Music Producer Tommy LiPuma

The legendary music producer and Verve Music Group Chairman Emeritus discusses his long and celebrated career as one of the industry’s most influential figures.

One of the most successful pop and jazz producers ever, Tommy LiPuma career spans over five decades with some 30-plus gold and platinum records, nearly as many GRAMMY nominations, and five GRAMMY awards to his credit. His keen ear for hits has earned him the reputation as one of the industry's most respected executives. LiPuma is credited with launching the label careers of such acts as George Benson, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks and Diana Krall. He has also produced albums for icons like Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, Barbara Streisand, and Paul McCartney. Currently the Chairman Emeritus at Verve Music Group, he remains one of the most sought after producers in the music business.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with legendary music executive and record producer, Tommy LiPuma. With over 30 Grammy nominations, five wins and 35 gold and platinum albums to his credit, he’s one of the most successful pop and jazz producers in all of music history.

The Chairman Emeritus at Verve Music joins us tonight to talk about his illustrious career and how the music industry has changed over his five-plus decades in the business.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with iconic music producer, Tommy LiPuma, coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome one of the music industry’s most innovative and influential figures, Tommy LiPuma, to this program. The Chairman Emeritus at Verve Music is widely credited with launching the label careers of George Benson, Al Jarreau, and Diana Krall and producing records for such icons as Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole and Barbra Streisand.

His 35 gold and platinum records, 33 Grammy nominations, and five Grammy wins make him one of the most successful pop and jazz producers of all time, and I am honored to have Tommy LiPuma on this program. Tommy, how you doing?

Tommy LiPuma: Oh, thank you, Tavis. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Good to have you here, man. You brought a lot of joy into my life over the years with the music you produced. This is a long way from a kid who thought his career was cutting hair [laugh].

LiPuma: That’s right.

Tavis: Take me back to Cleveland and into the family of barbers that you come from.

LiPuma: I was born into this–my mother and father were Sicilian immigrants and born in Cleveland, 1936. I came down with this illness when I was about eight or nine years old which laid me up for a couple of years.

And as it turns out, the only thing that ended up being my friend was I had a radio next to me and I just accidentally fell on the R&B station in Cleveland at the time, WJMO, and I started hearing, you know, everyone from Nat Cole to Charles Brown. It was like I just found God, you know. It really had an effect on me.

Now I had been–you know, there was always music in the house and I was listening from Jo Stafford to Glenn Miller and whoever else was the hits of the 40s, but that had a real effect on me. But in any event, when I was well enough to go back to school, I was behind a few years.

You know, I also had something called ADD, which at that time they had no idea what it was other than, you know, I didn’t pay attention. Basically, I really hated school. I just had no affinity whatsoever for it. To cut to the chase, I basically got through–I’d become a musician by that point. By 13 or 14, I started playing saxophone.

Tavis: Alto or tenor?

LiPuma: Tenor player.

Tavis: Okay, all right.

LiPuma: And I, at one point, just decided that I had had it with school and I quit. So my father who was a barber said, “Well, if you’re gonna quit school, you’re gonna have to learn a trade.” So I thought about it. I said, well, hey, this is great. You know, I’ll start making some money. I can get a car. I can start meeting chicks, you know [laugh].

Tavis: I’ve done this show 13 or 14 years. I don’t care who you talk to. The story always ends up with chicks [laugh ]. It’s always about getting to the chicks, but I digress. Go ahead. I’m sorry. You were saying, Mr. LiPuma?

LiPuma: So, you know, I went to barber college and so forth. But it ended up, I was working with my father who had a shop on the west side of Cleveland and I slowly started realizing that I hated it. And the only thing that kept me alive was the fact that I played gigs three or four nights a week and that kept me interested enough and I got through it.

And at one point, this is where fate really falls into the picture. A friend of mine who worked in a downtown–there’s an area called Playhouse Square in the middle of Cleveland.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

LiPuma: And he worked in a building called the Keith Building and he said there was a barber shop for sale and they worked by appointment and it was five days a week. I thought, wow, this is like the most civilized part of being a barber I had ever experienced. So I convinced my father to loan me the money to buy the shop, which he did at 3% interest, of course [laugh], his way of teaching me that you don’t get something for nothing.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

LiPuma: But where the fate falls into it is that it turns out that Playhouse Square is right smack in the middle of where all of the radio stations were. And I had a friend who had just gotten out of the Army and became a promotion man at a record distributor there and he started bringing up all the disc jockeys and so forth.

