Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum: Mary Martin

November 17, 2009
Mary Martin stepped from the backstage green room to take a seat in the front row of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater just moments before the start of the third annual Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, in which a veteran female music executive is honored for her indelible impact on Nashville and American music. Upon seeing her, the audience rose in a spontaneous standing ovation for Martin, the night’s honoree. The packed crowd didn’t want to wait for a formal introduction to express their love and respect for the former record executive and talent manager.

Jay Orr, a museum staff member who hosted the program, listed a few of Martin’s important achievements in his introduction. “She played a key role in connecting Bob Dylan with the Band; she managed Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Rodney Crowell, and Vince Gill at crucial stages of their careers; she signed Emmylou Harris to Warner Bros. Records at the outset of her illustrious Hall of Fame run. Then Mary came to Nashville where she touched lives inside and outside the music business.”

The Ford Theater’s audience reflected Martin’s enormous reach and impact: The crowd included Country Music Hall of Fame members; past and present record company presidents and high-ranking executives; scores of record producers, musicians, songwriters, and artists; a former NFL pro football player; and a wide array of music industry insiders ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s. Many of them were mentioned by name as Martin told colorful stories from her career.

As much as she has accomplished, the crowd clearly came to celebrate Martin’s reputation for being outspoken, passionate, and engagingly eccentric. When Orr described her as “a straight talker,” many in the room laughed out loud and even cheered. When Martin held off using one of her favorite obscenities until ninety minutes into the program, the audience cheered once again. When actress Elizabeth Ashley, speaking on a taped video interview screened during the program, recalled a story about Martin decking an obnoxious patron in a New York nightclub with a left hook, the laughter was thunderous.

While Martin’s importance to American music history cannot be overstated, it is her unique personality and unrestrained manner that have made her such a beloved behind-the-scenes legend in music industry circles from coast to coast.

Ashley, who met Martin in New York in 1971, emphasized that Martin’s forceful personality is key to understanding why people love her and pay attention to her. “Mary was eccentric and beautiful and funny and smart and generous and take-no-prisoners and difficult and complicated, and I just adored her,” Ashley said. “I know of no one who has brought more adventure into my life.”

In an interview that lasted nearly two hours, Orr led Martin through her life and career, beginning with her childhood in Toronto, Canada. Her family wasn’t musical, but they listened to classical music and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. After a short stint at the University of British Columbia—“I was a bad student,” Martin said—she started spending more time on the folk-music scene in Toronto.

After a relationship with a folk singer ended, she went to stay with two friends in New York City with sixty dollars in her pocket. Through one of her friends, she took a job as a receptionist in the office of Albert Grossman, the famed manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Gordon Lightfoot, Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

“Working for Albert Grossman, in those days, it didn’t matter how menial the task was,” Martin said. “It was that we were surrounded and enveloped by all these great artists.”

To improve her office skills, Martin returned to Toronto to study typing and speed writing (which she preferred to shorthand). There, she saw the Hawks—who would later become known as the Band—and, with some friends, acted like “groupies,” she said. “They were a really mature and loving and dedicated bunch of boys who loved the music they were doing, and they executed it with passion. I would swoon when Richard (Manuel) would sing a Ray Charles song. I think we all would swoon.”

One night while she and her friends hung out with the members of the Hawks—Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Manuel, and Robbie Robertson—Martin played them Dylan’s 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home (the cat, Lord Growin’, featured on that classic album cover later became Martin’s pet). “We taught them about Bob Dylan, and they taught us about the real value of Abyssinian Baptist Choir,” she said. “That seemed like really good sharing of music.”

Back in New York and working for Grossman again, Martin helped share in a similar revelation with Dylan. She remembers sitting in Grossman’s office with the singer-songwriter as he listened to the Byrds’ version of his song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and the impact the full-band arrangement had on him. Knowing Dylan wanted to move toward playing with a band as well, Martin offered some advice.

“Never being shy about very much, I suggested to him that it would be a good idea to check out these boys in the bars of Toronto,” she said. Bluesman John Hammond Jr., who often played in Toronto and knew of the Hawks, “validated that I wasn’t crazy.”

Martin attended the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, where Dylan introduced his electric band, with Michael Bloomfield on guitar. Asked what she recalled of the festival, Martin said, “The boos. They were extensive and loud. They were very loud.”

For his next shows, at Forest Hills in New York and at the Hollywood Bowl, Dylan hired the Hawks’ drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson. By his fourth electric show, at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Dylan was backed by the entire Hawks lineup. The program included a video clip culled from a documentary where Helm credited Martin for connecting Dylan to the Band

“I think the splendid heart of the Band was Levon,” Martin said. Helm eventually told Dylan that he had to hire the whole band or none of them, so Dylan started playing in front of what had been the Hawks—the name was changed to the Band after Dylan hired them.  By Carnegie Hall, the boos had stopped.

“It was just a resounding standing ovation,” Martin said. “I remember going to Dylan and saying, ‘Well done’ and ‘Hurray for you,’ because all he really wanted to do was continue to get his music out in a new form, because that’s what artists do. But he had this wonderful smile. I’ve never seen him smile like this before. There were crinkles by his eyes that were crinkles of joy. It was fabulous. After that, they were off to the races.”

From her years working with Grossman, Martin said she learned what good managers do for artists. “A manager’s main mission was to provide an audience for his or her client, and providing an audience could be a publishing company, booking agents, press people—all the proponents that you could find to put your artist in a position of being recognized. I think I have done that as passionately and as honestly as I could. Then one has to let go.”

In 1966, Martin began managing Leonard Cohen, a successful poet in Canada who wanted make records. She helped Cohen create a demo tape by having him sing in the empty bathtub of her home, making use of the natural acoustics, with a tape recorder in the room with him. Martin helped Cohen sign with Columbia Records, and also introduced him to Judy Collins, the first singer to have success recording with Cohen’s tunes.

