You’re going to want to read this, because while remembering my dear friend and colleague with whom I worked closely at Columbia Records for many years, you will also read about what could be the wildest and greatest promotion move ever in the history of rock radio promotion. And because of this outrageous event, you will also read about the most out-of-this-world conversation (that Rocky had to have) with Jon Bon Jovi!
Rocky was a nickname given to Jim early on by a Little League baseball coach, long before Sylvester Stallone made the name famous in his movies. A bunch of us were told this by Rocky’s sister at his untimely funeral, which took place a few days before this writing.
Rocky lost his valiant battle with pancreatic cancer, which lasted a year and a half. At one point, he was in a special trial using a brand new drug, which was really kicking the sh*t out of the cancer — we all thought he had it beat but this type of cancer is insidious and it figured out another route to get him. Many of his friends didn’t even know he was sick, as he didn’t want the giant Facebook sympathy train running away out of control with sad faces.
Rocky was unbelievably brave and tough through the whole affair. He never once complained to me, was always upbeat, hopeful, and full of fight. Although 62 years of age he confided to me that he did not consider this a tragedy. Of course, he wanted to live as long as he could but he told me if it had happened ten years earlier he would have felt cheated — not now. At this point, although still concerned about the well-being of his wife Mary Beth, and his two daughters Julia and Jessica, he said that he had lived a most remarkable life — and indeed, he had!
There are a handful of special people in this world and Jim Del Balzo was one of them. So much of the music you have heard in your lifetime is due to his hard work as a promotion man for various record labels and the artists on those labels. Just to name a few careers that Rocky made a significant difference with, try these on for size: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, The Rolling Stones, Alice In Chains—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
He was a fun upbeat kind of guy but also tough and didn’t mince words. All the artists loved him because they knew how much he sincerely enjoyed their music, and he would always tell them the truth so they knew where they stood and what needed to be done to further their careers.
One of my favorite stories is Rocky in Randy Hoffman’s office (John Mellencamp’s manager— great guy, btw), talking to Mellencamp on a conference call. John can be notoriously moody and he’ll be the first guy to tell you so. Out of great respect we all treat John with kid gloves and advise our radio and TV friends to do the same. Sometimes artists will have ideas that seem good to them but because they are artists and not marketing people these ideas can be far fetched in the real world.
So John runs by some idea over the phone (I can’t remember what it was, but it was from that other planet that artists live on), and Del Balzo says, “John, you’re out of your f*cking mind!!” Hoffman turns twenty different colors, dripping with anxiety, and whispers to Rocky, “You CAN’T talk to him like THAT,” fearing the worst, as in John hanging up the phone (which I’ve seen him do). But Rocky had known John since his early career — John loved Rocky and moreover had great respect for his talent and for all the hard work that Rocky had done on his behalf over the years.
There is silence over the speakerphone while Hoffman continues to have shpilkes (Yiddish for impatience, agitation, and anxiety combined). Then, in a most mellow, laid back voice Mellencamp simply says, “Ok, then what do I do?” For Rocky, that’s a normal conversation with John and he continues to have a fruitful talk about how to deal with what’s at hand. Randy told me he’d never seen anyone talk to John Mellencamp that way, and NEVER did he ever see John respond so kindly and with keen attention waiting for an answer. But that’s just how special Jim Del Balzo was.
When I was head of the rock department for Columbia Records in the 1980’s, my original partner in crime, Jim McKeon (west coast based) was tapped by RCA to become their head of rock in New York. I needed a new partner and filling Jim’s shoes was not going to be easy, as Jim and I were quite the dynamic duo for a good seven years. I knew Del Balzo because he’d been the local promotion man in New York for Columbia before landing a great job at MTV. He was one of the very most talented promotion men I’d ever met and a tremendous people person which is what is required for the job.
Columbia Records was like a tight knit family then, in a Mafia kind of way (but we didn’t kill people). The President at the time, Al Teller had a rule: once you leave the family you can never come back. That gave pause to anyone who ever thought about leaving. The truth is most never did, because Columbia Records was such a great place to work and the artist roster was full of such amazing talent.
I went to Al and told him I wanted Rocky for the job. He said, “You know the rules.” I said, “Yeah, but this is the best guy out there.” I went back a second time about a week later and got the same response. Finally I went back a third time and said, “Look, this is Columbia Records, we are the best, I’M the best, and I NEED the BEST. Do you want second best, or THE BEST? Besides Al, Rocky didn’t leave for another label he went for a great job at MTV which was hard to turn down, and MTV is a media company, so ‘technically’ he didn’t stray to the enemy.” This technicality seemed to work as Al gave in and I am sure was never sorry he did.
