Mike Lembo: Building Careers in the Music Business
Like his builder father, Long Island native Mike Lembo is a self-made man who helped develop — not landmark structures — but careers that have stood the test of time in the notoriously fickle music business, where he has plied his trade for more than 45 years. Lembo’s own resume includes credits as an artist and producer manager (Mike’s Artist Management), record label owner (his indie Deli Platters, the BMG-distributed First Warning, Funzalo Records), music publisher, film/TV synch licenser and talent executive. The proof of his success? More than the gold and platinum records which line his office walls, Lembo is proud to note that he has continued to achieve his initial goal to “make artists’ dreams come true.”
As a kid, Lembo played drums in suburban garage bands, something he continued when his family moved to south Florida in 1968, where he partied his way through a semester at the University of Florida and found himself sharing the stage with local phenoms Mudcrutch –featuring Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Randall Marsh. Upon realizing, “I could never be as good as these guys,” Lembo became the group’s de facto manager, booking and promoting the dates “as best I could.”
“I drove the van,” he says modestly, but he did more than that, essentially a jack-of-all-trades for the group until he discovered, without the requisite industry connections, he had taken Mudcrutch as far as he could. “If I had kept them, you’d never have heard of them,” he says ruefully. Petty and company took off in a van for Oklahoma City, where they met Denny Cordell, who signed them to Shelter Records, then to Los Angeles, and the rest, of course, is history. “I just wanted to help them any way I could,” he says. “I was a good salesman. I was pretty relentless.” Lembo went so far as to pipe in crowd noise for the band’s appearances, which helped gain them their own boisterous following, with his early role in the group’s history recounted by Warren Zanes in his recently published Tom Petty biography.
That auspicious beginning was just the start of Mike Lembo’s impressive run in the music business. His eclectic management resume includes a three-decades-plus professional relationship with tunesmith Jules Shear, working together on the influential Unplugged series on MTV. Shear – who was also in the Scott Litt-produced band Reckless Sleepers with another Lembo client, Conan O’Brien band leader Jimmy Vivino –penned hit songs for Cyndi Lauper (“All Through the Night,” “I’ll Kiss You”), the Bangles (“If She Knew What She Wants”), Til Tuesday (“[Believed You Were] Lucky”) and Alison Moyet (“Whispering Your Name”), among others. There were also stints managing legendary jam band rockers NRBQ, breakout new wavers Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Australian post-punk group The Church, Americana icons the North Mississippi Allstars, Tucson psych-rockers Sidewinders, Jamaican pop-reggae act the Jolly Boys, U.K. tunesmith Martin Briley, L.A. cult artists Divine Weeks, singer/songwriter Brian Lopez, world-class roots banjo player Tony Furtado, MTV poetry slam Todd Colby, Chicago power pop pioneers The Pez Band and kickass Austin rock band the Mother Truckers. Lembo also managed a number of Grammy-winning producer/engineers, including Paul Q. Kolderie/Sean Slade (Radiohead, Hole, Pixies), Stuart Sikes (Loretta Lynn, Cat Power), Jim Dickinson (The Replacements, Big Star, Alex Chilton, Willy DeVille, Toots and the Maytals), Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Stone Sour, Mastadon), Albhy Galutin (Saturday Night Fever, Jellyfish), Bill Drescher (Bangles, Allman Brothers, Rick Springfield), Peter Coleman (Pat Benatar, Steve Earle), Waddy Wachtel (The Church) and Dusty Wakeman (Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams). Among the executives he worked closely with along the way were such industry icons as Jerry Wexler, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker and Clive Davis.
Lembo is honest about his lifetime in the trenches, admitting, “I’ve succeeded a little in a lot of places,” but that doesn’t begin to describe his impressive list of victories. “I’ve had plenty of singles, doubles, triples and even a few home runs.”
After Gainesville, Mike moved to the Boston area, where he became a booking agent at Pretty Polly Productions, a company that still exists to this day. It was then he discovered Robin Lane, signing her to a publishing deal at MCA Music at the cusp of the New Wave in the mid-to-late ‘70s. and began releasing singles on his indie label, Deli Platters, started with the money from the advance. Lane’s popularity spread through the New England region, where she was making good money on the college circuit, eventually attracting the attention of Warner Bros. Records, with the legendary Jerry Wexler signing her to a recording contract – she was the 11th video played on the fledgling MTV network. Other Lembo signings during this period included the fusion jazz-oriented John Payne Band – featuring the saxophone player from Bonnie Raitt’s band who also played on Van Morrison’s Moondance album — for whom he secured a deal with Clive Davis’ Arista Records as part of the label’s “Freedom” series.
Moving from Boston down to New York, Lembo began adding to his management roster, with his philosophy on talent being “finding artists who write great songs and are able to perform them.” At the same time, he became a consultant to MCA Music Publishing, where he was hired by Leeds Levy, and signed Jules Shear as the very first client to his music publishing entity after the company passed. Shear gained success from writing two songs on Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album (“All Through the Night” and a co-write on “I’ll Kiss You”). During this time, he worked with cult favorite rock/country jam band NRBQ – as well as its renowned chief guitarist/songwriter Al Anderson — signing them to Mercury Records for the acclaimed At Yankee Stadium album, which helped create the myth around the beloved group.
One of Lembo’s mainstream successes were Aussie new wavers The Church, whom he got signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records, where he helped create one of that label’s true rock success stories. The final release, Starfish, sold more than a million worldwide, reaching #7 on the Billboard 200, thanks to the single, “Under the Milky Way,” which peaked at #2 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and #24 on the Hot 100.
