Children of Coincidence The Tracks of Our Times with Joel Dorn
“There’s a great line about committees. A giraffe is a horse designed by a committee. These A&R committeesI’ve just never had much luck with them.” – Legendary music producer Joel Dorn
Joel Dorn is not just the legendary record producer who was able to draw the line from “Roberta Flack to Bette Midler to the Neville Brothers to Leon Redbone to Rashaan Roland Kirk because I can.” He is also a gifted storyteller, seasoned industry inside/outside veteran and a longtime survivor of the lengthy and wicked transition from family-run, no-college degreed music business cats to the tightly-controlled, rigidly-hampered, genre-specific, committee-addled conglomerate of today’s jukebox.
He’s a music connoisseur who knows what he knows and he can get just that right sound. After working as a disc jockey early in his career, Dorn achieved his dream of producing at Atlantic Records. From 1967-1974, he garnered two Grammy Awards for consecutive Record of the Years with Roberta Flack. He has also worked with a legion of giantsillustrious names dropped include Cannonball Adderley, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Bette Midler, Leon Redbone, Joe Williams are to name but a few of the more influential musicians that have crossed his storied past.
Dorn’s base of operation has shifted from the glory and toxic days of Atlantic Records in the 60s and early 70s to the Brooklyn-based Hyena Records which has a stable of groundbreaking actsmany of whom are featured on Jambands.comlike Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet, James Blood Ulmer, and, of course, the equally legendary Dr. John. Dorn was selected by the New Orleans musician to assemble the best of his live dates from the last twenty years and Hyena Records has recently issued All By Hisself and Right Place, Right Time in a continuing series of Dr. John vault releases produced by Dorn. He was also jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s producer. While at Hyena, he has released several of the late Kirk’s extraordinary live datesrecently, the mindblowing Brotherman in the Fatherland the man played three saxophones at once, a nose flute while shouting into a microphonean hour of searing improvisatory music captured live in Germany, 1972. As I pointed out to Dorn, the music sounds like it was recorded yesterday and tomorrowthere is no accurate timeline for the heady and exuberant experimentalism that Kirk displayed on stage.
Dorn is a lively and engaging conversationalist as well as a gifted writerhe crafts all of his own fairly hilarious yet insightful liner notesphotographer and astute art historian. His discussion regarding the relationship between surrealism and the sound of a recording is both illuminating and uniquely visionaryhence, his 40 years on a curiously magical journey through the evolutionary jungle of jazz, R&B, pop and rock music. Jambands.com offers this portrait of Joel Dorna man who knows the value of random coincidence and humble servitude: “I’ve always been drawn to stuff that’s left of center. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to select to work with people who aren’t what’s happening but are the thing that isn’t what’s happening that could happen.”
Track 1 Rules of the Game
JD: Kevin [Calabro from Hyena Records] sets up all of the interviews because he knows what I like to do and what I don’t like to do. (laughs) I trust him implicitly and I remember he said it was with Jambands.com so I said, “Cool.” Are you taping this?
RR: Yes, I am. I’m pretty well versed with the transcribing, sir.
JD: I gotcha. You call me sir’ again and I’m going to punch you. (laughter) I’ve done some interviews for liner notes and I always send it to a service to transcribe because I couldn’t imaginethat to me would be like being back in school.
RR: I like doing it myself because I can capture the flavor of what is happening plus I’m usually subconsciously structuring the piece as I transcribe.
JD: Yeah, but you’re a real writer. For instance, I did an interview with T.S. Monkyou know, [Thelonious] Monk’s kidand I did a Monk album which had notes and to have the son of a giant who is in the business that has a real understanding of his father was number one, he had a real understanding of what his father did and number two, you got that insight into what it was like to have Monk as a father, what it was like growing up like that and I thought that was something I didn’t want to sit down and talk and then go back and say, “Last Tuesday, I spoke to Monk’s kid and blahblahblah,” so we sent it out to get transcribed and it was like 70 pages. I reduced it and it was great. It was one of the few times that I did that. I loved having that inside look. For anyone who has been in the business as long as I have, I know what Monk did and I know what I think and I know what other people think but to be able to talk to his son about playing basketball with his father, how his father hung out at a firehouse as a kid and liked to sit in the truck, his high school stories about Monkyou can’t get that stuff any place else.
RR: Thelonious Monk liked to hang out at fire stations?
JD: He grew up in the West 60s in New York and when he was a kid, he was the mascot of a firehouse. It’s very interesting to get a son’s view of an eccentric legend who also was a father, you knowa genius who was a father. But, I digress.
Track 2 The Jazz Police
RR: I love the liner notes that you write for albums. Some people lean towards dry, historical pieces but your writing is filled with refreshing irreverence and insight.
JD: Well, first of all, I’m not a writer writera literary writer. I write because I enjoy it and because I have to opportunity. If you buy an album that I produce and you’re looking for the government-approved liner notes, you came to the wrong place. It’s another part of the record for me. I’m a really old school producer. I generally find the artist; I make the record; I pick the pictures; I work on the cover; I write the liners and it’s not just the musicit’s a total package.
It’s more like you’re not a record producer but a director. I’ve always enjoyed making the package. For instance, when I get taken to task, I love it. Anything I do with Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] is really a specialty because he was a special artist in my life and he understood. It’s amazing that a blind guy understood the totality of the record package.
