There’s a phrase that Tommy Lipuma uses when he describes what he looks for in an artist. It’s something he calls the “chill factor.”
The nerve-tingling, goose-bump inducing result of a perfect combination of songs, voice and style, the chill factor is, for Lipuma, what separates great music from good. “I can’t always put my finger on why I know something will work,” he says. “It’s more the chill factor I look for, honing in on that artist whose music reaches inside you and takes you somewhere.”
For five decades this eminent producer has been delivering records high on chill factor for some of the best-known names in jazz and pop: Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, George Benson, David Sanborn, Dave Mason, Joao Gilberto, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, Bob James, Natalie Cole, Dr. John, Rickie Lee Jones, Everything But The Girl, Diana Krall and Jonatha Brooke, to name but a few.
Tommy Lipuma grew up in Cleveland, the son of Italian immigrants. His father was a barber, as was his uncle and his brother, so it was only natural that Tommy would go into the business. “I hated it with a passion,” he recalls. “The only thing that saved me was that I worked three to five nights as a musician, playing saxophone. That gave me an outlet, and I just dealt with the day to day.”
Since Cleveland in the late 1950s was a breakout area for records, a lot of disc jockeys and music business people came into Tommy’s barber shop. While he snipped and trimmed, Lipuma let it be known that he’d love to change livelihoods.
“This guy I knew called me and offered me a job at 50 bucks a week packing records in a back room. ‘It could lead to other things,’ he said. So I took it. My father of course thought I’d gone off my rocker. I was going from $125 a week as a barber to $50.”
Lipuma’s ambition and enthusiasm helped him graduate through the ranks quickly. In 1961, he was hired as a promotion man by Liberty Records in Los Angeles. It was here that his interest in producing began. “I’d messed around in little studios in Cleveland but I didn’t have a clue. So when I got out to L.A., every spare moment, I would always ask if I could go by the studio. I would just sit there in the back, not say a word and watch.”
He moved from promotion into publishing, learning the value of putting the right song with the right artist. “The first song that I ever got placed was one of Randy Newman’s songs called “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore,” with Jerry Butler,” he recalls. Lipuma’s first sessions were producing demos for Newman and the other staff writers at Liberty. “The players I was using had just come to town – Leon Russell, David Gates, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon. We’d make demos for these songwriters – Randy, P.J. Proby, Jackie DeShannon. It got my chops up a bit. At least I got a sense of the difference between one mike and another, and all of the elements, but I was still as green as a tomato.”
The first record proper that he produced was “Lipstick Traces,” a regional hit for a then unknown group called The O’Jays. At the same time, two friends of his, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, started their own record label, A & M, and asked Lipuma to come aboard as their staff producer. After his first national hit, “Guantanamera,” by The Sandpipers, he never looked back.
Today, Lipuma is in that pantheon of top producers that includes names such as Phil Ramone, George Martin and Jerry Wexler. He has earned eighteen gold and platinum records, thirty Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards. He is also the Chairman of GRP Records, the highly successful jazz label.
We caught up with Tommy Lipuma at the end of 1998 as he was getting ready to produce vocalist Diana Krall’s When I Look In Your Eyes.
Who influenced you most as a producer?
I’d have to say that one of my biggest influences was Creed Taylor. All the early stuff he did on Verve – Jimmy Smith, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Getz/Gilberto, The Genius of Ray Charles, White Rabbit by George Benson. Creed’s style was very interesting. He was a jazz producer, but he had a pop sensibility and he would always bring in current pop things that were happening at the time. The Day In The Life with Wes Montgomery, White Rabbit with George Benson. It appealed to my pop sensibilities, because I had the same pop sensibilities, and I still do. But that’s one of the reasons that I always found myself buying those records. They had jazz leanings but with pop material.
You started making a name as a staff producer at A & M in the mid-60s. I love those records you did – by The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet and Chris Montez – they had such a warm, friendly sound.
The sound really had to do with several things. It’s very important for any producer to surround himself with good people – good musicians, a good engineer, high quality individuals. I remember one of the first recording sessions I did was with a great guitar player named Tommy Tedesco [a member of the famous West Coast “Wrecking Crew”]. We did an album of just him playing guitar. So I just got all my heroes – Bud Shank, Red Callender, and all these jazz guys on the date. I remember I was so nervous my heroes in the room. I was spaced as to what was going on (laughs). Bones Howe was the engineer, and I didn’t know him at the time. I was frozen in fear, and shit was going by, clams and things, and I didn’t hear them. At one point, Bones hit the talkback and said, ‘Okay guys, we’re on the honor system here’ (laughs). It sobered me up like that. I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got to keep my ears open to what’s going on.’ It was a dream that I was able to hire people who I respected as players. But getting back to what I was saying, you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.
