Jack Ponti was already working on a national level while the rest of us were still trying to graduate high school. Although we later became friends, my first meeting with him was unique. Here I am, talking to this attractive girl in the neighborhood, and here comes this guy in a platinum Rod Stewart haircut, decked out in sunglasses and full leather outfit, twirling a switchblade and saying, “Hey! What the fuck are you doing talking to my sister?” I’m a kid sitting on my moped, I had no idea what to say as I hit the gas and putted out of there. But Jack Ponti has pretty much approached everything from that viewpoint since day one. Protective, private and steeped in infamous controversy, this is a guy that has laughed at more rock and roll history than most of us could only dream about being part of.
When you look at the huge names that ultimately crash and burn in music, Ponti’s career is a steady success story. From his historic time as songwriter/guitarist for The Rest—Jon Bon Jovi’s launching platform—to his time behind-the-scenes with everyone from Alice Cooper to Scarface, this Grammy-producing player shows creative and survivalist insight far ahead of the conventional curve.
Love him or hate him, Jack Ponti has left an indelible mark on some of music’s biggest names, and he has no problem telling you the inside story. I caught up with him recently for a few candid answers to questions about his strange rock and roll journey.
The Rest was a perfect example of a band on the cusp of greatness, a band that had everything in place. What happened?
It was too much time spent on the edge of making it that lead to the frustration and ultimate breakup. It was an important part in the development of my career and Jon’s [Bon Jovi] career.
Ahmet Ertegun was a music business icon. What was your relationship with him?
Ahmet gave me my first break as a producer. To sit at the feet of greatness was a remarkable privilege. One of my favorite Ahmet quotes was, “You can’t imply anything to morons.” You’d be hanging out with him and suddenly realize this man signed Zeppelin, the Stones, Aretha, Ray Charles. What the fuck am I doing here? He taught me many things about music, but to watch him do business, that was the magic.
Is it surreal going from watching the Late Show With David Letterman on tv as a kid to now working within his empire, Worldwide Pants?
My entire career has been one surreal blessing after another. It’s great having Worldwide Pants as our partners in the label, the management company and consulting company. I couldn’t have dreamed that one.
Ricky Nelson was an American legend; you took his sons under your wing and led them to gold record status. How did you get involved in that whole period and what stands out?
Multi-platinum record status with number one single and album. I am fiercely proud of Matt and Gunnar and love them like brothers. I actually first met them at the old Kramer Guitars in Neptune. I’ll tell you one thing, out of all the bands I have ever worked with, no one got the level of women those two guys did, ever. Lots of riots in the Ocean County Mall stand out when we’d go shopping at the height of their fame. Good times. They are massive talents. People don’t realize they are the only family that had three generations of number one records: Ozzie, Ricky and Matt and Gunnar.
I don’t even know where to start when discussing the vast number of people you’ve worked with; one thing I’ve found is that your artist pool is very diverse. Tell me about your journey into hip-hop and R&B with artists such as Boys II Men and Scarface?
I retired from writing around 1991. My sister and daughter were at a basketball game and a band sang the anthem. She had small talk with their manager who was looking for advice, she mentioned me and then she hammered me to talk to him. Fortunately, I listened to her. Next thing you know I am his partner and that band signed to R. Kelly’s new label.
I saw a massive gap in the urban world for management and one thing led to another and I began managing writers and producers. People like N.O. Joe and Six July, huge names in hip-hop. Then that led to working with Teddy Riley and his entire stable. It grew and grew and we had 47 clients. It was a natural segue into artist management with Az Yet, Pru, Mike E., Scarface, etc., and the last artist I managed was India.Arie during her meteoric rise. I spent time as Boyz II Men’s management consultant as well. This was a time where million-dollar deals were the norm. I worked literally an 18-hour day. It was pretty taxing. The stories I could tell would fill a book.
Is it true that you are immortalized in Wu-Tang Clan lyrics?
