This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Tommy LiPuma, Verve Records, Chairman Emeritus.
Tommy LiPuma loves all styles of music; he can’t be pigeonholed as a producer or as a label executive or as a music fan.
For over five decades, LiPuma has brought his unique creative spirit to projects, raising music in the studio to that 'magic place.” He gets down and dirty in the studio. He picks great musicians along with great arrangers and engineers, and then he supervises with an acute awareness of space, phrasing and tempos.
For the most part, he’s worked not just with talent, but with talent that has a style or uniqueness about them, people with the goods. Then, he will explain, it was a question of setting up the right situations—casting the right musicians around these artists.
LiPuma balanced this skill with being a visionary recording company executive. He’s understood artists, and what they meant to his labels. He knows that there's flesh and blood behind the product.
Few label executives have ever understood this.
LiPuma has earned 30 Grammy nominations, and has had three wins.
He has produced Diana Krall, George Benson, Joao Gilberto, Randy Crawford, Natalie Cole, Dr. John, Barbra Streisand, Joe Sample, David Sanborn, Michael Franks, Al Jarreau, Dave Mason, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Shirley Horn, Bob James, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Scott, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Anita Baker, Michael Bublé, and Queen Latifah.
While LiPuma's album catalog is deep and impressive, so is his list of hit pop singles. It includes: “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” by the O'Jays (1965); “Guantanamera” by the Sandpipers (1966); “There Will Never Be Another You” by Chris Montez (1966); “Only You Know And I Know” by Dave Mason (1970); “Popsicle Toes” by Michael Franks (1976); “This Masquerade” by George Benson (1976); “On Broadway” by George Benson (1978); “Love Ballad” by George Benson (1980); and “Who'll Be The Fool Tonight” by The Larsen-Feiten Band (1980); and “Unforgettable” by Natalie Cole with Nat King Cole (1991). Of the latter, LiPuma was executive producer along with Natalie Cole.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, LiPuma was a teenager when he discovered Stan Getz, and became a sax player, adding Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Lester Young and a million tenor players to his list of influences. He also loved Bill Evans, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Art Tatum, Horace Silver, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
LiPuma's first job in the music business came in 1960 with M.S. Distributors in Cleveland, stocking records. Later, he became the firm’s promotion man.
The following year, LiPuma moved to Los Angeles to work in promotion for Liberty Records. The company’s roster included Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, the Rivingtons, Timi Yuro, Patience & Prudence, Gene McDaniels, and Dick & Deedee.
LiPuma later transferred to Liberty’s music publishing division Metric Music, overseeing such songwriters as Jackie DeShannon, Randy Newman, and Leon Russell.
In 1965, LiPuma had his first charted recording as a producer with "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)" by the O’Jays, which sold well in Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit.
In 1965, LiPuma became the first staff producer of A&M Records, and produced the Sandpipers, Claudine Longet, Chris Montez as well as singer/songwriters Roger Nichols, and Steve Young.
In 1969, 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 Jazz Crusaders, Phil Upchurch, Gabor Szabo, Dan Hicks, and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band.
The label lasted only six years before being purchased by ABC-Paramount, and then by MCA. Everytime, Blue Thumb would get an act that started to happen (Dave Mason, T-Rex, Pointer Sisters, Mark-Almond, the Jazz Crusaders), Columbia or Warners would lure them away.
Remarkably, the label had major success with several of its artists, notably Dave Mason, whose LiPuma-produced album “Alone Together’ was its first gold disc in 1974.
The same year, LiPuma became a staff A&R producer for Warner Bros. Records, where he recorded George Benson, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Randy Crawford, the Yellowjackets, Joe Sample, João Gilberto, and Claus Ogerman, 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. He then worked with Jennifer Holliday, Patti Austin, Peabo Bryson, Al Jarreau, Earl Klugh, Dave Sanborn, Bob James, Joe Sample, Aztec Camera, Everything But The Girl and Miles Davis.
In 1990, Elektra Records chairman Bob Krasnow hired LiPuma as the label's senior-VP A&R. LiPuma produced Anita Baker, and was a producer, and the co-executive producer with Natalie Cole on her album “Unforgettable With Love.” It spent five weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart, earned six Grammy awards (including Song, Record and Album of the Year), and sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.
In 1995, LiPuma became president of GRP and Impulse! Records. GRP founders Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen had established GRP as the pre-eminent progressive-jazz label in the music business. LiPuma further broadened the imprint to make it also the pre-eminent adult music label in the business. He also reactivated the Blue Thumb label as a repository for GRP’s crossover talent, and the Impulse! label as a current imprint.
