RHINO'S ZANY CHARGE INTO POP'S HUMOR AND HISTORY

Richard Foos and Harold Bronson, co-owners of Rhino Records, loved the idea. They'd put together an album featuring 13 Bruce Springsteen songs recorded by other artists.

The package, built around hits like "Because the Night," recorded by Patti Smith, and lesser-known items such as Johnny Cash's stark rendition of "Johnny 99," was a natural--something that true Springsteen fans would just have to have.

But could Foos and Bronson pull it off?

Could they beat other, larger labels to the punch? Could they talk the Boss' own label, Columbia, into giving them permission to use seven songs they needed?

Their initial gut feeling about their chances: Nooooo way .

These guys, however, are persistent. They got rights approval from all the record companies involved, going straight to Springsteen's management company when Columbia balked about allowing the use of the rock sensation's name on the cover.

The LP--"Cover Me"--is just out, and Foos and Bronson are celebrating. Given the loyalty of Springsteen's collector-conscious fans, the album could hit the 100,000 sales mark--making it Rhino's biggest seller by far.

The Springsteen album dramatizes the way Foos and Bronson have parlayed a $3 investment into a $3-million-a-year record and video company by picking up what the titans in the record biz viewed as mere crumbs.

Armed with a keen sense of humor and love of rock history, Foos, 36, and Bronson, 35, have dared to go where the major labels had no interest in treading. Their Rhino catalogue contains albums by such varied pop greats and/or curios as Jerry Lee Lewis and Mamie Van Doren, the Monkees and the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra.

The result is a wacky yet lovable supply of records and videos that are so much fun that they are virtually toys--especially for anyone who grew up in the '50s and '60s. While Rhino is around, no kid should ever have to give his dad a necktie again for Father's Day.

There's also a winning Walter Mitty element to the Rhino story.

Though raised on different coasts, Foos (from New York) and Bronson (Los Angeles), both were obsessed with music as teen-agers. Little did they know they would someday own a record company and release some of the very same records they had treasured as fans. Their personal odyssey is an intriguing case study of the strange way careers are often built.

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Imagine a record store so irreverent that it paid a nickel to anyone who took home a free copy of a Danny ("Partridge Family") Bonaduce album and promised to listen to it.

Or a store so spunky that it refused to stock certain best-sellers, including Steve Martin's first comedy album and Barbra Streisand's "A Star Is Born" sound track, because it thought they were overpriced.

Or a store so outrageous that one of its most successful promotions--"Jewish Day"--invited customers to "try bargaining our profit-conscious staff into giving you a deal." Corned beef sandwiches and other deli delights--along with free yarmulkes--were supplied.

That was the Rhino record store through much of the '70s, an outpost in Westwood guided by Richard Foos, a former social worker whose first experience with selling records was at swap meets around Southern California.

Got that picture?

Now, imagine a record label whose albums range from novelties like "The Golden Turkey Album"--a collection of the best songs from the world's worst movies--to the "International Elvis Impersonators Convention"--an LP whose highlights include a Japanese singer (Hound Dog Fujimoto) karate-chopping his way through wooden boards while he warbles "All Shook Up."

And, picture this: "Va-Va-Voom!," a two-record set featuring screen sirens ranging from Elke Sommer (purring "I Surrender Dear") to Jayne Mansfield (assuring us that "Little Things Mean a Lot").

That's the zany side of the Rhino record company that Foos and Bronson--who went to work at the Westwood store in 1973--started after severing ties with the shop in 1979.

The other side of the record company is a repackaging program that involves best-of collections by some of the most acclaimed figures in rock (including Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers) and by some acts that only a nostalgia freak would appreciate (including Annette Funicello, Johnny Crawford and bubblegum heroes the 1910 Fruitgum Co.).

Foos and Bronson also have their sights set on video and the movies.

Among their videocassette offerings: "Battle of the Bombs"--trailers from some of the "worst, yet most entertaining films and video compilations ever made"--and "My Breakfast With Blassie"--a 1984 send-up of "My Dinner With Andre" featuring pro wrestler Freddie Blassie and comedian Andy Kaufman in a downtown L.A. coffee shop.

