Creed Taylor, a highly influential and maverick jazz record producer and entrepreneur who recorded virtually every major jazz artist while in charge of the music at six major record labels over the course of his career, died August 22 in Winkelhaid, Germany, following a stroke suffered weeks earlier. He was 93. His son, John, announced Creed's passing in an email to me.
Creed began his career at Bethlehem Records in New York in 1954, where he helped pioneer the 10-inch LP format for the label, recording dozens of great jazz artists based in the city. Upon his arrival at Bethlehem, all pop records were still pressed on 78s. At Bethlehem, he began including his signature on the backs of record jackets. In 1955, he left Bethlehem for ABC Paramount, where he continued to include his outsized signature, but now on 12-inch jazz and jazz-pop albums he produced. This was previously unheard of in the record business and helped to brand his name and build his mystique as a producer whose mission was exquisite taste and high fidelity. ABC allowed this branding so that the name of a real person was attached to the quality and sound of what was being recorded and sold, adding cachet to the output.
In 1960, Creed launched Impulse! Records—a boutique label inside ABC conceived to offer exceptional music for serious jazz listeners. The covers were glossy and produced as gatefold jackets. Creed recorded six albums at the new imprint, including Africa/Brass by John Coltrane. In 1961, Creed was hired by Verve to head all jazz recordings, except Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown. They were all managed by the label's founder, Norman Granz, who continued to produce their recordings. Verve was owned by MGM at the time. In 1966, he moved to A&M, owned by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, where he launched CTI, his own imprint. A&M and CTI both specialized in jazz-pop with a relaxed sound. Among the label's early stars were Antonio Carlos Jobim and Wes Montgomery.
When Alpert and Moss decided to relocate A&M to Los Angeles in the late 1966, Creed pushed to remain in New York. By 1969, he was able to leave A&M with CTI as his own imprint, with A&M handling distribution initially. CTI would become one of the most significant jazz, jazz-soul and jazz fusion labels of the late 1960s and LPs. Among his innovations at CTI was the vastly improved sonic quality of records to meet the surge in affordable, higher-end stereo component systems. He also introduced high-gloss covers that made exceptional use of photographer Pete Turner's art-quality color outtakes from corporate shoots in Africa and the Middle East.
But the label ran into financial trouble in the late 1970s, when costs associated with record distribution and over-expansion could not be offset by album sales. Disco and other forms of dance music were siphoning away CTI's mass market. In addition, other labels were snapping up CTI's artists with more significant contracts. CTI filed for bankruptcy in 1978 and Columbia acquired the CTI catalog, which had been collateral for a $600,000 loan.
Creed was a dear friend. He and I spoke often over the years by phone and in person. Our conversations resulted in JazzWax's most lengthy interview series, a career-spanning conversation that ran 19 parts. We were introduced by photographer Pete Turner, and we last spoke several weeks ago about getting together. During these years, Creed and I grew close.
From the start of his career, Creed's attention to audio detail set new standards and was largely unparalleled. He had found a soulmate in Rudy Van Gelder, whom he employed steadily from the 1950s forward. In some regards, Rudy's Englewood Cliffs studio flourished because of Creed's relentless recording schedule there as Blue Note's releases slowed in the 1970s.
Creed was elegant, in a Mad Men way, but his passion for the music by and focus on sound and quality inspired deep relationships between him and those he recorded. He was a deeply private man and gracefully humble. He was loyal to jazz artists who worked hard to produce great work and anyone else for whom jazz was a cause. When Pete Turner offered to connect me to Creed I interviewed the photographer, he said, You two would be perfect together for an interview. Creed places a high value on attention to detail and a love of the music."
I miss Creed. A Southern gentleman who loved post-war jazz and came to New York to assemble a large team of musicians he respected and were eager to record their vision of LP jazz. His contribution to the music is astonishing when you line up all of the artists who delivered for him at the highest possible level, trusted his taste and succeeded in the process. It's fair to say that without Creed, hundreds of jazz albums featuring the best work of leading musicians would never have been recorded.
In tribute to Creed, here is my complete 19-part interview with him combined into one:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Creed Taylor: My family lived in Bedford, Virginia, a rural town in the middle of the state, about 50 miles from Lynchburg. My grandfather was editor and publisher of The Bedford Democrat, a newspaper he founded. My father started a flour mill in southwestern Virginia, so we moved back and forth between Bedford and a hamlet west of Roanoke called White Gate.
JW: Did you play an instrument in school?
CT: I played trumpet in high school. I chose the trumpet because of Harry James. I loved his records on the radio. But over time I found I wasn’t crazy about his vibrato so I moved on to Dizzy Gillespie. That is, until I ordered a couple of transcribed Dizzy Gillespie solos. Once I had a look at those, I figured I was better off sticking with Harry as a role model.
JW: Were you good?
CT: Yeah, I was.
JW: Did playing the trumpet come naturally to you?
CT: It did. The music I heard growing up was blue grass and country music. I’d hear it all the time when we were living in White Gate. Our homestead was two mountains away from where the Carter Family lived. I used to go up to the local high school and listen to Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and all of those guys. There were fantastic fiddle players there—hoedown sort of stuff.
JW: What do you mean by “two mountains away?”
CT: You drove or walked up one mountain and down the other side and then over another one. There were no towns. The area was rural. The Carter Family recorded in Bristol, on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, just to the west White Gate. So I heard this music all the time, both live and on the family radio.
JW: Did you like blue grass and Country music?
CT: It drove me nuts. However, a few years ago I started listening to country music again. My maturity has given me a new perspective on this genre.
JW: What music did you listen to in rural Virginia?
CT: I loved the big bands and jazz, which was a lot more fun to listen to. It was cooler music. It made you feel hip, not corny.
JW: How did you ever hear jazz and big band music in the far reaches of Virginia?
CT: I had a small radio in my bed that I listened to very late at night. In the late 1940s, when everyone was asleep, that radio could pick up the frequency from WJZ in New York coming over the mountains. I’d hear Symphony Sid’s broadcasts directly from Birdland. He’d paint amazing pictures on the air. He said he sat in a glass booth overlooking the club, and between sets he'd observe what was going on. He’d say things like, “Well look over there, it’s Kai Winding talking to Diz at the bar. And, Count Basie just walked in to catch a set.” Stuff like that.
JW: Why did Symphony Sid's banter have such a hold on you?
CT: Everything he talked about was so cool and clear in my head, not just about the music but also the social surroundings of the jazz players. All I could think of was, “Wow, this music is something else.” I couldn’t wait to get up to New York and start meeting the people Symphony Sid was talking about.
JW: Did your parents like jazz?
CT: Sure. But for them, jazz was ragtime or Lead Belly orJelly Roll Morton. My folks loved music, no matter what it was. My grandmother was a fiddle player.
JW: Before you came to New York, you studied psychology at Duke University. Was your father unhappy about that?
CT: Funny you should ask. He was. He wanted me to become a doctor. So I took two years of pre-med to get it out of my system and get my father off my back. I started majoring in psychology when I was a junior.
JW: What did you do after college?
CT: I went to graduate school at Duke to study psychology. But my studies were interrupted by the draft. I spent two years in the Marine Corps, starting in September 1951. I didn’t choose the Marines. They chose me. It was no picnic. I spent the first year at Parris Island, which was grueling. I taught illiterate Marine recruits how to read and write. There were so many recruits pouring into the service then because of the Korean War and the threat of China’s invasion.
JW: Were you sent to Korea?
CT: Yes. They shipped me over to Korea in 1952. But before I left, I was stationed for a few weeks at Camp Pendleton, about a half-hour north of San Diego. On leave, every weekend I used to go up to the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. I heard the original Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet, Art Pepper, Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Charles Mingus and many others.
JW: Did you talk to these guys while you were there?
CT: Oh sure. I became good friends with Shorty Rogers, who showed me chord structures and how he wrote his arrangements. Shorty was such a nice guy. He was so modest and helpful. The Red Norvo Trio also knocked me out. I spoke to Red and Tal, but Mingus was kind of distant. I bought a 10-inch LP of the Mulligan-Baker group and took it with me to Korea along with a battery-operated record player. I listened to that group in my bunker, on the front lines in Korea. I still have that record someplace.
JW: Did you see action in Korea?
CT: I spent a year in combat. For a time I was a forward observer. I worked with a map that had quadrants of the terrain out front. When I saw lights on a North Kroean convoy traveling through no-man’s land, my job was to let the 105mm Artillery know. They'd open up on the lights. We were under the auspices of the UN. I was there until the truce was announced in September 1953, exactly two years after I was drafted.
JW: Were you a different person when you were discharged?
CT: Not really. I think I blended right back in.
JW: Did you return to Virginia?
CT: Yes. But as soon as I got back, I decided right away to move to New York. I told my family that I was going to New York to play in bands. They weren’t too happy about that. But what I really wanted to do was produce records.
JW: In 1954, you arrived in New York determined to become a record producer. What did you know about producing?
CT: Nothing. I was just convinced I could do it. I had this drive. It was a mix of naivete and positive thinking. I've always looked at possibilities that way.
JW: Even back in Virginia?
CT: When I was in high school I heard the Elliot Lawrence Band at Virginia Tech. I was so taken with that 1946-47 band, I jumped on the band’s bus and waited until Elliot came on. When he came on I walked up to him and said, “Hey Elliot, my name is Creed Taylor. I want to get on your band.”
JW: Just like that?
CT: Just like that.
JW: Did you think you were good enough?
CT: Yes. Elliot gave me his card and said to give his manager a call. He said, When we get back to New York I'll talk to my manager and we’ll give you a call." I, of course, let that blow over. But I look back on that event and ask myself “How did I do that?” I was naïve.
JW: Did you have an inkling of how to produce an LP?
CT: Like everyone else who was interested in jazz at the time, I was listening to Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic and Alfred Lion's Blue Note recordings. There were great soloists at the time. But I thought the listener’s attention span was being stretched by interminable bass and drum solos. Any solo that went on forever, I thought, was the wrong way to try to make people like the music I loved. So I decided that I would produce records that I liked, recorded the way I wanted to hear them.
JW: When you got to New York, where did you stay?
CT: I had a room in a walkup on 86th St. and Riverside Drive. Immediately after I moved in, I went down to a record company near Times Square that had been co-founded by a drummer from Duke University. He had met Gus Wildi, a Swiss guy with a lot of money, and together they had started a company called Bethlehem Records.
JW: How was the company doing?
CT: When I got to New York in 1954, the label was on its last legs. They were still recording 78-rpms at a time when the 10-inch LP was coming in. I told them, There are 10-inch LPs out there and you guys have a singer who’s great named Chris Connor." She had already recorded for Bethlehem in December 1953 with Sy Oliver’s orchestra, but they didn't know what to do with her.
JW: What did you do?
CT: In the summer of '54, I talked to Chris and found out she had vast knowledge of great songs that were hip and that she wanted to record them. I told Bethlehem to let me go in and produce the label's first 10-inch LP with her. I told them I was going to call it Lullabys of Birdland. They gave me the go ahead. Even though the company wasn’t in great shape, the owner had funds and realized it was a necessary investment.
JW: What did you have in mind for Chris?
CT: Back then there was a pianist named Ellis Larkins. I thought he was fantastic. For me, he was like Wynton Kelly, who was recording for Blue Note and Verve at the time. I told Chris we should do her album with the Ellis Larkins’ Trio. She loved the idea. So I called Ellis and booked the Fulton Recording Studios, at 80 West 40th St., across from Bryant Park. I knew Tom Dowd, the engineer there. I had met him at Birdland, and he was a very musical guy. So when Ellis and Chris came to the studio in early August, I sat in the booth with Tom and did what I do today. Chris and I had decided which songs to record in advance. The result was so terrific that a few weeks later we recorded her with the Vinnie Burke Quartet for another 10-inch LP. We also recorded an album in 1955 with Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson.
JW: But back in the mid-1950s, producing didn’t end in the engineer's booth, did it?
CT: No, no. Once Chris recorded, I had to get the record on the radio. I listened to the radio a great deal then. So I went over to WNEW and WABC with a dub of the session and did on-air interviews. I also worked on point-of-sale efforts. When Lullabys of Birdland came out, I had a big six-foot-high cutout of Chris standing in front of Birdland to promote the album. I also brought special copies to radio stations that that allowed radio announcers [such as WINS' Bob Garrity] to dub in their voices, so it sounded like they were announcing her [at Birdland]. Life was very simple then [laughing].
JW: What else did you do for the album?
CT: I reached out to radio stations popular with black audiences. The disc jockeys there knew which jazz records were great and which weren't. Their audiences and other jockeys in the city knew that what they played often set the trend. I became friendly with many of these jockeys. They, in turn, were friends with jockeys who broadcast during drive-time hours, which had the largest audiences. Fortunately they thought Chris' album was very hip. I asked if they would talk to the other jockeys and get them to play the album, and they did.
JW: How did you put records in stores?
CT: I had to become friendly with record distributors and store buyers and merchandisers. Through all of these combined efforts, Lullabys of Birdland became something of a hit for Bethlehem. But none of my efforts would have paid off if the album hadn’t been superb to begin with.
JW: You enjoyed the marketing side of the business as much as recording the music, didn't you?
CT: Very much so. I was fascinated by the record business, from how to put a record's cover and liner notes together to getting the records into stores and selling them.
JW: Speaking of covers, many of Bethlehem's had this dark, nocturnal look and feel. Was that deliberate?
CT: The look was developed by our art director, Burt Goldblatt. I'd tell him the subject matter and he’d create the design. My innovation was adding sheet lamination to the covers, giving them a sleek, polished look. It wasn’t until later, in the late 1960s, when the printing technology became more sophisticated and I became more heavily involved in developing a vision for covers.
JW: Like Chris Connor, Herbie Mann was another artist whose talents you recognized early and produced perfectly in the mid-1950s.
CT: When I moved from the Upper West Side to Waverly Place in Greenwich Village in late 1954, I lived in a brownstone with a garden out back. Each time I’d go outside, I’d hear a flautist practicing incessantly. He’d play scales and then launch into amazing jazz lines. I decided I had to find out who the devil was playing. So I narrowed the location and knocked on the guy’s door. The guy playing was Herbie. It turned out he had already done a bit of recording with Mat Mathews for Coral. We recorded a series of records with Herbie. There was the Chicken Little session in December 1954; Flamingo, a quartet album; a quintet album with flutist Sam Most; Songs of a Woman in Love, Herbie Mann Plays, and a bunch of others with different groups of musicians, including Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson.
