This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Tommy LiPuma, Verve Records, Chairman Emeritus.
Tommy LiPuma—in his vernacular—is outrageous.
He’s truly a music man—a wildly creative producer, and former label executive, with an outrageous love of great musicians, recordings, and general good vibes.
In his five-decade career, LiPuma has earned 30 Grammy nominations, and has had three wins.
He has produced Diana Krall, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Joe Sample, David Sanborn, Michael Franks, Al Jarreau, Dave Mason, Dan Hicks, Shirley Horn, Michael Bublé, Bob James, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Anita Baker, Queen Latifah and a zillion others.
LiPuma's first job in the music business came in 1960 with M.S. Distributors in Cleveland stocking records, and later as the company’s promotion man.
The following year, LiPuma moved to Los Angeles to work in promotion for Liberty Records. He later transferred to the label’s music publishing division Metric Music, where he oversaw such songwriters as Jackie DeShannon, and Randy Newman.
In 1965, LiPuma had his first charting single as a producer with the Allen Toussaint tune (written under the pseudonym Naomi Neville), "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)" by the O’Jays.
The same year, LiPuma was invited to become the first staff producer of A&M Records. He was at A&M from late '65 until the middle of '69, and produced hits for the Sandpipers (including its Top 10 hit, "Guantanamera"); Claudine Longet (including her “Claudine” album which reached #11 on Billboard in 1967), and Chris Montez.
LiPuma left A&M to be a partner for a virtually unknown record company called Blue Thumb, founded by his buddy Bob Krasnow.
Blue Thumb was a renegade label even for the early '70s. Its roster included T. Rex, the Mark-Almond Band, Albert Collins, the Pointer Sisters, Ike & Tina Turner, Hugh Masekela, the Crusaders, Phil Upchurch, Gabor Szabo, Dan Hicks, and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band.
In 1974, LiPuma became a staff A&R producer for Warner Bros. Records, and recorded George Benson, Al Jarreau, Bill Evans, Randy Crawford, the Yellowjackets, Earl Klugh, and João Gilberto, among others.
LiPuma headed the new Horizon label for A&M in 1978 but, within a year, rejoined Warner Bros. as VP, jazz and progressive music.
In 1990, Krasnow, now Elektra Records’ chairman, hired LiPuma as the label's senior VP of A&R. During his stint there, LiPuma produced Anita Baker, and oversaw Natalie Cole's Grammy Award winning album, “Unforgettable With Love.”
In 1995, LiPuma became president of GRP and Impulse! Records and broadened the catalog to make it the pre-eminent adult music company. In 1999, LiPuma became chairman of the Verve Music Group which now included the Verve, GRP, Impulse!, and Blue Thumb imprints
In 2002, the Verve Music Group promoted Ron Goldstein—its president since 1998—to president/CEO, leaving LiPuma free to focus on his production work that includes overseeing Diana Krall’s recordings.
Anyone who knows Tommy LiPuma knows that he always has great stories to tell. He needs little urging to discuss the ins and outs of capturing great musical performances.
How have you balanced being a music producer as well as a label executive?
All I can say is, carefully. I never liked it. When I took GRP over, I had been a VP at Warners, and I was a senior VP at Elektra. But, basically, what I did was make records. I would go to meetings, and I would give my two cents, and all of that, but the onus wasn’t on me. It was on Bob Krasnow when I was at Elektra; and Mo (Ostin) and Lenny (Warnoker) at Warners. It wasn’t until I got to GRP, and then Verve, that I had to do it all, and, I didn’t like the experience.
You didn’t like being bogged down in the day-to-day administrative side of running a company?
To be quite frank, why I ended up leaving (Verve Group) was—and I didn’t really leave—I just said, “You are going to have to get somebody in here.” I had (already) brought in Ron (Goldstein). I said “You are going to have to find somebody to run this company because I’ve had at it. I am tired of talking about EBITA.” (An acronym for earnings before interest, taxes and amortization).
Without knowing how bad (the record industry) was going to get, I started sensing that things were changing radically. The pencil pushers had taken over. You weren’t dealing with the Mo Ostins, the Bob Krasnows, and the Ahmet Erteguns. These guys were becoming passé. And, these were the guys. These were the guys who listened with their gut, and who loved what they were doing.
What is your approach to producing?
There are all kinds of different producers who perform their gig in different ways. I don‘t arrange; I basically come up with the material, get a sense of how I want to do it, make sure that it is rehearsed well because that’s a must; and I’m a stickler with tempos. Tempo, to me, is everything. You can lose a record by not having the right tempo.
