Elektra’s Comeback Kid : Bob Krasnow turns once-foundering label into a powerhouse

Bob Krasnow remembers one week of January, 1983, as the worst of his professional life.

The veteran record executive had just been named chairman of struggling Elektra Records and faced his first chore: closing the label’s Los Angeles office and firing more than 200 of the company’s 300 employees.

“I had to give the word to people who had been at Elektra for 20 years--people in accounting and other (support areas) who weren’t to blame for the mistakes that were made by others in signing acts. But they had to pay the penalty and it was a horrifying experience.”

That done, Krasnow began trimming Elektra’s contingent of 150 artists by almost 90%.

“I went through the roster with a hacksaw,” he said recently, sitting in his 21st-floor office at the Warner Communications Inc. headquarters at 75 Rockefeller Plaza. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they needed to get rid of most of those acts and start over.”


At the time, Elektra--the once-proud home of such commercial powerhouses as the Eagles, Doors, Judy Collins and Queen--was in such bad shape that many in the industry felt the cuts were simply the first phase in the dismantling of the company.

The odds, according to most insiders, were that Elektra would be absorbed by another, more firmly established Warner Communications label, Atlantic.

One reason for the speculation: If Warner was serious about preserving Elektra as a strong, separate entity, it wouldn’t have turned to a man like Krasnow, whose ear for talent was widely respected but whose administrative skills were in question.

Five years later, however, Elektra is the toast of the record industry--and Krasnow is being widely hailed by his peers for having shaped a company whose albums are classy and commercial. The artists range from Anita Baker and Tracy Chapman to the Gipsy Kings (see adjoining box).

Warner Communications Inc.--Elektra’s parent company--does not release individual figures on its three record divisions, but it is widely assumed in the industry that Elektra last year had the best dollar return on its investment of any major record label. Equally impressive, Elektra--with just 28 releases during 1988--registered 21 Grammy nominations.

But the Elektra story wasn’t simply sales. One of the trademarks of Krasnow’s career over the years--and he has been involved with such artists George Benson, Captain Beefheart, Devo, Ike and Tina Turner, Kraftwerk, the Pointer Sisters, Parliament/Funkadelic and Chaka Khan--is daring and taste.

“I’ve always been interested in introducing new ideas.,” Krasnow said. “That’s part of my makeup as a person--from the early days with Captain Beefheart and James Brown. . . . I don’t see any value in simply making the same record again that you can already hear on the radio.”

Krasnow’s impact has the industry talking. Jeff Ayeroff, co-managing director of Virgin Records, describes Krasnow’s performance in salvaging Elektra Records in terms of stunt pilots at air shows.

“When he took over, it looked like he had stepped into a plane that was going straight toward the ground at a very fast speed,” said Ayeroff. “But he pulled it out at the last minute. Because of that, everyone sort of looks at him in awe. He’s charming and smart, and he’s got great ears”

David Geffen, the entertainment business mogul who helped launch the musical careers of such major figures as Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne and the Eagles, sums up Krasnow’s performance in a word: brilliant.

Krasnow, 53, is clearly an industry leader in 1989--a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board of directors and is spearheading this year’s New Music America Festival. He also enjoys the good life, favoring tailored suits and fine cigars. A gourmet cook, Krasnow also leans more to original art than gold records in his office: a Joni Mitchell painting, a specially commissioned work by a graffiti artist, and a sculpture designed as a tribute to jazz saxophonist Lester Young.

But the role didn’t come easy.

Even Krasnow admits he was “overwhelmed” by business and financial matters at Blue Thumb Records, the classy Los Angeles label he founded in 1968.

Though he signed an imaginative group of artists--the Pointer Sisters, Sylvester and Dave Mason to Captain Beefheart and Zydeco star Clifton Chenier--he was so frustrated by business affairs that he sold the company in 1974 and took a break from the record business.

When Mo Ostin, the president of Warner Bros. Records, asked him to return to the fold in 1975, the offer was specific, Krasnow recalls: “We’ll take care of everything, you just sign the acts. . . .”

