Though I never met him, Harold Leventhal made a huge difference in my life, by simply believing in musicians and the music they created. He made sure that we did not miss outspoken musicians that otherwise would have gone ignored, and I am tremendously grateful for his dedication and foresight. He will be very much missed.
Harold Leventhal, Promoter of Folk Music, Dies at 86
Harold Leventhal, an internationally renowned folk music promoter who in 1963 presented an unkempt 21-year-old named Bob Dylan in his first major concert-hall appearance, died on Tuesday at New York University Medical Center. He was 86 and lived in Manhattan.
The death was confirmed by Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter and the director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, of which Mr. Leventhal was a founder and trustee. Mr. Leventhal had been Woody Guthrie’s business manager and later his executor.
If, at any time during the last 50 years, you wanted to hire a folksinger, especially a famous folksinger, Harold Leventhal was the man to call. Mr. Leventhal, who began his career in the 1930’s as a song plugger for Irving Berlin, was by the early 1950’s the Sol Hurok of America’s flourishing folk-music revival. He remained in the role until the close of the 20th century, weathering historical onslaughts from the cold war to rock ‘n’ roll.
Besides handling Mr. Dylan and Guthrie, Mr. Leventhal presided over a stable of artists that at various times included Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte; Theodore Bikel; Oscar Brand; Johnny Cash; Judy Collins; Arlo Guthrie; Jim Kweskin; the Mamas and the Papas; Holly Near; the New Lost City Ramblers; Phil Ochs; Odetta; Tom Paxton; Peter, Paul and Mary; Jean Ritchie; Martha Schlamme; Earl Scruggs; the Weavers; and Neil Young.
He also introduced American audiences to foreign artists then largely unknown in this country, among them Jacques Brel, Miriam Makeba, Nana Mouskouri, Jean Redpath and Ravi Shankar.
“With all of the history that he’d had with the Weavers, he really was a connection between my dad’s era and the world of the late 60’s,” Arlo Guthrie said in a telephone interview last night.
Mr. Leventhal produced several movies relating to the folk-music world, including “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969); “Bound for Glory” (1976), a film biography of Woody Guthrie starring David Carradine; and “Wasn’t That a Time!” (1982), a documentary about the Weavers’ celebrated reunion in 1980.
In 2003 Mr. Leventhal was honored with a Carnegie Hall concert featuring an all-star lineup of folk performers. The concert became the basis of a documentary film, “Isn’t This a Time!” (2004), which is scheduled to open in New York on Dec. 19.
Mr. Leventhal was also widely, if tacitly, acknowledged to have been the inspiration for Irving Steinbloom, the folk impresario whose memorial concert sets in motion the plot of the 2003 film comedy “A Mighty Wind.”
Harold Leventhal was born on May 24, 1919, in Ellenville, N.Y., and grew up on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx. In the late 1930’s he went to work for Berlin, haunting New York nightclubs to pitch his songs to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore and Peggy Lee.
During World War II, Mr. Leventhal served in the Army Signal Corps, stationed in India. There, he came to know Jawaharlal Nehru and, through him, gained an audience with Gandhi. On the appointed day, Gandhi greeted Corporal Leventhal with a burning question:
“The first thing he wanted to know was how Paul Robeson was,” Mr. Leventhal told The New York Times in 1998.
After the war, Mr. Leventhal returned to New York, where the Weavers were singing “Goodnight, Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena” in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. Falling under the spell of those songs, Mr. Leventhal began managing the group. A pragmatist, he did not immediately give up his day job at his brother’s company, Youthcraft Foundations, a maker of girdles.
By 1952, the Weavers, a highly public casualty of the McCarthy blacklist, had been forced to disband. Intent on reuniting them, Mr. Leventhal booked Carnegie Hall for Christmas Eve 1955. He told each of the Weavers that the other three had already agreed to a reunion.
The concert was a spectacular success, leading to invitations to perform in other cities. The trouble was, out-of-town promoters refused to touch the group. But as Mr. Leventhal knew, the Weavers had a cadre of ardent, far-flung fans.
“He practically wrote a manual for them on how to produce a concert: This is how you rent a hall; this is when you take out the ads,” Fred Hellerman, a former member of the Weavers, said last night. “He led them by the hand and made them into concert promoters.”
On April 12, 1963, Mr. Leventhal presented Mr. Dylan at Town Hall in New York, in his first appearance on a big-city concert stage. He was also the longtime producer of the Thanksgiving folk concert at Carnegie Hall, which traditionally featured Mr. Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.
Mr. Leventhal had been prescient enough to give the younger Mr. Guthrie his first break – as his office boy.
“I wasn’t very reliable,” Arlo Guthrie recalled yesterday. “People like Pete Seeger would show up there, obviously needing somebody to accompany him on the guitar while he went over some new songs. All of the office work just got left.”
Mr. Leventhal is survived by his wife, the former Natalie Buxbaum; two daughters, Debra Leventhal-Nuyen of Los Angeles and Judy, of Manhattan; and four grandchildren.
His honors include a Grammy Award in 1989 as a producer of the album “Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly” (Columbia Records). “Bound for Glory” received two Academy Awards, for music and cinematography.
Though Mr. Leventhal occasionally managed performers in other musical genres, he remained to the end of his life an unreconstructed folkie. In an interview with The Times in 1998, he spoke of having been approached by a rock group, but was hard pressed to remember which.
“A trio,” Mr. Leventhal said. “I can’t recall the name. Stills was one of them.”