When we interviewed producer and record executive Tommy LiPuma last year, he thrilled us with stories about the various music icons with whom he’s worked over the years. A terrific storyteller, he received 36 Grammy nominations that resulted in five wins and worked with Diana Krall, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Natalie Cole, George Benson, Sir Paul McCartney and Leon Russell, just to drop a few names on you.
A Cleveland native, he regularly returned to Cleveland and gave back to Cleveland (back in 2012, the board of trustees of Cuyahoga Community College named the College’s arts center the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts in recognition of his support of the Cuyahoga Community College Foundation). Tri-C has devoted a web page
to his memory.
Tragically, LiPuma died yesterday at age 80.
For LiPuma, discovering R&B music when he was bed ridden as a youth was like “finding a new church.” LiPuma, who learned to play piano and then saxophone as a teen, started performing at Cleveland clubs when he was only 16. Following in his father’s footsteps, he learned the barber business, which he has said he couldn’t stand.
“Thank God I had music,” he recalled when we interviewed him last year. “I was playing three or four nights a week as a musician. That kept me from committing suicide. I worked on 17th and Euclid. All the radio stations were right in that area. I started getting disc jockeys and promotion men as customers. I realized it was the business I should be in. I kept asking, but nobody took me seriously, but then someone did. I went on the road with a band for about a year and was playing every toilet in the United States from Fargo, North Dakota, to Mishawaka, Indiana.”
He came back home and got a gig in a warehouse packing records. That led to a job in promotions.
“After that, I was on my way,” LiPuma said. “Within a year, I gained a reputation and got hired by a guy who used to be in Cleveland by the name of Bob Skaff. He gave me a gig in L.A. as the local promotion guy.”
After doing promotion, he got into music publishing and began working with Randy Newman and Jackie DeShannon. He had a big hit with the Sandpipers and launched his own label, Blue Thumb Records.
“[Blue Thumb Records] was great,” he says. “We had Dave Mason from Traffic and the Pointer Sisters and the Jazz Crusaders. The first act I signed was Dave Mason, and we did [1970’s] Alone Together
, which was a big album. We had T. Rex and Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.”
He would then work with acts such as Barbra Streisand, Michael Franks, George Benson, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn and Natalie Cole. In the ‘90s, he helped turn singer Diana Krall into a superstar.
All the while, he never forgot his roots and worked with former Clevelander Dominick Farinacci, recording an album of his at Tri-C's Center for Creative Arts.
“[His album] turned out great,” he said of working with Farinacci. “I’m very happy with it. He’s one of those guys who wants to give back. My two passions in life remain music and art, and I’m really committed to both of them.”
Last year, Krall, Jarreau, Dr. John, Leon Russell and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, all artists he's produced over the course of his 50-year career, honored him at a special concert at Connor Palace. Billed as Tommy LiPuma’s Big Birthday Bash, the show kicked off the 37th annual Tri-C Jazz Fest, a busy weekend of concerts and events.
LiPuma was clearly moved by the attention. "It's been a long trip, thank you for coming and . . . I love you all,'' he said as he took a bite out of a giant birthday cake that organizers presented to him at the concert’s end.
We’ll always remember LiPuma for that touching tribute and his humble response to it. May he rest in peace.