17 Apr WHAT MAKES RITCHIE RUN In a word.. chutzpah By Jim Hickman
What do Australia, the Beatles, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission rulings and Canadian nationalism all have in common? The answer is 26-year-old Ritchie Yorke. pop writer and hustler extraordinaire, who six years ago came up from Down Under and went over the top to establish himself as one of the world’s most peripatetic rock journalists: associate editor of Jazz & Pop: music editor of Modern Hi Fi: Canadian editor of Billboard: frequent contributor to RPM, a Canadian- music trade journal; weekly write-ups for newspapers in Ottawa. Winnipeg and Calgary: a regular column in England’s New Musical Express; articles in Music Life in Tokyo. Music Maker in
Hong Kong, Rock and Folk in France. Nineteen and Petticoat in England, and Pix and Go Set in Australia.
Ritchie Yorke has aptly been called the Sammy Glick of pop music. For like Glick. he can out-run. out- hustle. out-flatter just about anyone in the business. No critic’s distance for him; no intellectual interpretations of pothead poetry; just plain old Hollywood-style admiration for the instant heroes of the music world. Their lives become his, and out of this vicarious living, come Hedda Hopper tales too gritty with “inside stuff” to ignore.
Don Hawkes, former entertainment editor of the Globe and Mail, who has worked with Ritchie, says “Ritchie’s use of punctuation, grammar and spelling is horrible. He needs a good editor. But still, he catches the atmosphere of the pop world better than any reporter ever has.”
With his blond hair, droopy moustache and flashing blue eyes, Ritchie cuts a groovy figure and might almost be called charismatic, It’s ironic to think that he’s currently involved in more lawsuits than William Kunstler and is disliked by much of the rock press. Whenever Ritchie signs a letter or leaves a phone message, the farewell carries only his first name. His writing. usually first person, reflects the same confidence. For example: “I was rapping with Steve Stills in his English home…” or “When I sat in on an Aretha session , . .’’ or “EricClapton told me..Obviously. his format works, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many writers trained in the school of objective journalism.
Ritchie lies back on the plushly carpeted living-room floor in his large home near Casa Loma, in Toronto. He is wearing a green-satin jersey and faced patched jeans, with the title of his fast-selling book. Axes, Chops & Hot Licks, (pub- lished by Mel Hurtig, Edmonton; paperback, $2.95; hard cover, $7.95) sewn onto the left leg. His two Pekingese dogs play nearby, while his five-month-old daughter, Samantha, stares at them. Ritchie’s pretty wife, Annie, brings him his umpteenth cup of tea that day.
Ritchie once wrote that while a rock star reaps the riches and adulation that come with success, a pop writer receives little reward for his part, in either money or praise. But judging from his life-style, Ritchie couldn’t have been writing about himself. He’s built a reputation and a comfortable life out of polishing rock stars’ egos with a wax of friendly words. In fact, Ritchie is planning to retire in two years at the ripe old age of
Ritchie was born in Brisbane, Australia, where according to his divorcee mother, Joy, he led a normal childhood. “I always thought Ritchie would be a doctor or lawyer,” Ritchie’s mom says. “I didn’t think he’d be a writer. I guess he just wanted something easy.”
By 16, Ritchie had already become a sports reporter for a Brisbane newspaper, and was broadcasting a radio show. But when he played a Stevie Wonder record called Fingertips, despite Australia’s then-restnctive racial policy, the station manager ordered him to stop playing it. When Ritchie refused, he was fired.
Ritchie’s mom again: “I told him his interest m music would fade, and he should stop listening to all that rock’n’roll ana take an advertising course. I told him he couldn’t get a job writing rock’n’roll.”
Sidestepping mom’s advice, Ritcnie got a job as an apprentice journalist at a TV station outside of Brisbane. For four years, he put newscasts together and wrote a regular column called Teen Topics in TV Week, the Australian equivalent of TV Guide.
