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Al Coury owns Number One
by Ben Fong-Torres, October 5, 1978
Al Coury, the president of RSO Records, almost too eagerly admits to busting into Billboard's office one day in mid-July and sending some shit flying when he learned of the trade magazine's plans to declare the Rolling Stones' Some Girls Number One on the following week's album chart.
Actually, says Coury, in his own office a week later, he had an appointment. But, "Yes, I screamed and yelled. I really thought Grease was gonna replace Saturday Night Fever at Number One. I honestly believed and I tried to convince the trades that at the time they made the Stones Number One, my Grease album was outselling the Stones. Their argument to me was, "Well, what do you care? You're gonna be Number One next week, anyway. What are you hassling over a lousy fucking week for?' But goddamnit, my fucking plan was to be Number One all year!"
A few dark, not-Number-One weeks aside, Coury and RSO (the Robert Stigwood Organization) have dominated the record business this past year like no other company ever has. Before Grease, Saturday Night Fever held the top spot for twenty-six straight weeks, RSO has had six platinum singles, more than any other label. For 1978, RSO expects to do about $250 million in business in the U.S. alone. All this from a two-and-one-half-year-old company with about sixty employees.
So Coury, 42, can charge into magazine offices ranting like a spoiled kid if he wants to. And he can fly into tantrums in his high, coarse, Boston-accented, Nelson-Rockefeller-of-a-voice when he is threatened. As with the news that CBS, which presses most of RSO's records, was closing down for a few days in late July for inventory - just when Coury wanted to release Robin Gibb's "Oh! Darling" as a single from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band because"the demand from radio was so fantastic," In a sudden rage, he ordered one of his secretaries: "Move then to another plant! I can't wait ten days! I want them out in a matter of hours, or days, and I don't care what it costs!" (The record was out five days later, pressed by another plant.)
And Al Coury can make snap decisions, like the one that came on a recent late afternoon, at the end of a flurry of both businesses and casual conversations. The name of Dianne Steinberg ("Lucy" in Sgt. Pepper ) came up, and Coury was reminded of her availability. Most of the people Coury had been talking with had left his office, but that didn't stop him. "Dianne Steinberg," he called out through his closed door. "Should we make a record with her?" Without waiting for an answer, he reasoned: "Sings good. Acts good. Good bod." A woman assistant nodded on all three counts. Coury made up his mind. "We'll sign her. We'll make a single."
And that's the way things go these days at RSO. Not that the label is signing up anything just because it can afford to. Al Coury escaped just such thinking when he quit Capitol Records in 1976. RSO's roster numbers only fifteen acts, including the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Andy Gibb, Yvonne Elliman, Player and the British Lions. Coury, despite the theatrics, is business-minded, constantly quizzing his people about how much a proposed as, billboard or other promotional item is going to cost. He knows that next year he won't have three high-powered, high-priced soundtrack albums. But right now he does. And with Andy Gibb's Shadow Dancing, he's got four RSO albums in the Top Ten. So you should excuse Coury if he gets a little crazy, mad or giddy. It's been a fucking great year.
First there was Saturday Night Fever, released last November and now the all-time best-selling record, with sales pushing 25 million. With various singles timed to perfection, released before and after the film's opening, Fever produced three hits for the Bee Gees and one for Elliman. In April, with Fever still going strong, RSO released Grease 's soundtrack - two months before the film's release - and scored hits for John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (a duet), Olivia on her own and Frankie Valli. The album, out only four months, has sold 5 million units and is reportedly moving even faster than Saturday Night Fever did.
But now comes Pepper time. RSO's third musical film with a year is its worst. Which, of course, won't stop it from having a good shot at surpassing both Fever and Grease. The LP shipped triple platinum - meaning RSO received advance orders for more than 3 million units, even at the unprecedented list price of $15.98. It entered Billboard at Number Seven, spawned three instant singles, and is the object of RSO's most expensive hype campaign yet, costing more than $1 million and even including a tie-in with the soft drink Dr. Pepper. Grease won't stay Number One for long.
