The life, love, and legacy of Morty Manus: An Interview with Nancy Bachus
During Morty Manus's tenure as owner and president of Alfred Music Publishing Company, he guided its growth from a small print and pop song catalog to the world's largest educational music publisher. Upon completion of a business degree from City College of New York, Morty joined the company his father had owned since 1928.
In 1975, Alfred moved their headquarters from New York to Los Angeles. In the 1990s, international offices were opened in Australia, Singapore, the U.K., and Germany; in 2005, Alfred acquired the print music rights of Warner Bros. Publications. Although located worldwide, it remains a family business with Morty; his wife Iris, an Executive Producer; and one of their three sons, Ron, who now owns the company.
Morty has personally authored or co-authored more than 425 publications, with total copies sold recently reaching 50 million. In 2008, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in Music from the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago for "having made a significant contribution to the music education profession, as evidenced by his outstanding creative achievement, scholarship and leadership."
How did Alfred Publishing get started? Was there an Alfred?It really begins with my father Sam Manus, a fine violinist. He led a society orchestra at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, a prominent hotel that is still in existence today. Fearing he would be let go because he was turning 40, he left and started a new business that consisted of importing so-called "mood" music from France. This was the background music played by live musicians to accompany silent films. In 1927, Al Jolson appeared in the Jazz Singer, the first motion picture that included sound, and the mood music business soon ended. Even then, technology had a profound effect on music, ending one business and creating another.
Did you study music growing up?
I studied piano for nine years and thought I was a pretty good pianist. When I was about fifteen, my parents changed my teacher to Henry Levine, a concert artist whose studio was near Carnegie Hall. Henry influenced me more than any person I've ever met. My music lessons were about much more than music. I thought of them as lessons in life. Henry combined music, history, art, and architecture with music. I became a more sensitive person and more aware of the world around me. I owe him so much. But my focus was now on other things.
Did you enter college as soon as you graduated from high school?
Yes, I started at Brooklyn College, a liberal arts school. After two years, I realized I would be going into my father's business soon and had better start taking business courses. So I transferred to City College of New York and studied marketing, sales, accounting, and ultimately earned a business degree.
My last class was at noon on a Friday, and I couldn't wait to finish and start working. I had a tuna salad sandwich (still my favorite) for lunch, and went to Alfred's offices and started working that afternoon. It didn't take me long to realize there was no future at Alfred unless I made one. With only five employees, including me, it was a much smaller business than I had realized. Several years later, my father had a stroke and I became the sole support of my parents, all on something like $80 a week!
So when you took over the company it wasn't making money?
After making the decision to move away from publishing accordion music, I had to inform Willard. Because we were good friends, I was worried about his reaction, so I invited him to New York.
After we had talked for awhile, I told him I was concerned about the future of accordion music and wanted to stop publishing it and increase our production of piano publications. Willard was a very passionate person. He was likable, knowledgeable, talented, witty, spontaneous...and stubborn. I had expected a strong reaction from him, and I wasn't disappointed. After a sharp but short outburst, he became very quiet. I held my breath because I didn't want to lose him. Finally, he looked up and quietly asked, "What would you like me to do?"
"I want Alfred to have a much larger piano catalog than we now have. Write piano music. I know the piano, I like the piano, I know the competition, and I think we can make a contribution, but I need your help."
He said, "I have already given it some thought because you've been hinting about a change." He said, "I'd like to edit a new edition of the Bach Two- and Three-Part Inventions. Over the years, many editors have added notations to what Bach indicated. I would like to write an edition that would clearly separate Bach's original manuscript from what the editor, in this case me, added." And so Alfred's Masterwork Editions were born.
So things were finally going well for Alfred Publishing?
