Jack Ponti is a classic “behind the scenes” character in the history of the music business. Seldom interviewed and even less seldom photographed, Jack has been there, in a major way, either as a friend, collaborator, bandmate ,producer or manager to the likes of people like Jon Bon Jovi, Boyz II Men, Sebastian Bach, David Letterman and many more. He can be either the most helpful guy you’ve ever met or your worst enemy, depending on how you treat him and at the very least has lived a very interesting and full life. Jack has helped us as well and we are honored to be able to get yet another interview with someone who may not have hogged all the headlines these last few decades but certainly helped make the rock roll. Read on…
Legendary Rock Interviews: Thanks for talking to us Jack, haven’t seen too many interviews with you since the earth shattering one you did years back on Metal Sludge. I know you have a lovely family and beautiful wife as well as a rebirth in the industry. Begin by telling us what’s going on with MRV Music and your career….
Jack Ponti: I’ve been very lucky and blessed in my life and career. As you may know, I retired from writing and producing in late 1991. I really had no intention of coming back in.
However by sheer accident, I began managing, at first writers and producers, then artists. All of them in urban music, which was quite the departure from rock. At the end we had 37 clients and in my last year of managing, our clients had a combined 20 Grammy nominations including 7 alone for India.Arie on her debut album. We had some great clients like India.Arie, Boyz II Men, Scarface, Az Yet and a slew of top gun writers and producers like Carlos Broady, Jelly Roll, and N.O. Joe Johnson, to name a few.
I was ready to retire again, but met up with some people in the UK from the private equity world and began the design of a new label model. The past 7 years that has been what I have been doing, running various incarnations of a new label model. I have also been doing a tremendous amount of consulting for labels and managers as well. About 2 years ago we began a relationship with David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company, of which we are now partners with, on a label venture, management venture and publishing model. You couldn’t ask for better partners and I am honored to have them in my life.
We are close to the final design of that model which is essentially a shared services unit that will replicate a labels function without being the label. Call it label for hire. I really think it’s the only logical step for the business to take next. I have a duplicate model in the process of being built on the publishing side.
LRI: You sir, are a legend for several reasons, not the least of which your production work so we are understandably honored. You produced as well as wrote for the band BATON ROUGE. Kelly Keeling is lying to fans and attempting to market a cash-in “reunion” album to gouge the few loyal fans he has left. Please explain….
JP: Kelly apparently did a record deal for a new Baton Rouge reunion record. The label assumed I was going to be involved. Kelly asked me to, but I explained that I couldn’t because of how ridiculously busy I am, and I wouldn’t, because I truly felt whatever legacy Baton Rouge has should be left alone.
It got very ugly, because the label thought I was backing out of something I never agreed to do in the first place. Even more ugly as they are distributed by EMI of which I have very close business and personal relationships.The original Baton Rouge record deal on Atlantic was me, Kelly and Lance Bulen. In reality that was Baton Rouge, along with Vic Pepe. Kelly has what I consider to be the greatest voice in rock, but his contribution to those records as a writer were minimal, and when I say minimal, I mean about 10% of a song. Lance contributed some amazing riffs that were the catalyst to a lot of the songs. Vic was indispensable and had a larger creative contribution than Kelly did. No doubt Kelly is a monster of a talent as a singer and musician, but it is simply not Baton Rouge. The public will hear that immediately. It’s bullshit to call it Baton Rouge without me writing it. I wish him all the very best but it should have been left alone.