If you need me to explain the music to youand I’m not putting down anybody who writes standard liner notes because some of my best friends are great liner note writers like Nat Hentoff. I just love to write. It’s taken me ten to fifteen years where I don’t cringe about what I wrote. I probably like writing more than I like records now because, I kind of know how to make recordsor I think I know(laughs) but I’ve been learning how to write, seeking a voice and it’s a lot of fun. But the Jazz Policemore than any other music that I recordboy, the Jazz Police, if you don’t write a real set of liner notes, they certainly break out in hives, these guys, you know?
RR: It’s funny how jazzeven to this daystill has the rep of a stuffed-shirt club.
JD: Yeah. What the fuck is wrong with them?
RR: You know Nat Hentoff? He wrote the liner notes on Bob Dylan’s debut album and that excellent first Dylan profile in The New Yorker.
JD: I know Nat very well; he’s a good friend; he’s one of my early heroes. It’s funny because I was talking to David Ritz today about a project that we’re doing together and we’re going to include Nat in it. I remember when I was a kid boy, I would race to get Downbeat or when he used to write that music column in Esquire. I was around 12, 13, maybe, 15 years old and I loved Nat’s work. He’s not just a jazz writer; he’s a political writer and, especially, a first amendment expert so the bulk of his writing now isn’t about music. Lots of times when I do a project, I ask him to be a part of it and boy, does he write great stuff.
Track 3 The Golden Era of Music
RR: Let’s talk about your work as a disc jockey at WHAT-FM.
JD: Well, when I was in college, my major was Communications, which was basically radio, television and journalism. I always wanted to be a record producer but I also always wanted to be a disc jockey. I thought it was a good way to meet the artists, the record companies and get a leg up. Plus, I just wanted to be a disc jockeyI thought it was a cool thing to do. One of my professors at schoolChuck Shermanpaid his way through college by being an all night disc jockey on the jazz station in Philadelphia, WHAT-FM, which was one of those early FM 24 hours, 7 days a week jazz stations that were popular back in the 50s and 60s. We became friends even though he was a teacher.
In September of my junior year in college at Temple University, there was an opening for a weekend guy at the radio station and he got me the job. When one of the guys quit that had a regular six-day-a-week shift, I got my break. So, I was 19, going to college and I was on the air as a full-time jazz disc jockey, which back in those days was like a hip thing to be. I was working all night, hanging in the clubs with the catsit was cool.
RR: I imagine that you were turning yourself onto a lot of new music.
JD: Well, you know, I was a music junkie since I was a little kidI mean real little and I always knew that I’d be in some kind of music but I have no skills, I only have ability. I can’t play an instrument, I can’t sing, I can’t arrange, I don’t know how to engineerI don’t know how to do anything but, I do have an instinct for producing records so I always knew I’d be doing something in music.
People tend to think that jazz is the music I like best because I’ve made so many jazz albums but it is one of the musics I like best. If I had to pick them, my two favorite musics would be gospel and doo-wop. I don’t love them more than I love jazz or pop music or Motown or New Orleans or bluegrass or a lot of other musics that I love but I’ve made a lot of jazz records so I get this rattle. I read about myself from time-to-time and I see “Jazz Producer Joel Dorn” and I’ve made a lot of jazz records but I was turning myself onto as much music as I could when I was a kid. I was a sponge; I was one of those kids, you know? There was so much. I grew up in the Golden Era of Music so if you had a radio, you could hear Ray Charles, Hank Williams or Frankie Lyman. There were just so much and so many different kinds of great music around.
RR: Was less is more’ the key to some of that timeless music? The technology was simpler; yet, much of that music holds up very well as producers captured the atmosphere of a room, which I feel is incredibly crucial to a record’s sound.
JD: Listenyou used whatever technology was available but the technology didn’t drive the music; the music was served by the technology. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what happens, now. My youngest son, Adam, under the name of Mocean Worker, is an electronic artist. He has his own studio at home; he doesn’t have to go any place. I can’t do that. I still need to be in a room with people who play; I capture it and, hopefully, complement it and do it right.
I’m a big sports fan, a big music fan and a big art fan so there are Golden Ages. I think by birth, I was lucky. I was born in 1942 and I caught the Golden Age of sports, cars and music. I still make records the way I made them, then. I use Pro Tools and lots of digital stuff but, hopefully, it serves my approach rather than me being a slave to technology. It’s just a function of when I was born more than anything.
Track 4 – The Legend of the Masked Announcer
RR: You worked at this station and suddenly became the Masked Announcer?
JD: I guess it looks oddProduced by Joel Dorn for the Masked Announcer. When I left the radio to go to Atlantic Records in 1967, UHF stations started showing upyou know, the high numbers like Channels 17, 48, 29 and basically they played bad movies, horrible local shows and reruns of series as it was the very beginning of syndication so they also had lots of local sponsors. They’d be selling nine rooms of carpeting for $99 or cheap vacuum cleaners, food choppers or clear plastic slipcoversso they would hire local talent to do their commercials.
A friend of mine had a place that sold clear plastic slipcovers and carpeting and he said, “Why don’t you do the commercials on television? Do some of your crazy stuff.” So, I created this character the Masked Announcer. I’m really going to tell you the truth, what I would do is take three, four hits off a joint and babble aimlessly for an hour. We’d cut like thirty commercials. I did my brand of humor. The Masked Announcer became a local character in Philadelphia on these stations. I would babble in a mask, cheap suit and a hat and had a lot of fun doing it for about a year.
