Courtesy of Ben Sidran, Nardis Press
The late Tommy LiPuma (left) with Paul McCartney.
When Cleveland native Tommy LiPuma passed away in March of 2017, he left behind an incredible legacy of work, time spent behind the boards and in collaboration with an impressive collective of artists — including Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Dr. John, Miles Davis, George Benson, Diana Krall and many more.
Musician and author Ben Sidran knew that he had come across somebody who was really special when he first met LiPuma in the early ‘70s. Recording three albums for Blue Thumb Records, the label that LiPuma had co-founded with Bob Krasnow, Sidran embarked on what was ultimately a 45-year friendship with the Cleveland-bred producer and music industry executive.
Sidran, who has written a number of books over the years, knew that the story of LiPuma’s path to eventual success was one that should be documented.
About a decade ago, he made the suggestion to LiPuma that he could interview him and get his stories down on tape. In each moment that followed, if the pair were together, there was a recorder nearby rolling as they talked and Sidran found himself with more than 80 hours of material to draw on.
The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma
is the result of those conversations, pulling together the definitive story of LiPuma’s life, which began here in Cleveland in a house on East 111th St., just south of Woodland Ave. It’s a fascinating read on a number of levels. In particular, the tales of those early days in Ohio help to paint the picture of how LiPuma developed both personally and professionally — and the many challenges he had to work through to eventually realize his dreams and channel his many passions into a career in the music industry.
We spoke with Sidran via phone about the book as well as his own memories of Cleveland.
I’m really glad this book exists. Tommy’s story is an incredible one, but I think this book also helps to document the world of radio and record labels that the average music fan is probably not familiar with. I think it does a great job of illustrating what that world looked like for a lot of decades.
Well, thanks man. I totally agree. Telling Tommy’s story, you couldn’t help but tell this much larger story of the 20th century. It’s almost like looking back at the Civil War now. It’s so far away from what we know.
With your own extensive history in the industry, you’ve worked with all types. What’s the moment that you can point to where you realized that Tommy was different than your average music industry person?
That’s a really interesting question. Of course, the music industry was like the elephant and the blind men. It depended on what part of the elephant you were near. I first encountered it working in a record store like Tommy did. I opened boxes of records in 1963 and 1964 working my way through college when the record business was just a little, you know, we sold ethnic music and
Beethoven symphonies and a little folk music. Then there was a small jazz area, of course. I used to patrol that. And then, lo and behold, one day we started getting boxes of hundreds of records by this group called the Beatles. It started selling, and it didn’t stop and everything blew up. So here’s me opening the boxes of records and there’s Tommy packing the boxes of records in his youth. So there’s a parallel there. There was a business that was a pennies and nickels business. Tommy tells the story about Milt Salstone of MS Distributing, demanding money from him and then throwing it away and saying, “Do you like what I did with your money?” Tommy says, “No,” right? And Milt says, “Well, I don’t like what you’re doing with my money! You’re wasting my money!” It was a totally different business. So your question leads to a lot of different areas. Mainly, I went to England, and I was there when I got into the record business in ‘67 and ‘68. It was very serious. It was highly structured. The recording studios, the guys used to wear white lab coats and the bands, there was a band called Spooky Tooth and some of these other flamboyant British bands. It was a totally different scene. At the end of a recording session, the fixer is what they called the guy who would come out and hand out cash, pound notes, to the musicians. That was one kind of theater. And then later, I got into the L.A. record business with this guy, Artie Mogull at Capitol Records and Albert Grossman. So that was my introduction and then I met Tommy. As crazy as Tommy was, he was totally the straightest guy I ever met. All of these other people were much crazier than Tommy, and I don’t mean more open to fun and improvisation; what I mean is, Tommy was really grounded. He loved the music, and he loved the culture it came out of. He had great taste, and he was so empathetic with the human condition. At the same time, he loved laughing and having fun. He was just a great character. But when you read his story, it seems like how wild and outside he was, but the truth is, he was much more grounded than most of these characters in the record business.
