A Day in the Life of the Beatle Promo man

One of the granddaddies of branding and social media marketing works the all the promo angles

John Lennon and Yoko Ono chatted with host Dick Cavett at the Dick Cavett Show on September 24th, 1971. Credit: Ann Limongello/ABC via Getty

Boston — Over the phone, Pete Bennett asked me if I had ever followed a promo man on his rounds. I never had. "No?" said Pete, sounding disappointed. "Well, here's the thing, most of them never get through the door. You can check me out on this, you can ask around. Most of them just get to leave their product with the record liberrian and then go. But when I come up to Boston on Wednesday, you watch and see if I make it to first base or what."

Just after noon on Wednesday, Pete arrived in Boston to spread Apple record propaganda through three radio stations. His first stop was WRKO, currently defending its title as Boston's premiere Top 40 AM station. Manicured, cologned, pinky-ringed and form-fit in a top coat of Spanish leather, Pete strode into the brick-and-glass lobby as if it were his.

The doors of the lobby elevator opened and out stepped WRKO's program director, a sad-eyed young man with Cat Steven's beard and bangs named Mel Phillips. Pete's arm was immediately around Mel's shoulders. "How are ya, Mel?" and we were off, across the modernistic City Hall Plaza, to the fancy brick-and-glass overcrowded restaurant. Pete took control. "Looks like I got to do the operatin'," he said, threatening to flash his blue and gold enamel Yonkers Community Mayor badge at the maitre d'. "This is honorary, but it can do wonders if I have any trouble," he said.

Having gotten a table without resorting to political clout, Pete began to tell me about record promotion. Being the promotion man for ABKCo records, Pete is one of the top men in his field. Many people — even knowledgeable people — assume that Pete has it made; that a single by John, George, Ringo or Paul rises to the top of the charts by a natural process; that no disk jockey in the nation could be so monumentally dense as to ignore a new Beatle release. Pete runs into this assumption all the time and he is ready to knock it down.

"I'm gonna say something," said Pete, "And Mel's gonna agree wid me. Today, you got to push and push, no matter if it's Beatles stuff. The promo man is the most important man for a record, because the promo man contacts the program director. I mean, does the artist come here and sit down with Mel and discuss about records! Or the songwriter or producer? No, it's the promo man that sells the record. Then, when it's a hit, it's the artist that did it!"

But suppose the record is by John?

"John Lennon needs promotion like every artist in the world needs promotion," Pete said adamantly. "Nothin's a guarantee. John Lennon's album, the one before, wasn't a big album. It needed promotion. We did the best we could with it, ya understand. I'm calling up stations saying, look, it's sold 300,000 copies, why don't you give it some airplay.

"So we told John he had to go more commercial if he wanted to get a big smash. I mean an artist has to put out what he feels, but I'm sure an artist wises up and that's why John put out this new type of album. So we went with 'Imagine' and it's a Number One. What happens now, the next record John has, it's more interesting, they'll pick it up right away. But if you bomb after one or two, they're not gonna look at John Lennon that much. It's like George Harrison, 'Bangla Desh.' They said, 'I hope he comes out with a better single next time.' I mean, they're getting a little skeptical, is that correct?"

"A certain point," said Mel.

Pete eased a cherrystone shell into his mouth and sucked out the clam. "What's great," he said in his slightly heliumized, Buddy Hackett tones, "is when the artist works closely with the promo man. Like Yoko asks me to set up phone interviews with DJ's all over the country. That helps the album 'cause the DJ's that are interviewing her have to play the album. A majority of the times, John gets on the phone and he's doin' another promo on her. And you talk about bein' a promotion man, John Lennon is one of the greatest."

Over the main course, Pete casually segued into a discussion of the "product" he was carrying with him in a fat record envelope. The new Mary Hopkins, the new Badfinger, the new Bobby Vinton single. Bobby Vinton? Was Bobby Vinton an ABKCo artist?