Krasnow flourished in the new role and made some terrific signings, including George Benson and Chaka Khan. Because he had a royalty deal that gave him a percentage of his artists’ sales, he was paid handsomely (a seven-figure sum during some years, by some estimates).

Still, most in the industry were caught off guard by the news Krasnow was going to head Elektra.

“I think the reaction a lot of places was, ‘Whoa, is this guy really capable of handling a company?’ ” said one record executive and Krasnow admirer who asked not to be identified. “Everyone respected his taste, especially when it came to black music, but he had a reputation as kind of a wild man. . . . Wisecracking, flamboyant.”

Krasnow, however, had no doubts. “I know the (appointment) surprised some people, but I felt I was ready. I had grown. I had gotten to see how Mo and the Warners team worked. I felt it was time to put my own imprint on a company again.”

Krasnow, a Rochester, N.Y. native who lived most of his life in Los Angeles before moving to New York in the late ‘70s, likes to say he started his music business education when he was 9. Obsessed by rhythm & blues, he would buy singles at a Pico Boulevard music store and then rush home and play them, often daydreaming about being in the studio with the musicians and giving them some hints on how to make an even better record.

Krasnow’s parents weren’t pleased with the fascination. They didn’t like the raw music (they put towels under their son’s bedroom door to muffle the sound) or his dreams of someday being in the music business.

Recalls the Elektra chairman, “I had very much a middle-European cultural heritage going for me. . . . You go to school, excel in your grades and life should take care of you. The thing they’d say was, ‘Don’t get sidetracked by this music thing. Practice your violin, take your Hebrew lessons.”

But Krasnow was restless. After four years in the Navy, he returned to Los Angeles where he took a $39-a-week sales job at Decca Records. He then switched to King Records in San Francisco because the label specialized in the R&B; artists that he loved.

While working in San Francisco for King, he was exposed to the psychedelic world of the Grateful Dead and other Bay Area acts and found his musical and social interests broadening. He returned to Los Angeles in 1964 to form the R&B-oriented; Loma label for Warner Bros. Records. He moved two years later to Buddah Records and in 1968 opened Blue Thumb Records which was a prototype for the Krasnow-era Elektra. The Los Angeles-based label was the essence of hip: blues, rock and R&B; artists, packaged with style and flair.

About the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Los Angeles, Krasnow recalls, “The music business was wild at the time. It was like we were on Main Street and the saloons were all open 24 hours a day. . . . Everybody had six shooters on. . . . The Eagles and the Byrds and the Doors, the Buffalo Springfield.”

Krasnow was so much part of the late-night Hollywood musicians’ scene that he is believed to be the model for Randy Newman’s “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues,” a good-natured song about burning the candle at both ends in the crazy rock world.

Asked about the song now, Krasnow smiled and said, “We were all dabbling in a lot of different things, staying up all night, not really taking good care of ourselves and (I guess) that song had a lot to do with that”

Krasnow--who has been married 35 years and has three grown children and one grandson--spent a year on the sidelines after selling Blue Thumb, then jumped in 1975 when Mo Ostin invited him to rejoin Warner Bros. Records as vice presdident/talent--a position he held until the Elektra offer.

David Horowitz, then head of Warner Communications’ music division, said he knew about Krasnow’s Blue Thumb business history, but felt Krasnow had matured considerably--that he was ready for the challenge of running a label.

“It was a very controversial decision,” Horowitz said from his office in New York, where, among other entertainment business interests, he is chairman of Spin magazine. “I heard a lot more negatives than positives. But he made some great signings at Warners and I was impressed by his ability to close deals and by his marketing sense.

Though Krasnow--who personally signed Baker and Chapman, among others--has a reputation from the old days as cocky and outspoken, he readily shares credit with his staff for finding and developing talent.

“The only guide I use (in terms of signing an act) is how I feel about it,” he said. “You can’t go on what you think will be commercial because no one really knows that. You have to stick with what you feel.”

Pausing, Krasnow seemed to be looking for a better way to explain his technique.

Finally, he said, “There was this movie, ‘Double Indemnity,’ where Edward G. Robinson played an insurance detective who said he could always spot a phony claim because he had this little man inside him who would speak up. Well, it’s that same way in the record business. You have to listen to that little man inside.”