LRI: You instantly earned my respect when I asked you to help me reach Sebastian Bach when i wasn’t getting anywhere. I tweeted Sebastian and mentioned you and literally the next day the interview was arranged by his publicist. You can’t get that kind of service from anyone but Tony Soprano. It also led to a rebuttal interview by Snake which was also one of our best EVER so I truly owe you a lot. How did you get to know the Skid Row guys to begin with and how on earth can they have so many issues?? Sebastian was super cool and seems fairly agreeable and Dave Sabo is real laid back in general. Sebastian is on your label, you must know something…
JP: I knew Snake and Rachel way before Skid Row. I brought Skid Row to Jason Flom at Atlantic and I turned Michael Wagener on to them as well. One of the truly great debut rock albums ever. Sebastian is a true artist, I’ve seen the level of passion he has for his work, it’s very different than what you would expect from him based on public perception. I love Snake dearly, though he recently let me down as a friend, something that I take very serious is loyalty. In any divorce you have three sides to the story, husband, wife and the truth. I know Sebastian’s side, I know Snake’s side and I guess I know the truth. Almost any great band is built on friction, tension and in fighting, like Aerosmith or The Who. Some bands thrive on it, some implode from it. It’s always Sebastian and Snake, but I’ll tell you what, it was Rachel who was the heart, soul and nucleus of Skid Row. Bas sang the fuck out of it and is a giant rock star, but Rachel was Skid Row’s Nikki Sixx, 100%. Not taking anything away from Scotti, Rob, or Snake, but no Bas, no Rachel, no Skid
LRI: Before you got deep in the industry as a label impresario, manager and consultant you were a rock and roll guitarist. You played in that Jersey scene that spawned Bon Jovi and you probably know the whole family, What the hell was your first impression of Jon when you met him and why do you think that Billy Squier of all people felt the need to screw you guys over and take your money. Isn’t he aware you guys could literally kick his ass?
JP: I’ve known Jon since he was in high school. My first impression is the same today as it was then, he is a fucking rock star. You either have it, or you don’t, and he has it times fifty. He also had incredible drive, ambition, focus, and resiliency. Jon and me really laid the nucleus for both of our careers playing in that band together. It was a very important time. We had big dreams, good times, a learned a lot together. Jon grew up worshiping people like Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Tom Petty, the real artists artists. It’s astonishing what happened. It changed all of our lives and I am eternally grateful.
Billy Squier is just a self centered, egotistical little prick. I could go for days about him, and literally everyone I know who knows him, agrees. He tends a garden now in Central Park. Fuck him.
Jon has a career, I have a career, Billy has a garden, douche bag.
LRI: I know that you were probably dually impressed and thankful to see Bon Jovi’s career rise and that he is actually a true guy that you respect. When did you decide to start getting into the business end of the business rather than the playing and “making it” as a band end? Did some of the inspiration to get involved in the industry come from seeing people who think they have some leverage screw over guys that were truly just trying to play music?
JP: I was always a student of the business side, someone reminded me the other night that it was really my goal all along. I guess it was. I decided to stop playing and just write and produce around 1982. It was an evolution to the business side. That and a million lucky breaks and some great timing. I don’t kid myself, whatever success I had was luck, timing being blessed. Do I know what I’m doing? You fucking bet I do, but in reality I’m just a lucky douche bag that God decided to look out for.
I had a real cocksucker manager early on, so that inspired me to be a better manager when I went that route. I took people’s dreams very seriously, I still do.
LRI: I know that you, A. take no shit and B. actually have more heart and passion than most industry types…..I can relate to you wanting to do things because they truly matter to you. Is that what makes you a little more sympathetic to indie artists or “do it yourself” people?
JP: I don’t take shit because I don’t give shit. If you bring it on, then you have a real problem on your hands. It’s war motherfucker.I don’t forgive, I don’t forget and I can be a destructive, vengeful animal.
The other part of your question. I don’t define myself by my career. I don’t judge anyone by anything other than their hearts and intent. I have friends who are rock stars, billionaire private equity titans, janitors, work at food stores, celebrities, unemployed, but to me they are all equal and they know I feel that way. You start believing your own bullshit you’re in trouble. I define myself as the father I am, husband I am and friend I am. My job is my job, it has nothing to do with me and that’s how I view other people.
