September 25, 2018

From Jewish Housewife to Rock ‘n’ Roll Mogul

In 1958, a typical Jewish housewife from Passaic, N.J., felt she needed something more out of life, so she decided to enter the music business. Who could have known then that Florence Greenberg was destined to become a powerhouse in the record industry and the most influential woman in the burgeoning musical movement known as rock ‘n’ roll? Now her career is dramatized in a new play called, “Baby It’s You,” on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse, starring Meeghan Holaway.

“This is the story of Florence’s journey,” explained director and co-writer Floyd Mutrux. “She left a 1950s backyard barbecue lifestyle, went across the bridge to New York, and opened up a whole new world.”

Mutrux added, “I’m tipping my hat to women. This is about a woman who did it against all odds, and she did it better than the men.”

Mutrux has written, directed or produced some 50 films, including “American Hot Wax,” “Urban Cowboy,” “Scarecrow,” and “Hollywood Knights.” His collaborator on “Baby It’s You,” Colin Escott, won a Grammy for writing and producing “The Complete Hank Williams.” The two wrote a series of biographies called American Pop Anthology that covered major music figures of the 1950s. The second installment in the series is the biography of Florence Greenberg, who was in her mid-40s when she embarked on her music career.

“She was phenomenal,” Mutrux said, “and this play is her story. It starts in the late 1950s, at the end of that decade, and it runs up to the mid ’60s, when the culture of the country changed.”

Greenberg’s success took off when her teenage daughter, Mary Jane (Suzanne Petrela), raved about the singing talents of four African American schoolmates, Shirley Owens (Berlando Drake), Doris Coley (Crystal Starr Knighton), Beverly Lee (Paulette Ivory) and Addie “Micki” Harris (Erica Ash). After hearing them, Greenberg signed them to a contract under her Tiara record label and named the group The Shirelles. Their first single, “I Met Him on a Sunday,” made the charts, and they went on to record such hits for Greenberg’s newly formed Scepter Records as “Tonight’s the Night,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Mama Said” and “Baby It’s You,” among numerous others.

Over the next 10 years, Scepter Records became legendary, and Greenberg signed several artists that may well be familiar to baby boomers, including Chuck Jackson (Geno Henderson), the Isley Brothers (Geno Henderson as Ron Isley), the Kingsmen and Dionne Warwick (Ivory). Entrepreneur Artie Ripp, who is involved with various video, music and technology enterprises, and who served as a consultant for this production, apprenticed in an office two doors down the hall from Scepter at 1650 Broadway, where many important companies were located. According to Ripp, Florence Greenberg had gotten a taste of the music business when she was knocking on doors trying to get a record deal for her son, Stanley (Adam Irizarry), who was blind and who was a talented composer, arranger and pianist.

“She was like the mother who feels her child could be a star and says, ‘I’m going to get you a commercial, or a movie, or a TV series.’ The kid might not make it, but the mother discovered that she loved the business. She found that people had an affinity for her and connected with her, and she was successful at networking.”

She also had an instinct for picking artists and material for the teenage audience. Ripp described her as confident and highly ambitious. He said she quickly learned how to arrange tours, get radio airtime, and place her artists on such pivotal TV shows of the era as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand.”

“She was someone who made talented people feel comfortable and who looked after their interests in a conscientious manner,” Ripp said. “She was also, as was required, very, very tough. She was working in a man’s world that was really a ‘take no prisoners’ world. The fact that she was a woman was actually a great disadvantage.

“I believe that, as a woman, she played the matriarch, the Queen Victoria. Think about it. She named one company Tiara, and she named another company Scepter. So, I’m sure that, whether it was analogous to Victoria, or Cleopatra or Queen Elizabeth, she saw herself as leading a nation, or forming a nation.”

Ripp speculated that her ethnicity may have accounted for the qualities that allowed her to succeed.

“There’s an intellect, an education, a sense of melody and words, and a talent for communicating that the Jews have owned for thousands of years.”

At one point Greenberg joined forces with an African American songwriter and record producer named Luther Dixon (Allan Louis). They released a string of hit songs and soon became lovers. Ripp said that relationship was a totally new experience for a “repressed Jewish woman” who had been raised to be very conventional.

Ripp surmised that Greenberg gave Dixon stability and recognition. “The two of them were like hydrogen and oxygen in the proper balance, and, together, they produced water.”

Their interracial affair was not a problem in New York, but there was trouble when they toured the South. In the play, the two are told to leave a Birmingham restaurant, and, in another scene, Greenberg learns that The Shirelles can’t stay at her Atlanta hotel, so she goes to stay where they are allowed.

In time, the relationship between Greenberg and Dixon deteriorated. When Burt Bacharach began recording for Scepter, he didn’t need Luther Dixon to produce his songs, one of which was “Baby It’s You,” so Dixon left the company and left Greenberg, who continued without him.

Ultimately, though, musical tastes changed, particularly with the advent of The Beatles and the “British invasion.” The play ends in 1965, when the era of The Shirelles had passed.

“This period in which Florence operated was really the golden era of pop music,” Floyd Mutrux said. “Some of the lyrics were fabulous, but they didn’t become political until ’65, when Barry [McGuire] recorded ‘Eve of Destruction.’ Overnight the country changed, and that’s when The Shirelles said ‘goodbye.’ It was over for innocent little girls singing ‘I Met Him on a Sunday.’ The world had changed. Kennedy was gone; there was a war in South Vietnam; and Martin Luther King was down in Montgomery trying to integrate the buses. The Beatles showed up with their own instruments and bingo! The era that we came to know as the ’60s actually began in ’65.”

Greenberg eventually left the running of Scepter to her children and sold the company in 1976. She spent the last few years of her life in a retirement home and died of a stroke in 1995, at the age of 82.

And what would Mutrux like audiences to experience while watching his play?

“I would like them to have a fabulous trip down memory lane, revisiting the music that defined a generation, and I would like them to learn the story of a woman they probably knew nothing about, who was the most powerful woman in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” 

“Baby It’s You” has been extended at the Pasadena Playhouse through Dec. 20. Mutrux plans to take the show to Broadway in the spring.