AJ Cervantes speaks to DiscoMusic.com about his days as founder of Butterfly and Destiny Records and the various groups such as THP Orchestra and Saint Tropez that he signed to his labels. Includes a discography of Butterfly and Destiny 12 inch singles and LPs.
A.J. Cervantes interview written by Bernard Lopez of DiscoMusic.com
Alfonso J. Cervantes founded Butterfly Records as an independent Disco record label based out of Los Angeles during the 1970's. Although a small record label, Butterfly Records and its founder AJ Cervantes were responsible for some of Disco's most memorable releases such as THP Orchestra's "Two Hot for Love," Destination's "Move On Up" and Saint Tropez's "One More Minute." A.J. Cervantes was kind enough to speak with DiscoMusic.com's Bernard Lopez about Butterfly Records and his previous work with Casablanca Records.
Cervantes' St. Louis Beginnings
Alfonso Juan Cervantes was born and raised in St. Louis where his father served as mayor from 1965-1973. His father originally promoted Latin rhumba dance contests in Los Angeles before the start of World War II and instilled his love of music and promotions savvy to the younger Cervantes. He credits his Latin roots to his eventual involvement in the Disco dance industry in the 1970s and 1980s.
While attending Webster University for a B. A. in Media, Cervantes became a writer for CBS Radio where he got to rub elbows with many of the key industry players. In 1974 Cervantes opened an upscale restaurant and nightclub called "The Screening Room' where he would host many showcases for various record labels and artists like Gino Vannelli. It was at one of these functions that Cervantes was offered a marketing position by a local Pickwick record distributor by the name of Al Chotin. Cervantes, who was looking to sell the nightclub, decided to give it a try and accepted the job offer.
A.J. Cervantes said, "I got in there and totally enjoyed the process of communicating with the record labels; handling the marketing of products to the labels. Most of the labels were shocked to find someone working on the distributor level who was actually communicating with them and the radio stations."
AJ Cervantes, Kiss and Casablanca Records
At this time on the West Coast, Neil Bogart and a young Casablanca Records label were looking to promote radio airplay for a new Rock group called KISS. They put together a 12-week contest called "The Last $30,000 Independent Promotion Man." AJ Cervantes got into the contest midway through and still managed to place second nationally which caught the attention of Bogart's promotions guru Buck Reingold who offered Cervantes a position at the label as a Regional Director.
Cervantes accepted and initially worked in regional promotions for Casablanca Records in the Midwest region of the United States, which included key cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis. This mainly involved securing airplay for new Casablanca product as well as some retail and one-stop distributor contacts. When asked if club or Disco play was involved Cervantes responded with, "Not yet because it was just starting on the East Coast at that point. There was literally nothing happening in terms of music in the clubs to crossover, which in 36 months would become a major avenue… We were at the beginning of the Disco cusp."
Love To Love Donna Summer
A.J. Cervantes recalls being asked to attend a social gathering at Neil Bogart's house on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and hearing a 3 minute demo of "Love To Love You Baby" by then unknown Donna Summer produced by Giorgio Moroder. Bogart said to them that they were going to go back in the studio and cut it into a fifteen-minute plus track. Cervantes explains, "Never in my promotion and marketing career was there ever a situation where more radio stations quickly added a record–it was wildfire. It was resisted in some levels in the South, but they played it anyway."
Cervantes was asked to help promote Donna Summer in the Midwest and he quickly had her performing at clubs and Discos to a backing acetate track with the highlight being a performance at an upscale club called Faces on Chicago's Rush Street. Not many people knew her name and Cervantes says that although they became good friends he initialy introduced her as Donna Summer-S.
When asked what his thoughts on Donna Summer and her singing talents were he replies, "I was blown away. When I first heard the finished track (Love To Love You Baby) I had a local promotion man call and cynically say that it sounds like a female Barry White. In return I said this was a monster record. It really was. The record flew off the shelves."
Cervantes Moves to Chelsea Records
Despite the successes Casablanca Records and Donna Summer were having, Cervantes and fellow promoter Buck Reingold accepted a very "phenomenal deal" with Chelsea Records. Chelsea's founder Wes Farrell figured that if he could bring over the key people from Casablanca that he could replicate their success. Chelsea Records was best known for Wayne Newton, "Get Dancin'" by Disco-Tex and His Sex-O-lettes in 1974 and the 1976 album "Wait For Night" by Australian rocker Rick Springfield.
