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Tommy LiPuma lived a fascinating life. As detailed in The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma (Nardis Books), a biography penned by longtime friend and musician Ben Sidran, the influential record mogul’s saga reads like a sprawling work of fiction. Over the past four or five years of LiPuma’s life — he died in 2017 — Sidran rolled tape during their frequent get-togethers, capturing LiPuma’s reminiscences about his life and experiences and gaining insight into how he became a pivotal figure in the worlds of jazz and pop. From pairing Miles Davis with Marcus Miller to forging indelible hits with George Benson to helming Natalie Cole’s triumphant Unforgettable and engineering Diana Krall’s ascendance on a string of successful records, LiPuma’s ears and instincts were damn near infallible.
Sidran first met LiPuma after he was signed to his Blue Thumb label. Shortly after walking into the producer’s office, he was put to work playing Hammond B3 organ on a session for guitarist Phil Upchurch’s 1972 soul-jazz classic Darkness Darkness. Here he got to observe LiPuma’s production methods up close, as LiPuma famously preferred to hang out on the musicians’ side of the studio glass. “Tommy’s style of production was always a mystery, not just to me, but to a lot of folks,” says Sidran, 76, talking by phone from an oceanfront Mexican vacation spot in early March. “Because he was very affable and very friendly and always open to other people’s ideas, it could often appear that all he was doing was ordering lunch. But then you’d be aware that all the records came out sounding very beautiful and well-crafted, so he was clearly doing more than lunch. He was very focused and he had a way with people that brought out their best. They trusted him and he trusted them. And there was a feeling in the room that you wanted to do your best for this guy.”
LiPuma’s amiable demeanor, Sidran posits, had its roots in a fateful childhood incident. Growing up in an Italian family within a multi-ethnic Cleveland neighborhood, LiPuma enjoyed a lively first-generation immigrant experience. Then, at age 9, a freak accident during a sandlot baseball game changed the course of his life. A line drive hit LiPuma squarely on the hip, knocking him unconscious and later activating an infection that made him quite ill. Confined to his bed for a couple of years, he turned to the radio for company. And when he heard Ruth Brown singing “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” in Sidran’s words, “a whole new world opened up to him.” Songs by Charles Brown, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan and Red Prysock spoke to him not just through their deep-pocket grooves but in expressions of longing and overcoming whatever life threw at you. “Ballads and blues is where I live,” LiPuma told his biographer. Explains Sidran: “This was clearly because of the travails he went through as a child. If you look at Tommy’s records, they all have this kind of romanticism, which I think comes from his love of ballads.”
In his teen years, LiPuma would pick up a saxophone and a serious jazz jones. George Shearing and Horace Silver had turned him on to jazz, but hearing Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool was a significant turning point. “It changed the way he listened to music,” Sidran writes.
Cutting hair, like his father did, was not a lifelong ambition. Music was his mistress, and he’d do anything to make a life with her, literally working his way from packing records for distribution to plugging records to local DJs to running the show at some of the biggest music companies on the planet, including Warner Bros. and A&M. Early on he realized the primacy of the song, finding successful vehicles for Brook Benton and The O’Jays. “The song was definitely king,” Sidran says. “Tommy came up through publishing. The song was the asset, and you accessorized it almost with the artist.”
That philosophy remained with LiPuma throughout his career, as did his ability to identify an artist’s true strengths. This is nowhere better illustrated than in LiPuma’s guidance of George Benson, who had been recording for Creed Taylor’s CTI imprint. Why, LiPuma wanted to know, did Benson not sing more on his albums? Apparently, Taylor had wanted to make Benson into “the next Wes Montgomery.” Understanding that Benson’s vocals were every bit as appealing as his silky guitar sound, LiPuma urged him to sing on “This Masquerade,” a Leon Russell tune that they initially planned to record as an instrumental. He also remembered a song from a Gábor Szabó session, a catchy ditty penned by R&B star Bobby Womack called “Breezin’,” which became the album’s title track. Breezin’ ended up selling more than eight million copies and earned a slew of Grammy nominations, with “This Masquerade” taking Record of the Year.
LiPuma’s instincts once again proved sound after he met Miles Davis in 1986. More than anything, he wanted to return Davis to prominence, something Davis longed for, as well. LiPuma brought in bassist Marcus Miller to contemporize Davis’ sound with his virtuosic drum-machine programming on tracks that would comprise the album Tutu. “I stopped by when they were making Tutu at Capitol Studios,” Sidran recalls, “and I heard the [title] track that Marcus had come up with before Miles put his trumpet on. And at that time, that triplet feel that he got out of a drum machine was very unusual. Marcus got it to swing. I don’t think Tommy liked drum machines, but I do think he had no compunction about making a record like Tutu with Miles.”
LiPuma’s magic touch continued with Cole’s Unforgettable and on Krall’s remarkable run in the ’90s and 2000s. Even as he grew increasingly disenchanted with the industry, he lent his production skills to a rising star, Cleveland trumpeter Dominic Farinacci, on his 2014 release Short Stories. And though he kept up with trends and was attracted to the latest technology, LiPuma still drew on the deep wells of feeling from his early listening experiences. “In the last year of his life,” Sidran relates, “Tommy was listening mostly to Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Lester Young. He was just falling back in love with the music of his childhood, as I think we all do. There’s a line in the book that says, ‘Nostalgia doesn’t just color the past, it colors the future.’ I think that’s really true: What we fall in love with, we stay in love with.” - Bob Weinberg