Among the many fabled Jewish entrepreneurs of the ‘50s who helped spawn the growth of R&B, doowop, and Latin musics, George Goldner was perhaps the most musically sophisticated—if the least able to keep his businesses running without constant infusions of cash. Goldner was a second-generation Jewish-American who was attracted by the new musical sounds emanating from New York’s nightclubs. The music that initially caught his ears had a distinctly Latin tinge.
Goldner’s father, Adolph, came from Zhuarvno (then a part of the Austrian Empire; it is now located within the Ukraine); his mother, born Rose Feiler, came from Jasinski, east of Salzburg, Austria. Adolph emigrated to the U.S. in 1907 and was living with his brother in the Bronx by 1910, when both were employed as waiters. He became a naturalized citizen in 1914 and presumably married Rose during this period; their first child, also named Rose, was born in 1916 and George came two years later, followed by a final daughter, Stella, in 1920.
Like many Jewish families, their fortunes ebbed and flowed with the changing economic conditions around them. The family first resided on the Lower East Side, the entry point for many newly arrived Eastern Europeans. By around 1915, Adolph was a partner in a small grocery store in the Southwest Bronx and the family was living in an apartment building about a mile to the north. By 1925, however, they had moved to East 50th Street in Manhattan, with Adolph’s occupation now given as a real estate agent, a considerable step up in the world. This happy situation continued at least until 1930, but in the wake of the Depression by 1940 the family was living again in a rougher neighborhood of the Bronx, where Adolph was now listed as working as a waiter again; son George, still living at home at age 22, was working as a file clerk at a wholesale jobber. George’s education ran through high school, a considerable achievement for his generation many of whom dropped out earlier to help support the family or to strike it out on their own.
By the late ‘40s, Goldner had worked his way up to having his own small business working in the garment industry. With very little capital and with considerable drive, almost anyone could set themselves up as a wholesaler in the rag trade, as it was known. The sweatshops that employed the first generation of Jewish immigrants from the late 19th-early 20th century gave way to a thriving wholesale business, where middlemen would buy and sell everything from bolts of cloth, buttons and other accessories, to finished garments.
While Goldner was doing reasonably well in the garment business, his true passion was the time he spent at night at the Palladium and other clubs. The Palladium was a hot spot for Latin dancing and music. Ironically, its main customer base was the children of the Jewish immigrants who were now settled in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Neil Sedaka recalled the place as full of hot young Jewish women, all moved to a frenzy by the seductive beat of the Latin bands. According to Jewish mambonik and future nightclub owner Norby Walters:
The “mamboniks” was a big gang of Jewish boys and girls from all boroughs who used to converge on the Palladium on Wednesday nights. A mambonik was a trombenik who loved mambo — trombenik being a Yiddish word for a bum. A knockaround guy. It was a badge of who we were, you know? There was really thousands of people into it, but there were a couple hundred core faces. You’d see them all the time. Wherever the dances were. And when I opened up my club, hundreds of them came.
Goldner was himself a true mambonik. An avid dancer and fan of this latest dance craze, Goldner longed for a way to participate in this exciting new culture. In 1948, he found a way to enter the world as a businessman through establishing a new Latin music label. Goldner also left his first (Jewish) wife to wed a Puerto Rican he met on the dance floor. Goldner’s transformation into entertainment mogul had begun.
Goldner found a partner in one of the best-known DJs promoting the new Latino music, Art “Pancho” Raymond, who also worked as an announcer at the Palladium. Raymond, like Goldner, was born Jewish, and began his career as a DJ working at a small Paterson radio station, filling in wherever he was needed. As he recalled several decades later:
One day I was asked to do a half-hour Latin-music program in the middle of the day, around 12:30. Xavier Cugat was number one at the time. He was what they called “commercial Latin music” – it appealed to the American audience. So while I’m doing this program, playing Cugat, I started using a Spanish accent. Using my high school Spanish, I began the program with “Muy buenas tardes, queridos amigos, como están Ustedes?’ The station manager heard me and called me into his office. He said, “I want you to do the show every day. Use the accent. It’s cute.”
The show eventually was named “Tico Tico Time” after a popular Latino hit of the era. Not surprisingly, when they joined forces in 1948, Raymond and Goldner named their fledgling label Tico Records linking themselves to both the popular radio show and the hit song.
Like other DJs, Raymond got into concert promotion, including a famous event he cosponsored along with an owner of a record shop catering to Puerto Ricans that was held on Easter Sunday, 1946. The doors had to be shut after 5000 people crowded into the rented hall. Although no one surveyed the audience, it’s likely that Latinos were not the primary attendees, as many religious Catholics would not have dared attend such an event. This and later dances was a testimony to the popularity of Latino music among non-Latinos—primarily young Jews. Raymond believed that Jews were particularly attracted to the music because it shared a similar melancholy feeling: “A lot of it was written in a minor key, as is a lot of Jewish music, and I had a love for Jewish music since I was a young kid. It sounded almost like Jewish music, many of the songs.”