When AJ Cervantes was asked why he would give up the security offered by Casablanca Records his reply was, "There are very few people that you meet who are more entrepreneurial than I am and I never really think about the risk. I've always gone for the upside. What I didn't know at the time, and I probably would have done it anyway, was that it was Wes Farrell's last great gasp in the record industry… The problem was that in about 4-5 months it became obvious that he didn't have the facilities to finance what was going on so I left Chelsea Records in August of 1976." The label folded soon afterwards.
Cervantes' Butterfly Records Takes Flight
While vacationing in his family's home in the Ozarks, AJ Cervantes said, "Late one night I woke up and started writing a business plan for what became Butterfly Records. By mid to late September of 1976 I had a business plan in place and had some partners who were St. Louis based lawyers and accountants." With his business savvy and previous nightclub experience he was able to finance and promote future product.
Butterfly Records was officially launched in December of 1976 with initial financing of (US)$100,000.00 private placement. Cervantes continues, "I did not have the intention at that time of being exclusively a dance or Disco music label. It was initially diversified and shocks people to find out that our very first Butterfly release was a comedy group called Firesign Theatre (BFEP-1 / FLY-001) which was released in the spring of 1977." Firesign Theatre is akin to an American Monty Python act.
Cervantes was a promoter at heart so he knew presentation and first impressions were important. One of the hallmarks of select Butterfly releases was the extra effort put into the packaging and art. In fact Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records once complimented Cervantes on it. Instead of a simple paper inner sleeve Butterfly chose to use coated stock, liquid lam 12 point inner sleeves (12 point on the inner sleeve and 16 on the outer). In addition, the first 50,000-100,000 Butterfly releases would be pressed in various colors. THP Orchestra's "Two Hot For Love" was on white vinyl, Destination's "Beginning To End" was on purple vinyl, Tuxedo Junction's self titled debut was on translucent yellow vinyl and the Saint Tropez releases were on red vinyl.
Laurin Rinder - Michael Lewis - St. Tropez
The second Butterfly album released was Saint Tropez's "Je T'aime" (FLY-002) which was a W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder production. Rinder & Lewis were best known for their work with El Coco on AVI Records and Cervantes considers the two to be "absolutely brilliant." The St. Tropez concept was something that Cervantes came up with since he loved visiting France. Initial releases of this gatefold album were pressed in translucent hot pink vinyl. Other Saint Tropez albums were released including "Belle De Jour" which yielded the Disco hit "One More Minute."
The idea of recording "Je T'aime" originally began when A.J. Cervantes was still with Casablanca Records. He sent a note to Bogart recommending that Donna Summer sing a cover of the song. The idea was "rejected roundly," but interestingly enough Donna Summer recorded a version about three months after Saint Tropez's that wound up as a bonus disc in the "Thank God It's Friday soundtrack package.
One More Minute by Saint Tropez:
The Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther Productions
Aside from Rinder & Lewis, Cervantes released material for famed Canadian based Disco producers Willi Morrison and Ian+Guenther. Morrison and Guenther produced under the name Three Hats Production and were the geniuses behind many Disco groups such as Grand Tour, THP Orchestra, Skatt Brothers, Sticky Fingers, The Immortals and several others. It is Grand Tour and THP, which appeared early on in Butterfly's catalogue.
The 1977 Grand Tour LP "On Such A Winter's Day" (FLY-006) and the 12-inch single with "The Grand Tour" b/w "Flight From Versailles" (BFEP-2) are both sought after and praised by Disco music fans for their unique sound. Their THP Orchestra release that contained the Disco classic "Two Hot For Love" appeared slightly before Grand Tour, but has a little history behind it. Cervantes explains, "The first release was when I took a single that they had released in Canada and was doing reasonably well in the U. S. This was "Two Hot For Love" which I took and completely re-cut it and turned it into 16+ minute track… It was a short version without vocals. Originally it was an instrumental track they had released in Canada on RCA Records. It was a hot little instrumental track and we from a marketing perspective said let's re-cut it, let's make it long, let's add vocals (written by AJ Cervantes), let's do some killer breaks in it and turn it into a monster piece. And some of the original Canadian tracks we just added to it to make the rest of the album."
