A Hell of a Businessman: A Biography of Joe Glaser

Friday, January 29, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

Born in 1897, Joe Glaser was the son of a successful Russian Jewish physician in Chicago. He originally intended to follow a similar career and entered medical school, but after passing out in the operating room, he realized he wasn’t cut out to be a doctor. He started off in business selling used cars, but found better luck managing prizefighters.

In his biography of Al Capone, Laurence Bergreen notes, “Glaser’s power to fix fights earned him a reputation as a sage of boxing, especially among reporters.” With advanced word as to which fights were fixed, Glaser could predict the results—and even the number of rounds—of many bouts in Chicago. His connections with organized crime continued in his next career change, when he began running nightclubs and whorehouses in the South Side for the Chicago Outfit, the powerful underworld gang led by Capone.

Glaser’s tendency toward illegal action nearly ended his career. In 1928, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl, but he dodged the charge by marrying her. Although his connections with Capone were enough to help him escape a similar charge months later, the scandals forced Glaser out of the nightclub business and back to boxing.

When Louis Armstrong approached Glaser to become his manager in 1935, both men were at a crossroads in their careers. While Glaser’s rise had been stalled by his run-ins with the law, Armstrong was looking for protection. He’d been threatened by several mobsters, including notorious New York gang leader Dutch Schultz, and after a series of inadequate managers, he wanted a partner with both savvy and steel. For the trumpeter, the businessman’s link to Capone and his reputation as a tough customer only added to his appeal. “You don’t know me,” Glaser would tell new acquaintances, “but you know two things about me: I have a terrible temper, and I always keep my word.”

From the start, the partnership was profitable. Glaser gave up his prizefighters, made Armstrong his sole focus, and went on the road with the musician and his band, where he quickly learned the ropes of touring. More importantly, he took on the “bad cop” role of negotiating contracts and firing band members, leaving Armstrong free to blow his horn.

Their symbiotic relationship was not just based on business. Armstrong saw in the older man the father figure he’d been searching for all his life. Glaser felt a similar loyalty. “I’m Louis and Louis is me,” he said in an interview with TIME in 1949. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.” Barney Bigard, a clarinetist and longtime collaborator with Armstrong, said that the relationship between the two men was genuine. “When Louis said in an interview that Joe was the greatest man he had ever met, he probably meant it. They really were plain old-fashioned friends. Louis wasn’t just saying that for business reasons.”

With the former nightclub manager handling the business and the trumpeter drawing the crowds, Glaser and Armstrong made millions. Glaser steered the musician toward mainstream audiences by securing spots on television shows, in national magazines, and in Hollywood movies, not to mention lining up his most successful single—“Hello, Dolly!” The resulting publicity helped turn Armstrong into an iconic figure in American public life.

While Glaser kept a lower media profile, he also enjoyed the rewards of their joint success, spending his time raising thoroughbred bulldogs, attending baseball games, and driving a blue Rolls-Royce convertible. The company he founded, Associated Booking Corporation (ABC), went on to represent not only Armstrong but also Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and dozens of African American musicians. “If I have Joe Glaser’s word,” said TV-show host Ed Sullivan, “I can go to sleep. And the performer he is booking can go to sleep too.” Glaser was “a hell of a businessman,” said Bigard. “I don’t think anyone else could have taken Louis as far as he did.”

Although Glaser’s career and his relationship with the musician were secure by the time of his death in 1969, his old criminal connections would sour Armstrong’s memory of him. Only after Glaser’s death did Armstrong realize the financial imbalance of their “partnership.” Control of ABC went not to him—as he had expected—but to gangland lawyer and fixer Sidney Korshak. The switch in succession had taken place seven years before; court documents from 1962 show Korshak’s acquisition of stock and voting rights. While Satchmo at the Waldorf suggests that the mob lawyer used blackmail to persuade Glaser, exactly how this transfer of corporate control happened remains
a mystery.

*To read more about Glaser and Armstrong, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 
 
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