Having a successful DJ with many connections in the Latino music world as your partner showed that from the start Goldner had the savvy to succeed in the record business. Not only could Raymond introduce him to the best acts, he could plug their records on the air and at any personal appearances he made as an emcee. While other DJs made similar arrangements for themselves, the ethics of such deals was somewhat questionable and radio station owners were often none-too-pleased if they discovered their DJs were profiting off their airplay. In fact, some sources say Raymond lost his job hosting “Tico Tico Time” because of his association with the label.
Goldner didn’t put all his eggs into one basket; he also was generous in purchasing ad time that helped the other major DJs who favored Latino music stay on the air. Among these DJS were Raymond’s main competitor—another Jew-turned-Latino—Dick “Ricardo” Sugar and Matty Singer (“The Humdinger!”), who Goldner complemented by naming one of his first releases “The Matty Singer Mambo.”
In the fast-and-loose world of the independent recording scene, many bandleaders were happy to record for whoever would foot the session bill and pay the minimal union fees. If the majors—Columbia, Victor, or Decca–took an interest in a specialty act like a Latino band, it was often on a one-off basis. The many independents rarely made “exclusive” deals—or if they did could not easily enforce them in New York where there were many independent studios and young producers anxious to get into the business. Tico was able to record two of the most prominent Latino bandleaders from its earliest days because of the rather open scene, first Tito Rodriquez and then a young up-and-comer named Tito Puente. Rodriquez had previously recorded for another tiny Latino label, SMC, leading his Mambo Devils; in late 1949, he made his first Tico recordings, cleverly marketed as by “the Mambo Wolves.” It’s doubtful anyone was fooled by this thinly veiled ruse, but there was little SMC could do to stop Rodriquez from recording wherever he could. Puente’s first sessions at Tico were as an accompanist to a Latino singer, but he managed to convince Goldner to allow him to cut a few instrumentals on his own at the same session. Out of this came Tico’s first regional hit, “Abaniquito,” featuring Cubop trumpeter Mario Bauza.
As a member of noted Latino orchestra leader Machito’s band, Bauza had so impressed Dizzy Gillespie that the bebop pioneer had begun to experiment with Latino rhythms in his group; the result was the hit “Manteca” that was released in 1948. This may have influenced Puente’s decision to ask Bauza to join him on “Abaniquito,” whose melody was suspiciously close to the earlier hit. According to Raymond, the record “took off like wild fire.” It didn’t hurt that Puente had recently cut a session with the major label RCA Victor, and had a chart hit with “Ran Kan Kan.” RCA’s promotion of Puente helped to boost Goldner’s release at no cost to Tico.
Many Palladium patrons were more interested in the scene—the hot music, the gyrating bodies, the exotic, Latino atmosphere—than in specific bands. Recognizing this trend, in the early ‘50s Goldner shrewdly marketed his records to this audience by issuing a series of mambo albums, called Volumes, into which he packaged previously released 78s by his two biggest stars, Rodriquez and Puente. These albums allowed the hip mamboniks to recreate the Palladium atmosphere at home.
At some point around 1950, Goldner bought out Raymond’s share in Tico. The split was apparently amicable, as Raymond years later recalled Goldner as an unforgettable person who you “wanted . . . as a friend.” But this strain on the small label whose finances were probably shaky at best was probably the beginning of Goldner’s endless search for investors or at least people willing to give him a quick loan to keep the operation afloat. At this time, the record business was primarily a cash business; a small label had to pay an independent presser up front to get his product made, and then had to wait to collect the proceeds once the records filtered through the rather baroque system of distribution from record label to independent distributor to store owner. Not only were there many chances along the way for profits to disappear, there was also the fear that at the end of the day much of the “sold” product would be returned—as the entire industry worked on the unwritten guarantee that any unsold product could be returned to the producer for credit. Pressing plants could easily run off extra copies of a record to sell out of the back door to distributors directly without the knowledge of the label’s owner. Independent distributors were fly-by-night operations themselves, often chasing cash owed to them by the many small record store accounts and jukebox operators that they served. A small label like Tico had to wait months to be paid, having little leverage with those who had purchased their product; meanwhile, they had to be able to continue to finance sessions in order to release new material.
Goldner also was said to suffer from an addiction to gambling. One industry insider told me that he was so heavily addicted that he tried to cure himself by joining Gambler’s Anonymous only to quit when he began betting on whether an odd or even number of attendees would attend the next meeting. Morris Levy said gambling led to Goldner’s downfall, commenting to interviewer Fredric Dannen:
He liked horses. He always needed money. Any degenerate gambler needs money all the time. It’s like being a junkie, isn’t it? It’s a shame, because George knew music and knew what could be a hit. But if he was worried about the fifth race at Delaware and working the record at the same time, he had a problem. George was a character, and a victim of himself.
Tito Rodriquez’s recording of “Mambo Gee Gee” was said to be named in honor of Goldner and their shared love of the horses.
As long as the hits kept coming and Goldner could scrape up the funds to press his new releases, Tico could at least survive. And then in 1953, a lucky break led to Goldner branching out from Latin music to a new area, the growing world of R&B, leading to a new level of success—but also increasing vulnerability to his own poor business habits.