JW: Was it hard to come up with just the right personnel for sessions?
CT: Actually it was relatively easy. Charlie’s Tavern played a big role. The bar was right across from Bethlehem’s offices. We were on the 13th floor of 1350 Broadway. Charlie’s Tavern was at 51st St. and 7th Ave. The bar had a back entrance that led to an alley. Across the alley was Birdland. When musicians would go on a break at Birdland, they would cross the alley and go into Charlie’s Tavern for a drink. I could go down almost any time of day from my office, put together a band and go out to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey the next day and record.
JW: Were you ever concerned that artists might not share your vision?
CT: I never thought about it. The artists were all interesting, intelligent guys. One of my best friends in the early 1950s was Quincy Jones, who knew everyone. Quincy had just come in from Chicago, and I had just come up from Virginia. Soon after I started I signed Oscar Pettiford to Bethlehem. Quincy, Oscar and I planned the first Oscar date [Bass by Pettiford] at Charlie's Tavern.
JW: But how did you get artists to go along with your vision?
CT: I talked it over with them very quietly, usually one on one.
JW: But if you’re Oscar Pettiford, you want to solo. Who is Creed Taylor to tell him what to do?
CT: [laughing] With Oscar, I might say, Hey, Oscar, if you don’t play a shorter solo next time, I’m not going to have you down to my pad for dinner." I used to make him pasta dinners at my place on Waverly Place. Oscar might put up a fuss initially but eventually he'd understand where I was coming from. I think it’s a matter of conviction. In my experience, if you believe strongly in what you’re saying, and if what you’re saying clearly has the artist's creative interests at heart, things seem to go pretty smoothly.
JW: So showing passion and communicating a vision were pretty key, combined with a good sense of humor.
CT: I think so. All those guys back then had the greatest sense of humor. They’d come up with outlandish stories.
JW: Producing also depended on pairing the right musicians, yes?
CT: If I knew that a particular bassist liked playing with a particular drummer but that the bassist sounded better with another drummer, I’d simply say, I have an idea and I’d really like to see what you sound like with this guy or that guy." That was enough to make my point.
JW: Do you think your psychology training at Duke University came in handy?
CT: Maybe. Psychologists deal with the subconscious. If my training sank in and emerged when I needed it, so be it. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part.
JW: But you had to be a pretty quick study of human nature.
CT: I suppose so. Look, at the end of the day, it’s what a great musician sounds like. And I could identify with the sound of a particular artist. For example, I could easily identify with Stan Getz, who recorded for me when I was at Verve in the early 1960s.
JW: How did you handle Stan, who was notoriously difficult?
CT: Stan could be very arrogant and didn’t hesitate to put people down. It’s hard to describe because we had an ongoing relationship. It popped through with us only once. I remember we were recording Focus when I was at Verve. We were recording at Webster Hall in July 1961. At one point, Stan got nasty. I told him that if he didn’t cool it, I would leave. When he did it again, I said I was leaving. So I shut down the session and left. Later he apologized and came back to finish the date.
JW: Stan was a pretty tough guy.
CT: I remember standing in front of Charlie’s Tavern with Phil Woods in the mid-1950s. Phil was talking about Stan. He said Stan was so mean that if he walked out into the street right in front of us and a steamroller flattened him out, he’d just get up and walk away. But if Stan knew you knew what he was up to, and I did, you didn’t have much of a problem with him. If not, he’d mess with you. Stan just had this need to be aggressive.
JW: Sometimes these creative geniuses could be like kids.
CT: Well, sure.
JW: You were one of the first to record Carmen McRae in 1954, in a small group setting. What was she like?
CT: Carmen’s sound and her attention to the meaning of a song's lyrics were incredible. Look, I don’t want to put down a great artist like Ella [Fitzgerald]. But Ella and I would not be on the same track. For me, Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and even Anita O’Day had enormous respect for the meaning of a song’s lyrics. They’d use little nuances and phrasings, plus all of the stylistic stuff you’d expect from a singer. But if Ella sings Cottage for Sale, she’s not going to sound like Chris Connor. Ella is fantastic, but when she sings I always wonder what happened to the meaning of the song.
JW: So the song’s story" is lost with Ella, or perhaps her focus was on perfection rather than emotion?
CT: I think so. For me, at least.
JW: You recorded Charlie Shavers at Bethlehem. What was he like?
CT: What a funny guy. We did an album called Horn O’ Plenty in October 1954. On that album we recorded a medley of songs illustrating the jazz trumpet's history. He played all the styles, from New Orleans through Dizzy’s Salt Peanuts. It was narrated by Al Jazzbo" Collins, a hipster disc jockey at the time. Charlie blew up a storm on that date.
JW: What made Charlie so special?
CT: His phrasing was different. He had an enormous range. And his vibrato was different. He could play strong without losing his great sense of humor. I recall a vocal he did that was so spur of the moment. The written lyric went something like, Into the tent he crept" but Charlie added, parenthetically, Naked as a jay bird." And then he roared with laughter. These guys all could think on the go and add enormous humor to the art they were creating.
JW: You recorded Jack Teagarden several times for Bethlehem.
CT: What an artist. Jack made it look so easy. Most people are unaware that he used unusual slide positions on the trombone because his arms were short. His vocals were sensational. Yet he was so quiet when he wasn’t playing. He really didn’t talk much.
JW: Is there a recording session at Bethlehem that you wish you could go back and put together?
CT: Sure. Jack Teagarden and Chris Connor. That would have been some pair. Somehow their paths never crossed.
JW: Which artists who recorded for you at Bethlehem had exceptional sounds on their horns?
CT: Urbie Green and Hal McKusick. Their sounds were sensational and unmistakable. You knew Urbie’s trombone from the first notes. And Hal’s sound was pure. We did that East Coast Jazz, Vol. 8 recording together, with Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson. Hal’s sound was not unlike Paul Desmond’s. Both were pretty.
JW: You didn’t do the West Coast producing for Bethlehem. Why not?
CT: Back then it wasn’t economical. Red Clyde produced sessions for Bethlehem on the West Coast. As far as I was concerned, nothing was happening on the West Coast anyway.
JW: Why did you leave Bethlehem in 1956?
CT: Just as I read Billboard today, I read the magazine then. Back in 1955, I saw an article about ABC Paramount starting a record company. I liked the idea of ABC. I thought the exposure would be bigger for me there. So I wrote Sam Clark, ABC Paramount’s president, and set up an appointment. I really liked Harry Levine, his vice president. What Harry had done at the Paramount Theater booking Frank Sinatra and all the big bands was mind-boggling. Harry loved show business.
JW: How did your interview go?
CT: Great. Sam hired me on the spot. I liked the fact that ABC recorded many different genres of music. When I worked there, I used to go across the street to a record store and thumb through the bins to see what genres were available and which ones weren’t. So I wound up doing an album of college drinking songs, an album of drinking songs under the table, songs of World War I, Flamenco music, and so on.
JW: You put jazz on hold?
CT: Not exactly. I had to sneak it in. I didn’t want to go full stream with guys who didn’t know what jazz was about. Except for Harry Levine, of course. I had to work my way in with jazz gradually. I had to show them first that I could produce profitable albums of all music styles. Only then could I start concentrating more on jazz.
JW: When you joined ABC Paramount Records in 1955, were you pressured to produce pop records?
CT: No pressure at all. You have to remember, ABC-Paramount was a startup even though a major corporation owned it. The label began in 1955, shortly before I arrived. I knew as much or more about the record business as everyone else who was there. Sam Clark was the label’s president and Larry Newton was in charge of sales. Both had been in the record distribution business and knew virtually nothing about producing.
JW: Who did you work for?
CT: I reported to Harry Levine, a vice president. Harry and I had a very close relationship. He had been the talent booker at the Paramount Theater in the 1940s and early 1950s, so he knew show business and liked music very much. Harry and I often talked after-hours about all the legends he knew. He told me Harry James was a real egotistical pain and that being married to Betty Grable didn’t help. He also said Gene Krupa was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet in spite of the gum-chewing, pot-smoking image the media had put on him. These talks with Harry helped ease me into the world of music superstars. Behind all the glitter, it turned out they had the same problems all of us have.
JW: Did you plan to record jazz when you arrived at ABC Paramount?
CT: I definitely had an agenda to record jazz artists who had been with me at Bethlehem. Larry Newton was in charge of the pop side with artists like Paul Anka, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and all the little rock ‘n’ roll groups that appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which ABC owned. I had no interest in that part of the operation nor did I have any responsibility for it.
JW: But you recorded more than just jazz, yes?
CT: Sure. I had a daily pattern of visiting record shops, particularly the one across the street from my office, to see what was selling and how we could take advantage of the trends. I didn’t arrive at ABC and tell them, Hey, I‘m not producing anything but jazz records." I kept jazz going along with other things that I thought had a place in the market and could sell well.
JW: How did you rationalize producing albums like More College Drinking Songs along with albums by Oscar Pettiford?
CT: I produced what I liked. While I was never a fan of barbershop quartets, I was familiar with that kind of music. Having graduated from Duke a few years earlier, I fully understood the appeal of drinking songs and the audience for the records. And they sold well.
JW: What was your first jazz album for ABC?
CT: Probably Kenny Dorham and the Jazz Prophets. We recorded the album in April 1956. Kenny was not unlike Chet Baker. His sound and flow of ideas were similar to Chet’s. And like Chet, Kenny was without any kind of showy pretensions or technical stunts. He was a real player. And he had a sound similar to Chet’s, even though he had a bit more edge and was more associated with Art Blakey and Blue Note's artists.
JW: What was your first big seller?
CT: Quincy Jones’ This Is How I Feel About Jazz. Look at the guys on that date. Every single musician was an amazing talent. The album did very well. Quincy and I were already close friends when he recorded the album. We were the same age and had the same musical taste and had hung out together at places like Charlie's Tavern since my Bethlehem days. He was a trumpet player and I was a trumpet player. We had an unspoken empathetic relationship.
JW: What was the Creed Taylor Orchestra? I've seen albums with odd-looking covers.
CT: [Laughs] It was a group of studio musicians that I put together originally for a special project. The purpose was to create a series of albums that used music and sound effects to tell a story. There were no lyrics or narration. They were sort of like soundtracks to stories. You had to use your imagination to think about what was going on. I used Kenyon Hopkins as the arranger and conductor. He was a master of film and mood music. I couldn’t use his name at the time because he was under contract to Capitol Records.
JW: Give me an example of one of the recordings.
CT: We had albums called Shock Music, Panic: Son of Shock and Lonelyville. One track from Shock Music was called Gloomy Sunday. You’d hear an alto flute playing the song’s melody along with the sound of footsteps creaking on a dock. You’d hear water sloshing around and then the person getting into a boat, and oars being used to row out into the water. The person kept rowing. Suddenly there was a big splash. The guy went overboard, and you’d have to use your imagination to figure out what happened.
JW: So these were like audio comics?
CT: Exactly. Another one of these sound pictures" from the Shock album was called High on a Windy Hill. This one featured an alto sax. It started with a guy walking through the forest and the sound of a strong wind. Then you hear silence, a tree starting to crack followed by a crash, with the guy quietly exhaling his last breath. He didn’t scream. It was cool.
JW: Who was the audience for these records?
CT: Kids, mostly. I marketed the albums just before Halloween. They were like audio versions of those creepy horror comics popular at the time.
JW: How did they do?
CT: Quite well. They were in print for years, and some even made it to CD.
JW: Were they difficult to pull off?
CT: Sure. When we made them, there was no such thing as overdubbing. We had the best sound-effects guy in the business, Keene Crockett. He’d come in and put bed sheets and chains on a table and start creating audio pictures. We’d talk through the fundamental story line in advance. Then Ken Hopkins and Keene would write out the arrangements very carefully. Ken would conduct Keene to come in at certain points.
JW: Did you get pushback from parents?
CT: No. But I sent an advance copy of an album to Margaret Mead with a letter inviting her to write the liner notes. I said her words would be important because these were unusual albums that made a statement about the psyche of teens. She sent back a scathing letter asking how could I subject impressionable young people to such harmful psychological episodes. In other words Miss Mead didn’t do the notes [laughing].
JW: Weren't these albums at the opposite end of the taste spectrum from jazz?
CT: Not at all. They were just for a different audience. And most of the musicians on these dates were jazz players. On the two I just described, Jerome Richardson played flute while Phil Woods was on alto sax. Jazz was very much an undercurrent for the album series.
JW: It was a great branding move for you, too, yes? You had your name on the album cover.
CT: I suppose. I had always included my signature on all the albums I produced, even the 10-inch LPs at Bethlehem. It was a way of telling the buyer that the albums met a specific individual's standards. It showed I was personally taking responsibility for the result. It was an extra touch that distinguished these albums from the rest.
JW: At ABC Paramount in the late 1950s, you had a bird's eye of the record business. How was the industry changing?
CT: Albums went from 10 inches to 12 inches after about 1955 and stereo was coming in. Even in the 12-inch LP era, radio was still the way to move jazz records. It took a while for TV to become a sales vehicle through variety shows. Rock ‘n’ roll, of course, was a different story. ABC Paramount owned Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and the show was key to moving teen pop records. Also, you had artists like Frankie Avalon who made movies. That was another arm for teen pop acts. I wasn’t involved in that.
JW: What about jazz?
CT: Jazz still sold primarily through radio shows, particularly black radio, which reached an influential record-buying audience and started what we now call word of mouth." As a producer, I had to know the disc jockeys and the names of the record buyers. In some cases, they were one in the same. For example, the buyer for New York's Korvette’s department store had his own radio show. So I got to know the people who worked for him and arranged a lot of in-store displays for my jazz albums.
JW: Did you get the sense then that rock was going to be trouble for jazz?
CT: I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t identify with rock and wasn’t interested in it. Maybe it seeped into my thinking when I started to ask myself what the crossover potential was of a jazz album or single I was releasing. The 45 was important for jazz back then because of jukeboxes. Many people think of jukeboxes as record machines in soda shops and teen hangouts. They also played a big role in moving jazz records in bars and clubs and other places where jazz was played or where owners wanted to create a more sophisticated mood.