My last contract with Atlantic let me do outside productions and I had to find a name for the company so instead of Produced by Joel Dorn for Joel Dorn Music’which sounds insane to me because how many times can you mention your name on the back of a record?I said Produced by Joel Dorn for the Masked Announcer.’ For some reason, it strikes people oddly. Usually you see Produced by Whoever for Zenith Productions’ or some shit like that. I just like the way it sounded and how it reads. People are so funny; I’ve been using it since the mid-70s and people say, “AwwwI saw your thing; so, you’re the Masked Marvel.” “You’re the Masked Marauder.” When you want to make yourself into a cartoon or a comic book character: THE MASKED ANNOUNCER. It’s so stupid when you think about it and if you saw any of the commercials, you’d see how stupid it really was. Kids loved it, you know. He was insane. He’d come on and babble aimlessly and we sold lots of _slop_I can’t tell you how many $19.95 vacuum cleaners and food choppers.
RR: Do you have tapes of the Masked Announcer anywhere?
JD: There is one tape that exists, a two-inch tape that I haven’t heard in years; I’m not sure what is on it. Sometimes, it worked; it was always nuts but sometimes it was really funny. We’d do thirty of them and we’d pick three or four that actually worked and put them on the air. The funny thing was that it moved the products that people wanted to advertiseit was so insane but kids loved the character and they would call the stations incessantly. It was really weird.
After a year, I just got tired of it and enough was enough. At that point, I was living in New York, working in Philly and I was commuting. The producing just exploded and I was spending so much time in New York so I really didn’t have time to do it anymore. It was fun while it lastedhalf Kingfish, half Sgt. Bilko. When I was a kid we’d spend our summers in Atlantic City and I was fascinated by those pitchmen on the boardwalk. I used to go and listen to them and a crowd would gather. After a while, the pitchmen knew me and they’d say, “Come up, young man! Have you ever tried to squeeze an orange, before?” [affects a young boy’s voice with the proper cracked modulation] “No, I haven’t, sir.” They would put this thing in the orange and I knew I’d have to do it, you know. I would be like The Show’ for the house. I had an older buddy who sold newspapers so I would work the boardwalk by these big newsstands and I’d scream these fake headlines. I’d loved to do that stuff. It was great.
Track 5 Tales from the Atlantic Crypt
RR: How did you get involved with Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic Records?
JD: When I was 14, I was listening to a radio station, WBASAM 1480 and it was Georgie Woods, the Man with the Goodsheavy into black music. At 9:15 on a Friday night in March of 1956, he played a record by Ray Charles called “Ain’t That Love” and my whole life changed. I had never heard of Ray Charles in my life. It was as if somebody had hit the brakes on the planet and then, it started up again. But when it started up again, man, I was headed in a different direction. My parents had gone to New York and my brother and I were staying with my grandparents. When I heard that record, I just went berserk.
I went looking for Ray Charles records the next day; I couldn’t find them in the white neighborhoods so I went to the black neighborhoods; I found something but I couldn’t find that record. I asked the sales person, “What record label is Ray Charles on?” He said, “Atlantic,” so I looked on the back of the album to see where Atlantic Records was because I was going to write them because I had to have that Ray Charles record. I happened to pick up an Atlantic jazz album and I think it was 1-something West 57th or 56th Street [in New York City]. It had a name on the back of the album that said Supervision Nesuhi Ertegun. Well, he did the jazz so I wrote him a letter. About eight or ten months later, he wrote me back and sent me the Ray Charles record.
When I wrote him the letter, I told him I wanted to be an A&R manback then they didn’t call us producers, they called us A&R menand produce records for Atlantic. I gave him ideas for records that I thought would be good. He sent me a letter back and said, “I like your ideas and I’m going to mention them to the artist.” I still have that letter on my wall. We stayed in touch for years through high school and the beginning of college. I’d write him letters and he’d write back and send the different Atlantic catalogs and stuff like that. We spoke a few times and I told him about three or four million times that I’d like to work at Atlantic Records just as soon as I got out of high school. (laughs)
When I got into college and got on the radio, my theme song was an Atlantic record, every third song was an Atlantic record and he started to invite me to New York to be at sessions. I was actually apprenticing to him. At the same time, I had secured some independent financing from a guy that owned a record shop in Philly and I started making records on my own and he distributed them for me.
I made some records with Sonny Stitt, Duke Pearson and, sadly, with a fellow that just passed away recently, Rufus Harleya jazz bagpipe player in Philly. Of all the records that I produced that was the one that sold the best and that was the record that got me to New York and got me off the radio and into Atlantic Records. Nesuhi was my mentor and without him I’d be working at the post office or be in prison.
While I was on the radio, I was plotting and scheming for the artists that I wanted to take away from other labels and bring to Atlantic. When I did come to Atlantic, I brought guys that I had seen in the clubs, who I had become friends with and had been making records with and playing their records on the air. I had people that I had a definite idea that I could make better records than they were making on the labels that they were onRahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, Les McCann.
Nesuhi had given me a shot at a point when I was still on the radio. He said, “Here’s what I’ll do for you. Find an artist who has never made a record as a leader before, sign him to the label, make an album, and if it’s successful (which in those days meant that it broke even and got good reviews) than I’ll let you make a second record.” There was a guy in Philly who owned a club called Peps, which was one of the two jazz clubsPeps Show Bar. He was very nice to me; he used to let me into the club while I was underaged because he knew how much I loved music. You hang out at night and go get breakfast. It really gave me a chance to meet a lot of the artists and to see them performnot just hear them on records. He was just another nice person who was a great help to me. His name was Jack Goldenberg.
I told him that the man at Atlantic Records said that if I could find somebody that he’d give me a chance. He called me up one night when Mongo Santa Maria was playing at Peps and he had a big record with “Watermelon Man”that Latin jazz was a very popular commercial brand of jazz at the time. Jack called me up and said, “Are you coming to the club, tonight?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’ve got your guy for you.”