Is one of your strengths finding material?
I’d say so, yes.
In listening to your productions, I feel like I’m in the room with the musicians.
I am in the room with the musicians. That’s how I do it. It started because I had a difficult time communicating on the talk-back. There was that sense of being intimidated or whatever. Whether it was an orchestra or six guys out there. They would all stop and look at me through the glass. You would hit that button and everything would go silent, and you were on. I didn’t feel comfortable with it.
So one day, we were working on something, and I wanted to be in the room. I went out (to the room), and I said “(Al) Schmitt, ask the second (engineer) to bring me out a pair of earphones.” I sat down in front of this band with the music. I noticed that all I had to do was tell them what I wanted. I was right there. I didn’t have to talk through the talk-back. I thought, “Wait a minute, man. I feel a lot more comfortable out here than I do in there.” So, from that point on, I just stayed in the room, man. I love being in the room with musicians.
You think of a project in terms of being an album rather than singles.
I never think in terms of singles. I’ve had some (hit) singles but I never recorded thinking, “I’m going in there to cut a hit.” I just look for great songs. I try to figure out how an album flows, and try to have an instinct when the magic happens. I don’t work with guys that are (just) good. I want to work with guys who are at the top of their game. I try to cast the right players to whatever it is I am doing. You come up with great material, you come up with great players, and a great arranger. You make sure that you have the right players. I am not saying that it is as simple as that, but you just get out of the way, and make sure the machine is going. Musicians, when they are great, it may take them a few run-throughs. The next thing you know it’s starting to happen. You have to be ready then.
Pre-production is one of the most important aspects of making a record.
It’s all about creative post. It is really important. Here’s the other thing. I never beat up anything to death in rehearsals. I don’t beat (musicians) to death in the studio either. Just so everybody gets familiar enough with the tune, so they know what’s going on. Musicians man, they will get to the point where (a track) sort of rises. It’s got peaks. If you start doing too many (takes) it starts becoming redundant to them. They get bored. There’s a point where they still feel great about a take, and when you get it there…and if you ask them to do (the track) a few days later, they won’t remember anything.
The musicians are so great that they’ll get it down (on the session). They figure out what the form is. Everybody is listening to everybody. I don’t want to see a clock anywhere around. I try to start around noon or one o’clock. We take a break for lunch and all that. We may just fuck around, laugh, and do whatever we’re doing. We usually go from noon or one to about seven or eight. I don’t have dates per se, meaning a two hour date or a double date or whatever. I just pay the guys a fee for the date. I pay the fee. If it goes to nine, it goes to nine.
You have worked extensively with Diana Krall. What’s her strength as a musician?
The first album I did with her was “Only Trust Your Heart,” (1995) which was direct-to-two-track. But, it was on the Beatles’ tune “And I Love Him” (for the 1995 GRP Record Beatles tribute “(I Got No Kick Against) Modern Jazz”), that is where she actually hit her mark. I saw it happen. It was the first time that she had ever had the ability—meaning the room and the time (to develop a track fully).
We sat and really worked on getting the track to where it sounded (like it did.) We fucked around with tempos, structure and all kinds of stuff. Then, there was that moment when she did this outrageous performance. We got to the end and I said, “Baby, you’ve got to listen to that.” She said, “Really?” I said, “Man, that’s the shit.” We were working in this small room at Sony’s studio on the corner of 55th and 10th (in New York). I remember we were listening back to the take, and I could just see in her face. It was like she got it. Suddenly, she realized from, “Hey, I’ve never heard myself sound like this,” to (thinking) “This is how we did it.”
From that point, that was it. The next album we did was “All For You,” the Nat Cole thing. That was it, man, it was free-sailing from there.
[Diana Krall made her Impulse!/GRP debut in 1995 with "Only Trust Your Heart," which peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart; 1996's "All For You," an inspired homage to the Nat King Cole Trio, peaked at No. 3 on the chart.]
In an interview years ago, I told Diana that I wished she would play more piano on her recordings. She snapped back, “I’m no Art Tatum.”
Do you know what she is great at, and, she has to do more of? She’s just a wonderful stride player. She can play the shit out of that stride style.
[Numerous stories exist about other musicians' respect for pianist Art Tatum. Perhaps, the most famous is the story about the time Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, and Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.”]
You have worked on so many projects with engineer Al Schmitt since the early ‘70s. You two met in Los Angeles in 1961.
What can I say about Al, man? He is absolutely, and totally the best. We’ve known each other forever. I was a song plugger (at Metric Music), and I would visit him. He was an A&R guy at RCA, doing Sam Cooke and Eddie Fisher. Al was bringing them tunes. Of course, we became good friends. We hung out at Martoni's and all of that. But, he was the producer, and I was the song plugger.