JW: The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi albums were superb. They must have been a thrill for you to produce.
CT: They were. Oscar and I were great friends. We talked music whenever we got together for dinner or drinks. When the idea for the albums came up, we’d talk about the musicians who were available. Oscar would say, what about so and so? And I’d say fine, but what about so and so? It was like putting together an all-star baseball team. Quincy Jones was there at the very beginning, too, and arranged some of the compositions, though he was uncredited.
JW: How did that unusual cover come about for the second one, with the male musicians and just the woman's legs showing?
CT: The cover was very clever. Members of the band were lined up, and in between them were a pair of female legs. But no top half of her body. You did a double-take when you discovered the legs. She represented harpist Betty Glamann. I don’t know why Betty wasn’t in the picture. I suspect that’s why only the legs were shown.
JW: Who did the legs belong to?
CT: Fran Scott, Tony Scott’s wife. She designed my jazz covers at ABC Paramount.
JW: Who’s on the cover?
CT: From the left, that’s Benny Golson, Dick Katz looking at Benny, Ray Copeland, Oscar Pettiford, Sahib Shihab, Jerome Richardson and Tony Scott with his back to the camera. Tony wasn't on the date, so Fran used him without his face showing. I don't know how Fran worked in only her legs, but the image certainly caught the attention of curious record buyers.
JW: How long had Fran worked with you at ABC?
CT: I brought Fran in, and she had an office right next to mine. Tony Scott had recorded for me at ABC when I put a jazz compilation together called Know Your Jazz in 1956. I first met Tony when he was playing with Claude Thornhill’s band back in 1949. Actually, I jammed with the band when they played an after-hours club following a dance performance at Duke University. The experience was amazing. That band had two French horns and woodwinds. It was tremendous fun to play trumpet with them. What many people overlook is that Tony Scott was an essential part of the Thornhill sound. I know that Gil [Evans] put him in that spot in the band. The sound of two French horns and Tony Scott's clarinet was unbelievable.
JW: You also brought Jackie Cain and Roy Kral to ABC.
CT: I first heard them on a transistor radio I carried around with me at Duke. There was a station in Durham that played jazz. I heard them sing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. Their singing blew me away, though I wasn't a fan of the tenor player [Charlie Ventura]. So when I got to ABC years later, I called Jackie and Roy, and they signed. We recorded The Glory of Love, Bits and Pieces and Free and Easy. Jackie’s intonation was beyond belief. She’d nail stuff on one take. Being husband and wife, they’d be totally rehearsed and do it all effortlessly. Jackie and Roy were like two peas in a pod, always happy, always smiling.
JW: Some of those albums were recorded on the West Coast. You flew back and forth?
CT: Well, sure. The West Coast recordings were done at the Capitol Tower. The whole atmosphere was different out there. It was relaxed in a different way. There wasn’t the same sense of humor that prevailed on the East Coast. There also wasn't a Charlie’s Tavern as a central hangout for all the players. Everyone drove to the dates, and there were more white players out there than black ones. It wasn’t my bag.
JW: Why do you think Jackie and Roy never reached a higher level of popularity?
CT: Probably because they had a high level of sophistication and cleverness with their music.
JW: How did Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s Sing a Song of Basie come about in August 1957?
CT: Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks came to me with the idea. I already knew Dave. I used to run into him in Greenwich Village. He made chimneys for people and was a carpenter when he wasn’t singing. Dave and Jon told me what they had in mind: a vocal album of Count Basie tunes. The two of them would be joined by other vocalists, and they'd all sing the different instrumental parts.
JW: What did you think?
CT: I loved the idea right away. Dave had already transcribed the Basie arrangements, and Jon wrote terrific lyrics for the songs. I thought the natural thing to do was to get the Basie rhythm section, man for man. So I made a few calls, and guitarist Freddie Greene, bassist Eddie Jones and drummer Sonny Payne were there for the date. Nat Pierce was on piano.
JW: Obviously something went wrong.
CT: The studio singers Dave brought to Beltone Studios at 4 West 31st St. didn’t swing. We started recording, and about a half hour into it I knew the session was a bust.
JW: What happened?
CT: The singers were too rigid. I’m sure they were great at singing ad jingles, but this required phrasing and all the nuances that most studio singers don’t have.
JW: Did Basie’s rhythm section have problems with them?
CT: Right away. It was devastating. The singers were all pros but they didn’t have the feel and couldn't pick it up. With Basie, it’s a swinging thing, meaning you have to sing behind the beat, not on it. Eddie Jones, the bassist, tried to help the singers, saying, Look, this is the way the band plays it. It’s got to be laid back." But they never got it. So I had to stop the date.
JW: What happened next?
CT: When the singers cleared out, Dave offered up a solution. He asked whether he, Jon and Annie Ross could overdub all the parts. I said sure, let’s give it a try. Dave said Annie would sing all the trumpet parts, he'd do the trombones, and Jon would handle the saxophones.
JW: So how did it work?
CT: First I recorded the Basie rhythm section with Dave, Jon and Annie providing a rough vocal guide track, which was a straight reading. Once that was done, we had the swing down. Then they overdubbed the additional harmonized tracks wearing headphones and listening to the guide track.
JW: No problems?
CT: Actually we had a big technical one. I was recording at the studio with a great engineer named Irv Greenbaum, who loved jazz. We captured each track on a ¼-inch Ampex recorder, but the hiss was piling up like you wouldn’t believe. Each time you add a track to tape, hiss builds. When we got to the final master, we had some careful EQ-ing [equalizing] to do. In those days, the technical ability to manipulate tapes and get rid of small problems was non-existent. I sat there for days with Irv trying to fix the hiss. Finally we just rolled off 10 to 12k [kilohertz] from the sound, and the result was great.
JW: Did you know right away you had a hit?
CT: Oh, sure. Annie frightened me, she was so good. I was in awe of her. And the session wouldn’t have existed without Jon’s great lyrics. He was totally engrossed in the Basie sections and his words brought the whole thing together.
JW: How many Grammy’s did the album win?
CT: Two. One in 1958 for Best Jazz Performance by a Group and in 2000 when the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
JW: What did Basie think of the album?
CT: I don’t know. Basie was on another road all the time. He was such a self-made bandleader. I’m sure he heard it, but he never mentioned it to me. And I never asked.
JW: If things were going so well at ABC Paramount, why did you decide to start Impulse! Records?
CT: Many of the records I had produced for ABC were decent moneymakers. Albums like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s Sing a Song of Basie and Billy Taylor’s My Fair Lady Loves Jazz did well. But they didn't look like jazz albums. They were stiff and lacked a mood, a feeling. By 1959, I had become engrossed with album-packaging. I decided that the way to take jazz producing to the next level was to have my own label. ABC was a pop label, primarily. Jazz needed its own home.
JW: How did you get the ABC brass to greenlight your idea?
CT: It was easy. Remember, you didn’t have the office politics in companies back then that you have today. I just went to [company vice president] Harry Levine and told him I wanted to put together a label and that I wanted to call it Pulse. I told him which artists I was going to use to kick off the label and that I wanted each album to be packaged as a gatefold with glossy sheet lamination.
JW: Was Harry still standing after you told him all that?
CT: [Laughing] He loved the idea. My office was right next to his, and we talked every day. We were close. I told him specifically what I wanted to do. Harry asked me just one question: Did I think the label was going to be successful? I said yes, and Harry said he’d take care of the rest. Harry got Larry Newton to agree, and Sam Clark said OK. Remember, cost wasn’t that big a deal. ABC had a strong cash flow from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Paul Anka, Steve and Eydie, Johnny Nash, Lloyd Price and other pop artists. ABC also had enormous cash flow from the company’s vast theater chain.
JW: What exactly did you tell Harry to get him excited?
CT: I said I had been looking carefully at different ways to move records out of retail. I told him we had to put out jazz records that looked great and stood out from the other records in the store. I also told him that Fran Scott, my designer, and I had been talking about stand-out color combinations for the new label—orange and black. I also wanted the jacket spines to be wider and bolder, so they would look good on the shelf and jump right out at you in stores and at home.
JW: What was the next step?
CT: I put through a trademark and copyright request for the Pulse name in New York State. But Pulse was taken. Some electronics company had it. As I was trying to figure out an alternative to Pulse in a meeting, I said, My impulse is to…wait, hold it a second... Impulse, that’s even better than Pulse!" The Impulse name cleared in New York. If I had waited much longer, though, Impulse would have been taken, too, by a urinal valve company. [laughs]
JW: Did Sam or Harry make you do double duty on both labels or did they let you do what you wanted?
CT: They didn’t “let” me do anything. I just did it. You have to understand, the office scene back then wasn’t like it is today. Back then, you got out there, you hustled, you went to record distributorships and record dealers. So long as the dealers paid their bills, everything was great. If you had an idea and had proven yourself, you tried it. The people who made decisions were tough guys who rolled up their sleeves and operated on their gut. They knew the value of trying new things and taking risks, especially when the odds of it working out were pretty good.
JW: Which album did you decide to issue first on the Impulse label?
CT: One? I issued four records simultaneously. This was the only way to make a statement with the dealers and stores, to signal that our commitment was as strong as the look of the albums. We had to show that we were making a big, bold push.
JW: Which were the first four Impulse albums?
CT: The Great Kai and J.J., Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz, The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones and Gil Evans’s Out of the Cool.
JW: Did you record them all around the same time?
CT: They were recorded in a tight time frame between October and December of 1960. I’d mix one with Rudy [Van Gelder] and put it in the can and move on to the next one. When I got to the last one, we released all four in early 1961.
JW: What’s the back-story to Out of the Cool? The rumor has always been that the album, recorded in November and December of 1960, took a ton of time.
CT: It was Gil. You’d have to know Gil to understand. Deadlines never entered his mind. The track, La Nevada, for example, took forever. Gil and I drove out three different times to Rudy’s studio with the entire 15-piece band to try different arrangements, and nothing would happen. Finally, Gil was sitting at the piano playing this repetitive figure that became the song's theme. As the rhythm players vamped on the idea, Gil wrote chord changes on the inside of a book of matches. He went over to bass trombonist Tony Studd and whispered something in his ear. Then he pointed to the rest of the horn players for them to do something. It was made up along the way.
JW: That must have been murder on you.
CT: Stuff like that is tough on the producer because the clock is money. But I wasn’t going to rock the boat with Gil. It wasn’t that he was fooling around. He was waiting for the right creative moment. And when it happened, man, it was worth the wait. I had no problem with patience on that. This guy had written stuff like that for Claude Thornhill. He could take his time, however long it took.
JW: Whose idea was it to frame One Mint Julep as a funky cha-cha-cha?
CT: Quincy Jones. He was the album's architect.
JW: One Mint Julep's organ riff was and remains pretty addictive to the ear.
CT: I know. It became a hit 45-rpm. During recording sessions back then, producers rarely went out into the studio while the musicians were there. Everything was worked out with the date's leader, conductor or arranger in advance, and that person was in charge of that turf. But when I heard One Mint Julep's break, I had an idea and had to come in.
JW: What did you do?
CT: I went over to Ray and whispered in his ear, “On the break, try adding 'Just a little bit of so-da'," because a mint julep has soda in it. It felt natural, and we needed something there. But when tape rolled, at the break Ray said instead, “Just a little bit of soul, now.” Which was fine with me. It certainly fit better than “soda.”
JW: What made you think of adding that?
CT: I guess I was thinking about hooks.
JW: Did you decide that One Mint Julep was going to be a single before the session or while you were hearing it in the booth?
CT: While I was hearing it in the booth. The single entered the Billboard pop chart in March 1961 and rose to #8. It was huge. It was on the chart for 13 weeks.
JW: Did you know right away it was going to be hot?
JW: How so?
CT: The nature of the rhythm pattern and the feeling it had. I just knew it was going to be the kind of repetitious hook, a groove that would catch people’s ear.
JW: A hook was pretty important for a single?
CT: Oh, yeah, you want that repetitious groove. That’s what I was looking for. That’s what radio was looking for. And that’s what listeners were looking for. A hook is a direct communication with the audience, letting them know that “this is it, now.”
JW: So you'd know going into a session that a single needed a hook?
CT: Hooks were really forced on the record industry by radio. Back then, a single had to say its piece and get out. If you didn’t have something that sounded like “Wow, what is that?,” you didn’t have a hit record. The market wanted simplicity. If you had a groove going, you didn't mess around with it until it made a statement.
JW: Who came up with the album’s title?
CT: I did. Ray’s nickname was the Genius. Since I was going to release four albums at the same time to inaugurate Impulse!, what better way to propel the launch than to have Ray Charles’ nickname on there on one of them. Genius was Ray, soul was what Ray was all about, and jazz was what Impulse! was selling. The word jazz and Impulse! put the whole package together. The title seemed so obvious at the time.
JW: Did you talk to Ray about the date beforehand?
CT: Not at all. We didn’t have any lengthy conversations. We spoke briefly in the control room about what we were going to do before we started recording. Ray knew exactly what all of those musicians sounded like, even though he was predominantly an R&B artist and they were big band pros. Quincy [Jones] did most of the arrangements, with Ralph Burns writing a couple.
JW: How did the organ Ray played wind up with such a punchy sound?
CT: Rudy [Van Gelder] did some adjusting on the inside so the keys had a more percussive effect than a normal one. It was a Hammond C3 doctored by Rudy. He had done this on organs before for other recording dates. The result was a more definite attack than a normal organ.
JW: What was Ray like to work with?
CT: He was a very friendly guy and very smart. There were no problems even though he had a drug habit when he was there. But it didn’t affect his playing at all. All of the guys on the date were swinging players, but they all were savvy about R&B and they dug Ray Charles. Music was music. It wasn’t like a bunch of musicians had come in who hadn’t a clue about the style Ray wanted. These guys were well versed in all the genres. Ray loved making that session. He told me so after the date.
JW: The fifth album you released in 1961 was Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth.
CT: We recorded it in February of '61. Oliver was so smart. He was like a university professor who just happened to be able to play, compose and arrange. He and I had the same hobby, HO-scale model trains. In my basement I had built a prototype of the Norfolk and Western Railroad from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Ohio coalfields. Oliver built a prototype of a lumber camp, with the trains taking the logs from the mountains to the mills at the bottom. We were both detail oriented.
