Universal Attractions Agency: Celebrating 75 Years At The Forefront Of Music History
Ben Bart might have seemed like another unremarkable music fan as a young man from Knoxville, Tenn., in the 1930s, other than a penchant for traveling between Memphis and Nashville to see the orchestras and bands of the day perform live. The main object of his affection was “race music” – the euphemism of the time for what evolved into R&B and soul music, and the (segregated) domain of Black musicians.
He’d gotten a job at the Gale Agency booking the artists he loved and, by 1945, was ready to break out on his own – taking some of the era’s biggest acts with him. The agency he created, Universal Attractions Agency, celebrated its 75th anniversary on May 15.
Over the years, UAA has boasted truly jaw-dropping talent on its rosters including James Brown, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, the Staples Singers, The Grateful Dead, Sepultura, Salt-N-Pepa, Naughty By Nature, New Edition and so much more.
Tim Graham / Evening Standard / Getty Images – ROCK ROYALTY
Little Richard in costume at an empty Wembley Stadium, during rehearsals for a 1972 concert.
Los Osos, Calif.-based author Jon Stebbins, having penned four books on The Beach Boys, was looking for something different when he agreed to write the history of UAA last year. And boy, did he find it.
The agency, already known for representing such luminaries of modern popular music, has also been at the forefront of successive popular genres from the Big Bands of the jazz era to rock ‘n’ roll, New Jack Swing to rap, and “Quiet Storm” jazz to heavy metal.
Its beginnings were auspicious enough, in a New York City office space previously occupied by Universal Pictures – the late, great agent Dick Alen says the film company’s globe logo was still behind the reception desk, and the “Universal” moniker stuck because it was already there.
But UAA continues to be a strong presence, now helmed by co-owners Jeff Allen and Jeff Epstein, who acquired the agency from Ben Bart’s son, Jack, in 2007.
And the company has a treasure trove of history and stories to be told – starting with that of Ben Bart, who eventually made it from Knoxville to New York and a club he ran called Baloney Ben’s.
He was making the acquaintance of jump blues artists and band leaders like Jimmie Lunceford and in between Baloney Ben’s and UAA, Bart became an agent at the Gale Agency. The company was known for representing the top Black vocal groups of the time including The Ink Spots, whose 1939 hit, “If I Didn’t Care” was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame and “Gypsy,” which in 1948 was named the biggest money-making song of the year by Cashbox. In 1989, The Ink Spots were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“They were not only selling tons of records, they were in films and selling out performances all over the world. But they had a really contentious relationship with Moe Gale and lawsuits ensued,” Stebbins explains. “The Big Bang for UAA occurs in about spring of 1945, when Ben Bart and another agent at Gale, Harry Lenestka, decided to venture out on their own.”
They opened Universal Attractions Agency and brought The Ink Spots, as well as Dinah Washington and Wynonie Harris, among others, with them.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images – SHOW HIM THE MONEY
Chuck Berry performs his “duck walk” as he plays his electric hollowbody guitar at the TAMI Show on Dec. 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, Calif. Other performers included James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Jan & Dean.
What’s particularly notable about this, other than prying away top artists from an agency and then becoming its competitor, was that booking Black artists in venues other than those friendly to Black artists and audiences, or Black-owned, such as the Apollo Theater and the Savoy in New York, or the so-called “Chitlin Circuit” of the South, was not an easy task. Even into the 1950s and ‘60s, the state of Jim Crow in American entertainment was such that only the rare Black performer was seen on TV.
That’s important to remember when one considers that UAA has made its bones in “packaging” artists and tours to the current day. Back in the pre-Beatles era, before the rock concert touring juggernaut, music artists were generally relegated to personal appearances departments of agencies that secured TV spots, the embryonic “caravan of stars” type of mini-tours, and public appearances that often were little more than publicity stunts, albeit sometimes colorful ones.
But in 1948, as UAA clients, The Ink Spots became the first Black artists to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The following year, the group appeared three times on comedian Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater” and would appear on Sullivan’s show again in 1950 and 1952.
