David Libert – Interview

The title of David Libert’s autobiography, “Rock and Roll Warrior” or “My Misadventures with Alice Cooper, Prince, George Clinton, Living Colour, The Runaways, and more …” is a small clue of what’s to come in the autobiography of an extraordinary life by an extraordinary man. David Libert is talented in so many ways. He started his successful, gold-record music career in the 60’s by crafting complex harmonies for his band, “The Happenings”. Who doesn’t remember, “See You in September”, “Sealed With a Kiss”, “Go Away Little Girl”? David’s life takes an interesting turn when he transitions from performer to tour manager, personal manager and booking agent. One of the highlights of the book is his four year stint as tour manager for Alice Cooper. He talks about everything, including the time he tended to a sick snake while traveling around the world in Alice Cooper’s private airplane. Among other things, he established a life-long relationship with George Clinton, managed Shiela E. and globe-trotted on Prince’s “Purple Rain”, managed Parliament-Funkadelic, The Runaways, Bootsy Collins, and Living Colour, just to name a few. Libert’s book, “Rock and Roll Warrior”, is everything you expect it to be and more. It is an easy read, written with humor about rock and roll life on and off the road.

Interview by Maria Passannante-Derr. Photographs courtesy of David Libert.

Maria Passannante-Derr: Are you speaking to me from Yucca Valley?

David Libert: Yes, Yucca Valley, California in the southern California desert.

MP-D: What a great feeling it must be to walk into this room where you are now and look at all those platinum and gold records. Do you consider these records you greatest achievement?

DL: It is some kind of physical recognition of what my life has been, my life’s journey and the ups and downs. My life has been a bit of a roller coaster but I was able to land on my feet.

MP-D: What are your gold and platinum albums for?

DL: Some I produced, some I managed, a couple of them I was the artist. There are two gold singles here for the band I was in, that originally brought me into the music business, in the late 60’s, “The Happenings”. We had some big hit records, “ See You in September”, “Go Away Little Girl”. I went on to manage bands. A lot of these gold and platinum records were for different reasons depending on what function I played with the band either as manager, producer or booking agent.

MP-D: I wanted to start the interview by congratulating you on the release of “Rock and Roll Warrior”. How do you feel about the final product?

DL: As a fly on the wall with all these famous people that I’ve worked with, I wanted to be informative in that regard. I wanted it to be humorous because there’s a lot of humor in some of these things that went on. I wanted it to have a certain flow and be an easy read. I wanted it to be a fun read and I’m hopeful that I accomplish that.

MP-D: You certainly did. There is a good, consistent rhythm to the writing.

DL: I’m glad to hear you say that since that’s what I was trying to accomplish.

MP-D: I know that you were influenced by The Beach Boys, your Brill Building associates, Johnny Maestro, The Tokens and doo wop; and, that you have an affinity for tight, complex harmony. Do you have perfect pitch?

DL: No but I have the ability to play by ear. If I was familiar with the song I could simply sit down and play it on the piano as early as the age of six or seven. By the time I was eight or nine I could actually play the corresponding chords so I had that ability to play by ear any song I was familiar with in any key.

My parents suggested, not pressured, that I should take music lessons and develop that skill. I agreed with their stipulation that I wasn’t allowed to quit until they said so. By the time I was big enough to stand up and say “I’ve had enough” because all my friends were outside having fun, playing basketball and stickball and just having a good time, I was tethered to a keyboard. After eight years I simply had enough, but the damage was already done because I had all of this training under my belt. Thankfully, this was the education that enabled me to have a career in music, first as an artist and then as a business person.

MP-D: What was it like being tour manager for Alice Cooper ?

DL: It was an overwhelming task. I got hired that first night we were in Atlanta, Georgia. My first impression of everything was just a bunch of wild and crazy looking people crawling all over this gear and equipment like giant insects. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life taking this job. I had been the tour manager for Rare Earth, a nice easygoing cushy job. Oh my God, I gave that up for this insanity! I thought I made a huge mistake but as it turned out it was a great journey. After a few days I started to get the hang of it. I became an integral part of it all. I was able to travel all over the world with a great bunch of people and we had our own airplane everywhere we went. Alice Cooper was selling out arenas and stadiums all over the world. I had the greatest mentor in the music business, Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper’s manager. I would say that 99% of what I learned, was from him, so much so that I was able to have a successful career after Alice Cooper simply from everything that I had learned from Shep.

MP-D: Did the documentary about Shep live up to what you wrote about him?

