Back in April of 2016 I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview by one of the major players in both Led Zeppelin and classic rock history, Atlantic Records promotions guru Mario “The Big M” Medious. The interview appears below.
I became acquainted with Mario after doing some research on a signed promotional copy of Led Zeppelin II, which I had acquired several years back. It has a plain white jacket with a hand-written track listing and hand-written note from Mario taped to the front. The date on the note is 10-10-69, twelve days before the commercial album was released to the public for sale.
Mario started out in the Accounting department of Atlantic Records, and soon made a name for himself in Promotions and Special Projects. The FM radio format was just starting about that time, and there was a new breed of DJ in the radio broadcast booths; a DJ with a more irreverent attitude towards standard corporate playlists. Mario connected with those new DJs, and turned record promotions and AOR into a whole new ball game…
GL: First Mario let me just thank you for agreeing to talk to me. I’m a huge fan of classic rock, especially of Led Zeppelin, and it’s such an honor for me to talk to someone like you, who was so intimately involved with classic rock in its prime.
MM: Yeah, I was there at the beginning of FM; I was one of the first guys to promote rock and roll albums at FM stations.
GL: So, you started in the Accounting department at Atlantic in about 1964?
MM: In 1965, in accounts payable and payroll; I paid all the sessions and that stuff. That’s how I got to know all the musicians.
GL: What prompted you to move to the Promotions department in 1968?
MM: I was assistant to the controller in 1968, and they had sold in 1967 to Warner Brothers, and they wanted me to train somebody new to be the new controller. The controller got promoted to vice president and they wanted me to train his replacement; they didn’t wanna give me the controller job. They wouldn’t give it to me you know, being black back in those days you didn’t get shit, and they wanted me to train the guy who was gonna be my boss you know, and I refused to do that. I told them I’m not gonna train no motherfucker to be my boss, you know? So Ahmet (Ertegun, President of Atlantic at the time) asked me what I wanted and I said whatever man, but I’m not gonna train somebody to be my boss. He said they couldn’t let me be the controller because it wouldn’t look good as far as the stockholders were concerned, so they promoted me to the Assistant to the VP of album sales. I worked with him for one year and then I had my chance to move to Promotions.
GL: Yeah, FM was just coming into its own about that time, right?
MM: Yeah, it had just started. And Greenberg (Jerry, GM of Atlantic at the time) was one of the guys who thought of it, ‘cause all the stations had hippies and stuff and they were only playing some of the stuff that was on Atlantic, like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and stuff, so he tried to hire someone to promote those records. Well I was disenchanted and I was ready to leave the company; I didn’t wanna continue to work in the sales department because what I was doing was more or less just accounting, but in the sales department. I had to add up all the sales all the time, so I just got to the point where I was just gonna go on and leave, and he asked me what I wanted to do and I told Greenberg I’d like to do Promotions, but not Atlantic’s current R&B stuff, the new rock and roll.
Greenberg suggested it to Ahmet and Jerry (Wexler, VP of Atlantic at the time) and they said “You mean the guy in bookkeeping?”… So anyway I asked them who was gonna train me and they said “we don’t know; we can’t train you cause we don’t know anything about the shit, it’s all hippie stuff”. So they gave me a few albums to go out and do what I could do, and if I fucked up I guess they would have fired me. But I guess I did alright.
GL: So I guess you just had to create your own on-the-job training.
MM: Yeah, that’s what it was. So I just picked up a personality and decided to do what I wanted to do in order to get in and get the records played. And I was like the first guy the disc jockeys had seen at the radio station; they were having like a seizure, ‘cause I went to a lot of stations where they’d never even SEEN the Promotions man. Plus they hated promotions men back then, you know?
GL: Why was that?
MM: Because most promotions men were in a suit and tie and were dressed up and walking in like it’s a Top 40 station, and they didn’t go for that at the FM stations; everybody was like hippies and shit. They all had program directors and everybody had a show for 4 hours and they played what they wanted; jazz, blues, whatever they wanted. And I would go in and sit down with them and talk about music. A lot of them were blues fanatics, and I was a blues aficionado as far as I was concerned; I was born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, so I WAS the blues. There was nobody who could tell ME too much about the blues.
