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Bearsville’s baron

Remembering Albert Grossman, 25 years later

by Paul Smart
March 03, 2011 12:03 PM | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Albert Grossman with Janis Joplin. Photo © by Elliott Landy - http://www.landyvision.com/
There was a Bearsville before Albert Grossman moved there to become the self-defined baron of the place. It was there before the recording studios and record label and the still functioning complex on with its restaurants, studio and theater. But it’s difficult to imagine it, those with history in the area say.

Out behind the theater, in a quiet, leaf-strewn clearing of pines by the creek, though now snow covered, is an eternal circle of ivy and a simple stone that marks Grossman’s grave after his passing 25 years ago this winter.

What is the legacy of this historic folk music impresario, rock manager and visionary on the community? Last month marked a quarter century since he succumbed, just short of his 60th birthday, to a heart attack on a plane en route to an entertainment conference in Europe.

“The reason he first came to Woodstock was because my wife Shirley was told about a fabulous house that was available but cost $50,000, and Albert was the only person we could think of amongst our friends who could afford that then,” says the artist Milton Glaser of the man he got to know when Grossman first arrived in New York City from Chicago in the late 1950s. “Afterwards, Shirley managed to find a house for Dylan. You could say the future of Woodstock was set by these two events.”

Grossman, born, raised and educated in Chicago, founded one of the great early folk music “listening rooms” there, the Gate of Horn, which, in 1956, helped propel Odetta to national fame. He then came east to co-produce the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 before putting together Peter, Paul & Mary in 1961.

“When he first came to New York he called me because he needed some album covers designed, and then we became socially involved,” Glaser continued. “He took us to see Peter, Paul & Mary, because he wasn’t sure whether they worked or not. We were living on St. Marks Place at the time, and became great friends, while also working together…”

 

David Boyle, the local contractor now best known for his longstanding cantankerous presence at town meetings and on Woodstock Public Television, remembers first meeting his future employer, and friend, in New York City circa 1958. Later, in the spring of 1964 when Grossman was starting to build his Bearsville presence, Boyle drove a load of tools up in Dylan’s station wagon, with Albert’s soon to be wife Sally as his co-pilot for the ride. Upon his arrival, Grossman had him search down a copy of the town’s new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances and read them cover to cover so he could know what he would be able to do, and not.

“I started working with him in New York, doing various things. We were friends. Later, I was dating Mary Travers and asked me whether she should join this group with Noel Stookey and Peter Yarrow. I said, ‘You love music, so why not,’” Boyle recalled. “It turns out that Albert supported people by being very, very supportive of them. So when I came up here with him, it was to fix up first one place, then move on to another, and then another. I lived up at his house quite a bit before getting my own place. I loved being out of the city and having so many things going on fairly simultaneously…”

During those same years Grossman was settling in the Woodstock area, keeping his presence in New York via a Gramercy Park home and 55th Street offices, he saw his Peter, Paul & Mary idea take off, took on Bob Dylan and other top folk musicians as clients, started managing some rock and roll acts, The Band and Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren among them, and married Sally, a beautiful Hunter College literature major 13 years his junior. He reinvented the role of artist manager, winning unheard-of control and riches for his clients and changing the way rock and roll, and all pop culture, was treated by the entertainment business.

His Bearsville home became a social center for his youth-oriented empire, albeit one filled with sophisticated food, wine and art, and the hip society types wanting access to the world of Dylan and the other top talents Grossman was representing. By the late 1960s, the Baron, or simply The Bear as some called him from afar, was dreaming up new building projects. He wanted to transform some barns and an old farmhouse into recording studios. He bought another farm down in the center of Bearsville and started talking up dreams of building a restaurant, a theater. He watched as a young upstart, Michael Lang, came to town and started putting together a major music festival.

“I first met Albert doing the Woodstock Festival,” Lang says. “I made an offer on The Band and he came down to Bethel with Rick while we were getting things together. He was a little skeptical about everything we were doing until he asked who some people were down in the distance and I told him it was the Hog Farm. That seems to have been what turned him around.”

