[JPL] The Tracks of Our Times with Joel Dorn, Interview by Randy Ray:

Arturo arturo893 at qwest.net
Thu Sep 21 20:40:44 EDT 2006

Children of Coincidence – Randy Ray

“There’s a great line about committees. A giraffe is a horse designed by a
committee. These A&R committees—I’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 giants—illustrious 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 acts—many of whom are featured
on Jambands.com—like 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 dates—recently, the mindblowing
Brotherman in the Fatherland —the man played three saxophones at once, a
nose flute while shouting into a microphone—an 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 tomorrow—there 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
writer—he crafts all of his own fairly hilarious yet insightful liner
notes—photographer and astute art historian. His discussion regarding the
relationship between surrealism and the sound of a recording is both
illuminating and uniquely visionary—hence, 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 Dorn—a 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 imagine—that 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

JD: Yeah, but you’re a real writer. For instance, I did an interview with
T.S. Monk—you know, [Thelonious] Monk’s kid—and 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 Monk—you 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 know—a 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 writer—a 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 music—it’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 you—and 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
records—or 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 Police—more than any
other music that I record—boy, 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 jazz—even to this day—still 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 Ridge 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 jockey—I thought it was a cool thing to do. One of
my professors at school—Jeff Sherman—paid 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 cats—it 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 kid—I 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 engineer—I 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: Listen—you 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 odd—Produced by Joel Dorn for the Masked Announcer.
When I left the radio to go to Atlantic Records in 1967, UHF stations
started showing up—you 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 slipcovers—so 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, “Awww—I 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 advertise—it 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 lasted—half 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, WBAS—AM 1480 and it
was Georgie Woods, the Man with the Goods—heavy 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 man—back then
they didn’t call us producers, they called us A&R men—and 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 Harley—a 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 on—Rahsaan Roland
Kirk, Yusef Latif, 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 clubs—Peps 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 perform—not 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
Santamaría 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 people—so, 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

JD: I was a music nut like a lot of guys who came into the record business
back then. Don’t forget—the record business was a cottage industry in the
40s, 50s and into the 60s.
At a certain point, it exploded and when it did—I 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 wasn’t a bunch of Jewish
guys and black guys and Italian guys who loved music and it wasn’t a bunch
of gangsters who controlled it—which 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 me—well, 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
business—seventy-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 advances—whereas
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: Listen—the R&B and jazz label that Atlantic was was the basis for them
becoming a major label. At that time—they 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 Jerry—there’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 label—Nesuhi 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 labels—it 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 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 time—around 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, “God—I 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 know—let’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’s—she 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,
look—I 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 years—she was loyal to them. She also wanted Tony Taylor
to bring up—Cannonball 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
Taylor—who was friends with Cannon—said 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, “Look—I want to do the album again but I want to use my
guys. So I got Ron Carter and Ray Lucas—the drummer I loved—and 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 sell—mainly 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 play—they’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. Listen—I 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, “Look—I’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 slow—it was too this, too that. So, here’s Clint Eastwood, right—he 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. Look—you 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 and—it’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
picture—you have the lion, the man in the stripped coat, the sky and the

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 spectacular—not because Idid 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 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, we’d
put a flute solo or something.” I said, “Do that shit that Frankie Lyman did
in all of those great records—that vocalese thing.” She did it, we put it
together and here’s the kicker—I 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 drum—what 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

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 lives—so 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 produced—Roberta
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
happen—you 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 Brothers—one 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
know—who 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 sang—forgetaboutit. 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 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 don’t like it.” I said, “What do you mean—they 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 kids—that 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, listen—I’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 stations—that’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 again—when 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 record—it 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 charts—and 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, “Goddamnit—I 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 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 record—just like with the
Neville Brothers (laughs), how did you pick these two acts to talk about?
Just like the Neville Brothers record—when 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 plants—it 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, “Listen—I 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 it—you 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 about—Roberta Flack,
the Neville Brothers and Leon Redbone—because 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

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. 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,
right—they 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 wild—the 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 wild—there 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, man—I 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 ear—about 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)

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