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Elvis in the Meantime.


"Have you ever met some of those people at the lower rungs of the music industry?"

Jimmy Iovine, President, Interscope Records


Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away - before schools were besieged by cute vampires, icky werewolves and synthetic derivatives, there was this really scary thing called…the music biz. Brian Cullman was there.  VG. Ed. Lava


By Brian Cullman


I wonder whatever happened to Elliot Romboid. He called me up once and invited me to Graceland.

"Good news," he said. "I played Elvis some of your tunes. He loved them. Especially, Safety. He's going to record it. And he wants to meet you. We have a flight out of Newark at 10 tonight..."

At which point I hung up on him.

A few years later, I was looking through a photo book called THE UNKNOWN ELVIS and there was a picture of Elvis with his arm around Romboid. They'd been in the army together. Who knew? But at the time, the only logical thing to do was hang up.

I can't remember who I met him through, but I remember that he came to see me play 3-4 times up at JPs on 77th & 1st Ave. This was early 1976. I didn't have my own place yet, I had just moved back to NYC and was camping out at my mother's apartment on the upper east side. Romboid was managing The Nite Caps, doing some work with Jerry Wexler, who knows what else. He called me at my mother's one night around midnight. I grabbed for the phone so it wouldn't wake her. It didn't.

Romboid was whispering, being very secretive, very dramatic. "This may sound weird," he kept saying. "This may sound weird...but YOU'LL understand. Yes, I think, YOU'LL understand." He wanted me to come to The Record Plant. Immediately. With an acoustic guitar. Not an electric? "Absolutely not! No! Has to be acoustic! This may sound weird but...YOU'LL UNDERSTAND."

I showed up with an old Martin. The room was filled with Japanese fusion players. A few were famous, I think. Fast metal guitarists, et al. Ryu Kawasaki was one. They all had long dark hair worn in bangs and tight leather pants. They were bashing out Mahavishnu type sounds, all speed and wacky time changes and taka-taka-tak. I hate that shit. Hated it then, hate it now. But I was younger then.

Romboid never introduced me, just had me set up in the middle of the room, got me to start playing a song in a drop D tuning I'd picked up from Nick Drake. It was a song called SPARE WING, very delicately finger-picked, very quiet.

Show me the sins

That are right for you

Show me the way they break...

Show me the pins

That they stick into you

With each & every mistake...

"Talk to them. These are great players, give them a little background," Romboid encouraged me over the headphones.

"Er....this is in D?" I said, hesitating. No response. "You can just pedal D through most of the changes…"

No one was listening.

They were just bashing away. Relentlessly.

"Just start right in. They'll follow. It'll be great!" Romboid enthused.

I wasn't so sure. I started, stopped, started, finally just gave up having any of this make sense and began singing and playing. It was completely dissonant, atonal. I played it through 2-3 times. Waited. Finally spoke into the mic...

"What do you think?"

There was no answer.

"Hey. Elliott? What do you think?"


I put the guitar down, wandered into the control room. There was no one there. But from a back office I could hear somebody crying…

I walked down a small, badly lit hallway and peered in. Romboid was shaking his head reproachfully at three large black men, who were cringing before him. One of them was sobbing, the others had their heads down, staring at the carpet like schoolboys in the headmaster’s office. It made no sense. The black guys could have eaten Romboid for breakfast and had plenty of room left over for a Happy Meal. But they just hung their heads.

“You can’t say we didn’t try! Did I hear you say that? Speak up! Do you think we’ve just been wasting our time, wasting our money? The best studios! The best engineers! The best producers! And nothing! No hits, no radio play, no NOTHING! So this is it. One more chance. One more try. If it doesn’t work, you can all go back to Georgia and shovel shit. Sit in the sun, think about what might have been. The cars. The women. The applause. The money. All of it. Think about it. Think really hard. Cause this is your last big break. That’s why I’ve gathered you here tonight with the only man who can save you. The best R&B arranger in America. Boys,” he turned to where I was peering through the doorway, “meet Brian Cullman!” He patted me on the shoulder and walked back into the control room.

This was a sick joke. But they looked at me with desperate eyes. I tried to buy myself some time by asking their story. They were called The Atlanta Champs, and they were signed to a deal with Willie "Cha Cha" James. They did all his back-up vocals live and on record, they backed all the artists he produced. For this they got $225 a week. Each. But part of their deal was that they got to cut two singles a year. They had cut five singles so far, and none had entered the charts. Small wonder as the songs they’d done were all standards recorded a cappella. What Now My Love. Fly Me To The Fucking Moon.

“You write songs?” I asked.

They shook their heads.

“You ever try any…original songs?”

“No, no, our manager, he said not to. But...you know. We…could.”

I only had one card to play. If they’d heard the songs I mostly played, meandering folk melodies with tricky, Arabic tunings and lyrics I’d cribbed from Cesar Vallejo and Garcia Lorca, they’d have ripped my arms out of their sockets. But lately I’d been re-thinking my strategy vis-à-vis performing. Too often, people, even people who WANTED to hear me, and Lord knows there weren’t all that many of them, couldn’t hear the songs over the sound of people eating or ordering drinks. I needed to at least attempt a groove. I’d learned the hard way that if you tried to get a crowd’s attention by playing a familiar song, you were sunk. Once they knew that you could sing Motown or Rolling Stones songs, there’d be some asshole shouting “Brown Sugar” every 30 seconds. The trick was to play something that seemed familiar, that made them think they’d heard it before, without actually turning into a human jukebox.