Alfred was becoming known as a young, bright, creative publisher, but we were struggling financially. We had a lot of good books that sold in small quantities, but we really needed a small number of books that sold in large quantities! That could only be accomplished with a successful piano method. I told Iris that if we were really going to be a successful publisher, we would have to create a very successful piano method. The two methods we already published, the d'Auberge Piano Course and Creating Music at the Piano (by Willard Palmer and Amanda Vick Lethco) were about fifth or sixth in piano method sales in the U.S., and that wasn't good enough. Creating Music was a clever method—perhaps too clever. Some teachers loved it. Unfortunately, most were indifferent. After about five years, I came to the conclusion that it had reached its peak in sales.
My relationship with Willard continued to grow. I enjoyed working with him, and he respected my judgment; so I felt he was the perfect writer to undertake a new method. He loved writing, worked hard, was musically knowledgeable, he played beautifully, was witty, and he was an excellent and charismatic speaker. I went to Houston and told him Alfred was going to publish a new piano method and I wanted him to write it. He agreed and wanted to include Amanda Vick Lethco.
Alfred's Basic Piano Library
Willard and Amanda Vick began working on the new method, and when the first Lesson Book was about half finished, I flew to Texas. When I looked at it, it seemed boring and lacking in charm and excitement. There was nothing fresh or unique about it. When I got to the piece following the introduction of the interval of a fifth, I told Willard I didn't like it at all. I was probably too blunt. I was suffering from jet lag, but more than that, after having such high hopes, I was deeply disappointed.
Willard was offended, told me it was a good piece, and said, "Who are you to tell me it's not any good?" The conversation quickly went downhill, ending with me telling Willard that what he had written was not good enough, and I was flying home Sunday afternoon. He said a final goodbye and walked out the door. I thought if I had been more patient, I could have resolved the situation but it was now too late.
Early the next morning the phone rang. Willard was in our hotel lobby with something he wanted me to hear. He showed me a new piece for the interval of a fifth. The unpleasantness of the day before seemed to have evaporated. The new piece was titled Beethoven's Fifth. The lyrics were very clever. When the student played a third, the word "third" appeared over the second note of the interval; when a fifth was played, the word "fifth" appeared over the second note of the interval. The piece ended with, "Beethoven's 'Fifth' was only a third!" How perfect. Using the interval name in the lyric as the interval was being played was new to me. It may have been done before, but I hadn't seen it. That was our "a-ha" moment.
Then we went back to the beginning of the book, and added new lyrics where intervals were being introduced, and included the numbered interval in the title as well. This was a turning point. The book now had a personality. It had wit and charm. It seemed to free us to take the course in any direction we wanted.
Once a book has its own personality, it seems to come alive and become an independent entity. You become an agent of the book, rather than the other way around, listening carefully, as the book seems to almost write itself. This may sound odd, but it's just the way the process feels. When you complete one topic, you instinctively know what comes next, and soon the book begins to feel like it has the final say. I sometimes hear, "You can do better than that." I hate to admit it, but one time I actually said, "I've had enough of you for today," and walked out of the room.
At the end of that meeting in Houston that almost ended our relationship, Willard said something completely unexpected. "You know, Mort, what you do with what we write is much more than just being an editor. You are helping us write the book, and we want you to be a co-author and share in the royalties." I was, of course, very pleased. ABPL changed my life for the better, and it changed Alfred's future.
Why did you decide to move to California?
That was an easy decision. They say when a man is between the ages of forty and fifty, he changes one of three things in his life: his wife, his job, or where he lives. Well, I loved my wife and I loved my job, so my only viable option was to move. Seriously, the New York winters were hard on us as I so enjoy being outside. One winter, the snow and cold was especially harsh. Our children were at an age to change schools anyway, so Iris and I talked it over and decided as the song title said, "California, Here We Come."
Alfred has such beautiful covers. How did that come about?We were publishing masterwork editions and the cover style for such editions was typically a simple design in one-color, printed on colored stock, with the composer and title being the only difference between books. Schirmer used a yellow stock; another publisher used red, another blue, another green, etc. As there are only seven colors in the rainbow, our choice of color was rapidly narrowing. We decided to splurge and chose a white stock with black type and daringly added a second color—orange.
