I’ve been reading (or re-reading) a clump of books about a fascinating sort of artist: the record producer. Three memoirs, from Jerry Wexler, Daniel Lanois and Phil Ramone; and two bios, of John Hammond and Phil Spector. These guys (the overwhelming majority of producers over the years have been guys) are a rainbow of different styles and methods, but they share one key attribute: they all grew up living and breathing music. Nothing else in life was anywhere close.
It’s tough to put your finger on what makes a good producer — or even what it is exactly that a producer does. (As a former book editor, I’m familiar with having an amorphous profession.) At least in the acoustic age, when musicians used to push air around in an expensive soundproof studio, being at a recording session was very much like being on a film set. Most people are surprised to learn that at either place, the thing you do most is wait.
A record producer is analogous to a film director, too, but they’re creatively inverted. The director is acting as a general, leading an army of specialists and doling out her full attention among every single inch of the photographic frame: she’s thinking outward. The producer is in a claustrophilic environment, intent on the slightest intonations and their relationship to the other sounds at his disposal: his inclination is inward. They will become one and the same when the director gets to the mixing process long after photography has been completed, but in the primal sense a director is still counting on her eyes, a producer on his ears.
Some producers start out as musicians themselves: Phil Ramone was a violin prodigy, and everybody says Phil Spector was good enough to make a living as a session guitarist had he chosen to. But Jerry Wexler and John Hammond were both swing-era superfans, soaking in everything they could learn about jazz and blues and spending every possible minute listening to music. No matter his background, though, any producer must obviously be able to communicate with musicians, either in a musicological sense (e.g., Ramone) or an emotional one (Hammond). As Hammond biographer Dunstan Prial points out, several members of Count Basie’s band couldn’t read music, but Hammond could talk to them just fine. Paul McCartney doesn’t read music either, but does he ever hear it. Imagine the excitement he felt when producer George Martin introduced him to the piccolo trumpet, which wound up leading the charming break on “Penny Lane.” Producer Ron Richards knew you can’t fit a razor blade between the perfectly pitched high harmonies of the Hollies’ Allan Clarke, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, but on the bubbly hit “Carrie-Anne,” the instrumental solo is taken by — a steel drum. That’s what a producer does.
Recording techniques weren’t as sophisticated when the older guys got their start, and Hammond in particular was famous for plopping down a single microphone in the center of the studio and letting the cats just wail. But since then, arranging mikes and musicians just so has become part of the gig. Phil Ramone is so meticulous that he keeps special microphones for the likes of Judy Collins, Paul Simon and Billy Joel under lock and key, each to be used by no other artist. Daniel Lanois cut his teeth working on ambient music with Brian Eno and filling every atom of the stereo spectrum.
But even a perfectionist like Ramone is helpless before the recording gods when the assignment is a “live” record. (He recorded Simon & Garfunkel’s 1981 Central Park concert.) Gone is the control over performance quality and audio separation which a studio provides. Most “live” albums from the pop era have been “sweetened,” or partially re-recorded in a studio setting after the fact. Even the keepin-it-real Grateful Dead’s EUROPE ’72 sounds better on record than it did in person. The all-time most notorious “sweetening” job was done by Eddie Kramer for ALIVE! (1975) by Kiss; on some tracks the drums were the only unretouched instrument, and even audience noise was altered. Ironically, that was the album that broke the band as a huge concert act.
Some producers, like Ramone and Lanois, started out on the electronic side, as engineers. To again use a movie analogy, that’s the audio equivalent of a cinematographer, translating the producer’s desires (who in turn is trying to capture the artist’s vision) and adjusting the recording process to get it all on tape. Top-flight record engineers like Alan Parsons and Tom Dowd became star producers in their own right. One day in 1975 I interviewed Rod Stewart for his first U.S. recording, ATLANTIC CROSSING, and Dowd was considered crucial enough to be there too. He’s featured heavily in Wexler’s good-natured memoir, which is essentially the history of Atlantic Records. (I already knew “Tommy” from a late-night Wet Willie session in Macon, Georgia, where a chunk of the time was spent calibrating a tom-tom after summoning a drum tuner in the middle of the night. Remember, you sit and wait. That too is what a producer does.)
Most producers operate in personal obscurity, and you probably wouldn’t have recognized any of the ones I’ve mentioned if you’d passed them on the street, with one possible exception: Phil Spector. The wunderkind of the Brill-Building “girl-group” era, he produced a fountain of Sixties hits (he had his first #1 record at age eighteen) in both New York and Los Angeles, and became more famous than his acts. He is best remembered for what he called the “Wall Of Sound” — redundant instrumentation layered into controlled thunder of Wagnerian intensity. Spector’s signature style influenced countless others: for example, the track “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen sounds like it was cut at a Phil Spector session. On the other hand, Spector is responsible for the unctuous and bullying orchestral and choral “sweetening” that, in my opinion, overpowers “The Long And Winding Road” on the Beatles’ LET IT BE (1970). But Spector is also remembered for his creepy eccentricities, so Mick Brown’s bio is far and away the most dramatic of the quintet I just enjoyed. It ends as Spector is about to go on trial for the 2003 second-degree murder of a B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson — everybody knew he was careless with guns. He was found guilty in 2009, and died in custody at 81 just three months ago.
Besides obsessing over music all their lives, the guys I just read about have one more thing in common: they all worked with Bob Dylan or, in Spector’s case, hoped to. (He said if he ever got the chance he would record Dylan “like an opera.” Hell, Phil recorded everybody like an opera.) But look at the variety. John Hammond signed Dylan and produced his first folk record in 1962, as part of John’s resurgence after jazz had morphed out from under him, from blues and swing to be-bop, during his hitch in the Army. (Hammond also discovered and signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin — her career didn’t take off until Wexler and the Ertegun brothers got ahold of her at Atlantic — Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others. Talk about ears!) Phil Ramone engineered the New York sessions for BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975), which make up about half the finished album. SLOW TRAIN COMING (1979), from Dylan’s Christian period, was produced by that ol’ nonbeliever Jerry Wexler. And Daniel Lanois, who must be the Phil Spector of the digital era — not as loud but just as tasty — produced OH MERCY (1989) and the sultry TIME OUT OF MIND (1997), one of my favorite Dylan albums of ‘em all.
Digital technology changes everything. Most crucially, it’s now possible to make workable recordings without using a studio: modern demos can sound better than some finished records used to. In fact, it’s possible to forgo the clock ticking your money away and make them in your bedroom (your mileage may vary as to relative quality). If you want, you can realize pretty close to full orchestrations that play only into your headphones, even correct the pitch of your singer if you have to. Digital is great in many ways. Peter Asher, who made some beautiful records with the likes of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, said, “People go, ‘Don’t you really miss tape?’ I say, ‘No, I’m so happy to see the back of it.’ We can do edits now that we could only dream of back then.” No question, technology has made some things easier.
But you cannot make the best record of which you’re capable without a good producer. You just can’t. After enough years spent slogging in the studio, that good producer might be you, but my guess is it isn’t. Here are five people who have really put their marks on music but never really got credit from the general public, only from devotees who paid attention. It was so much fun hanging out with them behind the console — and best of all, I didn’t have to wait one second.