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Earl McGrath Was a Character. His Closet Was Filled With Rare Recordings.


An outsize character, Earl McGrath had variously worked as a record company head, film executive, screenwriter and art dealer before he died in early 2016 at age 84. Afterward, the contents of his Midtown Manhattan apartment were fastidiously cataloged and valued. His art collection, including prized works given to him by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and Ed Moses, was sent to auction at Christie’s. His papers, containing correspondence with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Stephen Spender, were donated to the Recent York Public Library’s archives.

However the boxes stored at the highest of McGrath’s large walk-in closet — stuffed with old reels of recordings — were largely missed. They were about to be sold blind to a record wholesaler when the journalist Joe Hagan stepped in.

Hagan had been researching “Sticky Fingers,” his biography of the Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, when he stumbled upon McGrath. “Little known outside a rarefied ’70s jet set of rock ’n’ rollers, movie stars, socialites and European dilettantes,” Hagan would write, “his name was once a secret handshake.”

Rummaging through McGrath’s closet within the spring of 2017, the primary tape Hagan discovered was an unedited master copy of the Rolling Stones’ 1978 album, “Some Girls.”

“I immediately broke right into a cold sweat,” Hagan said in a phone interview. He also found rare and unreleased recordings from Hall & Oates, the Recent York Dolls’ David Johansen, Terry Allen and the Jim Carroll Band. “It was like peeking through a keyhole in time. I assumed, This can be a real treasure trove — wouldn’t it’s great if people could hear these things?”

After purchasing the roughly 200 tapes from the McGrath estate, Hagan spent several years researching and compiling the fabric, together with a co-producer, Pat Thomas. This week, “Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath, 1970-1980” might be released by the reissue label Light within the Attic. Its 22 tracks feature material collected by McGrath during his years as an Atlantic Records executive, where he operated his own imprint, Clean, before he later ran the Rolling Stones’ label.

Moving musically and geographically through the Nineteen Seventies, from California country-rock to Recent York post-punk, “Earl’s Closet” is a fittingly eclectic sampler that places the hillbilly soul of Delbert & Glen alongside the surrealist warbling of the Warhol “superstar” Ultra Violet.

“I wanted the record to capture Earl’s spirit,” Hagan said. “He’s really the muse of the entire thing. It’s almost like being at a celebration at Earl’s house: You don’t know who you’re going to satisfy.”

To that end, the gathering’s through line is McGrath’s role as an exuberant social connector.

“In the event you were so as to add up Earl’s achievements when it comes to record making or art sales, that wasn’t who he was,” Jann Wenner said in an interview. “He thrived on his friendships. He loved talented people, interesting people — and his range of acquaintances were remarkable, literally from Zen masters to Z Listers.”

In an email, the Rolling Stones’s Mick Jagger remembered McGrath as a “joker,” who “knew everybody in Recent York and beyond and was a number of fun to be with.”

McGrath introduced the actress Anjelica Huston to her husband, the sculptor Robert Graham, who died in 2008. “He was funny,” Huston said of McGrath. “He was daring. In his own way, Earl, he was the glue that held a number of people together.”

McGRATH’S HUMBLE CHILDHOOD within the Midwest was removed from the A-list world he would navigate so easily as an adult, but he could spin it right into a more stately tale.

“In the event you asked Earl, ‘Where are you from?’” the artist Ed Ruscha said, “He’d say, ‘I’m from Superior — after all — Wisconsin. And I lived on Grand — naturally — Avenue.’ That’s the best way he talked.”

McGrath’s blithe manner belied the troubled home life he endured as a youth, which included physical abuse by the hands of his father. “He would get drunk and beat him,” said Valerie Grace Ricordi, a family friend who now serves as executive director of the McGrath family foundation. “Earl never understood what he’d done mistaken in his father’s eyes.” In accordance with interviews with several of McGrath’s friends and biographical details included in Hagan’s liner notes and an essay in a 2020 photo book, at age 14, after his father broke his arm, McGrath left home for good — moving into an area YMCA and supporting himself as a dishwasher until he could get out of town.

Largely self-educated, McGrath found solace devouring literature, poetry and philosophy, and got here to see himself as a Proustian character. Transforming from dishwasher to aesthete, as a young man McGrath evinced the qualities that might carry him through life: a disarming humorousness and an uncanny ability to befriend the aesthetic, the famous and the rich.

In between stints as a merchant seaman, McGrath drifted out to California, corresponding and visiting with Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles and Henry Miller in Big Sur. He also developed an unlikely friendship with the English poet W.H. Auden, who would offer introductions for McGrath when he moved within the early ’50s to Recent York City, where he fell in with a full of life crowd that included the author Frank O’Hara and the pop art godfather Larry Rivers.

In 1958, the 27-year-old McGrath began working as an assistant to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, helping organize the inaugural Spoleto Festival in Umbria, Italy. There, he struck up an unlikely romance with an heiress, Camilla Pecci Blunt, the daughter of a Florentine marchesa and an American financier. The couple married in 1963 against the needs of her family, and while they endured long stretches of physical separation in subsequent a long time, he remained committed to their union.

One in every of his next moves was to Los Angeles, where McGrath found his way into the movie business and developed a good social circle of Hollywood literati, including Joan Didion, who dedicated her 1979 essay collection, “The White Album,” to McGrath. The author Eve Babitz’s biographer, Lili Anolik, said McGrath “was probably the most influential and damaging people in her life,” explaining how Babitz was working as a nice artist and album designer within the early ’70s when McGrath offhandedly questioned one in every of her color selections. Her confidence shot, “she switched her focus to writing,” Anolik said. “So, we, the culture, owe Earl big in a way.”

