Entertainment executive Douglas Yeager talks about Odetta, David Amram, Josh White, and the Blues

"A 'Bluesman' is someone who lives the life he sings about in his song. The audience feels and believes he has lived that life experience he is singing about."

Douglas A. Yeager: Harmony of Culture

Douglas Yeager, is a respected and established independent entertainment executive with vast experience in administrating diverse facets of the business, as a producer and writer of film, television and theatre; a television talent coordinator; theatrical casting director; concert and special event producer; artist manager; booking agent; record producer; record company executive; music publisher; and night-club creator/director -- with extensive experience working around the world.

Yeager conceived and produced the award winning regional theater musical play and cast album, "JOSH: The Man & His Music." Currently, Yeager is executive producer of documentary film “DAVID AMRAM: The First 80 Years!”, and Co-executive producer, co-producer and writer of “ODETTA – This Little of Mine,” a documentary feature film  biography of the music legend and `Voice of the Civil Rights Movement’ ODETTA, in development. Also in development is a feature film biography on the African-American music and social leader of the 1930s – 1960s JOSH WHITE.

Selected special event productions include: producer of “Folk City: New York and the American Folk Revival", Co-producer of  John Lennon’s 70th Birthday Celebration, the Glory Bound tour of America, in tribute to Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Josh White, the 20th Anniversary Woodstock Festival World Tour; and Run for Life AIDS Benefit Concert.

Mr. Yeager's diversified concert promotions, executive producer or producer and productions included the following artists: Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Genesis, Eagles, Yes, Allman Brothers Band, Chuck Berry, Little Feat, James Gang, Velvet Underground, Boz Scaggs, Nina Simone, Iron Butterfly, Brigitte Bardot, Moody Blues, Arlo Guthrie, The Band, Edgar Winter, Cheech & Chong, Steve Martin, Lionel Hampton, Blue Oyster Cult, Spencer Davis Group, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Melanie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Richie Havens, John Fahey, Josh White, Jr. and Eric Andersen. Yeager is member of the Board of Directors of the National Museum of Folk Music.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

Blues, not unlike other forms of traditional `folk' music, tells the real-life stories of people (usually those living in less than fortunate economic circumstances and life styles)  experiencing pain, joy, love, heartache, and at times, it tells the stories in the form of protest against the ruling system and society. The Blues Culture emanated from the poor African-Americans who came out of slavery in America and lived under harsh conditions of government sanctioned segregation and racial injustice. As a white person, who grew up on a farm in northern Illinois and had only ever met one African-American person in my life before the age of eleven, I was initially ignorant of the suffering and pain experienced by so many of my African-American brothers and sisters in America. Upon moving to Cincinnati (which bordered America's South) in 1957, I soon learned how African-Americans were treated differently in much of America. When I began managing and producing musical artists in 1967, many of the artists, such as Josh White, Odetta, Randy Crawford, Richie Havens and Josh White, Jr., were African-American, and I soon realized how the pain of their life condition affected the way they would sing a song straight from their heart and with lyrics that told you what they had experienced. Blues to me, means feeling and experiencing the pain and heartache of life and then expressing it to the world in your music or in a song. The Blues Culture has taught me to be more humble; to appreciate all people regardless of their racial, economic, religious or ethnic condition and differences; and to try to understand and sympathize with their lives and the conditions they are living in.

Bill Wyman with Odetta and Douglas Yeager in New York's Town Hall, 2004

How do you describe and what characterize Douglas A. Yeager Productions philosophy?  

I, and my company, strive to present music, theatrical presentations, films and books to audiences that hopefully will educate, inspire and foster understanding, peace and harmony amongst all peoples while providing a platform for the masses to learn about different peoples and appreciate them for their fascinating differences.   

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

Odetta taught me more about `life' and blues than any other individual. Odetta would never lie in her private life or to an audience in her professional life. Honesty, integrity and a moral compass that would smell injustice wherever it may  fester were the cornerstones of her character. Her goal every day of her life was to be "Useful" to society. When writing a song, she had to be honest with the audience and tell them a story to help them in their lives. When choosing to sing a song by another songwriter, she would read the lyrics before listening to music, for the lyrical story was the `heart' of the song.  If she couldn't believe what she sang, she wouldn't sing it.   For the first 45 years of her career, she sang many songs that came out of the African-American slave experience. When she would sing such a song, such as "Water Boy" or "Take the Hammer" or "No More Auction Block," she was determined that the audience never knew where the singer stopped being the singer and where Odetta became the suffering slave she was singing about. She embodied the story of the person she sang about. As you know from seeing Odetta in Athens, not all of her blues songs were protest songs about the mistreatment and injustices forced upon African-Americans during slavery, and after slavery during America's struggle to achieve civil rights for all peoples. She would also sing blues songs about tuberculosis, about floods, and above love and heartache, and humorous blues songs about the cat and mouse teasing of men and women attracted to each other. But whatever the subject of the song was about, she was always honest.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career? Which is the most interesting period in your life?

