|Ellis Hooks, left & Jon Tiven
Industry Profile: Jon Tiven
By Bob Grossweiner and Jane Cohen
Jon Tiven, a transplanted New Yorker now residing in Nashville, is a triple threat music industryite -- producer, songwriter and musician. With credits that are highly impressive, one of his latest productions, Frank Black's new solo album, Honeycomb, is getting him a lot of notoriety.
Most young musicians grow up wanting to emulate their rock 'n' roll heroes -- Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, John Lennon. Jon liked those guys, but the little names in parentheses below the song --- the writers --- were the people who grabbed his interest.
"I never thought I was much of a singer, but I always had songs of my own going on in my head," Jon explains. "I heard them being sung by my favorite writers' voices like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack and Don Covay. If I could make something like that happen, I knew that would be my calling." By the time he reached his 30's that dream would be a reality, and in his 40's he would have the confidence to be reinventing blues and soul music.
"Jon Tiven believes in the greasy groove," states fellow songwriter Dan Penn. "He's a funky fellow, a fine record producer, a writer and player of soul music." Although Jon's best known for writing songs for the premier blues artists of our time -- B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray--Jon's career path is now leading him to produce alternative rock icon Frank Black and country artist Marty Brown. "I bring a little extra groove to whatever I do," says Jon, "and I try to stretch the boundaries of whatever form I'm in."
Jon started his career in music as a journalist, initially reviewing for his own fanzine, The New Haven Rock Press, which he started in 1967 at age 12 and edited for five years. As more traditional magazines became intrigued by this young journalist, they called upon him to review for them, and his byline was soon to appear in Rolling Stone, Fusion, and Melody Maker, among others. Although Jon took a stab at college at Yale and Sarah Lawrence, he was not particularly interested in graduating and took a job at Chess Records in 1975 in their New York office, where he took care of publicity and artist relations. Living in New York on his own gave him a thrill, but Chess was in the process of closing their East Coast branch. When they offered to relocate Tiven to Los Angeles, he turned them down and instead moved to Memphis. There he would produce his first record, Alex Chilton's solo debut, as well as play guitar on a Major Lance recording, sign with East Memphis Music, and make some demos as the group Prix, which would eventually surface and land his partner Tommy Hoehn a deal with London Records.
When Jon returned to New York, he licensed the Chilton record to the upstart punk rock label Ork Records and continued his recording career producing for them. He made a solo album under the group moniker The Yankees, during which time he met the young Sally Young, who would eventually become his second guitarist, wife, and later, his bassist and co-writer. Embroiled in a lawsuit with the record label Big Sound Records that released the Yankees record, Jon was enjoined from taking advantage of the group's success, but several artists began covering his songs. He started to realize his dream as an artist who did not have to tour. "I don't drive and that's for a good reason," he explains. "I'm not crazy about riding in cars. Or vans. After about two hours I start getting really antsy, so I wanted to avoid that lifestyle at all costs." Jon would take one more stab at the road as a member of The Jim Carroll Band (Dry Dreams, 1981) and then retire from touring.
Jon was starting to get more and more of his songs recorded and also was thrown into the "Saturday Night Live" entourage, first as John Belushi's guitar teacher and sometimes guitarist, occasionally writing songs with Peter Aykroyd, which Dan Aykroyd would use in the film Spies Like Us, and eventually landing in a group with the comedy team of Al Franken and Tom Davis. The latter would spawn a film based on the group, One More Saturday Night (Columbia Pictures, 1986) which would feature Jon and Sally as actors as well as writers of five compositions.
Shortly thereafter, Jon rekindled a friendship with Don Covay, a favorite artist of his who he initially met in the '70s while he was still a journalist. He, Sally and Covay began a series of all night writing sessions that would spawn a new solo record for Covay (D'ya Know What I'm Sayin, 1991, Island Records, which unfortunately to this day remains unreleased) and a big hit for Huey Lewis & the News, "He Don't Know What To Do For You," later recorded by Robert Cray and Otis Clay as well. The Tivens began playing sporadic performances with Covay, but when Covay had a stroke in the early '90s, there were no more gigs.