Then I ended up going to A&M, and we were still close friends. The next thing you know, he was (producing) the Jefferson Airplane. We were very good friends, and we hung out. We were having a great time together. When I was doing the Dave Mason album (”Alone Together” in 1970), Bruce Botnick recorded the album but since it had taken longer than I thought it was going to take, he had to bail out. It was right at the point that I was going to mix. I thought, “Who am I going to get to mix this thing?” So I asked Al.
Al hadn’t mixed for a few years at that point.
It was more than a couple of years since he was doing Henry Mancini and all that. But, I knew of the stuff that he had done. I had a friend (producer) Joe Wissert. Joe, Al and I were all friends. I think Al did Joe a favor on something, and Joe told me Al had just sold his company Pentagram (Records). He was sort of between things. I called him and asked him to mix the album. He said, “Tommy, I haven’t done anything in… it must be 10 years,” or whatever it was. I said, “It’s like riding a bike.” So he did it. Well, it turned out that it was just a great album. Al was so blown away by it that it made him realize what he really loved to do.
You and Al have worked together since.
There was a short period of time when Al had some problems—he fell—that I was using Bill Schnee, who is also a wonderful engineer. Elliot Scheiner is also no slouch. I use Elliot when I am back here (in New York), but I would say that 98% of the stuff I’ve done since Dave Mason has been with Al.
In the studio, you don't want to be thinking about the technicalities. You just want to be involved with the music.
Nobody makes things sound like Al does. There’s a transparency and a naturalness to what he does that I don’t think anybody gets. I think it’s a combination of his mike technique, and that he uses very little limiting. When I work with guys of this caliber—with Al, Bill or Elliot—I don’t have to think about (technical issues). Al is the closest to me, we’re like brothers. And the other thing is when we are doing this stuff, Al gets a (studio) balance within 15 or 20 minutes. He’s got a balance. If that magic pops out, I’ve got it.
There was a engineer who used to work at Sunset Sound—not Bruce Botnick. Bruce is a fantastic engineer. He’s one of the first guys I worked with. I can’t recall this guy’s name, but, he used to say when we’d do something that was great, “Hold on. Just give me one more shot.” One more shot? This thing isn’t about you. It’s about what’s happening in the room. If you can’t keep up with it; if you are not ready, then forget it.
Once everybody is comfortable with their headphones, that’s it with Al. He may tweak things to perfection a little later in the date, but within 10 or 15 minutes he’s got a balance. I will say, “Schmitt, are you ready?” And, he’s ready. Boom. That’s it, and we go. There’s no fucking around, trying to get somebody who is not quite with it. Al’s right there. Of course, he is so musical, and we are all on the same page.
You have also worked closely with arranger Claus Ogerman. You also produced three of his solo albums.
Claus lives in Munich. I met him in 1966 in New York. I was just starting as a record producer for A&M, and I went looking for songs. Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building were still happening. There were these two guys that were running a publishing company, Helios Music Corporation. It was Scott English, who later wrote “Mandy” (a #1 Billboard pop hit for Barry Manilow in 1974), and Larry Weiss, who later wrote “Rhinestone Cowboy” (a #1 for Glen Campbell in 1975). Of course, I’m going through the Brill Building and I stop there. I walk in, and they play me a bunch of crap. There’s nothing of any consequence. Suddenly, this very eloquent guy comes walking in, just beautifully dressed, and they said, “This is the gentlemen we work for, Claus Ogerman.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” By this time, I was a huge fan of (Antonio Carlos) Jobim who did that album, "The Composer of ‘Desafinado,’ Plays” on Verve (in 1962) with him.
Claus had also worked with the Drifters.
There were a lot of things that he did that I didn’t know that he did then, including Lesley Gore. He did “It’s My Party.” And, he did Connie Francis. Actually, how he got his start (in the U.S.) was Don Costa used to farm a lot of stuff out because he had so much to do. That’s how he got his first break.
[Ogerman is part of the creative triumvirate, along LiPuma and Al Schmitt, that has served Diana Krall so well for nearly a decade. In 2001, when Krall was planning her “The Look of Love” album on Verve, that included torch songs. LiPuma suggested Ogerman, by then renowned for his arrangements for George Benson, Barbra Streisand, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, and João Gilberto.
“The Look of Love” recalled Frank Sinatra's hipster/swinger era with Capitol Records from 1953 to 1959, when he worked with such arranger/producers as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins.]
