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Rhino's Zany Charge Into Pop's Humor And History

March 09, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

Richard Foos and Harold Bronson, co-owners of Rhino Records, loved the idea. They'd put together an album featuring 13 Bruce Springsteen songs recorded by other artists.

The package, built around hits like "Because the Night," recorded by Patti Smith, and lesser-known items such as Johnny Cash's stark rendition of "Johnny 99," was a natural--something that true Springsteen fans would just have to have.

But could Foos and Bronson pull it off?

Could they beat other, larger labels to the punch? Could they talk the Boss' own label, Columbia, into giving them permission to use seven songs they needed?

Their initial gut feeling about their chances: Nooooo way .

These guys, however, are persistent. They got rights approval from all the record companies involved, going straight to Springsteen's management company when Columbia balked about allowing the use of the rock sensation's name on the cover.

The LP--"Cover Me"--is just out, and Foos and Bronson are celebrating. Given the loyalty of Springsteen's collector-conscious fans, the album could hit the 100,000 sales mark--making it Rhino's biggest seller by far.

The Springsteen album dramatizes the way Foos and Bronson have parlayed a $3 investment into a $3-million-a-year record and video company by picking up what the titans in the record biz viewed as mere crumbs.

Armed with a keen sense of humor and love of rock history, Foos, 36, and Bronson, 35, have dared to go where the major labels had no interest in treading. Their Rhino catalogue contains albums by such varied pop greats and/or curios as Jerry Lee Lewis and Mamie Van Doren, the Monkees and the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra.

The result is a wacky yet lovable supply of records and videos that are so much fun that they are virtually toys--especially for anyone who grew up in the '50s and '60s. While Rhino is around, no kid should ever have to give his dad a necktie again for Father's Day.

There's also a winning Walter Mitty element to the Rhino story.

Though raised on different coasts, Foos (from New York) and Bronson (Los Angeles), both were obsessed with music as teen-agers. Little did they know they would someday own a record company and release some of the very same records they had treasured as fans. Their personal odyssey is an intriguing case study of the strange way careers are often built.


Imagine a record store so irreverent that it paid a nickel to anyone who took home a free copy of a Danny ("Partridge Family") Bonaduce album and promised to listen to it.

Or a store so spunky that it refused to stock certain best-sellers, including Steve Martin's first comedy album and Barbra Streisand's "A Star Is Born" sound track, because it thought they were overpriced.

Or a store so outrageous that one of its most successful promotions--"Jewish Day"--invited customers to "try bargaining our profit-conscious staff into giving you a deal." Corned beef sandwiches and other deli delights--along with free yarmulkes--were supplied.

That was the Rhino record store through much of the '70s, an outpost in Westwood guided by Richard Foos, a former social worker whose first experience with selling records was at swap meets around Southern California.

Got that picture?

Now, imagine a record label whose albums range from novelties like "The Golden Turkey Album"--a collection of the best songs from the world's worst movies--to the "International Elvis Impersonators Convention"--an LP whose highlights include a Japanese singer (Hound Dog Fujimoto) karate-chopping his way through wooden boards while he warbles "All Shook Up."

And, picture this: "Va-Va-Voom!," a two-record set featuring screen sirens ranging from Elke Sommer (purring "I Surrender Dear") to Jayne Mansfield (assuring us that "Little Things Mean a Lot").

That's the zany side of the Rhino record company that Foos and Bronson--who went to work at the Westwood store in 1973--started after severing ties with the shop in 1979.

The other side of the record company is a repackaging program that involves best-of collections by some of the most acclaimed figures in rock (including Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers) and by some acts that only a nostalgia freak would appreciate (including Annette Funicello, Johnny Crawford and bubblegum heroes the 1910 Fruitgum Co.).

Foos and Bronson also have their sights set on video and the movies.

Among their videocassette offerings: "Battle of the Bombs"--trailers from some of the "worst, yet most entertaining films and video compilations ever made"--and "My Breakfast With Blassie"--a 1984 send-up of "My Dinner With Andre" featuring pro wrestler Freddie Blassie and comedian Andy Kaufman in a downtown L.A. coffee shop.

About Rhino's strategy, Bronson said, "The formal record industry always thought rock was a flash in the pan, so for years it only saw the music in commercial terms. There was no concern for putting out quality greatest-hits packages when schlocky ones would sell just as much.

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