When I walked in the door, Hubert Laws was playing a version of “Manha de Carnivale” and I had never heard anyone play the flute like that in my life. I introduced myself, ultimately signed him, brought him to Atlantic, made his first album The Laws of Jazz and it sold pretty well. Back then if a jazz album sold between five and ten thousand copies, it was a big deal. Nesuhi gave me $1,500 to sign the artist, make the record, do the cover, give myself a $50 producer fee (laughs), and the record did well. It helped me a lot. Along with that Rufus Harley record and the years that I had spent watching Nesuhi do sessions with the MJQ, Betty Carter, Herbie Mann and Hank Crawford and all of these peopleso, that was my schooling.
RR: You really didn’t come from a musical background other than the love of music. How did you acquire production skills just by watching Nesuhi Ertegun?
JD: I was a music nut like a lot of guys who came into the record business back then. Don’t forgetthe record business was a cottage industry in the 40s, 50s and into the 60s.
At a certain point, it exploded and when it didI mean, by the 70s they were teaching Entertainment Law at Harvard. You could go and learn how to be a recording engineer at some place. Record companies started to become places where kids who might have gone into a variety of other fields went because music became such a big part of the American fabric at that time.
I was in the generation before that and I was still there when it was a cottage industry. When it exploded, all of sudden, the conglomerates started buying the record companies. Record companies that were little family-run businesses were suddenly doing $30, $40 million dollars a year. The whole thing changed. Now, entertainment is probably America’s biggest export. It all started happening for real in the late 60s, early 70s. I left Atlantic in the mid-70s; I think it was ’74.
The music business was an American business. It was a bunch of Jewish guys and black guys and Italian guys who loved music and it was a bunch of gangsters who controlled itwhich was my favorite time, by the way. (laughter) Back in the 50s and 60s was the Golden Age of American Record Companies. By the time it exploded and the conglomerates bought up the companies, the magic was gone. I usually analogize my years at Atlantic for playing for the ’55 Dodgers [first year that the boys from Brooklyn won the World Series before their infamous departure to California in 1958 along with the New York Giants]. Then I woke up one morning and Atlantic Records was part of a multi-national corporation. Wildcatters like mewell, the Atlantic Records that I dreamed about joining and ultimately joined didn’t exist anymore. For someone like myself, it was over. I was a kid; I didn’t understand that things changed, that Atlantic Records goes from becoming the hippest, greatest record company in the history of the world to a $100 million dollar a year corporation. I just went out on my own because I figured I could keep it going the way it was.
I didn’t realize that it would be difficult and that those years would never come back. I always use sports analogies but the way sports was when I was a kid is not the way sports is now. It wasn’t a billion dollar businessseventy-five cents and I’d sit in the bleachers
and watch the Phillies. You go to see the Philadelphia Warriors and in order to get a thousand people in, they’d have to have a doubleheader. Football was played by guys who got $200 a game! (laughs) It’s not that it’s better or worse or anything; it’s just that certain things happen in a certain way at a certain time. The romance and the magic and the talent at that time is what hooked me and what I still relate to, you know?
RR: Let’s talk about your time at Atlantic. You produced records there for about seven years, right?
JD: I did some independent producing from ’63-’67 before I joined them full-time from ’67 to around ’74.
RR: I know that Atlantic Records changed significantly in 1968 when they started signing heavy groups like Led Zeppelin to huge advanceswhereas before, the label had been predominately an R&B, jazz and soul music label. That had to increase the wave of rock acts on the label, which produced extreme revenue at a time when the business really kicked into gear. I mean giving a band like Zeppelin that hadn’t proven themselves yet a $200,000 advance really changed the whole ballgame.
JD: Listenthe R&B and jazz label that Atlantic was was the basis for them becoming a major label. At that timethey always had their ear to the ground. Ahmet [Ertegun, Atlantic president]well, Nesuhi stayed with the jazz and Jerry Wexler stayed with the R&B but Ahmet had the vision to see the new musics that were coming so we got Zeppelin, Cream, Blind Faith and we ended up with the Stones. I mean, you know, Ahmet was on top of that. There’s never been a record executive like him. Don’t forget that he and Nesuhi grew up in the Turkish Embassy in Washington D.C. Their father was the Turkish Ambassador to the United States during the Roosevelt years. Nesuhi left Europe at the beginning of World War II. He was studying literature at the Sorbonne. Ahmet and Nesuhi speak four or five languages apiece. They fell in love with the blues and jazz and started this record company in the late 40s. There were no other executives like them. When Jerry Wexler came in, he was the bright young journalism student who loved music so that combination of Nesuhi, Ahmet and Jerrythere’s never been anything like that and I doubt that there will be anything like that again.
Aside from the fact that the music at Atlantic was so spectacular, the look of the labelNesuhi hired Lee Friedlander to be the house photographer and Marvin Israel to do the layout and design. There were no labels that had black artists that had album covers like Atlantic’s. Take a look at some of the stuff on King or Powell or any of those labelsit was ghastly. Atlantic treated the artist with respect. When you got an R&B record that came out like Clyde McPhatter or Drifters, they had a look. It looked and felt different. If I had never worked for Atlantic and I was just a guy that loved music and the record business, I would say the same thing.
As Ahmet got into the larger record business, he snared acts and developed them. He went to England and he mesmerized these people. So he got Led Zeppelin and all of that other stuff. They kept doing R&B. At the same time they had Zeppelin, they had Aretha [Franklin]. Same time they had Cream, they had Otis [Redding]. Atlantic was still mining the R&B vein and expanding into new music.