Worst MomentIn 1968, my brother and I were managing a great rhythm and blues duo and band Dave & J.J. , and had experienced immense success with them in France that previous summer. We then brought the band to the Voom Voom Club, the most popular and most prestigious club in Torino, Italy. What we didn't know was that it was owned by the Mafia. The Mafia wanted our business and our band. They had influence with every hotel in Torino and put us out in street without our bags at the beginning of winter, after taking all our money. They succeeded in their efforts to take our business and our artists/band. It was early in my career, and it was a good lesson to learn -- always be aware of who you are working with.

Douglas Yeager in White House 1998, where President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton presented Odetta with the National Medal of Arts & Humanities

Best Four Moments: Escorting ODETTA to the White House in 1998, where President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton presented Odetta with the National Medal of Arts & Humanities; then having dinner with the Clintons, followed by dancing the night away in the White House.  

Experienced the great success and jubilation at the Opening Night of a musical theatre show I created and presented at the Cologne, Germany Opera House in 1983.  The show Harlem Story, which explored the history of music and dance in Harlem (New York) from 1915 to 1950, became a theatrical hit, cast album and TV special that was sold to 27 countries.  

In 1983, after spending two years creating a musical theatre drama JOSH: The Man & His Music, I produced it at the Michigan Public Theatre in Michigan's capital city of Lansing. The musical, starring Josh White, Jr., presented the life and times of his legendary father Josh White who had died in 1969. The show received four encores on opening night, and the Governor of the State of Michigan presented Josh, Jr. with a plaque naming it "Josh White and Josh White, Jr. DAY in the State of Michigan." The show sold out for the next six weeks.   Josh White, who began recording the blues in 1928, as you may know, was the artist most responsible for taking the blues out of the ghetto and bringing it to major nightclubs and concert halls and spreading it around the world. His son and namesake, Josh White, Jr. who began performing with his father in 1944, had the pleasure of seeing his father, who had been blacklisted in America from 1947 to 1963 because of his political and civil rights activism, being recognized.  In 1986, Josh's tribute album to his father, "Jazz, Ballads and Blues" was nominated for a Grammy Award, and in 1998, the U.S. government finally unveiled a JOSH WHITE U.S. Postage Stamp, followed by a tribute concert by Josh White, Jr. to his father on Washington's National Mall. 

On July 13, 1977, I had Richie Havens and his Band performing a concert outdoors in New York's Central Park. The passionate crowd of close to 10,000 expressed their love for Richie with a thunderous ovation after his final song. Accordingly, the continued applause brought Richie and the band back on stage for an encore. As was expected, they went into a blistering rendition of his Woodstock classic "Freedom." After twelve minutes of reaching mystical heights of excitement towards the song's conclusion, Richie leapt high in the air with his legs in a flying scissor's cut, and at the exact second of his hitting the stage at 9:36 pm upon his descent, all the lights in New York City went black!!! Everyone in the audience spontaneously exploded with the sound of "Whoa!" They felt they had just experienced a voodoo's spell and that Richie had caused the blackout. It was eerie watching thousands of people stumbling on their way through the woods out of Central Park -- all talking about the `coolest' moment of their lives!  Once in the street they had no option to walk home, some having to walk twenty miles. The entire city would be black for the next 25 hours.

You have come to know great bluesmen. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

I had the pleasure of being with Odetta, when she a few dozen other blues legends performed at the "100 Year of the Blues Salute" concert and film at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 2003 which was produced by Martin Scorsese, and featured every blues star from the 27 year old Indie Arie, to Keb Mo, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, Ruth Brown and Odetta to Honey Boy Edwards and Robert Lockwood, Jr. who both were in their 80s, and had played with Robert Johnson.

Photo: Douglas with Odetta, at the reception following the 25th Anniversary Concert & TV Special of Folk City at the Pier in NY, 1985

Are there any memories from Odetta, Josh White and Richie Havens which you’d like to share with us?

In 2006, Meryl Streep hosted a specially invited all-star audience to a private screening of Jonathan Demme's documentary film NEIL YOUNG: Heart of Gold at New York's Lincoln Center theatre. The theatre was full of movie stars, music stars and other celebrities. I was seated with Odetta in the prime center seats in the middle of the audience next to Jonathan Demme's two mentors, the Oscar winning directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Before the film started, Demme came to the front of the audience to tell the people about the making of the film and to thank the important celebrities who were in the audience. Upon thanking each of the famous musicians, the audience greeted each with a warm applause. He then thanked his two mentors, Lumet and Penn, which drew a great applause from audience. Demme then closed by saying, "Lastly, Neil and I want to thank the great ODETTA for honoring us tonight with her presence."  At this announcement, and for the only time of the evening, the entire audience jumped to their feet, turned to Odetta and gave a thunderous ovation of love. This is my greatest memory of Odetta. 