So I’d go in there and they’d tell me “Oh man, Johnny Winter is the greatest blues artist ever”, and I’d be like “Ask Johnny Winter who the fuck HE likes, and then you’ll find out what the blues is really about.” That’s why I got along so well with Led Zeppelin and all those other rock bands you know; they were blues-oriented. Jimi Hendrix and all those cats were really into the blues, so I’d always hang out with the bands and we’d play blues records late at night, etc.
GL: Did you ever meet or do any work with Jimi Hendrix?
MM: Oh yeah, Jimi was a good friend of mine. I knew Jimi from when he was playing with King Curtis. Before he was the Jimi Hendrix that YOU know. First time I saw him play he was playing in Harlem at Small’s Paradise club in King Curtis’ band, and we had a gold record party for Percy Sledge and Jimi was playing in a tuxedo with a white shirt and the whole shit, and King Curtis would give him a solo and he’d play behind his back and with his teeth and shit and it just blew everybody away. And all the pimps in the club said “Who the fuck is this guy on guitar playing with his teeth and shit?” And they asked King “Why would you hire this guy to play?” and he said “’Cause he can PLAY, motherfucker!”.
Yeah, I used to hang out with Jimi down at the Chelsea Hotel, and we used to chase all these groupies together and the whole shit; he was a beautiful cat, man. He used to like to hang at the studio you know, like when they were mixing Led Zeppelin II and III, and Jimmy Page just idolized that sound of Jimi Hendrix; he was like a competitor for him, but they were good friends. He always wanted to know what Jimi Hendrix was doing…
I had a test pressing of Band of Gypsys, and I was on the road with Led Zeppelin doing Led Zeppelin III or something – I don’t remember which album it was – and I played the test pressing for everybody and Jimmy Page went crazy for it and said “Hey Mario man can I have that when you’re finished?” and I said “No man I gotta use it to promote when I go to the towns and stations; I gotta play it”, but he wanted me to give it to him instead so he could study it , you know.
Yeah, Jimmy Page could play his ass off too, but he was always competing with every guitar player out there; he was always trying to be the best.
GL: So I hear the Atlantic promotions team was known as “The Heavies”. Why was that?
MM: That was just a word, like if you listened to a record and you liked it you’d say “Hey man, that record is heavy”. Meant it was deep and something different. So when they named our promotions team they’d say “Yeah man, Atlantic is heavy”, so that was like the Promotions slogan. All the music on Atlantic is heavy; in other words, it’s interesting.
GL: So you’d go out on week-long road trips to promote Atlantic’s catalog?
MM: Oh yeah, I was always on the road; almost every week I went out on the road. And I did like 34 one-nighters with Led Zeppelin on the second album; 34 nights in a row, one night after another, every night in a different city. That was a motherfucker.
GL: 34 nights in a row? Just promoting?
MM: They were doing the gigs and I was promoting the shows. Going to the radio stations and making sure they were playing the music and stuff; help sell out the shows.
GL: That must have been in ‘69; they toured almost non-stop that year.
MM: Yeah, ‘69 – ‘70. They toured and put out a record nearly every year…
GL: So was it manly Zeppelin you were promoting on these road trips, or were there other artists too?
MM: I did just about every act on Atlantic; I did Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll, Cactus, Dr. John, ELP, CSNY, Black Oak Arkansas, J. Geils Band, and I can’t even remember all the rest. A whole bunch of ‘em; just about everybody back in the ‘70s. All the albums; I did all the albums cause we didn’t have no staff to do albums you know, so when I first started I did all the Zeppelin albums by myself, at least the first three anyway. From like ’69 to ’72 I helped the DJs get the stuff played.
They were good times back then with the music you know, you had a free hand with the music, not like it is now. And the industry was just starting, so you could sit down with the guy who’s doing the show and talk and bullshit in between tracks and smoke a joint or whatever shit would happen back in the day, and that’s the way you really promoted your records back then. ‘Cause payola didn’t work with them FM guys.
GL: They weren’t interested in that?
