[JPL] The Tracks of Our Times with Joel Dorn,
Interview by Randy Ray:
arturo893 at qwest.net
Thu Sep 21 20:40:44 EDT 2006
Children of Coincidence Randy Ray
Theres a great line about committees. A giraffe is a horse designed by a
committee. These A&R committeesIve 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 todays jukebox.
Hes 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.
Dorns 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, Skeriks 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 Kirks producer. While at Hyena, he has released several of
the late Kirks 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
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: Ive always been drawn to
stuff thats left of center. Ive been lucky enough that Ive been able to
select to work with people who arent whats happening but are the thing
that isnt whats 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 dont 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. Im pretty well versed with the transcribing, sir.
JD: I gotcha. You call me sir again and Im going to punch you. (laughter)
Ive done some interviews for liner notes and I always send it to a service
to transcribe because I couldnt imaginethat to me would be like being back
RR: I like doing it myself because I can capture the flavor of what is
happening plus Im usually subconsciously structuring the piece as I
JD: Yeah, but youre a real writer. For instance, I did an interview with
T.S. Monkyou know, [Thelonious] Monks 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 didnt want to sit down and talk and then go
back and say, Last Tuesday, I spoke to Monks 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 cant get that stuff any
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. Its very interesting to get a sons 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, Im 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 youre looking for the government-approved liner notes,
you came to the wrong place. Its another part of the record for me. Im 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 its not
just the musicits a total package.
Its more like youre not a record producer but a director. Ive 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. Its amazing that a
blind guy understood the totality of the record package.
If you need me to explain the music to youand Im 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. Its taken me ten
to fifteen years where I dont 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 Ive been learning how to write,
seeking a voice and its a lot of fun. But the Jazz Policemore than any
other music that I recordboy, the Jazz Police, if you dont write a real
set of liner notes, they certainly break out in hives, these guys, you know?
RR: Its funny how jazzeven to this daystill has the rep of a
JD: Yeah. What the fuck is wrong with them?
RR: You know Nat Hentoff? He wrote the liner notes on Bob Dylans debut
album and that excellent first Dylan profile in The New Yorker.
JD: I know Nat very well; hes a good friend; hes one of my early heroes.
Its funny because I was talking to David Ridge today about a project that
were doing together and were 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 Nats work. Hes not just a jazz writer; hes a political writer and,
especially, a first amendment expert so the bulk of his writing now isnt
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: Lets 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 schoolJeff 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
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 Id be in some kind of music but I have
no skills, I only have ability. I cant play an instrument, I cant sing, I
cant arrange, I dont know how to engineerI dont know how to do anything
but, I do have an instinct for producing records so I always knew Id be
doing something in music.
People tend to think that jazz is the music I like best because Ive 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 dont 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 Ive 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 Ive 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
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 records sound.
JD: Listenyou used whatever technology was available but the technology
didnt drive the music; the music was served by the technology. I dont
think theres 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 doesnt have to go any place. I cant 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.
Im 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. Its 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. Theyd 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 dont you do the commercials on television? Do
some of your crazy stuff. So, I created this character the Masked
Announcer. Im 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. Wed 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 Musicwhich 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; Ive been
using it since the mid-70s and people say, AwwwI saw your thing; so,
youre the Masked Marvel. Youre the Masked Marauder. When you want to
make yourself into a cartoon or a comic book character: THE MASKED
ANNOUNCER. Its so stupid when you think about it and if you saw any of the
commercials, youd see how stupid it really was. Kids loved it, you know. He
was insane. Hed come on and babble aimlessly and we sold lots of slopI
cant 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 havent heard in
years; Im not sure what is on it. Sometimes, it worked; it was always nuts
but sometimes it was really funny. Wed do thirty of them and wed 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 didnt
have time to do it anymore. It was fun while it lastedhalf Kingfish, half
Sgt. Bilko. When I was a kid wed 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
theyd say, Come up, young man! Have you ever tried to squeeze an orange,
before? [affects a young boys voice with the proper cracked modulation]
No, I havent, sir. They would put this thing in the orange and I knew Id
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 Id scream these fake headlines. Id 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
Aint 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 couldnt find them in
the white neighborhoods so I went to the black neighborhoods; I found
something but I couldnt 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
When I wrote him the letter, I told him I wanted to be an A&R manback then
they didnt 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 Im 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. Id write him
letters and hed 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 Id 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 Id 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 Latif, Les McCann.