In 1999, LiPuma became chairman of Verve Music Group.
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 still includes overseeing Diana Krall’s recordings.
Meanwhile, there’s talk in the air of an album with Sting that has been postponed, but LiPuma won’t discuss it.
Why did Liberty let you produce when you were a professional manager at its publishing arm, Metric Music?
I started working (at Metric) under Dick Glasser (as GM), who was such a great guy. He was a writer and producer, just a great guy. He really treated me wonderfully; he helped me, he really believed in me. Then, he ended up leaving and producing (more), so they had to bring somebody in to administrate the company. I hadn’t been there that long, I didn’t have enough experience to run a company. So, they brought in Mike Gould (as GM). He was one of these original song pluggers.
[Dick Glasser became GM of Metric in 1961. Aside from running Metric, Glasser recorded as an artist for several labels, including Columbia, Dolton and Liberty, under his own name as well as "Tommy Rally" and "Dick Lory.” At Metric, he also worked as a session player, and produced Jackie DeShannon, Vic Dana, the Fleetwoods, and the Ventures. From Liberty he moved to Warner Bros. Records where he produced the Everly Brothers and Freddy Cannon. In 1975, he produced C.W. McCall's “Convoy”, which topped Billboard’s country and pop charts. Of the many songs he has written, Glasser’s best-known is “I Will”, first recorded by Vic Dana. The song was a Top 20 hit for Billy Fury in the U.K. in 1964, and a Top 10 hit in the U.S. by Dean Martin in 1965.]
Mike Gould was out of his element by then. He was still a suit-and-tie guy in a hippie world.
He used to plug songs with big bands and such. He played them sheet music. He was a character. Voco, the DJ on San Francisco's KSAN, who’s (real) name was Abe Keshishian, referred to Mike as, “the world’s foremost authority on number three pencils.”
I could not work with this guy anymore. I was ready to split. I had gone to Mickey Goldson who ran a publishing company, and I was going to work for him. Mickey owned all of the publishing on the Martin Denny hits like "Quiet Village.” In fact, he had a terrace behind his office with a Hawaiian shack built out of palm leaves like you would see in Hawaii. A nice guy.
I went to Phil Skaff (Liberty Records' executive VP) and said, “Look Phil, I can’t work for this guy anymore. I got an offer to work for Mickey Golson, and I’m ready to take it.” He said, “What do you want to do? What do you really want to do?” I said that I would love to produce records. He said, “If I give you a job as a staff producer will you stay?” I said, “Shit, yes. Are you kidding?” So, I stayed, and the first record that I did was with the O’Jays.
How did you come to record Allen Toussaint’s song “Lipstick Traces” with the O’Jays in 1965? The song had been an R&B hit for Benny Spellman on Minit Records in 1962.
What happened was that Liberty had bought Imperial Records from Lew Chudd. Fats Domino was just the tip of the iceberg (in the catalog). Minit Records was part of Imperial. My first job there was to go through everything. There were just reel-to-reel tapes with all of these songs. Well, could you imagine that I was getting paid to do this? Every day I would go to the Imperial offices on Hollywood Boulevard. I got to go through (tapes by) Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint, and Aaron Neville.
It turned out that the O’Jays were homeboys (from Cleveland). So we hit it off immediately. They were such nice cats, man. Lovely guys. I produced their album “Coming Through.” I also did a record with Jimmy Griffin who ended up in Bread.
[Lew Chudd’s Imperial Records was famous for its recordings of R&B and early rock & roll by Fats Domino, Frankie Ford, and Ricky Nelson. In 1960, Chudd bought Aladdin Records and acquired Minit Records in 1963.]
You then went to A&M as its first staff A&R person.
I was at A&M early. I got there in ’65. Jerry (Moss) and Herb (Alpert) were really close friends of mine. I met Jerry when I first moved out to L.A. in 1961 as a promotion man for Liberty, and he was an indie working on Scepter and Wand (labels) and all that stuff. He was the hottest indie promo man in L.A. We became really good friends, and he took me under his wing. We would take turns driving together to markets like Bakersfield, San Bernardino and San Diego to get our records played, and then break them into the L.A. market. We used to split gas to go to Bakersfield. You believe that? He was driving a Volkswagen convertible at the time, and I was driving a Corvair.