"No, I just promote Bobby Vinton because we been close personal friends for a long time. I don't take no salary or nothin'."

Really? "Well, maybe at the end of the year, he might give me a bonus — because he appreciates my doin' such a good job, I guess. Like I fixed it for him to MC the Macy's Parade and the Rose Bowl this year. That'll be sixty million viewers and they'll play the new song a couple of times on both shows. You think he'll sell a hundred thousand copies out of sixty million? You think that's a good tie-in?"

Pete turned his enthusiasm on Mel. "Hey, Mel, you remember Bobby's 'Please Love Me Forever' that became Number One a few years back? I was the one that broke that. Nobody believed in it, so I was out there at KHJ in California — the Bill Drake station — and I'm pounding my fist on the table and shouting, 'Ya gotta play it, I swear it's a hit.'" Pete laughed at the memory. "I called Mel from the Coast. I said, 'It's a hot record, go on it.' He says, 'Why?' I say, 'KHJ's on it.' 'OK, that gives me some leeway,' he says."

"That was a long time ago," Mel said unhappily. That was when the Drake chain still ruled the AM airwaves. That was before Drake-affiliated WRKO, with its tight, Drake-like playlist began to lose ground in Boston's "radio war" to WMEX. Mel didn't like to admit it, but WMEX, with its more flexible programming was breaking hits while WRKO was still waiting for sales figures to come in to decide what to play. "You don't have to break records on the Drake stations any more," Pete said. "I'll bet a station like WMEX can force you to play things that aren't on your playlist."

"No," said Mel, frowning. "They're playing David Cassidy's 'Cherish' and we'll never play that."

"You'll eat those words," Pete chuckled, and he went back to talking about Bobby Vinton.

"You know," he said, "I got Bobby to sing at the Inaugural Ball for President Nixon, who is also a personal friend of mine. I'm very active in Republican politics in Yonkers where I live. I promoted for the President in '68 on my spare time. I mean, whenever I'm calling a station about a record, I'm also promoting for Nixon. And I got him entertainers for rallies. I knew with him, if he does win, it would be great to have a President as a friend of yours. I would rather be in the limelight of bein' a friend of the President than bein' a dead duck with Humphrey. I'd have been lost in the shuffle because the whole world was behind Humphrey and I'm sure I'm not as important as a lot of those people, but I was on top with Nixon with the entertainment, do you follow me?"

A little later, Pete said he didn't understand why the kids had been protesting outside a recent Nixon function in New York. I suggested that maybe they didn't want to be sent to fight in a waning war. Pete knitted his brow and raised his voice. "If he is elected again as your President," he said, "that means the majority of the people support him and anyone who protests is wrong! I spent Father's Day at the White House, when Tricia presented her father with a surfboard, and I spent a long time talking to the President. He said amazing things about the war, things I cannot reveal, things you can't let every American come into the White House and find out about. He said things you couldn't believe about what's going on over there. But he's trying his best to get us out, and I bet he'll do it before the next election."

Through the pall that had fallen over the table, I questioned Pete about the rumor that he had used his political connections to get the members of a British rock group, Mandrill, exempted from the draft. "I don't see where I could get anybody out of the draft," Pete said soberly. "But there may be an approach I know about that other people don't know. This is America and I feel that anybody has a right to speak. I mean the boy was really sick with allergies but he didn't know how to go about it, so I was able to put him in touch with the right people."

During the dessert course, the conversation returned to safe shop talk. Pete paid for the meal with a gold American Express card. On the way back to the station, I asked him how he had become a promo man.

As a kid of nine in the Bronx, he said, he had helped support his widowed mother by shining shoes in a bar. "Frank Sinatra was a regular customer of mine." In his teens, he learned to drum and formed several bands. (It was an MC at a drumming contest who inadvertently altered Pete's name from Benedetto to Bennett.) In 1952 when Pete was 17, a scout for Tommy Dorsey picked him to replace Buddy Rich in the band. "I was a great musician," said Pete, "no question about it." Pete also served as Dorsey's road manager, in which capacity he made contracts with many of the most useful disk jockeys in America.