This next part is a bit lengthy, but hang in and I guarantee you will be rewarded by an unbelievable story.
I need to take a moment to briefly explain the relationship between record companies and radio stations so you will fully understand the promotion move that Rocky and I were able to pull off.
The record companies give radio stations all of their music to play on the air. Of course, first it was vinyl albums and singles and then it was CDs (these days most music is sent digitally but CDs are still in use to some degree). The record labels also provide radio with extra CDs, and these days free downloads, for on-air giveaways, free tickets to artists’ appearances (sometimes front row seats) for giveaway as well, and also provide stations with their artists for special concert appearances, Christmas shows. and any other cool promotion they can think of (i.e. win a guitar lesson with Don Felder, meet David Gilmour backstage, win ZZ Top’s Eliminator hot rod, play paintball with Eddie Money… you’ve probably heard a lot of these on your local rock stations over the years).
The radio stations in return, play the labels’ hit music and also help the labels break new acts by giving them some spins during certain time slots to see if the music generates any phone calls or interest by the public. If it does, the station will increase the number of times they play a song, promotion people across the country will inform other radio stations about that success, and that’s how new artists break through being heard on the radio. In the 1980’s rock radio was the most popular format, sometimes even beating the Top 40 station’s ratings in their towns. It was the heyday for rock and anyone reading this can attest to that.
At Columbia we had an artist named Tommy Conwell and his band The Young Rumblers, out of Philadelphia (great music town). Our lead track to Rock Radio was a song called “I’m Not Your Man.” Tommy was a great performer, Springsteen-esque in that he’d jump off the stage and walk across the tables in a club, stuff like that. Rocky and I loved Tommy — this was authentic rock and he was a great kid.
We worked very hard getting radio excited about this new talent and were quite successful getting the song on the air. Although listener response was good, it wasn’t quite over the top and the song seemed to be what we call a mid-chart record, one that would not make it into the top 15 on the top 50 Airplay chart.
But Rocky and I had great relationships with rock radio programmers having done over-the-top promotions with them, like borrowing the Pink Floyd pig from said band during a new album release and having it float over their radio stations. We even once painted the KLOS FM offices in Los Angeles pink, flew the pig overhead, and had David Gilmour and Nick Mason do an interview from the roof. That got the attention of the whole city and made for a huge traffic jam as folks flocked to witness the event. When you do a few of those kinds if things for radio stations the program directors are quite happy to help you when breaking a new artist.
In those days FM Rock stations played their music in light, medium, and heavy categories. Heavy airplay was four spins a day, once in the morning, once mid-day, once in afternoon drive time, and once in the evening. Regardless of light listener response, our friends at radio were giving Tommy more medium and heavy spins each week. We talked them into heavier spins and hanging with the record for a few more weeks working it into the teens, top 10, and finally we got the record to number 5 on the rock chart. Everybody in the industry was taking note of this because honestly, “I’m Not Your Man” wasn’t really an organic top 5 record and the song and this brand new artist didn’t belong in a top 10 of rock radio mainstays like the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, etc.
Tommy Conwell and the Young Ramblers – “I’m Not Your Man”
Rocky and I are feeling our oats and getting ready to take a bow in the legendary weekly “Singles Meeting” at Columbia Records. This meeting lasts for three freaking hours as the President and top brass go over every single record on every single format of radio. The heads of each promotion department report on how their records are doing for the week and recite their plans to move forward for the next week.
Having done virtually the impossible, taking a record that wanted to die at number 22 on the chart to top 5, Rocky and I are beaming with pride, expecting Tommy Mottola, the then President, to tell us how great we are and then to decide the follow up single. Mottola looks at us and says, “GREAT job guys!” And then he says, “I want to cross this record over to the Top 40 format and I need it to go number 1 at rock radio.”
With every rock programmer dying to finally get rid of this record, having played it much longer than they normally would out of favors to Rocky and myself, we look at each other semi-panic stricken, thinking, “huh??” But when Tommy asks you to do something, you don’t tell him why it can’t happen, you figure out how to make it happen.
So we go back to Rocky’s office to discuss. “OK, genius,” I say, “What hell are we gonna to now? The freakin’ record shouldn’t even be top 5 and everyone wants to drop it off their playlists, or at least start backing it down this week!”
What transpired is what I believe to be the greatest promotion move in the history of rock radio promotion. I know that sounds egotistical, but I say it out of pride, not ego. And it also illustrates Rocky’s creative mind and how we worked together as team. Here’s what happened and you be the judge:
We figured out, math-wise, if we could get a whole bunch of radio stations to put the record in heavy rotation it would go number 1, just like any other record. But that amount of heavy rotations is most always given to the big hit records from hit artists, like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, ZZ Top, Springsteen, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, etc. But what if we asked all our friends in radio to take just one last ride with us, and play “I’m Not Your Man” in heavy rotation for only ONE day? And what if that day was the day that all the radio stations reported their airplay to the trade magazines—most notably “R&R” (Radio & Records magazine) who’s rock chart is the one all rock radio followed.