[Jerry Moss had hit Los Angeles in 1960 with $300 and the assurance of a warm bed at his aunt’s house if things didn’t pan out. After a brief investigation of hiring prospects at the William Morris Agency and openings in the booming TV trade, he opted for record promo work on the L.A.-San Francisco-Seattle orbit. Unwinding at haunts like Martoni’s, a restaurant near Liberty Records that was a favorite with the music industry crowd, Moss met Herb Alpert. After a short run as Carnival Records, the pair launched A&M Records with “The Lonely Bull” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass in 1962.]
I met Herb through Jerry and we all became close friends along with Gil Friesen (singer P.J. Proby’s ex-manager who was hired as A&M’s first GM). Later on, they gave me my first break by hiring me to be their first staff A&R man in October of ‘65. Herb’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” was a big record, and they wanted to expand, so they hired me. I produced Chris Montez, the Sandpipers, and Claudine Longet. Herb, Jerry and Gil were the most supportive people in regards to giving you all the room you needed to do your job and realize your potential.
[1965 was a pivotal year for A&M Records. Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass had its first two gold albums that year: “Going Places,” and “Whipped Cream & Other Delights.” Through 1975, a gold record was defined as having sold over 1 million dollars (wholesale) worth of units.]
The A&M office was then at 8255 Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.
Their office had been there for a couple of years when I got there. We were only there for about a year and a half, maybe two. Then we moved to the (Charlie) Chaplin lot at La Brea and Sunset.
The Cuban song “Guantanamera" was a 1966 hit for the Sandpipers. Didn’t you intend the song for the Grads?
That was their name. They were signed as the Grads, but they had to change their name. They were part of the Mitchell Boys Choir, and were able to sing phonetically in several languages; And, the light bulb went off (for me) that “they'll be able to sing in Spanish.” (Arranger) Mort Garson, who had done “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics (#1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1963) did the chart.
The “Guantanamera" album was a million seller. Did that give you traction as a producer?
Herb had just signed Claudine Longet (then married to Andy Williams), so he gave me Claudine to produce; a nice chick, but she couldn’t sing. We did the song that the Sopwith Camel had done called “Hello Hello,” and that was a (minor) hit. The album (“Claudine") went “gold”. Oh, what times.
One of my favorite records you did on A&M was Steve Young’s “Rock Salt and Nails” in 1968 featuring Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and James Burton.
Yep, and you know who owns the master of that record now? Elvis Costello. He leased the rights to the album from A&M some years ago. Steve was with a group on RCA (Stone Country) and somebody played their record (“Stone Country” in 1968) to me. The guy was really good; he’s got a great voice. He just excelled when he did “Seven Bridges Road” on (“Rock Salt and Nails”). He got rich from the Eagles, (who recorded the song for their “Eagles Live” album in 1980).
Steve once brought over this guy and his wife. He had a wonderful country voice, it just blew me away. His old lady and I were hanging out. At one point—I had my album collection on—I was pulling a Woody Herman album out, which was like 180 degrees from what we were listening. She says, “Oh gee, you have a Woody Herman record.” I said, "Are you kidding? I have all of Woody Herman’s records. I love Woody Herman.” She said, "That’s my dad.”
[Ingrid Herman Reese, daughter of band leader Woody Herman, was a well-respected American bluegrass fiddler. She performed in one of the first all-female bluegrass bands, the Bushwhackers. She also toured as a backup musician with the Campbell Trio and the Whites. Reese died in 1998 after a brief battle with cancer. At her memorial service in Los Angeles members of Riders in the Sky, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, the Del McCoury Band, and performers Kim Richey and Jack Ingram turned out.]
Before we get too far from Woody Herman, (engineer) Al Schmitt told me the great Woody Herman story about his road manager or contractor—the guy that paid the musicians and would hire and fire them. There was this guy who was a great player, but he used to drive this contractor nuts; he’d say, “Woody, this guy is driving me nuts. He’s not worth it. Why do you want to go through all of this shit for?” Woody said, “Look man, just give me a prick that plays.” It was about “as long as he plays, I don’t care if he’s a prick.”
In the ‘60s, L.A. was the center of the music universe.
There’s a book that came out about Laurel Canyon (“Laurel Canyon, the Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood” by Michael Walker (2007)) and (producer/manager) Andrew Oldham came up with this totally bullshit story about coming to see me at Metric Music, that I was playing him a bunch of things.