However, Jon was getting some fine production work. He produced four sides by B.B. King, was recruited by Shanachie for a series of three tribute albums to great soul songwriters (Curtis Mayfield, Otis Blackwell and Covay), and began writing songs with Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham and Don Nix, which would open the door to his moving to Nashville 10 years later. Jon also took his last stab at being a recording artist with two albums under group names bearing his moniker: Jon Tiven's Ego Trip and The Jon Tiven Group. Although the albums got good reviews, Tiven had neither the time nor inclination to adequately promote the albums in a live setting. Instead he would spend his time producing a succession of contemporary soul albums by Wilson Pickett and Covay that would bring critical acclaim, including Grammy and Handy nominations -- Wilson Pickett's It's Harder Now (Rounder) and Don Covay's Ad Lib (Cannonball) -- and eventually the attention of record labels offering him production deals. He went with eMusic and contracted with them to make seven records over two years. Among the artists he was to produce for eMusic was Ellis Hooks, Syl Johnson, Freddie Scott and Don Nix.
"Ellis is more or less a younger version of the guys I was used to working with," Jon explains. "There's a little bit of Pickett, a lot of Redding, and some Womack in him, too. And even some Robert Plant, Steve Marriott, and Van Morrison in there, but there's a whole lot of Ellis. The guy has his own personality, and it's strong." Jon produced a series of five albums by Ellis which would receive terrific reviews and propel Ellis into a major European attraction, although his U.S. following is not quite as large…yet.
In 2002 Jon and his family moved to Nashville, where he would relocate his Hormone Studios to a more deluxe setting and produce nine albums by artists as diverse as Little Milton, Frank Black, Marty Brown, Ellis Hooks, Steve Cropper/Felix Cavaliere, and Essra Mohawk. He continues to write for other artists as well and collaborate with a host of co-writers in his new setting. Jon's songs have been recorded by Shemekia Copeland, Ricky Fante, Johnny Winter, Tinsley Ellis, and Deborah Coleman -- all since moving to Nashville.
"Nashville is Music City," Jon acknowledges, "and there's a whole lot of folks here besides myself who aren't completely locked into existing formats. I get to hang out with old friends like Dan Penn and new ones like Jack Clement. I like to stretch, and here I can do that. People know I do soul and blues, but I'm as interested as bringing that sensibility to other kinds of records. I'm held responsible for taking Frank Black into the world of the great soul musicians, which blows my mind, and I consider that a major accomplishment."
How did you and Frank Black hook up?
Peter Lubin, who signed the Pixies to their Elektra deal, is someone I went to high school with, so when I was making my Otis Blackwell Tribute album in 1993, I asked Peter if he could put me in touch with Frank --- actually his name is Charles, Charles Thompson -- and Peter was very helpful. I had him do one song on the album, and it turned out so great he decided to do a second, and we really hit it off. I brought a friend of mine, Lyle Workman, to the session. He wanted to meet him, and within a matter of weeks Lyle became his guitarist. Which I guess Charles appreciated as well.
So we stayed in touch. I did a few more tribute albums and when I asked him to participate, he jumped in feet first, and then next thing I know he's asking me to produce an EP in New York. Around that time, we sat down and just talked about music, and he had musical goals in his life, one, of which, was to make a record in Nashville with "The Cats." I had done some writing in Nashville with Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts and Spooner Oldham, and for my money those were the veterans worthy of respect.
A few years later I ended up producing a few records in Nashville, and I got to know more of "The Cats." Charles and I would talk a few times a year, and I'd always put the bee in his bonnet about doing his Nashville album, He would give me a wink and a smile over the telephone as in "all in good time, my good man," so when he called me to tell me that he actually wanted to make this an actuality, it wasn't completely unexpected, but the timing couldn't have been better. For one thing, I had just moved to Nashville in 2002 so that made things a lot easier in terms of the logistics. And I was 10 years older, wiser and better equipped musically and emotionally to deal with a project of this artistic magnitude.
Why is this a project of artistic magnitude?
The artist wanted to take a flying leap at appealing to a wider audience, and he chose me to shepherd him into an area that he felt would be a challenge. Not everybody in the music business is looking for Peter Pan and eternal youth; some of us are open to actually growing older with dignity. And this is a very difficult business in which to do that and maintain a profile, because it's youth-youth-youth that the record companies keep seeking. So he wanted to make sure that he could take on this kind of an adult-oriented record and maintain his credibility, not seem too much of an old fart in the process, but at the same time acknowledge the fact that he was 40, just going through a divorce and singing about it. Who has done that before? Nevermind the clarity, the perspective, and the brilliance he brings to it...and uplift at the same time. This is a record that can change the way people look at their own lives. And dance to.
What makes a good producer?
