“Al Coury Owns Number One.” That was the headline of an October 1978 Rolling Stone feature. And it was spot-on.
Coury’s label, RSO Records, dominated the charts that year with four gold and six platinum singles on the heels of two record-shattering soundtracks, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and three blockbusting albums, Eric Clapton’s Slowhand, Andy Gibb’s Shadow Dancing and Player’s self-titled debut. And while many assumed that such success was coming from a decades-old record-making behemoth, the truth was precisely the opposite: RSO had just 68 employees (half of them working in promotion), a mere 15 acts on its roster and the company hadn’t yet celebrated its fifth birthday.
Coury always cited the foundation of RSO’s success – and of his accomplishments at Capitol, Network and Geffen over nearly four decades – as his “street-oriented” approach to signing, developing and promoting his artists. For the notoriously no-nonsense, old-school “record man,” never-ending boots-on-the-ground hustle was critical to acquire top artists, near-constant elbow-to-elbow involvement with them was fundamental, outrageous advertising expenses were par for the course and relentless promotion was a matter of commercial life and death.
Born Albert Eli Coury On October 21, 1934, he grew up in the Grafton Hill section of Worcester, the son of Amelia and Eli Coury, a clothes presser from Lebanon from whom relatives say Coury inherited his unwavering work ethic. He took an interest in music from a young age and played trumpet in his pre-rock ‘n roll teen years with his high-school orchestra, big-band ensemble and marching band.
After graduating from high school, Coury took a job was as a dishwasher at the El Morocco Restaurant in Grafton Hill before becoming an usher at what’s now The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester, then manager of a movie theatre in Hartford, Connecticut. His next job was radically different from those – and it changed his life forever.
In 1957, at age 23, Coury joined Capitol Records’ New England promotion team, just as the tidal wave called rock ‘n’ roll began crashing down on the world. His first role was going door-to-door to AM-radio stations like WPRO in Providence, WHEB in Portsmouth and WLAM in Lewiston, but he was quickly promoted to manager of Capitol’s Boston office, where he built close relationships at leading AM stations WMEX and WBZ, the latter of which boasted the most powerful signal in New England and – unlike any other New England station and most importantly for Coury – had a full-time Top-40 format. In that Boston-based role, Coury found his calling.
In just 17 years, he rose from his entry-level promotions job to senior vice president in charge of A&R at Capitol – and the subject of a Time feature headlined “The Man Who Sells the Sizzle” – before co-founding RSO, founding Network Records and becoming general manager of Geffen Records. Over almost 40 years, Coury was instrumental in discovering and/or developing an eclectic assortment of talent including Nat King Cole, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Irene Cara, Glen Campbell, Bob Seger, Guns N’ Roses, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Cher and “the bad boys of Boston,” Aerosmith.
Nicknamed “the man with the golden ears” for his uncanny ability to pick Top-10 singles, Coury was an unapologetically hands-on leader who spoke almost daily with regional promotion managers – an anomaly among executives at his level – and dove into every creative aspect of the business, from designing marketing strategies and brainstorming song ideas to choosing singles and recommending album-cover art. The famously plain-spoken Coury – who eschewed the glitz of the record business and lived a bare-bones lifestyle compared to other industry bigwigs – was laser focused on three things: sales, sales and sales.
In the 1960s, Coury’s insights were instrumental as Capitol navigated away from jazz and pop vocalists and into the largely uncharted waters of rock. He worked closely with members of The Beatles before and after they went solo, and his decisions were absolutely pivotal to the Beach Boys’ success after he signed them in 1962. For example, Coury released “Barbara Ann” as a single in 1965 without even telling the band – and it rocketed to #2 in the Billboard Top 100.
In 1970, Capitol faced a potential crisis after losing its top two acts; The Beatles broke up and The Beach Boys left the label to sign with Reprise Records. Thanks to Coury’s signings, however, Capitol thrived between 1970-1974 with chart-topping releases from Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy, Grand Funk Railroad, Pink Floyd, Glen Campbell and Natalie Cole.
In 1972, Reddy’s I Am Woman album and single hit #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy. In 1973, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon became one of the best-selling albums ever after Coury convinced the band to release “Money” as the single and it became the band’s first US hit, reaching #13 in the Billboard Hot 100. In 1974, Ronstadt’s Heart like a Wheel won Album of the Year, with “You’re No Good” going to #1 in the Billboard Hot 100, and Coury encouraged Glen Campbell to record “Rhinestone Cowboy,” his first #1 single and signature song.
While at Capitol, Coury worked closely with two former Beatles. The first was Paul McCartney on his biggest-selling album, 1973’s Band on the Run – the success of which McCartney has attributed directly to Coury’s input – followed in 1974 by John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges. Both albums included #1 singles and Coury teamed up with Lennon again on his 1975 album Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In 1976, after having been passed over to become Capitol president 18 months earlier, Coury left the label and co-founded RSO with entertainment entrepreneur and Bee Gees’ manager Robert Stigwood; that band became one of the label’s flagship acts along with Clapton. Following the success of the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks, RSO released other chart-toppers for the films Fame, Sparkle, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Times Square.
In 1981, Coury founded Network Records and signed Irene Cara whose single “Flashdance…What a Feeling” reached #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983 and sold over 20 million copies as theme song for the film Flashdance. In 1985, Network merged with Geffen Records, which had seen several years of dismal album sales, and Coury became the company’s general manager, tasked with saving the near-bankrupt label. Within two years, Geffen became the most successful independent record company of the ‘80s thanks to Coury’s signings, which included Cher, Peter Gabriel, Whitesnake and Don Henley.
Coury also signed two now-legendary rock bands, almost single-handedly rescuing the first – a once wildly popular group out of Boston – from internment in a musical mausoleum and the second – a largely unknown band out of Los Angeles – from near-certain musical obscurity.
The first, obviously, was Aerosmith. By signing them at a time when other labels were reluctant to take the risk due to the band’s infamous substance-abuse issues, Coury spearheaded a comeback that put the group back in the saddle for the next 30-plus years. The collaboration’s first result was 1985’s Done with Mirrors, which sold a disappointing (by Aerosmith standards) 320,000 copies and peaked at #70 in the Billboard 200, followed by 1987’s Permanent Vacation, which sold over five million – Aerosmith’s most successful album in over 10 years – and hit #11. Coury worked side-by-side with the band on their albums until 1993.
The second, of course, was Guns N’ Roses. When their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, sold only 200,000 copies in three months, with radio stations unwilling to play the single, “Welcome to the Jungle,” Coury persuaded MTV to run the video once a night for three consecutive nights. When it became their most requested video, radio stations changed their tune and the song reached #7 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 – over a year after it was released. Appetite for Destruction is the best-selling debut album of all time.
In 1994, Coury retired from the music business at age 60 and on August 8, 2013, the “street-oriented” promoter extraordinaire who “sold the sizzle” passed away at age 78 in Thousand Oaks, California. But in the hearts of many musicians, record producers, filmmakers and music lovers, the New England native will “own number one” forever.
(by D.S. Monahan)