What happened was that Andrew was in town with the Rolling Stones when they did the Dean Martin show (singing Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You” in June, 1964). This was before the Stones had a U.S. hit. They had had a big hit in England (with “Not Fade Away”), but they hadn’t broken here. Andrew asked if I had any grass. At the time, I was living with a DJ named Johnny Hayes; he was a great disc jockey and music maven, who had been on the air at KRLA for many years. We shared this great apartment on Hollywood Blvd., which, in the ‘40s, had been rented by Tyrone Power when he was married to the (French) actress Annabella. What a pad!
So I took Andrew over to the apartment, and we got loaded. We were just sitting around. That’s what we did in those days. Sit around and listen to records.
Johnny had one of the great 45 (RPM) collections. He was so meticulous about everything. He had every one of them in those 45 jackets. So, we’re playing record after record, and he’s getting loaded. The next day, I’m back in the office and Johnny Hayes says to me, “There are a couple of 45s missing here.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “I put everything back, and I had two sleeves with no records to go with them. I don’t know where the hell they are. Have you seen them?” I said, “No.”
Not even a month later, about three weeks later, Johnny Hayes comes home, and he hands me this London Record and says, “Now I know where that record went.” It was (the Rolling Stone’s version of) “Time Is On My Side.” Hayes had played the Irma Thomas (1964) recording of “Time Is On My Side.” Andrew grabbed it, and took it. That’s who you know baby.
[“Time Is On My Side” was the Rolling Stones first major hit in the U.S., reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was released on Sept. 26, 1964 as a single, a month after Thomas' version, and largely copied Thomas’ version. “Time Is On My Side,” written by Jerry Ragovoy (under the pseudonym of Norman Meade), was first recorded by producer Creed Taylor with jazz trombonist Kai Winding and his Orchestra in 1963.]
You did some great records at Blue Thumb. Things people wouldn’t expect, like recording Dan Hicks and, of course, David Mason’s classic 1970 album, “Alone Together.”
That really came out great.
You also produced Barbra Streisand’s 1974 album “The Way We Were” but not the title track single that came from the film of the same name.
No, I didn’t do the single, that was Marty Paich. I did four or five (tracks). Charlie Koppelman (then running the Entertainment Company production company with Marty Bandier) and my friend (producer) Gary Klein, who was working for Koppelman, called me to do the album. So I came in and did a bunch of tracks, including (Stevie Wonder’s) "All in Love Is Fair" and the Carole King song ("Being at War with Each Other").
Then I said, “If you are going to use all of this stuff from “The Way We Were” to "Summer Me, Winter Me", then I have to remix everything to make it sound like the rest of the album. So I remixed everything that I didn’t do, including “The Way We Were.”
And, boy that was a disaster. They had about one piece of information as to what was on what (on the recording). We had to search our way through all of the tracks to figure out what was going on. We had to match the vocal. Barbra’s ears are like, forget it; she picked up a part (that was) the wrong vocal performance. Part of the vocal was not right. Well, it turns out that it wasn’t right because there were no (recording) logs kept. I found out later from Marty that they had gone from one take to another. So it wasn’t all the same take. That they had mixed a few different takes and then edited it all together for the two-track. The master was such and such, but I find out that the (track) wasn’t really the master.
[At the time of its initial release in 1974, “The Way We Were” soundtrack album stalled at #20 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Streisand’s album “The Way We Were” reached #1 in 1974 and her rendition of the title track was her first #1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Billboard named "The Way We Were" as the #1 pop hit of 1974.]
For a jazz guy, you certainly were working with a lot in pop music in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
It wasn’t until I got into the record business—because it became my job as a promotion man—that I got back into pop music. Then, I got into pop music big time. It was my life. It was my livelihood. I got away from jazz. From the ‘60s, until I went with Warners (in 1974), I was so completely into pop. I was more into pop stuff just by virtue that my best friend was a great disc jockey by the name of Bobby Dale. He took me under his wing when I first came out to California.
Dan Hicks called Bobby, “Radio’s Hunter Thompson.”
He had the ears of gold. He was a big jock on KFWB. At one point later on, he had the all-night show at KRLA. He used to come to my house every morning. He’d get there by 7 or 7:30 (A.M.); he had a key. One morning, he woke me up by sticking a pipe in my mouth. Next thing, I knew it’s 7:30, and I was loaded. He put on “Sex Machine” (James Brown’s 1970 hit “Get Up (I Feel Like Being) A Sex Machine”). We must have played that thing two hours straight. We just didn’t stop for two hours. We just kept playing it over and over again.
Bobby was one of the greatest disc jockeys that ever lived. Lou Waters, who was on CNN for a long time, wrote a book about him (in 2009) called "Have I Got A Song For You (The Bobby Dale Story).”
