The Sound Cafe
Dealing With Celebrities. Hey — You’re a Celebrity Too!
By Richard Flohil.
I was 19 when I met my first celebrity, the jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, who is still remembered and instantly recognized half a century after his passing. It was awkward, embarrassing and funny as all get out; I’ve dined out on that story ever since.
Three years ago I met another instantly recognizable musical icon, Dolly Parton. She was gracious, charming, openly pleasant and friendly. I’ll tell that story, too.
In between these the two memorable meetings I had the opportunity to meet and work with a whole raft of “celebrities” — among them Ray Charles, Eric Idle of Monty Python, Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly, Alice Cooper, k.d. lang, Benny Goodman, Beatles producer Sir George Martin, David Crosby and the unforgettable Leon Redbone. It’s a side benefit of spending years as a publicist and concert promoter.
I learned three things:
First, celebrities — just like you and me — put their pants on one leg at a time. Second, everybody with any profile at all (musicians, songwriters, DJs, even fools like me. who babble on the ‘net to amuse themselves and hopefully others) are celebrities to someone, somewhere. Maybe someone who follows you on Facebook, maybe the six-year-old next door who knows you’re in some way important, maybe a colleague at work. And, thirdly, everyone (absolutely everyone) has a story to tell.
So how we deal with celebrities is important, and here’s the swiftest of guides:
Do not “gush.”
Do some research — what are their non-musical interests?
Do not ask for selfies.
Do not approach celebrities when they are in private circumstances — like dining in a restaurant or walking down the street.
If you want to take a picture, ask first. And make sure the camera’s working, and be quick.
And since you are a “celebrity” to someone — co-workers, neighbours, friends’ kids — treat celebrities as you would like to be treated, as normal, regular people.
I can’t resist telling a couple of stories with which you might be able to identify. To start with, do not start out by telling celebrities that they’re vitally important to you — that you’re a “fan.” And do some research.
When I met Louis Armstrong I didn’t know that he was the biggest pot smoker ever; he’d been toking good weed since the ‘20s. I also didn’t know that he was an enthusiastic (and unpaid) promoter of a herbal laxative called Swiss Kriss (which, incidentally, you can still buy in health food stores). After I had been admitted into his dressing room, which smelled most peculiar, I launched into a verbal torrent of praise, for the inspiration he had given me to play trumpet, which of his many records I loved, and how wonderful the show I had just seen had been. Stripped to the waist, with a fluffy white towel on his head and wearing black track pants, he interrupted, sounding a bit irritated.
“So, are you reg’lar?”
“Regular?” I responded, mystified.
“Yes, man. Regular. Do you have gas?”
When you meet your god, you don’t expect to be asked about your bowel movements. I paused, confused — and he lost patience, reached over, grabbed a flyer and signed it with his fountain pen with green ink.
Outside the room, I looked at the flyer he’d signed. It was a keyhole-shaped photograph of him, with a big grin, sitting on the toilet with his pants around his knees. The text read: “Satchmo-slogan: Leave it all behind ya. Swiss Krissly.”
Dolly Parton is a public figure, and she knows it and works very hard at it. You will never see a picture of her without hair, an eye-popping dress and full makeup. Before you meet her one of her crew will request you not ask for autographs, or take pictures. Instead, they will take several pictures of you together, and you’ll be able to download them from a specific site, the URL of which they’ll give you. The meetings are brief, and she is, of course Dolly — a warm handshake, a gorgeous smile, and a quick chat (we spoke of a mutual friend from Los Angeles who was, she told me, at the show that evening). And the picture, which I downloaded a couple of days later, is terrific!
Asking for autographs is tricky; they’re often given without question at a merch table after a show, but at other times, asking for one is intrusive. I remember walking with George Martin across a crowded hotel lobby when a young fan dashed over, Sharpie in hand and waving an open autograph book. “Keep walking,” he said. “Don’t stop.” The now-confused kid followed and we rounded a corner by the elevator. Out of sight from the people in the lobby, he signed the lad’s book, adding: “If I’d stopped back there when you came up to me, there’d be fifty people around us in seconds. So you keep going and you don’t make eye contact.”
As we rode up in the elevator, I reminded Martin about a line Billy Connolly had told me (imagine Scottish accent!): “I hate signin’ fuckin’ autographs, but it’s easier to sign ‘em rather than explain why you won’t.”
Some celebrities are miserable — don ‘t ever go near Van Morrison. Benny Goodman was downright rude to the immigration people at the airport. I saw Ian Tyson storm off when a fan couldn’t get her camera working properly. George Jones, passing a group of handicapped people in wheel chairs by the side of the stage, walked by quickly muttering “fuck ‘em” to his bodyguard.
On the other hand, Ray Charles was generous with autographs as he arrived at the airport, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott will stop to tell long stories to anyone who’s listening. Loreena McKennitt is unfailingly gracious and generous with her fans. Celine Dion, who had the biggest and most threatening-looking bodyguard ever, turned out to be utterly charming. And Billy Connolly would engage strangers in friendly, warm conversations.
And most of the time celebrities are simply human. Eric Idle, who I worked with for several days, would sit in his hotel drinking herbal tea and writing his blog. When he referred to me as “my old geezer publicist” I dropped him a quick e-mail saying that I was only six years older than he was, and added snarkily that I did not have gout. When he turned his blog into a book, I was referred to as “Sir Richard of York” — he was instantly forgiven.
So how are you when someone stops — or writes — to tell you that you’re a good person, or that you’re admired, respected or even loved?
I hope you’re gracious and grateful, and generous with your time.
Being a celebrity — at star level or as a local hero — is a privilege.
About Richard Flohil: Richard was born in Yorkshire, England and came to Canada in 1957, he established himself as a music promoter, publicist, is a former Mariposa Folk Festival artistic director and journalist. Richard ran a highly successful public relations company, Richard Flohil and Associates based in Toronto. He is about to publish a book based on a lifetime of stories in a milestone-filled career.
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