Business

From ZE Records to Debbie Gibson: A PR Vet's Eclectic Life Behind the Curtain

David Salidor
PATRICK MCMULLAN/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

David Salidor attends the "Becoming Jane" premiere hosted by Piaget and Miramax After Party at Bowery Hotel on July 24, 2007 in New York City.

When longtime music publicist David Salidor caught Micky Dolenz, Todd Rundgren and Christopher Cross' recent tribute tour to the White Album, he was watching more than a reinterpretation of the Beatles' double-LP opus: he was witnessing two generations of Salidor clients on the same stage. David Salidor, 35 years into running his PR firm disCOMPANY, currently works with the Monkees' Dolenz, while his father, Len Salidor, worked the first two Ampex albums from Rundgren in the early '70s. But back in Todd's Runt days, David wasn't particularly interested in following in his father's footsteps.

"I wanted to be a guitarist, but I took the music lessons and it didn't work out," he says of his youth, adding with a laugh, "Perhaps it's a little late in the game now, although John McLachlin -- watch out."

Even if the guitar wasn't his calling, London was – at least, London Records. A stint there and at Howard Bloom Organization provided a music biz boot camp for the young Salidor, but it wasn't until the early '80s – during an interview above a famed New York City concert hall -- that he really found his groove.

"I went to ZE Records for an interview; they had offices on the top of Carnegie Hall," he recalls. "Everyone there worked in a big loft space -- it was even set up differently. I bought into the whole package. The ZE attitude, if you will, I absolutely loved."

Founded by Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban in 1978, ZE Records was home to a genre-blurring roster of artists who freely mixed everything from disco to Latin to post-punk to dance, all with the sardonic wit of a street-savvy outsider.

"My tastes were dark and eclectic," Salidor says -- and at ZE Records, he was with his people. "That whole avant-garde: Was Not Was, James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Cristina, Suicide, all those bands I absolutely loved. This was 1980, '81 when that term 'no wave' [came about] and all our acts fit into that category."

Taking the reigns as PR director at ZE, Salidor felt at home at the company, which was as much an artists' collective as proper label. "Chris Butler of the Waitresses, Don Was – who is president of Blue Note now – these guys would walk into Michael's office. August [Darnell, of Kid Creole and the Coconuts] lived two blocks away, he would come by and mix stuff and write and do art. It was always a creative thing going on – it was great."

Although a number of the artists at ZE cultivated a jaded aura, that wasn't the atmosphere on the inside. For instance, while dark disco provocateur Cristina (who was married to ZE's Zilkha at the time) reworked Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" as a deadpan ode to nihilism, in person it was a different story. "She was a delight, very funny," Salidor recalls. "Even Suicide -- their music is a little dark, hard-edged, but Alan Vega? The guy was a pussycat."

Though new wave and post-punk were getting a foothold on radio and the charts back then, the music on ZE skewed too far into uncharted territory to really break through. So promoting it meant lobbying support from "writers who gravitated toward an eclectic side of music," a number of whom held powerful pens at now defunct publications like Soho Weekly News and The Village Voice. And while an artist aiming for No. 1 on the Hot 100 might travel the country meeting top 40 radio programmers in the light of day, the early '80s New York version of this meant traveling a circuit of influential downtown dance clubs presided over by taste-making DJs.

"August [Darnell and other ZE artists], we would go out to the clubs with them. What better thing is there than have the artist bringing their music to the DJ?" Salidor says. "My favorite club, the Mudd Club, sometimes we wouldn't get to until 4:30 in the morning. Most of the DJs in those clubs absolutely adored the ZE music. Jim Burgess, Shep Pettibone, even Jellybean to an extent loved the music."

Still, he acknowledges that -- like flooding someone's email in the 21st century -- you never wanted to overdo it. "There's something to be said for not going to the clubs every night, too -- then the DJs get too used to seeing you."

But even if he wasn't seeing the aforementioned DJs in the wee hours of the night every weekend, he was seeing a few of them in a different capacity – as clients. Representing John "Jellybean" Benitez, Jim Burgess and Shep Pettibone around the time he started his company in '84, Salidor was up against an industry still decades away from regarding DJs as legitimate artists in their own right.

"The media hadn't been introduced to this [idea of the DJ as a solo artist], so it was a gradual program of education," he recalls. And it wasn't just music writers whose curiosity was piqued by the fertile, buzzy NYC dance scene.  