"After a while, people suggested that I should use my contacts to become a promo man, so I gave up drumming." said Pete. "In 1962, Mr. Nat King Cole hadn't had a big record in a long time and he wanted one. So he had heard of me and he asked me to come to listen to six acetates of new songs. I picked one, but he didn't want me to take it because it was corny. But I took it to a DJ friend in Philly and asked him to play it and that night they started getting calls on it. So the record company had to press it right away and it sold 40,000 in Philadelphia in one week. The name of the song was 'Ramblin' Rose.' Mr. Cole couldn't believe it. He thought I was joshin' him until he saw the figures."

After that coup, Pete signed on as Allen Klein's promo man, handling Sam Cooke, Herman's Hermits the Animals, the Stones and finally, the Beatles.

Back in Mel's office, which was lined with framed gold and silver singles that the station had "broken," Pete made his presentation, playing his acetates on Mel's stereo. Pete didn't use a bit of hardsell, he merely gave in to an apparently uncontrollable urge to conduct each number. Pete's conducting style was pure Lawrence Welk, with much finger snapping, body English and sing-along. Pete exploded with enthusiasm over each new song, as if he were hearing it for the first time. Of the Badfinger, he said: "This is early Beatles sound. It's a hit, I can tell you right now!" Mel listened quietly and nodded approval.

After leading Yoko through selected parts of "Fly" and Bobby Vinton through "Everyday of My Life," Pete unveiled his big surprise. "Don't look at the label!" he said, putting his hand over Mel's eyes. "Just put it on." Mel fumbled to get it on the spindle. A hiss came out of the speakers.

"Happy Christmas, Yoko," whispered Yoko.

"Happy Christmas, John," whispered John.

"This is gonna be Number 1 for a long time!" boomed Pete. "A standard! John Lennon's new Christmas song!"

"Spector?" asked Mel, as the strings came in.

"Spector," said Pete. "He's a great producer."

Having played the Christmas song, Pete packed up his acetates and said goodby to Mel. "You see what I mean?" Pete said as we rode down in the elevator. "It's a tough job. They get a pile of about 800 singles every week, here, and they gotta pick four. Like on John's record, did Mel say, 'Where can I get it, send it to me'? No, he said, 'Mmm, so it'll be out in a week and a half.'"

I was still not quite convinced of the arduousness of Pete's job. After all, Jerry Wexler had once said, "You want to see a great promotion man? A great promotion man is any guy who walks into a station with the new Beatles release under his arm." So as we drove across town to WBCN-FM, Boston's only progressive rock station, I bet Pete that he couldn't get the jocks there to play the Vinton single. Pete didn't seem overly interested in pulling off any promotion triumphs at the FM station — he never even got the name right and kept calling it "CBN" — but he was piqued by the challenge of the bet.

When we arrived at BCN, the Mary Hopkins album was playing, presumably in Pete's honor. Pete got a friendly reception from Kenny Greenblatt, the business manager, who was dressed in a street people ensemble of leather vest, Jeans and boots, and who led the way into a vacant studio. Predictably, Kenny loved the Lennon single ("Far out, Spector did it, right?"). But when Pete put on the Vinton song, Kenny looked at the floor, searching for something to say. "I got to admit," he said finally, "that it's a long time since I listened to Bobby Vinton."

"It might be corny but it's a beautiful song," said Pete, with unabashed enthusiasm. "You're not gonna hurt an FM station by playing it. Put it right on now, Ken, do me a favor." Kenny took the acetate and handed it to a jock with a pony tail. Pete was in luck. The jock looked at the record as if it were a banana split preserved from Pompeii. He couldn't believe that Bobby Vinton was still alive. "This is freaky," he said, and slipped it into his set somewhere between Spider John Koerner and Bessie Smith. He played the wrong side, but he played Bobby Vinton. Another jock agreed to play it again later.

