The KissFAQ

Presents



Back In The Solo Album Groove With Carol Ross-Durborow

Head of the Press Office discusses the promotional campaign for the 1978 solo albums, working with Bill Aucoin from the beginning, the challenges in representing KISS, and why Cadillac, Michigan, was the major turning point in KISStory.

Interview by Tim McPhate

KissFAQ: Carol, I believe you've mentioned that KISS were the first client you brought into Rogers & Cowan. But can we back up and talk about how you came into the KISS fold?
Carol Ross-Durborow: Yes, I first was introduced to the band through a friend of mine, Alan Miller, who knew Bill Aucoin. And at that time I was just doing some freelancing, I had been working at a radio production company doing syndicated radio shows. And I was doing some freelance on the side. Alan said, "My friend has this band he's just started working with. They're going to be performing at a place down in the Village, and I'd really like you to come. He wants to get an opinion from you." So I said, "Sure." So I go down to 14th Street and the Academy of Music and I'm standing in the back, which I like to do. I don't like to sit because I like to get a sense of audience and reaction. And I'm standing in the back with Bill Aucoin and this strange-looking group comes out with this big backdrop sign that said KISS on it, and some of the lights were working and some weren't (laughs). And these guys come out in leather and these platforms and this makeup and my mouth dropped. Because in 1974 you just didn't see anything like that. The closest to anything unusual was David Bowie but this was four guys and they really came right in your face. And there was the blood and the fire and it was crazy and the music was loud. It was an attitude and it just blew me away. Bill looks at me and says, "So, what do you think?" And I said, "Well, wow. What can I say?" He said, "I just sense something with these guys. They're hungry; they want it. And I just feel that there is something here." I said, "You may be right. There's no one doing this." Ultimately what they were doing that night is that they were opening for a band called Argent who was very big at the time. And ironically of course, down the road, Argent then opened for KISS (laughs) and the tables were turned. Anyway, I said [to Bill], "It certainly is a PR dream but let's talk about it." In the interim, I was approached by MCA Records to run their New York publicity office. I accepted the position and so Bill was kind of down in the dumps because I couldn't work on KISS at the time. But I told him that I certainly would be there for him to give him any suggestions or whatever that I could. I wanted to stay close to that band. I was at MCA Records and after two years I was asked to join Rogers & Cowan. And I called Bill and I said, "I think I'm going to make the move. It was an offer I couldn't refuse." And I said, "Now would be the time. I can bring KISS into the PR company with me." And he got so excited. That's ultimately how it evolved for me to start working with KISS formally, although I had been kind of moonlighting on the side with him during my tenure at MCA just to give him some things to think about, publicity wise.

KF: And how did you segue into the Press Office?
CRD: After some years at Rogers & Cowan, people kept saying to me, "Carol, you should open your own office. You have all these great accolades." And I thought to myself, "That could be a dangerous move or it could be an interesting one." Bill Aucoin, as we had become very close friends, said, "Carol, you should do it." So that's when I finally decided to make another move and open up my own company, the Press Office. And of course at that point Bill was thrilled because he knew KISS would be in good hands, so to speak (laughs). So that's what happened. And at that time, Carol Kaye was working at Bill's office and I was hiring people so she asked if she could come and work for me. So that's how Carol Kaye came over to my company and worked for me along with several other people I had hired.

KF: And to get a sense of time, what year did you open the Press Office?
CRD: It was '78.

KF: That's right in the time frame we're primarily discussing, so it's a perfect segue into the solo albums. When I think of the classic era of KISS, the solo albums stand out as perhaps the band's biggest milestone, if not the biggest KISS project from a publicity standpoint. Would you agree?
CRD: Yes, I agree with you. Let me tell you something, deciding to do the solo albums was a long process. There were a lot of meetings with Casablanca. But Neil Bogart -- in spite of what other people in the industry thought -- he was so committed to this band. Neil was going to spend the money. He was told, "This is crazy. You shouldn't be doing this. This is taking a big risk. It's a lot of money involved." But he was just so into it. And beside the fact, he enjoyed working with Bill Aucoin and thought that Bill was one of the great managers in the business, which we all agreed. But it was a real labor of love. And it was a long process. It was a turning point for wonderful, incredible projects. We thought, "Wow, this is going to be wonderful because this has not happened before." I wanted to really make it very special. And so with what Casablanca was doing, and what we had planned to do for the media, it was great. I had suggested from the individual albums that we do special posters and have a gallery showing, which we did for the press. And then of course each member of the band signed their specific poster and we gave them away as collectibles. We made it very, very special. And it was only a limited edition. So that added to what Casablanca Records was doing promotion-wise. It was interesting because people were taking bets on which album and poster was going to get the most play. It became, "Is it going to be Gene? Is it going to be Paul?"