"One night where Jellybean played, Paul Simon showed up," he says, still sounding a bit incredulous at the memory. "Literally stood next to John for hours watching him. When they had a break Paul said, 'Well, you don't read music, how are you able to do this?' John said, 'Well I hear it. I hear what will work, what will not work.' The Nile Rodgers, Paul Simons, they were fascinated by that world."

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"One day Madonna showed up. Sweet girl, good listener. She asked a lot of questions. She sat there like a sponge, and I mean that in the best way possible, and soaked everything up. She'd say, 'Well, how do you do this,' or 'what about with Billboard,' and the next week she'd be doing it," he says. "Mark Kamins, another great DJ, got Madonna signed to Sire, but John got Mark Kamins into Madonna. She and John started hanging out, we'd go out to these elaborate dinners, go to the front house, then do it all over again the next night. She was great, everyone loved her."

While the mall-friendly dance-pop of Madonna's first few albums might seem leagues away from a label like ZE Records, her roots in the New York avant scene still popped up here and there. The soundtrack to Who's That Girl?, the 1987 film starring Madonna and boasting her Billboard Hot 100-topping single of the same name, featured a close collaborator of August Darnell both behind the scenes and on wax – Coati Mundi, aka Andy Hernandez from Kid Creole and the Coconuts, whose "El Coco Loco (So So Bad)" closes the album.

"Madonna and Coati Mundi and I and Jellybean, we spent a lot of that time hanging out [on the set of Who's That Girl?] when they weren't shooting it," Salidor says. "You know the famous line of shooting movies and videos, 'hurry up and wait'? It was a lot of down time. But a lot of fun."

It was around then that Salidor began working with a very different era-defining pop singer; while Madonna was already a street-smart, hungry talent by the time they crossed paths, this one was a 15-year-old girl living with her parents in Merrick, Long Island.

"When I first met Debbie Gibson she was in high school. She came home, we're sitting with her family, and she knew exactly what she wanted -- she just didn't know how to go about doing it. She didn't know what a publicist was or even a manager, but she had an idea of where she wanted to go, and most artists don't have that," he says, still sounding impressed with the moxie of the teen he met decades ago.

In addition to Gibson's drive, she had a curiosity that set her apart. "When we went to the clubs to perform, she made it a point to listen what was playing, to talk to the DJs, to find out what was going on. She had her own ideas. No one was going to say to her 'you might not be right' or 'you might want to do this.' She had her vision. Debbie did what she wanted to do, and 99 percent of the time, she was right."

Notching two Hot 100 No. 1s as a teenager before the decade was out, Gibson inspired waves of imitators – but almost no real competitors in her age range.

"When Debbie was big, every parent who had a kid thought their kid had a musical quality -- 99 percent did not," he says bluntly. "But they thought, 'If Debbie can make it, mine can make it.' But they lacked talent or lacked the vision. Debbie was always very focused."

That's something he saw in her outside of the PR grind, having accompanied the young singer-songwriter to the studio during mixing. "She's an artist who wrote, performed and co-produced a lot of [her songs]. An artist with a direct sense of what she wanted to get across. A lot of artists didn't write the material, and so [they were] at the mercy of record producers."

And she remained unflappable even when the earth was literally shaking beneath her.

"We went out on her first trip, with her mom, and Debbie had never been to L.A. before. The first interview was with Hits magazine, so I met the writer, we're sitting by the pool, and there's an earthquake. These two people come running out of the hotel in their pajamas and I said to the writer, not missing a beat, 'as a matter of fact, there's Debbie right now.' She was a little frazzled but got it together and the interview went great. And she was only 16 going on 17."

Earthquakes and fly on the wall moments aside, there's a deft negotiation between pride and humility in his voice while sharing music biz war stories, even as he continues to represent clients such as Dolenz, Tony-nominee J. Robert Spencer, Rockers on Broadway, jazz fusion band Project Grand Slam and author Mark Bego.

"People walk into my office and I have all the [hit] records up, and it's a business thing, but it's also a lot of blood, sweat and tears in all of it -- and a lot of pride. I feel I've been very lucky. A lot of people I know have not had the break or breaks," he says, emphasizing the plural. "It's a tough business. It was a tough business back then – and it's changed a lot, but it's still tough. I don't take a moment for granted."