Moments like him meeting Wilson Pickett and eventually helping him to get his first big hit record and also being in the room the first day that Sonny and Cher met stand out. There’s so many different things like that in this book that are incredible to read. As you were having the conversations, were there things that you just were not familiar with that floored you as you heard the stories?
It was endless, sure. I wasn’t prepared for half of it. And there’s a whole other half that didn’t get in the book and didn’t lend itself to the direction of where the narrative was going. It was the Wild West. Even Cleveland was the Wild West. You know, it started out, the business just took off, and when it took off, I mean, Tommy says it in the book, you know, the people who were in the business in the ‘60s, if it wasn’t for the record business, they’d have been vagrants on the street! [Laughs] The record business was a peculiar collection of peculiar guys at the time, and they were all in it for various reasons, but they were all in it for real. You know, they were in it up to their ears and down to their socks. There was a quality to Tommy that immediately struck people. When you walked into a studio with Tommy, people immediately recognized that he was a real guy and I think that was a big part of his production techniques. He was just showing up and being ruthlessly honest in a very pleasant way. He could say anything to anybody, and nobody ever minded. He was such a nice guy inherently that he could tell you something which basically wasn’t in the direction that you were going, and you’d still feel good about it.
You did three records for Blue Thumb. What was the common ground that you found with Tommy personally that launched what became a 45-year friendship?
Conversation. By the time I met Tommy, he had become very interested in literature and films. My big interest coming out of the ‘60s was essentially the sociology and the culture the music came out of. I’d studied it and written about it and loved it and was a player and loved meeting other players. I was immersed in the life. Tommy, although he was a very good business guy, obviously, he wasn’t somebody who struck you as being overly concerned about whether he could monetize the moment. [Laughs] He could relax and hang out and talk. We literally spent hours and days and weeks [together]. When I met him, he lived in a little house near north Hollywood. But then he moved to Westwood and he had this beautiful home. It was formerly owned by Dean Martin, and it had this barroom in the basement. Tommy put this great hi-fi system down there, and that’s where we’d spend hours and hours and hours. You know, all of the rest of the people would be asleep somewhere, and we’d be down there talking and listening to music. That’s what started it off. Honestly, 50 years later, we were doing the same stuff in a different house, but the same stuff.
What was the situation that put you in the path of Tommy and Blue Thumb? How did that happen?
His partner was a guy named Bob Krasnow, a totally legendary record business guy. I had made my first record on Capitol in 1971. It had just come out in June. At three in the morning, I got a phone call from Bob Krasnow, who was obviously wired on substances. He was at the house of a friend of mine who was a disc jockey in New York. He said, “Man, I’ve gotta sign you. How do I sign you?” First of all, my friend got on and said, “Listen, Ben, this is Bob Krasnow, he’s got a label called Blue Thumb, and he’s listening to your Capitol record, and he just loves it, and he needs to talk to you.” I mean, it’s three in the morning, and these guys are totally wired. So anyway, I said to Bob, “Call me back tomorrow” and he did. Within a month, I had flown out to Beverly Hills, negotiated my way off of Capitol, signed to Blue Thumb and that week when I had gone to L.A. to do that, I met Tommy in the Blue Thumb offices, which were in Beverly Hills. It was this little suite with two or three rooms in a New Orleans style building where you had to take an elevator that was a wrought iron outside elevator, up to the office. It was really funky and hip. I mean, classic Blue Thumb stuff. So that’s where I met him. I hung out with him that day. He had a recording session that evening that I went to with him. It was a Phil Upchurch session and I wound up hanging and playing on the session. The whole week I was out there, we just interacted. He was so easy to hang with; you couldn’t help but look forward to the next time.
You talk about the label in the book as it relates to Tommy’s own story, but it sounds like it was a label that much like the people involved, it had a lot of character.