MM: Shit no, they’d smoke up all the weed and eat up anything you’d take them to eat. They’d be happy with just going out to a pizza joint; no fancy restaurants. Great for me ‘cause I enjoyed all that; shit, I hung out with all of them.
We had a thing called the Alternative Media Festival up in Bangor, ME, and all the disc jockeys from all the FM stations all over America came to this seminar. I had all our good acts on the bill; I had Dr. John, J. Geils Band, Eugene McDaniels and Cactus, and we had like a concert every night. And this was the first Cactus band, with Jim McCarty, Rusty Day and them two cats from Vanilla Fudge, and man they played so loud the local farmers started coming down to the place and saying that the music was so loud their cows won’t give milk. That killed me, so I got on stage and told everybody “You gotta tone it down a little bit; the cows are not giving milk”, and everybody fell out.
And they had every disc jockey from every FM station at that thing, so we got a lotta promotion outta that, you know. And Dr. John and J. Geils Band hadn’t even come out with a record yet, so they got national exposure that way, to all the jocks.
GL: Did you ever run into any challenges when you were promoting Zeppelin? Any pushback from any of the DJs that didn’t like it?
MM: Oh yeah, a lot of ‘em didn’t even wanna play it. The first album was the most difficult; in some cities they said they didn’t wanna play it because they were just ripping off the blues cats. There were a lotta guys who didn’t wanna play it, especially the white disc jockeys didn’t think they were good enough blues players, you know. I said “Look man, I’m from Mississippi; I live this life, I know what the blues is about. So I had to talk ‘em into playin’ it and they said “Ok I’ll play it just so you’ll get outta the station”. I said “Good. I’ll leave man, but don’t play it ‘til I get in my car, ‘cause I wanna hear it”. So I’d get in my car and drive off to “Whole Lotta Love” and “Dazed and Confused”. It was fantastic because once one guy played it then everybody else would too; you didn’t have too many problems after that.
Yeah, Zeppelin was great. I’ll never forget: After I did the second album I told Page I had to go back out on the road for ‘em, and he said “You don’t have to promote OUR albums anymore; they’re already big sellers”. I said “Yeah, but you still gotta promote; you might sell a million but if you wanna sell two million you gotta do some promotion”.
GL: So obviously there’s been tons of things written about Led Zeppelin. Is there anything you can tell me about the Zeppelin guys that you think maybe nobody else knows?
MM: Everybody knows everything about Zeppelin; there’s nothing left to tell. Read (tour manager) Richard Cole’s book; that gives you a little bit of everything in a nutshell.
GL: So you read his book?
MM: Yeah, I read his book. He’s got one thing in there talking about me gettin’ thrown off a horse down in Arizona. I was with the band staying down in Phoenix at the Biltmore Hotel and he wanted to go horseback riding. Robert was still in bed, so I went with him (Cole) and Bonzo. So we all went horseback riding and I told the cowboy guy to give me a horse that he would give to the kids, ‘cause I didn’t want no fucking horse that would throw my ass off. So he gave me the craziest fucking horse of all of them. So we were out there riding and we started going down the side of a hill and the horse saw a snake and just took off running. He was running right toward a cliff, so I jumped off, but right into a cactus bed. I had cactus all stuck in my pants and legs and they had to take me to the hospital and stuff.
Later Robert said “I’m sure glad that didn’t happen to me” ‘cause they had a concert that night. And I didn’t make it to the concert until like halfway though; I got to the concert and I could barely walk. For six months after that cactus needles were popping outta my legs; unbelievable.
Robert was like “I’m glad it wasn’t me; I’d have been really fucked up”. I think now maybe Jimmy went too, but I know John Paul Jones didn’t go.
GL: I can’t picture Jimmy Page on a horse.
MM: Oh yeah man, they were cowboy fanatics. We’d stop in Dallas and buy cowboy clothes like a motherfucker. Buy saddles…they were crazy about all that cowboy shit. Every time we went to Dallas we’d go to the western store; that’s the first place we went. And I still got a pair of boots I bought with them back in 1970 down in Dallas. And I also got one of them turquoise bracelets; me and Robert bought ‘em down in Albuquerque. All that Navajo shit. Robert used to wear it; if you seen him on that early tour he had that big bracelet. I got one just like that; used to wear it all the time.