The Ink Spots and UAA were setting the stage for color barriers to be broken through TV screens in family living rooms as well as for artists of later generations like Brown, Little Richard and Berry. Or the Stylistics, Manhattans, or Chi-Lites. Or Naughty By Nature, Johnny Gill, Will Downing, or Hammer.
Ben’s son, Jack Bart, joined the family business and eventually took it over from his father in 1965. But not until after UAA in 1956 signed an energetic, charismatic, young performer who would change everything.
“[Ben Bart] got a call from a local promoter down in Georgia about James Brown, who is only 18 years old at the time,” Jack Bart says. “[The promoter] says, ‘You have to see this.’ He went down to this tiny club in Georgia and saw [Brown] and felt that he had talent and signed him to a booking agency contract and eventually became his personal manager.”
As Ben Bart moved into management, Jack took on more booking duties including that of Brown.
That put Jack Bart in position to meet Jeff Allen, an agent who had been with Associated Booking Corporation, and then founded Talent Consultants International with John Regna, Margo Lewis (who still runs TCI) and Mitchell Karduna.
There, he made the acquaintance of one of Brown’s Famous Flames, who asked if he could book James Brown. At that time, agents booked by territory; Allen agreed to book some shows in Seattle and Los Angeles. After one of them, he got a phone call that changed his career.
“I sold James Brown and I get a call from Al Sharpton and he says there’s a problem with the money,” Allen says. “‘Mr. Brown wants to talk to you.’ I told him I sold the show for a $5,000 deposit, $10,000 total. I told him I could show him the contracts and he says, “You want to be my manager? Here’s my number. Call my manager.” I was barely 21. He said I’d be his new manager. I get a call from Jack Bart and he says, “I handle James Brown. I’m his agent.”
So I met him for lunch. As it turned out, I wouldn’t be a manager, I’d be an agent, and I gave up my living room desk in 1981.”
Allen came to UAA with that fateful phone call and Jack Bart moved more fully into management, turning over his booking duties to Allen.
Working with an enigmatic artist like Brown came with its own rewards and headaches.
“James Brown was an artist that was almost impossible to manage,” Jack Bart says. “He just had his own ideas. And any ideas that one might have would have to be put to James in a way that, like, he himself came up with the idea.
“But as a singer and a performer, there was no doubt that he knew exactly how to do that. He was a phenomenal performer.”
And Brown certainly knew how to rise to an occasion, as when he famously calmed tensions in the city of Boston with an April 5, 1968 concert at Boston Garden – the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. A deal was struck with Boston PBS affiliate WGBH-TV to air the concert, which ran afoul of a previous non-compete for another concert film but which the team and station negotiated to everyone’s satisfaction. Four months later, he penned his anthemic “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.”
“He was very interested in bettering the life of the Black person, and he went way out of his way to help them in his quest for equality,” Bart says. “So my hat was off to him and I assisted him in many ways. I had him join the NAACP and I got him, myself and my father, life membership in the NAACP. And yes, he did a lot for the Black person, no question about it.
“He went out on a limb and was outspoken, but it was for a good cause. And as it turned out in the years that followed, that he did absolutely the right thing.”
Little Richard, also on the UAA roster at the time, viewed things somewhat differently.
“He hated a lot of things with the movement. But he and James Brown were actually very good friends,” Bart says of two legendary roster mates. “And when they did go out on the road, they would sit and talk about how to better the life of the Black person and what they could do together or even separately. So it was always in the back of their minds.”
While UAA is often associated with Black artists and genres, it’s only one facet of their extensive roster. In addition to heavy metal artists including Sepultura, Sacred Reich, Biohazard, Death Angel and more, the late Marty Otelsberg, an agent in the ‘60s and 70s, signed a fledgling band from San Francisco called The Grateful Dead to its roster on the basis of seeing the band one time in a New York City club in 1967.
His daughter, Lori Otelsberg, works in entertainment in Los Angeles and has vivid memories of that period.