Boy, you’re not kidding. [Laughs] A lot of character is exactly right. You know, the cliche is the inmates running the institution, but the fact is that these were people who came out of the ’60s and came out of the whole free form radio era. Tom Donahue in San Francisco, I mean, these guys were pals with Tom personally. They spent a lot of time up in San Francisco hanging and at the Fillmore. Kras and Tommy were at the Monterey Pop Festival. This is who they were. It wasn’t like Clive Davis flying in and then deciding he had to grow sideburns, which is what happened with most of the East Coast record executives. They came out to Monterey, and they looked around, and they said, “Wait a minute. There’s some money here.” And they started wearing Nehru jackets and shit. But Tommy and Krasnow were part of the culture. The culture was mind-opening when you see what they were interested in and reading about. I mean, they weren’t politically engaged in the anti-war stuff necessarily. But they carried on in that manner. You have to imagine, like I said originally, it was like the Civil War period. It was so different than it is now. There was a lot of optimism; there was a lot of money in the economy. The record business was growing exponentially. The old guard who was there — and they weren’t necessarily that old — they could have been in their 40s or 50s, but they were on the other side of the line from the people who grew up during the ‘63 to ‘69 revolution. [They] didn’t know who these rock ’n’ roll people were. It was like a landing from Mars. Somebody like Tommy and Krasnow were perfectly positioned. I mean, really the right guys in the right place at the right time. They understood the music, they were creative, they knew how to make the music and they knew how to sell the music. Unlike every other operation, they weren’t corporate driven. As a matter of fact, their instincts were such that — and Tommy says it, if this was the normal way to do something, we would do it the other way. You know, they went that far. So it was a one-off. By ‘73, they’re out of business and that kind of operation, well, today, it couldn’t happen. But it was a one-off. Because these guys were totally into the creativity of it. Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley — they were as much a part of the scene as Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderly. You know, James Brown and Bobby Blue Bland, all of this stuff was on a par, on a level. It was a cultural moment, more than specifically a musical moment or a money moment. It was a ferment and these guys were of that time. And they literally were. There was no foolin’ around.
It’s funny, as I was in the midst of reading this book, I was looking through some old Scene issues from the ’70s and at one point, there was a club ad, at the Agora I think, for a show that you were playing here. What sort of memories do you have from Cleveland back in the day?
[Laughs] I do remember the gig at the Agora. Michael Franks came. It must have been ’77 or ’78. Something back there. I remember it was a big room and the recording studio connected to the room.
What about Agency Recording?
Yep. I remember spending the day hanging out there. I remember a really good sound system. My band that I had at the time was great. They were on fire and we were playing four or five nights a week for six weeks. So we were just crazed. [Laughs] Rhythm and blues slash — I don’t know what to call what we were playing, but you know, everything was played at high energy back in the ‘70s. Everything was played probably too fast and too loud. But boy, it was burning. So I remember the night, I remember being there. I remember being in the recording studio, because we recorded the gig. There’s a tape of it somewhere. And I remember hanging out with Michael.
One interesting layer of this whole story is that not only did you have a deep connection to Tommy, but you had actually been here and knew of his initial stomping grounds, so you had a bit of a visual as far as what that looked like
Oh yeah, oh sure. This goes back to during the ‘70s; it was possible to tour a lot. You could go play clubs. There were clubs everywhere and it wasn’t so expensive. You know, I mean, now, even if you’re going to do it in a van, just the cost to rent a van, to pay for the hotels, the joke is that back in the day, we’d make 50 dollars a night, that was 50 years ago, and today we still make 50 dollars a night. So the scale of being able to hang out and do that is really gone. But yeah, you’d get to know cities. Cities interestingly enough, have personalities, when it comes to audiences and clubs and stuff. Cleveland’s personality, there’s no question why the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is there. It’s a perfect rock ’n’ roll city. I mean, you don’t have to call it rock ’n’ roll. It’s a groove city. It’s a music city. It’s a hard scrabble city. It’s a city of Italians and Jews and blacks, and it’s perfect...you see, I’m a Midwest guy. I like territory bands. I like roadhouses. I grew up in that stuff.