Later, Lang added, he saw Grossman during the festival, and then on the following Monday at the bank back in Woodstock, where he arrived with Woodstock Ventures partner Artie Kornfeld.

“He was there to try and help us sort through the issues we were having,” Lang recalled. “He was very gracious.”

 

And then Albert Grossman got serious about all those building dreams he’d been having.

“I met him in late ’68 or early ’69. Jonathan Taplin, who was road manager for The Band and someone I went to Princeton with, introduced him to me,” remembered John Storyk, the now-legendary music studio designer and architect who describes himself as having been Grossman’s “in-house architect” for 16 years. “I was just starting to build Jimi Hendrix’s studio, Electric Ladyland, and Albert and I worked out what he wanted built on a napkin.”

Storyk talks about his time with Grossman fondly. The elder man, 20 years his senior, let the young architect stay in what would become the Turtle Creek Studio near his Bearsville home for years, when he’d come up on Thursday night to fit in his Grossman work on weekends. In the city, Albert let him have a room to work his budding business out of in his Midtown office suite in New York.

“He was a bit of a mentor to me. He had his idiosyncrasies, and they used to say you could divide Woodstock between those who spoke about Albert and knew him and those who spoke about him and didn’t know him,” Storyk continued. “He was very demanding, which could be confused with arrogance. But he was always fair.”

As for the work he created with Grossman in Woodstock, Storyk mentioned designing the addition at The Bear restaurant, adaptations at The Little Bear, building the video studio for Todd Rundgren (now home to WDST-Radio Woodstock), as well as the famous studios A and B at Bearsville, up in the woods (and later their descendent, the now-closed Allaire Studios, overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir).

 

“I started at Bearsville in 1979,” says Mark McKenna. “I was working as an engineer at the time of his death. Can’t quite remember what session I was working on…maybe the Isley Brothers or The Pretenders, although now that I think of it The Pretenders were a couple of months later, because that’s who I was with when we all heard that Richard Manuel had hung himself (in March, 1986).”

McKenna recalls what it was like, while still in his 20s, to meet Grossman, who had nurtured his formidable presence for decades. He had a formal air about him, he says, a deep growling voice, and yet an accompanying graciousness.

“He was an interesting guy. He was imposing and he played on that very well. I remember that at the time of his passing, Sally wasn’t a very significant presence in the life of the studio and record label and none of us were really sure what would happen next,” McKenna continued. “But then Sally got gradually more involved and it just went on. And yes, there was a big blossoming in the late 80s.”

McKenna would eventually become Bearsville Studio manager after Albert’s death.

And then his widow Sally surprised everyone by finishing the theater left incomplete at Albert’s death, then leading the studio into some of its most productive years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She finally sold the restaurant/theater complex to Bear Café restaurateurs Peter Cantine, Eric Mann and Andy Cooper six and a half years ago, who continue to run their fine eatery and manage the property today. The Bearsville Studios, where artists like The Band, Paul Butterfield, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin and John Hartford recorded, where Muddy Waters did his Woodstock album and the Woodstock Mountain Review kicked it in, where the Johnny Average Band and Robbie Dupree made records, where Randy Van Warmer cut “Just When I Needed You Most,” and Jesse Winchester sang and played, where the Rolling Stones rehearsed before their Joyous Lake appearance, were finally sold and have been made into a private residence.

McKenna spoke about how Albert seemed alone, for years, in his dream of building his own city along the creek in Bearsville, in what everyone initially thought would be little more than an in-house studio. But then it all came to pass. McKenna has continued his own career, now running his own Bandshell Artists management company, which he feels he’d never have had the gumption to do were it not for Grossman’s having mentored him, and shown how such things could be done with artistic integrity.

 

Down in town, Wok ‘n Roll Café proprietor Sha Wu recalled how Grossman brought him to town to provide him and his music clients some good Chinese food. He remembered cooking in what is now the Peterson House at first, and then at The Bear Café before The Little Bear, still a Chinese Restaurant to this day, was built for him. Later, Grossman helped him set up his own business on Route 28, and had promised to help him with another place in the Bearsville Flats not far from the Grossman complex.