Next thing you know, it became like sort of music biz headquarters and I was saying, wow, man, this is the profession I got to be in. You know, I couldn’t find anybody to take me seriously. Then at one point, someone did and, by this time, I had actually leased the shop out because I hated cutting hair so much, and I went on the road with a band.

But this guy didn’t forget and he became manager of a distributorship in Cleveland and called me one day. He said, “Look, man, I’ve got a gig. It’s not that much, but I just took over running this record distributor and, if you want to pack records, it’s $50 a week.” I said, “Man, I’ll take it.”

Of course, my father thought I’d gone out of my mind because how can you take a job that pays $75 less a week than what you were making? As far as I was concerned, this was it. I had my shot. I had my foot in the door. And this gentleman had told me at the time that, if I did well enough, he’d get me a job in record promotion. So within about eight months, I was promoting records and I’ve loved it.

You know, just mingling with people and talking and bringing records in, and I was in heaven. Then, within a year, I got a chance to–there was someone who had heard about me in L.A. who hired me as a local record promotion man in L.A. So in ’61 or ’62, I moved to L.A. and then things just started happening, yeah.

Tavis: It’s a fascinating story because George Benson was on this program not too, too long ago. I’m fascinated now by your point of having that one person to believe in you, that one person to give you an opportunity.

LiPuma: Absolutely.

Tavis: So I want to play a clip of what George Benson had to say about you on this program. I got to set this up, though, because there’s a nice back story to it. So I was talking to George as I always do about the fascination I have with this particular part of his story, which is, as you know, for years George was a great guitar player and he had a manager for years who would tell him all the time, “George, you are the greatest guitar player in the world…”

LiPuma: Still is.

Tavis: Yeah. “But you ain’t got no business singing.” George wanted to sing and he would sing for the girls. He would tell the story all the time. The girls loved to hear him sing, but his manager kept saying, “George, you’re not a singer. You are a guitar player.” He got on the Tonight Show one night, didn’t have a great appearance, manager says, “See? I told you you just play the guitar. Don’t sing.”

And George said, “And then one day I met this guy, Tommy LiPuma, and all it basically takes is one guy to believe in you”, but that’s the back story. Take a look at George Benson talking about his first meeting with Tommy LiPuma.

George Benson: Every club I went into, especially when they had a girl manager, a woman manager, she would say, “George, sing something. I heard you sing. I like your voice.” I thought she was doing it because of that. I said, “Well, the band don’t like it when I sing.” Then she said, “I noticed that when you sing one song, nobody leaves the club between sets.”

So I tried it. I sang a song and everybody stayed. So I started putting one song in every set. It worked like a charm. And one guy heard me, Tommy LiPuma, who produced my song, “This Masquerade”. By now I’m getting ready to sign with Warner Bros. Records. I had just signed a deal. We were trying to find a producer. He said, “Man, I heard you sing five years ago in San Francisco. I can’t understand why record companies are not using your voice.”

So I told my manager, “That’s the guy who’s gonna produce my records” because they were showing me all the producers at Warners. I said, “What’s that guy’s name downstairs? That’s the guy I want to produce my records” and he came up with “This Masquerade”. Changed my whole life. Just one guy who believes in you is all you need.

Tavis: So that one guy believed in you in Cleveland and gave you a chance to pack records which led to your promoting records. Now here’s George Benson telling the story of you being the one guy who gave him a chance to actually sing and what comes out of that is “Masquerade”, a Grammy award. I mean, it’s an amazing story.

LiPuma: Well, again, talk about fate. As it turns out, I had first heard George with Jack McDuff back in the like mid-60s. So I said, “Look, I don’t know whether or not–if I find something that I think makes sense, we’ll do it. Otherwise, we’ll do an instrumental album. But if I do find something…” So it turns out that Leon Russell was a good friend.

I had met Leon when I first came to L.A. Leon had just come out with this album and on it was “Masquerade”. But Leon had sort of put this thing over it where he had made the first part of the record like he was talking to someone on the phone and he had put it through this thing called a graphic equalizer and made it sound like he was talking on a phone.

And for some reason or other, the song didn’t get to me. Then what happened was, when we signed David Sanborn, David Sanborn’s demo was “This Masquerade”. And I said, “Man, is that…”. And then I realized it was the Leon Russell song.

So I went to George. I said, “George, the song turns out right.” The last day that we rehearsed, Phil Upchurch who was another musician that I brought into the picture, Phil’s wife actually wrote the lyrics down and Bobby Womack who had done some things, Bobby I had asked…

Tavis: From Cleveland.