This book really speaks to Tommy’s spirit and his dedication because before he’s even out of Cleveland, there are plenty of moments that would have made a lot of folks throw in the towel. I mean, just even putting to the side all of the health issues. I wasn’t aware of that piece of things. But after he’s out of Ohio, there are additional challenges in California and New York, and everybody has their own individual path and journey, but I think the pieces and parts of the things that he had to work through to eventually get to where he wanted to be were really inspiring to read about.
Yeah, you know there’s a little mention that when he was in high school, he even joined the wrestling team. That little piece of information is extraordinary when you consider, after he spent three years in the hospital and one leg, one side of the musculature, it didn’t grow. To get out and wrestle and establish that you’re competitive at such an early age, says an awful lot about his character.
What were the challenges for you working on this book? It seems like it would have been quite a process. As you’ve said, there’s so much that didn’t make the book. Taking everything that you had conversationally, and whittling it down into the book that we’re holding here now must've been difficult.
Well, the big thing was trying to figure out what the book was. I mean, when I started with Tommy, I don’t know, six or seven years ago, I proposed to help him write his autobiography. We never got anywhere with that. Then I proposed to.....well, it came down to me saying to him, “Look, I can’t do it totally in your voice.” Everything that’s in the book in quotes, he said it, because I have tapes of him saying it. But the language of the book is mine. It’s not Tommy telling the story. So when I hit upon this idea of a ballad, you know, a ballad really goes back to the old romantic days in England when the troubadour would show up and sing a song about somebody. That’s what ballads were originally, man. When I struck upon this idea that I was just going to sing a little song here for Tommy, I was going to tell a story of a life, then it wrote itself. Trying to figure out what the book was took a while. You know, it really took me hanging in there. Because a couple of times, I put it away and I said, “I don’t know if I understand this.”
For you, what were some of the hardest things to take out?
Oh, the great, crazy, salacious bits that there were no purpose to put in. Except they were just crazy and salacious. I had to stop myself. And the other thing is that anything I was involved in. I mean, I don’t show up in the book at all. Obviously, it’s intentional. And the reason is that I didn’t want it to be about me in any way. I didn’t want to even have the appearance that our literal relationship would be part of the buying and selling of his story. Do you know what I mean?
I felt it very clearly. I didn’t want to promote myself as somebody inside the story. I didn’t mind being the writer, but I didn’t want to promote myself. Those are two different people.
I think you can recognize when you’re working on something like this. There’s sometimes where maybe as an individual, you play a big enough part that you need to be in the story, but in this case, it doesn’t seem like you needed to be there.
Thank you. Exactly right. My being there would not have affected it one bit, so why even bring it up?
Is there a way that all of the stuff that didn’t make the book, is there a way that any of that stuff comes out eventually?
Oh, who knows? I’ve got hours and hours of tape, and I transcribed all of it. So it’s all in a file. But you know, it’s raw interviews and half of them aren’t even interviews. Half of them are us just sitting in the restaurant, just talking. A lot of it is just table noise and stuff. So it’s all preserved and it all exists. You know, there’s stuff there. But again, I told the story that I wanted to tell. I told the story that I think Tommy wanted me to tell. I mean, there were a couple of things that Tommy was really clear about. He was clear about the guys who were important to him in his life. Down to the end, he kept saying, “These guys saved my life.” I know he wanted me to memorialize not just him, but this crew, this scene that he came up in and how important the whole idea of these personal relationships always were to him. I know he wanted that and I knew that he wanted this to be...let me put it this way, I tried to write the book that I thought he would like. I don’t think there’d be a version 2.0.
What’s next for you that you’re working on presently?
I wrote a book almost 10 years ago called There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream
. It’s a history of Jews in American popular music in the 20th century. I’m working on a 10th anniversary edition of that. I’ve got an introduction that this sociologist Howard Becker wrote and I’m writing a new last chapter which goes from 2000 to 2020, which is wild. Talk about the Wild West. I’m doing that. So that’s the project that I’m working on this summer. You know, and I’m taking advantage of not having any work to practice all of the time. So that’s fun. I’m playing a lot of piano.
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