“It was then,” Ritchie remembers. “that Australia became a real bummer. It was really a drag for rhythm’n’blues. I figured pop music was my life, and I wanted to be in that scene. But I was stuck so far from anywhere, I just had to leave.”
That was late 1969. Before John Lennon had become radical-chic living on a scant eight million dollars a year. Before he had become Lennon the Maoist. At that time, Lennon was still a pacifist, and he had just announced a giant peace festival to be staged in Ontario (!!) with every major act in the world participating.
Ritchie resigned from the Globe to join the bandwagon. “The rumors were true,” he says. ‘Two v/eeks after Lennon announced the festival plans, everybody was committed — even Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Peter Sellers.” When Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins left on a world tour to promote his new album, Ritchie went with him to promote peace for Lennon. But while he was away, John and Yoko flew to Denmark to visit Yoko’s daughter by her first marriage, and Ritchie remembers: “They met some people who were going to help them give up cigarette smoking — only these people said they were from the moon, and John and Yoko started hanging around with them.
“The next thing I knew, Annie called me from Toronto. She told me there’d been a press conference in San Francisco, and that men from the moon were going to attend the peace festival. It was getting crazy.”
Ritchie advised Lennon that the festival wasn’t going to work out as no site could be round and there were hassles over whether or not to charge entrance fees. So Lennon abandoned the idea and moved on to another fad. Peace had not come to the world, but Ritchie and Ronnie got to wave “War is over, if you want it” posters at Red Chinese border guards … for what it was worth.
Peace mission impossible, Ritchie returned to The Telegram, but was fired a few months later for writing an article that offended one of the Tely’s biggest advertisers.
Upstairs in Ritchie’s house is an of- nce-den that’s cluttered with newspapers and records. On a crowded desk there is an electric typewriter where he often works for 18 hours at a time. He has autographed pictures here too … of people like George Harrison, John Lennon and Led Zeppelin. He also has a book with names and numbers in it.
In April, 1966, Normie Rowe, then one of Australia’s hottest pop stars, was going to England and wanted someone to manage him. Ritchie got the job.
Unfortunately, even though Rowe was big in Australia, he failed to fire up England, and split after six months. Ritchie and Annie stayed on, and soon, Ritchie had a job with Island Records, promoting the Spencer Davis Group outside of England and making an international hit of their record. Gimme Some Loving. A few months later, Stevie Winwood left Spencer Davis and formed a new group called Traffic. Ritchie turned down a job offer to manage them, and instead decided to move on to Canada.
In Toronto, Annie got a job as a copywriter at Eaton’s while Ritcnie searched for work in a field related to music. For six weeks, he checked Toronto newspapers, radio stations and magazines, and finally got a job at CTV writing promotion copy.
“It depressed me no end that I’d turned down a job managing Traffic to hype TV shows,” he says acidly.
In September, 1967, Ritchie offered to write Brian Epstein’s obituary for a youth supplement called After Four which used to appear in the then alive-and- well Toronto Telegram. “I told George Anthony, the editor, that I’d known Epstein personally. It was a lie, but it worked, he says, with Glick-ian chutzpah. By December, Ritchie was writing five days a week for the Tely and still working at CTV. That’s when The Telegram decided to cut him back to two stories a week.
The same day as the cutback. the Globe and Mail asked him to write a pop column for them that would attract young readers. During the 18 months he worked there, Ritchie interviewed the Beatles and a multitude of other pop celebrities, and soon catapulted himself into a new career as a freelance writer, hustling energetically and establishing a 6ook of contacts that reads like a Who’s Who in Pop.
Ritchie’s voice is a cross between an Aussie newscaster and a freak. Moderately accented Australian expressions like “ta ta,” ltoodle-loo” and an emphatic “splendid” are interspersed with counterculture clichds like “right on,” “lay it on ya” and “heavy.”
And it was this voice that was heard by 17,000 fans assembled at the Maple Leaf Gardens Led Zeppelin concert last September, marking the fourth time Jimmy Page and the boys have asked Ritchie to emcee their Toronto gigs. Star-worship pays .. . Ritcnie predicted Zeppelin would make it big even when rock critics the world over were panning them.