There are a lot of aspects to producing and not every producer is right for every project. There are producers who do great at creating tracks but have no people skills, and there are producers who can create the right atmosphere in the studio and yet couldn't really talk musical language with the players. Some producers have a light touch and just are able to be around when great music happens, and then there are people who have to play every note on the track and sign their name in indelible ink. And then there are producers who have made the jump from being brilliant engineers. That's not me at all, but that's valid, too.
The producers I initially knew and looked up to were Andrew Oldham, who is absolutely a vibe guy, and Todd Rundgren, who is a brilliant guy who did everything - -the first person I knew personally who could write, play, produce, engineer and handle a self-contained band. I hung around these guys as much as I could when I was a young man because as far as I was concerned, they had done it.
Because I can play pretty much every instrument and write a good song there are projects I do where I'm very involved in the actual creation of the music. I definitely enjoy that, but it's very hard work, like on my Ellis Hooks records or my Little Milton record. With Honeycomb it was much more of a challenge because I had the luxury of not being directly responsible for the creation of the songs, and I barely played on the record, just a little harmonica and acoustic guitar overdubbing. I wanted a situation for Charles where the studio would either enhance the music or disappear completely, where I could create a comfort zone for him and the musicians to do these songs justice. Because as soon as I heard the rough demos of the songs, I knew it was going to be a very heavy record about an emotional turning point of his life, the end of one marriage and the beginning of a new love affair and marriage. I don't think anybody's ever written such an honest account of a divorce and what comes after, but it's never a downer or depressing. I just wanted a record that could live up to the promise of the material, and I think we succeeded.
What makes Honeycomb different from Black's previous solo recordings?
Charles had written a bunch of songs that were brutally honest and direct, and he wanted to make sure that they weren't played like just another batch of songs. He wanted musicians who could really bring some of their own emotional weight to the sessions, and believe me there were enough divorces in that room to keep Marvin Mitchelson working for a lifetime. And the players didn't know exactly what to expect, although I sent them all copies of his last album, Show Me Your Tears, before the sessions and got reactions from the guys like "wow, this is pretty offbeat compared to what we're used to, but I like it, very creative." They all showed up with open minds and open hearts, and every one of them showed Charles amazing respect. Because they knew this wasn't a product of your Music Row mentality where every chord change is a button pusher and everything falls into a standard time signature, there were parts of the songs that had to be felt not read. It had been a long time since these guys played a session like that. We had magic in the studio for those four days; I listen to the record and still feel it.
What kind of pre-production did you and Black do?
First off, I had to put the band together. That was a joy: find your first-choice guys and they all said "yes" with the exception of Levon Helm, who had to put us off as he was resolving some health issues. But Levon came and made the follow-up record with us a couple of months later. I didn't have to twist anybody's arm. They were plenty thrilled to be a part of something well outside of the usual.
Charles called me a month later to do another session, which will be out sometime early next year, and it's a very different record from Honeycomb. We cut all of the tracks initially in 24 hours, and I thought that was going to be the album, but now we're going in again soon so maybe it'll be two discs, I don't know. But that's another album, another story.
Charles sent me demos, and they were rough. Some songs didn't have lyrics, some were just works in progress, but they were all brimming with intensity in a non-Pixies way. I heard "I Burn Today," and I kept telling Charles I thought it needed another section, a bridge in G, and he wasn't seeing it. So the day before we cut it, I sat with him and played him what I thought it should do, which was totally wrong but helped point him in the right direction to come up with what he did. I was happy that he was open enough to make the change, because it provides a lightness and relief to the song that is key to the hope that the song induces. We had no rehearsals. He walked into the studio on day one and everybody played their hearts out.
Some of the best songs on that album were the result of Charles being so psyched-up by the first couple days of recording that he wanted to finish "My Life Is In Storage" and "Honeycomb" so they could make the record. He played them for me a couple of different ways the morning of day three, and I let him know my preferences.
I was very intent on all the musicians putting their stamp on the arrangements, but particularly the guitarists. We had three of the greatest guitarists walking the face of the earth in Steve Cropper, Reggie Young and Buddy Miller, and I wasn't going to let them get off easy. Steve and Reggie had known each other since high school and never cut an album together. I knew that there was a mutual respect there that we needed to tap, and the lick-trading was the culmination of two lifetimes of incredible work.
How did you get to produce the four tracks for B.B. King?
I was at a CMJ party right after the Jeff Healey Band had recorded my song, "River of No Return," and it sold a couple million copies, so I was feeling pretty bold. I ran into Bob Grossweiner and Jim Cowan, who were affiliated with Sid Seidenberg, who at that time managed B.B. I don't know whether I suggested to them or they suggested to me getting the songs to B.B., but they did. Next thing I know, I get a call: "This is Sid Seidenberg from B.B. King's office, and we got your tape." I took a deep breath. "We like the songs a lot, but B.B. doesn't record songs that have already been made into records." I responded that these were not records but demos I had made in my one bedroom Manhattan apartment. "Well, what would you think about producing B.B.?"
