"Fate's Right-Hand Gal": Mary Martin, Music Business Catalyst

Mary Martin, who died in 2024 at the age of 85, was an important but unsung connector and catalyst of folk and rock music during her career. Her work as a manager and record label executive saw her bringing several important artists to greater recognition and her associations and friendships led to productive partnerships. She was an opinionated, passionate advocate for the musicians that she admired, and she fought for their careers as best she could. 

She was born in Toronto on June 15, 1939. Her father, Crawford Martin, was a corporate lawyer at Manufacturers' Life Insurance Company and her mother's birth name was Alida Starr. Mary had two brothers, Tony and a younger brother who died young. From 1953 to 1957 Mary attended Havergal College in Toronto, an exclusive private school for girls. Summers were spent on Georgian Bay, “the place where I went to renew my spirit and renew my soul for the next journey.” Upon graduation, she attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver but her time there was short ("I was not a stellar student," she recalled) and, after failing French and biology, she dropped out in 1958. Back in Toronto, she worked for James Richardson and Sons, a grain industry brokerage house in 1959. She enrolled at Ryerson Polytechnical College (now Toronto Metropolitan University) the following year; as she recalled, "furniture and interior design was not for me although I rather enjoyed the English and economics courses." After another briefly held job at the Crown Life Insurance Company in 1961, Mary plotted a move to New York.

In 1962 Mary headed to Greenwich Village ("I got off the bus with 60 bucks"), ostensibly to break into the music business, though she told the journalist Robert Oerman in 1985 that she went to New York "as a result of a broken heart...Yeah, he was a musician." Mary identified this musician as a "12-string guitarist" in 2007. This guitarist was ostensibly Jim McCarthy, a prominent folk musician on the Toronto scene. Following a tenure part-time waitressing at The Bitter End coffeehouse, she briefly worked ("for a moment" she said) as a secretary for Monica Getz, who was at that time assisting in the meteoric career of her saxophonist husband, Stan Getz. After her time with Getz she worked, again briefly, for the agent Sherman Tankel, who handled the booking of the New Christy Minstrels, a popular folk act of the era.

In 1963 she secured a position as a receptionist in the office of legendary artist manager Albert Grossman. Grossman's roster would eventually include Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Mimi and Richard Farina, Janis Joplin, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Odetta and Paul Butterfield. In 1964, after upgrading her typing and speed writing skills at Shaw Business College in Toronto, she was promoted to a position of executive assistant, a job she held until 1966. "Albert was my music business schooling. And I must say that it was a wonderful school," Mary told Oerman. Grossman would at one point give Mary his cat, Lord Growing, who appears on the cover of Bob Dylan's 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home.

One of Mary's most famous and important acts in the music business was her introduction of Bob Dylan to the Hawks, the (mostly) Canadian band that would accompany Dylan on and off from 1965 through 1974. Recalling her days in Toronto pre-1962, Mary remembered “We would go to drink at the Pilot Tavern near Yonge and Bloor, then after several beers, or gin-and-tonics, we'd go down to see the Hawks [backing up singer Ronnie Hawkins] at the Le Coq d'Or [a Yonge Street tavern]. Those boys talked to each other musically. They had conversations with themselves that were so deeply musical that if you listened, you got to go along. They were the best band that we had ever, ever heard.” 

Working with Dylan in Albert Grossman's office, Mary noticed Dylan's need for a steady backup band. He had worked with an electric band on his early 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home and was continuing to record with electric backing, but he needed a touring band and the Hawks, who had recently left the employ of Hawkins, seemed to her the perfect group. "I said, 'Well, go to Toronto and see the Hawks.'" 

Mary brought bassist Rick Danko an advance copy of Highway 61 Revisited. She had previously played Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home for members of the band, but they had, in her memory, dismissed him as a “strummer”. She greased the wheels by arranging for Dan Weiner, a Grossman scout, to check them out. Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm of the Hawks joined Dylan for his next two concerts and by September of 1965 Dylan was in Toronto, rehearsing with the Hawks after hours at the Friars Tavern.