[Bobby Dale was on air at KFWB, KRLA and KGBS in Los Angeles, and KEWB, KFRC, KSFO, KSAN, KKCY AND KOFY in San Francisco. He had an uncanny knack for picking hit records, and he loved music. For a brief time Dale worked at KFWB's sister station, KEWB, in the Bay Area, and then returned to the Southland to work at KRLA. "That was the biggest I ever was in L.A.,” he later recalled. “I played the Rolling Stones like the others were playing the Beatles, and I was huge.” Dale died in 2001. He was 69.
Lou Water was a founding member of CNN’s original news team, and a 21 year veteran anchorman and correspondent for the network.]
Through the ’50, ‘60s and ‘70s, Creed Taylor was making modern jazz palatable to a mainstream audience. You were a big fan of his production work.
Probably the biggest influence on me, in regards to how I ended up with whatever style I ended up with, a lot of it came from Creed (Taylor). What he set the template for was…he was taking these jazz musicians and having them play in that style with pop tunes. He did the Ray Charles “Genius + Soul = Jazz!” on Impulse (in 1961). I was a big Creed Taylor buyer; I bought all the albums (he did) with Antônio Carlos Jobim, and the album with Bill Evans with symphony orchestra (“Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra” conducted and arranged by Claus Ogerman in 1961.)
You told me you weren’t into Duke Ellington until later in your life.
I didn’t get into Duke Ellington until later. I don’t know why. It sounded dated to me. Maybe because I was a be-bopper. It wasn't until Bobby Dale came into my life that I really started to appreciate Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster.
When I became an Ellington fan, it was like I fell in love all over again. Now, I can’t get enough of Ellington. I listen to Ellington all of the time. He is one of the great piano players of all time. In fact, the more you listen to Ellington, you realize where (Thelonious) Monk got his biggest influence. You listen to Monk, man, then you listen to Ellington, and you know where Monk got it from.
How about Count Basie?
Basie, oh boy. I loved big bands. I’d drive 100 miles to see Stan Kenton or Basie. The energy was just so outrageous. The first, second and third Herds (led by Woody Herman), I was a huge fan of all that stuff. I used to see Dizzy (Gillespie); his ’52/’53 band was outrageous. They swung their ass off, but they were so fucked up. They were out of tune. It was really unbelievable, but then the band he put together with the whole section which had the trumpets with Melba Liston on trombone, and a great drummer. That was a fabulous band.
Few people today know what it’s like standing in front of a band with 24 or 30 musicians playing.
You can have a 13 or a 14 piece band, and it will blow you off the stage.
Creed Taylor was also a long-time producer of George Benson, whom you’ve worked closely with.
The first time I heard George Benson was on his one album on Verve (“Giblet Gravy”) in 1968. Herbie Hancock was on the album (produced by Esmond Edwards). They did “What’s New” together.
In 1973, I was producing Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks in San Francisco, and Al Schmitt was (producing) the Jefferson Airplane there. We were splitting a hotel suite at the Miyako Hotel. We had dinner one night, and we were driving back to the hotel and we just happened to take this street. I looked up and it was the Keystone Korner, Todd Barkan’s place. The sign said, “George Benson.” I said, “Stop the fucking cab. This is unbelievable. Let’s go.” So we went in and, believe it or not, George was setting up his own amplifier, and guitar and stuff.
The first thing that he did was sing “Summertime,” and it blew me away. I hadn’t seen him without knowing it was him since, maybe ’66 or ’67 when he was with (organist) Jack McDuff. I didn’t know that he sang. For some reason “Here Comes The Sun” from “The Other Side of Abbey Road,” somehow it passed me by. I didn’t know it. So when I heard him singing, I thought, “Damn, I had no idea that this guy could sing this good.”
[By 1973, George Benson had been through the mill of classic organ trios, worked as a sideman for Miles Davis and others, and had somewhat inherited the mantle of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Before “Breezin’", Benson had mixed singing with dazzling guitar work. His 1969 LP “The Other Side of Abbey Road,” produced by Creed Taylor for A&M Records, was a good example.]
We’ll jump to 1975 when I met George again. The first thing I said to him was, “How come you don’t sing more on your albums?” He said, “Well, Creed wants to make me like the next Wes Montgomery. He doesn’t want me to sing on the albums.” So I told him the story of hearing him sing at the Keystone Korner.