KF: And which posters are these specifically? Are these posters of the album covers?
CRD: Yes, but what we did is we took them and did lithographs of the posters and that's what made them special and a limited edition as a collectible item. We sent them to special press people that had been very supportive of us, and to radio and to VIPs in the business. So it wasn't going to be blanketed. Those lithographs were going to be a really special item, so anyone who got one, it wasn't like a mass-produced thing.


Carol Ross-Durborow with Gene Simmons in 1979


KF: In addition to yourself, who else had input into generating ideas and executing the solo album publicity campaign?
CRD: Well, it was myself, obviously Bill Aucoin, Alan Miller, who worked for him, and Neil Bogart and his staff. It was a labor of love with everyone involved. I would be the one to go to the conference meetings and then I would come back with my notes and I would sit with my staff and determine who was going to work on this and what this person would focus on. And that's how we would do it. Because of the enormity of the project, it needed several hands to do certain things.

KF: And did the band have any input regarding the campaign?
CRD: Oh absolutely. The band had input from the very beginning. That was the great thing about it. They were there at every meeting. Nothing was done without their 100 percent consent. Gene is a marketing genius. Their input was so valuable and we gave them the respect. And not every artist would get that kind of acceptance in decisions made by the record company.

KF: Of course, the campaign was a huge effort across print, TV and radio, totalling expenses of $2.5 million. Carol, in hindsight, was this figure excessive or ultimately was the dollar figure necessary to publicize this project?
CRD: For everything that they were doing, and for all of the promotions -- because I was setting up promotions at radio and big giveaways and stuff -- yes [it was necessary]. And that's why I was saying, people were telling Neil this was going to be an expensive package. And he said, "Yes, but what we're going to get out of it promotion-wise is going to be amazing. And we're going to do it the right way." The great thing about Bill Aucoin was everything had to be first class with him. He would not skimp on anything. It was either going to be a massive, really first-class presentation or it wasn't going to get done. And Neil Bogart understood that because he felt the same way. That was very important.

KF: Well, when you say first class, as it pertains to the solo albums the first thing I think of is the artwork. Eraldo Carugati painted a set of beautiful portraits of the band members.
CRD: Yes, and that's exactly what we wanted to do. Because when we were in the initial meeting I had thrown my two cents in to say, "If you're going to do these, they really need to be done to look like pieces of art." And that's why I decided that we should do the lithographs afterwards because to me they were individual works of art.

KF: One interesting component of the solo album publicity campaign that comes to mind is what's known today as the "KISS Black Box," which contained pre-recorded interview answers from the band and some suggested questions for the press. I believe these were sent to radio stations. Carol Kaye and I chatted about this and she made a great point about how this idea was ahead of it's time in some ways, and a pre-cursor to today's EPK. Those were sent exclusively to radio stations, correct?
CRD: Yes. And that initially came from the record company so we didn't have too much to do with that. Although we sent out releases about that being done. And this was the other great thing, when we sat in meetings there was no resistance to doing unusual things or creating crazy things as far as marketing and promotion went. And that was where the fun came in because you could come out with the most outrageous piece of product and everyone would look and say, "Yeah! That could work. Let's do this." It was very hard in the beginning to get the media interested in KISS. They did not take them seriously. So we had to come up with unusual things to get their attention and it was the same with radio. That's why doing all of these innovative ideas, events and utilizing different products to generate excitement and attention had to be done. The creative situation in a meeting was amazing because we would get hysterical. Somebody would say, "Why don't we do this? And why don't we top with something else?" It was a necessary evil, so to speak, because Bill knew that the band was not yet taken seriously as musicians so we had to market them for their visual appeal and for the innovative things that were being done in conjunction with what they were doing. And no one can dispute that. I think the KISS marketing machine is probably a lesson for anyone, then and today, to pay attention to.

KF: Another example of going outside the box is the press kit that was put together for the solo albums. This wasn't just a simple bio sheet and a photo, it was very elaborate and colorful.
CRD: Yes, they were. And of course that is the ideal situation for a publicity firm because so many times people think, "OK, you put in a bio and picture in the press kit, and that's it." And they allowed us to create whatever we wanted to do.