Your role as a producer was probably more varied then . . .
In those days, a lot of different elements went into the way you put records together. With all due respect, you wouldn’t say that Claudine was a great singer. There was something about it, but it was a combination of all the elements from the production to the songs to the arrangements and the final presentation that made those records what they were. Both myself and my friend Nick DeCaro [the late, brilliant pop arranger] got involved in a lot of different elements. We would be singing backgrounds. Now when I work with artists, I don’t get out there and sing backgrounds or play saxophone. But in those days, we did, and it was fun. I was very proud of the outcome of those records.
At A & M, did you feel like you were developing a style of production, in say the same way someone like Spector had a style?
I can’t say that I was really consciously aware of a style until later. To me, one of the best records that I’d put into my top five or ten, because of all that went into it, was Alone Together, by Dave Mason. Quite frankly, it was a breakthrough for me. When I was at A & M, those were some of the happiest times in my life. Jerry, Herb and I are still good friends. They were responsible for giving me my break in my career. But there was a point where I felt like I was getting into a kind of record I was making, and I didn’t want to continue doing that. My goal was to work with artists that were talented in both vocal and writing, and had the goods. I felt that even though I had fun making those records and they were great experiences for me, I didn’t want to continue to make records that were essentially manufactured. So I left A & M and went into business with a friend of mine, Bob Krasnow, and we started Blue Thumb Records. One of the first acts that we signed was Dave Mason, who’d been in Traffic. He was the most talented writer in the group. Obviously, Winwood had this outrageous voice that stuck out, but Dave had a very soulful, earthy voice and played outrageous guitar and wrote these great songs. From that I did Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks – Where Is the Money? Striking it Rich, Last Train To Hicksville – those records I felt were some of my best. There was a style that was appearing. When I went to Warner Brothers and I started doing George Benson, Michael Franks and Al Jarreau, that’s when I was more conscious of a style emerging.
I’d like to mention some of the artists you’ve worked with. What are you memories of producing The Way We Were for Streisand?
It was obviously a thrill, and it was the first superstar that I worked with. We did those dates in a very limited amount of time, because she was in the midst of doing a film, Funny Lady. So she really gave me only a few days to do the tracks for the album. Some of the tracks had already been done, like “Summer Me, Winter Me.” The elements that I brought in were “All In Love Is Fair,” “Being At War With Each Other.” She’s just a total pro. I would say that 90-some percent of those vocals were live.
Is she real hard on herself in the studio?
She’s got a very high standard. She remembers every phrase and note that she sang, and whether or not this particular phrase is correct or there was another take that we should go back to. There’s no better judge of her own qualities than she is.
How about Rickie Lee Jones?
One of the most natural talents I’ve ever encountered. One of the few individuals, besides Diana Krall, who really knows what to do with a standard.
Everything But The Girl.
They were wonderful. Very, very talented people. They’re both brilliant in their own right, and they compliment each other. I have never known a closer couple. They met each other in college. They’re not married, I believe, but they’ve been living together since college. It’s an amazing relationship, the way they compliment each other. They’re both great songwriters, and there’s a style and a sound. You’ve got to have a combination of style and sound that pulls you out from what otherwise is a repetitive, derivative thing. That album, Language Of Life, I’d have to say is one of my top ten albums, both in working with them and the final outcome.
That record is full of brilliant songs.
The most important thing, and it’s still something that’s my credo today, is material. With real estate, they say, ‘Location, location, location.’ With pop music, it’s ‘Material, material, material.’ I don’t care how good the musicians are, how great the sound is, how great the overall production is – a friend of mine once used an expression and I use it all the time now – you can’t turn horseshit into ice cream. You got to have the goods, otherwise, all these elements don’t mean anything. I was always very conscious of good songs. I was very fortunate to come up in an era where the song was everything. It didn’t matter what the person looked like. What mattered was that the person had a great voice, and whether it be the person that wrote it, or the A & R person that found it, was the song that they song. That’s what made it.
