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INDUSTRY PROFILE - Blackheart Records Founder
it often happens in music intensive families, parents often try to pass
the musical torch onto their children. That is exactly what Kenny Laguna’s folks tried to do, figuring that
classical music would be a solid starting point for the lad. It wasn’t
too long though before Kenny found that his passions were skewed in the
direction of rock and roll. “I heard ‘Jailhouse Rock’ by
Elvis, and I knew what I wanted to play,” Kenny recalls. “Then
I remember my mother telling, ‘If you want to be a drummer, we’ll
get you a drum. Don’t beat on the piano!’ At any rate, I was
about five years old and already knew I would make my living at music.” Kenny
delved into music, listening to and absorbing as much rock and roll as
he could. At the age of twelve, he played in an outfit called WMCA Good
Guys primarily for high school hops. WMCA was a radio station that was
formerly a home of Alan Freed, and when Kenny was involved the station
featured another legendary jock Jack Spector. “Jack just loved me.
I knew all the songs, I worked for twenty dollars a day doing all these
hops, and after that I was in. From then on I was involved in the record
Through his contacts at WMCA, Kenny went to work for Kama Sutra Records at the age of fifteen. It was there that the he met hit record producer Thomas Jefferson Kay, who became one of Kenny’s mentors and led the teen to the music business aspect he found he had a true passion for. Under Kay’s tutelage, Kenny helped produce the song “Emily Makes Her Own Kind Of Music” by the Nighthawks. “After that, I started making demos for Kama Sutra. Doing these demos with the songs I was writing I got to work with everybody in the studios, so I was really getting into the business. Tommy Kay and a lot of other producers there were huge influences on me.” Kenny became more intensely involved in producing, although he often played or sang in the studios and on stage with some of the bands he worked with. It was in the late sixties when Kenny became immersed in the growing bubble gum rock movement, producing artists such as Ohio Express, The Archies, Jay and the Americans, and a virtual who’s who of the genre. “During a three year period, we were moving more hits than the Beatles, yet no one really knew who we were. We would sometimes make nine records a day and then go on the road with a band and come back and do more records. The labels were releasing almost everything we threw at them.”
In 1969, Kenny was in Long Beach, California when an idea for a song came to him. That song was “Lord” which dealt with a Western outlaw who after being shot during a gold robbery begs the Lord to let him live long enough to see his lady one more time. A couple days later, the song was recorded under the name of Spencer Blackfoot, and included vocalist Steve Tracy, future “Grease” composer Louis St Louis” and the horn section from Meco. Many people were impressed with the song and tried to make a hit out of it, including the youthful president of MGM Records Mike Curb. Although hit status would somehow evade “Lord,” Kenny’s producing talents gained widespread notice in the music industry. This helped lead to production projects with Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Dave Edmunds, Tony Orlando, David Essex and many other well known recording artists. In the early seventies, Kenny not only produced the album “Tighter and Tighter” by Tommy James & the Shondells, he became a member of that band for a couple years. Then in 1977, through a label contact, Kenny met a publicist who worked with The Runaways and Blondie. He ended up at a hotel in London where he was supposed to interview The Runaways to consider producing their upcoming album. “I thought that could be pretty wild, working with this all-girl band. But I didn’t have the job yet, so I went to the hotel lobby and ran into the head of Beserkley Records. He offered to give me a ride to the airport in this big limo he had, and there he told me that Cherie Currie was leaving the Runaways. So he talked me into going to California instead of staying there for this interview.” Kenny went back to the Golden State, where he produced the debut album by a then unknown Beserkley artist named Greg Kihn. “The best thing for me was realizing that Greg was this cool, super talented guy who was really versatile. I’m not big at saying this guy is better than that guy, but he did seem like he really had it going.” Greg Kihn’s career would explode a couple years later, and while at Beserkley, Kenny also helped produce and perhaps elevate the careers of Jonathan Richman and Earthquake.