Track 6 Roberta Flack, Winston Churchill and Clint Eastwood
RR: I read voraciously but I tend to get hazy on the details so please forgive me. Did you win two Grammys for producing Roberta Flack?
JD: We won the Grammy for Record of the Year in, I think, ’73 and ’74 for “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly.” I think that is the only time that an artist has won back-to-back Grammys for Record of the Year. That was fun.
The first time I heard about Roberta Flack she was married to a bass player in named Steve Novosel; he was in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s band. Rahsaan called me at 7 in the morning one day and he said, “I’ve got your next artist.” I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “It’s a girl, she’s a singer, she’s my bass player’s wife and her name is Roberta Flack.” And I asked him what I thought was an innocent question, “What did she sound like?” And he screamed, “She sounds like a colored lady!” and he slammed down the phone. We never talked about it again.
About a year later, I had made the first album at Atlantic with Les McCann and Les called me up at the same timearound 7am and neither time had I been asleep. He said, “I got it.” I said, “We’ve got what?” He said, “I’ve got your next act.” I said, “What is it?” And he said, “There’s a chick down here named Roberta Flack and she’s unbelievable.” I thought, “GodI don’t want to ask what she sounds like.” (laughter) He said, “Just sign her, man.”
I went to Nesuhi and said that Les had found a chick singer in D.C. that was the greatest singer he had ever heard. The beauty of Atlantic at that time was that Nesuhi said, “Have you heard her?” I said, “No, but I’m telling you, he went nuts.” Nesuhi said, “Well, you knowlet’s make a record with her.” He gave me a $10,000 budget and we signed her before I had heard her. I went out to D.C. on a Tuesday night. She used to play at a club near the Capitol called Mr. Henry’sshe had been there for six or seven years; she was a real solid attraction in Washington D.C. There’s a guy named Tony Taylor that had owned a jazz club there called Bohemian Caverns and he had made some live tapes of her performing and had sent them to every record company in the world and they all passed on her. Atlantic Records was one of the companies that had passed on her.
So, here I am. I signed her without hearing her, I go down to see her and, lookI had no idea she was going to be the giant record seller that she became. At Atlantic, the thing was “is she good?” or “is he good?” so I heard her and thought, “well, this is great.”
Each song was a gem; she had a way in which each song was just perfect. I remember the first time I saw her, there was me, four gay chicks sitting right in front of the stage, a bartender, a waiter and a waitress. Those four gay chicks were screaming and yelling. I remember she did a Jim Webb song called “Do What Ya Gotta Do” and all four of them stood up and screamed. I never saw a standing ovation in an empty club.
RR: Did you record Roberta Flack immediately after signing her?
JD: I just knew she had it and I loved the way she sounded so I brought her to New York and she insisted on recording the album with her band who had been with her for yearsshe was loyal to them. She also wanted Tony Taylor to bring upCannonball had a device he used like “Mercy Mercy” and all of those songs that were recorded live? They were recorded in a studio; they weren’t recording in clubs.
RR: Cannonball Adderly?
JD: Yeah, Cannon. They’d go to the Capitol studio in L.A. and they’d invite an audience, lay out a spread with food and drinks so they’d have a studio sound but the benefit of guys playing and relating to an audience. Tony Taylorwho was friends with Cannonsaid that he wanted to make her first record like that so they brought a bus of 30, 40 people and we made the album and her group didn’t cut it.
RR: Her group was weak?
JD: I went to Nesuhi and said, “Look, she’s great but the album isn’t. Could I have another $10,000?” (laughter) I don’t know if you know what $10,000 was back then.
RR: I don’t know if I know what $10,000 is now.
JD: Nesuhi said, “Do you really believe in this?” I said, “I really believe.” He said, “Do you really believe?” I said, “I really believe.”
So I said to her, “LookI want to do the album again but I want to use my guys. So I got Ron Carter and Ray Lucasthe drummer I lovedand we did the same songs again with Ron and Ray on that first Roberta Flack album, which was First Take. The reason we called the album First Take was that before the first time she sang I told her to sing something and the audience were all fans, loved her and they all started to applaud. I said, “O.K. Let’s do it again.” And the audience all turned around at the same time and looked through the glass and they said, “What’s wrong? That was great.” I said, “That’s just a first take.” So when we put the album out with Ron, Ray, Bucky Pizzarelli and Bill Fischer who wrote the strings, Nesuhi said, “What do you want to call the album?” I said, “I want to call it First Take.” I just remember those people turning around and saying, “What was wrong with that?!” We didn’t even have a drum sound yet.
The album came out and it was on the Jazz Series. Now, she’s not a jazz singer but there were lots of people like Shirley Horne and Nina Simone who were these trio singers and it just fit into Atlantic’s jazz category. It wasn’t a pop or R&B record so since it was a vocal with a trio, we put it in the Jazz Series and the record started to sellmainly off of jazz play because there were still plenty of FM jazz stations at that time. Also, it got a little bit of late night R&B playthey’d put in some adult-kind of things after midnight.
In the first year, we probably sold around 150,000 records and I was already almost done with the second album, Chapter Two when I came into the office one morning and one of the guys came into the office and said, “Clint Eastwood’s on the phone.” I thought it was one of my friends goofin’, right? I went and picked the phone up and said, “Clint?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Jesus, I’d love to talk with you, man but I’ve got Winston Churchill on the other line so as soon as we’re done, I’ll give you a buzz.” (laughter)
Track 7 The Lost Art of Song Editing Secretaries
RR: So, you quickly wrapped up the call with Winston Churchill.