GL: In some pictures I’ve seen of Robert on stage he’s got on a big silver belt buckle with some turquoise in it. Is that where he got that – down there?
MM: Yeah, we bought all that stuff in Albuquerque. That was back on the first tour. He used to love all that Indian stuff you know, and he was married to an Indian girl – from India – his first wife.
GL: Was that Maureen?
MM: Yeah, Maureen, his first wife. I’d see them all in New York; whenever they’d play MSG all their wives would come. You could act the fool until you got to NY, then you had to cool out ‘cause the wives were there. Even my wife would come down; I’d have to cool out too.
But we had a lot of fun on the road; I had more fun on the road with them than with any other band. There was just always something going on after the concerts; always something happening. Richard Cole would always be the guy who’d get everything going.
GL: Sounds like Richard was kind of a troublemaker; liked to stir things up.
MM: Yeah it was him that was the troublemaker, it wasn’t the band. It was Richard, ‘cause he’d been with so many other bands on the road before that, so he knew the ropes out there. And Robert and Bonzo – it was their first tour in ’69 and they didn’t know shit; Jimmy and John had been on the road before. But Richard Cole was the tour manager for like nine other bands before that, so he knew the whole American scene down; he was always doin’ something outrageous.
He’d like walk into a room and take his clothes off or something, just always some shit. And he would do that just to have Bonzo laughing ‘cause Bonzo hated to tour. He hated touring man, he just preferred to stay home with his wife and kids. But once he got out on tour he’d get drunk as a devil after every show. To distract him from being lonesome, from his family. And he was a guy getting ready to go into the Merchant Marines before he joined Led Zeppelin; he didn’t give a fuck about being no rock star. But boy he was a funny guy; I loved him. He was like one of my best friends in the band.
Before he died he had bought a Rolls Royce, and once him and Keith Moon picked me up at a speak-easy and took me for a ride back to my hotel, and they were doing 90 miles an hour down the street at 5:00 in the morning and I said “You motherfuckers gotta slow this shit down”. And they’re talking to me – I’m in the back seat and they’re in the front looking back and talking – and I said “You motherfuckers gonna kill me out here, and I’ll get no headline. It’ll just say ‘Two Rock Stars Died’, you know?”
So I jumped out when they slowed down a little and walked. They followed me all the way back on the side with the windows down sayin’ “Man, get back in; we won’t drive fast”, and I said “Fuck you” and I walked all the way back to the hotel man. Scared me to death, man. And I didn’t see either one of them again; the next time they had passed, you know? That was the last time I saw them, but I had a lotta fun; they were both crazy.
GL: What would you say is your fondest memory of working with Zeppelin?
MM: Just the music, man; how they played. Something about their music just gave you energy, you know. Once you went to their show man, that shit, especially all that blues they played, really used to wake me up a lot. Always gave me energy and stuff, and then all of a sudden when the show’s over you’re still up. So you’re not ready to go to bed, so we’d hang out and party until the next day. That’s what the band did; the band didn’t get up until like 4 or 5 in the afternoon. So when everybody else is going to work, these motherfuckers are just going to bed.
The music was the thing for me man; I used to love to just hear them play. Jimmy’s such a great guitar player, and the techniques that he had with all that waving that wand and shit man was incredible. Sorta like Jimi Hendrix; he was a good performer, but Jimmy Page was more of a technician. He’d play wanting every note to be right; Jimi Hendrix just played and didn’t give a fuck if he messed up a note or not…
They could ALL play, but just like everybody’s voices sound different, guitar players all sound different. Duane Allman was a motherfucker too; Duane was a really good friend of mine and I was with him up until he died, too. And when Hendrix and Page were really popular Duane was saying he didn’t understand why all the English players were getting all the publicity; he said he could play too. But it was different once he finally met them. He even had a thing against Eric Clapton until he met him; and they ended up playing on “Layla” together. It was the same with Jimi Hendrix; he hated all that wah-wah shit, but Page idolized him and they ended up getting along well. And they used to jam in the hotel room you know, like after a show they’d come to my room and I’d play some blues shit and they’d bring their guitars and just play along with that. Without having it plugged in, just playing along. That was really enchanting to hear.