JW: Did you realize at the time that Blues and the Abstract Truth was going to be a classic?
CT: Sure. The album was an epic in my life. Freddie Hubbard had the most magnificent solos on there, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans also were tremendous.
JW: Did you know Bill Evans?
CT: Yes, I knew him very well. When I first moved to New York in 1954, I rented a place in a brownstone on West 86th St. One night there was a party in the parlor room downstairs and Bill was playing piano there. I grabbed my trumpet and went down to jam with the group. Someone later told me that the pianist was Bill Evans. I mentioned this to Bill sometime later. He had a big laugh. He remembered it clearly. He had a memory that wouldn’t stop. I avoided asking him what he thought about my solo, though [laughs].
JW: How did the Blues and the Abstract Truth session go?
CT: There were only seven musicians on the date, yet Oliver’s band sounded 10 times larger. Everything fell right into place. One run through and one take on most tracks. The whole album was recorded in one session. If you look at the personnel, you can see why. And none of the players had any personal problems.
JW: Who came up with the title?
CT: I did. I thought we should make a statement about the music. It was the blues, but it was an abstract blues that you hadn’t heard before. It was Oliver Nelson’s impression of the blues. Given the music, we had to package the record in a different way. The blues is supposed to be 12 bars and down and dirty. Here we had something like an architectural structure of something that existed in 12 bars but surely was abstract. And the music wasn’t trying to put anyone on. There was nothing contrived. It was the truth. Oliver meant every note he wrote. I’ve always liked that title.
JW: Was More Blues and the Abstract Truth outtakes from this session?
CT: No. That album was recorded in 1964 with a different personnel. I had nothing to do with it. I was at Verve by then.
JW: Up until now, we've talked about your role in album concepts, talent selection and LP packaging. For readers who aren't aware of the technical side, what were you doing exactly in the booth?
CT: [Laughs] As a producer, I am listening. Hard. There was no book of rules. Every producer has his or her own way to record a particular artist. The key is to stay as flexible as you possibly can, so you can make changes when necessary but also remaining open to interesting solutions. Of course, my approach and level of engagement would change with the artist.
JW: How did you follow what was going on? And how did you interact with a date's leader or arranger and conductor?
CT: After the arranger turned his score over to the copyist, who writes out all the parts for the musicians, I had the copyist extract what's called a booth part." I read music, so a booth part let me follow along and know where the musicians were at any given point. Then I was able to point to a specific place in the arrangement where an adjustment needed to be made.
JW: How did you let the session's leader or conductor know if there was a problem?
CT: Over a private line. I would pick up the phone and call the studio. He'd pick up his phone, and I'd tell him. For example, if there was a problem in third bar of a trumpet part, the conductor/arranger and I could take care of it without disturbing other artists or members of the ensemble.
JW: How did the phone ring without disturbing anyone?
CT: It had a light that flashed.
JW: Did you talk just to the session leader or conductor?
CT: In the case of a string section, I would call the arranger, say, Don Sebesky, and David Nadien, the concertmaster, into the control booth to discuss it. David was Leonard Bernstein's concertmaster and kept the quality of string sections on my recording sessions very high.
JW: Weren't string sections made up of classically trained violinists who were consistent in quality?
CT: As in any part of an orchestra, there are good string players and great ones. It was generally accepted among some jazz and pop producers that string parts weren't that demanding and there was no need to choose the musicians with the same care as a reed section, for example. This was not the case with my sessions. David Nadien knew what I wanted and who to call for all of my dates. Intonation, execution and precision were the bywords. We needed superb string players, even in the second row, to handle the footballs.
CT: The second row typically played parts with the sustained notes. Those notes are called footballs because they're drawn out and consistent, like the spiral of a football tossed downfield. It takes a long time for the spinning ball to get down there. In my back rows, I insisted on using top guys. I can't say whether other producers did the same or had these standards.
JW: So as a producer, you had to have a reputation as someone who was big on detail and insistent on high standards throughout?
CT: Absolutely. If there was a problem in the back row of the string section, I would call it to David's attention. A great record is the sum of its parts, and details like that could be heard by all Verve fans.
JW: Speaking of Verve, in early 1961 you decided to leave Impulse!, a label you had started only months earlier, to take a job at Verve. Why?
CT: Because I got a terrific offer to take over a label with an enormous list of great jazz artists. A guy named Arnold Maxim was president of MGM/Verve at the time, and the company was across the street from ABC Paramount on 44th St. Maxim had just bought Norman Granz's label, but without Granz, who wasn't part of the deal.
JW: Why did Maxim call you?
CT: Maxim knew what I had been doing with Impulse! and decided I'd be perfect with his new acquisition. I hated leaving ABC, Harry and Impulse!. But when I told Harry, he said, You gotta do what comes along. Don't forget, we're right across the street in case you ever want to come back."
JW: What was your responsibility when you arrived at Verve?
CT: I wasn't responsible for re-packaging Verve's existing catalog. My job was to record new albums and sign new talent to the label. I also wasn't interested in letting MGM's ad agency design the covers. I was going to do that with my art director and Pete Turner, a color photographer I was already using for covers at ABC and Impulse!.
JW: Before you left Impulse for Verve, you recorded your sixth and final album: John Coltrane's Africa/Brass.
CT: Yes. In fact, I finished editing it with John after I arrived at Verve. We were in my office there talking about how it should sound and the things he wanted in there. Eric [Dolphy] had a different view, though. So there were two versions. One had more of the tribal sound effects on Africa. Eric thought it should be the other way around. He thought Coltrane had gone too far with the effects.
JW: What did you think?
CT: I agreed with Coltrane, that all the African percussive effects were really great. I don't remember if Eric had anything specific he wanted other than a cleaner version.
JW: Who signed Coltrane to Impulse!?
CT: Larry Newton did, with Harry Levine. Larry knew Coltrane's manager, and I encouraged them to do it. I wanted Coltrane on Impulse!. I needed Coltrane to give added impetus to the Impulse! catalog and show retailers and the market that Impulse! was a serious new jazz label.
JW: Did you know Coltrane?
CT: Sure. I had met him many times at the Village Vanguard. I told him early on that a deal with us was imminent, and he ran with it. As soon as he signed, we went over to Rudy Van Gelder's new, larger studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The recording of Africa/Brass was pretty much a Coltrane show.
JW: If you had weighed in, what would you have urged Coltrane to do differently?
CT: I would have liked to have heard more of Eric Dolphy's bass-clarinet solos. But the date didn't require much of my input. What was I going to say? John, don't play any more of those long solos." That was what he was about. There was a religious quality about him, and you either recorded John that way or you didn't.
JW: What was he like then, at the dawn of his Impulse! years?
CT: He was a direct, honest person who knew exactly what he wanted to do. When I was finished editing Africa/Brass at Verve, we went out for coffee. I told him how much I enjoyed working with him and wished him the best of luck.
JW: Did you want to steal him away from Impulse! for Verve?
CT: I had just started at Verve and had my hands full. I had Stan Getz and didn't want to have Coltrane and Stan there together. They were two very different artists who needed the same level of big billing. I also was going in new artistic directions. I always felt Coltrane was a towering figure and knew there was very little I could do to help him on his journey. His talent was so unique. I was honored to have worked on Africa/Brass.
JW: Wasn't Coltrane and his extended-solo format on Africa/Brass in direct contrast with your vision of tighter solo time?
CT: Coltrane had enormous energy and could play the same song for an hour and a half without stopping. That was Coltrane. Coltrane was Coltrane. This was no different from what I had to go through to get Gil Evans to get the job done on Out of the Cool. You had to be patient, provided the artist was focused on the task at hand. Look, I wasn't going to be so presumptuous as to adjust Einstein's theory. Coltrane knew what he was doing.
JW: Did you get a sense that the album would be special and the start of something big?
CT: I knew it before going in. I had gone to enough of his Village Vanguard performances to know what he was about. I knew that Coltrane was an exception to every rule.
JW: When you joined Verve Records in 1961, how did you hit the ground running, recording artists you had not recorded before at Bethlehem, ABC Paramount or Impulse!?
CT: Actually, many of the people I eventually signed at Verve I first met in San Francisco in 1952, when I was stationed at Treasure Island, just before being discharged from the Marine Corps. Within that short two-week period back in 1952, I was at the Blackhawk Club every night. That’s where I first met and spoke at length to Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, Chet Baker and many other artists.
JW: Were there any other reasons why you jumped from Impulse! to Verve, besides the opportunity and a deeper artist roster?
CT: Yes, Stan Getz. I had thought about Stan for years and how much I wanted to record him. When I was at Duke University, in 1950, I had heard Stan on Summer Sequence [soon to be Early Autumn], when he was on Woody Herman’s band. Ralph Burns's arrangement was beautiful. And then came Stan’s solo. Man, that was something. From that moment on, I kept telling myself that I had to find some way to get the guy into a studio.
JW: Did you meet Stan in the 1950s?
CT: Yes, in San Francisco, when I was being mustered out of the Marines. He was playing at a club with guitarist Jimmy Raney. I spoke with him there over several nights.
JW: When did you have your first professional conversation with him?
CT: Not until I was at Verve.
JW: So from 1950 to 1961, you’re thinking about recording Getz?
CT: Yes. The entire time I wanted to record Stan but couldn’t because he was signed to Verve when I was at Bethlehem and ABC/Impulse!. At Verve, I knew I’d finally get the chance. Before I arrived, he had been cranking out album after album of mostly standards. All great stuff, but he was weary of the format.
JW: What did you have in mind for him?
CT: The first album I wanted to record with Stan was an unusual concept that eventually became Focus. It was Stan with just a full string ensemble. John Neves on bass and Roy Haynes on drums were added for I'm Late, I'm Late.
JW: What did Stan say?
CT: I mentioned the idea to him, and he discussed the concept in detail with arranger Eddie Sauter. Stan was familiar with the Sauter-Finegan orchestra and wanted to record with Eddie. I knew if I did this album for Stan, he’d be on my side for whatever I wanted to do with him going forward. We recorded Focus in July 1961. There were no rehearsals except at the studio the day of the recording. That’s how Stan liked to work. Hershy Kay was the conductor. Kay chose the string section and knew the nuances of all the players. Kay had the score from Eddie, and Stan just played. Kay conducted the strings and was doing rhythmic accents you wouldn’t hear from a symphonic conductor. The album won a Grammy, so I guess it turned out all right.
JW: You released two singles from the album, I’m Late, I’m Late and I Remember When. How did they do?
CT: They weren’t huge hits, but they made enough jukebox appearances that they became an “in” thing to listen to.
JW: In August 1961 you produced Boss Tenors, with tenor saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. How were they to record?
CT: Great. They just took their horns out and played. We recorded in Chicago, where they were working with their rhythm sections. Nobody played like either one of them and no tenor duo played like both of them together.
JW: As you watched them from the booth, how did they interact?
CT: I don’t know. I was listening. We were making a recording. It wasn’t a movie. [laughs]
JW: What makes the album a favorite of yours?
CT: It’s so real, so true to what was going on or ever will be going on with jazz. Each one could read the other guy’s mind before he finished a phrase. They were trading stuff all the time. It was like two extremely intelligent people talking to each other. They never stepped on each other's toes.
JW: You recorded Ammons and Stitt again in August 1962, on Boss Tenors in Orbit.
CT: I especially love the ballad on there, Long Ago and Far Away. It was a great track because it had all those spaces in the melody, allowing them to comment musically on each other’s lines. They were playing with and against each other there.
JW: What came next for Stan?
CT: After Focus we recorded an album with Bob Brookmeyer in September 1961. Around this time I got a call from guitarist Charlie Byrd. He wanted to play some records for me over the phone.
JW: Over the phone?
CT: Charlie said the music was new, from Brazil. He knew I liked Latin stuff. As soon as I finished listening to the songs Charlie played through the phone, I called Stan and told him about what I had heard. Then I had Charlie play the music over the phone for Stan.
JW: What did Stan say?
CT: Stan also liked what Charlie played. I told Stan he should record a Brazilian music album with Charlie. Stan said great. Charlie and his rhythm section were based in Washington, D.C., so it was easier for me and Stan to go down there from New York. In February 1962, Stan and I flew down to record with Charlie at a small black church Charlie had found called All Souls Unitarian. It wasn’t an official studio or anything, but the church's auditorium had good acoustics. Charlie’s rhythm section knew the material and was well rehearsed. He had taken the group with him to Brazil months earlier.
JW: What happened?
CT: Stan and I arrived in D.C. at 2 pm and left at 6 pm. The album was recorded in that short a period of time. The engineer, Ed Green, had set up this little 2-track, 7½-ips Ampex tape recorder with three microphones. There was one solo mike, one on the group, and one on the bass. I hadn’t heard Stan play these Brazilian melodies before but I knew he could play Jingle Bells and it would sound fantastic.
JW: As the album’s producer, you were essentially the first person to hear Stan play what would eventually be called bossa nova. How did it sound?
CT: Stan played the first song, Desafinado, and I said, Wow, what a weird sounding thing." As I was listening, I started to realize that the song had a flatted 5th, which is what Dizzy Gillespie had come up with in his song Bebop.
JW: What's the connection?
CT: In the months that followed, I spoke to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Desafinado's composer, about that flatted 5th. He told me about all the American jazz artists he had listened to in Rio. Of course, the title of Desafinado translated from Portuguese means “slightly out of tune.” He had used the flatted 5th in Desafinado, and I found that intriguing.
JW: Were you happy with the Stan Getz-Charlie Byrd date?
CT: Overjoyed. The only thing that bothered me a little was the rhythm section. They were playing more on the beat rather than laid back Brazilian. But all the songs on the date sounded wow.
JW: But as a producer, you hedged your bets a little, didn’t you?
CT: It’s funny. I asked Stan to record Bahia, a standard written by Brazilian composer Ary Barroso that had been recorded by jazz artists since the early 1950s. I asked Stan and Charlie to record the composition so there would be at least one song on the album in this new Brazilian idiom that listeners would recognize. Lo and behold, the song that hit was Desafinado, the very first track on the album.
JW: On the plane back to New York, did Stan realize how big a deal the album was?