“My dad used to go to clubs like the Dugout, the Cotton Club, and there was a lady at Warner Bros. that I have a handwritten note from saying, ‘Marty, I found this band, you really need to see them and you should sign them.’ And that’s when he signed,” Otelsberg says. In yet another sign of the times, she adds, “Warner Bros. sent a letter with two acts, and one is The Grateful Dead. The other, they described as ‘A negro singer.’”
Marty Otelsberg worked with other artists besides The Grateful Dead, of course, including Con Funk Shun, the Bar-Kays, John Lee Hooker and James Brown.
Chris McKay / WireImage – The Stylistics
Airrion Love, Eban Brown, Herb Murrell, and Jason Sharp of The Stylistics perform at Chastain Park Amphitheater on July 10, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.
“When my dad started doing this, no shit, The Grateful Dead came over to our house in Brooklyn. My mother put plastic on the couches!,” she says, laughing.
“From there, I got in with Dick Clark and ‘American Bandstand.’ It was my first job in the industry. When Dick opened the Dick Clark agency, I became an agent. My dad always said no to me working in the music industry.”
Eventually the family moved to Los Angeles and Marty Otelsberg set up shop in UAA’s Beverly Hills office, where he worked with Bob Diddley, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Chubby Checker and, of course, The Grateful Dead on both coasts.
“My dad ending up hanging out with Sandy Alexander, who was the head and started the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels,” Otelsberg relates. “Sandy did the security, as you know, for The Grateful Dead and Bo Diddley. My dad and Sandy had this group of eclectic friends and every time [Alexander] was in jail, dad took care of his kids.”
As for Diddley, Otelsberg met him in a small club called the Antique Mirror in Northridge, Calif., working for about $100 a night. Otelsberg brought him under his wing and became his manager. By the time Otelsberg died, Diddley was making $35,000 a night.
These are examples of not just the relationship Otelsberg had with his clients, but of the entire agency’s.
While some agents may be happy to book the same shows every year and collect their commissions while the getting is good, too often they can become complacent about the career of an artist hitting a bump in the road or facing the inevitable downward arc. With UAA, a client is more than a commission; agents become friends and mentors to artists and help prolong careers.
“A lot of companies rely on record companies and radio. How hard is it to promote a Taylor Swift show?” Jack Bart says. “Way before Taylor Swift there was Debbie Gibson and Taylor Dayne. You’re not doing clients justice by saying ‘I just signed act X’ and rely on them to play in front of the same audiences when the wheels are falling off the bus.”
Epstein points to the “boutique” nature of the agency to be able to pivot and be flexible with an artist’s career, whether it be booking a package tour or placing a client in a Geico commercial.
“You have the ability to do more,” Epstein says. “There’s a lot of things we can do when we get involved with an artist. You’re like a booking agent and a management consultant. There are more opportunities to guide the artist’s career and move it along. The advantage of a boutique agency over a full service agency is you’ve got the guy who books dates for artist X. And when they go to do TV appearances, or commercials, or writing children’s books or whatever, they get booted to another department and probably another agent that doesn’t know him as well. Working with every aspect of an artist’s career and getting to know them as people probably makes for a better fit when it comes time to placing them.”
Johnny Gill, a singer/songwriter and member of ‘90s supergroup New Edition, concurs.
“At one point, we all have these highs and lows in our careers and I met them at a low point,” Gill says. “We’ve had an incredible working relationship to this day. Both Jeffs understand what it means to grind. They’re not the biggest agency, but they give everyone a run for their money. I’ve told artists that I’ve referred to them that they roll up their sleeves and work. They’re so amazing and competitive.”
Jazz artist Will Downing adds, “I’ve been at William Morris and other big agencies. The upside is they are bigger and there are more options. The downside is you’re a small fish in an ocean and if you aren’t on the phone pushing them constantly, you won’t eat.