DL: Yes and then some. Shep encouraged me to write the book and I’m glad that he did. He has been very supportive and he wrote a very nice thing on the back of the book, as did Alice Cooper, George Clinton, Cherie Currie and Bootsy Collins. In fact, Carmine Appice is in there somewhere. He said, “David Libert is a one-of-a-kind guy. We did great things together. He had a great life in the music industry.”

MP-D: Since you were a talented, celebrity for many years as a member of “The Happenings”, it’s hard for me to believe that you walked away from a successful career on stage as a performer. At one chapter, in your book, you said your show was an antiquated nightclub group and it was time for a change.

DL: A lot of people wonder how could you leave that to do this. It wasn’t a difficult decision. It got to a point that I started to have creative differences with “The Happenings”. They wanted to continue to be a nightclub act and a college attraction. They felt they could do that for the next 25 years.

I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to apply what we really did well, almost better than anybody, which was our ability to harmonize. I wanted to apply that harmony to more contemporary structures, what Crosby Stills and Nash were doing at that time. They would have none of it. They didn’t want to do that. I realized that the music business was changing. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, FM radio, a mostly unlistened to radio frequency ban, became the conduit for all of these new bands. I could see that the music was evolving as it always has and always will, so it was easy for me to leave.

Do I miss the creative aspects of being a performer/songwriter? Not really. I got my taste of what it was like to be on stage and to be a performer and an artist and I just felt that there was a far more enduring quality in the business end of the of the music for me. I had been the manager of “The Happenings” early on. I assumed all of those responsibilities which made me realize that I could manage other bands. I was sure that I could not be with “The Happenings” forever so the transition wasn’t difficult for me on an emotional level. Also, I didn’t completely leave the creative process out of my life. I produced records. I sang background on several of Alice Cooper’s recordings. I was still, to some degree, involved in the creative aspects just not in the limelight and not on stage which was fine with me. I already knew what it felt like to be behind the mic. It also gave me a certain insight and an ability to communicate with the artists that I represented because they knew that I knew what it felt like to be an artist and that was very helpful.

MP-D: Besides your appearance at the San Remo Musical Festival and your outrageous popularity in Brazil, you got involved with the Brighton Beach crowd and the songwriters in the Brill building, Johnny Maestro and The Tokens and doo- wop.

DL: We played the San Remo Music Festival and that was pretty cool. We went to San RemoItaly which is on the Italian Riviera. The record company made a deal to release “September”, in Italian. It was good business sense and they call it “Aria September”. It was the exact same recording as the “September”, in the United States except Bobby Miranda, our lead singer, re-recorded it by singing phonetically in Italian. It sounded good. It was pretty cool. On a night off, we drove two hours to Monte Carlo and ended up walking away from the gambling tables with a lot of money only to lose it, and then some, the following night at the San Remo casino. That was a great adventure. We went to Brazil where “The Happenings” were enormous. When we landed in Sao Paulo there were hundreds of screaming fans at the airport. We never experienced anything like this. We felt like The Beatles if only in Brazil and if only for a couple of weeks but that that was a really fun experience too.

MP-D: In your book, you detail many business and personal relationships along the way. In fact, you write an epilogue with all the important people in your career. What quality do you value most in your friends and who represented those qualities?

DL: I’ve had some of my friends for my entire life. Through the ups and downs of your life you find out who your friends are and the ones that really care for you. I’ve met a lot of people. I’m still very good friends with Alice Cooper. Whenever he does his show anywhere near LA or out here in the desert, I always get a phone call and get invited to the shows. Also Cherie Currie, from The Runaways which is amazing since so many years have gone by. I’m still friends with George and Bootsy. I’m glad because they were kind enough to say nice things on the back cover of my book and Carmine is one of my closest friends and we always get a kick out of seeing each other. He never gets tired of playing a joke on me, particularly at the very end of a sports game.

MP-D: What were you thinking when you astutely transitioned rock groups out of theaters and into arenas?

DL: Every city with a population of 100,000 or more has their own arena. Unless it’s the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s not a lot of money to be made with the local basketball or hockey team. Slowly they started to realize that a rock concert brought in a lot more money than the ticket sales and concessions. Arenas took their piece, hired the local promoter who would hire limo companies and caterers many of which these promoters own themselves. They hired security which was the local police. They started to realize that there was a lot of money to be had by hosting rock concerts in their facility. At first, they were apprehensive because rock n roll had a bad reputation. Alice Cooper was considered a messenger from hell in the beginning. They really thought that he bludgeoned puppies on stage and bit the heads off of pigeons.

Once they realized there was money to be made and that it was all handled very professionally, we came in, well organized and very professional and we didn’t set their arena on fire. At the end of the concert they were pleased and we would ask them for a reference letter and we would use those letters to appeal to other arenas to allow our concerts. Of course all arenas are very happy to have rock concerts in their venues these days.