The full band debuted with Dylan at Carnegie Hall and got a standing ovation. “I remember going to Dylan and saying, ‘Well done’ and ‘Hurray for you,’ because all he really wanted to do was continue to get his music out in a new form, because that’s what artists do. But he had this wonderful smile. I’ve never seen him smile like this before. There were crinkles by his eyes that were crinkles of joy. It was fabulous." Dylan and the Hawks went on to undertake a now legendary world tour only interrupted by Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident.

Mary described her work for Grossman in a profile in Maclean's magazine in 1966: "booking accommodations, co-ordinating travel arrangements, letting show sponsors know what the artists require in the way of equipment, ensuring that passports are in order, and generally seeing to the needs of the big names while they are on tour."

In 1966, at the age of 27, Mary struck out on her own as an artist manager. She had learned from Grossman that a manager's mission was to provide an audience for their client; this meant setting up their music publishing company and connecting them with booking agents and press people. The manager's job was put their artist in a position of being recognized. As she told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “when I went into the business, people said I was too young...people would also say, 'You're not a musician or a songwriter. Why do you think you know anything about music?' Well, I knew my instincts were good and I knew I cared passionately about music.”

Mary told Maclean's in 1966: "You must remember that I do want to go back to Canada to set up an agency, because I think the talent is there. There are six or seven people in Canada who could make it." But she stayed in New York for the time being. She began to manage the Stormy Clovers, a band from Toronto whom she had known back in her Yorkville days in the early sixties.

Elizabeth Ashley, an actress and longtime friend of Mary's, described her around this time. “Mary was like a commander; she was eccentric and beautiful and funny and smart and generous and take-no-prisoners and difficult and complicated.” 

In 1966 Mary began to manage Leonard Cohen, who was at that time an established poet and novelist in Canada, but had yet to begin his musical career. Cohen had left Montreal with some money borrowed from his friend Robert Hirschorn with a plan to move to Nashville and become a professional songwriter. Hirschorn had suggested that Leonard seek out fellow Canadian Mary Martin during a stopover in New York City.

Cohen had a handful of songs like "Suzanne," "Dress Rehearsal Rag" and "The Stranger Song" that he would play for friends and occasionally at poetry readings, but he needed a demo tape for Mary to be able to spread the word more widely. She borrowed a tape recorder and, taking advantage of the natural reverberation, recorded Cohen in her bathroom, with the songwriter standing in the empty bathtub.

Mary used the music business connections that she had gained working for Grossman as best she could, sometimes with significant results for Cohen's nascent career. She arranged a meeting between Cohen and her friend Judy Collins, by 1966 a 27-year old established folk singer. Collins was taken with Cohen's songs and recorded two of them, "Dress Rehearsal Rag" and "Suzanne" on her hit 1966 album Wildflowers.

John Hammond was a legendary music maven, having already aided the careers of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan. Again employing a Grossman connection, Mary and her friend, the lawyer E. Judith Berger, approached Hammond about signing Cohen.

She also helped Cohen to form his own music publishing company, Stranger Music. She contracted the Hawks' keyboardist Garth Hudson, a classically trained musician, to transcribe Cohen's songs into musical notation for the necessary lead sheets.

Mary was fiercely protective of the integrity of Cohen's art. When Joan Baez, by then a highly successful folk artist, began to perform Cohen's "Suzanne" she saw fit to alter some of the lyrics to better fit her own sensibilities. Among her alterations, Baez substituted "And you think you’ll maybe trust him/‘Cause he’s touched you and he’s moved you, and he’s kind" for Cohen's “And you think you'll maybe trust him/for he's touched your perfect body with his mind.” Cohen was relatively sanguine about the alterations, commenting in a 1992 interview, "I don’t give my songs any instructions when they are presented to the public. They are completely on their own. I really feel they can take care of themselves – even when they are brutally violated as Joan Baez did to the song ‘Suzanne.’" Mary was less philosophical. As she recalled in 2009, she sent Baez a terse letter demanding she stop changing the song, explaining, “I don’t think you would take another brush to Andrew Wyeth and his paintings. Therefore, do not alter Leonard Cohen’s poetry.” She managed Cohen until 1969.

