Rich Ulloa can't contain his enthusiasm. Here he is, arms full of scrapbooks, three of the 20 volumes he has meticulously compiled since the early Nineties. They comprise every scrap of paper having anything to do with singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen.
She's one of the more prolific artists he has managed, advised, and represented over the years, and Ulloa is touting The Wanderlust Diaries, Karlzen's current album on Dualtone, a record connection he secured on her behalf. He's also working on two additional Karlzen projects, an expanded re-release of her major-label debut, Yelling at Mary, and Songs from the Great Outdoors, a children's record.
But Ulloa is used to having his hands full. He's the onetime owner of Yesterday and Today Records (which Miami New Times has named Best Record Store nine times), head of the related Y&T Music label, and coprincipal in RS Management with attorney Steve Goldman. "I've loved being a part of the local music scene," Ulloa says. "I've always tried to encourage and support local artists in any way I could."
Ulloa's personal and professional connections to emerging acts have driven him for nearly two decades, beginning with his initial entrepreneurial enterprise, Top of the Pops, a mail-order company specializing in rare records. In 1981 it morphed into a physical storefront, Yesterday and Today Records, which over the years shifted locations along Bird Road. For 17 years it would be the apex of the South Florida music scene, offering Miami's best selection of music by new artists, local musicians, and cult favorites, along with hard-to-find rarities, imports, EPs, singles, and collectibles.
With the Eighties ushering in an era of imaginative new artists — and University of Miami radio station WVUM-FM exposing them over the airwaves — the store became a gathering place where music aficionados could check out new tunes, share their discoveries, hang out, and actually meet their heroes. The Ramones, Henry Rollins, Soundgarden, Green Day, 10,000 Maniacs, Marilyn Manson, Juliana Hatfield, and Toad the Wet Sprocket were among the many artists who appeared there for either autograph-signing sessions or intimate in-store performances.
In time, Y&T spawned two more stores — Y&T Dance, on South Beach, and an oldies store farther down on Bird Road that's still in operation. (Ulloa eventually sold his interests in both.)
Ulloa's music connections allowed an obvious transition when he opted to launch a record label, Y&T Music, in 1991. His first signing was the Mavericks, a country quartet fronted by arresting singer-songwriter Raul Malo. The band's self-titled Y&T debut — issued as both a standard CD and a limited-edition box set — was an immediate sensation. The Mavericks were subsequently signed to a lucrative national contract with MCA Records and went on to become one of the biggest bands in country music, garnering sales in the millions and critical kudos.
"Y&T was never a full-fledged label," Ulloa explains. "It was always meant to be a vehicle to get its artists signed to a major company. It was a way to get acts that I was passionate about to that next level ... so their music could be heard." In fact its template had little in common with the industry norm. The artists paid for their own recording costs and, in turn, retained ownership of their masters. The Y&T imprint provided a polished package that impressed record company A&R reps.
"You don't choose the music; it chooses you," Ulloa says, quoting friend and musician Jim Camacho. And that indeed was the case when Mavericks manager John Tovar suggested Ulloa attend a performance by a group called Vesper Sparrow. He wasn't particularly impressed by the band, but when its bassist took the spotlight to sing a few solo songs, he was hooked — not by the band, but by that member, Mary Karlzen. "She immediately caught my attention," he recalls. "But when she went back and started playing bass again, it wasn't the same."
A few months later, Karlzen left Vesper Sparrow, and after hearing her three-song acoustic demo, Ulloa decided he had to work with her. Soon after, he handed her the Mavericks box set and offered to give her the identical deluxe treatment. "I wrote her a long letter, and then we talked for two months. I don't know what it was," he says. "Some artists you connect with right away. I was so excited about the prospects. I felt I had to convince her."
In 1993 Y&T released Karlzen's debut album and EP, the first of several projects she would record under Ulloa's banner. She became the first client of his newly formed management company, RS Artists. From then on, he worked tirelessly on her behalf, securing national airplay and media attention while booking her tours. Eventually Ulloa wrangled regular rotation on VH1, CMT, the Nashville Network, and other major video outlets. His efforts paid off when Karlzen signed to Atlantic Records and released her major-label debut, Yelling at Mary, which featured stellar backup from Jackson Browne, Los Lobos's David Hidalgo, and other top-tier players.
Batting two for two in securing record company connections, Y&T began catching the eyes — and ears — of the industry overall. As a result, Y&T's third signing — a Gainesville quartet called For Squirrels, helmed by a charismatic 20-year-old named Jack Vigliatura — landed on the radar almost at the outset. A bidding war between three major labels ensued. Following the release of Plymouth, the band's debut EP, Ulloa found himself courted by the biggest names in the biz, among them Arista's legendary Clive Davis and A&M Records' Jerry Moss. The record secured major press coverage, airplay on nearly 150 college radio stations, a contract with Epic/550 Records, and a production deal with a formidable producer, Nick Lunauy. Now three for three, Y&T was on a soaring trajectory.
Then tragedy struck. On September 8, 1995, around 1:30 a.m., For Squirrels was traveling on I-95 near Savannah, Georgia, on the way back from a triumphant showcase at New York's CMJ music confab, when a tire blew and the van flipped off the highway. Vigliatura, bassist Bill White, and road manager Tim Bender were killed instantly. Guitarist Travis Took and drummer Jack Griego were injured. The band's album, Example, was still three weeks from release.
Example, spearheaded by its first single, "Mighty KC," was immediately embraced by radio and MTV, which referenced the accident and broadcast fundraising pleas on the band's behalf. After their recovery, the surviving band members soldiered on, eventually releasing a new album under the name Subrosa. Shaken, Ulloa attempted to regroup.
Subrosa eventually faltered, but by 1997, Ulloa was busying himself with a new Y&T artist, Amanda Green, a quirky redheaded singer-songwriter who seemed destined to achieve the same success as Ulloa's previous charges. Despite a development deal with Interscope providing funds for touring and recording, the label declined a full commitment.
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Y&T went on to release a second Green album as well as projects from singer-songwriter Arlan Feiles and local alt-rock group Chlorine, but its flirtation with the majors had come to an end. Ulloa became an A&R consultant for Melisma Records, an Arista offshoot, and helped sign a band called the Exies. In 1998 Ulloa shut down the retail operation to concentrate on management, but his music business career seemed to be winding down. After Karlzen's contract with Atlantic ended, she moved to Minneapolis, married, and put her music on hold to raise her family.
Ulloa admits the next three years weren't his happiest. "I thought I had lost my identity," he says. "Amanda had come so close to getting a contract, but it hadn't come through. Mary lost her contract. There was the accident. And of course the store had been my whole life. I thought to myself, What do I do? My days had been filled with these projects and then all of a sudden I found myself in a whole different world."
In 2004 he joined the U.S. Postal Service to earn a steady income. It was the first time since 1978 he had worked for anyone other than himself. At the same time, Karlzen's decision to return to recording spurred him to reactivate the label. He's currently working on a new record by California country singer Drew Weaver (featuring backing from members of the Mavericks) and exploring the possibility of a South Florida tribute album to veteran British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading, a longtime personal favorite. Ulloa also toys with the idea of opening another record store.
However, it's Karlzen who dominates his attention again. "I've been fortunate to work with some of the most talented artists in South Florida," Ulloa says. "Every one of them had so much to offer. But without question, the most rewarding aspect of my career has been my association with Mary. Through the years, we've shared some truly great experiences and our share of deep disappointments. However, we're still a team and feeling more enthusiastic than ever."