“He was a very funny man,” Sha Wu says, shaking his head with deep memories filling his eyes. “He was my very good friend.”

Boyle remembered helping turn what had been Gunnar Petersen’s one horse barn into what would eventually be the Bear Café at which Sha Wu cooked. All the best carpenters in the area ended up on Grossman’s salary, working for years under the man Boyle called Bearsville’s “majordomo,” Paul Cypert.

“He kept a dozen people working for a very long time,” he said. “He’d get all his lumber from Nelson Shultis’ sawmill. He had the best copper roofing master, Otto Shue, and everything he had done was done the best it could be. Everything he built was in keeping with what was already here while also enhancing it.”

 

“I loved his passion and I was in tears when I heard he passed away. A part of me left Woodstock forever from that point on,” says Storyk, the man whose business, with offices worldwide, is now based in the Poughkeepsie area. “Now, when I go through town — and I still visit his grave three or four times a year — everywhere I look I see Albert. Just as when we were all gathered around his grave, 25 years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder how all the buildings I could see had been touched by him, and me, for that matter.”

He talked about how much Albert Grossman loved music, food and building…with no one ever sure what order such passions were aligned each day. Storyk remembered coming up one weekend in the late 1970s and being met at his Turtle Creek home-away-from-home by security because the Rolling Stones were in residence. They let him stay, anyway.

“You want my best Albert story?” he asks. “Albert was famous for never finishing a project. We’d get almost finished on something and he’d be starting something new. I’m telling you, it was just crazy. One time, we’re having a drink or something and I say to Albert, ‘Why don’t we just finish?’ And he just stared at me, as he would; he always chose his words carefully. And then he just said to me, in that deep voice of his, ‘Why?’ And that was all he said.”

McKenna, who would later manage the Allaire Studio that Storyk also built, talked about the beauty of the Bearsville Theater concept, for which Boyle listed details, from its hidden bar area speakers and glass window, designed for the showcasing of bands to the music industry muckety-mucks Grossman knew so well to please and simultaneously antagonize. But then he remembered his Grossman story.

“Neil Dorfman was working in Studio A fresh off his work with Springsteen on The River and then Brothers in Arms with Dire Straits. Some now-obscure band from Philly had hired him, but he told me he suddenly felt like someone was watching him and he turned around and there was Albert at the door, looking at him. And then the door closed and he was gone. Mind you, this was the same night Albert died…”

For his part, Albert’s old friend Milton Glaser, who designed the iconic rainbow-haired Dylan poster for the artist’s Greatest Hits album, says Grossman left as much a spiritual legacy as his effects on the music industry or in the buildings of the Bearsville complex.

“He made this place attractive for musicians. He amplified a lot of what was already implicit in the town of Woodstock, and out of him sprung the Woodstock festival and that whole legacy, as well,” he said. “And it was kind of a natural thing for him. He was a very bright and talented man. But he was also not entirely a happy man. He could deal with the marketplace, but he could also see aesthetics.”

As for his view of Grossman’s legacy, Michael Lang talked about a “huge” effect on the town we know, bringing to it the contemporary music scene…

“Albert gave Woodstock a new persona,” Lang said. “He took us out of our quaintness and really brought us national attention. And that, in turn, is certainly what brought me here.”

“He gave me a dresser once, one of his beloved antiques. A big Victorian thing,” added Storyk. “I’m writing a book now about 40 architectural projects for 40 great clients, and he’s in there. He would have been in there if there were but 10 people I was writing about…he had rough edges but was also a soft, pretty lonely guy in many ways. I learned a lot from him, from the ways in which he balanced business and music, art and contracts. He created a new Woodstock from what he discovered when he got here.”

Storyk paused.

“I miss Albert,” he said, in closing. “And that dresser he gave me is my dresser to this day.”++

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