When the highlight reel of 20th-century show biz runs, you probably won’t be able to spot Jess Rand, but he was often there — backstage and in barrooms, cutting deals, giving pep talks, greasing the wheels of the machine that lets the magic happen when the lights go down.
Rand, 88, manager and press agent to the stars, died September 12 in Montecito, California. He was best known for representing Sammy Davis, Jr., Sam Cooke and the Lettermen.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Rand met actors Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando while studying acting at the Dramatic Workshop in New York. In 1941, he got a gig as a “counter boy” for Irving Berlin, where he got to work up close with the likes of Ira Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.
“I saw this beautiful thing called the music business,” Rand told me when I interviewed him last fall. “I was 15-and-a-half years old.”
He put his career on hold for war. He scored 100 percent on a test for Morse code — an amateur drummer, he found it easy to memorize the codes because he heard them as beats. He fought in the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines Liberation Operation while serving in the Pacific.
One time, Irving Berlin asked his young apprentice to tell him his favorite lyricist. Rand said Johnny Mercer, the composer and lyricist who wrote many standards, including “Hooray for Hollywood.”
“You ought to look at your paycheck,” Berlin joked to Rand. “I don’t think that’s Mercer’s signature on it.”
Seems Rand just didn’t have it in him to spew bullshit.
In the 1974 Billboard profile “Career Building is Jess Rand’s Special Concern,” Rand said that his personal creed was to be honest to himself, and to his clients. It’s a habit that earned him many friends, a few enemies, a loving wife by his side since 1954 and, usually, the best table in a packed restaurant, right in front of the stage.
“He was considered tough, because he was honest,” Bonnie Rand, his wife, told me. “He did speak his mind.”
I found that out myself when I talked with Rand last fall. I requested an interview with him while researching my forthcoming book on Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 record Ode to Billie Joe for the 33 1/3 Series.
In late summer 1967 Bobbie Gentry still didn’t have a manager, even though she had the No. 1 song in the country. Rand got the call and flew to New York, where he signed a contract with Gentry on the back of a napkin at a restaurant called Danny’s Hideaway.
When Sammy Davis, Jr. had an eyeball knocked out of his skull in a car accident, it was Rand who raced to the hospital to pace the waiting room while doctors tried to save it. Later, Rand arranged Davis’s comeback performance at Ciro’s nightclub. (He also, according to Sammy Davis, Jr.’s autobiography, facilitated the famous photo shoot that took place at the Drake Hotel in 1952, when Ava Gardner posed with Davis, Jr. dressed in a Santa suit.) As for Sam Cooke, there were too many moments to count. It’s been said that Cooke hired Rand in part to help him break into the white market, and that he liked to mess with him, doing things like calling Rand into his hotel room while he had women in bed.
There were crises and the triumphs and stories — always the stories. Bonnie told me that in their almost 60 years of marriage, she rarely heard her husband tell the same tale twice.
Rand liked to take photographs, and over the course of his career, he took thousands of them, often of famous friends and clients. He developed the film himself in a darkroom in his house. He enjoyed the process of sliding the paper into the water, watching the black and gray bloom. In later years, he’d find old photographs and send them to friends as a reminder of the good old days.
He was generous with his time, too — I could tell that just from the time he gave me about representing a client that was, as he said, only a minute in his life and career. With disgust, he told me a story about running into a former friend who got greedy. “I always figured all I want out of life is a slice of the pizza pie,” he said. “I don’t want the whole tray.”
He was fun to talk to. The man was full of zingers.
On a legendary music mogul who recently died: “They had to screw him into the ground,” Rand told me. “Talk about crooked.”
On an industry nemesis who asked if they can forgive and forget: “If I bury the hatchet,” he told him, “it’s going to be in your head!”
On being asked to testify as a character witness for Phil Spector: “I said, ‘You know, I love Phil, I love a normal Phil Spector. I’ve known him since he was a kid, he gave me three hit records for the Paris Sisters in a row,’ I said, ‘but Phil’s crazy.’”
Rand’s stories ricochet through another era, another America, really, a music business that is long gone. He used to spend his Sundays listening to big band music on leisurely drives with his daughter. To his dying day, he refused to use email. When he retired in 1992, there were few places left to wear his custom Nehru silk mohair suit. “My last client was Judy Collins,” said Rand. “I named one of my bypasses after her.”
After Rand passed last week, I exchanged emails with Ken Mansfield. Mansfield is best known for leaving Capitol Records to run Apple Records for the Beatles. He and Rand met when he first moved to California.
“Kenny came to see me [and] I was very taken by the guy,” Rand told me. “I said, ‘You know, if you love [music] so much, don’t walk around starving dragging your guitar and knocking on doors. I said, ‘Get a job in the music business. Get a job at the record company!’”
“I thought Jess Rand was going to live forever,” Mansfield told me in an email. “He certainly had the life in him to do so. Like so many of us getting started in the biz, he took me by the hand and led me into his world and made it fascinating.”
A press agent to the end, Rand wrote a draft of an obituary for himself. In it, he wrote: “It was a party!”