When you and Claus met, you hit it off immediately.
We were both be-boppers. He’s a great piano player. He used to gig with Stan Getz when Stan went through (toured) Germany. So, we became good friends. Every time he’d come out to L.A., we’d get together. Then when Bob Krasnow started Blue Thumb (Records), and asked me to come over as a partner, I sort of lost track with Claus for awhile, but we spoke every so often.
In any case, when I did the George Benson album (“Breezin’” in 1976) and I was trying to figure out who could do the (string) charts, I thought that I’d call Claus. I called him and said, “I just did this George Benson album and it came out great, and I hope you can do the tracks.” He said, “I’d like to do it, but I’m just leaving for Munich.” At the time, he was living six months in New York and six months in Munich.” I said, “I’ll come to Munich.” So that’s what happened. Al Schmitt and I flew to Munich, and we did the strings there and came back and mixed. Then from there, forget it. He did three more albums for me.
[LiPuma was also impressed by the Bill Evans & Claus Ogerman Orchestra album “Symbiosis” on Pausa in 1974. It is one of the neglected masterpieces of the decade, and a high point in Evans' catalog.]
Claus was initially reluctant to work on Diana Krall’s “The Look of Love.”
Claus was reluctant, at first, to do (the album) as he had been trying to break into the classical field. But, I set up a meeting between them in Munich, and they really hit it off. Of course, once he started to work with Diana, and realized how talented she was, Claus became a big fan. When we talk, he always asks me to give "Lady Di" his love.
Another arranger with impeccable taste is Johnny Mandel with whom you have worked extensively with.
What can I say, other than kudos upon kudos?” He’s a dear friend and we’ve been working together since the Natalie Cole album ("Unforgettable With Love” in 1991). Of course, I was a big fan of John’s going back before that. In fact, I did a Bill Evans album in 1977 (“You Must Believe in Spring,” released after Evans' death in 1980) and I did (his composition with Mike Altman) "Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)." Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have John do a few charts?” So, I called John, but at the time he was going through some problems. Then we did the Natalie Cole album. It was (David) Foster who brought him in. Basically, Natalie and I executive produced (the album). Then we got Foster. Andre Fischer, who was married to Natalie at the time, was the third producer.
What is Johnny’s strength?
Oh man. To tell you the truth, I am spoiled because really, my two favorite guys… once I get past Claus Ogerman, and Johnny Mandel the air gets very rarified.
I would throw Ralph Burns in there too. He was a great arranger.
Excuse me. Absolutely. And, I used Ralph. I used him on a Dr. John album (“In A Sentimental Mood” in 1989). He also did a few things for me on the Natalie Cole album. Ralph was outrageous. I didn’t get a chance to work with him as extensively as I have with Claus and John. He did the Dr. John, and then he did the Natalie. Then, I called him to do something else and he was not in great shape. He was on his way out. Did you ever hear “Lonely Girl” from the (1964) soundtrack that Ralph wrote and scored of "Harlow," the movie about the life of Jean Harlow? Ralph was great. He was a wonderful cat too. Very, very low key.
Another guy that was fantastic was Neil Hefti, who did all of the great Basie things. He did the Basie album (“Atomic Basie” in 1957) that had the atomic bomb on the cover.
Were you a music fan as a kid?
When I was six years old, I’d be singing (the 'Mills Brothers’) “Paper Doll” to my father as we were driving around. I had this early influence of pop music of that era with Jo Stafford, and the Andrew Sisters, of course.
You came down with an illness when you were nine.
I was bed-ridden with osteomyelitis (an acute or chronic bone infection). I had my tonsils out, and probably a (hospital) staph germ entered my system. Then, I got hit with a baseball in the hip, and that was it. I was saved only because (commercial quantities of) penicillin had just been introduced. One of the saving graces was that the radio became my best friend—just from going around the dial. I listened to “Flash Gordon,” “The Shadow” and all of that stuff.
We forget how central radio was to peoples’ lives before TV.
Oh my God. “The Hit Parade.” You would sit in front of the radio for hours. We had all of these consoles; the radio was always on in our house. (When I was sick) my parents bought me a little portable to put next to my bed. Just by switching the dial, I found WJMO, the (Cleveland) R&B station. I started listening to Big Maybelle and Charles Brown and all of these (R&B) people I had never heard of. I found King Records and that was it. From Red Prysock and (his brother) Arthur Prysock to Earl Bostick, Tiny Bradshaw and Bill Doggett. I had all of that stuff. I discovered all of the influences like Nat Cole and all that.
It wasn’t much of a jump from Red Prysock to, say, Stan Getz.
