An outsize character, Earl McGrath had variously worked as a record company head, film executive, screenwriter and art dealer before he died in early 2016 at age 84. Afterward, the contents of his Midtown Manhattan apartment were carefully cataloged and valued. His art collection, including prized works given to him by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and Ed Moses, was sent to auction at Christie’s. His papers, containing correspondence with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Stephen Spender, were donated to the New York Public Library’s archives.
But the boxes stored at the top of McGrath’s large walk-in closet — filled with old reels of recordings — were largely overlooked. They were about to be sold blind to a record wholesaler when the journalist Joe Hagan stepped in.
Hagan had been researching “Sticky Fingers,” his biography of the Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, when he stumbled upon McGrath. “Little known outside a rarefied ’70s jet set of rock ’n’ rollers, movie stars, socialites and European dilettantes,” Hagan would write, “his name was once a secret handshake.”
Rummaging through McGrath’s closet in the spring of 2017, the first tape Hagan discovered was an unedited master copy of the Rolling Stones’ 1978 album, “Some Girls.”
“I instantly broke into a cold sweat,” Hagan said in a phone interview. He also found rare and unreleased recordings from Hall & Oates, the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, Terry Allen and the Jim Carroll Band. “It was like peeking through a keyhole in time. I thought, This is a real treasure trove — wouldn’t it be great if people could hear this stuff?”
After purchasing the roughly 200 tapes from the McGrath estate, Hagan spent several years researching and compiling the material, along with a co-producer, Pat Thomas. This week, “Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath, 1970-1980” will be released by the reissue label Light in the Attic. Its 22 tracks feature material collected by McGrath during his years as an Atlantic Records executive, where he operated his own imprint, Clean, before he later ran the Rolling Stones’ label.
Moving musically and geographically through the 1970s, from California country-rock to New York post-punk, “Earl’s Closet” is a fittingly eclectic sampler that places the hillbilly soul of Delbert & Glen alongside the surrealist warbling of the Warhol “superstar” Ultra Violet.
“I wanted the record to capture Earl’s spirit,” Hagan said. “He’s really the muse of the whole thing. It’s almost like being at a party at Earl’s house: You don’t who you’re going to meet.”
To that end, the collection’s through line is McGrath’s role as an exuberant social connector.
“If you were to add up Earl’s achievements in terms of record making or art sales, that wasn’t who he was,” Jann Wenner said in an interview. “He thrived on his friendships. He loved talented people, interesting people — and his range of acquaintances were remarkable, literally from Zen masters to Z Listers.”
In an email, the Rolling Stones’s Mick Jagger remembered McGrath as a “joker,” who “knew everybody in New York and beyond and was a lot of fun to be with.”
McGrath introduced the actress Anjelica Huston to her husband, the sculptor Robert Graham, who died in 2008. “He was funny,” Huston said of McGrath. “He was daring. In his own way, Earl, he was the glue that held a lot of people together.”
McGRATH’S HUMBLE CHILDHOOD in the Midwest was far from the A-list world he would navigate so easily as an adult, but he could spin it into a more stately tale.
“If you asked Earl, ‘Where are you from?’” the artist Ed Ruscha said, “He’d say, ‘I’m from Superior — of course — Wisconsin. And I lived on Grand — naturally — Avenue.’ That’s the way he talked.”
McGrath’s blithe manner belied the troubled home life he endured as a youth, which included physical abuse at the hands of his father. “He would get drunk and beat him,” said Valerie Grace Ricordi, a family friend who now serves as executive director of the McGrath family foundation. “Earl never understood what he’d done wrong in his father’s eyes.” According to interviews with several of McGrath’s friends and biographical details included in Hagan’s liner notes and an essay in a 2020 photo book, at age 14, after his father broke his arm, McGrath left home for good — moving into a local YMCA and supporting himself as a dishwasher until he could get out of town.
Largely self-educated, McGrath found solace devouring literature, poetry and philosophy, and came to see himself as a Proustian character. Transforming from dishwasher to aesthete, as a young man McGrath evinced the qualities that would carry him through life: a disarming sense of humor and an uncanny ability to befriend the cultured, the famous and the wealthy.
In between stints as a merchant seaman, McGrath drifted out to California, corresponding and visiting with Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles and Henry Miller in Big Sur. He also developed an unlikely friendship with the English poet W.H. Auden, who would provide introductions for McGrath when he moved in the early ’50s to New York City, where he fell in with a lively crowd that included the writer Frank O’Hara and the pop art godfather Larry Rivers.
In 1958, the 27-year-old McGrath began working as an assistant to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, helping organize the inaugural Spoleto Festival in Umbria, Italy. There, he struck up an unlikely romance with an heiress, Camilla Pecci Blunt, the daughter of a Florentine marchesa and an American financier. The couple married in 1963 against the wishes of her family, and while they endured long stretches of physical separation in subsequent decades, he remained committed to their union.
One of his next moves was to Los Angeles, where McGrath found his way into the movie business and developed a tight social circle of Hollywood literati, including Joan Didion, who dedicated her 1979 essay collection, “The White Album,” to McGrath. The writer Eve Babitz’s biographer, Lili Anolik, said McGrath “was one of the most influential and damaging people in her life,” explaining how Babitz was working as a fine artist and album designer in the early ’70s when McGrath offhandedly questioned one of her color choices. Her confidence shot, “she switched her focus to writing,” Anolik said. “So, we, the culture, owe Earl big in a way.”
