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Music

Portrayed as the bad guy in ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ music man Jerry Heller had an influential, colorful career

Jerry Heller
L.A. music business executive Jerry Heller, who died on Friday at age 75, may have been painted as a Hollywood villain in “Straight Outta Compton,” but his decades spent in the L.A. music industry told a different story.
(Jim Cooper / Associated Press)

Jerry Heller’s life was the stuff of movies.

Unfortunately for his short-term legacy, the only portrayal that has so far made it to the big screen — the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” — cast him as a villain.

The former label head, promoter and booking agent, who died last Friday of a heart attack in Thousand Oaks at age 75, spent nearly a half-century working in the Los Angeles music business, and helped break acts in America including Otis Redding, Kraftwerk, Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd.

“The music business and I were made for each other,” wrote Heller in his rip-roaring 2006 autobiography, “Ruthless,” and his résumé bore this out.

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He was present at the creation of the festival era as an agent working with the Monterey Pop Festival, and booked Elton John’s historic first American shows at the Troubadour. In the 1980s after a period of hardship, Heller shifted to R&B and rap as the genre was entering the mainstream. Under his guidance, the rap trio J.J. Fad was nominated for the first-ever rap Grammy award.

Most famously, Heller partnered with N.W.A’s Eazy-E to release the group’s revolutionary album, “Straight Outta Compton,” on the pair’s Ruthless Records imprint, and in doing so played a crucial role in delivering N.W.A to the masses.

“The simple, unalterable calculus of popular music had been drummed into me by my experience in the 1960s,” wrote Heller in his autobiography. “The more parents hate the music, the more their children will like it. It had been true with Elvis and it had been true with the Rolling Stones. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was music that parents could loathe with a passion. I knew we had a massive hit.” (Italics his.) 

Enter Heller as the bad guy.

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As featured in the 2015 movie of the same name, Heller was portrayed by Paul Giamatti as a businessman-predator who, while supportive in some ways, saw gold where others saw garbage. He was seen as someone who used his connections to break his act and then reaped huge financial rewards at the expense of the artists.

Ever the savvy businessman, Heller was diplomatic but guarded when, in a 2015 conversation with The Times, he briefly discussed Giamatti’s portrayal of him in “Straight Outta Compton.”

When offered sympathy for having to endure a Hollywood portrayal, Heller replied with a chuckle. “Well, I didn’t make the movie, so you should tell them that. A movie’s a movie, you know? And I thought it was a good movie. I just don’t think it was factual.”

Sounding physically weak but mentally sharp, Heller was asked about the renewed interest and the $60-million opening weekend for a film that featured him as the bad guy. He replied that he wasn’t ready to comment further because, in his words, “I think sooner or later it’s going to be part of an ongoing litigation.”

Heller was true to his word.

In October 2015, his attorneys filed suit against the film’s producers alleging, among other things, that “the film is littered with false statements that harm the reputation of [Heller] and aim to ridicule and lower him in the opinion of the community and to deter third persons from associating and dealing with him.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald denied a motion to dismiss all of Heller’s claims, and the suit continues. According to Brent Finch, one of Heller’s attorneys, claims of defamation, breach of contract and copyright infringement are moving forward. By California law, when a plaintiff passes away during litigation his claims survive.

“Mr. Heller made it clear that if something like this were to happen to him, he wanted to keep moving forward with the suit,” said Finch of the firm Finch Law. “Jerry was very passionate about these claims, and very, very smart and sharp. He hadn’t lost a step.” 

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“We never had a bad experience with him, from Day One,” said Juana Burns of the Rialto rap group J.J. Fad, when asked last year about its work with Heller and Ruthless. The success of J.J. Fad’s hit song “Supersonic” helped finance N.W.A’s music. “He’s always the one that told us, ‘Hey, if it wasn’t for you guys, they may not have never been able to come out. It may have been a whole different story.”

Burns added that she’d often consult Heller about business-related matters, and that he was always happy to help. 

Heller’s time with Ruthless, though, was only one late chapter in a wild story set in Los Angeles as the city transitioned to a music business center in the 1960s and ’70s.

For example, Heller once recalled a contentious incident between Bob Dylan’s former manager Albert Grossman and future entertainment billionaire David Geffen over the signing of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.

“Grossman confronted Geffen at the Troubadour in the back of the alley,” Heller once recalled to writer Harvey Kubernik. “Grossman started blathering about Nyro’s overseas publishing rights as he backed Geffen against the wall and started to threaten him. I told Grossman to ‘cool it. It’s not happening, Albert. You better catch him in an alley in New York because this is our town.’”

Heller’s autobiography, which was written with Gil Reavill, detailed scenes such as when the Troubadour’s Doug Weston threatened Heller with a knife over rights to future Elton John performances in San Francisco.

Recalling his time spent booking Ike & Tina Turner and having a run-in with the Black Panther party, Heller wrote in “Ruthless” that, “after that, whenever I went to San Francisco, I didn’t wear a flower in my hair. I wore a gun in my belt.”

 

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There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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UPDATES:

9:49 a.m.: This article was updated with a credit for Gil Reavill, who was co-writer on Jerry Heller’s autobiography, “Ruthless.” 


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