Then we did “Breezin',” and, of course, the rest is history. I later run into George at Mo Ostin’s 50th birthday party. It was after the success of “Breezin’” and before we did “In Flight.” We were having a drink at the bar, he turned to me and said, “Brother, you probably don’t know this, but when we first met, and you said to me, “How come you don’t sing on your albums?,” right there and then I knew I wanted you to produce me.”
Sometimes you say something, and you don’t know the effect it is having on somebody.
Five of the six tracks on “Breezin’” were recorded in one take.
That’s true. We may have done a few more takes, but it was the first takes that we used. We had, I would say, three or four days of rehearsals in the studio rehearsing rooms before we went in. George had a few people in his band who were really good—Ronnie Foster (piano, Moog), Jorge Dalto (piano clavinet)—and I mentioned some people that I thought should be part of the band, like Harvey Mason on drums, Ralph Macdonald on percussion, and guitarist Phil Upchurch. And, with the exception of the songs that Ronnie and Phil wrote, (“Lady” and “So This is Love” respectively) I brought in the songs.
[George Benson’s ”Breezin’” reached #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart in 1976. The title track reached #63 on Billboard’s Hot 100, while “This Masquerade” reached #10 on the chart, and won the 1976 Grammy for Record of the Year.]
Bobby Womack wrote "Breezin'". You had recorded the song in 1970 on Gabor Szabo’s album “High Contrast” with Bobby while you were at Blue Thumb. You probably knew “This Masquerade” from Leon Russell’s 1972 “Carney” album on Shelter Records.
I had loved “Carney” but the way that Leon did “This Masquerade” on that album, he had run his voice through a graphic equalizer to make it sound like he was on the telephone saying this to somebody over the phone. It didn’t connect to how strong the melody was. When I signed (David) Sanborn (at Warners), John Court, who was managing him at the time, came by my pad in Toluca Lake (a suburb of L.A.) and he put on David playing “This Masquerade.” I said, “Where the hell do I know this melody?” Dave played the shit out it. I said, “Wow.” John said, “It’s the Leon Russell song “This Masquerade.” I said, “You must be kidding, it’s unbelievable.” I went into my (record) collection, and pulled the (“Carney”) album out. It wasn’t that much later that I got together with George, so it was hot on my mind. It was one of the first things that I played for him.
[David Sanborn ended up not recording “This Masquerade” until his 1995 Elektra album “Pearls”, which LiPuma produced.]
At the time, all we had said when we went in to do “Breezin’” was, “Look, if we find the right song, we will do a vocal.” Otherwise, we were going to do an instrumental album.” I said, “There’s some great lyrics to this song, George, you should check it out.”
We were in rehearsals, I had brought Ralph MacDonald and Phil Upchurch out from New York. Phil had just gotten married. I asked his wife to go to Tower’s and get the Leon Russell album, and copy the lyrics to “This Masquerade.” She went to Tower’s and copied the lyrics, and George read the lyrics off that.
The day we went in (to record) we first ran the song down. I had Bobby Womack coming to the date to play on “Breezin'". Well, he didn’t show up for the first three days. The next thing I know it was the second last tune, and we did “Masquerade.” This thing was so magical, but we got to the end of the take and Bobby Womack, with guitar in hand, walks right through the studio, and he quietly sat down on the couch, and almost blew the take. His old lady had fallen asleep on the couch in the studio waiting for him to turn up.
Then the next track recorded was “Breezin’".
George had his own bass player who just couldn’t cut it. I ended up having Phil replace the bass parts. I got nothing out of Bobby Womack; he was so out of tune it was like he had rubber bands on his guitar. But, as out of tune as he was, what he ended up playing was the opening. After we got the track down—and we knew we had a great track—I had Phil re-do the bass part, and that is what he used as the lick. Then he put another part on, and he came up with the hook phrase. When I send the track to Claus (Ogerman) he picked up on that; he had flutes double the guitar. It’s interesting how this stuff happens.
[For the next decade, Benson's guitar work was somewhat relegated to the background as he released a series of popular jazz-laced pop albums. Benson received considerable criticism from jazz purists, who felt that he had abandoned his early artistry for pop success. In his first major artist signing after taking over the GRP presidency, LiPuma brought Benson on board.]
You co-executive produced Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable With Love” album that was released in 1991.
In addition to co-executive producing with Natalie, I produced eight of the 24 cuts that were on the album with the rest being split between (Cole's then-husband) Andre Fischer, and David Foster.
How did the album come about?