About Rhino's strategy, Bronson said, "The formal record industry always thought rock was a flash in the pan, so for years it only saw the music in commercial terms. There was no concern for putting out quality greatest-hits packages when schlocky ones would sell just as much.

"We came into (the business) with the idea that rock was very important. . . . So we started contacting companies for a lot of these (old recordings). We got them in most cases because no one else wanted them. The reaction often was, 'We have to concentrate on signing the next Billy Joel,' or whoever. . . . Who wants to bother with this stuff?' "Well, we wanted to bother with the stuff."

Foos, the quieter and more serious looking of the partners, loved the energy and excitement of Top 40 radio in New York until his family moved to Los Angeles and he found the deejays even more m-a-n-i-c, especially some of those on black radio stations.

Bronson, meanwhile, so adored the Beatles and much of the first British rock invasion that he eventually started his own band. (The group's name reflected Bronson's instincts for rock humor: Mogan David & the Winos). Even today, his office is covered by posters and mementos saluting his favorite bands.

While Bronson was attending UCLA and dreaming about a job with a record company (the closest he came was a $17.50 a week stint during his UCLA days as college rep for Columbia), Foos was across town at USC, studying sociology and still listening to blues and rock records. After college, Foos did community work in South Central Los Angeles, while a frustrated Bronson pursued that elusive job in the music industry.

("I couldn't understand when I couldn't get a job with a record company. . . . I was so passionate about music and other people seemed to be getting jobs and they didn't know as much as I did," Bronson recalled.

("At one point, I went to a job placement center and they asked what job would you want most in the world and I put down record company president. They smiled and sent me out to interview for a job as a loan officer.")

Before Foos and Bronson met, a favorite spot for both men in the early '70s was Aron's Records, a Melrose Avenue store whose emphasis on used and heavily discounted "promotional copies" was especially attractive for music fans on a tight budget.

Aron's--which is still open--was just the type of free-spirited, consumer-conscious alternative to the record-biz norm that Foos and Bronson later expanded upon in their own store and, eventually, their record label.

Foos also spent a lot of time in those days looking for bargain records at swap meets. In La Mirada one weekend, he saw hundreds of albums on a stand for $1 each--more records than Foos had ever seen outside of a store. He asked about them and learned the vendor had bought them all from Aron's--for $3.

Three weeks later, Foos handed the manager at Aron's $3 for another stack of used, surplus albums--and Foos was officially in the record business.

Initially, he sold the LPs at swap meets or to other used stores. ("Even if they gave me a dime per album, I was ahead because I had just paid a fraction of a cent for each of them," Foos explained.)

Eventually, however, he found a retailing home, setting up a few bins in the back of the Apollo Electronics Shop in the old Santa Monica Mall. But the shop owners eventually decided to run the record department themselves. In October '73, he opened his own store in Westwood and called it Rhino.

Along with $1,000 in records, the Westwood store was furnished with a table and chair Foos brought from home and some fixtures he found in a trash bin at a nearby supermarket. But he wasn't worried about the informality. He identified with the counter-culture atmosphere that he associated with the UCLA student body of the late '60s.

"I really thought the students needed a store like Rhino," he recalled, smiling. "But that (counter-culture) era had left and the students who did come by were, if anything, disgusted by what they saw.

"They wanted the polish and shine of a big, modern record shop, and they weren't interested in the great jazz and blues albums I had. They wanted the latest Chicago album. I remember sitting in the shop one day, a few months after I opened, and not one customer came in."

To attract more adventurous fans, Foos--with the help of fun-minded employees like Bronson and Jeff Gold (now a vice president at A&M; Records), dreamed up all sorts of stunts.

Among the promotions:

"Unemployed People's Day"--Anyone who brought in an unemployment card was given a free record.

"Valet Parking Day"--Free valet parking from 3 to 5 p.m.

"Polka Day"--Besides selling all Myron Floren and Frankie Yankovic LPs at half price, the store hired an accordionist and served "favorite Polish delicacies."

