Stalking the Red Headed Stranger, or How to Get Your Songs into the Hands of Artists Who Really Matter Through Show Business Trickery, Underhanded Skullduggery, Shrewdness, and Chicanery, as Well as Various Less Nefarious Methods of Song Plugging: A Practical Handbook and Historical Portrait By Randy Poe 276 pp., $19.99, www.halleonardbooks.com
Books about the music industry can often be as dry and tedious as plowing through as the Excel sheet from an accountant trying to screw artists out of royalties. Likewise, you may find your mind wandering a bit before you finish reading this one's full title.
But inside these covers, music executive/author Randy Poe (Skydog: The Duane Allman Story) has written an insightful, worthy, and really, really funny book that's part business primer, part memoir and part hunting travelogue.
Much of the book is about the art and skill of song-plugging. That is, when a songwriter or record company exec attempts to get an artist to record their tune or a director to include it on a soundtrack. At Poe's day gig as the President of Leiber and Stoller Music, his job is to get as much exposure for tunes written by or controlled by the company -- including "Stand By Me," "Kansas City," "Chapel of Love," "Hound Dog," and "Love Potion #9."
So when Jerry Leiber gives Poe the no-getting-out-of-it task of getting a Leiber/Stoller song previously recorded by Frank Sinatra to Willie in person -- Leiber mistakenly assumes that the two are friends because of a few photos of them together -- Poe has to work all his cumulatively learned magic to try and make it happen.
The history and art of song-plugging -- as well as the colorful characters from its history -- make for great reading. And while the days of a plugger carrying around sheet music or cassette demos are over, and many acts write their own material, it's still very much alive.
Much of the advice Poe offers about song-plugging is also applicable to... well... any career or ambition. I particularly appreciated his disdain for the term "networking"; Poe calls it "relationship building."
Poe also details his career in the music industry, from landing in New York City with $275 and studying library copies of Billboard and early jobs to heading the Songwriters Hall of Fame and finally with LS. There's a particularly funny anecdote about a persistent Bob Dylan wanting and getting his picture taken with Dinah Shore at an awards ceremony -- simply so he could prove to his mother that he had "really made it."
The chapters featuring Willie and his family, of course, are worth the price of the book alone, especially when Poe takes a few tokes of the legendarily potent "Willie Weed" and can barely stand up. He also gives a primer on Willie's life and career, which is in itself is a testament to perseverance when you realize that Nelson did not score a major album hit until the release of the one in this book's title... his 18th long-playing effort...
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Stalking the Red Headed Stranger is an immensely enjoyable read from a master raconteur, and the rare "business advice" book that reads more like a great novel.
I won't say what the end result of Poe's 8,000-mile journey is, or if Willie Nelson has yet to record the song in question. But given the amount of music that the 79-year-old still pumps out every year... it might be just around the corner.