Remembering Casablanca Records

Masterminded by Neil Bogart, this label was full of MTV acts before MTV existed -- KISS, Donna Summer, Parliament and the Village People.

In summer 1975 record executive Neil Bogart had a serious problem. His Casablanca Records had KISS’s Alive due for release. It was the fourth album by his cartoony hard rock band and Bogart was determined to finally break the band. In addition Casablnca had a super sexy disco singer Donna Summer about to release an X-rated single called “Love To Love You Baby,” one he’d personally had extended for disco play. Parliament, who’s funkified records were building a huge audience, were preparing The Mothership Connection, which he planned to support with a enough tour money that the band could tour with its own spaceship.

It was all promising. One problem. Bogart and Casablanca were dead broke. His record distributor, Warner Bros. treated the label like a ball headed step child. Other possible funders wanted control of the company. To meet payroll and release new albums Bogart needed an influx of cash. His solution? A weekend trip to Las Vegas. A serious gambler, Bogart had lines of credit at major casino/hotels the Dunes, the Flamingo, the Golden Nugget, the Riviera and the Sands. So Bogart began checking into Vegas hotels for a night, while drawing cash on his line of credit. He didn’t gamble. Instead Bogart collected the cash and brought it back to Los Angeles to pay Casablanca’s many bills.

The fact Bogart wasn’t gambling with the casino’s money did not go unnoticed. Reckless moves made with underworld money is how people found themselves buried in the Nevada desert. Once Bogart’s scheme was discovered a very serious gentleman in Vegas advised to stop the ploy and quickly. Lucky for Bogart the ‘Kiss’ Alive’ album became an multi-platinum breakthrough,  allowing him to pay back the Vegas casinos and launch Donna Summer and Parliament into the pop stratosphere. Bogart’s Vegas line of credit disappeared but he’d saved Casablanca even as he risked his life.  This is just one of the stories that made Bogart a new entertainment industry legend.

The record business, during its 20th century glory days, was run by driven, creative, often times crazy and reckless businessmen. Most of the great executives were hustlers, really musical traveling salesmen who would have sold sand to the beach if the beach strolled into the wrong bar. One of the most colorful of these characters was Brooklyn native Neil Bogart. He founded Casablanca Records in 1973 and made it one the most legendary, and notorious, labels in music history.

Bogart learned the record business at New York’s Buddah Records in the 1960s after failing as a recording artist. In three years at Buddah Bogart rose from promotion man to label head. A talkative product of the Big Apple streets, Bogart spearheaded Buddah through two very different hitmaker periods. First, with the help of some savvy young record producers, the label popularized bubble gum pop, infectious, ear candy made by faceless ensembles (the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Ohio Express) that were adored by AM radio. Buddah also had great success turning soul music into pop hits with acts like the Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield and Glady Knight & the Pips.

With those successes under his belt Bogart relocated to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s, opened Casablanca and embraced two very divergent genres – hard rock and disco. These were musical movements that embraced decadence, sexual freedom, and ample drug use. These attributes weren’t limited to Casablanca’s music but could also be found in the label’s Sunset Boulevard offices, which became notorious for cocaine filled meetings and sexual hooks up between staff, artists and groupies. Bogart met his second wife at the office and, even after that marriage, his Los Angeles pad was known for sexual hijinks.

One of the key elements that separated Casablanca Records from other labels was Bogart’s visual sense. A full decade before MTV went on the air Casablanca was having hits with music video perfect acts. In the mid-70s Bogart mentioned to friends he had an idea for music television but, between running his label and getting involved in film production, the visionary impresario never got it off the ground. He’d been a supporter of a short-lived rock & roll television show called Flipside, but in the days before cable the show never got wide exposure.

Sadly, when MTV debuted in August 1981 Bogart wasn’t involved and, in fact, was quietly battling the cancer that would kill him in a year later. Through Bogart didn’t create music television, via Casablanca he gave a platform to slew of performers who foreshadowed the power of image in popular music, making his Casablanca roster MTV before MTV existed. Because Casablanca Records (which was named after the famed World War Ii movie romance) was a boutique operation, run very much based on Bogart’s instincts and whims, the signings bare the stamp of his unique POV.

It was Bogart who, on the recommendation of ex-Flipside producer Bill Aucoin, paid attention to a face painted, fire breathing rock band from Queens who called themselves KISS. Theatricality had been a huge part of rock & roll since the ‘50s, but KISS took stage craft to unprecedented heights. Kabuki make up, flatform shoes, fire breathing bass players and onstage explosions cemented Kiss as the most visual band in rock history, which is saying a lot.

KISS used a gay Asian West Village designer named Larry Legaspi to make their most iconic costumes. Out of his Moon Stone boutique, Legaspi made shiny, silvery costumes that helped theatrically in the ‘70s. KISS came into contact with Legaspi through another, equally outrageous Casablanca act – Parliament.

Bogart, bonded with and backed Parliament because of George Clinton, the chaotic, funk and science fiction obsessed leader of this black Grateful Dead, an ensemble who brought an audacious vision to black stage craft. Clinton conceived of an alien landing in arenas around America. With Casablanca’s money the mothership landed. ‘The Mothership Connection’ album sold millions of copies and Clinton’s band composed decades worth of sample friendly hits. Parliament’s music has fueled scores of hip hop classics, while Clinton’s on stage spaceship became so iconic its now on display at the Smithsonian Institute in D.C.

It was Bogart who heard a sexy single by an unknown black singer recorded in Germany and suggested extending the record for disco play. The record conveyed the cinematic sounds of sex so when Donna Summer finally arrived in America Bogart, along with his soon to be second wife Joyce, groomed the shy singer into the Queen of Disco, making Summer one of the rare acts from  the disco era to enjoy major hits after disco “died.”

If Summer was gay friendly then Bogart’s other major disco signing truly brought an undercover gay aesthetic into mall America. Led by straight singer Victor Willis and backed onstage by a slew of ass shaking gay dancers, the Village People had iconic hits (“Y.M.C.A.”, “Macho Man”) and brought the look of West Village bars into baseball stadiums and day-time TV.

From 1975 to 1979, led by these four visually stunning acts, Casablanca sold millions of records, shifted the musical culture in rock, funk and disco, bringing an animated, almost cartoonish, over the top sensibility to popular music that’s been much imitated and never duplicated. Bogart supported all four acts with exorbitant tour support, promotional videos and commercials and relentless showmanship that made each act “a brand” decades before the digital age.

Bogart envisioned Casablanca as a full-service entertainment company. He helped produce the hit movies, ‘The Deep’ and ‘Midnight Express,’ made a disco movie (‘Thank God Its Friday’) after the genre had peaked and got music on many soundtracks. But, unfortunately, Bogart’s appetite for spending, for drugs, and risking other peoples’ money caught up with him. One of his most notorious gambits was releasing solo albums on all four members of KISS on the same day in September 1978 and spent $2.5 million marketing each record. Severely overestimating the appetite of KISS fans, the effort lost millions. Later that year Bogart helped bank roll a KISS TV movie that premiered on NBC called ‘KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.’ Even the members of KISS hated the movie.

By 1980 Bogart, despite seven years of hits, had lost Casablanca because of his debts. Undaunted, Bogart started a new label Boardwalk and in 1981 had a major hit with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock n Roll.” But the relentless record man’s comeback was short lived. He’d been diagnosed with cancer and, on May 8, 1982, he died in Los Angeles. He was only thirty-nine years old.