Levinson, Peter J.
LEVINSON, Peter J.
Home—23854 Malibu Crest Drive, Malibu, CA 90265.
Biographer and music publicist, including for Columbia Records. MCA Records, talent agent, c. 1950s; John Springer Associates, staff member, 1964-72; Levinson Communications (public relations company), Malibu, CA, founder, 1972—.
Award for Excellence finalist for Best Research in Recorded General Popular Music, Association for Recorded Sound Collections, 2002, for September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle.
September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, Billboard Books (New York, NY), 2001.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
Researching and writing a book about Fred Astaire's career; a book for Da Capo Press about bandleader Tommy Dorsey.
Biographer Peter J. Levinson began his career as a freelance writer in New York City prior to becoming a respected publicist for the music industry. He started off as an assistant to the head of popular music publicity for Columbia Records, then graduated to publicist in the early 1960s, with singer Jack Jones; eventually he opened his own agency located in Malibu, California. His client list has included such artists as Dave Brubeck, Woody Herman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Artie Shaw, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Evans, Art Garfunkel, Peggy Lee, Chuck Mangione, and Mel Tormé. Levinson's exposure and access to such an array of talent provided the inspiration for his role as biographer. In an interview with Tom Nolan of January Online, Levinson stated, "I can't say that I set a path for myself to do this. It just occurred to me.… If you work as a publicist, you're working not only with artists but with managers and agents and so forth. You get an understanding of what careers are all about."
In Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, Levinson, who knew James personally, recounts the life of the jazz trumpet player and his influence on the music of the Big Band era. Starting with James' childhood spent in a traveling circus, Levinson follows him through his performances with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the forming of his own band in 1939, as well as James' work with such stars as Frank Sinatra and Kitty Kallen. He also examines how James' gambling, alcoholism, and womanizing undermined both his long-term marriage and his career. Levinson conducted nearly two hundred interviews with musicians and friends of James in an effort to create an accurate picture of the man's life and career. Harvey Pekar remarked in the Austin Chronicle that Levinson "knows about the business and social sides of the entertainment world, and he's worked diligently and effectively to portray James evenhandedly." Nolan noted that "Levinson's book is sort of the antithesis of his subject's trumpet style: not flashy, not schmaltzy, not full of fireworks. But in its own solid way it swings. Trumpet Blues is the biographical equivalent of a well-produced LP, with not a single weak or wasted track."
September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle is Levinson's 2001 biography of the trombonist who went on to work as arranger and composer for such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Linda Ronstadt. Levinson follows Riddle's work and personal life, from his brief career as a film scorer, through a romance with Rosemary Clooney, up until his death from cirrhosis in 1985. Phil Gallo, writing for Variety, noted that the structure of the book is such that Levinson "spill[s] … out mundane biographical details for more than one hundred pages before readers get to the heart of why anyone even knows Riddle's name: his association with Frank Sinatra." However, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that the author's research into Riddle's "work and the music industry give the book both its vitality and enormous value"; and Library Journal critic Bruce R. Schueneman called September in the Rain "well rounded and fascinating."
Levinson told CA: "I first became interested in writing when I wrote poetry for the Margate Beacon in Margate, New Jersey as a seventh and eighth grader. At the University of Virginia, I wrote features on jazz musicians in the Cavelier Daily in my last two years there, 1955 and 1956, along with feature stories in the Virginia Spectator, the University's humor magazine.
"I think one of my first influences were the jazz pieces by Whitney Balliett, who wrote critiques of live performances as well as profiles in the New Yorker several times a year until the late 1990s. I still believe he is the best literary craftsman who has ever written about jazz. In no way could I ever expect to emulate the greatness of his work.
"I have a rather unorthodox writing process … which is greatly affected by the fact that I am practically computer illiterate. I write in longhand on yellow legal tablets while lying down on a bed in the guest room with various research sources around me. I seem to do my best work between the hours of 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM. When I'm in the process of writing a book, I write on an almost daily basis.
"I guess the most surprising thing I learned from being a writer is the great amount of research which is necessary in order to construct a meaningful biography. I have also found out that the researching and interviewing is probably my favorite part of the entire process. I think the favorite book of any author is his current project."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Austin Chronicle, March 17, 2000, Harvey Pekar, "Let It Rock."
Booklist, October 15, 1999, Mike Tribby, review of Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, p. 407.
Down Beat, March, 2000, Jay Weiser, review of Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, p. 77.
Hollywood Reporter, November 12, 2001, Tony Gieske, review of September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, p. 11.
Library Journal, September 15, 2001, Bruce R. Schueneman, review of September in the Rain, p. 82.
People, February 21, 2000, Ralph Novak, review of Trumpet Blues, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, September 20, 1999, review of Trumpet Blues, p. 60; January 14, 2002, review of September in the Rain, p. 53.
Variety, June 5, 2000, Phil Gallo, review of Trumpet Blues, p. 31; December 10, 2001, Phil Gallo, review of September in the Rain, p. 39.
Association for Recorded Sound Collections Web site,http://www.arsc-audio.org/ (October 27, 2004), "Peter Levinson."
January Online,http://www.janmag.com/ (October 27, 2004), Tom Nolan, "A Slick but Stunted Star"; Tom Nolan, interview with Levinson.