Bobby Orlando - The story of O
Since the early eighties the small American label, O Records, has had vast commercial success with its superlative blending of New York Disco and Euro pop. With Hi-Energy on the verge of a second coming, its egocentric owner remains the self-styled master of classic techno trash. I am still the greatest, says Bobby Orlando.
Text: Kimberley Leston (Sadly no longer with us - She died in February 1995)
1976 - MIDTOWN MANHATTEN. A man and a boy are walking Broadway. The man - slacks, silky <UNREADABLE>, neck, leather coat - gestures to a seed <UNREADABLE>. Bets are taken and the kid drops to the floor does push-ups on one finger without breaking a sweat, without even taking out his gum. He flexes his stocky Italian boots little as they leave. Small time <UNREADABLE> amateur boxer, easy money.
But the son of a schoolteacher from middle class New York surburb of Westchester doesn’t want to be a boxer forever. He wouldn’t like his pretty face spoiled, of course, but at 18 years old Bobby Orlando has already turned down a scholarship to a classical music school and can blow away Johnny Thunders, guitarist with his favourite group of three years earlier, The New York Dolls. He’s been in a couple of teenage glitter rock bands and he doesn’t listen to Alice Cooper any more. Now disco is his obsession and he wants to make records.
Three years later, his third attempt at production is a dance chart hit. He writes the now-definitive Hi-Energy anthem "Desire" for a girl he met in a restaurant. Taken with the pushy little guy who’d rather go without a watch until he can afford a Rolex, the young Roni Griffith signs the 50/50 contract written on a napkin, has an affair with the producer and a massive European success with the song.
In 1980 he pays off the loan shark who "financed" the session and sets up his own label at a time when classic Seventies disco was considered laid to rest with Chic’s "Good Times" but before the all-synthesized techno beat of Hi-Energy hit the peak it was to reach in 1983.
With an enormous catalogue of releases lauched by The Flirts "Passion" and Divine’s "Native Love" and working alongside mixers who have come up through the network of New York clubs - John "Jellybean" Benitez, Kiss FM’s Shep Pettibone - O Recods has had 17 gold and five platinum smashes in America and Europe in its seven years. "Shoot your shot", the B-side of Divine’s second single "Jungle Jezebel", went gold so quickly in the Benelux countries that it was re-released as an A side within a month. For a small record company with a low profile, that’s a high profile of hit records.
THE SUITE OF ROOMS - reception, O Office and musty box of a studio - isn’t much bigger than the bar where Bobby O, as he is known, made his first fistful of dollars, overlooking the same stretch of Broadway. The lights and the milky grey brick and the steam from the subway and the Chinese fast food shop fill the eleventh floor with the seamy aroma that turns all of New York into a permanent mini-cab office. Boom, boom, hup hup hup: Farley Funkin‘ Keith is mixing in the musty box. Bobby O still wants to make records. This year he’s planning on 30 a month.
Boxing is kind of like records, he says "in that they are both sleazy businesses. In boxing you deal with sleazy characters but they have a certain charm to them. Most people in the record business aren’t as charming, so going from one to the other was a relatively simple thing for me. The only difference is that with records you take the aggression you would normallly use beating the hell out of a guy by punching beats. It’s the same punch, the same drive.
Calling his lawyer on the carphone while sparring with the Westchester citybound traffic in a red mercedes is fun. It’s a good start to the drama of the day. Dramas that are a mixture of rescoration comedy and lurid Vegas camp. The rake arrives at the cabaret early in jeans and a laundred sweatshirt, Tex Avery quiff perfect. He just finalised the deal on the penthouse down the street. Let’s face it, real estate is all that counts.
"I failed as a hippy because I was too much of a capitalist." Says Bobby O, swivelling in his chair to view the mirrored building that is now partly his. "I mean I had a chequebook, no hippy ever had a chequebook, so I was a total failure. But glitter rock, oh I was a real glitter boy. I had very long hair - you just wouldn’t believe. I was very pretty, exceedingly like real very pretty. And with glitter rock you didn’t have to take drugs and it was OK to be a captialist. I mean platform shoes are expensive, right?". He didn’t have the balls to wear make-up but the romance with the high champ has yet to end. New York Dolls, Divine, same difference. The fast talking, intensivly macho exhibitionist is also a voyeur. A homophobe who once pulled out of buying an apartment after discovering that the previous owner was gay, he has built a career on making music for a predominantly gay audience.
Bobby O’s history of working relationships reads like a Bel Air alimony lawyers’s casebook. One of his most successful associations ended understandably abruptly when he claimed he could "cure" the artist of his homosexuality, but men continue to be mesmerized by the electric vitality of this irresistible, impossible character. Women, too, are oddly tantalized by a man fixes his dark eyes to theirs over dinner, tells them just how he likes to make love, and what a great lover he is, and then kisses them goodnight on the cheek only to call at midnight to ask if they are naked.