MP-D: You represented a woman who I think is one of the most talented performers today, Sheila E.

DL: She is a great talent. Most people don’t know but besides being a great percussionist, she played several instruments. She was a great saxophone player. She was just an amazingly talented lady and it was my honor to be her manager for a while. That is what kindled my association with Prince. He was her friend and producer and she was the support act on Prince’s Purple Rain tour. That is where I got to meet Prince and everybody else. That was quite an adventure in itself .

MP-D: You say quite clearly in your book that Alice Cooper ruled out of love and Prince ruled out of fear; and, you gave what you believe was the psychological reason for it.

DL: He was strange.

MP-D: I interviewed someone who wrote a “tell all” book about an alleged affair with Prince. He didn’t do drugs. No alcohol. He just loved women, a real womanizer. What a shame that he should overdose.

DL: Isn’t that ironic and tragic. One of the salacious things I put in the book is that on the Purple Rain tour, he would videotape every show and invite a small circle of people to his hotel suite to watch the video. He would make comments and notes. He was very slowly but surely perfecting his show, tweaking it. People like him really don’t ad lib on stage. It’s all very well thought out. He was a strange guy in that he was socially awkward. It’s true, Alice Cooper ruled out of love. Everybody worked really hard for him because they didn’t want to let him down. They loved the guy. Prince did rule out of fear and he gave everybody a tough time.

Somehow, he was very nice to me. I think it was because I was a little bit older than everybody else in his circle and my association with George Clinton whom he idolized. I guess he didn’t want to come off looking like a jerk in front of me. It amazes me that he even cared but apparently he did. At these little after show get togethers, there were several girls in the room. Sheila was one; Appolonia, maybe three or four girls that you would associated with him. Towards the end of the evening, he would decide who he wanted to be with and Big Chic, his security guard would say that the evening is over and everybody have a pleasant evening. Prince would spend the evening in his bus with whomever he had selected. Let me tell you, Prince was not a fun guy. He just invited us to hang out.
I’m not sure he was a nympho, just girl crazy. Certainly for Prince there were plenty of girls willing to be with him but that was the only observation I made about Prince and women. Alice Cooper was a hilarious guy. He liked to have a good time. He was really fun to hang out with.

MP-D: Moving forward do you have any projects or future plans? Who was the last group who you managed?

DL: I am an animal rights activist which takes up a great deal of my time. The last major group that I managed was “Living Colour” a phenomenal group, maybe one of the best live bands that ever existed. They were wonderful. They were very intelligent, disciplined, politically astute guys and phenomenal musicians. They all had other projects outside of “Living Colour” I think just to satisfy their creative pallet. I can’t say that I’m retired because something always seems to pop up even though I moved from LA to just outside of Joshua Tree in the in the high desert of California.

I’m not supposed to talk about it but there seems to be a lot of interest in the movie industry about doing something with this book. I’m starting to get calls from people that are interested in being involved. My friend David Keith (“An Officer and a Gentlemen”) wants to play Shep Gordon so we’ll see where that goes. That probably will be the last milestone in my career. I’m going to be 80 on January 20th so I’m not ready to go out and set the world on fire. I like living with Angie and our three rescue dogs and finding homes for other strays, abused and fostered dogs. That takes up a lot of time. For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying living a rather leisurely lifestyle. I still play the piano almost every day. I do a lot of reading. I love the quiet environment out here. However, I’m constantly inundated with people who either want me to manage them or produce them or hire me as a consultant or pay me to pick my brain. I turn almost everything down unless it sounds like it might be interesting, fun or involve a little money.

I’m just happy and blessed with everything that’s gone on in my life, the good as well as the bad. Somehow, either through pure dumb luck or by the grace of God, I landed on my feet and I’m still alive, in one piece and relatively happy.

MP-D: One more question. What advice would you give your younger David today knowing what you know and having gone through all that you’ve gone through?

DL: I would say whatever decisions you make, think about the consequences or what the results may be. If you’re going to make a decision like pursuing your dreams, be relentless, never give up. Don’t ever quit and you may be able to realize those dreams. If you’re going to do something like selling drugs, you could end up going to prison, so you may want to rethink that decision.

I’ve made great decisions in my life. I’ve taken some risks that are healthy and I’ve made some bad decisions in my life that resulted in me suffering consequences. The good and the bad, even the bad were chapters in my life and I suppose they deserved to be chapters in the book if I was going to truthfully tell my entire story. Anybody who reads the book will realize that life is a series of crossroads. Make sure you take the right turn for the right reasons.