'The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma'
By: Ben Sidran - Nardis Books, $24.95
Description: For those not in the know, Tommy LiPuma was one of America's most successful record producers whose work with seminal artists like Miles Davis, Diana Krall, Barbra Streisand, Rickie Lee Jones, George Benson, and Willie Nelson went on to sell over seventy-five million records.
'The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma' captures seven hit-making decades during the American record industry’s glittering, freewheeling years.
Verdict: After a Prelude (where DiPuma is described as a self-invented polymath straight from the streets), and then the Intro (where the moment in time captured was in 1977 when George Benson's smooth jazz guitar album Breezin' had been nominated for four Grammy Awards), Track One opens on a small Sicilian village on a windswept mountainside, and the murder of a man on a dirt path.
Agreed, it's not exactly what I expected to feel my way into this book through having first read, but it most certainly sets a scene for what's to come; and how a close knit immigrant family would bond together to finally bring LiPuma's tale to an end with five trips up the Grammy red carpet.
Ergo, the versatile, hit-making career of one of the American recording industry’s legendary producers and executives is lovingly told here in award-winning musician, writer and broadcaster Ben Sidran’s engrossing 'The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma.'
It's been said that this magnificent volume was drawn from more than 80 hours of interviews with LiPuma by Sidran, who recorded three albums for LiPuma’s Blue Thumb Records in the early ’70s, and having now finished it, I have to say I wish I had been there alongside Sidran to also bask in LiPuma's first hand memories.
Reading it, page turning every few minutes, first learning more about LiPuma's humble upbringing, then about his ascent within the music business, it is most definitely an inspired account of how music saved one man’s life, and how he went on to affect the lives of millions of others.
'The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma' is not only a enthralling thirteen track/chapter dossier on the man, but reveals more behind the scenes workings on how decisions were made, and how even when come the end of the twentieth century, and the record industry having taken a nasty turn, he still managed to stand tall, head held high, making the right choices for both him and those around him.
Explaining that due to the development of video games come the late '80s, gangsta rap's appearance on the music scene and then things getting worse for them in the early '90s with Napster, it was when the big corporate fish were finally swallowing up all the smaller corporate fishes that LiPuma knew it was time for a change.
That meant eventually leaving Elektra and accepting a job at GRP Records, a smooth jazz label that LiPuma wasn't overly happy with sliding into, he reveals.
It was at that time of change, early on in his tenure at GRP that he was played a tape of a new young talent. One that, at first blush, LiPuma didn't have any time for, stating that she sounded like she played "cocktail music from a hotel lounge."
He was then played a video of the singer taken from BET, just her singing 'Body and Soul' at the piano, and suddenly LiPuma took notice and agreed she was something special.
And yes, as I'm sure you have all guessed by now, that lone piano songstress was indeed Diana Krall.
So from his origins as a jazz-obsessed tenor saxophonist in Midwestern territory bands, to fame and fortune as the Grammy-winning producer of such multi-platinum albums as guitarist-singer George Benson’s Breezin’ (1976) and Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable … With Love (1991), author Sidran opens our eyes to one of the most incredible men to have ever held the music industry aloft.
The book also delves deeply into LiPuma’s deft work as a jazz producer, ranging from work on hit albums by talents like David Sanborn and Bob James to memorable sessions with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Jimmy Scott.
It concludes with a comprehensive look at the bestselling, career-making series of albums LiPuma produced for singer-pianist Diana Krall before his death at the age of 80 in 2017.
Sidran notes, “He was opening boxes of records in the basement at MS Distributing — talk about ground-level experience! And then he was involved in all the stages of promotion and music publishing."
"It’s just remarkable. The most successful producers today probably never opened a box or packed a box of anything.”
“Tommy really loved being with the artists,” Sidran says. “He wouldn’t sit in the control room — he was out on the floor with earphones. Through his whole life, he loved being with creative people, hip people.”
About the Author: Ben Sidran was a major force in the contemporary history of jazz and rock & roll, having played keyboards with or produced such artists as Steve Miller, Mose Allison, Diana Ross, Boz Scaggs, Phil Upchurch, Tony Williams, Jon Hendricks, Richie Cole and Van Morrison.
Though primarily renowned as a gifted pianist, composer, producer, among other music-related roles, Ben Sidran has also made a name for himself as a writer.
Sidran's first book, Black Talk: How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to Western Literary Tradition (Da Capo Press), is based on his doctoral dissertation.
Talking Jazz: An Oral History (Da Capo Press), published twenty-four years later, collects personal interviews with jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.
His third literary endeavor, Ben Sidran: A Life in the Music (Unlimited Media), expresses his life-long affair with music and all its functions: as prayer, as community, as legacy, and as nothing but a party.
He delves into the complex relationships between African-Americans and Jews, fathers and sons, history and hope, money and technology, ecstasy and transformation.
His penultimate book, There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, was a 2011 finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and remains a teaching text in Jewish Studies programs everywhere.
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