Are you retired now?
I was afraid you would ask that. No, I'm not retired. I still go to the office four days a week, but it is now more of a hobby than a job. It makes me feel good to contribute something positive, or to solve a difficult problem. It's in my nature. When I do good things, I go home happy. If I don't accomplish anything, I go home sad.
I still feel like a young man and look forward to tomorrow, and I still have ambitions for Alfred. Finally, I'm not happy unless I worry, and I worry that if I retire, I'll have nothing to worry about, which would make me unhappy.
E.L. Lancaster is now the Keyboard Editor-in-Chief at Alfred and does many of the things I used to do. I really like the people I work with and I consider some of them my good friends. When I see our latest book, my heart beats a little faster. I work on only a few now myself, but when I do, I put my heart and soul into it. It drives everybody crazy, but I don't care. I'm a perfectionist, and I love what I do. What a wonderful way to make a living. I'm so proud of Alfred. As Iris said the other day, "It's like our baby—one of our children." And now that our son Ron has taken over the company, it truly remains part of the family.
I think what describes me best is a story about a young businessman who started a new company. On his annual vacations with his wife, he would call the office every day. "Why do you call every day?" his wife asked. "Because they need me," he answered. Many years later, after his business was very successful, he again was vacationing with his wife, and he still called the office every day. "Why do you call every day?" his wife asked again. Now he answered, "Because I need them."
The following is bonus material from this extensive interview, including discussions of Alfred's international expansion, roster of composers and authors, and acquisition of Warner Brothers' print music division.
When did you begin publishing for bands and choirs?
In 1968, a friend told me that a well known and very popular "easy band" writer, John Kinyon, had been released from his contract and we should try to sign him. John was a little shy and spoke softly. Combine that with my less than acute hearing. I kept telling him all the good things that we could do for him. He just kept nodding his head. After an hour, I said, "John, when are you going to agree to come to Alfred?" He looked me right in the eye and said, "Morty, I said 'yes' thirty minutes ago!" Kinyon's new Mini-Score series quickly became so successful that we hired John O'Reilly, a local high school music teacher and composer, as a full-time acquisition editor and composer. Over a thirty-five year period, John developed a wonderful band, choral, and percussion catalog for Alfred. Our publishing activities were rapidly expanding.
When and why did you go international?
Around 1985 we decided to start promoting Alfred 's Basic Piano Library in Australia and New Zealand through a series of workshops. At that time Music Sales Corporation was distributing our books in Australia, but with their own large catalog of books in their warehouse in Sydney, they didn't have enough room for many of our titles. As Willard, Ruby (his wife), Iris and I traveled throughout Australia and New Zealand and got to know the music dealers, I realized we would have to open our own distribution center in Australia to be successful there, and we did. If our books were available in an Australian warehouse, they would sell; if not, it was dicey. You can't introduce a method with Level 1A and expect teachers to wait three months for a boat to arrive with a shipment of Level 1B.
Next, our representative in Japan wrote that he was leaving the business and passing on our print rights to Zen-On, a large Japanese music publisher. He specifically said we needed to come for the signing of a new contract. I thought there must be more of a reason to travel all that distance because we could easily have signed the contract here and mailed it back. In those days, financial pressures were so intense, I would have considered selling Alfred if anyone had made a decent offer. I thought that Zen-On must want to purchase an American company to be their distributor here. I don't love flying, though I can tolerate it, so Iris and I flew off to Tokyo to see what, if anything, was going to happen. At Zen-On's offices, we were escorted into a large room to wait. I reminded myself to not get too excited about the offer but to show some interest. Soon two very elderly and fragile men came in. They went to the front of a desk, bowed deeply, and handed us their business cards. There is a protocol in Asia for the exchange of cards, and we practiced it repeatedly beforehand. First there was only disappointment—they spoke no English, not even a little. After sitting down, they both wrote their names on the contract and pushed the papers to our side of the desk, where we signed it. Then they stood, bowed deeply again, and walked out. It was over in ten minutes. To say I was shocked is an understatement. I asked our representative why he had asked us to come this distance to sign the contract. He said in Japan, symbolism and ceremonies are very important. Next thing I knew, Iris and I were out on the streets of Tokyo, alone, with nothing to do and no place to go. I was speechless, and more than a little upset. There was not only the time involved in getting there, but also considerable expense. But then again, we were staying in the Imperial Hotel for the first time. We felt rich and broke at the same time—it's hard to explain.