Report day was always Tuesday, and radio stations have to tell the truth about what records they are playing at that time, and in what rotation. So Rocky and I came up with a program that we called “Heavy For A Day.”
We started working the phones the very next day, and a typical conversation would go like this: “Hi it’s Rocky,” or “Hi, it’s Rap,” (my nick-name) we know that you are totally burned out playing the Tommy Conwell song but could you do us just one last little favor? For just ONE DAY, could you put “I’m Not Your Man” into heavy rotation? Just for one day, and then after that you can completely drop the record off your playlist, you don’t even have to back it down subtly if you don’t want.”
Programmer: “You mean all you want me to do is play Tommy Conwell in heavy for one day? Sure, that’s easy, I can do that. Is there any particular day you want me to do that?”
“Yeah, can you do it this coming Tuesday?”
“Sure, no problem.”
I swear, seventy percent of the programmers we talked to didn’t even know what we were doing, and they probably could not have cared less if they did.
As it turns out, that coming Monday (the most important call day to radio right before add and report day, Tuesday) was the Jewish High Holidays and I had to be in synagogue (talking to a higher authority). So Rocky had to make the bulk of the calls reminding stations to play Tommy in heavy rotation that next day. That’s a ton of work and a ton of asking. All I could do is sit in synagogue having a discussion with God. “Hi, look, I know I’m only supposed to talk to you about family and pray for things like good health and stuff, but if you happen to have a number one record up there and you’re not using it, Del Balzo and I sure could use it this week!”
Tuesday I came back, and by the afternoon checking the radio stations’ reports with R&R it looked like we were really going to pull this off. Then Rocky looking a bit wild-eyed said, “Oh man, I better call Bon Jovi!” Rocky and Jon were good friends at the time.
“Because he’s sitting at number 2 on the chart with his new hit song and he thinks he’s gonna go number one tomorrow.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea to call him?!”
“Well, he’s gonna be real upset either way, and I just think he’d appreciate a heads up.”
Then, I heard one of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever heard.
Rocky, “Hi Jon, Rocky here, hey listen I know you think you’re gonna go to number one tomorrow, but Tommy asked me and Rap to do something and we had to do it, so one of our records is going to kind of slide into that spot.”
I hear screaming on the other end of the phone, “WHAT??!!!!! Tommy told you to do WHAT?!! Hey man I have all the momentum I need to go number one tomorrow! What the hell are you talking about?? I AM GOING TO BE NUMBER ONE TOMORROW!”
“Well Jon, you’re kinda not,” (more screaming and now profane language blasting out of the phone). “Yeah, yeah, I know but it’s just something we had to do. But it’s OK, you can be number one next week.”
I looked at Rocky, “Did you just tell Bon Jovi when he CAN be number one?! I mean like, do we really have that much power??” And we both looked at each other in amazement because, I guess we did.
Sure enough, Wednesday morning the airplay chart comes out and Tommy Conwell, like a fastball, rockets from number five to number one! We did look like geniuses for that moment, but there was one thing we hadn’t considered. When a record makes an abhorrent jump like that, it shoves every other artist on the chart DOWN! Uh, oh…all the other labels and their artists who figured Tommy’s was the record that was going to slide have now all been pushed backwards on the chart! When records move backwards on the chart radio views them as over and they start to drop them from their playlists.
Our phones started ringing off the hook!! Promotion people from Warner Brothers, Electra, Atlantic, A&M, you name it, were all calling us up and screaming their guts out!
“WHAT THE HELL DID YOU TWO JUST DO?!!!!! WHO DID YOU PAY OFF??!!!! THAT’S ILLEGAL!!!!!! THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!! ALL OF OUR TEAMS ARE RUSHING TO CALL RADIO TO TELL THEM OUR RECORDS AREN’T OVER, IT’S JUST THAT THE CHART IS SCREWY THIS WEEK!! WHAT THE F*CK DID YOU DO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The whole rock part of the industry was going crazy. Then the managers of those other artists started calling. Whew! We took a lot of heat that day, but Mottola loved it and Rocky and I felt like we had accomplished the impossible.
That was my buddy and partner Jim “Rocky” Del Balzo. One of the greatest guys you could ever meet and also possessing one of the most creative minds in the music business.
So many of us will miss him, his humor, and his sharp wit.
God bless you Rocky.
Your pal forever,
© Paul Rappaport 2018