Lembo began representing album producers long before it became commonplace. His first clients were Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade, whom he discovered when they produced a Nashville alternative metal band called Clockhammer that he was trying to sign to EMI. A year later, that company’s Nick Gatfield asked Lembo for their names and hired them to produce Radiohead’s 1993 debut album, Pablo Honey, which featured their breakthrough single, “Creep.” “I left it to them to deal with artist temperament,” laughs Lembo, who once turned down managing The Replacements, memorably recounted in Bob Mehr’s recent band biography, Trouble Boys.
During this time, Lembo also managed the Del Lords, Garland Jeffries, Anton Fier and the Golden Palominos and the Sidewinders, the latter of which brought him to the college town of Tucson, AZ, where he built up his independent label, Funzalo Records, publishing company and Mike’s Artist Management, where he worked with the likes of Brian Lopez, Tony Furtado and the Mother Truckers, putting his money where his mouth is, investing in the kind of artist development that major labels have long since abandoned to the independent sector.
One thing you can’t argue about is Mike Lembo’s taste in music. This is a guy who’s worked with such notable artists as NRBQ, producer Jim Dickinson (with whom he started a publishing company) and the North Mississippi Allstars. He has built and sold several music publishing companies along the way, with clients ranging from NRBQ’s Al Anderson, who wrote “You’re Gonna Be a Sorry Man” for Hank Williams, Jr., to The Woods’ Terry Anderson, whose “Battleship Chains” was a hit for the George Satellites.
What is it that keeps Mike Lembo in the game after all these years? He recently relocated his boutique artist management/record label/publishing business to Los Angeles, where he can do what he does best – find and nurture new talent. He remains a committed risk-taker, who can find the proverbial diamond in the rough and polish it to where it has commercial appeal
“I’m always looking for that fantastic singer/songwriter, someone I can help make a star, a dynamic performer,” Lembo says. “I’d also like to find a great new alternative touring band. That’s what has always drove me and continues to do so to this day.”
“Mike’s experience and intuition were invaluable in helping guide my music career. At various times, his vast network of industry connections could and would be employed – sometimes cajoled – toward that effort. Mike made me a lot of money.” David Slutes, The Sidewinders
“Mike was a lot more than a manager to me; he was my best friend and partner during one of the most exciting periods of my career. He was loud, imposing, energetic, tireless, innovative and notoriously fun-loving.” Martin Briley
“I first met Mike when I was working for Mercury Records in Chicago in the promotion department. He was managing NRBQ at the time. I was so impressed that I moved to New York and became his partner. Mike’s Management turned into Mikes’ Management. Our relationship is now over 40 years old, and we’ve never argued. Disagreed sometimes, but never an argument.” Mike Bone
“Mike’s boundless enthusiasm for and around his artists, while pushing their careers, has always impressed me. We worked on an act together, The Sidewinders, and Mike’s enormous contacts list led to a very happy experience making the record. Only record label distribution politics prevented its success.” Nigel Grainge
“I first met Mike when he put his hand up to manage the Church. He has great taste, is never scared to involve himself in great music and art, regardless of its commerciality. He has boundless positive spirit and optimism mixed with reality and hard work. A great guy and a survivor in every way” Marc Geiger, William Morris Endeavor
“In 1990, when Paul Kolderie and I went looking for representation in the jungle of producer managers, we were rejected (often cruelly) by everyone in L.A. Only Mike, with N.Y.C.-style insight, saw a glimmer of hope for our loud guitar music. We signed with him, and he sent us to England, where a meeting at EMI introduced us to a band named On A Friday, soon to be re-named Radiohead. The rest, as they say, is history…” Sean Slade
“Mike Lembo is a tenacious, experienced, tough yet fair personal manager, with a unique, old -school work ethic and style that best serves new and developing artists.” Leeds Levy, President Leeds Music
“Michael brought my song, ‘All Through the Night’ to Cyndi Lauper’s producer. I will be forever grateful to him.” Jules Shear
“Prince is Prince. Madonna is Madonna. Bowie is Bowie… Lembo is Lembo. Every time I see him, it’s like yesterday again … I only remember the good stuff. I hope he feels the same way about me.” Jimmy Vivino, Conan O’Brien’s band
“Mike has always been passionate about music. When he gets involved, he gives 100%. That’s how he was with NRBQ and he’s still giving 100% today in whatever he does… Yay, Mike.” Big Al Anderson
“I met Mike Lembo in the mid eighties… My wife, who at the time was working as assistant to Danny Bramson at Back Street Records, already knew, and really liked Mike, and I had to agree. I instantly felt a closeness to him, and liked his whole approach to music and life… As he would say, ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’. I couldn’t agree with that philosophy more. He always has a great feel as to what his artists should be doing. He brought the Church and I together, and after many weeks of working with the band in pre-production, rehearsing day after day, getting the songs properly arranged and performed as a band has to. We were ready. We had cut several tracks, when one day Steve Kilbey plays this song called “Under the Milky Way Tonight” for my partner Greg Ladanyi and myself. Greg had the brilliant idea to approach this song from a studio aspect, rather than a live performance approach. Next thing we know, the Church are a household word and our project has taken the world’s ear by storm. I’m happy to say we produced the right record of a classic song. That’s pretty much the whole picture with Mike Lembo. He is always that guy who cares deeply about the people he works for and works with. Put his artist in the right place at the right time. Find the right act for his artist, and that basically means they gotta have the songs. It’s all about the songs! Thanks Lembo!