Albert Grossman was born in Chicago on May 21, 1926, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who worked as tailors. He attended Lane Technical High School and graduated from Roosevelt University, Chicago, with a degree in economics.
After university he worked for the Chicago Housing Authority, leaving in the late 1950s to go into the club business. Seeing folk star Bob Gibson perform at the Off Beat Room in 1956 prompted Grossman's idea of a 'listening room' to showcase Gibson and other talent, as the American folk-music revival movement grew. The result was the Gate of Horn in the basement of the Rice Hotel, where Jim (later Roger) McGuinn began his career as a 12-string guitarist. Grossman moved into managing some of the acts who appeared at his club and in 1959 — including an eighteen-year-old Joan Baez, who got her first major break with him —, he joined forces with George Wein, who had founded the Newport Jazz Festival, to start up the Newport Folk Festival. At the first Newport Folk Festival, Grossman told New York Times critic Robert Shelton: "The American public is like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be kissed awake by the prince of folk music."
Because Grossman was committed to commercial success for his clients, and was frequently surrounded by socialist enthusiasts of the American folk-music revival, his manner could generate hostility. This hostility is illustrated by this description of Grossman's presence in the Greenwich Village folk scene by Dylan biographer and critic Michael Gray: "He was a pudgy man with derisive eyes, with a regular table at Gerde's Folk City from which he surveyed the scene in silence, and many people loathed him. In a milieu of New Left reformers and folkie idealists campaigning for a better world, Albert Grossman was a breadhead, seen to move serenely and with deadly purpose like a barracuda circling shoals of fish."
In 1961, Grossman put together Mary Travers, Noel Stookey, and Peter Yarrow as the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. They quickly achieved success when their eponymous first album entered the Billboard Top Ten in 1962. The group had been avidly pursued by Atlantic Records, who were on the verge of signing them when the deal inexplicably fell through. The group signed with Warner Bros. Records instead and Atlantic's executives later discovered that it was because music publisher Artie Mogull had introduced Grossman to Warner executive Herman Starr, from whom Grossman was able to extract an unprecedented deal that gave the trio complete creative control over the recording and packaging of their music. Over the course of his career, Grossman's client list included Todd Rundgren, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, John Lee Hooker, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs (early in his career), Gordon Lightfoot, Richie Havens, The Pozo Seco Singers, The Band, the Electric Flag, Jesse Winchester, and Janis Joplin.
On August 20, 1962, Dylan signed a contract which made Grossman his manager. Grossman also extended hospitality to Dylan at his home in Woodstock in upstate New York. Dylan liked the area so much he purchased a house there in 1965. The cover of Dylan's album Bringing It All Back Home was photographed at Grossman's home in Woodstock. The woman in the cover photo with Dylan, in the red trouser suit, was Grossman's wife, Sally. Having returned to Woodstock at the end of his 1966 World Tour, Dylan was on his way home from Grossman's house in West Saugerties when he suffered the motorcycle accident that precipitated his eight-year withdrawal from touring.
When managing both Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, Grossman brought the trio Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind" which they promptly recorded (on a single take) and successfully released.
In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan describes first encountering Grossman at the Gaslight cafe: "He looked like Sydney Greenstreet from the film The Maltese Falcon, had an enormous presence, always dressed in a conventional suit and tie, and he sat at his corner table. Usually when he talked, his voice was loud like the booming of war drums. He didn't talk so much as growl."
When Bob Dylan was about to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1969, English critic Michael Gray asked Grossman about the rumor that The Beatles might appear on-stage with Dylan. Grossman replied, sotto voce: "Of course the Beatles would like to join Bob Dylan on stage. I should like to fly to the moon." The contracts between Dylan and Grossman were officially dissolved on July 17, 1970, prompted by Dylan's earlier realization that Grossman had taken 50% of his song publishing rights in a hastily signed contract.
When Grossman signed Janis Joplin and her four bandmates from Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1967, he told them he would not tolerate any intravenous drug use, and all five agreed to abide by the rule. When he discovered, in the spring of 1969, that Joplin was injecting drugs anyway, he did not confront her. Instead, in June 1969 he took out a life insurance policy guaranteeing him $200,000 in the event she died in an accident. His yearly premium was $3,500.
On October 4, 1970, Grossman's most famous remaining client, Janis Joplin, died suddenly from a heroin overdose. Grossman refused to speak about her death to journalists or colleagues in the music business, leaving his employee Myra Friedman to handle the phone calls that flooded their office. According to Joplin biographer Ellis Amburn, Grossman's "feelings about the loss of his most valuable client are not known." What is known is that in 1974, by which time his only living clients were the members of The Band, he kept busy with Joplin's legacy. The San Francisco Associated Indemnity Corporation challenged him on his collection of $200,000 from his life insurance policy, which led to a bizarre civil trial in the spring of that year, covered by the New York Post, in which the insurer tried to prove that the singer's death was a suicide, not an accidental overdose as had been determined by Dr. Thomas Noguchi. Grossman testified that he had never known the extent of Joplin's substance abuse when she was alive, and that he secured the accidental death policy "with air crashes in mind." He won the case and collected $112,000. In 1974 he also assisted Howard Alk with the creation of the feature-length documentary Janis, locating and using black and white film footage in which the singer says she is satisfied with Grossman as her manager.