CT: I don’t think so. It was just another date for him. I think he said it was fun. [laughs] Stan was always pretty low key. I think I said, “Yeah, I enjoyed it, too.” At the time, I may have mentioned that I wasn’t 100% happy with how we captured the audio on the bass. It was a little boomy. But we exchanged casual comments about it. Neither one of us said “Wow, what just happened?” It took a little while to sink in.
JW: What happened when you returned to New York and listened back to the tape of the Stan Getz-Charlie Byrd recording?
CT: I knew instantly that something new was happening there. I called Stan and told him I was going to call the album Jazz Samba. He said, Great, OK." [laughs]. He didn’t care. You had to know Stan. He didn’t care one way or the other. It was only about the music. He was nonchalant about almost everything else.
JW: What did the Verve marketing people think about the album's title?
CT: I didn’t bother running it by management. I never did. After I mixed the album and added Jazz Samba to my in-production list, that’s when they saw the title for the first time.
JW: What did they say?
CT: They weren’t happy. They said, You can’t put the word ‘jazz’ on the cover if you want to sell copies." I said, Look it’s simple: It’s jazz and it’s samba. We don’t have any other way to describe the music. That’s the way it has to be." There was no such term as bossa nova" yet, and this was the clearest way to describe the music for buyers.
JW: What was management's reaction?
CT: They didn’t like it, but they didn’t have a better alternative. So we went with Jazz Samba. I guess the title turned out OK after all [laughs].
JW: You knew in your gut that the bossa thing was going to be hot right away, didn’t you?
CT: I had no idea what was going to happen except that I heard the songs on the phone when Charlie Byrd called and liked them and wanted Stan to record similar material.
JW: What happened next?
CT: We released Jazz Samba in April 1962, and it steadily climbed the pop album charts. The single reached No. 15 in September 1962. The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in March 1963.
JW: As soon as the single started moving, you knew that the bossa nova concept was hot, yes?
CT: Sure. After that album, we bossa-ed all over the place. I knew early on that Antonio Carlos Jobim was special. At the time, I didn’t know he would wind up being called Brazil’s George Gershwin. But I knew that here was a composer who could take what seemed to be a mundane song structure and turn it into a gorgeous gem.
JW: The album’s success led to Jazz Samba Encore!, recorded in February 1963. Now you had Jobim and Luiz Bonfa joining Getz. What happened between the two dates?
CT: I knew that this music had enormous appeal. I thought, who better to help express it with Stan than two of Brazil’s best artists. I called Jobim in Brazil and said why don’t you get Bonfa and come up and record with Stan. Jobim knew who I was. We had already met when I was down in Rio years earlier.
JW: A month later you recorded Getz/Gilberto, with Brazilian vocals by guitarist Joao Gilberto. How did the recording come about?
CT: All of the previous bossa nova albums I recorded had been instrumentals, except for Maria Toledo's vocals on Jazz Samba Encore! Now I wanted to record an album that included a few male vocals by Joao. Astrud Gilberto was married to Joao at the time and was tagging along. Including her vocal on The Girl From Ipanema was an afterthought by Stan. No female vocal had been planned. I didn’t even know who she was until Jobim introduced me to her at the session. I think at the time, Jobim and Joao may have been against her singing. She was viewed simply as Joao's wife and not a trained singer. I think they were afraid she was going to bring the session down or something. But Stan pushed.
JW: What did you think when you heard her sing?
CT: I heard her accent and thought it was great. She was the girl from Ipanema that Joao was singing about. As soon as Stan suggested it, the idea sounded like the smart thing to do. I told her when she got to the “ah’s,” like at the end of the line “each one she passes goes ah,” to make the “ah” sound like a sigh. It was perfect.
JW: You had Joao sing the lyrics in Portuguese and Astrud sing them in English. Why?
CT: Guess [laughs].
JW: Because it would sell more albums?
CT: Well, yeah. Look, if you want to get people to spend their cash on something, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so.
JW: Stan really didn’t mind Astrud singing?
CT: Not at all. You've probably heard stories about what a nasty sort of guy Stan was. When it came to music, all bets were off regarding that side of his personality.
JW: What about all those stories that Stan didn’t treat her well.
CT: Stan treated a lot of people not well [laughs]. There was no tension in the studio that day whatsoever. At the end of the session, Stan said, “Astrud, you’re going to be famous.” He had an intuitive genius for sound, as crazy as he was.
JW: Anything from the Getz/Gilberto session that stands out as you look back?
CT: Yes. On the first day of recording at A&R Recording, everyone was there except Joao Gilberto. Which is why Jobim had to introduce me to Astrud. So I asked Monica Getz, Stan's wife at the time, whether she could go over to Joao’s hotel and get him to the studio to record. Monica went the three blocks to where Joao was staying, between Sixth Ave. and Broadway.
JW: Did she find him?
CT: Monica went up to Joao’s room and found him sitting in the dark playing the guitar. I think he was agoraphobic. Anyway, she got him downstairs, put him in a cab and drove three blocks to the studio.
JW: What happened when he got there?
CT: He just took out his guitar and started playing, as if he had arrived on time.
JW: As the music was being recorded, did you feel swept away?
CT: One of the most standout things from the session was the sound that Jobim got out of the piano. Those simple little one-note lines were incredible. When he played chord clusters, they sounded different from anything anyone else had ever played on the keyboard. Jobim had a sensitivity that stood out for me from the get go. Joao’s guitar, too, for that matter.
JW: Anything that you had to do as a producer on the session?
CT: This was a very loose date. I just talked to everybody when necessary to get them to take a different position at the mike and so on. There were no musical arrangements, you know. A&R Recording was a great place to record, but the best thing technically about the session was engineer Phil Ramone. He was and is very personable and good at putting the artist at ease. He's also superb at placing mikes in just the right position. He had been doing a lot of dates for me up to that point.
JW: In May 1963, you put Jobim together with arranger Claus Ogerman for The Composer Plays, a piano-strings bossa nova date with Jobim.
CT: I had started recording with Claus early on. Claus has this European graciousness and air about him that everything is wonderful. He’s just a gentle guy, and he got along with Jobim beautifully. Nobody else to my knowledge can write unison strings like Claus. It’s a technical thing he does with all the strings playing notes in tight configuration. That sound also is a specialty of Phil Ramone’s. He knows exactly how to mike the strings. That was a fantastic date.
JW: In May 1963, you recorded More with Kai Winding, one of only about two dozen singles by a jazz artist to make it onto Billboard's Top 40 pop chart. It peaked at an astounding #8. How did More come about?
CT: I had just gone to see the film, Mondo Cane, and loved the theme song. In the movie, Nino Olivieri's theme was played five or six different ways. After the film in late '62, I was crossing Broadway and a worker in a manhole had a tinny transistor radio playing. The song coming out of there was Telstar, a big instrumental hit by the Tornados, a British group. For some reason, the song sounded different coming out of the bowels of Broadway. I wondered whether we could re-capture that sound on a theremin [an electronic instrument played by putting your hands near its antennas]. I thought the song would be ideal for Claus Ogerman and Kai Winding. I had recorded Kai years earlier at Bethlehem and ABC.
JW: How did you decide on the rollicking tempo?
CT: When I got back to my office, I pulled all the popular records of More I could find. All had been recorded as ballads. To hear how the melody would sound at a faster clip, I took a 45-rpm of one of the ballads and doubled the speed to 78 rpm. The melody line sounded great. I told Claus what I wanted to do. I said, Let's have a theremin play the strong melody line." He loved the idea. I might add that up to that point, none of the More ballads had become hits.
JW: The song certainly sounds odd, with the quirky theremin and galloping Marlboro Man beat.
CT: That’s funny. Galloping" is exactly what I said to Claus when I told him what I wanted. Claus made it happen.
JW: Adding a jazz twist to pop songs was becoming a hallmark of yours at this point.
CT: You had to if you wanted albums to stand out in the shifting marketplace. For example, I had always loved Cal Tjader and became well acquainted with him in San Francisco in 1952. When I moved to Verve, I flew out West in 1961 and signed him to Verve. Cal recorded out there before moving to New York in 1963. When we recorded the album Soul Sauce in 1964, he had already recorded the title track as Guarachi Guaro for Fantasy in 1954. We changed the name to Soul Sauce because it sounded better than its original name, which wasn't attractive or easy to say or understand.
JW: What's the story behind the album cover?
CT: I had the art director put a bottle of Tabasco on there, and the album took off at the stores. McIlhenny, the maker of the sauce, sued Verve to take the bottle off. To settle, I told them we’d take it off in the next printing. Of course, it never happened. The company was selling a ton of hot sauce by then and quickly forgot about it.
JW: How did you get Bill Evans to sign with Verve in 1962?
CT: I just asked him, and he was available. I don’t know why he wasn’t still signed to Riverside. I had already known Bill for years. He had recorded for me as a sideman at Impulse!. [Editor's note: Riverside was undergoing financial difficulties after the death of one of its owners that eventually forced the label into bankruptcy]
JW: You recorded Evans's Conversations with Myself in February 1963. Whose idea was it to have Bill overdub himself twice?
CT: Bill came up with the idea for three pianos. He wanted to record three different lines. I knew about overdubbing and had multi-tracking equipment available. When we went into the studio, we’d record a lead track. Then Bill would accompany himself on the second track while listening to the lead track through headphones. Then he'd record the third track while listening to the other two. I was in the booth listening on my headphones. It was an amazing process.
JW: Was Bill captivated by his own sound or hindered by hearing it?
CT: He thoroughly enjoyed it. The music was coming out of Bill Evans’ brain and talent three times. Why do you ask?
JW: Many artists dislike listening to themselves. They hear mistakes and things they would have liked to have done differently. Bill didn’t have that problem?
CT: None of that stuff with Bill. We might have re-recorded the lead track to a song a few times and then the second and third. But he had no problem hearing himself and dealing with himself as a separate artist.
JW: Who came up with the album’s title?
CT: I did. It was obvious: Bill was having conversations with himself. He was talking to himself two times. Bill liked the title. That’s what he was doing.
JW: What did Bill think of the final result?
CT: He was happy, in as much as Bill Evans ever exhibited happiness. Bill was a very serious fellow. He had a great sense of humor, but he didn’t smile a lot. He was serious all the time.
JW: The album was recorded on three different dates. One track per date?
CT: No, Bill didn’t record all the lead tracks on one date, overdub second one on the next, and the third on the final date. Instead he’d finish one song at a time, all three tracks. Then we’d move on to the next one. New York's Webster Hall, where we recorded the album, is a huge ballroom with balconies. RCA leased it out Monday through Friday, and there was a glass booth you could roll in and out for the engineer and producer.
JW: How was the piano set up?
CT: We didn’t use gobos [baffles] on this date. There was a thick velvet drape on a runner up at the top near the ceiling, allowing you to move it around to adjust the reverberation. That’s the only thing we did as far as changing the sound in the room. We ran the drape around a few feet from the open side of the grand piano to minimize audio leakage.
JW: Who would call for alternate takes—you or Bill?
CT: It’s hard to remember. We worked together very comfortably. After Bill would finish a track, he’d look up and either he’d ask for a take or I would hold up a finger for another take. My index finger [laughs].
JW: In May 1963, you recorded Bill with Claus Ogerman for an album now known as Plays the Theme from the V.I.P.s. In retrospect, the album sounds odd, don’t you think?
CT: How so?
JW: Well, it seems out of character for Bill. You don’t hear his signature sound much, and the strings are somewhat oppressive. Plus the album's movie-music concept was a little unusual for him.
CT: It’s such ancient history. But I’ll tell you, since it’s what I told Bill. MGM owned Verve at the time, and Verve had an open door to MGM’s movie themes. I cooperated with the head of MGM when he had a movie with a good theme. For example, Walk On the Wild Side for Jimmy Smith I got from MGM. MGM executives would invite me to meetings where they’d preview movie themes and give me the soundtracks. I would hear about the movies that were coming out as well as their themes. The MGM people would give me a copy of the scores.
JW: So V.I.P.s, in retrospect, was an odd fit for Bill.
CT: I wasn’t crazy about doing the V.I.P.s album, but MGM wanted to get the songs out to promote the movies. My hands were somewhat tied.
JW: What did you tell Bill?
CT: I said to Bill, Let’s do this album. I don’t think you or I are that gung-ho on having you do movie music, but let’s get Claus [pictured] to cover us. It’ll be an endless benefit to both of us from a marketing and promotional point of view with MGM’s people." And it was. That was the only blatant business thing Bill and I got into. Bill understood it. He had no artistic temperament about it.
JW: Looking back, would you have done that album differently? Or would you have done it at all?
CT: There are quite a few things in life I would have done differently or not at all. But one moves ahead. Sometimes you leave a trail of dust you’d wish would go away.
JW: Is that album one of them?
CT: I didn’t say that.
JW: After the V.I.P.s session, the next album you recorded with Bill Evans was Trio '64, which becomes the model you wound up using for him. How did you finally determine how you would record Bill at Verve?
CT: I didn’t think about it that way. We looked at each album differently, as a separate project. But the goal was to showcase Bill and expose him to as many new listeners as possible.
JW: Was his recording of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town planned for Trio '64, which was recorded in December 1963?
CT: No. That was Bill’s sense of humor. He just threw it in. The same was true of The Washington Twist on Empathy, his first album for me at Verve in 1962. It just happened on the spot. That song was really a reworking of Frankie and Johnny. Bill just came up with Santa Claus in the studio and we captured it.
JW: How about the Stan Getz & Bill Evans dates in May 1964? The pairing doesn’t feel completely comfortable.
CT: How so?
JW: Stan seems restless on there, and Bill sounds like he’s trying to break through but can’t quite overcome Stan’s intensity.
CT: Well, now that you mention it, I wouldn’t say they were a dream team.
CT: There wasn’t enough juxtaposition there. They both had a similar feel. I'll just say that Bill was Bill, and Stan was Stan. That’s probably what you sense there. In retrospect, I think your view is pretty accurate subjective analysis.
JW: The late Peter Pettinger, author of Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, wrote that the piano on the Verve dates sound curiously dry and boxy." What did he mean?
CT: I read that, too and I have no idea what he was talking about. It sounds a little pompous to me. I think that’s his little idiosyncrasy. I can tell you that all of the recordings were carefully set up and carefully done. The writer simply didn’t agree with the reverb quality and how Rudy [Van Gelder, the engineer] was recording the attack. It’s not the purest sound, but I happen to think it sounds better. What is pure anyway?