KF: There was also a shopping bag sent out to the press containing the albums and a press kit, which was hand-delivered to certain press outlets in some cases.
CRD: Yes, we did that. As I said before, anything to generate the interest, [we did it]. We had unusual product, we had unusual ways of delivering it and we wanted to do it. And that was a great creative PR dream.

KF: One of the ads issued for the solo albums was featured in the Sept. 9, 1978, issue of "Billboard," and it had the four album covers and the headline "4 Million Sold The First Week!" It seems this ad was designed to grab some attention right out of the box?
CRD: Right. With KISS everything had to be bigger than life. That was the standard line. Any time we'd go into a meeting, that was what was first said by Bill: "Remember, everything with KISS has to be bigger than life." And it was. What was interesting, and what I had fun with, is the guys were hungry and they were eager. So they would do anything. I was able to take them all over the city. I don't know if you have a copy of Waring Abbott's book called "KISS: The Early Years" ...

KF: Yes I do. It's fantastic.
CRD: Well, those pictures, I was with him. He became our exclusive photographer and I had these guys walking everywhere. I put them on top of the Empire State Building, hanging over the sides, we walked up and down Broadway -- and people would see these four guys and it was so amazing. They were so easy to work with and were so cooperative and knew the value of doing what they were doing was going to be. We had a lot of fun with that because ultimately -- I didn't say this to them at the time -- but when I would be calling the press, I'd say, "I'm calling about KISS," and a lot of these journalists laughed at me. "Oh come on, Carol, you've got to be kidding me." I got a lot of that for a long time. And I used to hang up the phone and say, "Someday, someday, you're going to be calling me." And I said, "When I get them on the cover of 'People' magazine, when I get them in 'Rolling Stone' magazine, you guys are all going to turn your heads." And sure enough it happened because that gave me more determination than anything else (laughs). But it was actually the Cadillac, Michigan, event that really turned the tide for mainstream publicity.

KF: I want to get to Cadillac in a minute. Carol, I believe you have said that the press would ask primarily to interview Gene and Paul. Was it a challenge to get Ace and Peter equal time?
CRD: It was to some degree because Gene's personality was so out there. And he was so accessible and easy to talk to, and intelligent. Ultimately, a lot of the journalists kind of gravitated to him. Paul was terrific but he was a little shy. He didn't throw himself out there. It seemed in the beginning that Gene was the one that they were kind of focusing on. So I had to work a little harder for Paul and then it came around for Paul. And it was the same thing for Peter and Ace. They really didn't have the finesse to do interviews and be as outgoing or gregarious as Paul and Gene. We'd have to work a little harder and create a little harder. The best thing about [the solo album for] Ace was finally he got validated for his musicianship, because it was hard. When I could get a guitar magazine to do a piece on his music, rather than on just this flashy, flamboyant member of KISS, it became a little bit more credible. People then started wanting to talk to him a little bit more. So we utilized what we felt were there inlaying talents to bring them out more. We had to think like that because at first I didn't think there was going to be a problem, but when I would talk to press or press called me, they would ask for Gene or Paul most of the time. But when we started talking about musicianship, then they started looking at Ace a little bit closer. And the same with Peter: we drummed up his drumming! (laughs) Then it became a little bit easier.

KF: Carol, did you get a pulse on which albums seemed to be received best by the press?
CRD: Well, I would say again, it was Gene and Paul's that stood out, to some degree, a little bit more than the others.

KF: Of course, Ace literally pulled an ace from his sleeve in scoring the big hit of the four albums with "New York Groove."
CRD: Yes, that was very good for us because we could then play that up. That's what was happening. Again, Ace was able to talk about the music from his album. It was great. It kind of came out of left-field and we were thrilled about it.

KF: And it probably took Gene and Paul by surprise?
CRD: Right.

KF: From some of the people I've talked to in the industry, when you say the KISS solo albums, they joke about the albums. It seems there's a stigma attached...
CRD: Big stigma. That's why I said to you, that was one of my biggest problems. It was a stigma, because nobody took them seriously. It was difficult to break through and that's why the publicity came from all of the marketing and promotions that were done -- the innovativeness and creative marketing so people were talking about it. You know what I always said, "If you're not making it through the front door, there's always a back door." And that's what we utilized in the beginning.