It wasn't until I was 16 or 17 that I discovered jazz. It was in ’52 or ’53. The first artist I discovered was George Shearing. A little bit later, I found out about Cannonball (Adderley).
When did you become a be-bopper?
Believe it or not, it wasn’t until I was 19 or 20. I was in this bar—there were these jam sessions and I would go to play with this organ trio. It was (future fight promoter) Don King’s bar, The Corner Tavern on 79th and Carnegie in Cleveland. I used to go down there, and sit in with these guys. Of course, people would throw dimes into the juke box. One night there was a break and I’m sitting there and on comes one of the most insane introductions I’ve ever heard in my life. It was the intro to “Just Friends” by Charlie Parker from the "Bird With Strings" album. If your familiar with the cut, Parker plays this blazing intro before he gets to letter A (the melody), and it just blew my mind.
Well, that was it.
Once I found Parker from there, it was everything be-bop for me. Charlie Ventura, Jackie Cain and Roy Krall. I became a complete be-bop nut. Be-bop took up a pretty big part of my life. Horace Silver also was a big influence. He brought the funk into be-bop. I think that the Parker cut of "Just Friends" and Miles Davis's "Birth Of The Cool" (1957) had more to do with how, and what I listened to, other than Art Tatum, than anything else. And Miles Davis’ "Sketches of Spain" (1960) a bit later.
[It was jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s longstanding desire to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of classical music, and interested in the music of classical composer Igor Stravinsky. In 1949, producer Norman Granz arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra musicians for the album “Bird With Strings.” This included "Just Friends.”]
You soon discovered John Coltrane.
In fact, I saw Coltrane play in Cleveland a few times. This friend of mine, Bobby Jones, who was a tenor sax player with Woody Herman, said, “Man, you have to go down and see this cat.” He was playing at the Modern Jazz Room. I have got to tell you, this was before Coltrane really got out there. This was like ’58 or ’59. He was outrageous. It was a real turning point for me (as a musician), because I thought, “I am not anywhere near what this guy is.” There were so many great guys. Talk about having influences. There were 20 sax players that I loved. Zoot Sims, of course, Prez (Lester Young), Paul Quinichette on and on and on.
I loved Errol Garner. I used to see him in Cleveland. I saw Art Tatum just before he died (in 1956). He was out of Toledo, but he had a lot of friends in Cleveland, and he was hanging around a lot.
[Sam Firsten’s Modern Jazz Room was one of Cleveland's legendary jazz clubs of the 1950s. In 1956, trumpeter Clifford Brown and an all-star line-up, which included saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Max Roach, played at the club. It was one of Brown’s last gigs before he was killed in a traffic accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the age of 25. Multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott recorded there in 1956, and trombone giant Jack Teagarden did a radio broadcast from the club in 1958 on WERE-FM.]
You grew up in Cleveland, when Alan Freed was at WJW as "The King of the Moondoggers."
That was it, man. He would come on (air) at 10 o’clock at night, the Moondog. I would wait for that show to come on. His theme song was “Blues For The Red Boy” (by the Todd Rhodes Orchestra on Bernie Besman's Sensation Records in Detroit ). It was this slow blues, and it has this piano (intro). It was great. The first thing you would hear was this howling like a wolf. Freed had a tape of this howling of the wolf. Then he would play the greatest R&B music. It was fantastic.
When I got into the record business, and I came out to L.A., I met Alan Freed. My friend Ernie Farrell was close with Alan. At the time, he was really on the skids and he was living in a friend’s house in Palm Springs. I went out there with Ernie and spent three or four days. We just hit it off great. We became close friends. So when I moved to New York (in 1962) every time he would come back there he would call me, and we’d meet.
[Alan Freed died in a Palm Springs, California hospital in 1965. He was 43 years old.]
You were a be-bopper when rock and roll came along.
Of course. Then, of course, when Elvis Presley came out, and rock and roll was the rage, I didn’t get any of it. I swear to God. As far as I was concerned, doo wop and Elvis Presley and “Blue Suede Shoes,” I thought that this was a bunch of shit.
You were working clubs as a saxophone player.
By my late teens and early ‘20s I was playing two, three, four times a week. Sometimes even more. I was a total nut. We gigged all over Cleveland, and we went on the road for a year, but I was a barber. That’s how I made my living.
[LiPuma met Nick DeCaro, along with his brother Frank, when he was about 18. Frank called him and asked if he would be interested in doing some gigs with them. LiPuma had been part of a band called the Sammy Dee Quintet that had broken up. LiPuma worked with the DeCaros regularly for the next seven years.]