Nesuhi had given me a shot at a point when I was still on the radio. He
said, Heres what Ill 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 its
successful (which in those days meant that it broke even and got good
reviews) than Ill 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 hed give me a chance. He called me up one night when Mongo
Santamaría was playing at Peps and he had a big record with Watermelon
Manthat 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, Ive 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 didnt come from a musical background other than the love of
music. How did you acquire production skills just by watching Nesuhi
JD: I was a music nut like a lot of guys who came into the record business
back then. Dont 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 Americas 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 wasnt a bunch of Jewish
guys and black guys and Italian guys who loved music and it wasnt 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 didnt
exist anymore. For someone like myself, it was over. I was a kid; I didnt
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 didnt 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 wasnt a billion dollar
businessseventy-five cents and Id sit in the bleachers
and watch the Phillies. You go to see the Philadelphia Warriors and in order
to get a thousand people in, theyd have to have a doubleheader. Football
was played by guys who got $200 a game! (laughs) Its not that its better
or worse or anything; its 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: Lets 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 hadnt 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.
Theres never been a record executive like him. Dont 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 Jerrytheres 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 Atlantics. 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 McFadder 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 Kirks band. Rahsaan called
me at 7 in the morning one day and he said, Ive got your next artist. I
said, Whos that? He said, Its a girl, shes a singer, shes my bass
players 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, Weve got what? He said, Ive got
your next act. I said, What is it? And he said, Theres a chick down
here named Roberta Flack and shes unbelievable. I thought, GodI dont
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 Im telling
you, he went nuts. Nesuhi said, Well, you knowlets 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. Henrysshe had been there for six or seven years; she
was a real solid attraction in Washington D.C. Theres 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
werent recording in clubs.
RR: Cannonball Adderly?
JD: Yeah, Cannon. Theyd go to the Capitol studio in L.A. and theyd invite
an audience, lay out a spread with food and drinks so theyd 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 didnt cut it.
RR: Her group was weak?
JD: I went to Nesuhi and said, Look, shes great but the album isnt. Could
I have another $10,000? (laughter) I dont know if you know what $10,000
was back then.
RR: I dont 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. Lets do
it again. And the audience all turned around at the same time and looked
through the glass and they said, Whats wrong? That was great. I said,
Thats 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 didnt even have a drum sound yet.
The album came out and it was on the Jazz Series. Now, shes 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 Atlantics jazz category. It
wasnt 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 playtheyd 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
Eastwoods 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, Id love to talk with you, man but Ive got Winston Churchill on the
other line so as soon as were done, Ill 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, LookIm
all out of money. I only have a thousand dollars. I said, Doesnt make any
difference. Youve got it.
I went to Nesuhi and said, I just got a call from Clint Eastwood. He wants
to use Robertas 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 wouldnt release it because it was too long,
too slowit was too this, too that. So, heres 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 Eastwoods film and its 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, Were getting a hundred calls a day
for this Roberta Flack record but its too long to play. Would you edit it
and send it down here? I said, Sure. I went in and took about a minute
he called back and said, You know the edits no good. It doesnt feel the
same. So I said, Well, you know, thats the only way you can edit. I dont
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. Heres what you should have
done. I said, O.K. For some reason, I went back and edited it the way
that the program directors 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
Track 8 The Sleeping Gypsy Meets the Extroverted Bass Drum
JD: My engineer Gene Paul, Les Pauls 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 andits hard to explain
something like this because I cant 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
With Roberta Flacks 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 Genes
engineer work on the bass drum. I dont 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 Idid it. Its 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 Lyman
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, wed
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 heres the kickerI turned the record in and I was still a
young producer because Id only been making records five, six years but, I
said, Well, this is it, man. I know its going to win the Grammy. I know
its 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 Nesuhis 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 Ive ever made
in my entire life. Its 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 cant put it out, isnt that an odd
combination for two records that went on to become classics?