BUT McGRATH MADE perhaps his biggest impact with Atlantic Records.
When he met the label’s co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in the early ’60s, the two sparked an immediate friendship. “Earl made him laugh,” Hagan said. “Ahmet really just loved having him around.” McGrath’s European society connections also helped Ertegun impress Mick Jagger, who brought the Rolling Stones into the Atlantic fold in 1971.
That same year, Ertegun — along with Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton — decided to back McGrath and give him his own Atlantic-distributed label, Clean Records (the company motto: “Every man should have a Clean record”). McGrath’s West Hollywood home became Clean’s headquarters, where he’d regularly throw parties — attended by a mix of Cool School artists, Old Hollywood grandees and New Journalism figures — in lieu of A&R meetings.
“He’d have these afternoon soirees where there’d be some 18-year-old musician on the edge of OD’ing in one room, and outside Joseph Cotten and Patricia Medina would be strolling through the lawn,” said the Texas singer-songwriter Terry Allen, among the first artists McGrath signed. “You never knew what was going to happen when you went to Earl’s.”
One of the groups that McGrath discovered was a fledgling folk-soul duo from Philadelphia, Daryl Hall and John Oates, who had been struggling to find a record deal when their music publisher flew them out to meet McGrath in 1972.
“There was all these interesting people hanging out,” Hall remembered in an interview. “One of the Everly Brothers was there and I think a young Harrison Ford, too.” They played McGrath a few songs. “Next thing we knew, we were signed.”
The history of Clean Records might have turned out quite differently had Hall & Oates actually recorded for the company. Ertegun, sensing the duo’s hit potential, snatched them from McGrath and put them on Atlantic proper, where they sold millions of records. Clean, meanwhile, would release just a handful of poorly selling titles before ceasing operations in 1973.
Moving to New York in the early ’70s, McGrath became an omnipresent figure on the city’s pre-punk scene. “I used to see him everywhere,” said Johansen, the New York Dolls singer whose earliest solo work appears on “Earl’s Closet.” “Funny thing is, I didn’t know Earl as a music business guy — it was just one of the things he did.”
McGrath’s real passion was bringing together his many fabulous friends. The McGraths’ West 57th Street apartment, opposite Carnegie Hall, would become the site of endless dinners and parties attended by a cross-section of cultural giants: where the cast of “Star Wars” might run into Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg; where the poet-turned-songwriter Jim Carroll mingled with the silent-film-era pioneer Anita Loos; and where Jagger first laid eyes on his future partner Jerry Hall. (The gatherings were often photographed by Camilla McGrath, with a collection of the photos published in a 2020 book from Knopf, “Face to Face.”)
In 1977, the Rolling Stones were looking for someone to run their record label, replacing the longtime company head Marshall Chess. With Ertegun’s backing, McGrath lobbied for the gig in a letter to Jagger, admitting that he hadn’t been very successful in the music business, but “I was successful enough to marry a princess in Italy.” He got the job.
“He was a very unusual choice to run a record company,” Jagger said. “But he had a great flair.”
A number of the artists represented on “Earl’s Closet” are acts McGrath considered for the Stones label — including the Detroit saxophonist Norma Jean Bell and the Texas soul combo Little Whisper and the Rumors — but whose signings never came to fruition. “Earl was good at recognizing talent, but he wasn’t much for following through,” Hagan said.
McGrath’s tenure did ultimately produce some successes: He negotiated a deal to bring the acclaimed reggae star Peter Tosh to the label in 1978, and a year later, he signed Carroll. Carroll, who died in 2009, noted in a 1981 interview with Musician magazine that McGrath was an anomaly in the music business. “He understood very well what I was doing,” Carroll said then. “He had some literary references that no other record executive would’ve had.”
After a few years in the Stones’ employ, McGrath found himself caught in the middle of the increasingly fractious relationship between Jagger and Keith Richards. As the guitarist recounted in his 2010 memoir “Life,” at one point he threatened to throw McGrath off the roof of Electric Lady Studios if he didn’t reign Jagger in. Angling to launch a solo career, Jagger was more than happy to let band relations, and the label’s business, sour. McGrath resigned his post with Rolling Stones Records in 1981, effectively ending his career in the music business.
OVER THE NEXT three decades, McGrath would bounce between coasts, opening and closing art galleries in Los Angeles and New York. Although he and Camilla never had a family of their own, over time McGrath became godfather to nearly 30 children. Late in his life, McGrath’s older sister finally revealed the secret that had been kept from him: His birth had been the result of an affair between his mother and his father’s brother.
As McGrath reckoned with his complicated past, an even bigger blow came with Camilla’s death in 2007, following a series of strokes. Within a few years, McGrath developed serious health problems. On Jan. 7, 2016, he died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
McGrath had been happy over the years to remain out of the spotlight. “He didn’t want to be a public figure, he only wanted to be well known amongst the well-known,” Hagan said. With the release of “Earl’s Closet,” McGrath’s legacy — his unique gifts as a kind of artistic alchemist — is finally being given its due.
“It feels like we tapped into some kind of core sampler of the ’70s,” Hagen said. “It’s the story of the culture and where the artistic emphasis was going, about the end of a certain period and the beginning of another. And, of course, the element that threads everything together on this record — just like he did in life — is Earl McGrath.”