SINGAPORE & MALAYSIA
As I thought of the map from my elementary geography class, a little south of Japan was Singapore. I said to Iris, "We paid all this money to fly this far and we have accomplished nothing. Let's go to Singapore, it's probably only an hour's flight." We had dealt with a sales manager there, Larry Bong, who worked for Yamaha, but he also sold a lot of our books.We had never met him, but after a phone call, he agreed to meet us the next day. On the plane, they handed us two menus—one for lunch and one for dinner. It was a seven-hour flight! My geography teacher would not have been proud. To make matters worse, the pilot announced, "We are expecting some heavy turbulence, so buckle your seat belts and remain seated." I envisioned a headline, "Music Publisher dies in plane crash, his remains rest on the bottom of the South China Sea." Larry took us to music stores in Singapore and Malaysia where physically the stores looked the same as in the U.S., but the way they did business was completely different. I saw enough of our books on display to feel that with the right man, we could do well in Southeast Asia. We subsequently found our "right man" in Larry. With Australia and New Zealand, and now Southeast Asia, our international expansion was moving ahead with warp speed. Before long we opened offices in the United Kingdom and Germany.
How did you select authors and composers in more recent years?
It was actually Willard who first suggested I look for others who could contribute new ideas and publications to Alfred's catalog. I was uncertain as to how to go about this. The way it turned out, it just seemed that whenever we needed a certain type of writer, he or she would somehow emerge. They say that luck is the residue of skill. In my case, it just seemed like pure, unadulterated luck.
Around 1983 or 84, I received a call from a stranger, Jane Magrath, who was researching classical music at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She said she was particularly interested in what she called "the black hole" of classical literature: music for students at an earlier level than where they usually begin playing it. She submitted four anthologies to Alfred and they looked very good. Ultimately these books became part of Jane's Masterwork Classics, Books 3, 4, 5, and 6. Our relationship is a good one and she still makes important contributions to our catalog.
Lynn Freeman Olson was a popular composer of educational music, a fine clinician, a free spirit, and a prolific writer. He once said, "What other profession can you be in that brings so much joy to so many, and no one ever gets hurt." Sad to say, we only had Lynn for a few years before he became ill and died. It was very sad for me— both a personal and professional loss. During our time together, he wrote quite a few successful publications that still sell very well. He never lacked for publishing ideas.
Alfred's Basic Piano Library was now hugely successful, and we could not handle all the workshop requests with just Willard and Amanda Vick. Amanda Vick recommended an unknown, Dennis Alexander, to do additional workshops. During one of his tours in LA, he visited our offices and I met him for the first time. I casually mentioned my sadness in losing Lynn and the great difficulty I was having in replacing him. He said, "If you're looking for a writer, I'll write for you." I said I had never seen anything he had composed. "That's because no one ever asked me to write for them." It was such an odd answer I laughed and said, "OK, I'm asking." He did, and a star was born.
Catherine Rollin just walked into our offices in LA one day, and asked for me. After some small talk, she said she wanted to write for us. No one had ever done that before. She has strong ideas about what she wants to write and her manuscripts indicate a great attention to detail. Her workshops are well attended wherever she goes.
Each year at the MTNA National Conference, I would look for someone who really stood out. Not necessarily just their music—their whole persona. Such a person was Maurice Hinson. I wanted to expand our classical editions and I thought he was capable of doing that. Maurice was interested and I suggested he think of classical editions as "old wine in new bottles." Soon we were getting editions that told fascinating stories behind the music that added depth and understanding to the performance of the music. He is an unusual intellect.