RR: Very odd plus the element of lets see, the bass drum as a lead
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 dont 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 hadnt made a left turn, if you hadnt 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 youve just got to wander aimlessly
but if you know how to wander aimlessly properly, stuff happens. 90% of what
Ive 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. Lets talk about the latter
two acts, now.
JD: Sure. Im glad you picked those three acts because number one, Ive
always been drawn to stuff thats left of center. Ive been lucky enough
that Ive been able to select to work with people who arent whats
happening but are the thing that isnt whats 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 examplewell, he plays three
saxophones, its a circus act and no, it aint.
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 wouldnt 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 Nevilles there and youve never heard anybody like him in
I went down there and sat at Docs 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 Id never heard anything like it. They were the best
bar band youd 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 names Joel Dorn. If I made a record with you,
what song would you sing? He didnt 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 thats 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 Child 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 dont like it. I said, What do you meanthey dont like it?
He said, They cant get any R&B play on it because it wont go on black
radio. I said, Its 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, listenIm glad you like your work and Im glad you like your record
(he gave me this snotty fucking blow off) but, we ran the record by black
radio and they dont like it. I said, FUCK black radio. Its not a record
for black radio. Its a record for white FM rock stationsthats who should
play it. He said, Theyre a black act and a black act belongs on black
radio. And I said, Yeah, just like Jimi Hendrix, motherfucker and walked
out. That didnt 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, Im not talking about me. You
understand? Im talking about the record. Im not Phil Spector. I dont 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 dont get in the way of it and fuck it up then, thats 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, its 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.
[Authors Note: My beloved editor has hit me on numerous occasions with
heavy furniture when Ive 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! Its 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: Im 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: Heres 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, Theres an act Id like you to see at the Bottom Line but
theres 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 dont have a
hit record for six months, youre not a hot producer. I went in there and
see this guy and I flipped: this is my kind of guy but I figured Id 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) So
I catch his set
and Im 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 Redbones 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 its 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, Ive 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 couldnt book anything
else up in a day and well take a shot with your guy. Warner Brothers
wouldnt 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.
Im 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. Thats why Ive pretty much been in
business with myself for the last thirty years. I cant explain what I do
but I know what I do. You cant draw a line from Roberta Flack to Bette
Midler to the Neville Brothers to Leon Redbone to Rahsaan Roland Kirk but, I
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
JD: Because he never sounded like the time he was in; he always sounded like
he was on his own plane, his own dimension. Its really interesting. Either
youre a genius or youre 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, Its 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
itll fill the time for you.
The first or second weekend, I look up at its like three and a half minutes
to 11 and Im too nervous to talk. I reached into the drawer and find
something that said Roland Kirk-3 for the Festival. Its 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 Kirks 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 didnt know that he played them all at once. I
put this on, heard this record and its wildthe phone starts ringing and
its Whose that? Whats 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
wasnt a group; it was a guyI 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 theyd have jazz concerts, which would have
Cannonball [Adderly], Nancy Wilson, Ramsey Lewis and Count Basie. The next
month theyd have Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Gloria Lynn and Duke
Ellington. So, anyway, Cannonballs stuck in a blizzard in Buffalo so they
called the Roland Kirk Quartet to fill in and I had never seen him. Im
standing in the wings; it was my first jazz concert that I didnt 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. Hes playing these three saxophones in his mouth, hes got
flutes in his nose, hes 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 Im 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 didnt 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 didnt want anybody telling him and I was a young kid and Im deaf. I
only have half hearing in my right earabout 60%and Im 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)
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