It was a little more complicated than that, and it didn't happen overnight, but essentially that's how it went down. I was a little intimidated, so I suggested that my buddy Vernon Reid of Living Colour produce with me, and Sid didn't know who he was but said he'd run it by the record company and see if that was acceptable. This was right in the middle of Living Colour fever, so that became a no-brainer.
Were you satisfied with the results?
The four songs we cut are fantastic and stand up to this day. B.B. hasn't cut anything since with that kind of fire. And energy. We had a great time and B.B. did as well. Originally we were to produce four tracks with the hopes of completing a record, and some people who were a little conservative, got a little frightened that B.B. was "rocking out," which was incredibly stupid, as this was in the wake of the U2 collaboration "When Love Comes To Town," which had been very successful for him. So of the four tracks we cut, only three have been released, and they've been scattered on several different records as not to scare children or small dogs. "The Biggest Crime," which is the best of the four tracks, has yet to see the light of day. There were some other people whispering in B.B.'s ear at the time who put the kibosh on us finishing the album, which was a shame because every time these tracks turn up on a B.B. collection, the reviews all say "What a great and lively B.B. King track!" It would be wonderful to be able to produce an entire album by B.B., because he is one of our greatest talents, but his talent has been squandered on his most recent records.
Who do you want to produce in the future who you have not produced before?
Believe it or not, I'd love to produce Mick Jagger. He's one helluva songwriter and singer and hasn't lived up to his potential because he's always slumming with whoever is fashionable. But I don't know if he'd be willing to put up with a producer who wasn't a yes man. If he was, I could make a record with him that would not only be his best solo album, but could stand with his legacy from 20 and 30 years ago. Keith would thank me it would be so great.
From the same generation, I'd really enjoy producing Van Morrison, but he doesn't need the help, he does pretty well on his own, for the most part. But if he wanted me to do it -- and he and I talked briefly about doing it five years ago --I would drop everything except my pants to make it happen. He's one of my favorite songwriters, and he let me record one of his unrecorded songs, "If You Rock Me," on my second Jon Tiven Group album.
Bob Dylan. What can you say, as Paul Simon calls him, "King of the Jews." He is, you know. If he listens to Honeycomb, maybe he'll give me a call. I could make his Black On Blonde. I think Bob would enjoy making a record with someone with my sense of humor because he's so funny. His film, "Masked And Anonymous," is absolutely hilarious. P.F. Sloan and I watched that and howled.
Of course I'd jump at the chance to produce the Pixies, but that might be hard because the rest of the group night see me as being Frank's guy. I enjoy all of them as people and their musical personalities and could see presenting them in a way that exploits that a bit more, but all of this is a silly supposition because I'm Frank's guy.
Of course, there are a lot of young artists who aspire to make works of great intelligence and taste, and perhaps some of them may listen to Honeycomb and say, "Let's get that Tiven guy!" and I'm completely open to that. I like My Chemical Romance, greatly at the instigation of my 14- year-old daughter Lucy. They're really good songwriters and singers. They remind me of Queen, who are friends of mine.
I just like making records with people who can write, sing and play. I'm not stuck so much in one genre as I used to be. I used to be seen as the soul and blues guy, and now I'm more the guy who brings a soulful sensibility to other genres. So far it's more welcome than trying to rock up a blues record. I'm making a record right now with Marty Brown, who has primarily been known as a traditional country artist, but the record we've made is closer to a Petty/Springsteen sensibility and it's very powerful. He's brilliant, and I'll work with anybody brilliant who isn't intent on driving me crazy.
How have the changes in the music industry during the past 10 years affected your work?
I've sort of a strange way of looking at the record industry because I don't feel that connected to it. I don't go round to the labels looking for work. I'm way under the radar, and they only notice me when my records are in their face enough to not ignore me. I'm optimistic that someone like myself, who doesn't actively seek to either follow or create trends but just create the music that I feel I can, can at least survive in an industry where niche music is respected. That's a good thing. The decline in sales is very unfortunate, but perhaps when the people who run these labels figure out that people really want to buy music of substance, they will call upon me more often. Andy Lack, do you hear me?
Why did you move to Nashville?