Inner Workings of Butterfly Records
Cervantes explains, "We put together a powerhouse marketing group for such a small label. That was the early stages of my financing career, which is the irony of the fact that I am in Corporate Finance today. We were able to put together a strong team… Nancy Sain from Casablanca Records came in as a partner with strong marketing. A woman by the name of Starr Arnold who had been head of the dance charts at Billboard came to work for us and Dee Joseph who had been in the record business for many years. We had a young, aggressive and very smart marketing group. From the time we really started to get our footing in the summer of 1977, by the fall of 1977 we had three of the top ten Disco records… We were totally entrepreneurial doing marketing and packaging. I was able to structure some very sophisticated financing mechanisms using tax shelters-legitimate, clean tax shelter type structures… Legendary Wall Street financier Ron Perelman was one of our early investors… I would say that in our first year or two even if the product wasn't very good, there was not a release that Butterfly Records did that did not get on the charts." Cervantes and the team at Butterfly Records were doing so well that they were featured on a "60 Minutes" segment on Disco music for CBS television that aired April 23, 1978.
Originally Cervantes used his old friends in the Midwest to distribute Butterfly product and in 1979 when Disco was at its height negotiated a deal with MCA Records due to the difficulties of getting paid by the regional distributors. In early 1979 Cervantes was talking with some of the major record labels and had commitments from both Atlantic Records and MCA to distribute Butterfly's product. He explains, "Jerry Goldstein at Atlantic Records said he wanted us to come to Atlantic after having heard the "Belle De Jour" album by Saint Tropez. MCA Records offered us a (US)$6,000,000.00 deal with an initial payment of $600,000.00 The deal that Atlantic had offered us was that they would put out four albums a year while MCA agreed to put out twelve albums a year. In the spring of 1979 we signed the deal with MCA."
Unfortunately, while Disco was at its height in 1979 it was also experiencing a huge backlash with organized "Disco Sucks" campaigns by certain segments of the U. S. population. By year's end the bottom had dropped on Disco and MCA sought to rescind its contractual obligations by bringing it into litigation, which dragged out for five years and became case law in California. The end result being that MCA was able to get out of its contractual obligations on a number of technicalities. Asked if the impending Disco crash caught him by surprise Cervantes simply replies, "Yes. It caught me by surprise because of the speed of the collapse. Clearly in the spring and summer of 1979 there was a big Disco backlash, but also in the summer of 1979 there were more radio station with an all Disco format so in spite of the backlash it was at its peak. Given the strength of the media and the way that information flows and the rapidity of information, is that the collapse of any cultural interest–the Spice Girls go from the number one group to unknowns in the course of six months and those kinds of cultural phenomena's disappear very quickly. It happened so quickly."
By 1980 A.J. Cervantes was winding down Butterfly Records, but was still doing a substantial amount of licensing of the catalogue for movies and fitness videos. In essence they went from being a producer of new Disco music to a licensor and were down to three people. Butterfly Records and its catalogue were sold to Rhino Records (a unit of Warner Music) in 1988 and marked the end of Cervantes involvement.
In 1981 Cervantes and good friend Ron Altbach who was best know as keyboardist and producer for the Beach Boys and for his King Harvest pop hit "Dancing In the Moonlight" formed Destiny Records. Destiny was to have a more R & B focus since that is where the sound of the early 1980's seemed to be heading. Some of their releases included Eloise Whitaker's "Don't Turn Your Back" and a restructured Saint Tropez, which now had a black female singer to emphasize the R & B slant.
Destiny Records was set to go public, but a key underwriter went bust. Cervantes explains, "We took that company/catalogue and did the first of a number of public company deals in what was called a reverse merger. We took a private company and backed it into a public vehicle and capitalized it and that company was MediaCom Filmworks." MediaCom's role was to finance and produce music driven feature films and television specials. Films included "Nights In White Satin" featuring music by the Moody Blues and "Blueberry Hill" which featured music by Fats Domino. In 1991 AJ Cervantes sold his interest in MediaCom and formed Trilogy Capital, which focuses on restructuring troubled companies. While firmly entrenched in business and finance, the entertainment industry has always held a special spot in Cervantes' life and he looks back at the Disco era as a wonderful time where anything was possible.
It was a pleasure speaking with Alfonso J. Cervantes and I would like to thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me for this piece.
Written by Bernard F. Lopez (May 15, 2003)
Copyright © 2003 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved
- Best of Butterfly Records (CD)
- Destination: From Beginning to End (album)
- Grand Tour (album)
- St. Tropez (singles and albums)
- THP Orchestra (singles and albums)