How did you become a barber?
I became a barber because my father was a barber; my brother was a barber; my uncle was barber. I decided—like an asshole—to quit school after grade 10. I couldn’t stand school. My father said, in his broken English, “Hey, you go to school or you’ve got to get a trade.” So that was it. I stayed at home, and cut hair. I hated cutting hair. I used to dread going to sleep at night thinking that’s what I had to get up in the morning to do.
You eventually had your own barber shop.
I ended up having a shop in downtown Cleveland. A close friend of mine worked for an insurance agency in this professional building (the Keith Building) on Playhouse Square. A barbershop came up for sale there. At least, I went from working in a blue collar neighborhood. I had a bunch of professionals, lawyers and doctors and so forth, in the building, and I worked by appointment. It was a little more civil. But the good fortune was that three of the most important (radio) stations were in that general area.
There was WERE with Bill Randle (nicknamed "The Pied Piper of Cleveland") and Phil McClain; “Big” Wilson, Joe Finan and Reb Foster at KYW-AM; and Eddie O’Jay at WABQ on Chester and 19th Street (in Cleveland). Not that far away was WHK, which was also a very important station.
So you met people in the music business?
I had a friend Johnny Musso, who got a job in the record business for the Decca Distribution Company in Cleveland. He started bringing all of these guys up to the barber shop. So, I had all of the DJs, and all of the promotion guys. Bob Skaff was a customer. He was a local (Liberty Record promotion) guy at the time. I met Jack Bratell, who would later give me my first (record industry) gig.
I used to say to these guys, “Any chance of getting into the business?” Most of them would say, “Man, you don’t want to get into the business. You have a business here. You’re doing alright,” blah blah. Finally, I got so sick of (cutting hair), I leased my shop out and I went on the road with the DeCaros. After nearly a year, I knew this wasn’t how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Working these toilets (nightclubs). It was crazy.
So I came back (to Cleveland), and I said, “I’m packing in the music business.” I took a job (as a barber) right across from my old shop—which I had leased out for two years. A guy found out that I was in town. He had a shop across the street and he figured I’d bring in customers. I lasted one day. I went to him and said, “Look, I don’ know what I am going to do, but this ain’t it.”
Then, three weeks later, I got a call from Jack Bratell who had been a promotion man for Art Freeman at Big Record Distributors in the Cleveland area. He had just taken over as manager of M.&S. Distributing Company in town. M.S were huge. They were in Chicago and they were the biggest trans shippers in the world. I didn't start as a promoter. I started packing records in the back room. Then, Jack put me in the position of promotion man. He was really instrumental in getting my career started and, I think, along with Neil Mcintyre (music director at WHK), convinced Bob Skaff, another important person in my life, to hire me at Liberty Records.
In those days, Cleveland was considered to be a breakout city, where national trends first appeared in a regional market. Working at M.&S. must have given you a sense of what's going on.
Are you kidding? Salesmen would come in for the orders, and I’d fill the orders. That gives you a good basis for how things move. You hear someone say, “So-and-so just went out Pick Hit Of The Week,” and within two days, the orders start coming in. You’d see these records selling, and you’d go, ”Oh, this is how it works.”
Cleveland was the largest record distribution market in the Midwest.
Oh yeah. Guys like George Goldner, and Harry Finfer used to come in. Their records would be handled by us. Harry Finfer (Jamie Records) was a character. I brought Harry to WHK around Christmas to meet Neil McIntyre. Harry had watches all the way up to his elbow. He pulls his suit jacket back, and says, “Pick a watch.”
I also met Milt Salstone, who owned M.S. Distributors. He was like a myth. One day I’m packing records and this guy came back. He’s tanned right down to the bone, dressed to the nines, burgundy tie, and a burgundy handkerchief in his pocket. He’s looking around, and he says, “How ya doing?” I said “fine.” I had no idea who he was. He then says, “Do you have any change on you?” I say, “I think so.” I went into my pocket, and I had a bunch of change, which I put in my hand. Then I put my hand out. He took my change out of my hand, and he threw it against the wall. Of course, I was startled. He says, “Do you like what I did with your money?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, I don’t like what you are doing with my money.”
Why did he do that?
When you pack records, you used to use these 25 (count) boxes. If you only packed 15 (records), you filled the box with these cardboard fillers. We’d pack records and some of the (fillers) would fall out on the floor. You wouldn’t pick them up. You would just keep going. So he pointed to all of the fillers on the floor getting dirty and damaged and said, “I don’t like what you are doing with my money.”