That same year she began to manage Van Morrison, who was then ensnared in a legal battle with Bang Records. As Mary recalls, Richard Manuel of the Hawks/the Band introduced them, and “his music just swept me away.” This was a critical time in Morrison's career, encompassing his breakout album Moondance as well as the preproduction of Tupelo Honey. Mary's first task was to extricate Van from his publishing obligations to Bang Records and its owner, Ilene Berns. This contract, “ruthless and rude and mean”, was nullified with the help of the legendary entertainment attorney Freddie Gershon. Van released his tremendously successful Moondance in January 1970. Among her contributions to his career, Mary strongly encouraged Van to tour, helping to create a consistent revenue stream.

Mary and Van parted ways in 1971. When Van informed Mary that he wasn't making enough money to pay her commission, she sent him a telegram (reading simply "I quit") resigning as his manager. As she put it in her 2005 resume, “With fondness I shall remember that I saw a boy grow into a responsible man with wife and child. I assisted in the re-negotiation of both his WB records and publishing contracts...I oversaw the growth of Van as a performing artist from a mere $500.00 a night to approximately $10,000.00 a night.”

In 1972 Mary joined Warner Brothers Record in New York as an A&R (artists and repertoire) executive. During her tenure at Warner she tried to entice Bob Dylan to sign with the company; his Columbia contract was expiring and he was considering other offers. In a letter to Dylan dated October 31, 1972, Mary began by talking about her cat Rolling Stone and moved quickly to a testimonial about Warner colleagues Lenny Waronker (head of A&R), Ted Templeman (staff producer/engineer) and Mo Ostin (president), citing their "unending creative loyalty and lack of pretension. They care for their artists with a deep affection that is so rare." She went on, “I offered to write this letter on their behalf as their talents bloom in the studio with Arlo [Guthrie], Randy [Newman], Gordon [Lightfoot] and Van [Morrison] and to be honest, they were just a little shy. And so, I shall be brazen and let you know that Lennie [sic] and Ted would be just so pleased to devote all of the care possible to help you produce a record. That's just about as direct as I can come to the heart of the matter.”

Mary's efforts to lure Dylan to Warner, in what would have been a signing of high prestige as well as a feather in her cap, came to naught. Wooed by David Geffen and Elliot Roberts, Dylan signed with Asylum the following year. He released two albums on the upstart label, Planet Waves and Before The Flood, before re-signing with Columbia where he remains to the present day. Nonetheless, she was making enough waves to be named in Esquire magazine's "Heavy 100" list of influential music business people in September 1973. Her signings for Warner included Emmylou Harris, Leon Redbone, Bonnie Raitt, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Nicolette Larson, Thin Lizzy, Dory Previn and the Marshall Tucker Band. At the 2007 Source Foundation Awards ceremony, Emmylou Harris recounted that "[Mary] became my champion and my protector...although she technically worked for the record company, her passion, her allegiance, her fierce loyalty were first and foremost for the music and the people who made it."

Mary felt that Warner, against her advice, missed out on some opportunities during her time there. Mo Ostin declined to sign Bruce Springsteen, claiming according to Mary that he was "too east coast." Warner did not heed her efforts to sign the singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who signed with ABC/Dunhill instead in 1973. "The next record that came out was 'Margaritaville,' Mary told the audience at the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum in 2009. "So everybody can eat shit and die as far as I'm concerned."

In her 2005 resume, Mary described her time at Warner.

Listened to each and every tape that we received from anywhere, anybody. Travelled extensively throughout the U.S. and Canada listening to artists live in anything from a Texas honky tonk to the punk clubs in New York. Once I treated Procul Harem [sic] to a very swank evening at the Waldolf Astoria to see Ray Charles...Having been a manager, I was called upon on several occasions to assist in the development of their careers. I helped Emmy [Emmylou Harris] with her style of clothes and boots and made it possible for her to open for the king, Merle Haggard. I bent the rules for the McGarrigles, gave Bonnie Raitt a home, a shoulder and an ear during the recording of "Streetlights."