“The joy of UAA that I’ve found is they are almost family, especially in the R&B division,” Downing continues. “You don’t feel like the small fish in the ocean. You’re all on an even keel – if I don’t eat, he don’t eat. I’ve been at agencies when agents have been slightly disparaging. Back in the early ‘80s, it was like, ‘I took this gig on your behalf.’ They talked down to you. “In every aspect that there is, UAA for some reason has a relationship and a bond and I appreciate that. They’re family. Whether there’s an air of bullshit to do it, I don’t feel it. There’s sincerity. “
Perhaps some of that comes from the fact that UAA has been a family business for most of its 75 years. Though Jack Bart sold the company to Allen and Epstein in 2007, he mentored them in the ways of UAA dating to its founding, and continues to do so.
As UAA transitioned from the Ben to the Jack Bart eras, coinciding with the growth of the modern concert business, it maintained the package tour as a cornerstone of its business.
“I’m not going to say UAA created it, but they had those “caravan of stars” shows and UAA was there at the beginning,” Allen says. “Larry Myers, gone many years now, worked with Berry Gordy packaging Motown stars so we were involved in packaging from the earliest days. Packaging is something we did when rock ‘n’ roll couldn’t sell out an arena. It was still years before The Beatles or The Who. James Brown started selling out arenas. But packaging shows is what we knew to do for our clients getting them into theaters and arenas.”
It’s a significant model UAA brings to the table. More a boutique than a major agency, UAA has had a tremendous impact extending the careers of its clients by branding and marketing package tours in a way in which the whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.
“Universal’s always packaged shows,” Epstein says. “And it’s incredible, looking at the history of the company and finding all these posters that represent the history of the company. It’s so cool to see posters with Otis Redding and 15 acts on a bill. It was part of Universal’s design from the beginning and it continues. We did really well creating the “‘70s Soul Jam.” And that turned into a PBS special and everything we created that followed.”
Paras Griffin / Getty Images / Black Music Honors – Vin “Rock” Brown
Treach, DJ Kay Gee, and Vin Rock of Naughty by Nature perform onstage during 2019 Black Music Honors at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on September 5, 2019 in Atlanta.
Allen cites The Stylistics, which he booked since their breakout in the early 1970s, as an example.
“There was a place in Manhattan with something like 200 seats called Sweetwater and, by the mid-‘80s, they would put on The Stylistics; two shows each on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and one on Sunday,” Allen explains. “They’d get $70,000 for seven shows. The week after that could be The Spinners, [Harold Melvin and] The Blue Notes, The Temptations. You couldn’t get them into the Beacon Theater, but we took the “‘70s Soul Jam” to the Beacon with The Stylistics, The Dramatics and The Chi-Lites, and sold that out.”
Jack Bart represented The Stylistics during their late ‘60s to early ‘70s prime and beyond.
“They had 14 million-selling records,” Bart says. “And there is one record that sold more than 2 million records. So they were quite well-established not only in the United States, but all throughout the world. They’d go to England for a month. They’d play Europe, they’d do Japan, they do the Middle East or Australia. They tour all over the world. And I also represented the Chi-Lites, which is Marshall Thompson, and he’s based in
Chicago. So I have a very varied group of artists that I’ve been representing over the years.”
The Stylistics’ Airrion Love credits Bart and UAA for helping launch the vocal group by sending them on tour with James Brown, thereby raising a profile that was already trajecting upward.
Jack Bart was James Brown’s agent and he was on UAA,” Love says. “So UAA put us on tour with James Brown. We toured with him for a few years after our first album. We were doing 20,000-seat convention centers and people were getting to hear our music in a lot of cases for the first time. It was instrumental in our success.”
And The Stylistics were successful, hitting the Billboard Top 10 U.S. Singles chart in 1971 twice, with “You Are Everything” and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” followed by hits with “Stone In Love With You,” “Break Up To Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”
Getty Images – George Clinton
George Clinton (2nd from L), of Parliament-Funkadelic, performs onstage at Central Park SummerStage, New York City, June 4, 2019. The performance was the group’s ‘One Nation Under a Groove Farewell Tour.’
