Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum: Bonnie Garner

November 16, 2010
In her long and distinguished career in the entertainment business, Bonnie Garner made sure the spotlight was on the artists, not on her. Turning the tables, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum honored the former record executive and artist manager during the fourth annual Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, on November 16, 2010.

"Bonnie Garner deserves the spotlight, whether she likes it or not," said museum staff member and program host Michael McCall, before welcoming her to the Ford Theater stage.

The forum honors a music industry leader who represents the legacy of pioneer Louise Scruggs, the late wife of Country Music Hall of Fame member Earl Scruggs and the first woman in country music to take on roles as a booker and manager.

Garner learned the ropes in the 1960s and '70s, working with legendary business figures Hugh Hefner, Dick Cavett, Bill Graham, Clive Davis, and John Hammond, mostly by handling television bookings, concert promotion, and record label A&R duties (shepherding artists through the recording process).

By the 1980s she had become an executive on Music Row, a rare feat for a woman at the time. Garner climbed to vice president at CBS Records before concentrating on artist management, where she helped guide the careers of Emmylou Harris, the Highwaymen, Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart, and other country stars.

Interviewed in front of an audience that included Earl Scruggs and his sons Gary and Randy, Garner talked about meeting the Scruggs family for the first time, in the late 1960s, and how impressed she was with Louise's business acumen. The Earl Scruggs Revue played a series of shows at the hungry i in San Francisco when Garner worked at the famed venue early in her career. Club owner Enrico Banducci and agent Irvin Arthur wanted to make last-minute changes to the contract and went into their meeting with Louise expecting to walk over the "wife and manger" of this "hillbilly group." "They're doing all of their fancy footwork," Garner recalled. "They get done, and Louise just looked at them and said, 'No' ... and brought out the contract and showed them exactly what they had promised and what they were going to do. She was very sweet and nice about it. Didn't argue. Just said, 'That's it. We'll see you at show time tonight.' They just did not know what hit them. I thought, 'Yes, that's my kind of woman.'"

Similar to the way she picked up pointers from Louise, Garner watched and learned from some of the best minds in the entertainment business. Open-minded and inquisitive, she didn't waste opportunities to learn from her mentors.

"I wasn't afraid to ask questions," she explained. "If I didn't understand something, I'd ask. I didn't pretend to know something I didn't."

A recurring theme was the way Garner influenced her own destiny. "If an opportunity presented itself, I took it," she said of decisions that moved her from coast to coast before she settled in Nashville. "Everything I owned I could put into a couple of suitcases. You just go, you learn, and you do. I did not want to be bored."

McCall led Garner through her life and career, beginning with her childhood in Milwaukee and southern Illinois, illustrating the program with photographs and video clips.

Her first job out of college prepared her for the music business, Garner said. She told a story of working at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago, where a delivery man surprised her by asking, "Hey, lady, what should I do with the elephant?"

"I was the only female in the main lobby of the world's largest and friendliest hotel," Garner said. "Everyone who had a problem wanted to see the manager. They don't see the manager; they see the assistant manager. And before that, they saw me. A convention had booked an elephant, but they neglected to tell us, and so this man literally had a baby elephant on Michigan Avenue.

 "I got used to dealing with all kinds of things," Garner said. Her experience would serve her well later, when she managed artists.

Garner lasted about six months in the hotel industry before joining Hefner's staff in Chicago in the mid-1960s.

Later, Garner moved to Los Angeles, where she worked on Hefner's syndicated TV show, Playboy after Dark. There she booked the Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, and other cutting-edge acts that appealed to younger audiences. McCall rolled a video clip of Ike and Tina Turner's high-octane performance of Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher." The performance was Hefner's introduction to Tina Turner and her energetic stage antics. "I thought he was going to bite his pipe in half," Garner joked.
In a career move that brought her to New York, Garner joined ABC-TV's Dick Cavett Show. She worked on budgets and contracts until the show's host began seeking her advice about on-air talent. "Cavett called me one day and said he wanted some blues. He said his show was really white and mayonnaise, and he wanted some blues performers and some rock and some other things. He asked if I would basically help with that and make some suggestions. I booked John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Jefferson Airplane, James Taylor, and Janis Joplin."

Garner also secured Black Panther Donald Cox, Delaney and Bonnie, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix. After a clip of Hendrix on Cavett's show, Garner recalled that the host was a nervous wreck about interviewing the guitarist. "He wanted people like that on the show, but he thought they were so hip, and he felt he was just too midwestern." Garner also mentioned that Hendrix sang Hank Williams songs to her in the limo on the way to the set.

The Cavett show led to a job with legendary concert promoter Bill Graham at the Fillmore East concert hall shortly before it closed in 1971. "Bill was meticulous," she said. "One of the things he taught me is that you take care of the artists, they are absolutely the most important."

Kip Cohen, who had worked with Garner at the Fillmore, invited her to join his A&R staff at CBS/Columbia Records, making her the only female A&R executive in the label's New York pop department. During her tenure there, Garner witnessed Bruce Springsteen's first audition for the label and worked with Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel, REO Speedwagon, and many other acts. Her bosses and colleagues included Clive Davis, John Hammond, Teo Macero, and Walter Yetnikoff, legendary music business figures to whom Garner appreciated having access in her continued quest to learn the tricks of the trade.

Garner moved to Columbia's Nashville office in 1973, at a time when the label's roster included Johnny Cash, George Jones, Marty Robbins, and other country legends.   In Music City, she began working side-by-side with another group of talented producers and businessmen, including Billy Sherrill, Glenn Sutton, Bob Beckham, and Jimmy Bowen. "They really took me under their wing, really helped me," she said.

"There weren't a lot of women in executive positions," Garner added later. "But I was so busy ... if there was a glass ceiling, I wasn't aware of it."

Garner played a key role in Willie Nelson's success at Columbia, helping him get signed and taking on his A&R duties during the period he was releasing Stardust and other classic albums. She also spoke of laboring behind the scenes on the Earl Scruggs Revue's star-studded album Anniversary Special.

After fifteen years with CBS/Columbia, Garner left in 1987 to go into artist management, partnering with industry veteran Mark Rothbaum before striking out on her own. She guided the careers of several top country acts and served as tour manager for the Highwaymen, the super group formed by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson.

In 2002, Garner received a Grammy for co-producing Timeless, a tribute to Hank Williams. She retired from the music industry in 2007 and now mostly devotes her time to working with animals and volunteering for charity organizations.

"It was exciting," she said of her years in the record business, "and I got to be a little part of some incredible, incredible music."

Michael Gray