Actually, it is lyrics on a Royce Da 5’9” song. I co-managed him and am immensely proud that he finally had a number one record with Eminem.
You rode a record seven Grammy wave with India.Arie. Care to tell how that came into play?
One of my producers kept badgering me to listen to her. I finally did and was floored. It was a tough, tough thing the entire journey. Getting that record to connect was a 10-month marketing plan combined with an artist who fought against being famous. It was a daily war between me and her label CEO, which I think benefited her, as me and him tried to outdo each other. Crossing her over into mainstream was a task unto itself. Fortunately, we were able to do so via a duet with John Mellencamp. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in this business, but the results shocked even us.
I was tipped off we were getting a nomination, but we had no idea we were getting a record-setting seven Grammy nominations for a debut artist. U2 got six, Alicia Keys got six, and we got seven. It was a jaw-dropper.
Ever play golf with Alice Cooper?
He asked me to, but I don’t think me and a golf club is a great idea. I don’t define mellow.
I know you have a close relationship with Bruce. Can you tell me how he manages to coexist with so many local lunatics all clamoring to get next to him at every place he goes?
Bruce is a man who understands who and what he is and is not affected by it. He has done things for me and my family that I can never repay from the goodness of his heart. Bruce doesn’t play rock star, so it’s easy for him to blend in. Some people buy their own bullshit, he doesn’t.
It is pretty funny watching people around any star. It’s just a bit odder around here. It’s like a game of who can claim the lesser degrees of separation from Bruce and Jon. “I saw Bruce at The Windmill, we both used ketchup!” “Oh yeah? Jon’s ball sweat hit me from the stage at the Count Basie!” I guess that bring immortality to some people.
What artist do you eat, breathe and sleep right now?
Tom Keifer. As you know, Tom was in Cinderella and this is his first solo album, and it is mind-boggling. He is signed to our label. I’m in love with the record.
You were part of the first true rock and roll music scene in New Jersey during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. What do you think the difference is between those times and the current scene?
I don’t think either time was a true scene in NJ. Not a scene like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s in the ‘70s or the Sunset Strip in the ‘80s or Seattle in the ‘90s. You can’t rightly call it a scene if it does not have a culture and no bands of worldwide impact coming out of it.
Asbury didn’t give birth to Bruce or Bon Jovi, as much as the world thinks it did. Bruce wasn’t a mainstay of those clubs and neither was Jon. They didn’t “break out” of those clubs. They embraced the town and the town embraced them, but that is very different than the Ramones breaking out of CBGB’s, Guns N’ Roses breaking out of the Strip or Pearl Jam breaking out of Seattle. They were scenes in the truest sense, not the illusionist interpretation. The closest thing to a band breaking out of Asbury was Southside And The Jukes, and it’s a damn shame that they didn’t.
Are there any bands that would be considered local that you feel have what it takes?
I have never followed the local scene at all. They never embraced me, I don’t embrace them. Maybe because I have a toxic personality, who knows what the issue is, I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me as much as I find humor in it. Brick + Mortar will do something important. Watch.
Your parents were people I had the pleasure of knowing. What did they say to you to push you into the direction that you’ve excelled with?
My parents supported me every step of the way. In fact, the only time in my life that my mom ever smacked me was right after my daughter was born and I wanted to quit. She smacked me and said, “Don’t you ever give up this dream.” After success happened and I turned into not the nicest person in the world, it was my father who sat me down and said to me, “You won, get rid of the anger son, you’ve turned into an asshole.”
I had the best parents in the world, the greatest friends, great sister, ex-girlfriends, managers, lawyers, you name it. Without them, and without that luck occasionally finding me, our conversation would more than likely be me asking you if you want to super size that order.
Cinderella frontman Tom Keifer plans to release a new solo album, The Way Life Goes, in Spring 2013. He’ll be at NYC’s Highline Ballroom on Feb. 11 and Philly’s JC Dobbs on Feb. 13. For more information, go to facebook.com/tomkeiferofficial.