"Did I make you a point?" Pete said as we started to leave. "If they play it here, do you think they'll play it on a pop station? That's what you call the power of promotion."

The last stop on Pete's list was WMEX, the station that came from miles behind to challenge the supremacy of WRKO. Several months ago, a manic 30-year-old disk jockey named John H. Garabedian took over as the station's program director of this traditional dead horse of Boston radio and changed it almost overnight into a winner. John H. started compiling the playlist according to listener's requests, not just reports from record stores. John H. scoured new albums for potential hits — like Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" and Lee Michaels' "You Know What I Mean" — and played them until the record companies were forced to release them as singles, John H. was nothing less than the Horatio Alger of Boston radio, a contagiously energetic disk jockey who made good by putting in 18-hour days at the station and constantly adding what he called the "New Music" to his playlist. It is likely that when the new ratings come out, WMEX will emerge as Boston's top station.

As we neared the bunker-like WMEX "Broadcast House," Pete seemed to sense that the town's underdog rock station was preparing a love feast for him. "I bet they got a Beatles day today," he said. "It's not unusual for stations to have a Beatles day or an Apple day when they know Pete Bennett's coming around." When we arrived, John H. was still doing his late afternoon show. His lantern jaw was covered with beard-shadow and his eyes were bleary. He waved at Pete through the glass window of the sound booth and held up albums from the stack in front of him. They were all Beatles albums.

During the rest of the afternoon, John H. dashed in and out of the studio alternately running his show and talking to Pete. "What's your favorite Beatles song?" he asked Pete. " 'Imagine,'" said Pete. While John H. ran off to put on "Imagine," Pete suddenly remembered that the need for airplay was greatest elsewhere. Slapping his forehead, he said to himself, "Wait. Could 'Mrs. Lennon' fit in with this one? Sure it could." John played "Mrs. Lennon" next.

John H. appeared again, and Pete played the new Lennon single for him. No 14-year-old WMEX contest winner could have displayed more genuine excitement than John H. at hearing a new Beatle release. "That's great," he kept saying. 'That's incredible. Can we play it just once?"

"Why not once?" Pete soliloquized. "I don't want to start a war, but I'm not gonna leave it with them. After all, it's Beatles day."

John H. was ecstatic. He waited until quarter of six, when WRKO was running its news broadcast and WMEX had its largest audience of the day, to play it. Later on, Pete got Bobby Vinton on the phone in California and John H. played Bobby's new single so Bobby could hear it coming over the radio. At the end of the conversation, Pete proudly announced that President Nixon had just chosen Bobby to sing the campaign song in '72.

When John H. finished his show, Pete took us to dinner at a four-star seafood restaurant, where he and John animatedly talked shop. The conversation turned to one of Pete's favorite subjects, the FCC, about which he claims to be an expert. Pete has a profound respect for the power of the FCC, but he did tell how he had saved "Honky Tonk Woman" from oblivion. "That time there was when all the language shit was starting," he said. "WMCA in New York was going to ban the single and if your single gets banned on just one station, man, you've had it. They called up and said, 'Pete we can't play this, it says, "Laid a divorcee."' I was two days showing them that it said, 'Played a divorcee.'"

But already Pete's mind was on the next day. "Ringo wants me to go with him to California tomorrow," he said. "I'd like to, but I should stay in New York and promote for the boys." Pete had to make the usual fifty phone calls in the morning. There were the radio stations that had to be informed of new releases on the way, there were interviews to be set up, there were the big retail record stores to call to make sure that they were reporting sales to the radio stations and the trade papers and that they were keeping ABKCo records out there on the front racks. And then Pete had to work on his own book, a compilation of photographs to be called Who's That Guy With Pete Bennett. Pete already had pictures of himself — grinning and looking like the world's friendliest bodyguard — with the President, with Jackie, with Bob Dylan, with the Stones, with Phil Spector... 

But there was one photo that remained to be taken. Pete Bennett with the Pope. It would take a little promotion to get past first base at the Vatican.