I’d started work on a song I was hoping to play the next night at JPs, something that felt like Mel & Tim’s Backfield In Motion or something Tony Joe White might sing, something with a Southern, rolling groove. When I sang it, it almost worked, though the key word there is “almost.” I had (still have) a thin, slightly reedy voice that conveys yearning and wonder and mystery, but none of the raw power or menace or sexual threat that comes with the territory of swampy soul. I sounded like a puppy pretending he was a guard dog.

When I finished, I opened my eyes and saw that they’d been paying attention. In fact, they were probably the best audience I’d ever had. I wrote out the words. “Play it again,” they urged. “Only…don’t sing it this time.” The last was said with far more kindness than I deserved.

I started playing it and HOLY SHIT, when they came in, they sounded like The Four Tops, or at least 3 out of 4, and the song sounded authentic, it sounded like afternoon radio in Philadelphia, WIBG, something Joe Niagra would play, it was a fucking hit!

We tried it a second time, and it was better, they were trading off lead vocals, and the whole thing was seamless and wild and thoroughly convincing. I threw in a couple of Curtis Mayfield licks, and the group looked on admiringly.

“You want to put one down?” I asked.

“Baby!” They said.

The engineer was drinking coffee. Romboid was nowhere to be seen. Most of the Japanese players had stumbled off, there was no drummer, Ryu Kawasaki had taken his five guitars and all his effects pedals and left, there were no keyboards to be seen, but the bass player was still packing up, and the percussionist was in a daze, just staring at his congas.

“You want to lay down a track,” I asked. They shrugged. I took that as maybe.

We ran through the song, the bass player naturally falling into a groove, the percussionist turning the beat a little Latin, almost a bugalu, and I could tell they were impressed with the Champs, could see them digging in deeper and harder in response to the vocals. I had the singers gather around one mic, it felt edgier and rougher. We were going for feel, so what the hell. The engineer gave in, set up a couple of baffles around the congas, and we were off.

New York, what you trying to sell me

What are you trying to buy?

Don’t you think I’ve seen the change

You’ve put in my lover’s eyes?

I can’t tell what she’s thinking

When she turns her heart away

But she treats my love like a bill

That she can’t pay…

When I sang it, it sounded corny, second hand. But when they sang, it was heart-rending.

We started a take, and the studio door opened. There was a wild eyed black pimp, at least he looked like a pimp or a coke dealer, or both, in red pants and disco boots and an open white shirt, gold chains around his neck, and he's standing there, apoplectic.


“He’s got this song, this guy, and Elliott, you know, Mr Romboid, he said…”

“Who gives a flying fuck what Romboid said? He your man? And this nasty little cracker…” he gave me a look like I was not even worth discussing. “You boys are going home.”

“But man, we got this thing goin’…”

“What’s it say in the contract? No original material. You want to pay publishing? You boys out of your minds? You in charge here? I didn’t think so," He smirked. He shook his head, gave me a look like, NICE TRY, BOZO, and pushed the singers out the door.

He was, I discovered, a two bit thug named Reno. As advertised, he was a coke dealer who ran a place in the East Village called The Back Seat and promoted some events at The Garage.

The engineer seemed used to all this.

“You staying?” he asked. “Your boy Romboid seemed pretty wired. But he’ll be back. You want to wait?” I shrugged. The Japanese players were packing up, they’d stopped making eye contact with me. And then the Champs ducked back in.

“Did we get a take of that?”

“Not a whole one,” the engineer admitted. “But most of one.”

”Can we hear it?”

It sounded pretty good. Okay, THEY sounded terrific, I sounded sloppy, but it didn’t hurt the track, only my pride. My timing was off, what I’d taken as a natural groove was more of a rhythmic stutter, but the bass held it together and their vocals soared.

“We could kill this one.”

“Murder it!”


The gunshot threw us all into a panic.

Reno was back, and this time he’d brought a pistol. He’d fired into the ceiling. He fired again and waved the gun around. And then he stuffed it back into his pants.

“Maybe you boys didn’t hear me. Party’s over.”

They slunk away, defeated.

“Mr. Engineer?” Reno said quietly. “I think you’re going to erase that track. Aren’t you.” The engineer nodded. He seemed more tired than upset. The night was over.

The Atlanta Champs left. I never saw them again. I read about Reno in the New York Post. He opened a disco somewhere in Jersey. It burned down. There was talk that it might not have been an accident. I never saw him again either. But I did see Romboid a few minutes later, just as I was packing up my guitar.

“Man,” he said. “That was a great ride. I didn’t know if you could go the distance. But man, you were just…you just went. With. It.”

“What exactly was it I was going with?”

“Fuck if I know. When I’m on acid, I never know where I’m going,” he admitted. “I just like to check out the view.”

So, it’s understandable that when he called and invited me down to Graceland, I hung up.


c 2010, Brian Cullman



Brian Cullman grew up in New York City with a radio glued to his ear and a passport tight in his fist. Over the years, that radio has gotten larger as the world has grown smaller. He still lives in New York City, where he produces CDs, writes when necessary and hosts a weekly radio show (Songs On Toast, Fridays 10pm to midnight eastern time at www.taintradio.org). His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Creem, Spin, The Village Voice, The New York Times and Vogue. He has produced such artists as Lucinda Williams, Ghazal, and Glenn Patscha, and is currently helping Ollabelle complete their third album.

 Some of Brian’s non-Champs recordings are available on iTunes.