KF: I think part of the stigma with this particular project is that Neil Bogart shipped more than 5 million of the KISS solo albums to record stores. And not all of them sold, and there were a lot of returns.
CRD: Yep. Well, people were looking for anything they could to downgrade the band's growing popularity. And look, eventually [the publicity] worked because even at the time [they sold], and they still sell. People are still looking for those albums.

KF: It's also been intimated that some label executives perceived this solo album marketing campaign as over-excessive and that other artists from other labels subsequently questioned why their label couldn't promote them like Casablanca did with the KISS albums.
CRD: Exactly. And what's interesting is that my company, the clients that came to me were the biggest in the world. I had McCartney, Billy Joel, Cher, Van Halen, it was amazing. And that's because they knew that we could do the job publicity-wise for them.

KF: Van Halen?
CRD: Well, what's interesting is that Gene found Van Halen. Fortunately, they stood on their own and were able to make it big too. I loved working with them as well. The thing is [the solo albums] gave us the opportunity to show what can be done when you work closely with a record company in marketing, radio promotion, advertising, and public relations. Every one of those entities is important to the success of what you're trying to get across.

KF: Aside from the solo albums, in 1978 for KISS there was also "Double Platinum" and "KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park." Do you think 1978 was KISS' peak year?
CRD: It was a peak. But it didn't come down after that. I think that was probably the busiest year for them. At that point they became a staple. Once they started touring, especially in Japan, it was such an enormous turnaround. '78 was the busiest year with many things happening.

KF: KISS and "Rolling Stone" have always seemed to have a tenuous relationship. Given your unique perspective, can you shed some light on the rub between KISS and that particular publication?
CRD: "Rolling Stone" saw itself as a valid, credible "music" publication and ultimately did not want to bring a show band [like KISS] into the fold. So it was just a bit of snobbery.

KF: Well, when I look at the magazine and see some of the acts who have made the cover, especially in recent years, I think it's surprising that KISS never made the cover, especially in the '70s.
CRD: I know. And believe me, it wasn't for not trying. Then you get to a point where there was an arrogance about them. And you say, "I'm not begging for this. This band doesn't need to beg." Then you understand where they're coming from and you say, "OK," and that's it. With every other national, regional, local, and international publications around the world, I wasn't going to worry about "Rolling Stone."

KF: Bill Aucoin passed away in 2010. Can you talk about what Bill meant to you and how important he was to the success of KISS?
CRD: Yes. Bill and I hit it off right from the beginning. He was such a gentleman. He wasn't your typical music manager. He was brilliant. He could get his point across without being crass. He had such insight. He had such determination. I mean, he spent all of his own money with this band, who had nothing when he picked them up. He invested every bit of his money because he believed, he saw something and he was determined to make it happen. And he did. He was diligent. He was honest. He was forthright. He was so creative. All without ever raising his voice or hurting anyone. He could get what he wanted; he had that finesse. He included the band in every decision. He showed them respect. He showed everyone respect. He demanded your attention and 100 percent commitment because that's what he gave. I was asked when he passed away to be the emcee at his memorials so I went to the one in Florida and then Carol Kaye and I worked together to put together the one in New York.

KF: And Ace and Peter came to the memorial in Florida?
CRD: Yes. Gene and Paul were down there but they didn't come to the big event. But they did go down. They showed their respect to him. As far as my point of view, Bill was just an amazing human being. And we stayed close all these years. I'd been with him just a couple of months before when he was sick and he was brushing it off that it was nothing. And I said to him, "Bill, you need to take care of yourself." I adored this man. He should go down in music history as one of the greatest managers of all time.

KF: If you think to some of the major publicity coups during your tenure with the band, I would guess that Cadillac, Michigan, would be right up at the top. Carol, take us back to Cadillac.
CRD: Well, I'll tell you, that was my project, which I'm very proud of because I had received the letter from the footbal coach at Cadillac High School saying that his team had been losing. And he decided that during practice he was going to put on some music that he thought might generate some energy and get his guys on track. He was a KISS fan himself and he said he put on KISS albums and he said the transition was amazing and he wanted to let me know and to please tell KISS that their music got this high school football team to start winning games. And I thought to myself, "What a lovely story!" And I said, "And what better place, the heartland of America, to give credibility to this band." So I called Bill and Alan, and I said, "Is there a possibility KISS would go to Cadlillac, Michigan, and meet the football team?" And of course, they were always up for something, and they said, "Sure, sure! That sounds great." I got back to the coach and told him that we were going to be coming, and we figured out a time when the band was off. He almost flipped; he could not believe it. We planned a time where we would bring the band in and meet the football team and the guys would talk to them. It was really going to be that kind of a situation.