JW: Did Rudy set up the mikes differently for Bill than for other pianists?
CT: He always miked the piano like he saw it. I had nothing to do with it and would never have said anything about where someone of Rudy's stature should put a mike.
JW: What’s your favorite Bill Evans album?
CT: Conversations with Myself. I can hear that album over and over again.
JW: When you listen to it, are you hearing one or three Bills?
CT: Three. It’s a fabulous album and it won a Grammy. A lot of people might not have the patience to stay with it because of the seemingly complex nature of the music. But that’s not the case. If in your mind’s eye you can envision three piano players, it’s not that difficult when listening to the album.
JW: What were your interactions with Bill like during this period at Verve?
CT: I frequently picked Bill up on the West Side when we'd drive out to Rudy Van Gelder’s in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Bill lived around 90th St. and Riverside Drive. With Bill in the car, I would take the Henry Hudson Parkway up to the George Washington Bridge and then across to New Jersey and Rudy's studio. That would give us about 20 minutes of conversation going and 20 minutes coming back.
JW: Do you remember what you'd talk about?
CT: Bill would talk about current events and philosophy. He was extremely well read and was a very thoughtful guy. And I always enjoyed talking with him. He’d give me ideas for sessions that I had coming up, and I’d run ideas by him. Bill always had great feedback. Unfortunately my association and memory of Bill is not divided by different albums. It was strictly about the music.
JW: When did Helen Keane start appearing on Bill’s albums as the producer?
CT: After I left for A&M Records in 1966. Helen participated more as Bill's manager than his technical producer.
JW: Before we get to A&M, Movin’ Wes on Verve in November 1964 was your first album with guitarist Wes Montgomery, a big band session with Johnny Pate arrangements.
CT: Wes was very comfortable with this date. It was big band jazz stuff that Wes could play along with.
JW: Was Bumpin’ in March 1965 with arranger Don Sebesky different?
CT: I remember we had a little trouble there. One of the tracks with strings had a tricky turning point, and Wes couldn’t read music. It got Wes down. He was sitting there looking depressed. Don went over and asked him what was wrong. Wes said, All these cats are sitting around with music on their stands. I don’t know what to do."
JW: How did you resolve the problem?
CT: I stopped the date. From that point on, Don made a guide track recording using a Fender Rhodes electric piano for Wes. Don would record it onto a tape. Then he’d give the tape to Wes, who would take it and rehearse on the road. Using the recording, Wes would get the songs down pat. Then he’d nail all the turnarounds and everything else. This way he’d know everything that was going to happen in the score. He was back in control of his environment. Even after that, we’d overdub the strings to minimize issues. The guide tapes got us through the problem with relatively complex arrangements.
JW: Wes Montgomery's Goin’ Out of My Head in November 1965 is really the first album where you begin to have Wes record pop hits of the day with a hip jazz flavor. Why did you choose that pop tune?
CT: I listened to all of the pop and R&B stuff that came out at the time on the radio. I heard Little Anthony & the Imperials rehearsing for a show at New York's Paramount Theater, and the group's song, Goin’ Out of My Head, really stuck with me. I thought it could be great for Wes. The song was written by two guys named Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein.
JW: How did you broach the idea with Montgomery?
CT: Wes was playing at the Half Note with Miles Davis’s rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. That’s where we had recorded Smokin’ at the Half Note in June. I took a copy of the Little Anthony 45-rpm down to play for him. Wes listened to it and said, Creed, you must be going out of your head. I can’t do that kind of stuff."
JW: What did you say?
CT: I told Wes, Listen to the chord changes and the melody, and you’ll find there’s something there that’s going to be very useful for you in a recording studio." I also told Wes that Oliver Nelson was arranging and that he already had the chart in his head. Forget the vocal and performance," I told Wes. Listen to the chord changes." That was the only time I had to talk to Wes in a somewhat uncomfortable situation.
JW: What was Montgomery's reaction?
CT: He wasn't completely won over. I told Oliver that I needed his help. I said, Wes is turned off about the source of the song. I don’t think he’s hearing the arrangement and chord changes that you have in mind."
JW: What did Nelson do?
CT: Oliver made a demo on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Wes didn’t read music. When Wes heard what Oliver had come up with on the Fender, he loved it. He rehearsed the song based on Oliver's tape recording. Then he and Oliver came up with a hit. After that, everything was smooth. Wes trusted me. He was a lovely person to work with.
JW: Did that session motivate you to have Wes record more pop hits?
CT: I didn't think that way. Each new project was a new project. Blues, classical, John Lee Hooker, whatever. That’s how I thought.
JW: As soon as Wes heard the recording, he knew it sounded great?
CT: Oh yeah. Wes was never an obstinate guy. I would certainly never give him a song to record that wasn’t top quality.
JW: The organist Walter Wanderley. He recorded a string of albums for you at Verve and then at A&M. How did you discover him? Where did he come from?
CT: I had him come up from Brazil in 1966 to record Rain Forest. He came directly from the airport, walked into the studio and sat down at the Hammond C-3 that Rudy Van Gelder had tricked out with the electronic attacks. Walter did the whole album in one take.
JW: Who created the track list?
CT: It was all music Walter brought with him or wanted to record, including Summer Samba, which became known as So Nice. It was a huge hit. We just recorded it, and that was it. Walter could swing up a storm. He had been playing clubs down in Brazil for years. The country was filled with gems. I learned about these artists through a grapevine I had established between me and my Brazilian sources. The beauty of Rio back then is everyone knew everyone else. [Antonio Carlos] Jobim knew [Eumir] Deodato, who knew Astrud [Gilberto], who knew [Luiz] Bonfa, and all knew Walter [Wanderley]. When Jobim and Gilberto first came to New York from Brazil, someone gave me a tape of Walter playing.
JW: Did Walter adjust the organ when he came up?
CT: The organ Walter used was the same one Rudy Van Gelder had tweaked for Jimmy Smith and other soul-funk organists. But when Walter came in, he adjusted it the way he wanted it, with a more pure organ sound. The album became a huge hit for Verve.
JW: Were you the sole producer at Verve?
CT: I produced the bulk of the jazz albums. There was guy doing all the comedians, which became a growing business for record companies in the 1960s. Norman Granz, however, handled Oscar Peterson and Count Basie.
JW: Why weren’t you producing them?
CT: I didn’t want to. Norman managed Oscar and Basie, and I didn’t want to do any of the acts managed by Norman. From an operational point of view, I didn’t agree with his approach producing records. He and I were on opposite ends of the artistic spectrum. He continued to handle Oscar, Ray Brown and Basie. Or he turned them over to the guy who was producing the comedy albums. Norman’s albums were loosely produced at best. He had an entirely different approach than I did when producing records.
JW: When did you leave Verve and why?
CT: I left in 1966. But the groundwork was already in place at the Grammy Awards dinner in 1965. There, Getz/Gilberto won Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Instrumental Jazz Performance. Astrud [Gilberto] was there. Stan [Getz] wasn’t, even though he won for Best Instrumental. He never came to any of those things. When he won a Grammy a year earlier for Desafinado, he handed it to me and said, Here, this is yours" [laughs]. Awards weren’t his thing.
JW: What happened at the 1965 Grammy dinner?
CT: Herb [Alpert] and Jerry [Moss] were there, and we spoke. Then they started calling me soon afterward asking me to come over to A&M Records in New York. I gave them my manager’s name, Clarence Avant. They wanted to record jazz, and I guess they thought who better to turn to than Creed Taylor.
JW: Did Verve try to hold onto you?
CT: It didn’t matter. I had gotten an attractive deal from Herb and Jerry that was impossible to turn down.
JW: What was the deal sweetener?
CT: In effect, they had agreed to let me start my own subsidiary label, CTI Records, within A&M. I would have complete control over the artists, the material, the album titles, the packaging, the marketing—everything. I had been working toward that level of creative independence my entire career.
JW: Once you were free of all restraints, did your vision bear fruit right away?
CT: The first album I produced when I arrived at A&M under the CTI name was A Day in the Life with Wes Montgomery, which was a pure play on what I wanted to do with jazz and pop. The record instantly became a bestseller.
JW: In 1967, two years before you left A&M Records with CTI, you produced Wave with Antonio Carlos Jobim, which foreshadowed the CTI look and sound.
CT: Yes, Wave actually was one of my first CTI recordings when CTI was a subsidiary of A&M. I had heard parts of the song a year earlier, in Rio de Janeiro.
JW: Did Jobim play it for you there?
CT: Yes. I had been invited down to Rio by the government. I was to be the guest of honor at a luncheon. Brazil grew a lot of coffee but it didn't start exporting it until after the Verve bossa nova records I produced with Stan Getz took off. Actually, Brazil had invited down a large number of American stars in different cultural and business areas. On the plane down was Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Quincy Jones, Sammy Cahn, and Kim Hunter, one of my favorite Hitchcock actresses—blond, really quiet and pretty. I had a long talk with her on the flight. Everyone was going to the same event.
JW: Sounds like there was more than coffee at stake.
CT: There was. With the bossa nova craze in full throttle, Brazil saw a commercial and cultural opportunity to overcome its Carmen Miranda image. MGM back in the 1940s and early 1950s had put bananas on Miranda's hat, and rather than focus on music as a vital part of Brazilian culture, Miranda's image and Brazil by extension became a punch line.
JW: So there was a music component to the trip, too, yes?
CT: Yes. After The Girl from Ipanema hit, Brazil wanted to remind everyone that the samba and bossa nova were from Brazil, not any other Latin American country. I think the government hoped that those who came down would carry that message back.
JW: You already knew Jobim, of course, from your earlier recordings.
CT: Yes, sure. We first met in New York in the very early 1960s. When I went by to see him in Rio in 1966, he played an incomplete version of Wave for me on the piano. I loved it. I liked Jobim very much. He was full of enthusiasm, and an early proponent of the whole green-planet thing we see today. Our culture should have been more receptive to Jobim’s feelings about the forest and flowers and the ocean. When I heard the song and its name, I thought to myself, There he goes again, like a kid, a composer, animated like a wave." We agreed when the song was finished that we'd record it together.
JW: When you joined A&M in 1966, setting up CTI was part of your original deal, yes?
CT: That's right.
JW: When did you decide to leave?
CT: In late 1968. Herb Alpert was a really nice guy. He was a stylistic trumpet player, and his Tijuana Brass made A&M a huge success. But he also liked jazz a little too much, perhaps. He made suggestions to me about arrangements. It was a subtle thing, and I saw conflict in artistic direction looming.
JW: How so?
CT: If you get too connected with another person in your own area of artistic achievement, you risk falling for that person's suggestions. One day I woke up and it hit me. I realized that I had to leave A&M. I thought I should be listening carefully to other aesthetics.
JW: Herb loved jazz?
CT: Herb loved Paul Desmond, Wes Montgomery and other artists I was producing. But I could sense through his suggestions that he had a different creative vision for them. And I started to feel myself becoming obligated to incorporate his suggestions. His recommendations were taking my sensibilities in the wrong direction. I knew I had to set up a record company on my own to accomplish what I had in mind.
JW: How was the parting?
CT: Completely amicable.
JW: Did you need a new office?
CT: I already had my own office separate from A&M's offices, and I didn't change my location at Rockefeller Center. Early on, the deal was that A&M would handle the distribution and everything else. After an album package was complete, I would just send it over to them, and they took it from there. I wasn't involved in the marketing in the beginning, but I did a lot of radio promotion.
JW: Were you scared going out on your own?
JW: Why not?
CT: No one was doing what I was doing, so I didn't have any real competition to worry about. And A&M was handling all the back-end work.
JW: In the late 1960s, what did you sense was changing in the music industry and jazz marketplace? What opportunity did you see?
CT: I saw that there was room for jazz that didn't completely ignore other successful types of music of the time that had merit. I liked what Blue Note Records had been doing in this space earlier in the 1960s. Lee Morgan's Sidewinder, for example, made a lot of noise. So did Jimmy Smith's Back at the Chicken Shack. Blue Note had placed one foot in R&B and one foot in improvised contemporary jazz.
JW: Did you like what Blue Note was doing?
CT: Yes, I did. However, it wasn't the direction in which I was interested in going. I thought the label was restricting its reach by having long improvised solos on albums. I had similar ideas about mixing jazz, soul and R&B—but without the imposition of elongated passages. These would be where the bass had maybe two choruses and drums would then do a trade. It’s hard to verbalize what I knew and what I wanted to do that no one else was doing.
JW: But if you were summing it up?
CT: Look, I felt there were great music themes out there that weren't being packaged in a way that large audiences would connect with them.
JW: At CTI, you clearly were shooting for sophistication. How did you know that the market was ready for what you had to offer?
CT: My many years in the record business had resulted in a close relationship with the independent distributors as a group. They were almost like a fraternity. As long as you didn't cross into their territory, you were part of this club. I got to know them, and we had a direct line of communication.
JW: What were they telling you about the marketplace?
CT: I sensed I could record Freddie Hubbard on Red Clay, for example, and make a really attractive package out of it. Back then, these guys were businessmen but they also were interested in music. Even though A&M was handling the distribution at first, I knew the distribution guys well and could tell them what I had planned and who was going to appear on an album. Then I would say, By the way, I’m going into the studio with Freddie [Hubbard] or Stanley [Turrentine] and the results are going to be very interesting." These guys would give me a sense of how they thought my concepts would sell or what I had to do to improve sales.
JW: What did you learn about consumers?
CT: Through the distributors I discovered that taste levels among buyers were shifting. With the rise of FM stereo radio in the late 1960s, the album began to gain on the single 45-rpm. FM stations needed to fill more time, since they had less ads at first. As albums became more popular, LP covers became more important. Younger people began to respond more to highly artistic, engaging covers.
JW: But covers were becoming more than just a place to put an artist's picture, yes?
CT: Absolutely. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, you held covers, you left them out, face up or standing against speakers. They were meant to be seen. They were a personal statement. My goal with [photographer] Pete Turner was to create a mood for the covers. I wanted the images to symbolize the feeling and energy of the music inside.
JW: Yet your CTI covers by Pete were never literal images of the album titles.
CT: That's right. Jazz is about giving listeners space to reach their own conclusions. CTI cover art was always strong but subliminal in its depictions.
