Neil Reshen, March 3, 1939-December 6, 2014
Of the too-many notables in the music world who passed away in 2014, one did not, perhaps, get his due in many roots and Americana publications. His name was Neil Reshen.
Many of you are asking, who is Neil Reshen? Without him, the face of country music, alt-country, Americana, and their many variations would likely be considerably different today.
In 1972, or so, after nearly a decade and a half playing music, Waylon Jennings was weary of the Chet Atkins “sound” that was pervasive at his label, RCA. While his 16 albums for the label established him as having a career in country music, it was more modest than that would ordinarily reflect. He needed to break out of the mold, for the sake of his own sanity, if he really wanted to continue being a musician.
A friend introduced him to Mr. Reshen, who was not a lawyer, but rather had an accounting degree from a city college. He was taking a novel approach in an attempt to get involved in the music business – he did music executives’ taxes. But, upon agreeing to manage Waylon Jennings, he, as Jennings would later write, became “like a mad dog on a leash.” That approach resulted in Jennings’ seminal 1973 release, Lonesome ‘Onry and Mean. In short order, that lead RCA to also sign Steve Young — the writer of the album’s title – to a contract, as well as Guy Clark, and to record an entire album of Billy Joe Shaver songs that was released later that year.
He was also instrumental in Willie Nelson’s career. It is well known that Nelson was a peerless songwriter in Nashville. When Atlantic Records opened an office in Nashville, it signed Nelson and released Shotgun Willie in 1973. That was followed by “Phases and Stages.” While both albums received critical praise, sales were poor and the office closed up shop. Atlantic which was a powerhouse in rhythm and blues, jazz and rock simply could not figure Nashville out.
Nelson then went to Reshen, who negotiated a contract for him, with Columbia. It is also well known what happened next — The Red Headed Stranger. Columbia hated it, but Reshen and Nelson pushed it and made the label an offer it could not refuse: If the album flops, Nelson would eat the recording costs.
The Outlaws were, thus, born. And while it was much misunderstood — and to many of us at the time it seemed more of a marketing tool — it did result in country artists more control over their music and careers.
Reshen also represented Frank Zappa, The Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, Buddy Miles, David Allan Coe, Jessi Colter, Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Ponys, The Cowsills, Captain Beefheart, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Tim Buckley, Peter Max, Andy Warhol, and Miles Davis.
Speaking of Miles Davis, it seems Jennings was a big fan and, as Reshen managed both of them, kept bugging him to introduce him. It finally happened, but needless to say Jennings, like most folks, was nervous and in awe. The encounter was reported by Stephen Davis (no relation) in a 1973 edition of The Real Paper.
“There was a time when Neil fed me and Willie, and if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what we would have done,” Jennings wrote in Waylon: An Autobiography. “He helped us immeasurably. He got things for us that no country singer had ever gotten before. If we were going to become Outlaws, though we didn’t know that yet, we needed an Outlaw Lawyer, as Willie called him.”
Neil Reshen died on December 6, 2014 in New York at age 75. A memorial service that celebrated his life was held on January 7, 2015 at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York.