Seventies-era music executive Larry Harris, who along with his flamboyant cousin Neil Bogart co-founded the legendary funk and rock label Casablanca Records, died on Monday (Dec. 18) at age 70. No cause of death was given, but collaborator Jeff Suhs described Harris’ passing as unexpected.
As the story goes, Harris was working as the NYC-based promotions man at Buddah/Kama Sutra Records in the early part of the decade when Bogart received financial backing from Warner Bros. Records to launch a new imprint under the major label, which he named after his favorite movie. Bogart recruited Harris as well as Cecil Holmes and Buck Reingold to launch Casablanca in 1973, and made Los Angeles home base.
Harris was key in signing the label’s first artist, Kiss, having attended a rehearsal at Bogart’s request. “By the time it was over my ears hurt so bad, I wasn’t prepared for the loudness,” Harris recalled during a recent interview on the ‘Three Sides of the Coin’ podcast. “After that I learned that whenever I’d see Kiss I’d stuff cigarette butts in my ears. They blew us away.” It took the cult band a couple years to blow away record buyers, though, with their first success eventually coming in 1975 with the live set, Alive!.
Also in 1973, the label signed groundbreaking funk band Parliament, led by George Clinton. After releasing two moderately successful albums on the imprint, Clinton and company concocted the landmark Mothership Connection record in 1975, leading to a period of mainstream success for the group that included such titles as The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein and Motor Booty Affair.
Harris became senior vice president and managing director of the company in 1976.
Bogart and Harris signed their biggest artist in 1975: the queen of disco, Donna Summer. Soon, the label released Summer’s first single in America, the Giorgio Moroder-produced “Love to Love You Baby,” and it shot to No. 2 on the Hot 100, orgasmic moans and all. She would go on to score nine more top 10 singles on Casablanca, including No. 1s “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough”) with Barbra Streisand. Casablanca enjoyed Hollywood success with Summer’s 1978 hit “Last Dance,” which won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for original song, for the film Thank God It’s Friday, which Casablanca co-produced.
Other standout roster artists during Casablanca’s heyday included The Village People, Cher, Cameo (on the subsidiary Chocolate City Records), Tony Orlando, Captain & Tennille and for one U.S.-only album, glam rock legends T. Rex. There were also misses, like the band Angel, a pet project of Gene Simmons, and a two-record set of audio highlights from television’s Tonight Show that failed to sell despite Johnny Carson‘s widespread popularity.
Harris documented the label’s meteoric rise, along with Bogart’s tendency to spend lavishly on promotional rollouts, parties and — it being the ’70s — drugs, in his 2009 memoir And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records, co-written with Suhs and Curt Gooch. “From 1974 to 1980, the landscape of American culture was a banquet of hedonism and self-indulgence, and no person or company in that era was more emblematic of the times than Casablanca Records and its magnetic founder, Neil Bogart,” the book’s description reads.
Harris left Casablanca in either 1979 or 1980, around the time Summer departed for another label. Also in 1980, PolyGram, which owned 50 percent of the company at the time, pushed Bogart out, citing his spending habits. Bogart died in 1982 of cancer at age 39. PolyGram retired the Casablanca name a few years later, though it was resurrected again in 2000 by Tommy Mottola under new management at Universal Music Group.
After leaving Casablanca, the New York-born Harris landed in Seattle where he owned and operated the Seattle Improv for a number of years. He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Candy, daughter Emily and son Morgan.