Well, it evolved into a major, major event. When the coach called me back, he said he told the president of the school and the principal that KISS was coming! Everybody got so excited so not only did the school get involved, but the town got involved. And what they were planning for KISS was this major event whereby the town officials -- the mayor and all of the politicians, the councilmen and teachers -- everybody was going to have a "KISS Day." When the band came in, they were going to have floats and a marching band. And I thought to myself, "My goodness. What better thing could we have done?!" And so I coordinated with everybody there, we sent the teachers makeup kits and they were putting the makeup on the students. And mothers and fathers were putting makeup on the kids. The town mayor and the councilmen had makeup on. The football team put makeup on. When everybody came to greet us when they arrived, they were all in KISS makeup. It was the wildest thing. We got on to the football field and then we went through the town and they had floats. I brought Waring Abbott along with about 20 key press people there. Of course, Waring was our official photographer so he was able to document everything. It was spectacular and that was the major turning point for me. I knew if we could get middle America to believe in this band and do what they did -- with little kids, teachers, political figures and the school principal and everybody there with makeup on -- then nothing is wrong. Because before that I used to get threatening letters and phone calls from people down South who said the band "were the demons and the devil and we're all going to hell." I tried to explain to them that this was not the case, that the KISS makeup were cartoon figures and I explained what each member's makeup was. But it didn't help. The Cadillac, Michigan, event absolutely gave credibility to them as a "wholesome" band (laughs). That was the crossroads.

KF: It's just such an unlikely, but amazing, chapter in the band's history.
CRD: I didn't even anticipate it to be as huge as it became. We were basically going to surprise the football team and do a good deed and show up. And it just evolved. So we said, "OK, if this is evolving like this, then we're going to make it work well." And the guys were wonderful. It was so amazing and, as I said, it was a turning pont as far as the acceptance and credibility the band could have with Middle America on a national level, and not just as a cult band.

KF: Though you've worked with many other great artists, do KISS hold a special place in your heart?
CRD: Absolutely. They were the one band from the very begining and they will always hold that first place in my heart. I've talked to Gene and I'm so proud of what they've done. I sat with Peter and Ace at Bill's memorial down in Florida and they seem to be in a decent place for themselves. And I'm glad to see that. I always feel like the sister who is looking out for the brothers. And I'm happy when I see all the good things that happened to them because I remember that first night when they were wearing the costumes they made themselves, and one of them was a little torn (laughs). And to see what they became and know that I was a part of it from the very beginning is just a wonderful thing for me.

(KissFAQ thanks Carol Ross-Durborow for her time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)



About Carol Ross-Durborow:
Take a look through the top music, entertainment and news journals and, in large part, the images and the stars (and even more important - the persons behind the images) will have fallen under the aegis and direction of Carol Ross-Durborow, one of the industry's premier, reputable image-builders. She's done it all: from introducing the group KISS to the world to representing Elton John, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Cher, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, Burt Bacharach to Blondie, to Van Halen and the list goes on. During her tenure at MCA Records, Ross-Durborow was responsible for such legendary performers as Elton John, Olivia Newton-John, the Who, and other artists on the roster. At Rogers & Cowan, the esteemed international public relations firm, she began as director of their music division representing the biggest names in the business, Paul & Linda McCartney, Dolly Parton, the Beach Boys, and a host of others. This eventually paved the way for her to go on to open her own agency, the Press Office, a subsidiary of Aucoin Management. The same philosophy that had served her so well in the arts was equally successful in the corporate arena. Her client list had grown to include not only the super-stars of music and entertainment, but corporate power-houses as well. England's entrepreneurial man Richard Branson chose Ross-Durborow and her company to launch his new airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways, in the United States and to handle the Virgin Group of Companies. More recently, her former client, the legendary Tommy James, enticed her out of retirement to become his manager and direct all publicity and media for his burgeoning multimedia company, Aura Entertainment Group. Back in her element, she quickly stepped in to encourage James to finish writing his autobiography and with a publishing deal with Scribner/Simon & Schuster in place, the next step was to bring his compelling story to the silver screen, which is now in development. Ross-Durborow will be an associate producer on this project.