Before Sue and I ever even thought of venturing into the music industry, long before we were even a blink in our parents’ eyes, even before long-playing albums – remember those? – the figure of the music plugger reigned supreme. Not the radio plugger of payola scandals but the more subtle figure employed by music publishers, tasked with the job of matching sheet music with band leaders willing to perform and record it.
My friend Harriette is a poised, energetic and funny 93-year-old lady with plenty of attitude. Always impeccably put together, she looks much younger than her age. Harriette spent most of her life in entertainment p.r. but her career began as a music plugger, probably the first female plugger in the US, in a world that was still very male-centric by the time sofagirl and I made our entrance, and no doubt even more so when Harriette started in the industry in the early 1940s – Sofagirl and I got our first jobs in the mid-80s. Still, some of the similarities on how a girl had to get her foot in and operate are strikingly similar.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I picked Harriette up for a shopping outing.
“There is something I’d like to show you”, she immediately blurted out as I walked in her place. And she handed me a ziplock bag with a copy of Time magazine inside.
Why on earth would she keep a magazine inside a ziplock bag, I wondered for a second, until the frayed pages and the date of March 5, 1945 provided my answer. Towards the back of the magazine, there is an article on music pluggers, and Harriette’s 24 year old face beaming in black and white.
“While in college, I started modeling but my mother didn’t think it was a suitable job for a nice Jewish girl so, when a friend who worked as a secretary for Warner Brothers called asking whether I might be interested in a job working for a Chicago music publisher, Mother happened to take the call and answered I would be taking it.”
“It’s only $16 a week ” the friend added.
“She’ll take it”.
Mother drove me downtown, to the Woods Theatre Building, for the interview and waited in the car. I was hired by the professional manager of Southern Music Co, Harold Lee, who thought I was pretty cute. He hired me to be his secretary. I did take up typing in high school but didn’t know shorthand. He suggested I go to a school to learn speedwriting. He would pay for half of it and Mother for the other half. I quit college for this. Worked many nights until 10 or 11:00pm trying to transcribe my notes. I was all of 19 years old.”
And so it was that, barely out of her teens, Harriette started her career like so many of us did: as a secretary.
It was no doubt Harriette’s chutzpah and hard work that helped her in moving up the ranks, to become the first female plugger in the US, first in Chicago and then at the famed Brill building in New York, her job so unlikely “for a nice Jewish girl” that even Time magazine took notice.
Part of the profile reads:
“The current revival of Confessin’ is a personal triumph for the nation’s top-ranking woman plugger: Chicago’s slim, blonde, big-eyed Harriette Smith. One of six pluggers assigned to Confessin’, […] 24-year-old Harriette has worked the Midwest mainly.
Unlike her male contemporaries, Harriette uses subtlety, tries to mention her merchandise by name as rarely as possible. To revive Confessin’, she provided mineral water for one bandleader’s ulcers, an infra-red lamp for another’s arthritis. For Mrs. Tommy Dorsey she managed to find $210 worth of silk stockings. Harriette has a reasonable explanation for the fact that most wives do not object to her overt cultivation of their band leader husbands. She says: “I am the only virgin in the music business…I go out with the fellows, drink with them, don’t blink an eye at their broad stories….The work requires concentration.”
To this day, Hariette will be quick to tell you the quote wasn’t hers, but her roommate’s.
“I would never have said I was the only virgin – that would have implied that every other girl working in the business was a slut, which wasn’t true.”
Frank Sinatra, of all people, was outraged by the comment and went out of his way to meet Harriette after he read the piece in Time, so he could scald her in person. “But I really did not say that”.
In a few minutes, Harriette had made come alive a world I only ever saw in black and white movies: a country at the tail-end of World War II, swinging to band music and wanting to forget the hardships. She also bridged the gap of however many generations separate us, by conjuring up the similarities of our first profession of choice. Tomes could be filled with all the stories of massaged egos, impossible requests realized, cajoling and persuasion techniques all in the effort to make some music sell. History, apparently, repeats itself even in the most mundane minutiae.
At the end of a successful shopping expedition, Harriette mentioned to me she was in the mood for tacos. We drive to Poquito Mas and, while in line for our food, she whispers: “Will you share a beer with me?” My kind of lady.
Over tacos and a Corona, we chat about our love life. Those stories, though, will not be spilled to Time magazine. Or to Campari and Sofa for that matter. Not yet at least. We are going to need a bit more beer.