JD: Clint said, “Joel?” And I recognized it because he has a recognizable voice. He said, “This is Clint Eastwood. ListenI was driving to work this morning and I was listening to KBCA (which was the FM jazz station in L.A.) and they played this Roberta Flack record called “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I just got done directing my first film called Play Misty For Me and I want to use it as the background music for the pivotal scene in a redwood forest. Can I get permission to use it?” I said, “Could you get permission to use it?! You sure can. You can do whatever you want.” He said, “LookI’m all out of money. I only have a thousand dollars.” I said, “Doesn’t make any difference. You’ve got it.”
I went to Nesuhi and said, “I just got a call from Clint Eastwood. He wants to use Roberta’s song, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (which was the cut that a lot of jazz disc jockey cats were telling me that every time they played the song, the phone lights up at the studio.) I tried to get it released as a single but they wouldn’t release it because it was too long, too slowit was too this, too that. So, here’s Clint Eastwood, righthe puts it in the movie. When I told Nesuhi that Clint only has a thousand bucks, Nesuhi said, “We get much more than that for a song in a film.” And I said, “Yeah, but its Clint Eastwood’s film and it’s going to be the key thing.”
We work it out and the movie comes out and the next thing I know, radio stations all of the country are getting calls for the song but it was still too long. Back then, there were rules about how long a record could be to play on a radio station. This is really a funny story. I get a call from the pop station in New Orleans. He said, “We’re getting a hundred calls a day for this Roberta Flack record but it’s too long to play. Would you edit it and send it down here?” I said, “Sure.” I went in and took about a minute off and
he called back and said, “You know the edit’s no good. It doesn’t feel the same.” So I said, “Well, you know, that’s the only way you can edit. I don’t know another way to edit it.” He said, “Well, my secretary says that she knows how to edit it.” I said, “Oh, yeah?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Put her on the phone.”
She said, “Hi, Joel. Lookyou did it wrong. Here’s what you should have done.” I said, “O.K.” For some reason, I went back and edited it the way that the program director’s secretary said and she was 100% right. Now, I sent it back down based on her edits and the next thing I know we sold four million singles and two million albums. The second Roberta Flack album comes out and it ships a million the first day. When you want to talk about how brilliant you are and all of your great accomplishments, I think the first thing to realize is how much randomness plays in your life and how lucky you can get.
Track 8 The Sleeping Gypsy Meets the Extroverted Bass Drum
JD: My engineer Gene Paul, Les Paul’s son, had an idea to make the bass drum a lead instrument on a record.
RR: On any record? He had an epiphany that it would be a great idea?
JD: He wanted to do a record where the bass drum was the lead instrument. (pauses) (laughter) This is a wild story. It took us two weeks to mix the record until we figures out how to make the bass drum be the lead instrument without making the record be lopsided and tilted and get all of those elements in. At that time, I was heavy into surrealism. I was more influenced by movie directors and painters than I was by other music producers although I was overwhelmed by Leiber and Stoller and Phil Spector.
RR: Did you get into Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau and
JD: Mainly Magritte but in getting into surrealists I went back and studied Rousseau. I saw that painting The Sleeping Gypsy andit’s hard to explain something like this because I can’t explain the picture I had in my head. If you look at The Sleeping Gypsy, there are only three or four elements in the pictureyou have the lion, the man in the stripped coat, the sky and the ground.
With Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, you have that bass drum, Roberta, background voices and the little percussion stuff that Ralph MacDonald did. I acquainted the mix of that record with The Sleeping Gypsy and Gene’s engineer work on the bass drum. I don’t want to get too artsy but we really worked on it and for some strange reason, I knew it was going to win the Grammy; I knew it was spectacularnot because _I_did it. It’s because so many elements came together at once. Roberta Flack heard the original on the plane, Gene wanted to mix it a certain way, I was heavy into Frankie Lymon at the time and I remember that we had that instrument section in the middle and Roberta asked, “What are you going to do there? I thought maybe, we’d put a flute solo or something.” I said, “Do that shit that Frankie Lyman did in all of those great recordsthat vocalese thing.” She did it, we put it together and here’s the kickerI turned the record in and I was still a young producer because I’d only been making records five, six years but, I said, “Well, this is it, man. I know it’s going to win the Grammy. I know it’s going to sell millions. I know it. I know everything.”
I turned the record in and they had just formed an A&R committee at Atlantic because before that I was Nesuhi’s guy. We just worked; there were no A&R committees. I turn it in and they said, “Ahmet wants to see you.” And I figured he was going to tell me what I genius I am and how much he loved the record. He said, “Nobody likes the record. That bass drumwhat is wrong with you? The bass drum is horrible.” I got insane. I went upstairs and told Nesuhi that I was quitting. I said, “This is the best record I’ve ever made in my entire life. It’s going to be a smash.”
Anyway, Nesuhi went to bat and they put the record out. I did not endear myself to the rest of the gang at Atlantic with that move, by the way. It was probably the best record that I was ever associated with in terms of an original piece of work and it did win the Grammy but when you think about the Clint Eastwood thing and the secretary thing and Roberta hearing it on the plane and them saying that you can’t put it out, isn’t that an odd combination for two records that went on to become classics?
RR: Very odd plus the element of “let’s see, the bass drum as a lead instrument.”
JD: Yeah and that was because that was what Gene wanted to do. We tried it on a Ray Bryant album and it was terrible what we did to that record.