LiPuma: And Bobby was from Cleveland. We went to the same barber college together [laugh]. Is that amazing, man?

Tavis: I’m glad both of y’all stopped cutting hair because neither one of you should have been in the hair business [laugh]. We wouldn’t have had your wonderful record producing and we wouldn’t have had Bobby’s wonderful–I’m glad y’all stopped cutting hair. I digress. Go ahead.

LiPuma: So I had done something of Bobby’s with Gabor Szabo, “Breezin'”. For some reason or whatever, and it’s really incredible if you think about it, because “Breezin'” is basically a major scale, you know, and it’s not that much to it.

But it’s the matter of whether you put the phrasing in and so forth, but I never got it out of my head. So that was one of the tunes I was going to do, so I asked Bobby to come down and play rhythm. So it turns out Bobby didn’t show the first day.

The second day, we’re right in the midst of doing “Masquerade” and this thing, you could just feel it. Man, I had no idea whether it was going to be a hit or whatever, but you could just feel the magic in the room from the performance. And as it turns out, out of that album, five of the six things we did were first takes, and it was one take.

Tavis: First takes.

LiPuma: First takes.

Tavis: Wow.

LiPuma: Right at the end of “Masquerade”, Bobby Womack walks into the room, just like shoves himself like we were in a capital. I’m like, “Man, wait!” I’m like waving my hands and he caught me and he sat down.

Afterwards, everyone came in and listened to it and we were just blown away that it came out as great as it did. So the best part of it was the album comes out, of course, it’s a big record. And we were at–it was Mo Austin’s birthday and George and I were sitting at the bar.

At one point, he turned to me and he said, “Brother, I don’t think you know this, but the first time we met, you asked me how come you never sang on your album. And I knew right at that point that I wanted you to produce my records.” So it goes to show you that you never know what it is you’re going to say or how these things happen.

Tavis: As I sit here listening to you, Tommy, tell this story about a time, to my mind at least–and I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but I’ll say it anyway–when music was really music, I have these debates all the time, when melody existed which we could talk about for hours, I suspect.

But you’re talking about Sanborn, you’re talking about Benson, you’re talking about Bobby Womack and all the other folk I mentioned, Natalie Cole and Barbra Streisand, the folk you’ve worked with. How do you hear music today? What I’m getting at is, in so many ways, it seems to me–I was just looking at the list of Grammy nominees that’s coming out this year.

It seems to me that, in some ways, the artist is no longer as present in the music as the artist used to be. I’m looking at songs that are being written by committee, as it were. I’m talking about autotune. I could do this all day long, and you know this better than I do. I mean, for a guy who’s an old school record executive when A&R really was A&R, how do you hear music today?

LiPuma: Well, first of all, I have a sense that romantic lyrics and beautiful melodies are sort of in deepfreeze right now, you know. I mean, it’s pretty difficult to argue with the success that you see, what’s going on. But, you know, it’s not something that–I mean, I could appreciate the manner in which they’re made, the precision manner in which it’s made.

Actually, your staff sent me an article and that was in Atlantic, I think. And I was going through the songs and I picked one in particular out. It was a Taylor Swift thing called “Bad Blood” which had Kendrick Lamar who actually, as it turns out…

Tavis: He’s a great artist.

LiPuma: Man, look, there’s this thing–have you seen this video called “Alright”?

Tavis: “We gonna be alright, we gonna be alright”. Yeah, it’s a great song, yeah, yeah.

LiPuma: Great song, great production. It tells a story. It’s great. So it’s not like I have any argument with this as much as there was a time back when I was promoting records, when I was making records, where radio and whatever the manner in which you heard things in those days, they were different genres.

Like there was something called “Top 40 Radio” and, on that one station, with that one Top 40 station, you were able to hear everything from–you could hear anything from Chuck Berry to Barbra Streisand to whatever. It was the hits of the day. So people got a chance to listen to all different types of things.

And one of the things I think that record companies, unfortunately, have done which I think has a lot to do with just greed, quite frankly, is that like they’ve just zeroed in on, okay, Taylor Swift does this thing. It’s a huge hit and let’s just concentrate there. Okay, we sold 10 million, whatever it is on this. Let’s just keep–so you have this now what’s called this hit machine, in a sense.

Tavis: But it’s sameness.

LiPuma: It’s a sameness…

Tavis: I’m not bashing Taylor, but I take your point, though. It’s sameness, yeah.