An avid football fan, Mary was pioneering in her efforts to link sports and music in cross-promotional campaigns. After meeting Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders, she hired him to appear in a series of radio spots promoting Emmylou Harris. She also provided taped music to Madison Square Garden so that they could play Warner rock releases for New York Rangers hockey games and disco at Knicks basketball games. She connected Pat Toomay, a Buffalo Bills lineman who was also a writer, with a Rolling Stone assignment to cover Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, entitled "Buffalo Bills Meet Rolling Thunder: Bob Dylan Scores" (January 1, 1976).

Returning to artist management in 1980, Mary provided services to rising country music stars Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. From 1980 to 1983 she managed Crowell, who was heavily involved in record production and she assisted him in album projects for Rosanne Cash, Sissy Spacek, Guy Clark and Albert Lee. As she stated in a later resume, "My posture was to reflect Rodney's musical integrity." She managed Vince Gill from 1983 to 1985, helping him to secure his RCA record contract. She also founded fan clubs for both artists and oversaw merchandising.

Moving to Nashville in 1985, Mary was appointed the vice president of A&R for RCA Records, where she worked with Gill, Clint Black, Paul Overstreet, Aaron Tippin and Lorrie Morgan. A highlight of her RCA tenure was the placement of the hit song "I Can't Make You Love Me," written by Nashville composers Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, with Bonnie Raitt in 1991. On leaving RCA in 1991, she took over the executive director role at ECO (Earth Communications Office), where she organized fundraising events and helped implement a recycling program on Music Row.

Mary survived a sexual assault by an intruder at her Nashville home in 1992. In the aftermath of the assault Mary became a member of the steering committee for YOU HAVE THE POWER, a non-profit victims' rights organization advocating education on violent crime, and equity and balance in the criminal justice system. YOU HAVE THE POWER concentrated its efforts on violence against women and in the schools. Mary utilized her music connections to bring attention to their efforts. “In the case of rape, your spirit is murdered, and it's important to learn that if you don't talk about it, you don't heal...[a]fter I got involved in programs that offer counsel for rape victims, I called on a lot of my pals in the music industry to sing at some of our events, and they responded.”

After briefly serving as a consultant for Curb Records in 1994, Mary was then employed as a consultant with Asylum A&R from 1995-98. When a new executive team came in, her contract was not renewed. Finally, she joined Mercury/Lost Highway Records as vice-president of A&R in 1999 as a result of her successful co-production of the Grammy-winning Hank Williams tribute album Timeless.

Robert Hilburn, profiling Mary in 2002, described her enthusiasm in what would be the last stage of her career:

She's so pleased to be back in the business that she seems to be floating on air as she strides into her office at Mercury Nashville Records in the heart of Music Row...she's so enthusiastic about her work that her eyes frequently twinkle while she talks about favorite artists or songs. The only sign that someone actually uses the office is the pile of tapes and discs, the tools of the music trade, on her desk. Co-workers stop by regularly for a dose of Martin's enthusiasm the way others might turn to a morning cup of coffee.

At the same time, Mary's uncompromising nature and the inherent sexism in the music business seems to have impeded her career at times. As Holly Gleason, a leading Nashville publicist told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, “the truth is Mary Martin is the best at what she does, and that's sometimes the worst thing that can happen in Nashville, because when you have strong opinions about what you should be doing at a label, it makes lots of other people uneasy - especially if you are a woman.”

Her age may have played a role as well. As she told Hilburn in 2002, “I'm absolutely certain age hurts you in the music business”. Her tenure with Mercury/Lost Highway ended in 2002. At the 5th Annual Source Foundation Awards in 2007, Mary was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Emmylou Harris, whom she had signed to Warner Bros. in the early 1970s. And on November 17, 2009 Mary was honoured by the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum in Nashville for her contributions to the music business. Tracy Gershon, senior vice president at Warner/Chappell Music told the Tennessean: “I don't know if what she did can be done in this day...[t]here was more freedom back then, and there was more time for artist development and for a vision. Mary didn't have to go through committees. She was able to sign artists that she had a gut feeling about. And she did not edit her instincts.” 

Summing up her career, Mary said, “just being a catalyst, there's a real important role there. And I'm good at that…I'm Fate's right-hand gal."


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