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Former Warner Bros. A&R Exec Jeff Blue Remembers Chester Bennington, Linkin Park's Early Days
Jeff Blue is a multiplatinum producer and songwriter, and a veteran A&R executive who has worked at Atlantic, Interscope, Zomba Music Publishing and RCA, among other labels. In the late 1990s into the 2000s, Blue helped shepherd Linkin Park’s early career and negotiated its deal with Warner Bros. Records, bringing the band with him when he became a senior vp A&R at WBR. He is currently developing new duo Riot Child for his production company, Jeff Blue Music. Here, Blue remembers his longtime friend, the late Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, who died July 20.
It was 1997. A young and inspired Brad Delson was my intern at Zomba Music Publishing. The future Linkin Park founder-guitarist glanced at the Korn plaque and Limp Bizkit poster on my wall and told me he was going to put a band together that would change the world.
After seeing Brad's band, Xero, perform its first show, I signed it to a publishing development deal. Together, we set out on the four-year development run that would introduce the world to what became Linkin Park and the gentle purity and emotional complexity of an artist named Chester Bennington.
But that would come later, and with some tweaks to Xero's setup. After 44 showcases and 43 rejections from labels, it was apparent there needed to be a change.
In 1999, attorney Scott Harrington suggested Chester from a band called Grey Daze in Phoenix as a possible new lead singer to complement Mike Shinoda. We called Chester and asked him if he wanted to make history by being the next big vocalist in a band that no one had heard of... yet.
Seizing the opportunity, Chester left his own birthday party to lay down vocals to the tracks I had overnighted him. By the time I got back to Los Angeles from SXSW, I had a demo tape from Chester.
What I heard floored me. Every crack of his voice had a story to tell. It was iconic, genuine, vulnerable, urgent, beautiful and hit you in the gut. I immediately called Brad and Mike and told them I was flying Chester out to Los Angeles.
Into my office walked a kid with Coke-bottle glasses; a glittery, button-down black shirt two sizes too big; spiked black hair; and an unstoppable smile from ear to ear that lit up the room. I couldn't believe the voice I heard on the demo came out of the shy kid sitting before me.
It took a couple of months for the band to jell, but the magic was there. Chester embraced his vulnerability and inner conflict, and his image soon reflected his powerful voice that would reach so many.
The band, which was now going by Hybrid Theory, rehearsed out of a room with broken water pipes on Sunset Boulevard. I invited label reps, all of whom had previously passed on the band, to see the new version. Although he was performing in a small, leaky room in front of an audience of only one person, Chester treated it as a stadium filled with 50,000 fervent fans. While screaming his signature lungs out, he would sing within inches of the A&R executive's nose. You could feel his breath on your cheeks. He had the confidence to put his soul out there, telling his story the only way he could: in your face. You either got it or you didn't.
And still, every label passed. But the rejection only served to fuel the band's determination. For some reason, the labels didn't hear Mike's exceptional writing, Chester's soaring melodies, the band's well-crafted dynamics and the undeniable chemistry between Chester and Mike. But the fans soon would.
Several labels pursued me to do A&R after I secured a deal for Macy Gray, whom I developed at Zomba. I insisted that I bring Hybrid Theory under my new contract as my first signing. The one label executive who was truly interested in Hybrid Theory was Warner Bros.' Joe McEwen. Despite being the smallest offer, I knew the label provided the perfect environment for the band to thrive.
However, before we started the album, McEwen moved on from Warner Bros., leaving the fate of the band uncertain. At NRG Studios in Los Angeles, Chester and Mike continued to refine their iconic sound, working together on lyrics and melody to create a combined voice that would touch the hearts of millions. Manager Rob McDermott and I were told the band had to change its name due to a legal conflict; everything from Plear to Platinum Lotus Foundation was considered, and finally, I believe it was Chester who suggested the name "Linkin Park," after Lincoln Park in Santa Monica, Calif.
I remember going into a back room to listen to the latest roughs. I came back with tears in my eyes. Mike and Chester said, "Oh, man, you hate it." I replied, "I'm speechless. You created a timeless piece of work. These are tears of joy. Let's go mix!" Those are the moments you never forget.
In 2000, at a radio convention, programmers got an early taste of "One Step Closer" and began demanding to play the track. Warner Bros., in poetic synergy, rushed out the single to rock radio and moved up the release date for the album, now called Hybrid Theory, to October 2000. A few weeks later, Chester and I were vacationing in Mexico. A girl walked past Chester, saw his wrists adorned with fire tattoos, and said to her friend, "That's the guy in the video I told you about!" The "One Step Closer" video had been out only a couple of weeks, and that was all the confirmation I needed to know that Chester, along with the rest of the band, was on his way to stardom.
Only a couple of months after that, I flew to Sacramento, Calif., to present the band with its first gold plaque for sales of 500,000, and at the same time, I was able to say it already had been certified platinum. We all walked onstage to see thousands of kids singing each word to every song. And that was just the beginning.
Every week, at least one person tells me how Chester and Linkin Park's music touched their lives, serving as a release, a catharsis, a therapy for inner turmoil. Chester was an inspiration to myself and the world. He was an example that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, but that at the same time we are all human and vulnerable. He let us know we are not alone, that we all feel self-doubt, despair, rage and exhilaration.
I'm so glad Chester had the time on this planet to bless us all with his special gift. His voice will live forever.