BUT McGRATH MADE perhaps his biggest impact with Atlantic Records.

When he met the label’s co-founder Ahmet Ertegun within the early ’60s, the 2 sparked an instantaneous friendship. “Earl made him laugh,” Hagan said. “Ahmet really just loved having him around.” McGrath’s European society connections also helped Ertegun impress Mick Jagger, who brought the Rolling Stones into the Atlantic fold in 1971.

That very same yr, Ertegun — together with Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton — decided to back McGrath and provides him his own Atlantic-distributed label, Clean Records (the corporate motto: “Every man must have a Clean record”). McGrath’s West Hollywood home became Clean’s headquarters, where he’d often throw parties — attended by a combination of Cool School artists, Old Hollywood grandees and Recent Journalism figures — in lieu of A&R meetings.

“He’d have these afternoon soirees where there’d be some 18-year-old musician on the sting of OD’ing in a single room, and out of doors Joseph Cotten and Patricia Medina can be strolling through the lawn,” said the Texas singer-songwriter Terry Allen, among the many first artists McGrath signed. “You never knew what was going to occur once you went to Earl’s.”

One in every of the groups that McGrath discovered was a fledgling folk-soul duo from Philadelphia, Daryl Hall and John Oates, who had been struggling to seek out a record deal when their music publisher flew them out to satisfy McGrath in 1972.

“There was all these interesting people hanging out,” Hall remembered in an interview. “One in every of the Everly Brothers was there and I believe a young Harrison Ford, too.” They played McGrath a couple of songs. “Next thing we knew, we were signed.”

The history of Clean Records might need turned out quite otherwise had Hall & Oates actually recorded for the corporate. Ertegun, sensing the duo’s hit potential, snatched them from McGrath and put them on Atlantic proper, where they sold tens of millions of records. Clean, meanwhile, would release only a handful of poorly selling titles before ceasing operations in 1973.

Moving to Recent York within the early ’70s, McGrath became an omnipresent figure on the town’s pre-punk scene. “I used to see him in every single place,” said Johansen, the Recent York Dolls singer whose earliest solo work appears on “Earl’s Closet.” “Funny thing is, I didn’t know Earl as a music business guy — it was just one in every of the things he did.”

McGrath’s real passion was bringing together his many fabulous friends. The McGraths’ West 57th Street apartment, opposite Carnegie Hall, would develop into the positioning of limitless dinners and parties attended by a cross-section of cultural giants: where the forged of “Star Wars” might run into Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg; where the poet-turned-songwriter Jim Carroll mingled with the silent-film-era pioneer Anita Loos; and where Jagger first laid eyes on his future partner Jerry Hall. (The gatherings were often photographed by Camilla McGrath, with a set of the photos published in a 2020 book from Knopf, “Face to Face.”)

In 1977, the Rolling Stones were searching for someone to run their record label, replacing the longtime company head Marshall Chess. With Ertegun’s backing, McGrath lobbied for the gig in a letter to Jagger, admitting that he hadn’t been very successful within the music business, but “I used to be successful enough to marry a princess in Italy.” He got the job.

“He was a really unusual selection to run a record company,” Jagger said. “But he had an important flair.”

Various the artists represented on “Earl’s Closet” are acts McGrath considered for the Stones label — including the Detroit saxophonist Norma Jean Bell and the Texas soul combo Little Whisper and the Rumors — but whose signings never got here to fruition. “Earl was good at recognizing talent, but he wasn’t much for following through,” Hagan said.

McGrath’s tenure did ultimately produce some successes: He negotiated a deal to bring the acclaimed reggae star Peter Tosh to the label in 1978, and a yr later, he signed Carroll. Carroll, who died in 2009, noted in a 1981 interview with Musician magazine that McGrath was an anomaly within the music business. “He understood thoroughly what I used to be doing,” Carroll said then. “He had some literary references that no other record executive would’ve had.”

After a couple of years within the Stones’ employ, McGrath found himself caught in the course of the increasingly fractious relationship between Jagger and Keith Richards. Because the guitarist recounted in his 2010 memoir “Life,” at one point he threatened to throw McGrath off the roof of Electric Lady Studios if he didn’t rein Jagger in. Angling to launch a solo profession, Jagger was greater than comfortable to let band relations, and the label’s business, sour. McGrath resigned his post with Rolling Stones Records in 1981, effectively ending his profession within the music business.

OVER THE NEXT three a long time, McGrath would bounce between coasts, opening and shutting art galleries in Los Angeles and Recent York. Although he and Camilla never had a family of their very own, over time McGrath became godfather to almost 30 children. Late in his life, McGrath’s older sister finally revealed the key that had been kept from him: His birth had been the results of an affair between his mother and his father’s brother.

As McGrath reckoned together with his complicated past, an excellent larger blow got here with Camilla’s death in 2007, following a series of strokes. Inside a couple of years, McGrath developed serious health problems. On Jan. 7, 2016, he died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

McGrath had been comfortable through the years to stay out of the highlight. “He didn’t need to be a public figure, he only desired to be well-known amongst the well-known,” Hagan said. With the discharge of “Earl’s Closet,” McGrath’s legacy — his unique gifts as a type of artistic alchemist — is finally being given its due.

“It seems like we tapped into some type of core sampler of the ’70s,” Hagan said. “It’s the story of the culture and where the artistic emphasis was going, in regards to the end of a certain period and the start of one other. And, after all, the element that threads every little thing together on this record — similar to he did in life — is Earl McGrath.”

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