“This is a great story,” Jerry Greenberg said last Saturday, in a cafe just up the street from his Scottsdale home.
“I was working for Sony, running a label called WTG Records. This is 1987. I’m at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary party, and Led Zeppelin is playing. John Bonham’s son Jason gets up and plays a drum solo, and I nudge my wife and I say, ‘I’m gonna sign that kid. I’m gonna put a fucking band behind him.’ That was the first act I signed at WTG, and he became huge.”
By the time he’d signed Jason Bonham, Greenberg had been making rock ’n’ roll history for more than two decades. “I was a promotions man at Atlantic Records in the '70s,” he explained. “I was the guy. I picked the Eagles single. I picked Jackson Browne’s single. I picked ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ for Joni Mitchell and said, ‘You have to put this out. It’ll be a hit,’” the former president of Atlantic Records said. “Somehow, I had this magical ear.”
His magical ear got Greenberg noticed in the industry early on, he explained from a tufted seat in the corner. “I’ll tell you what it was. I’m 16 years old, and I’m a musician, a drummer backing up The Five Satins on their records. My band backed up The Ronettes, The Drifters, The Flamingos. Chuck Berry! And I was constantly listening to the radio. I learned to recognize a hit by paying attention to what people responded to.”
At Atlantic, rock stars began asking for him. “Listen, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic, calls me one day and says, ‘Mick Jagger is here. We’re going to hear the new Rolling Stones record. He wants you in the control room.’ I was the head of promotion at the time. We went in and ‘Brown Sugar’ came on and I said, ‘Mick, that’s the hit.’ And Ahmet said to Mick, ‘You better listen to him.’”
It seemed likely that Greenberg had a million stories about his famous friends. Several of them had to do with making songs shorter. “I knew what radio would play,” he shrugged. “Radio wanted songs that were three minutes or less. I did the edit on Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ That was a monster hit. I did the edit to ‘Roundabout.' That was a big hit for Yes.”
In a new documentary film that’s being made about Greenberg’s career, he tells about talking Jimmy Page into Led Zeppelin’s first hit record. “I kept calling Jimmy and saying, ‘Do an edit on this song, I can get radio to play it!’ And he’d say, ‘We’re not a singles band!’ and hang up on me.” Finally, Greenberg did the edit himself, and the song, “Whole Lotta Love,” charted in Billboard’s Top 10.
Greenberg was promoted to president of Atlantic, where he signed acts including ABBA, Genesis, Foreigner, AC/DC, and The Muppets. Later, he founded Mirage Records, a label that revived the post-disco-era dance music market.
“We were the biggest dance label in the early '80s,” Greenberg said, then laughed. “I was dating my wife back then, and we’d have the radio on in the car and I’d say, ‘That’s my record. That’s Brenda K. Starr.’ Then they’d play Nolan Thomas, and I’d say, ‘That’s my record, too.’ She thought I was Berry Gordy or something. We didn’t just do dance music. The first act I signed to Mirage? Whitesnake. I had Phoebe Snow. I had Southside Johnny.”
Greenberg looked out onto Miller Road. “Scottsdale has it all,” he announced. “I love this place. I can walk everywhere. I haven’t bought a car yet!”
He and his wife moved here two months ago, Greenberg said, to be close to her sister. “I took up golf, so now every weekend I go to Palm Springs. I opened a place in Vegas called the Rainbow Bar and Grill, so now I’m in Vegas. I kept my house in Los Angeles.”
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Greenberg leaned in. “Who’s here to retire? I’m gonna start a full-fledged entertainment company based here and in Beverly Hills, and I’ll go back and forth. I want to find the next Panic! at the Disco or the next Killers.”
He already has, Greenberg said, the rights to a new musical. “It’s going to be the next Hamilton,” he promised. “I’ve got the Peter Grant story,” he said, referring to the manager of Led Zeppelin. “I’m filled with energy. We’re talking to some investors. I have an idea for a documentary about Israeli and Arab kids in Nazareth, who come together through music. I think that would be very interesting.”
Meantime, there’s the documentary about his career, which included interviews with Alice Cooper, Nile Rodgers, Daryl Hall, Lou Gramm of Foreigner, David Foster, Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses, and two dozen other big-name rock stars. “We have a rough cut on the movie," he says. "We haven’t figured out yet what it is. Is it a movie, is it a two-part documentary, is it five-part TV series about what Jerry is doing now?”
Greenberg looked around him. “What Jerry’s doing now is sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and talking about himself,” he said, then laughed again. “Listen, I was trained by David Geffen and Robert Stigwood and Ahmet Ertegun on the greatest training ground a kid from Connecticut could ask for. I was a fucking rock drummer who ended up running Atlantic Records. Why not do it again?”