And, oh yes, there was another classic stunt: a single titled "Go to Rhino" by the colorful street singer Wild Man Fischer. The disc, recorded on a cheap tape machine in the back room at the store, was a lark--just something to be given away to Rhino customers.

But the single became so popular--even ending up as a favorite of listeners of John Peel's highly influential radio show in London--that people began coming into the store wanting to buy it. It was the beginning of Rhino Records.

These gimmicks helped Rhino build a loyal following by 1978, but Foos, tired of retailing, sold the store that fall. He wanted to devote full time to the record label.

By that time, Foos and Bronson had set up shop on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica. Rhino had already released several records, most of them in a comedy/novelty nature.

The transition from store owners to label executives wasn't as easy as the partners had figured. One big reason: the bottom fell out of the record business in 1979. A major casualty was novelty records: With tightened radio play lists, there was simply no room for wacky concepts.

Humor continued to be a special Rhino interest, but it would be reflected in compilation albums. Instead of recording original material along the lines of their remake of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" using a kazoo as the lead instrument, Foos and Bronson concentrated on concept albums built around existing tracks.

Example: the "Teenage Tragedy" album featuring the "best of the teen death sagas," such as Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" and the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."

They also began focusing on "best of" albums.

Since 1979, Rhino has released best-of albums by such artists as the Beau Brummels, the Box Tops, Freddy Cannon, the Easybeats, the Everly Brothers, the Bobby Fuller Four, the Left Banke, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Little Richard, the Lovin' Spoonful, Rick Nelson, Gene Pitney, the Spencer Davis Group, the Shirelles, the Troggs, the Turtles and Ritchie Valens.

Here's how the Rhino licensing program works. Whether getting one track for a "Va-Va-Voom" concept album featuring music by different artists or 12 selections by the same artist for a best-of package, Rhino must get permission from the individual or company holding the copyright on those recordings.

Besides usually having to pay an advance, Rhino is also obligated to pay a royalty on every record sold. This normally amounts to about four to six cents per song.

For example, Rhino paid Capitol Records a $4,200 advance for the rights to put 14 Rick Nelson tunes on a "greatest hits" package. The royalty rate on each album sold was 84 cents (14 selections times six cents). If the Nelson LP sold 10,000 copies, that meant Rhino owed Capitol Records a royalty of $8,400 minus the $4,200 advance. If the album sales hit the 20,000 mark, the royalty owned by Rhino would be $16,800 minus the advance. In addition, Rhino owed 4 1/2 cents in publishing fees for every song on that 1985 album.

"Licensing can be relatively easy or incredibly difficult," Bronson said, sitting in an office. "A lot of the time, the people who control the rights to these recordings are very arbitrary. Their policy keeps changing. One time, they'll say we have to license at least three songs from their company or they won't let us have any. The next time, they'll say one cut is OK."

As you'd expect, some deals fall through because Rhino and the owner of the material can't agree on an advance price. Bronson shudders when he thinks of the $1 million Dave Clark is reportedly asking for the licensing rights to the greatest hits of the Dave Clark Five.

Equally difficult at times is finding out who owns the rights to a record. Bronson has spent months trying to pinpoint an ownership.

"We were putting out a Halloween record and we had to have 'Monster Mash' on it, so we went to PolyGram and they said they don't own it," Bronson recalled. "So we then went to the artist, Bobby Pickett, who insisted that PolyGram owned it. We went back to PolyGram and they said, 'No. We don't own it. '

"So we figured we'd just put the royalty money in a trust account and we'd pay whoever eventually claimed ownership. A few months later, the record is virtually on the presses. I'm at PolyGram's office and happen to mention the project to someone, and he says, 'You can't put that out. We own it.' I couldn't believe it."

To resolve the issue, Rhino took Bobby Pickett back into the studio and cut a new note-for-note version of the song, which means they didn't have to deal with PolyGram at all. They simply had to pay royalties to Pickett and the publisher of "Monster Mash."