GL: So, you can play?
MM: I can play, but not like THAT.
GL: So are you still in touch with any of the Zeppelin guys?
MM: No, not really; I haven’t seen any of them in over 10 years. If I’m in town I might see them, but I don’t go to concerts anymore. But I talk to Peter Wolf and Dr. John maybe about once every three months, but none of them English cats. I saw them when they were young and they were much better, to me. I mean now they’re just repeating what they did back in the day. I saw Carl Palmer, still in action, at the Hard Rock Casino, but I didn’t go backstage and hang out with him, I just caught the show. The show was a motherfucker. Right about a year ago. I caught Eric Clapton and Robin Trower about a month ago.
GL: Speaking of Peter Wolf, I understand you were instrumental in signing the J.Geils Band to Atlantic in 1970?
MM: Yeah, I saw them up in Boston and I went back and kept talking about it to them (Atlantic) and they said “It’s just another white boy band playing the blues” and I said “Yeah, but they’re great”. So I just kept bugging them and stuff, saying “What the fuck am I doing out here if I can’t sign one band that I like”? So I had Ahmet and Bill Graham come up and see them at Ungano’s in New York, and Ahmet really enjoyed them and Bill Graham booked them immediately for the Fillmore East. Atlantic finally ended up signing them, and Peter Wolf and the band wanted to be on Atlantic anyway, so they took a horrible deal just to be on the label. Then they finally got a gold record with their red album (1973’s Bloodshot).
And they got two songs that are about me: “Ice Breaker (For The Big M)” from the 1970 self-titled debut, and “Whammer Jammer” from the 1971 album The Morning After. Both are harmonica instrumentals.
GL: Oh, that’s so cool. So, Emerson, Lake & Palmer: They left Atlantic in 1973 because they were unhappy, right?
MM: They started their own label in ’73, Manticore, but they didn’t leave because the label was distributed BY Atlantic. They were unhappy, that’s why they wanted their own label. They didn’t like the fact that Atlantic was making all their decisions and they had to get approvals for everything, so they created Manticore and just let Atlantic distribute the product.
GL: And so that’s when you left Atlantic to manage Manticore for ELP?
MM: Yeah, I was the head of Manticore America. I would go over for them and deal with Atlantic because I was in New York at the time and I knew the Atlantic people very well. That’s one of the reasons it was so easy for me to take the gig.
GL: What kind of things was ELP unhappy with at Atlantic?
MM: First, with the approvals before anything could be released. And Atlantic didn’t wanna release Pictures at an Exhibition on their label, they wanted to give it to (subsidiary) Elektra; they thought it was too classical-oriented. And I was one of the guys who told them “Hey, you gotta release that motherfucker; it’s good”.
GL: So Manticore shut down in 1977. Why?
MM: Yeah, you know what it was: All three of them, they couldn’t get along. And they wanted to tour with a goddamn orchestra and stuff like that, and you can’t make any money doing that, so they all geared to go do individual stuff. And now they’re all doing what they wanted to do then, except Keith has passed.
GL: So what did you do when Manticore shut down, not having them to manage anymore?
MM: I did Funkadelic and Rick James. I did independent promotion for Funkadelic; George (Clinton), he was on four or five different labels, and Bootsy Rubber Band, Bernie Worrell, all those cats had different records and I ended up getting deals for them on different labels. I worked with all them for about a year and a half.
Then Rick James came along and I ended up doing the first tour with Rick James; I was tour manager for his first tour in America, and we got to be good friends. After that tour I went back to promoting records, and he called me back when he got ready to release the Street Songs album. He wanted me to work with him on that to get “Super Freak” and all that out. I managed him for the first two albums.
GL: What are your thoughts on the passing of Keith Emerson?