I'd been in New York for 27 years, and when I first started, I could go down to Bleecker Street and see Otis Blackwell perform or I could stumble upon Bob Dylan woodshedding his material, then hop over to the Bowery and see Television or the Ramones. Those were vital days. As I found fewer opportunities to experience these kinds of musical moments, my ties to New York became looser.
I remember when Ed Koch said that people making less than $50k a year shouldn't live in New York, the handwriting was on the wall. "What the fuck am I doing here?" How long ago was that? After three or four administrations in power intent on bringing money to New York at the cost of depleting the artistic community, I felt there was less and less to make me stay in New York. My last big artistic endeavor in New York was meeting Ellis Hooks, a great soul artist from Bayminett, Ala., who also thought New York was the place to make it. I couldn't get him a record deal until I left town. When we hooked one, it was with a New York label. So go figure.
I made several records in Nashville and always enjoyed myself there/here, so when 9/11 happened, I got the hint that we New Yorkers were all collateral damage. I started investigating other cities in a hurry. I called Marshall Crenshaw and Graham Parker and said, "How's the music scene in Woodstock?" and they said, "What music scene and the weather's shitty," so that was out. I called Dan Penn and said, "Are the Saudi's bombing any of your high rises yet?" and he said, "Not that I'm aware," so me and the family got out of Dodge in a hurry. It was one of the best things I've ever done.
Why are you affiliated with BMI and your wife Sally with ASCAP?
Sally and I write most of our songs together. If somebody from BMI or ASCAP makes a mistake, and you're both with the same company, how would you know? I've always seen that there were advantages to both companies, and this way we can keep them honest. I've tremendous relationships with people at ASCAP and BMI, and I get the best of both worlds this way.
As a songwriter, do custom your songs to an artist you pitch them to?
I pretty much write what I feel, period. I write the best and most original songs I can and then try to figure out who would sing them.
As a writer, producer and musician, which is your preference?
Writing is very natural to me as I can do it on a variety of instruments, including the typewriter. For some of my collaborators, I strictly write lyrics, which is a challenge. Some people I write with in the same room, we sit around and bang on guitars until we come up with something which sounds like music. And then there are artists who like me to send them a track and they lock themselves in a room with it until they turn it into a song. All of these scenarios are very fulfilling to me. Producing is often an extension of the writing, so it's hard to differentiate. With Frank Black however, it is a far different experience. Lording over a Frank Black session is about the most wonderful experience a producer can have. It's like the instrument I play is my opinion, and I only have to toot every once in a while because the music answers the musical question "Is this great?" with a resounding "yes" so frequently.
Playing an instrument -- any instrument -- is a great way to express my feelings. I think all of these work together. I don't think I have to choose, because when the phone rings in the music business you can never tell which guy they're gonna need. It's heavy on my head, but I'll continue to wear three hats, thanks.
First concert attended
Tommy James & the Shondells, Sam the Sham, Royal Guardsman & Keith at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallinford, Conn., in 1966.
First concert worked
Big Star at Max's Kansas City in New York in 1974. I played guitar.
First industry job
Published New Haven Rock Press.
1970's: playing on the Rolling Stones' "Jiving Sister Fanny" on Metamorphosis and Major Lance's single, "I Got a right to Cry" b/w "You Keep Me Coming to You";
1980's: teaching John Belushi guitar and gigging with him, playing in the Jim Carroll Band, playing and writing with Don Covay;
1990's: producing B.B. King, Don Covay, Wilson Pickett -- all singing songs I wrote or co-wrote, writing gold songs for Huey Lewis & the News ("Don't Know What to Do For You"); a double platinum single for Jeff Healey Band ("River of No Return") and a triple platinum single for Ian Moss ("Mr. Rain"); and 2000's: producing Frank Black, discovering and producing Ellis Hooks, producing Marty Brown.
Bringing Arthur Alexander out of retirement and then getting the elbow from the record company.
Holding my temper when people insult me.
Best business decision
Not to sing or drive.
Best advice you received
The speed at which you go up is the speed at which you go down.
Best advice to offer
If you want to get rich quick, the music industry isn't the best way to that end.
Most memorable industry experience
Playing guitar onstage with Don Covay and Ron Wood at Woody's on the Beach, Miami Beach in 1989.
What friends would be surprised to learn about you
I don't drive.
Industry pet peeve
If I wasn't doing this, I would be...
...rich but unhappy
Jonny Podell, Dan Penn, Andrew Oldham, Steve Cropper.
Jon can be reached at: 615.385.0830; email: firstname.lastname@example.org