Some of the people at the Zeppelin concerts nad probably already heard his voice on CHUM-FM when he had one of its top-rated shows in 1969. His Canadian radio career was cut short by a story he wrote for the Globe while he was a deejay at CHUM- FM.
“1 heard a rumor around the station that CHUM-FM was changing its programming to midale-of-the-road, so I wrote it up,” he explains. “After the story appeared, lots of people were pnoning and complaining, and this caused the station some embarrassment. A week later. I was fired.”
This book gives Ritchie access to every pop star in the world. He can phone the Rolling Stones in Cap Fer- rat, in France, or visit Elton John at his English home. .And there are some pop artists, like the Beatles and Stephen Stills, who refuse to grant interviews to anybody except Ritchie.
When asked how he gains the confidence of pop people, Ritchie replies, “I’m honest with rock stars. I quote them correctly, and I know if you screw them around, then you don’t get anymore interviews.”
Another thing he attributes his success as a rode journalist to is traveling. In 1970, he logged more than 100,000 air miles to London, New York and Los Angeles for interviews. In 1971, although the mileage was considerably less because of his growing interest in Canadian music, he still hustled for stories in France, England and the U.S.
Not writing from a critical standpoint has also helped. It’s because Ritchie doesn’t make musical judgments that bands have understandable confidence in him. They know what to expect: pats, not pans. “I used to be a cntic,” ne explains. “But later, when I was at the Tely, I just interviewed. This is the era of the non-critic. There’s no room for critics in pop music because people don’t need tnem. People make their own judgments.
And Ritchie, himself, has been the target of critics’ barbs. His new book, Axes, Chops & Hot Licks: The Canadian Rock Music Scene, has received some sharp criticism from many areas.
One of Georgia Strait’s angiy columnists, Orville Write, wrote of the book: “Only in Canada could some cruddy hack writer for the Tely or Globe come up with a sure-fire nationalistic slant that would, in the long run, endear him to the great rip-off that is the music industry in Canada.Of course the Canadian groups like him, he’s making them money.”
But Ritchie comes to his own defense. “The book is supposed to be a documentary, not a critique.”
Recently, Ritchie completed a crosscountry tour publicizing Doth the book and Canadian talent. A good part of his book comes out in favor of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission rulings for 30 percent Canadian content on AM radio. And indeed he was the only one who spoke on behalf of such a pop music clause at the CRTC hearings in Ottawa a year and a half ago.
“The Canadian rock scene is full of the biggest bunch of losers in the world. The only good part is the performers. The business end and media are unbelievable,” Ritchie says bitterly.
Some Ritchie-watchers have insinuated that Ritchie has had financial dealings with the people he writes about. He denies this. “You can’t write anything good about a group without someone saying you manage them.” Others, however, have a kindlier view. Pierre Juneau, chairman of the CRTC, wrote in the introduction to Axes, Chops & Hot Licks: “Much credit for the success of Canadian pop music in the past year must go to the specialists — pop music reporters and columnists such as Ritchie Yorke.” Nonetheless, Ritchie cannot claim to be a true nationalist because he isn’t a Canadian citizen. He’s still a landed immigrant because he can’t be bothered getting his citizenship papers.
So, Ritchie Yorke sits in his antique- filled home while Annie brings him yet another cup of tea. And he continues to lead a quiet private life, counting the minutes until nis 1974 retirement.
Until then, he’ll still hear comments like this one from Juan Rodriguez, of the Montreal Star, “He is the world’s best-known rock journalist: he’s left an indelible imprint every place he’s been. He’s a troubleshooter . . .” And comments like this one from Ronnie Hawkins’ manager and closest friend. Heavy Andrews, Y‘Ritchie Yorke is on his way down because he’s always stepping on other people’s toes. He’s got a bad name in tne business.”
Nonplussed, Ritchie keeps running.