George Goldner had Gone and End Records, as well as Rama Records with Morris Levy in those days. I love the Morris Levy story you told Bob Lefsetz last year about Bob Krasnow.
The best part about it is that Bob didn’t tell me that story. The guy who told me was Bud Katzell at GRP. I knew him going back to when he was at Screen Gems. I didn’t even know that he worked for Morris Levy at Roulette Records. He was a salesman.
[Here’s the story: Bob (Krasnow) and I have been as close as brothers since 1962, when I was a promotion man with Liberty Records, and Bob was doing promotion for Del-Fi Records. Being as Bob is one of the funniest guys I've ever met, we hit it off almost immediately, and with the exception of a few wrinkles, we've been close ever since.
Bob lived in San Francisco in the late fifties, and had a local hit which he couldn't seem to spread. He called his friend George Goldner, the legendary record man in his day, who had a deal with Morris Levy at Roulette Records, and George suggested making a deal with Morris. Morris picked the record up and it was a hit single. Of course Bob never saw a dime and couldn't get Morris on the phone.
So he hopped on a plane to New York. Not knowing how "connected" Morris was, he stormed into Morris's office and asked to see him. When told Morris was busy, Bob pushed his way past the secretary, walked right into his office where Morris was sitting with a few Mafiosi looking characters and said, “Morris, Bob Krasnow. Where’s my fucking money?"
Morris went into his drawer, pulled out a .38, and said to Bob, "Look you motherfucker, I'll give you five seconds to get out of this office or I'll blow your fucking brains out all over this carpet. And furthermore, don't ever let me see your face again.” With that, Bob walked out, got as far as the entrance to the building, turned around and went back up to Morris' office. Only this time, he knocked on the door, opened it with only his head sticking through it and said to Morris,"Morris, when you said you never wanted to see my face again, did you mean in New York or the United States?" Of course, Morris laughed and Bob got paid.]
Morris Levy owned an impressive jazz catalog, including recordings by Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan.
Of course, he ended up with Dinah (Washington) just before she died. That’s where she ended up after Mercury Records.
[Morris Levy, born Moishe Levy, founded Roulette Records, and signed Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Buddy Knox, Jimmie Rodgers, and Joey Dee & the Starliters. In 1986, Levy was convicted on charges of extortion but died in 1990 before serving any time in prison. The HBO series “The Sopranos” featured the character of Herman 'Hesh' Rabkin, a mob-connected record mogul that has drawn comparisons to Levy.]
What did you do first at Liberty Records?
I was a promotion man. Bob Skaff hired me. He was another important person in my life. Bob was a local guy in Cleveland. He was a customer of mine at the barber shop. Then he became a national guy for Liberty. I was doing good as a promotion guy in Cleveland, and Jack Bratell and Neil McIntyre convinced Bob Skaff to hire me at Liberty Records. I was in L.A. for a year.
[Liberty Records' founder and chairman Si Waronker was a gifted classical violinist, who had been the orchestra contractor for the 20th Century Fox film studio's resident composer, Alfred Newman. in 1955, Waronker founded Liberty Records. He borrowed $2,000 from a Los Angeles bank, using the furniture in his Pacific Palisades house as collateral, and paid out half of that loan to Capitol Records' pressing plant in a subcontracting arrangement to manufacture his initial releases.
Waronker certainly had a musical ear. He signed sultry singer Julie London out of the 881 Club on La Cienega Blvd. In Los Angeles, and scored a Top 10 national hit with her with "Cry Me A River" before Liberty’s first anniversary. Waronker also discovered singer Ross Bagdasarian, and renamed him David Seville. Seville created the Chipmunks, christening one of the cartoon rodents Simon in homage to the label’s boss.
Liberty’s hit-making roster included Eddie Cochran, Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, the Rivingtons, Timi Yuro, Gene McDaniels, Dick & Deedee, and Jan & Dean.]
You then met Si’s son Lenny Waronker and his friend, Randy Newman.
Yeah, and that’s how I met Lenny. Every Tuesday used to be record day at KFW Buena. These two young guys walked out of the (Liberty) building and asked if I was a new promotion man. I said, “Yeah.” Lenny said, “I’m Lenny Waronker. I’m Si Waronker’s son. This is my friend Randy Newman.” Randy had made a record, and they were hyping me, trying to get me to take the record to KFWB.
You later worked with Randy Newman at Liberty Record’s publishing affiliate, Metric Music.
I got him his first (cover). It was Jerry Butler’s record, “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore” (1964) on Vee-Jay Records. Right after that, I got a record on a song by him called “It’s Friday Night,” by Sam Fletcher on Tollie Records. My friend Randy Wood was running Vee-Jay at the time, and he secured me both records.