LiPuma: Yeah. And the other thing is that like, you know, when you have whether it was like–I was so lucky because when I was a promotion man, I moved to New York. I caught the last part of “Tin Pan Alley” as it was.

Going to 1650 Broadway, the Grill Building, all that action that would go on with trying to get–and I learned how important a song was, you know. How important a song and putting it with the right artist. You know, all those things that always stuck with me.

Tavis: I think one of the debates I have, again, with mutual friends of ours and others, I have these debates all the time. See, I think, if you define–you used the word success–if you define music success as sales, then maybe some people are successful. And even then, the sales aren’t huge for everybody.

So some people, I think, define success as sales. I define success in music as advancing the art form. And I think that’s my issue nowadays and I don’t know. I can’t point to a bunch of examples of people. Certainly there’s some, but writ large, I can’t see a bunch of examples of people who are advancing the music. What Miles did? That’s your guy. Whatever Miles did, he advanced the art form. What Coltrane–I mean, what Aretha–I mean, we could do this all day long. I don’t know that we’re advancing the art form any more.

LiPuma: No. It seems like it just has to do with, you know, is this thing going to make money?

Tavis: Right, exactly.

LiPuma: And you’ve got these group of individuals who get together and they figure out–it used to be like maybe you had one hook, like the chorus was a hook, or an opening musically was a hook. But now, it’s like it’s all hooks.

Tavis: When you look back on your career, you’ve done so much, as I mentioned at the top, what are you most proud of?

LiPuma: Well, I guess I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to survive all of these changes that’s gone on and I’m still working, you know. I’m still active, still able to get calls and make records. I guess, you know, when I think back at these albums that I’ve made, one of the most important things to me was the artist.

When I started producing records, I was making records with groups like The Sandpipers. My first hit was “Guantanamera”. You know, in those days, my first job as an A&R man was at A&M and you were basically a staff producer. So they bring you an act and they brought me this group.

The next thing I know, I did The Sandpipers. They brought me also Claudine Longet. Next thing I know, I had a hit with Claudine Longet. But I felt that I was getting stereotyped in this area and I said, “You know, man, I want to work with talent.” What I don’t want to do is try to change what someone’s doing.

I want to find someone who’s got the goods and just try to surround them almost like a director casts a film with the right musicians and set a mood in the room. That’s the other important thing. You know, seeing a live performance and making a record are like 180. There’s absolutely no connection between these two things.

And you have to basically go in–well, one of the things I should say is I think it’s important–every producer has a style and a manner in which they get what the important thing is, the end result. With me, what ended up happening was I found that being in the booth and the musicians and the artist being out in the studio and having the talk-back was not working for me.

Because I found that, you know, they finish the take and they’d say, “How was that?” The minute I hit that talk-back, I mean, the silence was deafening and I would freeze up. Then I realized one day there was something I wanted to explain to the musicians. So I asked the second engineer, “Look, do me a favor.”

You know, I had my music that I was following and so forth. I said, “Set me up in the studio so that I could talk and explain what I wanted to do in this particular case.” I found that, through my experience, being in the room with the musicians, it was like the curtain was put away, that glass between me and the guys, and I found myself very comfortable.

And that, when the take was over, one, I was able to immediately respond to what happened. And the other part of it was is that I think the musicians got a sense from me as the take was happening how I was reacting.

Tavis: It’s that human connection…

LiPuma: Yeah.

Tavis: That you have to have, but you’ve mastered that. That’s what we connect to in your work and your music.

LiPuma: Pre-production is a very important part too. And pre-production means not just picking the songs, but working with the artist and finding the right manner to approach it. Sometimes, you know, like Diana Krall, a great example I could use. We would go in and maybe 60 or 75 songs we’d go through to come up with 13 or 14 things.

And that took her sitting at the piano playing them, getting a response from me, how I felt, whether or not she felt natural singing it or not natural singing it. And we would get rid of all of these things so that when we went into the room, we knew what it was that we were trying to accomplish.

Tavis: Well, you picked the right ones. I saw her at the Bowl this summer. She’s amazing. I love her. She’s amazing.

LiPuma: Yeah, she’s wonderful.

Tavis: Thank you for your gift. That’s the best way to put it. Thank you for your gift.

LiPuma: Well, thank you for having me.

Tavis: It’s my pleasure. Tommy LiPuma, I still didn’t do justice after a full show to the breadth, the depth, of his career, but you got a little taste of it. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 26, 2015 at 1:58 pm