As an example of how fiercely protective Martin could be of Cohen’s songs, she recalled a story about hearing that Joan Baez had been performing “Suzanne,” a song first recorded by Collins. Only Baez changed some of the lyrics when she performed the song. Martin sent her a terse letter demanding she stop changing the song, explaining, “I don’t think you would take another brush to Andrew Wyeth and his paintings. Therefore, do not alter Leonard Cohen’s poetry.”

About the time she stopped managing Cohen, the Band’s Richard Manuel suggested to Van Morrison that Martin would be a good manager for him. She did not know much about Morrison’s music before he approached her, but she said, “With Moondance, I was blown away.” She talked of his reluctance to tour and admitted that he could be “difficult,” but was quick to add that when his concerts clicked, it could be transcendent. “The hairs on your arms would appear and you would be so swept into it,” she said. “It was very powerful, wonderful music.”

Martin also helped Morrison free himself from what she described as a contract “that was as close to slavery as I’ve ever seen.” Not long after she helped him greatly improve his situation, Morrison told her he didn’t have money for her. So she sent him a telegram that simply said, “I quit.”

After moving back to Toronto, Martin met producer Brian Ahern, who was producing Anne Murray, a fortuitous friendship that would lead to Ahern producing (and later marrying) Emmylou Harris. Martin won Ahern’s trust when she recommended Murray record “Danny’s Song,” a Loggins & Messina tune that would become a major hit for Murray.

When Martin was robbed four times in Toronto, she decided it was time to move again.  She accepted a job as East Coast director of A&R for Warner Bros., working from the New York office. She talked about the artists she wanted to sign that Warner Bros. passed on, including Bruce Springsteen (“too East Coast,” she was told) and Jimmy Buffett (just before he recorded “Margaritaville.”)  

But she did find out about Harris, and she brought Ahern to see her perform at the Red Fox Inn in Maryland. Ahern’s interest in working with Harris helped Martin get Harris signed to Warner Bros. “She has taken us all on musical journeys, and I adore Emmylou Harris,” Martin said. “I’m very proud of how she is and how she’s grown.”

Martin discussed how she thought Harris should be marketed as a country singer, but other Warner Bros. executives disagreed. A Warner’s executive warned Martin and the label’s country promoters not to push her songs at country radio. But the promoter, and promoters from other record companies, loved Harris and believed she belonged on country radio. So they worked secretly to introduce her to country radio, which eventually embraced her and helped spread exposure of her music.

In her job capacity, Martin also saw several rock bands, including the New York Dolls and the Ramones. She regrets not bringing Tom Verlaine’s band Television to Warner Bros.

Martin and Orr also talked of her impassioned interest in sports, especially football, and her longtime friendship with football stars such as former Buffalo Bills lineman Pat Toomay and Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. She set up Toomay, a writer, to do a Rolling Stone article on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue.

Martin moved to Los Angeles at the end of her Warner Bros. tenure, and after leaving the label, she began managing Rodney Crowell. She helped Crowell as he developed into a top record producer as well as a solo artist and a touring bandleader fronting his famous Cherrybombs band. “The music that Rodney made, and the music he continues to make, really does make my heart go bomp,” she said.

In 1983, Crowell decided to change managers, so Martin asked if she could work with Cherrybombs guitarist Vince Gill. She convinced Joe Galante of RCA Records to sign Gill to a country recording contract. As the future Country Music Hall of Fame member started releasing albums on RCA, Galante also offered an A&R position to Martin. She took the RCA job, but eventually realized she needed to let Gill change managers so she wouldn’t be perceived as unethical. “Now Vince has been with Larry Fitzgerald for over 25 years,” Martin said of Gill’s partnership with his long-running manager. “They are as good as it gets, as far as seeing an artist grow and make his branches strong.”

At RCA, Martin signed singer-songwriters Matraca Berg and Mark Germino, continuing her support of the Nashville songwriting community. She also suggested RCA put out albums, under the title Signatures, compiling cuts by successful songwriters. Her ability to detect talent and put them with the right song can be heard in the hit singles of some of the artists she worked with at RCA. Orr offered a sampling by playing Lorrie Morgan’s “Something in Red,” Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got to Stand for Something,” and Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”

Orr also showed a video clip from a press conference at the Country Music Hall of Fame earlier this year where country star Keith Urban revealed that Martin’s encouragement gave him the nerve to move from Australia to Nashville to seek a career in country music.

Martin also talked of a life-changing event in 1992 that occurred in Nashville shortly after she left RCA Records. “I was raped,” she said bluntly. “In all of my understandings about this, the only way you survive is you talk about it.”

She spoke of working with the police and the district attorney’s office in arresting and prosecuting the stranger who committed the violent attack. Martin also talked of the organization You Have the Power, founded by Andrea Conte, the First Lady of Tennessee. Through the organization, Martin regularly talks to women in prison about her experiences with rape and surviving a violent crime.

Martin touched on her recent work, from consulting with Asylum Records in the 1990s to going to work in 2001 with Mercury Records, where she won a Grammy for Country Album of the Year co-producing Timeless, a multi-artist tribute to Hank Williams.

As Orr acknowledged, Martin has been widely honored: She won a Grammy in 2002 for co-producing Timeless; the Americana Music Association’s Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007; and SOURCE, a Nashville women’s music industry group, gave her a lifetime achievement award, also in 2007. The Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum was happy to add its name to that list, Orr said.

The nearly two-hour program ended as it began: With the entire crowd on its feet, applauding and cheering a music industry hero: not because of her successes, but because of her personality and her passionate support of music that matters to her.

—Michael McCall

Learn more about the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum and its other honorees here