JW: Record covers were always important. When did they start to play an even bigger role, especially with the type of photography you were using and the wet, glossy surfaces?
CT: Right after I left A&M. I knew the guy managing the distributor that sold directly to Korvettes in New York. The flagship store was on 5th Ave. Today, the store's name doesn't mean much to most people, since they went out of business years ago. But back in the 1960s and 1970s, the department store had a huge record department. The stronger the covers, the stronger the sales. Pete Turner's images were so rich and beautiful that I wanted them to take up the entire cover.
JW: What was the reaction?
CT: Eventually the distributor told me that customers weren't coming in to ask what’s new in jazz but what’s new on CTI. So our covers played a big role in the popularity of the albums. Or at last getting people to buy them for the first time. Distributors helped me realize that we headed in the right direciton.
JW: But there was plenty of competition for the consumer's dollar.
CT: Yes but not that much in my jazz category. By 1970, rock had overwhelmed most other genres. Many other jazz albums from this period looked shabby and sounded slapped together. My strategy was to invest heavily on the talent, sound quality and look of the records. By 1974, Billboard named CTI the label of the year, and we were the No. 1 jazz label in the world.
JW: From the start, was CTI Records aimed at young adults?
CT: Not specifically. The albums were for sophisticated jazz listeners of all ages who were tired of the same old formulas being used by the well known jazz labels.
JW: What was CTI's formula?
CT: There was no formula. I simply wanted to create a structured musical environment in which highly creative artists like Freddie Hubbard could have the freedom to invent and improvise. CTI was always about what if" and let’s try it."
JW: Before you left A&M, did you write out your vision for CTI?
CT: No. I knew exactly what I was going to do. I didn’t have to write it down [laughs].
JW: Did you have a sense of what you wanted to achieve?
CT: Here’s what I did not want to do: I didn’t want to produce jam sessions. I wanted to capture what I felt when I first heard Stan Getz playing his solo on Woody Herman's Early Autumn. That solo always made me melt. Or when I first heard Jackie [Cain] and Roy [Kral] singing with Charlie Ventura in the late 1940s. I knew immediately when I heard them that I was a Jackie and Roy fan—and that I wasn't a fan of Charlie Ventura [laughs]. What I was responding to back then was great sounding music. I wanted to do the same at CTI, only do so on a much bigger scale. Over time I think we change intellectually but not emotionally. What pleases us always pleases us. I simply had a sound in mind that I wanted to capture.
JW: What was this sound?
CT: There was a kind of triplex consideration. CTI was going to deliver music that was confident and smart, like Stan Getz. It was going to be beautifully orchestrated, like Gil Evans' arrangements for Claude Thornhill's band. And finally I had a concept for a sound. Whether that sound was going to come through the arranger or the soloist would depend on the album. Eventually, Don Sebesky best captured that sound, and he became CTI's dominant arranger.
JW: Yet the first CTI albums you recorded in 1969 when you left A&M weren't jazz LPs, were they?
CT: That's right. The first CTI date was an album with folk singer Kathy McCord.
JW: Why her?
CT: Because I was a Chris Connor fan. I thought Kathy had a nice smokey sound. I liked her voice. One of the next albums I produced was by a group called Flow, which featured guitarist Don Felder, who soon afterward joined the Eagles. I liked Don's sound.
JW: CTI's folk-rock phase was brief. In 1970 you produced Freddie Hubbard's classic Red Clay.
CT: Freddie was into a different scene than Miles Davis at that time. Miles for the most part in the late 1960s was trying to thumb his nose at the phony rock idiom. What Freddie and Herbie Hancock were doing was real enthusiastic, improvised jazz with no sociological or political motives or overtones.
JW: But let me ask you—Red Clay has a lot of extended solo work and wide-open playing. Wasn't this exactly what you were opposed to?
CT: Red Clay was different. It was electrifying all the way through. It had an explosive quality. So if it took an extra 5 or 10 minutes for more explosions, I was all for it. Red Clay captured some very emotional music. As a producer, if something’s happening, you don’t cut it off and say to the musicians, Whoa folks, no one’s going to understand what you’re playing." As a producer, I always prefer to go with the flow and feeling. That was one of those kinds of dates.
JW: Did you and Hubbard discuss Red Clay before the session?
CT: No. That’s what jazz is all about. It’s a surprise. I had never heard Red Clay before. But I had heard Freddie Hubbard throughout the 1960s and loved what he had been doing. Freddie was on Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, which I had produced in 1961 after founding Impulse! Records.
JW: Were you concerned that Red Clay didn't have a memorable hook?
CT: Red Clay had a large hook. If it took 18 minutes to show what that hook was all about, so be it [laughs]. The day of the 45-rpm single was over by this point. There were new rules. Great music required room to stretch. Freddie needed the space to do all of the improvising he wanted. He was absolutely free to do as he pleased.
JW: It seems your formula at CTI was to have fixed orchestral parameters in place but then allow artists enormous flexibility to move around in the zone.
CT: Great music is about flexibility. Music's latitude is greater than anyone can imagine so you have to be prepared for it. You have to allow the art to come up to the top.
JW: On Antonio Carlos Jobim's Stone Flower in 1970, what were you listening for? Or did you just let Jobim do what he wanted?
CT: I just let him do his thing. Strings were added later.
JW: Later? Why?
CT: When you've got a sensitive, subtle thing like Jobim and the bossa nova idiom, there’s a lot of rhythmic detail that has to be heard by the producer while people are playing and recording. A large string section is a foreign element to handle at the same time.
JW: Jobim knew the strings would come later?
CT: Yes, that was the pattern.
JW: In 1971 you created Kudu Records, a CTI subsidiary. Why?
CT: To create a record line for play on black radio. I wanted to produce a completely different type of music for a specific audience.
JW: Wasn't CTI designed to do that?
CT: It was. But I wanted a label that specifically featured music that was soulful and emotionally interesting, and not necessarily dominated by improvisation. Kudu was sort of an instrumental R&B label. The rhythmic content was the driving sound. For instance, [saxophonist] Stanley Turrentine could have been a Kudu artist, but he was more stylized and sophisticated, so he fit better at CTI. If you took James Brown's backup group without James Brown, you'd have a Kudu recording. Kudu focused on repeated riffs and rhythmic sounds.
JW: What was the business strategy?
CT: To introduce Kudu on late-night radio. If the music connected with listeners, I knew that the late-night deejay would tell the drive-time guy in the morning that he was getting a strong reaction from his audience. The late night guy would urge the morning guy to use it. Those were two different audiences in the same market. That's how word of mouth would start when radio mattered. Radio guys at the time knew that Kudu stood for a specific sound. It was jazz, soul and R&B all wrapped up in one package.
JW: What does Kudu" mean?
CT: It’s a species of antelope. I just happened to come across the word. It sounded to me like voodoo," which has a certain energy to it. I also liked the colors of the Jamaican flag, which I used for the Kudu label. The colors had an earthy, festive groove.
JW: Eumir Deodato's Prelude, released in 1973, was CTI's first huge hit.
CT: Prelude hit No. 3 on Billboard's album chart, and Also Sprach Zarathustra, the single from the album, reached No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart that year. Sales skyrocketed, and we were on our way with CTI.
JW: How did the concept for the song come about?
CT: In 1968, when the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey came out. I saw it and was transfixed by the scene toward the end, where the character eating at a table knocks the wine glass onto the floor. That scene was so bizarre. I heard the movie's theme song and realized it hadn’t been done except as a classical piece.
JW: What happened next?
CT: I asked Deodato if he could do something with the 2001 theme. Deodato had arranged albums for me at A&M. The result was this intense samba, quasi-bossa rhythm. It wasn’t so much the arrangement but the energy he put into the rhythm track to get the basic theme down that gave it the impetus or appeal after the melody was put on top. The build was terrific.
JW: Did you ever feel Deodato's 2001 was too long?
CT: No. Never. Because it had a life of its own.
JW: Was that a criterion for you as a producer? if a studio performance has a life of its own, leave it alone?
CT: I would think so, yeah [laughs].
JW: How does that differ from a 10-minute drum solo? Doesn't that have a life of its own?
CT: Uhhh, whose drum solo? And on what song? [laughs]. It all depends.
JW: When you were in the booth producing albums at CTI, what were you doing exactly?
CT: I was standing, with my left ear next to this huge speaker. And today I wish I hadn’t been doing that. Rudy [van Gelder] had it cranked up, and I loved the sound because the energy coming into booth from the studio was magic. It was the best way to hear if the music being played was happening—or if there was a problem. There was a lot to listen to and evaluate during those sessions.
JW: Did the practice affect your hearing?
CT: Oh, sure. It knocked off some of my hearing. I’m probably 10,000 cycles in the left ear today.
JW: Wow, how close were you?
CT: Too close [laughs]. As I'm standing there, my eyes were never closed, and nobody in the booth was permitted to talk. I was listening for every bit of texture.
JW: Do you listen that carefully to music when you put on a recording at home?
CT: All the time. Listening to jazz is about depth and dimension. It's not something to throw on as background music. I can’t tolerate people who want to listen to jazz and then once the music goes on they start talking. When that happens I leave.
JW: When you were listening in the booth, what would cause you to think a take wasn't happening?
CT: It could be any number of things. A song may not be swinging, or it may lack that emotional feeling. Or the tempo might need to be faster or slower to get an emotional reaction. Or the strings might a have little intonation problem, which occurs mostly in the back row. Or some of the woodwinds might be sharp. All kinds of things are going on, and you have to listen hard for them. But ultimately, it’s the feeling of the music that’s the decision maker. How does the track make me feel.
JW: The number of musicians on CTI recordings suddenly grew in the early 1970s.
CT: Not suddenly. Gradually. The thing developed. For example, I wanted the strings to be an important element you listened to—not just padding. Strings had a purpose, whether the jazz critics liked them or not. When things got a little more complex, the strings had to be perfect and in tune.
JW: How did you ensure that?
CT: I had David Nadien in the first chair. David was the section's de facto straw boss. He knew the politics of strings, which went beyond the musicality. Don [Sebesky] was my quality-control guy in the studio. So was David. He contracted every single string player himself. He knew that there was a great deal of political back-scratching going on with string players. If you weren't careful, you could wind up with a mediocre player. For me, every single string player had to be selected carefully. David did that.
JW: Hubert Laws' Crying Song was one of your earliest CTI albums, recorded in mid-1969. You re-issued it in 1970 as gatefold, with a stunning Pete Turner cover. Why?
CT: Once I had officially set up my company in early 1970, I wanted to bring uniformity to the look of our covers, making full use of Pete Turner's color photography. The blue image with the horse grazing the snowy Montana field knocked me out. But the photo's subject, the horse, is on the back.
CT: Because it conveys the loneliness of the title. Also, I wanted CTI covers to be as engaging as possible. Pete's images were beautiful, so rich in color. They begged to fill every square inch of real estate on the covers—front and back. And whether the album was seen from the front or back at stores, people would know immediately it was a CTI release. I also knew that in buyers' homes, CTI albums would have the same effect as coffee table books. People would want to hold them, open them and stare at the images. The horse on the back made you turn the album over and over.
JW: Why did you record part of Crying Song in Memphis?
CT: I wanted to use the house rhythm section at American Recording Studios. It was a soulful section that had backed Elvis Presley, as odd as that might seem. Elvis had a real soulful thing going.
JW: How did you get them for a jazz date?
CT: I knew them already. I just called the studio and asked if I could use the house band. I knew it was going to work because I liked how the band sounded behind Elvis and many other R&B hits. I knew what we were walking into. Then Stanley Turrentine couldn’t make it.
JW: Stanley Turrentine? You mean Hubert Laws.
CT: No, it was supposed to be Stanley Turrentine’s date. On the day we were to record in Memphis, I got a call at 10 am in my hotel. The session was to start at 1 p.m. It was Stanley, saying his lawyers wouldn't let him come down to Memphis because his contract hadn’t been signed yet.
JW: Did you flip out—I mean as much as Creed Taylor ever flips out?
CT: [Laughs] I don’t know. Stuff happens all the time. As the cliché goes, you roll with the punches.
JW: So what did you do?
CT: I called Hubert in New York and asked if he’d like to come down. I told him that Stanley couldn’t make it and that I had Elvis' rhythm section ready to go.
JW: What happened?
CT: Hubert arrived the next day and we went for a walk along the Mississippi River before the session, stopping for some Memphis barbeque. Then we went back into the studio and recorded with these guys, without music. The sound they created brought Southern soul together with jazz.
JW: Who picked the material?
CT: I picked most of the songs. A couple came from the house band there.
JW: Part of the album was recorded at Rudy van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, yes?
CT: Yes, we came back up and recorded more at Rudy’s. We didn’t finish everything down there, and I thought we might need some arranging aspects, particularly on Let It Be.
CT: Because of the nature of the song. And also, there was a sound I wanted that I could only get at Rudy's.
JW: But while the song, Let It Be, was recorded in January 1969, it wasn't released as a Beatles single until March 1970, followed by their Let It Be album in May. How did you get a hold of the song in mid-1969?
CT: CTI and George Martin shared the same U.S. attorney at the time. I had given the attorney a copy of Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life in 1967 and he took it back to Paul McCartney. The Beatles flipped out about it. They liked it so much that Paul in 1969 sent me a run through tape of what he had done on Let It Be.
JW: Just like that?
CT: Yes, just like that—with the understanding that I could record the song with any jazz artist I wished.
JW: So you heard the original demo, and CTI was the first to record it commercially?
CT: Yes, what Paul sent was a rough voice line with him playing piano. I‘d heard the song many times growing up in Virginia. It wasn’t called Let It Be, of course. It was a Presbyterian hymn that was very close. We came back to Rudy’s so I could use Hubert on the alto flute and get the sound I had in my head. The alto flute was the perfect register for that kind of soulful, Southern church sound.
JW: How was Hubert on the date?
CT: Great. Hubert is unshakable. He's creatively cooperative and has the highest level of musicianship. It didn't matter what I threw at him. He made it all sound great.
JW: Is it fair to say that your approach at CTI was about juxtapositions? I'm thinking of Astrud Gilberto with Stanley Turrentine in 1971, for example.
CT: I've always found creating softness and edge interesting. On the album you've just mentioned, I had always thought Astrud's gentle vocal approach against Stanley's big sound would be interesting to hear. The helpless damsel against the take-charge tenor is a very seductive sound. That was the idea from the start.
