Harold Leventhal

Manager of Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger - who let Bob Dylan go
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Harold Leventhal was a music promoter and agent who worked with the cream of the US folk scene. On 12 April 1963, Leventhal was responsible for staging Bob Dylan's first major concert-hall appearance. Famously, with Joan Baez and Judy Collins already on his books, he turned down Dylan's request that he manage him and Albert Grossman took on the job instead. Leventhal believed he couldn't do Dylan justice because of his existing workload.

"Harold knew . . . the pros and cons of the popular music business," the folk-singer Pete Seeger explained in Harold Leventhal: the fifth Weaver - a musical documentary (2003):

He knew a lot of it was phoney. People were just after money. But he knew that some extraordinarily talented people were also in the music business.

Leventhal began his management career in late-1940s New York when he saw the folk quartet the Weavers performing in coffee-houses in Greenwich Village. When Seeger asked Leventhal to manage the group, he agreed, thinking that, whatever he had no clue about, he would pick up on the way. During the years of McCarthyism, he never bowed to pressure to drop the blacklisted Weavers. He went on to stage historic concerts from artists including Miriam Makeba, Jacques Brel, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Phil Ochs, Mercedes Sosa, Arlo Guthrie, Ravi Shankar, Amalia Rodriguez, Nana Mouskouri, Joni Mitchell, the New Lost City Ramblers, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and Neil Young.

In his memoir Chronicles (2004) Bob Dylan writes that Leventhal "spoke in a low, guttural whisper. You had to lean in close to hear what he was saying." In his younger years Leventhal sounded like the broadcaster Studs Terkel - similar vocal register, similar one part gruff to two parts granite - as can be sensed as he reminisces in Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005). What Scorsese doesn't show is how, like Terkel, Leventhal was given to quipping and often seemed on the brink of a chortle or a raspy laughter fit.

When he gave Nora, Woody Guthrie's daughter, away in 1998, Leventhal, whom she treated as a "surrogate father", good-naturedly barked that the writer and broadcaster Michael Kleff should "go on and take her". Leventhal was Guthrie's long-time business manager until his death in 1967 and in 1989 won a Grammy as producer of the album Folkways: a vision shared - a tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. In later years, he shared the same office suite as the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives on West 57th Street in New York. His office was filled with the memorabilia of decades of managing, promoting and publishing acts.

Harold Leventhal was born in 1919 in Ellenville, New York, the fifth child of Sarah and Samuel Leventhal, both of Jewish stock. His mother had originally come from Ukraine, his father from Lithuania. "They spoke Yiddish," he told me. "That was the first language that I knew till I went to school." His father died eight weeks after his birth. Thrown into penury, supported in part by the extended family, in part by his mother taking janitor and cleaning work, in part by welfare, the Leventhals "lived off charity for years", he recalled.

The family had moved down to New York, settling first on the Lower East Side before moving, around 1927, to the South Bronx. He became a voracious reader. "Reading was very important," he said:

It became my own self-education because I never went to college. I'd read constantly. Books about history and economics, not so much novels.

In Kleff's ambitious 2004 radio portrait of Leventhal for the German station WDR3, Leventhal recalled how he "identified very strongly with Jewish culture but not with synagogue visitors". Time spent with Zionist youth organisations and the Young Communist League shaped his awareness of politics, current affairs and literature. Progressive politics stayed with him his whole life.

Leventhal's early musical tastes, he told me, were "the pop music of the day, songs as sung by Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and the beginning of the swing band era in the middle Thirties". His break into the music business came in 1939:

An elder brother of mine was working [in it] and knew I needed a job. He was able to get me a job in what we called the "shipping department" with Irving Berlin. Within six months, I'd moved up and was put in what they called the "contact department". That was the beginning of becoming what we call a "song-plugger". We would go out to the various bands and various singers to get them the songs we'd published at the time.

Song-plugging for Berlin was "reasonably easy". Bandleaders made time to hear Leventhal pitch songs from his boss or writers like Jimmy Van Heusen. Even before the United States entered the war, many of Berlin's songs had turned jingoistic - such songs as "Arms for the Love of America". Plugging these was harder, but Leventhal clung on.

Whether he was witness to the birth of "White Christmas" is moot, but he was there soon after. "I heard him playing it himself in the room and calling in a fellow who'd write out the notations," Leventhal said. "Of course, I paid no real attention to it at that point." Recorded in 1942 by Bing Crosby, it was later estimated to have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

Leventhal stayed with Berlin for a little over two years before joining the Goodmans' Regent Music Company, pushing songs such as Edgar Sampson's "Don't Be That Way", recorded by Benny Goodman. Soon after, at Leventhal's suggestion, Goodman auditioned a rising singer called Frank Sinatra.

At the end of 1943, Leventhal volunteered for war service, just ahead of call-up, and entered the Army Signal Corps. Via California and Australia, he reached India in March 1944. "The whole culture was completely different," he told me. "I was fascinated by it." The day after arriving in Bombay he sought out a copy of People's Front, the Indian Communist Party newspaper, and made tracks for the organisation's headquarters.

He knew little of Indian culture, apart from the work of the poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore (whose King of the Dark Chamber he later put on off-Broadway in 1961), but Leventhal had some chutzpah and managed to meet Jawarhalal Nehru and, through Nehru, Gandhi.

Nehru, he said, was the one who impressed him the most during his time in the subcontinent. When he took Nehru's letter of introduction to Gandhi, he discovered that Thursdays were his "silent days" - his vow-of-silence day. Gandhi scribbled on the back of the invitation that he should return the next day, so return he did. (He lovingly kept that piece of paper.)

Another character he met was a rising musician, Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, then starting to call himself Ravi Shankar. Years later, Leventhal would put on Ravi Shankar concerts. One anecdote from around 1965 that he related with relish was the occasion Shankar asked him to invite Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan for an Indian meal. Shankar was going to cook. First, however, the sitarist plied them with lots of raga. Leventhal was nearly laughing himself silly as he described Dylan's imploring and ravenous glances.

The US authorities denied Leventhal a passport until 1955-56. The irony was not lost on him that Cold War criticisms of Soviet bloc countries denying citizens opportunities to travel were counter-balanced by the "wrong sort" of US citizen experiencing similar prohibitions. At least behind the Iron Curtain it was no secret. Leventhal next got to go abroad again in 1960.

Sometimes accompanying Pete Seeger, he travelled to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and China. His zigzag career weathered Red Scare, the civil rights era and continued government surveillance. "When I got my FBI reports," he told Kleff, "boy, they knew everything!"

As a producer, Leventhal had a big hand in such films as Alice's Restaurant (1969), the Oscar-winner Bound for Glory (1976, based on Woody Guthrie's memoirs) and A Vision Shared (1988).

Ken Hunt