as Stefani Germanotta “immediately following a solo performance at the Bitter End” on March 9, 2006, though he had already known the singer since she was about 14 years old. From that age onwards, she had steadily been honing her musical talent and was already taking lessons with famed vocal coach Don Lawrence. In those early days, Mr. Leone’s encouragement was on at least one occasion instrumental in persuading the young singer to take to the stage to perform, after having attended open-mic nights in New York for two weeks in the accompaniment of her mother.
So what does a manager do for a young unsigned talent? “Being a personal manager to an artist involves playing a number of different roles and this was certainly the case with me and Stefani,” says Mr. Leone. “I was her therapist, her confidante, her biggest supporter, her priest, her crying towel, her cheerleader, her motivational speaker, her best friend and much more. I was literally available to her 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when I was at work in my office at SHOF. Stef most often called to have a conversation, as artists and musicians will, in the middle of the night.” From the very beginning, Mr. Leone confirms, the singer’s ultimate goal was “world domination.”
Among the first concrete actions Leone undertook on behalf of his client was the production of “an industry showcase featuring Stef and seven other talented artists.” That fateful event was held on March 23, 2006 as the 57th New Writers Showcase at New York’s The Cutting Room. It was probably Leone’s most important act as manager, because it was there that another singer, Wendy Starland, recognized in Stefani Germanotta the singer in the style of The Strokes which producer Robert Fusari had said to be looking for. Starland immediately called Fusari, who met Stefani shortly thereafter. Needless to say, Fusari went on to produce Lady Gaga in more ways than one.
Incidentally, Mr. Leone had already introduced Starland to Germanotta a few weeks before the March 2006 showcase. At the time, he says, “Stefani was an intern at Viacom’s Famous Music Publishing (which no longer exists). I had set up a meeting for Wendy with one of the companies top executives, Irwin Z. Robinson… It was on our way to Irwin’s office that I spotted Stef and took Wendy over to meet her.”
Having met Fusari, a production agreement had to be set up with Stefani, who was then represented by her father and a lawyer. According to Mr. Leone, “Negotiations went on for several months before a deal was reached. There was one demand that Rob made that was totally unacceptable to Stefani’s dad and lawyer, and they made it clear that they would not sign the contract until that demand was dropped. Specifically, Rob was demanding 50% of Stefan’s songwriter royalties, even though he did not co-write any of the songs. This ‘deal breaker’ was an issue that went on for over a month with neither side willing to back down.”
The negotiations over the production deal with Fusari weighed heavily on Stefani. As Mr. Leone recalls, “she was miserable about the possibility of the deal falling through and she called me incessantly and usually in tears to express her anxiety and fears.” Upon consultation with her father and lawyer, Mr. Leone decided to call Fusari to resolve the matter. “During what was less than a 10-minute conversation with Rob,” he says, “I impressed upon him how much he could potentially lose by giving up a client with as much commercial potential as Stefani. Rob was convinced by that and told me he would withdraw his demand the next day, which he did… Once Stefani signed with Rob, the next order of business for me and all of Stefani’s team was to get her signed to a major label deal. To that end, I set up several industry showcases at the best music venues in NYC.”
The additional showcases Mr. Leone organized were exclusively for the Italian-American singer, who by this time performed under the stage name Lady Gaga, a moniker given to her by Fusari. These performances, says Mr. Leone, “didn’t take place until Rob [Fusari] had produced enough of GaGa’s songs to comprise a full album. There were two of these shows, and I believe both took place in July. One was at the Bitter End, the other at the Cutting Room. No tracks. No band. Just Stefani singing and accompanying herself on piano. Both shows were open to everyone, including industry insiders. All the major label A&R executives were invited to these events, but nobody offered GaGa a deal.”
To get a glimpse in what these showcases may have been like, a video is available of a later performance by Lady Gaga at the first event of On Stage Italian American Artists (OSIAA; now called Ti Piace) at New York’s Cutting Room on October 6, 2006. By the time of this performance, a record executive had finally agreed to sign Lady Gaga to a record deal. Immediately upon hearing her sing during a chance meeting, L.A. Reid of Island Def Jam signed the singer on the spot (on an $800,000 advance), only to drop her again three months later and cancel plans for an album release in the summer of 2007.
As agreed before Mr. Leone took the job on a part-time basis and without receiving financial compensation, he stepped aside as Lady Gaga’s manager after she signed her first record deal. Because of his other professional commitments, Leone often found himself exhausted and was “actually happy to pass GaGa on to a ‘real’ manager.” That new manager was Laurent Besencon, who at the time also managed Rob Fusari. Some time around January 2007, Besencon introduced Lady Gaga to another client of his, music producer RedOne, which, needless to argue, led to another successful collaboration. Via Fusari, Gaga was then introduced to Vincent Herbert of Streamline Records, who in turn introduced the singer to Jimmy Iovine of Interscope, to which company Lady Gaga has been signed since May 2007.
Following his retirement from SHOF in 2006, Mr. Leone ran a management company for up-and-coming singers, Bob Leone Management, a position from which he has retired just this past week. Following the much publicized auction in 2010, Mr. Leone’s early involvement with Lady GaGa became known worldwide (google search: bob leone lady gaga). And as a direct result, he was catapulted to his current self-described status as “The Most Famous Manager in the Universe,” with all due consequences. “When [Lady GaGa’s] fans heard about my connection to their idol,” Mr. Leone says, “my inboxes were filled to overflowing with requests for memorabilia (of which I no longer have any) and requests from hundreds of teenage girls who wanted me to manage them so they could be the ‘next’ GaGa.” His response was: “Been there. Done that. Besides, I think one Lady GaGa is quite enough for the world to handle.” The world, no doubt, agrees.
© Mathieu Deflem for gagafrontrow.net