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Warner Bros. Records Sales ‘Giant’ Lou Dennis Dies at 87

Lou Dennis, whose record industry career spanned five decades, passed away from age-related complications on Dec. 2, 2020 in Tuscon, Ariz. He was 87.

While he began his career in radio and worked at a wholesaler before joining the record labels ranks as a radio promotion executive, Dennis spent the majority of his career in sales and specifically the last 29 years in the industry at Warner Bros. Records. There, he rose to the rank of senior vice president of sales, the position he held when he retired in 1996.

While Dennis may have been only a little more than “five-feet tall, we lost a giant of the industry,” says retired Warner Bros. sales executive Charlie Springer, one of the many industry executives mentored by Dennis.

“Lou really took me under his wing when I was a single specialist for WEA in Chicago…It was a great education to be mentored by that guy, I couldn’t have had it better—not only on the job but in my personal life when it came to financing, investing and saving. And he had so many great stories, I never get tired of hearing his stories.” In an e-mail to a bunch of former and current industry colleagues, Springer added that “Dennis high expectations of all who worked for him has been passed on to at least two generations of record executives.”

Likewise another retired Warner Bros. sales executive Dave Stein, who also worked alongside of Springer and under Dennis, has similar memories of his former boss. “I can’t remember a conversation that I had with Lou that wasn’t educating and fun,” says Stein. “He was just so grounded and his sense of what is right and what is wrong was so strong.”

Dennis was born Louis Petroni on Sept. 6, 1933, but adapted the Lou Dennis handle when he began working in radio in the early 1950’s at a station in Lewiston, Maine before moving over to a radio station in Waterbury, Conn., in 1955 where he was a DJ and eventually became the program director, staying there until 1962. That year his career took a shift when he went to work handling radio promotion and sales for Seaboard Distributors, a Hartford-based wholesaler. But the following year he moved to Chicago and over to the record label side of the street by joining Smash Records, an imprint of Mercury, where he was eventually promoted to general manager of Smash Records by his mentor Charlie Fach, he told Billboard back in 1996. While at Smash, Dennis talked the honchos at Mercury Records into letting him release the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” on Smash instead of Mercury. That song peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.

Another time, he was being pressed on when the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral,” on sister imprint Fontana, would hit the No. 1 spot by his boss Irving Greene as it was playing third fiddle on Billboard’s Hot 100 at that point to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” at No. 2 and the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging’ On” at No. 1— positions in the chart that those songs respectively held for two weeks running. But Dennis is said to have promised that it would hit the top spot in the following week and sure enough, it did in the Dec. 3, 1966 chart, trading places with the Supremes, and denying “Good Vibrations” ascension into the No. 1 spot, until the next week, Dec. 10.

In 1967, Dennis joined Warner Bros. Records in the New York office and was soon overseeing a format shift, as he was put in charge of sales and deciding which music and how many copies should come out on 8-Track tape, which were gaining in popularity at that time. In 1972, he moved out to the label’s West Coast office. This would soon result in an episode that would gain Lou Dennis record industry immortality as sometime in the mid 1970s Dennis arranged for the Credibility Gap, a comedy group on Reprise Records, to appear at a tape trade show, which would help promote the group to retailers and wholesalers. But all the props that they requested for that appearance never arrived in time for their performance, much to their annoyance.

Years later some of those members would incorporate that disastrous event into a scene in “This Is Spinal Tap,” which had Paul Shaffer playing ‘Artie Fufkin’ at a failed in-store and imitating what Dennis had done to defuse the Credibility Gap’s anger due to the trade show debacle by bending over, offering up his derriere and saying, “Its my fault, kick my ass.”

While he was always ready for some fun, Dennis was also long and deep on industry knowledge and very willing to share it with colleagues, competitors, and merchants, which is why so many turned to him for guidance when facing difficult industry decisions.

After he retired, Dennis kept in touch with the Warner Music Group family, meeting them frequently at one of his favorite restaurants, the now shuttered Far Niente in Glendale, Calif. where a dish was named after him, Rigatoni Lou Petroni. In recent years, Dennis had relocated to Arizona to be close to family.

In his e-mail informing of Dennis’ death, Springer observed of the consummate salesman, “He mentored many of us, imparting honesty, ethics and transparency in a business that didn’t always adhere to those values.” Dennis is survived by his brother, Frank, and sister-in-law, Lindi, as well as a number of nieces and nephews.