It was now becoming apparent to me that with an increasing roster of authors, we needed to add an acquiring editor who could spend the time needed to work with our growing list of writers. We needed someone who could answer their questions, encourage them when they needed a pat on the back, and focus their efforts. The job of being head of a growing company along with my continued involvement with ABPL, made it difficult for me to continue doing everything I had been doing.
Who did you choose?
I had seen Gayle Kowalchyk make presentations and liked her personally. I wanted an editor who was knowledgeable, gregarious, upbeat, and who knew other writers she could attract to Alfred. She was perfect. As Gayle was working on her doctorate at Columbia at the time, we had to wait for her to graduate before she could start. It was well worth the wait.
While working with Gayle, I got to know her husband, Dr. E. L. Lancaster. He was also a real talent. He was teaching at the University of Oklahoma at the time, so I didn't have much hope he would leave the University and move to Los Angeles. The more I got to know E. L., the more I respected and liked him. Eventually I proposed that he and Gayle move to Los Angeles. First he refused, but ultimately they did move. They've been good friends of ours for years, and it has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
E. L. and Gayle had worked with Martha Mier and June Montgomery when they were all working on the Glover piano method and they brought them to Alfred. Soon after, Martha began working on her incomparable Jazz, Rags and Blues series. It became an instant success. Originally designed as a three-book set, the demand was so strong we added a fourth and then a fifth book. We then added classical, duet, and Christmas books to the series. It is Martha's Opus 36.
I always admired Robert Vandall, both personally and professionally, and regularly stopped at the Myklas Press booth at MTNA Conferences to talk with him and his wife Karen. When his publisher decided to sell her company, Alfred purchased it, essentially to obtain Bob. We re-engraved his solos and published them in attractive folios. He is very thoughtful and analytical in his approach to composing.
When Melody Bober's contract ran out with her publisher, we made a strong effort to attract her to Alfred. She made all of us happy when she agreed to come on board. Melody loves composing and arranging, and in many ways, she is a publisher's dream as she works quickly and seems to have an endless amount of good ideas.
With the Warner purchase, we got the gift that keeps on giving in Dan Coates. He is a very talented arranger of pop and standard music, and we were lucky to retain him. He has a natural feel for simplifying well-known melodies that appeal to teachers and their students. Joining Dan in also writing pop arrangements are Carol Matz and Tom Gerou.
We have many other fine composers at Alfred. I wish I could name them all. They help us to keep a steady supply of outstanding new publications flowing, and Alfred and I are beholden to them all.
Why did you purchase the print music division of Warner Bros.?
After being in business for a long time, sustained significant growth is hard to achieve, and Alfred is no different. We were doing everything we could each year, publishing a large number of keyboard, band, choral, orchestra, guitar, and percussion publications. Conceptually speaking, unless the print music market expands, it is difficult for individual publishing companies to expand. You can, of course, but you would have to hit a home run with everything you publish—possible, but unlikely.
Warner brought us the opportunity to become involved with pop publications. There were three major pop publishers five years ago who dominated the field, Hal Leonard, Warner Bros., and Music Sales. For Alfred, it was the last frontier. If we didn't buy Warner, there would never be another opportunity to become a major player. It was literally "then or never."
My sons, Steve and Ron, who worked for Alfred, both wanted it. So, it seemed, did everyone else within the company. No one was against it, and I was in favor of it too. It's never the right time. I wished it could have been five years later. It was just like an auction with people bidding for them, and we won the auction. But you win some things and you lose some things.We became a much larger company in terms of personnel, but we lost the intimacy we had with a smaller group; we increased our sales, but we also increased our debt.
Are you sorry?
Knowing what I know now, I would do it again. The problems we had were not what we knew and prepared for. They came from contracts no one was aware of, commitments and obligations no one knew about, and we had to deal with it all.