MM: Ah, that really caught me by surprise man. But I knew about him having that nerve problem with his right hand, and he didn’t like the fact that he could only play with so many fingers of that hand; it affected him for quite some time. And he had stopped drinking, but then he started back drinking again because he kept seeing on the Internet and shit how fans were saying he should retire ‘cause he couldn’t play anymore, and that shit really got to him mentally. And I knew how he was; he was such a perfectionist, you know. So he started drinking again and was all depressed, and when you get like that suicide can go through your mind.
And I know he was in a lot of pain too, with that arm, and maybe he just decided to take the easy way out. I can understand if he did not want to live if he couldn’t play; playing meant more to him than anything on the planet.
And he was such a nice guy; nothing like a rock star, you know – none of that ego shit. He just wanted to play. And he did that destructive shit because of Jimi Hendrix; he wanted to be like Jimi but on the organ. He saw Jimi do all that tear up and burn shit with the guitar and he decided he’d do some stuff too to make the shows more interesting. That’s where he said he got all that stuff from; the knives in the keyboard and shit. But he was just all into music; well-schooled in it.
And John Paul Jones was another cat well-schooled in music. Any arrangement that Jimmy Page had problems with he took to Jones and Jones would straighten it out.
GL: Jones was classically-trained, as were his parents, right?
MM: Yeah. His father taught him to play. And I was on the road with them (in 1970) when they got the call that his father had died; I got the call from (band manager) Peter Grant to tell him that his father had passed. We were on tour at the time and I had to give him the news. We were up in the hotel room listening to James Brown and gettin’ high and all, and I said “Man I don’t know how to tell you this, but I just got a call and your father has died”. Jones said “Damn man, I just spoke to him yesterday”. I said “Well, you wanna cancel the tour right now and go back?” and he said “No, my father wouldn’t want me to cancel the tour; he’d want me to finish this leg and then we’ll go back”. And that’s what they did; they did like three of four more gigs then he went back for the funeral.
GL: I understand you’re one of the people in the inner gatefold photo of the Eagles’ Hotel California album.
MM; Yeah, I’m in there; in the white suit. I’m the only black guy in there and I got a white suit on and a white hat.
GL: How did you end up getting included in that?
MM: Don Henley called me when I was in LA, and they were in the Beverly Hills hotel. I knew them real well. I knew them when they were first starting and lived together, Henley and Frey, at that house in the (Laurel) Canyon. I was good friends with them from back then.
So they called me, I was working at Manticore at the time, when I was in town, and Henley called me one morning and asked if I had a white suit. I said yeah, and he said “We need somebody to play a pimp on the album cover; come on over”. So I went over to the hotel and we hung out all day to shoot that cover.
GL: Did you do any other work with the Eagles?
MM: I promoted their records for them; Asylum (the Eagles’ label) was distributed by Atlantic. I did their first single, “Take It Easy”, at the radio stations in 1972 and that started them off.
GL: So are you still in the music business, or have you left that all behind now?
MM: No, I don’t have anything to do with the music business anymore. It’s not a music business anymore, to me; it’s a distribution business now. I think iTunes put the record companies damn near out of business, unless you got one of those top acts…
GL: What was the last major thing you did in music?
MM: The Rick James and Funkadelic stuff.
GL: Do you listen to any of the “modern” rock bands of today?
MM: Not really; I don’t even know one. I don’t buy any music anymore; I don’t listen to any of them. If I see one of them on a show I might hear them, but I don’t follow it anymore. To me, I’m just not interested in it. When I wanna find out what’s happening with it I ask my grandkids, but it’s mostly hip-hop oriented and rap and stuff.
To me there’s only two kinds of music: If I like it it’s good, if I don’t like it it’s bad. I mostly listen to old stuff; blues and jazz stuff now, old rock and roll.
GL: Do you have a record collection?
MM: No, when I divorced I had about 20,000 albums and I left ‘em all with her. She must have given them away or whatever; I just left her ALL that shit. But I’m happier now than I was then.
GL: Well that’s all the questions I had, Mario. Is there anything you’d like to add?
MM: I can’t think of anything. You’re questions are the only way I’ll remember the stuff; most of the time I don’t think about or look back at what happened before.
GL: Then thank you so much: I really appreciate your time.
MM: It was a pleasure, man; keep up the good work.
©2016 by GotLed