In 1990, after I had gone to Elektra, I happened to see a video that Natalie had made of the Bruce Springsteen song "Pink Cadillac" (from 1988). It blew me away. I had always been aware of Natalie as a recording artist, but hadn't been a fan. I really hadn't been aware of her records or her talent.
As cosmic things go, (Elektra Records chairman) Bob Krasnow called me a few weeks later, and said that Natalie's manager Dan Cleary had called him to see if he would be interested in signing her. Bob asked me what I thought. I told him about her "Pink Cadillac" video and that I thought she sang her ass off. Then, as my mind usually does, I went on to say what had just come off the top of my head, which was, “Wouldn't it be a great idea to do an album of her father’s material?” Bob liked the idea, and he set up a meeting with Dan, Natalie and myself.
Bob had had hip surgery several days before, and he was still in a lot of pain (during the meeting), but he put his best effort into not letting it show.
Bob told them that we were interested in signing her, and mentioned our idea of her father’s material. Natalie told us that she had been thinking of recording this (album) for at least eight years, but couldn't persuade EMI to agree. So, of course, she was into it, but she wasn't sure if she wanted it to be the first album on Elektra.
The marketing challenge of a project like this is very unique, but timing is everything. It turned out that there was a big interest in the songs that Natalie recorded.
I brought up the point that an idea is like a virus; once it's said anyone can catch the idea, and run with it, and then it becomes old news. I knew that George Benson loved Nat Cole, and I also thought that Johnny Mathis could have done an album of Cole songs as well. Anyway, Natalie thought about it, and decided to do it as the first album.
[“Unforgettable With Love” reached #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, and stayed there for another 4 weeks. The album earned six Grammy awards, (including Song, Record and Album of the Year), and sold more than 14 million copies worldwide. The album features such renowned arrangers as Michel Legrand, Ralph Burns, and Johnny Mandel. It re-creates many of the original string and big-band arrangements on Nat King Cole's original Capitol recordings and includes musicians who recorded with him. Additionally, some sessions were done at Capitol Records' Studio A, where the late Cole cut many of his biggest hits. The release of “Unforgettable With Love” album coincided with the publication of a full-length Nat King Cole biography: "Unforgettable: The Life And Mystique Of Nat King Cole,'' authored by Leslie Gorse (St. Martin's Press).
Nat King Cole's sizable Capitol Records catalog was a major beneficiary of renewed interest in the late singer. A 20-song compilation of his hits in the Capitol Collector's Series re-entered Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart.]
What are Natalie’s strengths as an artist?
Natalie is one of the most gifted singers I've worked with; her instincts are almost uncanny. She also is one of the most musical people I've worked with. She comes up with all of her own vocal harmony ideas, and sings them to boot; and, speaking of ideas, it was her idea to do the “Unforgettable" duet with her father. She thought it would be a great way to close the album. She had been doing the duet in her live show for some time, almost like how the "Unforgettable" video was done.
I'd have to say in the American Standards genre and, in the particular style that she sings, Natalie is in a class all her own. I feel blessed in being able to have worked with the two best contemporary vocalists of this genre, each with their own style and approach, Diana (Krall) and Natalie.
Over your career, you have been allowed to make the records you wanted to make.
I was very lucky. I had guys all through my career who just gave me all the room that I needed. (Atlantic Record producer) Jerry Wexler once said to me, “Tommy, the most important thing (as a producer) is that you have got to find a rabbi at the record company. Somebody that is going to be championing you.” Well, when I think back, I realize that I was very fortunate because I had quite a few rabbis in my life. From Phil Skaff (at Liberty) to Jerry Moss & Herb Alpert at A&M to Bob Krasnow, both at Blue Thumb and Elektra, and Mo Ostin and Lenny Warnoker at Warners. These were my rabbis.
Then at Universal (for Verve), there was Zach Horowitz (president and COO, Universal Music Group). He was my rabbi there. Zach was responsible for hiring me, and really believed in me, he still does. He has a great love and knowledge of music.
George Benson has long received criticism from jazz purists who feel that he has abandoned his early artistry for pop success. Diana Krall continues to be criticized for doing the same.
She still has trouble with the “jazz police,” you know. They don’t get it.
Were there always “jazz police?” Back in the day, when Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson had cross-over pop success?
Not really. Not to where it’s got. Guys like Gary Giddins (jazz critic, author, and director, best known for his column with The Village Voice), I have a lot of respect for Gary. His Bing Crosby book ("Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940") is fantastic. But these guys just have this thing. He reviewed the “All For You” album (in The Village Voice) and I can’t recall the context, but he referred to me, saying something like, “If you don’t know who Tommy LiPuma is, he’s the Warner ‘hack’ who took George Benson and…” You know, I did one of the great Bill Evans albums, he never mentioned that.