The vocal group was a cornerstone of what came to be known as the Philly Sound with other groups like The Chi-Lites and The Dramatics, marking another point at which UAA artists were on the leading edge of a transformation of the soul/R&B genre. And, as Jeff Allen likes to say, that era was one that tapped “the imagination of a generation.” There wasn’t a kid growing up in the early 1970s that didn’t have those songs imprinted on their brain. Recognizing that is what enables UAA to continue mining careers long after the singles stop coming.
“UAA has such a large roster, they put together a ‘70’s Soul Jam’ tour that we were stars of, but most of the acts we toured with were on that,” Love says. “The Dramatics, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, all the artists that UAA ever booked. It was easy to put the package together. It had been the Motown era, but when the Philly Sound came around, they would come to Philadelphia.”
UAA used the same “imagination of a generation” concept in other packages that became quite successful, including “Lost ‘80s Live” and “I Love The ‘90s” tours.
Prior to the industrywide COVID shutdown, the “‘70s Soul Jam” was averaging 2,683 tickets sold per show and an average gross of $182,564 as reported to Pollstar. “Lost ‘80’s Live,” featuring
artists including Flock Of Seagulls, Wang Chung, Missing Persons, Motels, Animotion and more, averaged 2,702 tickets and a gross of $98,968. The “I Love The ‘90s” tour, including artists like Naughty By Nature, New Edition, Salt-N-Pepa, Tone Loc, Coolio and more, averaged 6,117 tickets and $304,063 per night.
Susan Rosenbluth, of AEG Presents Global Touring and Goldenvoice, has known Allen since the James Brown days and has worked with them on many of UAA’s more recent packages. “We did James Brown at the Greek virtually every year through the ’80s and ‘90s,” Rosenbluth says.
“At first I was the manager and shifted to talent buyer. We’ve always had a great relationship, where we put fun packages together as well. They’ve been great shows. Jeff’s always taken such care of the artists he has, and they get treated fairly, get paid, and that’s not always the case. Jeff really helps organize that programming, so he acts almost as a tour promoter.
Mychal Watts / Getty Images / Jazz in The Gardens Music Festival – Will Downing
Musician Will Downing performs on stage at The 12th Annual Jazz In The Gardens Music Festival – Day 1 at Hard Rock Stadium on March 18, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
“These are really talented people who deserve the respect of the industry and don’t always get it. And they should get it because they are very talented people. [UAA does] a really great job and has a personal relationship with their artists. There are managers sometimes running interference. What we do is not a job, it’s a lifestyle and young people are starting to understand that, and sometimes it has to be reiterated and it’s important to understand that. We don’t sell widgets, artists are people.”
Naughty By Nature’s Vin “Rock” Brown is one of those people who have benefited from those relationships.
“I’d like to thank the entire team, Jeff Epstein and Jeff Allen, for holding us together in our career and getting involved because Naughty By Nature went through some internal bad times,” Brown says. “Jeff Epstein stepped up to talk to the three of us individually – Treach personally – and helped us sustain and get on board, to let us know we have a golden goose. ‘Do not kill the golden goose.’ Everyone goes through problems, like a marriage. If not for UAA, because touring is bread and butter, we would not be together and we’d be in a bad position. They’ll always have my loyalty and dedication.”
“We’ve been blessed here, you know, to be doing as well as we have been and keeping the name of the company alive for 75 years,” Epstein says. “We work really hard. I like to think that we work smart, too. And like I said, I’m tenacious. I don’t take no for an answer. ‘I LoveThe ‘90s’’ tour was catching lightning in a bottle. But capturing the imagination of an entire generation, you know, that’s really what packaging is about.”
Meanwhile, Stebbins continues to mine UAA’s archives and history, and expects to publish the yet-untitled book next spring or summer.
“It’s incredible to cover that long of a span as a historical overview, because once you get to, say, 1951 there’s a book already,” Stebbins tells Pollstar.
“Covering 75 years is pretty crazy. It’s a very vibrant and colorful history of artists who came out of that popular culture window. The names and stories that come along, and with somebody like Ben Bart, who is a legendary figure, really, who founded the company and his son, Jack. The way this entertainment business eats its young and discards its old and yet they still have the company.”