After turning down the initial chance to work with The Runaways in London, Kenny probably never expected the subject matter of a phone call he would receive in 1979 while working with Beserkley in California. “I was told that there was chaos in the studio with this guy who was producing The Runaways. The band was about ready to break up, they wanted someone to go in and finish the record.” There was also a conflict between two members of the band. Lita Ford wanted to go in a more heavy metal direction, while Joan Jett was into a power pop influenced by punk sound. The band ostracized Joan for tilting that way, and finally the band broke up for good. Soon after that a film producer was looking to do a movie loosely based on The Runaways, and wanted to enlist Kenny’s help with producing the six songs they wanted for the soundtrack. “I could come up with the songs, but Joan is the type that has to feel it to write it and not just churn it out. We got the songs done and it worked out and we didn’t get sued. And that is when I realized that Joan Jett was incredible. I wanted to get her a record deal.” Unfortunately, the labels dominating mainstream America would not have anything to do with Joan. There was a certain perception of punk rockers that bordered on Nazism. Finally through his connections at Beserkley. Kenny secured a deal for Joan in Europe, but even that didn’t quite launch Joan’s career. Eventually, Kenny and Joan decided the best way to do it would be to release the CD themselves. Kenny put a small, but dedicated staff of press and radio promoters together while Joan hit the road. She began to cultivate a steadily growing fan base from her live performances with her band the Blackhearts that often included Kenny. The first couple radio releases “Bad Reputation” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me” had some moderate success primarily in college markets. Then came the third single, “I Love Rock And Roll” and the rest is music history. “Wherever we played we would sell out, they would even close roads down where she played like something big was happening, and she still couldn’t get a record deal. We really didn’t do anything different with ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ than we did to promote the previous singles, but for some reason when that single came out, the album just exploded.”
For the first time in his career, the main thrust of Kenny’s work primarily revolved around one performer, although his work with Joan Jett would soon lead him to produce albums by Bow Wow Wow. He produced Joan’s hit machine throughout her career, and since the record labels had stayed away, Kenny and Joan took the obvious next step. “It was never really a plan to start a label, but we still could not get Joan a label deal. Since no one would sign us, it was the only thing left we could do.” Thus Blackheart Records was born primarily as a vehicle to release Joan’s music, although over the years they also put out music by Metal Church. Kenny also took on the occasional producing project away from Blackheart, including recordings with Darlene Love and Evil Stig although after the mid 90’s, he stopped producing independently. Even with the tough times for the music industry, Kenny now feels that releasing Joan’s records on their own label was the correct route to take. “It suits my personality. I like having control of my music and owning it. Maybe we could have made a lot more money on a major label...maybe...but I’m a lot happier with the way we are doing it. We keep the music ideals the same, but always adjusted with the times how we had to handle the promotion. It’s worked pretty well.”
Now in the early years of the twenty-first century, Kenny and Joan are still busy, although they have slowed down a bit on the frequency of the album releases. 2005 will see the release of a new studio album, “Naked” and of course Joan continues to tour with Kenny still a part time member of the Blackhearts. Among their live performances early in the century were the first and second shows by non-combatant musicians for the troops in Afghanistan. The shows were stripped down performances featuring only Joan and Kenny because they would only allow two musicians in the war zone. That was just one of many moments where Kenny realized that even though he worked with so many known artists early in his career, it has been immensely satisfying to have been directly involved with Joan and her ride to rock and roll fame for nearly a quarter of a century now. “It was back to what it has always been, me on the side of the stage singing with Joan like I have been doing since I met her. We’re kind of aberrations with our music careers; I’ve been really happy, she’s been really happy. So many people I knew that had great careers are miserable now. Joan has always made music on her own terms, and that is how we have done it all of these years. We’ve kept it going, and when I hear her song on the radio, that really satisfies me.”
Kenny Laguna’s advice for musicians: Never give up. Your level of success should be when you are able to make a living performing and being yourself. Success is not U2, that’s the dream, if it happens it happens. You need to set your sites at making a living with your music and once you get to that point, consider yourself successful. Otherwise you are going to be miserable because even if you become a big success, your chances of sustaining it are zippo. Just try to make your living at making music the way you want to make it.”
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Editor: Sandy Serge
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