RR: The other thing is if you had used the flute in the instrumental fill of “Killing Me Softly,” it probably would have dated the song.
JD: I just don’t know. I just know that when she went into that thing I said to do that Frankie Lyman thing because I was heavy into that thing. I wanted to dedicate the record to him on the label but somehow or other it got lost in some nonsense.
I can take a compliment as much as the next person but so much has to do with luck and the randomness of things. I once made a record with Dory Previn and she had a song called “Children of Coincidence” and the opening line was “if I hadn’t made a left turn, if you hadn’t made a right” and it talks about how much randomness plays a part in our livesso many other factors that come into play that sometimes if you allow yourself to be lucky, you do your great work. Sometimes you’ve just got to wander aimlessly but if you know how to wander aimlessly properly, stuff happens. 90% of what I’ve done has to do with wandering aimlessly the right way.
Track 9 The Neville Brothers, Leon Redbone and Saturday Night Live
RR: I picked three acts out of my mental hat that you producedRoberta Flack, the Neville Brothers and Leon Redbone. Let’s talk about the latter two acts, now.
JD: Sure. I’m glad you picked those three acts because number one, I’ve always been drawn to stuff that’s left of center. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to select to work with people who aren’t what’s happening but are the thing that isn’t what’s happening that could happenyou know what I mean?
Like Bette Midler back in the 70s. Everybody said that she was a live act and she was all visual but the second I saw her I knew how to make that record. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another example“well, he plays three saxophones, it’s a circus act” and no, it ain’t.
Anyway, the Neville Brothersone of my best friends was Doc Pomus. He called me up one night and said, “What are ya doin’ tonight?” I said, “Nothin’.” And he said, “Ya wanna hear the greatest singer in the world?” (laughs) You knowwho wouldn’t want to hear the greatest singer in the world? He said, “Meet me at the Bottom Line. The Neville Brothers are in town from New Orleans. Aaron Neville’s there and you’ve never heard anybody like him in your life.”
I went down there and sat at Doc’s table and they came on. I love New Orleans music. I love the Meters, Dr. John, all of those Allen Toussaint records that sounded like no other records in the world. The Neville Brothers came out and I’d never heard anything like it. They were the best bar band you’d ever heard in your life. When Aaron sangforgetaboutit. I went backstage and gave them my credentials and walked up to Aaron and said, “Hey, how are ya doin’, my name’s Joel Dorn. If I made a record with you, what song would you sing?” He didn’t blink. He said, “Mona Lisa.” I said, “How come?” And he said, “Because when I was in prison, I used to sing that song to myself all the time and that’s what kept me from going crazy.”
I made the record for A&M Records and I went out there and, (laughs) once again, this will spill out into the Leon Redbone story. A buddy of mine, Harold Childs from Philly was one of the two or three key guys at the label. I said, “Harold, I got one. This is going to be a smash.” He said, “Be careful. They don’t like it.” I said, “What do you meanthey don’t like it?” He said, “They can’t get any R&B play on it because it won’t go on black radio.” I said, “It’s not supposed to go with black radio.” The Neville Brothers were black but it was a white act. It was a bar band that was all white college kidsthat was their constituency. So I went and had this big mistake and I did my pitch and the guy in charge of promote got up and said, “Well, listenI’m glad you like your work and I’m glad you like your record (he gave me this snotty fucking blow off) but, we ran the record by black radio and they don’t like it.” I said, “FUCK black radio. It’s not a record for black radio. It’s a record for white FM rock stationsthat’s who should play it.” He said, “They’re a black act and a black act belongs on black radio.” And I said, “Yeah, just like Jimi Hendrix, motherfucker” and walked out. That didn’t serve me well, by the way. The record bombed and then, of course, it went on to become a classic.
Once againwhen I talk about these things, I’m not talking about me. You understand? I’m talking about the record. I’m not Phil Spector. I don’t have a sound. I have a good instinct for talent and a way to capture it and, hopefully, complement it properly. The thing that makes it work is the artist. If I don’t get in the way of it and fuck it up then, that’s what makes it work. Phil Spector, Leiber and Stoller, Allen Toussaint and George Martin in partnership with the Beatles knew how to make it work but beyond that, other than a Motown sound, it’s the artist or it is for the kind of stuff that I like to do.
I felt validated when it was picked as one of the most important albums of the last 50 years or something in Rolling Stone magazine. The Neville Brothers went on to become successful, you know. I really wore my welcome out at A&M. This was back in my crazy days. I would just as soon as pick up a table leg and hit them with it as opposed to listening to that shit. [Author’s Note: My beloved editor has hit me on numerous occasions with heavy furniture when I’ve asked to introduce more metal to our site.]
RR: Was this your transitional period after Atlantic?
JD: Uh, you have a better way of saying it than me. (laughter) I was high all the time. I was crazy. It was great! It’s great to be able to have that in your life, live through it, come out on the other side of the tunnel and get a grip on yourself.
RR: I’m very familiar with the phenomenon.
JD: I can actually listen to that Neville Brothers recordit holds for me.
RR: So how did you hook up with Leon Redbone?
JD: Here’s the story on Leon Redbone. There was a chick at Warner Brothers Records named Mary Martin and I was doing these off-the-wall acts like Bette Midler and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I had kind of settled into things that were outside the white lines but were selling or were successful. I was getting calls about every odd act, anything that was goofy that came down the pike but there was only a certain odd’ act that worked for me. Mary Martin called and said, “There’s an act I’d like you to see at the Bottom Line but there’s going to be a lot of producers there.”