In 1969, Grossman established the Bearsville Recording Studio near Woodstock, and in 1970 he founded Bearsville Records, which evolved from his brief partnership with the Ampex company to establish a record label of the same name. Although that venture was short-lived - Todd Rundgren's debut solo album Runt was one of its few successful releases - this soon led to the establishment of Grossman's own Bearsville Records label, which was originally distributed through Ampex, and then by Warner Bros. Records. As well as Rundgren's solo recordings and those of his band Utopia, the label also recorded acts including Jesse Winchester, Foghat, Gil Evans, Paul Butterfield, Sparks, Felix Cavaliere, Randy Vanwarmer, Lazarus, Jesse Frederick, Roger Powell, NRBQ and The dB's. When Michael Friedman joined the Grossman office he brought Todd Rundgren with him and signed Rundgren to a management contract with Grossman. This was soon after leaving his original group Nazz and during the early 1970s he worked extensively on record production projects, either for the Bearsville label or for Grossman's other clients. It was Grossman who recommended Rundgren to Robbie Robertson of The Band as the engineer on an album by Jesse Winchester, which in turn led to Rundgren working on The Band's third LP Stage Fright. Rundgren also worked briefly on the early Pearl sessions with Janis Joplin, but these came to nothing and the project was subsequently taken over by Paul A. Rothchild. The Bearsville label continued into the early 1980s, folding in 1984, two years before Grossman's death. Bearsville Studios became Rundgren's recording base through the late 1970s and 1980s and was used by a slew of top-line American and international acts.
Grossman died of a heart attack on January 25, 1986, while flying on the Concorde, aged 59. He was en route to London and was planning to make a trip to Cannes, France to attend a music convention. He is buried behind his own Bearsville Theater near Woodstock, New York.
Grossman had a reputation for aggressiveness in both his method of acquiring clients and the implementation of their successes. That aggressiveness was based in large measure on Grossman's faith in his own aesthetic judgments. Grossman charged his clients 25 percent commission (industry standards were 15 percent). He is quoted as saying, "Every time you talk to me you're ten percent smarter than before. So I just add ten percent on to what all the dummies charge for nothing."
In negotiations, one of Grossman's favorite techniques was silence. Musician manager Charlie Rothschild said of Grossman, "He would simply stare at you and say nothing. He wouldn't volunteer any information, and that would drive people crazy. They would keep talking to fill the void, and say anything. He had a remarkable gift for tipping the balance of power in his favor."
Grossman sometimes appeared treacherously devoted to his clients' satisfaction. While wooing Joan Baez into representation, Grossman is quoted as saying, "Look, what do you like? Just tell me what do you like? I can get it for you. I can get anything you want. Who do you want? Just tell me. I'll get you anybody you want."
In the documentary film chronicling Dylan's 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, Dont Look Back, Grossman can be seen constantly protecting his client, sometimes aggressively confronting people he thinks are disrespectful to Dylan. In one memorable scene, he works with musical entrepreneur Tito Burns to extract a good price for Dylan's appearance on BBC One television. The director of Dont Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker, said of Grossman's management tactics, "I think Albert was one of the few people that saw Dylan's worth very early on, and played it absolutely without equivocation or any kind of compromise."
There are two interesting comments on Grossman in Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home. One is Dylan's: "He was kind of like a Colonel Tom Parker figure... all immaculately dressed, every time you see him. You could smell him coming." The other is John Cohen's: "I don't think Albert manipulated Bob, because Bob was weirder than Albert."
In the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, Grossman was represented as the fictitious character Norman, played by Mark Camacho. In the film, Norman makes many of the remarks spoken by Grossman in Dont Look Back, at one point saying to an English hotel manager, "And you, sir, are one of the dumbest assholes and most stupid persons I've ever spoken to in my life". He was also briefly portrayed as the manager of the fictional Bob Dylan (Hayden Christensen as Billy Quinn) in the 2006 film Factory Girl.
In the 2013 Film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen brothers, F. Murray Abraham portrays a fictional character named Bud Grossman, who owns The Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago, the same name as Albert Grossman's Chicago club. In the film, fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) auditions for Bud Grossman, who replies: "I don't see a lot of money here." This comment refers to the experience of Dave Van Ronk, who recounted a similar audition for Grossman, who then asked: "Do you know who works here? Big Bill Broonzy works here. Josh White works here... Now tell me why I should hire you?" After this comment, Grossman offers Davis a part in a band he is about to put together, consisting of two guys and a girl, which one journalist notes is "a reference to Peter, Paul, and Mary, the trio that Albert Grossman put together in 1961—ultimately choosing Noel Paul Stookey as the third member of the group, rather than Van Ronk, whom he also considered." Davis turns down the offer.