Photograph by Bill Dungan
In the Prime: Bruce Cohn, shown here with his dog Moose, savors a quality of life born of darned hard work.
By Brett Ascarelli
For 36 years, Bruce Cohn has managed the Doobie Brothers, the California rock band that achieved international fame with albums like Minute by Minute and One Step Closer. In terms of longevity, the Doobies' franchise is right up there with Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and even Michael Jackson. On June 9, the Bohemian is proud to pair with the Harmony Festival in honoring Cohn with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions.
Cohn, who has described himself as a member of the band who just doesn't play an instrument, runs his business out of a room that brings new meaning to the phrase "window office," looking out onto the scenic ridge that separates Napa from Sonoma Valley. The office is the hub of his eponymous Glen Ellen winery and olive grove, featuring such tasteful décor that one might never guess it belonged to a rock 'n' roll manager but for the gold and platinum records lining the walls.
"What's most important to me is quality. Quality music. Quality wine. Quality olive oil. Quality lifestyle. Quality cars. Quality people," Cohn says with a laugh. "I just like everything done as good as you can do it."
Cohn's drive for quality is apparent, not only from the Grammy nominations that decorate his office, but also from the award medals adorning wine bottles in the tasting room nearby. All this success begs the question: How did a man who was raised in a family of modest means on a dairy farm in Forestville get to have all his dreams come true?
But this wasn't his dream, at least not at the beginning. As a child, Cohn wanted to be a veterinarian, but instead went for a degree in broadcast communications. He and his brother Marty moved to San Francisco, where Bruce worked nights at TV Channel 20 and Marty worked as the house engineer at a music rehearsal studio. During the day, Bruce would drive his hot-rod down to the studio to hang out, and it was there that he started brushing against some famous elbows. The Grateful Dead and It's a Beautiful Day were among the many bands recording at the studio, and Sly Stone, then a radio DJ, was their neighbor.
Chilling in this social milieu, Cohn remembers, "when Santana finally hit with their first big album, that was an eye-opener. It showed me the music business from a different perspective than just going to a concert and being a patron, because I knew them personally."
One day in 1969, future Doobie Brothers Tommy Johnston and Jack Hartman came into the studio from San Jose, hoping to find someone with connections to the record industry. Cohn describes his first impression of the guys who would later attain fame with his help: "They looked like bikers; they had real long hair and wore a lot of leather. They looked like really street-worthy guys."
Recanting the story in an earlier interview with this paper, Cohn remembers that he and his brother Marty recorded the demo for the Doobies and sent it to Warner Bros. Warner sent a scout out to hear the band live. "But we didn't know where to take him," Cohn said, "because the Doobies were playing high school dances and pizza parlors and Hell's Angels parties. And we didn't want to take him to a Hell's Angels party, so we took him to Ricardo's Pizza Parlor and there were, like, 20 people in the audience."
Fortunately for fans of such '70s rock hits as "Listen to the Music," "China Grove," "Black Water" and countless others, the Warner's rep was an oversized man with an appetite for pizza and country-influenced rock. He gave the thumbs-up, Warner organized a tour, Cohn quit his job as a television engineer and director at TV-20, and they set off on the road. He was 23.
"It was a disaster," Cohn remembers with a groan. "The whole tour. It was a total failure. We couldn't sell any tickets. We went out with Tracy Nelson of Mother Earth and we called it the Mothers Brothers Tour, and, uh, it stiffed. The record stiffed--it sold about 10,000 copies--and there we were back in clubs and ducking beer kegs at Hell's Angels parties again, taking guns and knives at the door, and collecting two bucks.
"But these guys were tenacious and record companies were different in those days; they would stick with an act and work it over two or three albums."
The second album, Toulouse Street, was a hit. Featuring Johnston's original songs "Listen to the Music" and "Jesus Is Just Alright with Me," the album sold 2.7 million copies and made the Doobie Brothers household and carload names, as radio stations played--as they continue to play--those songs.
With the Doobies on a "hiatus" begun in 1982 that ultimately lasted for seven years, Cohn managed other bands--Night Ranger, Ambrosia and Bruce Hornsby. Mentored by Caymus Vineyards' owner Charlie Wagner, he also started developing his viticultural interests, taking advantage of the vineyards that grew on the Glen Ellen property, a place he had brought his family to in 1974 as a return to "normalcy" from life on the road. In 1984, he founded B.R. Cohn Winery on the site, and six years later, he added olive oil to his company's repertoire as well.
But it's not all food, wine and rock 'n' roll. Cohn is deeply committed to charity as well, this year hosting his 20th annual golf tournament and fall music festival fundraising events. It will feature the Doobies (who reunited in 1989); Queen's current lead singer, Paul Rodgers; and Willie Nelson. The proceeds will benefit Santa Rosa's Valley of the Moon Children's Foundation. Cohn is even producing a series of wine labeled Doobie Red, intending to donate all proceeds to charity.
Now 59, Cohn is still trying to strike the delicate balance between life and work. "Either you're committed to what you do and you pay the price, or you change your life to fit the situation with your family. There is a price to be paid sometimes for success, especially in this business, where you're gone so much and on the road. And you know, it's a tough business." He continues with a cautionary note: "It looks glamorous from the outside, and it can be glamorous, but it's hard work and it's long hours and, you know, it's an all-consuming kind of business and career."
Whatever his intentions, it doesn't look like Cohn is slowing down anytime soon. He's already branching his B.R. Cohn line into gourmet products like pasta sauce, and he has plans to build a new amphitheater at the winery (he'll be hosting the Dallas Symphony next year). The Doobies are slated to work on yet another album this fall. And you can bet Cohn will be right there every step of the way.
The Bohemian, in conjunction with the Harmony Festival, honor Bruce Cohn and Bob Weir with Lifetime Achievement Awards at the second annual North Bay Music Awards (NORBAYs) on Friday, June 9, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. The NORBAYs begin at 5pm; the awards will be given at roughly 8pm. Free with NORBAY admission. For details, go to www.harmonyfestival.com.
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