[Diana Krall’s 1996's "All For You," an inspired homage to the Nat King Cole Trio, peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart.]
The Bill Evans album “You Must Believe In Spring” has been out since 1979, but it hasn’t sold big numbers.
I don't give a shit. The fact that I got to work with this cat was enough for me. The fact that it came off as good as it is was a bonus. I know I have sold millions of records, whether it is jazz influenced or jazz or whatever. The fact is, that's one of the proudest moments of making music that I've ever been involved with.
The late Leonard Feather was another jazz hardliner, first at Metronome magazine, then as chief jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Well, he’s another one. The other guy who just wouldn’t give it up is (American writer, label executive, and jazz record producer) Orrin Keepnews. He never said it, but I always felt that Orrin thought I was a fraud. Forget it, these guys just have this mind set, and that’s it.
As far as Diana is concerned, (jazz critics) don’t give it up for her. This girl…she’s got the greatest sense of time. Her fucking time is absolutely right on the money, for openers. Then nobody comps (accompanies) herself like she does. She gives herself this comfort point that is brilliant. Believe me, (arranger) Claus Ogerman, he ain’t easy to impress. After I convinced him to do “The Look of Love,” he was blown away. Now, he calls her “Lady Di.”
Did the Jazz Crusaders face the “jazz police” in their career as well for their amalgamated jazz, pop and soul sound?
Are you kidding? Joe (Sample) still doesn’t get the credit due him. The first time I heard the “Young Rabbits,” I was in L.A. as a promotion man, and I was driving to Pasadena to go to KRLA. On KGFJ, Johnny Magnus played the “Young Rabbits,” and I said, “Who the hell is this?” Then, he said at the end of the song that it was the Jazz Crusaders; I went right down and bought the record. As fate would have it, (producer) Stewart Levine and I became good friends. He and Hugh Masekela had a record company (Chisa Records), and they joined us at Blue Thumb. “One” (1972) and “The Second Crusade” (1973), those are two of the band’s great records.
[The Jazz Crusaders had a hit on KHJ in L.A., because of Johnny Magnus’ enthusiasm for the band. He would take one of their songs and play it on the station while he was doing the weather. "It's a little cloudy at the beach," he might say, and you'd hear the Jazz Crusaders doing this nice walking tune. They called the tune "Weatherbeat," and it became well known because people heard it every day. It was released only as a single by the Pacific Jazz label in 1962.]
How do you view the reissues of your productions?
What happens is these people come in years after an album has been made and try to put their mark on history, and only succeed in fucking the product up by either remixing or remastering what was just fine to begin with. Ricky Schultz who took over the jazz dept. at Warners (as VP/GM of jazz and progressive music until ousted in 1995) after I left, decimated some of my best work. He made the (1977) Joao Gilberto classic that I produced "Amaroso," into a "Two-fer." That’s where they take two albums, and make it into one CD and sell it at a discount price.
He also took a (1982) double live album that I produced called "Casino Lights,” great performances from two nights at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977 and added out-takes that I left out for good reason. Nobody at the label had the courtesy to call me and ask my opinion or ask for my input on the project.
The worst part about these abortions are that (executives) either remix and/or remaster the product in order to put their name on the album as "Reissue Producer," which is a ton of horse-shit. The credit should instead read, "Reissue Fucked Up By."
One day you should pull out either a vinyl or an original CD copy of some album that you love and then A-B-it against the reissue. You'll be shocked.
Milt Gabler was probably your predecessor as a producer of pop and jazz while being a label executive. He produced Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, Bill Haley and the Comets and others for Commodore and Decca.
Milt Gabler, I feel badly I was so consumed by being head of Verve and GRP when he was still alive that I really didn’t get a chance to spend the time that I wanted to spend with him. But, he was a big influence even before I knew what an influence he was. Louis Jordan was a big influence on me. I didn’t even know that Milt produced those records. In those days, producers didn’t get the credits that they started getting in the ‘70s. The producer was last (credit) on the record back then, they were staff. It wasn’t until later that I started going, “Man, wait a minute, he’s done everybody from Billie Holiday to Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong.” He was unbelievable.
How do you view your career?
I look back on my career, and I think that I am a very fortunate guy that I ended up in the places that I ended up, with the people I ended up with. I could have had something to do with it. (It’s) luck, and who you end up gravitating to.
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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