In an industry known for its excess, perhaps no one followed the creed of overindulgence more than Casablanca Records head Neil Bogart. Wild stories circulate about the lavish promotional parties thrown for Casablanca's acts, and it is Bogart who is credited with the late-'70s industry push toward pure promotion regardless of the quality of the product. Yet, it is also Bogart who was saddled with a substantial amount of the blame when his parent company, Polygram, nearly went under after the post-disco crash of 1979.
Born Neil Scott Bogatz in a poor section of Brooklyn, Bogart attended the High School of the Performing Arts (later made famous by the movie Fame) and graduated with a desire to be in show business. After a stint as a cruise ship singer, Bogart returned to New York and landed a job at an employment agency. When the music magazine Cashbox called for some applicants to fill an ad salesman position, Bogart went there himself and repeatedly nagged the magazine to hire the man they had interviewed. With his foot in the door, Bogart quickly moved through the ranks of the record industry. He took a job at MGM as a promo man, and from there moved on to Cameo-Parkway Records as vice president and sales manager. After leaving Cameo, and at the tender age of 24, Bogart landed another high-profile job, this time as the general manager of Buddah Records.
At Buddah, Bogart gained the reputation for creating bubblegum acts such as the Ohio Express that appealed to angst-ridden 11-year-olds. He made millions for Buddah in the early '70s and, though the producer-driven fad never yielded any career acts, it prepared Bogart for the biggest producer-driven fad of them all: disco. Feeling his time with Buddah was near an end, in 1973 Bogart approached Mo Ostin at Warner Bros. with the idea of having his own label, Casablanca Records. After signing the legendary rock band Kiss, and subsequently feeling the lack of support for the group on Warner Bros.' behalf, Casablanca severed its ties with Warner and went independent.
By 1976, Casablanca Records, under Bogart's business philosophy of "whatever it takes," was burning up the charts. Kiss were hugely successful, and another Casablanca act, Donna Summer, was heralded as the queen of disco. Bogart's flair for promotion was hitting overdrive as well, as evidenced by Kiss merchandise that included dolls, board games, face paint, and picture discs. And the Casablanca offices, located in Southern California, were rampart with the excesses of the disco era. The lobby of the label, which was now the biggest disco label in the industry, was decorated like the actual movie set of the same name, and the majority of the employees were spending thousands a day on drugs.
When the giant conglomerate Polygram Records bought a share of Casablanca for ten million dollars, they thought it was a steal. But what they didn't realize was that the company was losing money at a fever pace. Bogart was spending money like water and shipping records out to distributors who were already overstocked. The joke at the time was that Casablanca was shipping gold and returning platinum; Bogart would press a quarter million more records of an album that was already losing money. Furthermore, with the exception of Kiss and Donna Summer, Casablanca was home to a roster full of acts that were destined for the "where are they now?" file; Phylicia Allen, Angel, Brenda, Teri Desario, and Patrick Juvet are just some of the obscure figures that Casablanca signed (although it should be noted that Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad — known for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show — recorded the album Josephine Superstar for Casablanca under her maiden name of Phylicia Allen).
The lavish spending and highly questionable business techniques caught up with both Bogart and Polygram in the end. When the bottom fell out of the disco market, Bogart was replaced as Casablanca head, and Polygram went well into the '80s just trying to get back into the black. Before his death, Bogart set up one last label, Boardwalk, which introduced the world to Joan Jett. Sadly, before he could begin the cycle of success a second time, Bogart died of cancer, bringing a final end to the career of the man who so perfectly represented the hedonism of the disco era. ~ Steve Kurutz