The technical skill involved in such heavyweight flirting requires not only a core of pure narcissim but an ability to use the power of sexuality without feeling the surge of any real lust.
His most enduring partnership has been with The Flirts, a sort female Menudo, the three girl line-up changes with almost every release and on the new, their second album, "Questions Of The Heart" - a deliciously crass concoction of Euro pop, Janet Jackson and Sixties girl groups - they’re looking, frankly, a little old. The models won’t mind if they‘re dropped; the group exists only as an LP sleeve. Apart from a brace of session singers, Bobby O is The Flirts. Songs about sex, not lust. Sex on the phone, sex on the mind, everything but the real kind.
The single , "All You Ever Think About Is (Sex)", is classic Bobby O in mood <UNREADABLE> coquettishly provocative record that <UNREADABLE> with the pressing problem of an over ardent admirer, but essentially anti-sex combination of the two elements that <UNREADABLE> his overloaded imagtionation. "I love <UNREADABLE>, don't you?" he says, quoting from his lyrics " Young virgins become restless nymphomaniacs, virtue become vice". It’s <UNREADABLE>, isn’t it?" In 1983 he releases "I’m In Love With A Married Man". Infidelity is an <UNREADABLE> to him. "A lot of people fall in love with a married men, so what do they do? It’s a problem. My concern is that even if you manage, in an earthly sense, to break up the marriage all you‘ve really succeeded in doing is to dig a deeper hole into hell. The punishment may not come from here; it could be on the other side of grave. You know what I’m saying?" This is not someone however who lists God discreetly amongst the records sleeve credits.
At O records, discretion is a sin second only to losing a lawsuit. "I regard each record I make as worthless and useless just like anybody else’s" says Bobby O with some venom. "Anybody who thinks that their music is something special is worshipping a false doctrine. There is nothing that any artist can say that is really of any importance because anything other than God’s word is laced with the evil and has to regarded as sin tainted." There’s nothing more serious than showbiz, but this is a new twist to the script. Four years ago Bobby O was going about his business with only himself to answer to. Even though he claims to have been "heavily into the Bible", from which he quotes at length, the potential greatness of a partnership with God had yet to occur to him.
Lunch at the Applejack Diner was a simple affair involving omelettes and conversation as down to earth as is possible for someone whose feet have never made actual contact with the groud. At the self-consciously upmarket Cafe 57, however, where every waitress has an Equity card and the mink coats are so new they’re still twitching, Bobby O speaks of little but the Lord. Sometimes being born once just isn‘t enough.
"I'm a sinner and a scumbag. I know it," he confesses. "but that's where salvation comes in. My real citizenship is in heaven, I'm just an ambassador right now. The Bible clearly states 'be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth' and that's what I do, I'm being fruitful, I'm multilplying - I put out more records than anybody in the world, there's nobody puts out more records than me. If a producer has the ability to put out that many records and he doesn't then he is disobeying God's command."
Like a Where Eagles Dare of the music industry, Bobby O plays out his boy's own battle with monolithic major record companies cast as the bad guys who pay the price in heaven. "If you're going to win a war you have to hit with a lot of bullets, " runs the logic. "For me making records is a weapon. Sometimes the bullets connect and sometimes they don't. My goal is to pummel CBS and others like them, not having a huge hit records but having a lot of bullets out there. The only difference is that they have Michael Jackson and I have The Flirts." The fact that "Questions Of The Heart" is releasd through Epic is due, according to him, to a contract signed in the rushness of his youth. But humouring the enimy is one way to win a war and when O records relinquished the Pet Shop Boys to EMI in 1985 he struck a points deal on their subsequent releases that has made him a millionaire.
When Bobby O says he would rather put out 200 records that sell 5000 copies each than one record that sells a million he speaks the gospel truth. And considering the amount of small labels either bankrupted or forced into deals with large companies because of the distribution pressures of a major hit record, there is undoubted method to his madness. By continuing to have steady flow of minor successes in American and European dance charts with acts barely known outside the area, like the Boyd Brothers or Nancy Dean, Bobby O will surely achieve his ambition of becoming the Ronald McDonald of the music industry. "You know," he says with typical zeal. "'Over a billion served'."
IT'S GETTING LATE. Bobby O is ready for the drive to the suburbs. Maybe he'll look in at his new penthouse, maybe he'll stop by the row of brownstones he's having converted to apartments. Paul Mineo, one of his country's countless cousins of Sal and the hustler of Bobby O's boxing days, is still here. Last night he slept on the couch in the O office, now he's sitting at the small table set aside for him eating burger and fries. One thing Bobby O learnt when he was a fighter. Never mix protein and starch.
Article from The Face 1987
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