Johnny Carson was one of the biggest stars in the U.S. in 1974, but the album he released that year almost destroyed the record label.
Casablanca Record’s founder, Neil Bogart, wasn’t in it for the art. Formerly with Buddah Records, Bogart had a string of hit novelty singles to his credit, and when he formed his own label the concepts of “novelty” and “hit” were central to his strategy. That’s why he signed KISS, after all — the gimmick appealed to his novelty sensibilities.
It was Bogart who came up with the idea of the band putting a cover of Bobby Rydell’s “Kissin’ Time” on KISS’s eponymous debut album, the strategy being that the band could host radio station kissing contests around the country. They attended one and found the whole thing too embarrassing to repeat.
Anyway, KISS’s outrageous stage act didn’t translate well to the studio. Their first two albums — both released in 1974 — did not sell well, and Bogart needed a hit to keep Casablanca’s doors open.
Enter Johnny Carson.
The Tonight Show was must-see TV in ’74. In its twelfth year, Carson was already an institution, but merchandising was pretty much limited to his Johnny Carson line of menswear. We’re talking pre-VCR, after all — pre-cable, pre-everything. One’s choices were to stay up and watch Tonight or miss the magic, unless sporting your Johnny Carson slacks the following day qualified as magic.
Bogart saw a huge opportunity. Why not market a collection of classic Carson moments? It’ll be huge! He was so sure that he bet the company on it, printing and shipping a half million copies. Casablanca’s existence depended on the album’s success, and it bombed. Bombed. The joke was that more copies were returned unsold than Casablanca shipped in the first place. You’re looking at the album (well, 8-track in this case) that almost destroyed the label.
So what saved Bogart and Casablanca? The following year, as a last ditch effort to save their floundering career KISS released Alive!, their first live album, giving both Bogart and the band the hit they so badly needed. Everybody was flush and all was fine at Casablanca until their next over-shipping disaster, 1978’s KISS solo albums, but that’s another story.