[Lenny Waronker and Randy Newman practically grew up around the Liberty Records offices. After graduation from University High, the two entered college. Both had after-class gigs at Liberty. Waronker served as gofer for staff producer Snuff Garrett, and Newman pitched his songs to the Liberty roster. In 1966, Waronker was hired as a junior A&R executive at Reprise Records to help develop and produce Bobby Freeman, the Beau Brummels, the Mojo Men, the Vegetables, and the Tikis, acquired through the purchase of Autumn Records in San Francisco. Waronker, in turn, brought in Newman to assist in providing material.]
After a year, Liberty asked if I wanted to go to New York. I told them I would go until the first opening in publishing came along. I wanted to get into publishing. I was in New York for not quite a year.
So you were roommates with Sal Licata in New York?
I was a roommate with Sal when I was a promotion man with Liberty in New York. Sal was with Big Top (Records).
[In a Billboard interview in the ‘90s, Sal Licata recalled that, “Basically, we were the Odd Couple. I got to be the Felix character. I'd clean it up, and he'd mess it up. Really, I'd put the place back together first thing in the morning, then Tommy would wake up and you'd never know that I'd been there.”]
You were promoting records by the Rivingtons.
Exactly. The Rivingtons, Gene McDaniels, Bobby Vee, Walter Brennan, and Jackie DeShannon, of course.
Here you were a music fan in New York in the early ‘60s.
Oh yeah, by the time that I got to New York, it was ’62. I was meeting all of these real characters. We used to hang out at Jilly’s (saloon). Forget it, it was outrageous. People like (song plugger) Juggy Gayles, (producer) and Julie Rifkin, whose father owned a club called Sweet Chariot, where they had gospel groups, and the songwriter Ed Townsend performing.
Then there were all of the radio personalities. At WINS, there was Murray the "K," Jack Tracy, and Pete Myers (aka Mad Daddy); at WMCA, there was B. Mitchell Reed, Harry Harrison, Cousin Brucie; and at WABC, Scott Muni and Sam Holman. And, of course, the "Magnificent" Montague was at WWRL. He ended up coming out to L.A., at the R&B station KGFJ. He was the jock who coined the phrase, "Burn Baby Burn" during the Watts riots of ‘65. What a character.
Then there was also Paul Ackerman at Billboard; and Marty Ostrow at Cashbox. There were guys around, like (producer) Wes Farrell. He was a very sharp dresser. At one point, he was married to one of Frank Sinatra’s daughters (Tina).
You only spent a year in New York.
A little less than a year; ’60 I got into the business, ’61 I was in L.A., and ’62 I was in New York. Then I came back (to Los Angeles), and I got into the publishing business (at Liberty Record’s publishing affiliate, Metric Music).
When I came out to LA I used to go and get coffee, sit and listen and keep my mouth shut watching what was going on. (Producer) Snuff Garrett was doing all of those records with Bobby Vee, and Gene McDaniels.
Snuff was then The King. He was also producing Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Johnny Burnette.
He sure was. He really had an ear. He knew a hit song when he heard it. Believe it or not, he signed Phil Spector at Liberty as a producer. That’s when I first met Phil. Then, I think what happened is that Phil got a chance to start Philles Records, so he split. Before he left Liberty, he had played Snuff a demo of “He’s A Rebel.” Well, he left and was going to do the song with the Crystals. So Snuff covered the song with Vikki Carr. And, I had to go out and promote it.
This is unbelievable. I just remembered this. In those days, there used to be sock hops. So I was taking Vikki Carr everywhere I could. I ended up taking her to a sock hop in San Bernardino. She got up and lip-synched “He’s A Rebel.” Guess who the band was? At the time they weren’t known at all. It was the Beach Boys. They were making fun of her. Of course, they were huge Phil Spector fans. Oh, it was unbelievable.
By 1964, your Cleveland friend Nick DeCaro had been discharged from the army, and had also moved to L.A.
I gave him work making out lead sheets for new songs that were being written by (Metric) staff writers, such as Jackie DeShannon and Randy Newman. After several months, I recommended Nick to Snuff Garrett, who was working on an instrumental album called, “The Roy Orbison Songbook.” He had Nick do the arrangements. Of course, Nick did a fabulous job. After that project, I recommended him to produce a single with Mel Carter, which became Nick's first big record, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” (1965).
[When Lenny Waronker joined Warner Bros., he hired DeCaro for numerous projects. DeCaro arranged recordings by Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie, Fleetwood Mac and Maria Muldaur.]
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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