Bronson, however, dislikes the practice of re-recording songs. He's a purist who feels Rhino should only deal in originals. The only other time he and Foos re-recorded a song was in connection with the "Louie, Louie" album.

To Foos, the "Louie, Louie" album is the "culmination" of everything he has tried to do at Rhino. It combines novelty, history and an imaginative concept.

The idea: 10 different versions of the same song, Richard Berry's "Louie, Louie," perhaps the definitive rock party record. There have been an estimated 500 versions of the song recorded, highlighted by the Kingsmen's rendition, which hit the Top 10 in 1963.

Among the versions the Rhino team wanted to include on the album: Berry's original, the Kingsmen, the generally mellow Sandpipers, the punk Black Flag and the Rice University Marching Owl Band.

The problem was getting the rights to the original Richard Berry version. When they couldn't secure permission to use it, Foos and Bronson tracked down the composer (who is living in Los Angeles, but is no longer in the music business) and got him to re-record thesong.

The new version was so close to the original that Rhino got a call from the lawyer representing the owner of the original Berry recording, Foos said. "When we told him we had re-recorded the song, he warned that they were going to conduct laboratory tests to see if there was a difference," Foos said. "I took it as a compliment. It showed we did a good job in re-recording the song."

Another favorite of Foos and Bronson is "The World's Worst Records!" album.

It's the pop equivalent of the Golden Turkey movie concept--records that were so bad that they were actually fun to hear. The problem, according to Bronson, is that a lot of people don't see their records as "bad" at all and are sensitive to being included in such a package.

The selections that ended up on the LP run from Edith (Egg Lady) Massey's camp version of "Big Girls Don't Cry" to Rhino's own Temple City Kazoo Orchestra's send-up of the "Hooked on Classics" craze.

But music is only part of the charm of the record. There's also the packaging.

The front cover shows a man in a radiation suit (complete with warehouseman's gloves) rummaging through trash bags filled with records. Taped to the back cover is an air sickness bag, with this warning printed on it: "Listening to this LP may induce internal discomfort."

Sales: almost 15,000.

With 10,000 sales here and 15,000 sales there, Rhino needs lots of releases to maintain a healthy cash flow. That poses a problem because the number of worthy artists still without best-of packages is dwindling. This is one reason the company has moved aggressively into video and is eyeing film. Rhino recently signed a deal with New World Pictures to apply their wacky world view to first-run movies.

Meanwhile, the label continues to work with a limited number of new bands. Some of Rhino's biggest sellers, in fact, have been by contemporary acts. Julie Brown's "Goddess in Progress" album in 1984 sold nearly 60,000 copies, while a Big Daddy single has sold close to 100,000. Other acts signed by Rhino include the Beat Farmers and the Pandoras.

Despite their colorful catalogue, Foos and Bronson are far from industry titans financially. Rather than the de rigeur Mercedes or Porsches, they drive around in a Volvo and a Honda, respectively.

The challenge with the records and video tapes is distribution. Even though Rhino's albums are now being represented by giant Capitol Records, most of the records and videos still have a hard time getting exposure outside of hip or huge outlets.

"It's frustrating to know you have something of substance, but you can't get it in hundreds of stores," Bronson complained.

Foos is philosophical. "We think of ourselves as creative compilers first, and businessmen second. But I don't judge our success in terms of whether we made a million dollars this year, but in terms of whether we put out the product we wanted to and are able to continue to grow and expand. Our annual growth rate of gross sales has been 25% to 40%."

"The great thing about what we do is that we are able to realize almost any idea we have," Bronson said. "That freedom is very rare, and it is incredibly satisfying . . . like a giant toy store. I'd have never dreamed seven years ago that we would be able to go into our warehouse now and see more than 250 albums on the shelves.

"But I'd also have been amazed then by all the problems involved with getting space in stores and air play--and these are still problems we face. A lot of people in the industry look at us and are puzzled. They're only beginning to recognize what we are doing."

Rhino Records provides a wacky yet lovable supply of records and videos that are so much fun that they are virtually toys--especially for anyone who grew up in the '50s and '60s.

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