JW: In April and May of 1973, you produced Don Sebesky's Giant Box. That was a massive date with 57 musicians.
CT: It was really a tribute to Don [Sebesky] and all the artists who were under contract to CTI at the time. Don arranged it. It was meant to showcase quadraphonic fidelity [which had been introduced to the market in 1970]. We wanted to assemble the biggest possible orchestra and create an enormous sound to fill out the new four-speaker format.
JW: What did you think of quadraphonic sound?
CT: I loved it. I had four speakers set up in each corner of the room so they were acoustically perfect. Then I'd sit in the middle and listen. Wow, the sound was amazing. It never occurred to me that there would be a marketing problem. You needed four speakers and a special piece of equipment to play this stuff, and the result sounded great. The problem ultimately was that the extra gear was too expensive for most people, who I think were pretty happy with stereo.
JW: So Giant Box was a quad session?
CT: Yes. I figured what better way to embrace a new technology than to do it with Don as the arranger and with each one of the artists signed with CTI.
JW: How did you come up with the name of the album?
CT: It was a giant orchestra and the two LPs came in a box [laughs]. Seriously, most of my album titles resonate because they simply describe what's inside. And they're direct.
JW: How did Giant Box sell?
CT: The box didn’t fly, as far as the world was concerned. The world wasn't ready for quadraphonic sound. Today, surround sound is standard with home theaters.
JW: In 1971, you produced Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues, one of the Kudu label's best-selling albums. Whose idea was it to use Washington?
CT: A sheriff in Memphis.
JW: How so?
CT: He arrested [alto saxophonist] Hank Crawford. It was supposed to be Hank’s record date. But Hank was caught with marijuana, that hideous, evil thing [laughs]. So they put him in the pokey. Someone called me at 1 p.m. to let me know. We were supposed to have started the date in New York at 10 a.m. Grover was in the sax section playing tenor. I went into the studio and told Grover that he had to play Hank's part. Grover said he had never recorded on alto and didn't own one. I rented one for him, and he played the date. As I was listening to Grover play in the booth, I knew immediately that he sounded great. Different than Hank, but great.
JW: How exactly?
CT: Grover's sound made the sax statements a less obvious thing. Everything was the same as it would have been with Hank, except Grover was Grover. Hank was a blues master alto player and Grover had a more lyrical, romantic thing going. He had a sound that worked in contrast to what we were doing. I think that made the date quite different.
JW: What did Crawford think of the album?
CT: I didn’t ask him. Are you kidding? [laughs]
JW: There’s so much Marvin Gaye in Grover's playing.
CT: Marvin became his best buddy in Detroit. Marvin loved what Grover had done with his songs.
JW: After a series of Kudu albums, Washington in 1974 recorded Mister Magic, which became a huge hit.
CT: The rhythm section on that date had just come from a Roberta Flack session on which she sang that song. Eric Gale had the tape from one of the rundowns. He said, This isn't very good, but you might want to let the guys hear it to see if they can get something going with it." Without a note being written by anybody, they sat down with [pianist and arranger] Bob James and started on a groove. Two hours later it locked in. Bob really created that thing along with the rhythm section. Grover knew how to play in the spaces and where not to play. He knew how to play like a soul singer.
JW: On Jim Hall's Concierto in 1975, were you afraid there would be too many heavyweights there?
CT: No. I picked the players and got [Don] Sebesky to write the charts. I had Jim, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Roland Hanna, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd on the date.
JW: You make it sound a little too easy.
CT: [Laughs] But it is. If you can't make a record with those guys, you had better hang it up.
JW: But you’re not sitting in the booth eating a sandwich, are you?
CT: No [laughing]. My job is to spot the flaws, push for the right feel and know when we had a master take. That's the one that moves me most.
JW: How was Chet?
CT: As always, he was fantastic. Chet and Paul hadn’t worked together before. But each one could stand on his own. They fit together like peas in a pod.
JW: What role did Jim play if it was his date?
CT: His role was to play Jim Hall. He and I talked about the song Concierto having a Jobim-legato feeling. We picked the other songs together.
JW: Did you discuss the date with Jim in advance?
CT: That usually occurs. Then Don [Sebesky] and I talk about the feel we want, and he'd lay out the tracks [by recording them] on a Fender Rhodes [electric piano] so the guys knew what the arrangement was all about.
JW: Is there ever a peril when recording great artists that you can't hear anything bad? In other words, what are you listening for on Concierto?
CT: I don’t have that answer. It’s either good because it hits me, or we need to try another take. It’s a very abstract thing. How do you describe a good piece of footage in a movie when the actors are all great? It’s an impossible question to answer. It occurs at the moment.
JW: But many so-called alternate takes can sound as good as the originals, yes?
CT: Not to me. I’m listening for feeling. Is it rushed? Does it get into the slot? Sometimes I would call for another take because I thought the artists could deliver something even better. You have to know when you've reached that moment.
JW: When something feels perfect, where do you feel it?
CT: I can’t describe that feeling.
JW: Did you build George Benson's White Rabbit in 1971 on the model that had worked so well with Wes Montgomery?
CT: There was no Wes Montgomery model. There was Wes Montgomery. I would not refer to it as a model.
JW: Let me rephrase: I mean the mix of material: integrating originals with jazz interpretations of pop-rock standards?
CT: Wes played a mix of contemporary and jazz. Everything that came together was a Wes product or a product through Wes' filter. George was a different type of guitarist.
JW: How so?
CT: How is Stanley Turrentine different from Paul Desmond, or Chet Baker different from Freddie Hubbard?
JW: But you're illustrating with extremes, at opposite ends of the spectrum.
CT: Yes, but it’s the personality here. That’s what the noun style" is all about. It's easy to recognize a Van Gogh. What makes a painting valuable isn't only the setting on the canvas but the painter's style, which no one else can copy. Then you frame that style and light it in a certain way and exhibit it. George was intense and so was Wes, but in different ways. Wes played distinctive octaves, which is why I asked him to play melodies in octaves.
JW: That's pretty subtle.
CT: Art is quite abstract, let’s face it.
JW: What was it like producing Nina Simone's Baltimore in 1978?
CT: A pleasure and a pain.
CT: In this particular case, I flew over with the rhythm section to Brussels to record with Nina there. She was living in Paris at the time because whenever she'd open her door here, the IRS would come in and clean out everything she had.
JW: Where did you stay?
CT: We all stayed at the Brussels Hilton. Every day we took a 20-mile drive to the studio, which was in a converted barn in the countryside. And each day we crossed the Waterloo Bridge [laughs], so help me [laughs].
JW: When did things get tough?
CT: One day Nina’s check didn’t arrive on time in the U.S., and she attempted to throw the TV out the window of the hotel. Nina was a little mercurial.
JW: A CTI check?
JW: Did she actually pick up the TV?
CT: Oh yeah. She caused a little damage in the room, which I covered, of course. She was a manic-depressive, which wasn’t a rare thing. At one point during the recording sessions, Nina again became really difficult. So I took her for a walk in this terrace garden right outside the studio.
JW: What did you say?
CT: I said, Hey Nina, you might not be feeling well, but so far you’ve made me dislike what I do more than anything in the world, and what I do is record artists. I don’t like to record when you behave this way."
JW: What happened?
CT: She came back into the studio and settled down.
JW: Wow, that must have been about as hot as you’ve ever gotten.
CT: I had to do that. I wasn't dealing with a normal situation.
JW: What does being difficult in the studio mean?
CT: She wasn’t cooperating with the guys. She didn't want one musician or another to play in a particular place. She was slowing things down for seemingly no reason.
JW: Ultimately, were you pleased with what was recorded?
CT: Oh yes. As far as I'm concerned, she’s untouchable as Nina Simone, the artist.
JW: When you had gone for a walk with Nina, were you ever afraid she would take a swing at you?
CT: Oh, no. Nothing like that. Nina knew how I felt about her. The beauty of Nina's voice is that you believe what she sang and that she was dead serious about it. That's the kind of person she was.
[Editor's note: Prior to the conversation that follows, Creed Taylor had never granted an interview about the events that led up to the bankruptcy of CTI Records in 1978. In the Q&A that follows, Creed reflects on the most painful period of his career, reflecting on the shifting record-industry business practices during that decade and how the jazz label he started struggled in vain to survive]
JW: Is this the first time you’re discussing publicly the problems CTI encountered in the 1970s?
JW: When did problems start to emerge at CTI?
CT: Not long after we had a hit with Deodato’s Prelude in1973 and CTI was named the No. 1 jazz label by Billboard magazine.
JW: What happened?
CT: In 1974, CTI's financial controller convinced me we should handle our own record distribution. His argument was, Why should we give the middleman a cut if we can handle it ourselves?" At the time, we were using independent distributors to move our records into stores.
JW: How did record distribution work back then?
CT: In the record business of the 1970s, you either got your product into stores nationwide yourself—or you turned that task over to other record companies for a percentage of sales. Distributing records came with a wide range of costs, including hiring a sales staff, generating and taking orders from retailers, and a back office forwarding those orders to the record companies for shipment to retailers. There also were shipping and fulfillment costs if stores didn’t sell all that they had ordered.
JW: What did you do?
CT: Right after Prelude hit in 1973, Warner Bros. Records came by the CTI offices, followed soon afterward by Columbia Records. Both companies wanted to handle the distribution of CTI Records. Both labels knew that CTI’s sales were very strong. Their senior executives back at their headquarters wondered why CTI had the No. 1 jazz label in the country and they didn’t.
JW: What did you tell them?
CT: I told them that CTI was going to handle its own distribution.
JW: Did they push back?
CT: A Warner Bros. executive said that if CTI didn’t do a deal, the label was going to pick off CTI’s artists one by one and sign them to Warner Bros.
JW: So CTI went ahead into the distribution business?
CT: Yes. We opened fully staffed distribution offices in eight cities, including in Canada. But once Prelude sold through, we didn’t have other albums generating those kinds of huge numbers. There simply wasn't enough revenue coming in to cover all of our expanded costs.
JW: What did you do?
CT: I had to close down all of our distribution offices. This was a huge expense. Before our financial troubles started, our financial controller actually wanted to load a cargo ship with CTI product and send it to Cologne, Germany, to distribute records throughout Europe [laughs]. That’s how far out in front of our revenue we were.
JW: Did you consider recording disco and soul, which were hugely popular in the mid-1970s?
CT: We did. CTI had a Top 20 disco hit in 1975 with Esther Phillips’s What a Difference a Day Makes. The single sold a million-plus units. But we were still struggling to maintain our distribution offices and make records. To do well, you had to have many different artists doing a lot of different things, not just jazz.
JW: Did you follow up with more disco albums?
CT: Yes, we did some other tasteless things [laughs].
JW: The record business had become much more cut-throat in the 1970s than it had been in the 1950s and 1960s, didn’t it?
JW: How did you offset mounting costs?
CT: In 1975, Warner Bros. came by our offices again to propose a deal. They suggested that CTI and Warner Bros. alternate albums with [guitarist] George Benson, who was with CTI at the time. The plan was George would record an album for Warner Bros., then the next one would be for CTI, and then back to Warner, and so on.
JW: What was in it for CTI?
CT: The hope was that if George had a big hit with Warner Bros., we’d get the next album. The thinking was that if he had a hit, the momentum of the hit would carry over and help CTI’s sales. So we did the deal, and George recorded the first album for Warner Bros.
JW: What happened?
CT: As luck would have it, George recorded Breezin’ in January 1976, which included This Masquerade. The song was a massive hit. Which was great, since we’d get the next album with George.
JW: What did you record with him?
CT: We didn’t. Warner Bros. prevented him from recording with CTI as a solo act. While we did record George on Benson & Farrell in late 1976, it wasn’t his date. Warner Bros. had reneged on our deal, under the assumption that they’d rather fight us in court and drag it out if necessary than risk letting us get his next big-selling album.
JW: The following year you turned to Columbia Records, yes?
CT: Yes. We cut a distribution deal with Columbia. Months earlier we had had to close all of CTI’s distribution offices, so we had little choice.
JW: What was the deal with Columbia?
CT: Columbia would distribute CTI records. Patti Austin had been recording with CTI's Kudu label as a session singer since 1976. We then signed her as a pop solo artist for CTI, and she was having great success on the label. I took her down to Muscle Shoals [in Alabama] to record her next album with the studio band there that had backed up Paul Anka, Otis Redding and so many others.
JW: How was the album?
CT: Very strong. But Columbia's marketing efforts were all wrong. They attempted to market her without any black radio promotion. A big mistake at the time. The album fell on its face, leaving CTI in a bind.
JW: What did Columbia do?
CT: Columbia loaned CTI $600,000 to continue operating. But when CTI couldn’t meet the loan payments in 1978, CTI had to file for bankruptcy, and Columbia got the CTI catalog. The catalog was collateral for the loan.
JW: Who has the CTI catalog today?
CT: Sony [Universal].
JW: Are you happy with how the CTI catalog has been handled?
CT: No. The releases have been uneven, and many have not been remastered. Also, in the CD age, many CTI albums have been issued with one or more alternate takes that I would never have released. Other albums are out of print.
JW: This must have been a frustrating period for you, yes?
CT: Well, sure. Aside from the monetary part, I have all these albums in my office. I listen to Eric Gale and Joe Farrell and hear all this great stuff. But it’s gathering dust in some corner of Sony’s vaults now. That’s frustrating beyond all the monetary value.
JW: In the late 1970s you went into court and sued Warner Bros. over their attempts to block you from recording Benson.
CT: Yes. Once the jury heard that Warner Bros. had threatened to pick off CTI artists one at a time, it ruled in CTI's favor. The total award was $9 million, $6 million of which was part of the triple damages. But the judge decided to cut it to $3 million. My lawyer screamed, but the judge said we could appeal if we wanted to. We realized that would take years to even get back on the court's calendar, so we agreed to the lower amount.
JW: Knowing what you know now, would you have moved forward in a different way with CTI?
CT: We should have stopped opening branch distribution offices, that's for sure [laughs]. I was going straight ahead with producing music and didn’t think about the impact of my controller’s advice. We had become a distributor instead of a major label with a large catalog in the pipeline. We should not have gone into the distribution business.
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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