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A Man Who Had a Passion for Art of the Troubadour

February 16, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Today, the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard is just one of a dozen clubs in Los Angeles presenting name pop-rock talent. But there was a time in the late '60s and early '70s when every young singer-songwriter dreamed of performing in the West Hollywood room's spotlight.

The Troubadour is where Elton John made his triumphant U.S. debut, where Kris Kristofferson first sang "Sunday Morning Coming Down" in public with Johnny Cash, and where Neil Diamond recorded a live album years before his "Hot August Night" engagement at the Greek Theatre.

The club was also an early, sometimes pivotal stop in the careers of dozens of the most distinguished songwriters of the modern pop era, a remarkable honor roll that includes Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt.

That Troubadour spotlight still shines on musicians, but for anyone who knows the history of the club, the room will never be the same, because its founder, Doug Weston, died Sunday in Los Angeles at age 72.

Weston was a pop impresario whose success was built on one overriding principle, and whose ultimate downfall as a club owner was betraying that principle.

During the glory days, when the Troubadour was the most important launching pad for new talent in the nation, Weston attributed all the club's influence to artists, and he devoted himself to making the club a supportive atmosphere for new talent.

At 6-foot-6, with long, flowing blond hair, Weston was a charismatic and imposing man whose greeting included praise not only for that evening's attraction, but also future ones that he had just booked, often after hearing an advance copy of their debut album.

But Weston started envying the success of not only the acts, but of the managers and record company executives who also profited from them. He began talking about the Troubadour itself being the important step in the star-making process, and demanded what many felt were unreasonable conditions.

For the right to play the Troubadour, for instance, he required that acts guarantee him a series of return engagements at the same beginner's fee. "The Troubadour has been a gold mine that's been mined by everybody else," Weston said at one point, declaring it was time for him to get his share.

At first, the pop world bowed to Weston's contract provisions because of the room's proven power. But industry figures finally rebelled against the demands and his increasingly eccentric behavior, the latter due to heavy use of alcohol and drugs, his associates now say.

In 1973, a group of industry titans, including Lou Adler and David Geffen, opened the larger Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Weston scoffed at the new club, but his bravado was short-lived. The Roxy was an instant success, and the Troubadour lost its quality bookings. Income sagged so badly that Weston almost lost the club at several points until he took on a partner, businessman Ed Karayan, who reorganized the operation in the early '80s.

By the time Karayan came aboard, the club had gone from being a haven for the nation's top young talent to a grim heavy-metal dungeon, largely ignored by the mainstream record industry.

While Karayan got the room back on its feet financially, it was general manager Lance Hubp who in the '90s began slowly winning back the confidence of the industry and making the room a favorite once again of artists and fans.

Weston didn't have a hand personally in the turnaround of his club, but Hubp said Sunday that he was inspired by Weston's original principle of honoring artists.

"I had heard for years about what the Troubadour was like in the '70s," Hubp said. "But I never really saw it until Roger McGuinn played here [in 1991] to launch his new album.

"Roger had been away from the scene for a while, and he didn't realize that the club wasn't what it used to be. Tom Petty sat in with him. George Harrison and Terence Trent D'Arby were in the audience. Photographers were everywhere. . . . It was a wonderful feeling in the room."

Since then, Hubp and Karayan have upgraded the club's facilities and attracted some of today's most respected acts, including Elvis Costello, Fiona Apple, Emmylou Harris, the Wallflowers, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Sleater-Kinney and Liz Phair.

The two are talking about a memorial service for Weston, though they aren't sure whether to hold it at the club or some larger facility, possibly a nearby park.

"I wonder how many people will still show up," said Hubp, who put the words "Rest in Peace Doug" on the club marquee Sunday night. "The truth is, most of the people who come to the club now don't even know who Doug was or what he represented in this town."

It's an interesting question, and it'll be revealing to see how many people will attend.

For years, there has been a tendency to think of Weston almost solely in terms of his failure to maintain the Troubadour's dominance.

But Weston's contribution to the health of the Los Angeles pop scene in the early days was immeasurable.

Much like Bill Graham in San Francisco, Weston in his finest hour didn't just present acts, he set an artistic tone by searching out the best of the emerging artists. And it was his love of singer-songwriters that contributed greatly to the development of that tradition in Southern California. He was perfect for the times, and for a time he used his power well.

If you measure Weston by his accomplishments rather than his failures, Karayan and Hubp should be prepared for a standing-room-only turnout at the memorial service. Doug Weston deserves a final thank you.

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