LRI: You worked with some bands like EVERY MOTHERS NIGHTMARE, BATON ROUGE and BABYLON A.D. that had lots to offer but due to timing or whatever just never got that massive MTV or press push. I still think that the Babylon A.D. debut record was and is fantastic. Is it literally a crap shoot trying to determine whether the stuff that makes your hair stand on end in the studio is gonna get bought up by the millions? Because that’s basically what producer Michael Wagener told us…..there’s no fuckin way to rationalize industry success…it takes so many variables.
JP: There are four tires on the car: Artist, Label, Manager, and LUCK. If have all four spinning, boom you hit the big time. Three tires you might get home. Two tires, you sit in the driveway jerking off.
I love Wagener to pieces. Michael is the ultimate cheerleader and ultimate Mr. Enthusiasm, the hair stands on end for him on every record he makes. A fucking tambourine can make Wagener’s hair stand on end.
LRI: You spent a lot of time dealing with the Nelson brothers and watching their rise to fame. I loved the story you told about the fight over the gay fan letter and we got Bobbie Brown to talk a bit about her breakup and ditching Matthew. I think that the guys are probably pretty underrated in the grand scheme of things and deserve more credit for their musical ear and songwriting which has continued to evolve. I’d like to talk to them and am sure they have stories as do you. Were you a part of their touring back in the day and did you literally have to keep everyone involved from indulging in the veritable buffet bar of underage girls flocking to the shows?
JP: Matthew and Gunnar are like my little brothers. I was with them every step of the way and the stories could fill five books. They were vastly underrated, great talents and got more girls than every other band combined. I’ll tell them to talk to you. Those two guys turned down more women than most bands ever got, yet people still call them pussy. Go figure.
LRI: You were a guitarist and have worked with a million guitarists. We’re publishing an autobio by Randy Rhoad’s childhood friend and Quiet Riot bandmate Kelly Garni. It’s actually being done 100% not ghost written and with the approval of the Rhoads family. Some of the “insider” people we’ve contacted are actually of the opinion that Randy’s career is like so many who died after making a fantastic but limited catalog of music; that it’s only so valued or intriguing because we don’t know what could’ve been. Was Randy truly legendary and deserving of the praise that still is being thrown in his direction? Was he an inspiration to you or anyone you knew? Last week marked the 30th anniversary of his passing….
JP: Randy was a monster talent and uniquely original. I could bore you with music theory talk, but he did things that were never done before.The only guitarist before him, in rock, who touched on what he was doing is Ritchie Blackmore, but Randy took it all the way home. I knew Zakk Wylde (JERSEY !!!) before he was Zakk and obviously Randy inspired him. Zakk is a monster talent, in his own right, as well.
LRI: Guns N Roses is going in the hall of fame and I know you are a huge Motley fan. You have dealt with your client Sebastian touring A LOT with Axl and you see KISS is touring with Motley. My question is this….Which would be the bigger tour, hypothetical reunited GNR and SKID ROW or actual KISS/MOTLEY?
JP: I adore Motley and think Nikki is the man, but I think he would agree that a reunited GNR and a reunited Skid Row would be the biggest tour in decades. KISS leaves me cold after Ace and Peter left. God bless Gene and Paul and their success, but they are about as rock and roll as my dentist. Adler has a new band with a good friend of mine, Jacob, I’m sure they’d talk to you.
LRI: Thanks again Jack. We actually have gotten lucky and gotten an interview with Steven Adler and Jacob Bunton coming but feel free to put in a good word for us with the Nelsons or Zakk Wylde!! One last question…. since you’re a true East Coast guy…..do you have any run ins or stories about one of Jon Bon Jovi and my favorite bands STARZ???
JP: Starz was the greatest band of that era hands down. Starz lead the way for everything we did in the 80s. To me, Starz was the prototype and the most bad assed motherfuckers ever. They are THE most underrated band of all time.Great songs, great hooks, great look, and amazing live. The fucking tires were missing on that car. Wrong label, wrong manager, and no luck. But with one tire they still cleaned the floor with most motherfuckers out there.