New York Times
Easy listening with the ‘mom’ of rock ‘n’ roll
May 5, 1993
TEANECK, N.J. – WhenÂ Florence Greenberg was a childÂ growing up in Manhattan, sheÂ would ‘watch an uncle sit forÂ hours at the family piano, tryingÂ out different notes, searchingÂ desperately for a breakthroughÂ tune. He was a songwriter whoÂ made a meager living at hisÂ trade.
“I was fascinated,” she said.
“Even though I couldn’t carry aÂ tune myself, I just knew I’d windÂ up doing something in the musicÂ business.”
Greenberg grew up to becomeÂ the founder of Sceptor Records,Â a recording label that flourishedÂ during the early days of rock ‘n’Â roll with such artists as theÂ Shirelles, the Isley Brothers,Â Chuck Jackson, Luther Dixon,Â Dionne Warwick and B.J.Â Thomas.
Four years ago, Disney Pictures optioned Greenberg’s storyÂ for Bette Midler‘s All-Girl Prod u c t i on C o m p a n y. Â B o n n ieÂ Bruckheimer, a partner in AllGirl productions, said that theÂ project was “in active development” and that the delay in production had been caused in partÂ by the need to obtain the rightsÂ for using the music from aÂ number of Sceptor clients.
The role of Greenberg wouldÂ b e p l a y e d b y M i d l e r ,Â Bruckheimer said, adding thatÂ Midler frequently talks on theÂ phone with Greenberg.
THE WALLS of Greenberg’sÂ apartment in a retirement homeÂ here are laden with gold recordsÂ of S c e p t o r ‘s Â h i ts Â andÂ photographs of her with DickÂ Clark, John Lennon and severalÂ singing groups. Now 79 and inÂ failing health, Greenberg recently talked of her place in rock ‘n’Â roll’s early days.
It was the mid-1950s, an eraÂ when the hard-driving sounds ofÂ rhythm and blues, which hadÂ always been played almost exclusively for black audiences,Â exploded on the mainstreamÂ rock scene.
A small but powerful label,Â Sceptor was responsible for suchÂ hits as “Twist and Shout,” Â “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Soldier Boy,” “Louie Louie“Â and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ onÂ My Head.”
“Believe me, it wasn’t easy,Â especially for someone like me, aÂ middle-aged housewife, a whiteÂ woman who was in a blackÂ business and who couldn’t evenÂ carry a tune,” Greenberg said.
When it all began, it was theÂ early 1950s. She was married toÂ an accountant, had two childrenÂ and lived in Passaic, N.J. ButÂ Greenberg said she took trips,Â often alone, to Broadway showsÂ or hockey games, and she listened to music constantly, particularly rhythm and blues.
IT WAS a chance acquaintanceÂ that landed her in the musicÂ business.
“My husband’s distant cousinÂ was in the music business; heÂ was an arranger at a publishingÂ firm that handled Elvis Presley,Â and he would tell us stories,”Â Greenberg said.
“I’d give him some input onÂ new artists, and he kept tellingÂ me I had an eye and a ear for theÂ music business.”
She began to hang around theÂ Turf, a New York restaurant,Â now closed, on Broadway and Â 51st Street, and she was an oddÂ sight, among several fledglingÂ black artists who were writingÂ songs and working all eightÂ phones there. They were tryingÂ to get a break in the musicÂ business and were pretending toÂ be phoning from their offices.
People like Ed Townsend, whoÂ would later go on to record theÂ hit “For Your Love,” would tryÂ out their m a t e r i a l Â forÂ Greenberg, who was free withÂ her advice.
“I decided to open a small office at 1674 Broadway, and I called myself Sceptor Records onlyÂ because my lawyer had a clientÂ with that name who’d gone out ofÂ the music business and IÂ wouldn’t have to pay for licensing,” Greenberg said. “Now IÂ prayed that someone, anyone,Â would walk in with a song andÂ sell it to me.”
HER DAUGHTER Mary Jane,Â then a teen-ager at Passaic HighÂ School, provided Greenberg herÂ first client.