"We are our own worst competition," Coury agreed, "and it has been like that for six, seven months now. The only way we can realistically overcome that is to make every project warrant its own time, its own money, its own support. Everything is just as major with us. Player is just as important to us. See, the one thing I keep in mind is that the future of my company is not gonna be in the soundtracks. The future's gonna be here Andy Gibb, Player, John Stewart, Yvonne Elliman, Steve Kipner, the acts that are gonna be here next year when all of the glimmer and excitement is diminished.
Just two years ago, it was Al Coury's career that seemed to have lost its glow.
After high school in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, Coury worked at movie theatres, eventually becoming manager of one in Hartford, Connecticut, at age twenty-one. He then took a shot at a sales position at Capitol Records, and wound up getting the job. Coury worked in sales for two years, then moved into record promotion, where he made his mark. He stayed at Capitol seventeen years, becoming senior vice-president in charge of A&R. Before he left, he'd worked with members of the original Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He remembers Paul McCartney best.
[WEBMASTER'S NOTE: I have edited out the middle of this article, as it has nothing to do with Sgt. Pepper the movie. If anyone really wants to know what he has to say, go find the Oct. 5, '78 issue of Rolling Stone in your local library. I actually typed it all here, and then saw how long the thing was, and came to my senses. What you're missing is basically a really long anecdote about how difficult Paul McCartney can be about the release of "Jet" as a single. I trust you can live without it.]
If there is a secret to Coury's success, it is promotion. "We have less than sixty people employed in this company and more than half of them are in promotion. Because I realized a long time ago that promotion people working very close with radio stations create demand. I can't sell any record unless people hear it.
"We're a small, tight knit, young group of people, mostly street oriented," he said. "We all come from the practical end of the record business: we either sold, promoted or marketed. So when we do our thinking we sit around here and put together some thoughts and ideas for a campaign; we think about it from a very practical level. We do things that instinctively feel good to us." And so, a four-color sleeve for the Travolta/Newton-John single. And advertising the Bee Gees' older albums in People and Us magazines, and a $1 million budget for television ads for the three soundtrack LPs.
And, finally, there is the embossed album cover for Sgt. Pepper, which is part of Coury's rationale for its $15.98 list price.
Coury keeps picking the cover and feeling it. After the third or fourth time, he begins to look a little perverse, and I ask if he does this at home as well. Oh, yes, he says, "I look at it at home and I feel it and it's not only the embossing, it's the texture of it in here.:" He cops another feel. "I mean I think that's an attractive package.
I'm sure some other record companies would think after they press the first million of these jackets, they can drop this and hardly anybody would know the difference. I won't. This is triple embossing, this cost around eleven or twelve cents extra. I could make it double embossing or single embossing. I could also do away with it completely. I won't do it. Stigwood fortunately agrees with me. He would never think for one minute of cutting down and saving a half a cent here and half a cent there when we don't have to anymore."
Other economic considerations, however, forced the Sgt. Pepper price up, said Coury. "We're paying the highest royalties I think that anybody ever paid. All of the performers get the Favored Nations clause, so they get the highest royalty, even the relatively unknown acts." With twenty-nine cuts making Sgt. Pepper essentially a three-album set on two records, RSO figured out its own profit, if it were to go with a list price of $14.98, to be about sixty-five cents an album. "It made no sense at all."
While mulling over the price, RSO discovered a painting of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, in the guise of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. "We saw the actual artwork and said, 'God, can we have that for our album?' And the movie company, which had commissioned the painting, said, 'Sure, you just pay the artist.' We decided to include that poster in the album. Then we decided to also dress up the album by adding the deluxe supercenterfold." With the poster, centerfold, some color on the sleeves and that good-feeling embossing, Coury felt he could charge a buck more and make a normal profit."
Not that RSO has known a "normal" profit in its existence. Next up are new albums by Eric Clapton and Yvonne Elliman, one from the just-signed Jim Capaldi, and, by the first of the new year, a new studio album - here we go again - from the Bee Gees.
Or, as Al Coury told a visitor, by way of explaining the absence of ashtrays on his coffee table: "Nobody smokes. Everybody wants to live till the end of the year to find out how many weeks we're Number One."