Why did you think that Odetta’s, White’s and Havens’ songs continues to generate such a devoted following?

Odetta, Josh, Josh, Jr. and Richie always sang from the heart.  They never sang a song they didn't believe. The listener could related to them as if they were being told a story by a great story teller. With many of the songs, they were also educating the listener to thoughts they may not have had before.....thoughts that might change their lives.      

What do you miss most nowadays from the Blues of past? How has the Blues changed over the years?

As long as blues is sung from the heart and believably from a real life experience, it will always have an audience. Today, it appears that the majority of the blues written and performed is just about love, sex, loss of love, and heartache, and less about the social condition of the oppressed souls from where the blues originated. 

Janis Ian, Doug and Josh White, Jr., at A Salute to Odetta in Washington, 2007

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be “Bluesman”?

A "Bluesman" is someone who lives the life he sings about in his song. The audience feels and believes he has lived that life experience he is singing about.  

Which memory from B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, and Robert Lockwood, Jr. makes you smile?

My favorite moment from being with these blues artists, was sitting backstage with Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Honey Boy Edwards at Radio City Music Hall Salute to the 100 Years of the Blues, and watching the concert from the television monitor. When B.B. King was announced to the stage, B.B. walked out to center stage, sat down and told the audience "Well, I guess they save the oldest for the last." At that moment, Robert turned his head to me and noted, "Shoot, he was just a little boy when I was earning a living playing the blues in juke joints down South!"

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I think every culture has their form of blues music, and it's important for these songs to stay within our historical consciousness as a reminder of the less fortunate in the world and of those who have been oppressed by the ruling system governing them. 

When we talk about Jazz, Folk & Blues usually refer moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real Jazz, Folk & Blues nowadays?  

Yes, new jazz, folk and blues is being written, created and performed today which is as good and relevant as the music of the past. What we must remember is that we only know today of the Masters of jazz, folk and blues from years ago, and not of the 99% who didn't become regarded as Masters. Accordingly, like the music of yesteryear, 99% of the new music created today won't be remembered fifty years from now, but that 1% who achieve Master status will be remembered.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Josh White Jr. and David Amram?

In 1980 Josh White, jr. was named the Voice of the Peace Corps, and recorded their theme song, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."   He then toured for the government while performing songs of peace and hope to thousands of the poor, disenfranchised, ill and imprisoned. With each performance he truly gave his listeners hope for the future. David Amram is a unique personality and artist, who has mastered more than 35 instruments, and has achieved fame as musician, singer, composer and conductor in the fields of jazz, symphonic classical music, world music, folk and blues, Hollywood and Broadway scores, African and Latin music. He is commonly referred to as the "Renaissance Man of American Music." Interestingly, his first live concert he witnessed in New York in 1945 was a Josh White concert. He subsequently became close friends and collaborators with Josh White, Jr., Odetta, Richie Havens, Nina Simone, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Taj Mahal, Betty Carter, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac, Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson and Guy Davis to name just a few. Last Fall, I was with him in Denver when he conducted the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in the live recording of his symphonic composition THIS LAND: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, and on the following day her performed a concert of Native American music in the day, and another concert that night with his jazz band and Josh White, Jr. as his special guest singer/guitarist. 

Photo: David Amram and Doug Yeager, June16, 2012         

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the Folk and continue to Jazz and Beat poetry?

If you look back to music charts in the 1940s, everything we now categorize as blues, country, folk and bluegrass were all labeled as "Folk Music" -- meaning music from the common folk. Any blues, jazz or country song that tells the story of the life of common folk is connected to the folk tree. Similarly, the jazz & poetry art form that Jack Kerouac and David Amram created in the 1950s, is connected to the talking blues songs of Woody Guthrie from the 1930s, to the African chants of 4,000 years ago, and to the rap music of today.  It all tells the story of common folk.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Blues world?

Guy Davis, who is a wonderful blues artist and actor, is also an equally great story-teller. He creates blues stories with songs that bring you right into the story and makes you believe you're experiencing a mini-movie. Some of the blues stories are very humorous. He is special.

Photo: Doug at Bitter End at Peter, Paul & Mary's 20th Anniversary, 1980

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go? And what from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I think I would want to take that trip and be in the time capsule with Josh White, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Odetta, Johnny Cash and Richie Havens, to learn all of their stories first hand and learn how they are all connected to each other personally, musically, historically and spiritually.   

 

 

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