She’s wonderful. One of the sweetest individuals I know. She’s a brilliant performer, songwriter – the songs are just one after another. There’s a thing I refer to as the “chill factor.” She’s high up on the meter with the chill factor. She’s got the goods. I just can’t quite figure out why she hasn’t popped. I just don’t get it. But hey look, great talent prevails. The most difficult thing for an artist to deal with is that they have to hang in there. It just doesn’t happen overnight. You see a record pop out from nowhere, but in the majority of cases, you’ll find that this person has been knocking around on the road and doing things, whatever it is that they do to keep themselves alive, and then they hit it. Usually those are the ones that are lasting. I don’t think the best thing for an artist is to make their first album and suddenly it’s a smash. That puts a lot of heat on someone who doesn’t have any seasoning, who doesn’t know what it is to get a few knocks. You don’t have anything to base it on. You’ve got to look at it and say, “This is my life, this is what I’m going to do, for better or worse.”
Are artists today being given enough time to develop?
No. There are a lot of reasons for that – but one of the big ones is that the deal has become everything. You get this thing where one company goes after an act, then the other company thinks, ‘Oh jeez, I’m missing something here,’ there’s a buzz that’s created and the next thing you know, there’s a bidding war that’s going on. An act gets signed for an exorbitant amount of money, they put out a record. If it costs two or three hundred thousand dollars and you sell twenty-five or fifty, it makes it a hell of a lot more difficult the next time around to say, “I’m going to put out another two hundred grand to make the album.” I’m talking about pop records now. Everytime you sign an act, it’s a million dollar bullet. You have marketing, promotion, all these elements. You can put a million dollars into an act and not have anything. The next time it comes around you say, ‘Wait a minute, if I don’t see some upside,’ meaning that the album doesn’t perform at least to the degree that you think that there’s a possibility here, then you drop the act. You’re almost forced to. Something is wrong here, and I don’t think that there’s any one individual to blame. There’s enough blame to go around, from the lawyer who thinks he has to make the best deal he can make. Well, the best deal isn’t always the best money. The best deal has to do with the place that the individual is going, how they feel about the act, do they understand what the act is doing, is there a communication with the act. I’m not saying that if all those elements are there and they give them ten cents then it’s a good deal. You have to take all those things into consideration, and a good lawyer will advise the artist as to what they think is best. But the budgets are way out of hand. It used to be you had five or ten supergroups that would create excitement and bring people into the stores. Now, how many acts can you look at that do that. That’s not to say that there aren’t very talented people out there, it’s just the manner in which it’s being handled. You can spread this blame around from record companies to managers to lawyers to radio.
If there’s a singer/songwriter who doesn’t have a deal, but wants to approach a producer like yourself or a label, what advice would you give them?
Work clubs, meet people and don’t commit yourself to any one individual, unless of course that individual has some juice, whether it be a lawyer or a manager or a production company that has some validity with record companies. But unless you have any of those, you don’t commit yourself to someone who is unknown who just is very excited who sits there and listens to you until three in the morning talking about your life story. If this individual doesn’t have any juice, if they can’t bring anything to the party, then both of you are in the same position. I think it’s important that you do as many showcases as you can. Send your tapes out, follow the tapes up by trying to get in touch with the A & R person. It’s not easy. You have to understand that record companies, producers and A & R people get hit with hundreds upon hundreds of tapes constantly, and you just can’t go through all of it. It’s a physical impossibility. There has to be some way – I have numerous ways that I deal with it – but if there’s a manager or a publishing company or a lawyer I respect who’s attached to the tape, then I’ll listen to it. I also have a guy who works for me, and I respect his ears. A lot of the things I get in, I give to him to check. If he thinks it’s something I should listen to, then I listen to it. If I listened to every tape that came across my desk I’d be short on sleep and I’d be so saturated that when even something great came along I wouldn’t know it.
Any final words?
If you’re not out there supporting your record, forget it. I don’t care how good you are. You’re not going to get through. If you look through Soundscan and see what some of these albums sell – with the exception of Celine Dion and some of the big hip-hop acts, you start looking at these sales, and they’re pretty anemic. When I sign an act, I have to know that this person is able to not only be willing to go out and work, but has the ability to knock people out when they see them in person. It can’t be a totally manufactured thing. Somebody has to be able to get out there and deliver the goods, whether it’s in front of 200 or 2000 people.
Lipuma’s Essential Listening:
Antonio Carlos Jobim – The Composer Plays
Buffalo Springfield – Ist album
Cream – 1st album
Paul Simon – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
James Brown – “Sex Machine”
anything by Patsy Cline
anything by The Beatles
anything by Dinah Washington – “She’s my favorite singer,” says Lipuma.
— By Bill DeMain