I had cooled off at the time and I went [to see Redbone] and there were a lot of guys who were at the top of the chartsand me. If you don’t have a hit record for six months, you’re not a hot producer. I went in there and see this guy and I flipped: “this is my kind of guy” but I figured I’d never get him. I was sitting there and I said, “GoddamnitI wish I had something going so I could have a better shot at getting him. (in a near whispered voice) I knew I could make that record, right? (pauses) SoI catch his set and I’m seeing that little by little all of the other producers are leaving. By the end of the set, I was the last guy left; nobody dug him so I got him kind of by default, you know? I made that first recordjust like with the Neville Brothers (laughs), how did you pick these two acts to talk about? Just like the Neville Brothers recordwhen I got done, I flew to California with their record because I thought it was a sure thing. I did the same thing with Leon Redbone’s Warner Brothers record.
I flew to California; I got wine and cheese and there was a room with all kinds of plantsit was a Friday afternoon and everybody was done for the week and they were headed to Malibu or wherever the fuck they go. I threw this party and it was the first record I had made for Warner Brothers so I figured, “Wait until they hear this.” I put the record on and there was like 40 people there and by the time I got to the third cut, there was me and two other people. The sales manager came over and said, “ListenI know you think this is a record but it’s not. This should be on Folkways.” I figured, “How many times can I do this, you know?” (heavy sigh) I went home depressed. I had seen Leon in the club a few times and I saw how people reacted and I just knew it worked.
There was a new T.V. show starting and I figured if people saw him then, they would get ityou had to see him; there was no radio station playing this record. He never busted character; he was one of a kind; he was so brilliant; he really became Leon Redbone. This new T.V. show was starting called Saturday Night Live and every week I went there and bothered the people and said, “I’ve got an act for you that is perfect for you show. You could break this artist.” Nothing for around six months. I got a call on a Friday and the act that they had cancelled and they couldn’t book anything else up in a day and “we’ll take a shot with your guy.” Warner Brothers wouldn’t put a penny behind it and we had sold around 1,000 records and we got him on Saturday Night Live and when we came in on Monday morning, there were orders for 25,000 records. That record went gold, the next one almost went gold and there was another one, then the movie was over.
I’m really glad that you picked those artists to talk aboutRoberta Flack, the Neville Brothers and Leon Redbonebecause they all come with these stories. The thing is that when you have success with odd acts, there is no continuum in a record companies mind. That’s why I’ve pretty much been in business with myself for the last thirty years. I can’t explain what I do but I know what I do. You can’t draw a line from Roberta Flack to Bette Midler to the Neville Brothers to Leon Redbone to Rahsaan Roland Kirk but, I can.
Track 10 Oh, but I can. Ladies and Gentlemen: RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK
RR: Brotherman in the Fatherland does not sound like it was recorded in 1972.
JD: Because he never sounded like the time he was in; he always sounded like he was on his own plane, his own dimension. It’s really interesting. Either you’re a genius or you’re an aimless wanderer because the first night that I was at the radio station, I was really nervous. I was 19, on the air, it was a Saturday night and the disc jockey who was on before me said, “It’s real important that you end up at the top of the hour so you can do the news at the right time. If you time your records out and you have two or three minutes to fill (and I was too nervous to talk for two or three minutes), we have a whole bunch of really short jazz singles that you can throw on and it’ll fill the time for you.”
The first or second weekend, I look up at its like three and a half minutes to 11 and I’m too nervous to talk. I reached into the drawer and find something that said “Roland Kirk-3 for the Festival.” It’s a single, rightthey used to make jazz records for jukeboxes and, hopefully, get a hit every once in a while like “Take Five” or “I Love You, Porgy.” I had seen Roland Kirk’s name in the Downbeat columns. They would have a different column for each city and he lived in Chicago. I remember it said “multi-instrumentalist.” I didn’t know that he played them all at once. I put this on, heard this record and it’s wildthe phone starts ringing and it’s “Whose that? What’s the name of that group?” I went on got the album that it came from and I dug that he was playing three saxophones at once. It wasn’t a group; it was a _guy_I dug that.
I got into him and started playing his records and they were wildthere was nothing else like that. Now, there was a jazz festival a couple of months later. The Philadelphia Academy of Music is like the Carnegie Hall of Philadelphia. Every two months they’d have jazz concerts, which would have Cannonball [Adderly], Nancy Wilson, Ramsey Lewis and Count Basie. The next month they’d have Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Gloria Lynn and Duke Ellington. So, anyway, Cannonball’s stuck in a blizzard in Buffalo so they called the Roland Kirk Quartet to fill in and I had never seen him. I’m standing in the wings; it was my first jazz concert that I didn’t pay $4 to see because I was a disc jockey now and I was backstage.
Half the audience dug the shit out of him; the other half was an inch away from booing. He’s playing these three saxophones in his mouth, he’s got flutes in his nose, he’s screamin’ into the fucking mike so when he came off, I said, “Listen, manI love your records and I just saw you and I love you (I started to babble) and I want to be your record producer when I’m a record producer. As soon as you get done with Mercury, I want to be a producer at Atlantic someday,” and he calmed me down a little bit and we became pals and I became his guy in Philly because he didn’t get a lot of airplay. The critics hated him but I knew he was special, you know.
He signed with me because I was much easier to control than a hot producer, Creed Taylor, who also wanted him. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do. He didn’t want anybody telling him and I was a young kid and I’m deaf. I only have half hearing in my right earabout 60%and I’m deaf in my left ear. So I always thought that besides the fact that he could control me, he dug the idea that he was blind and I was deaf. (laughter)