Tommy LiPuma

Mike Ginsberg turned me on to Traffic. I met him at a NEFTY week in New Hampshire. I took the train up to West Hartford and we sat in his attic and he spun the second LP, the one that started with “Feelin’ Alright,” long before Joe Cocker made this song so famous. And then the band blew apart.

It wasn’t like it is today, there was no Wikipedia, we couldn’t figure out whether Dave was in the band on the first album or a roadie and then they were three once again and Dave went on to play with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, who’d recorded before but broke through when Eric Clapton sat in and they put out the album “On Tour.” And the track that got all the traction from that LP was “Comin’ Home,” with the soon to be Derek’s guitarwork, but the standout cut was one “Only You Know And I Know,” with Delaney and Bonnie trading lead vocals, but dedicated credit readers knew the song was composed by one Dave Mason, and just a few months later, in the spring of ’70, Dave put out his own solo LP on Blue Thumb entitled “Alone Together.”

Now we’d never heard of Blue Thumb.

Most people had never even heard of Dave Mason.

And that’s where I first came across Tommy LiPuma, he produced one of the best rock albums of all time, just check it out, it starts with “Only You Know And I Know.”

It’s the same song as on the Delaney & Bonnie LP, not a radically different arrangement, but it’s in the pocket, a hit in a way its predecessor is not.

Now “Alone Together” was a paragon of packaging. With panels that folded out to reveal a portrait of Dave in front of rocks that you could hang on the wall, with a hole for a pin or nail on top, and encased in the pocket was a record that looked like an hallucination, as if rocky road and vanilla and strawberry had all run together and… It resembled nothing so much as one of those spin paintings you make at the elementary school carnival.

And then you dropped the needle.

Now they made records differently back then. Stereo effects were in, as was separation, how something sounded was key, because we were all buying new stereos the way people bought new computers in the nineties, but rather than want to commune with our brothers online we wanted to bask in the tunes.

And “Alone Together” is the first LP I played when I heard Tommy LiPuma died last night.

Now this is completely strange. Because for the last couple of years it was Tommy weighing in on the deceased. Most recently with Leon Russell. Weird when the chronicler disappears, it leaves a vacuum, and I don’t think I can fill it.

But I knew him.

Mostly in e-mail.

In person at MusiCares.

And most people get old. Or they try too hard to be young. But Tommy… He was aged in years, but in spirit he was still in the pocket, he knew about the technology, but first and foremost he knew the music, he’d been bitten by the bug way back when.

As were we.

It’s hard for the younger generations to understand, what music meant to us. The Beatles were our Facebook.

Only bigger.

FM radio was our internet.

Everybody bought a guitar, everybody played.

And we knew who everybody was.

Which is why Tommy LiPuma stood out. He was not one of the usual suspects, one of the producers du jour, not Felix Pappalardi from Cream, not George Martin from the Beatles, but he birthed an album so exquisite, with each track playable, that you knew he was gonna be a legend.

And he became one.

Now Dave Mason got in a snit over money, where there’s a hit there’s a writ, and he decamped from Blue Thumb for Columbia, where he ultimately had a big radio track, 1977’s “We Just Disagree,” but he never reached the heights of “Alone Together” again, because he didn’t work with Tommy.

And the thing about Tommy is he didn’t have a signature sound, all his productions sounded different.

Prior to Mason, Tommy produced “Guantanamera” for the Sandpipers, a boomer classic if there ever was one, one they knew by heart, as did their parents.

And after Dave he produced not only Barbra Streisand, but eight tracks on Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable.”

And then he made Diana Krall a star.

And most people still have no idea who he is.

But they know his productions.

And what more can you ask for?

Only you know and I know
All the love we’ve got to show

And I’m showing it for Tommy right now.

So don’t refuse to believe it
By reading too many meanings

That was the era, you were supposed to lay back and take it all in, not only were nerds not lauded, aggressive business people like Mark Zuckerberg were decried. It was not about making money so much as searching for truth, and disseminating it when you found it.

‘Cause you know that I mean what I say
So don’t go and take me the wrong way

So far from today’s duplicity. We’re a divided country unsure of what’s right but there was no debate way back when, you just listened to the music.

You know you can’t go on getting your own way
‘Cause if you do, it’s going to get you someday

The ethos of a musician is different from that of you and me, they’re not competitive, awards are b.s., it’s about the tunes and the journey. And if you disobey the laws of the universe you’re gonna pay someday.

I don’t mean to mislead you
It’s just my craziness coming through

Mama, we were all crazy then. Now no one admits it, now image rules.

But when it comes down to just two
I ain’t no crazier than you

You’re no better than me, the Woodstock Generation knew it was all in it together, we were all brothers and sisters until Reagan legitimized greed and if you don’t believe that you probably thought the Vietnam War was a good thing.

But it’s hard to believe in
When you’ve been so mistreated

That’s the story of the twenty first century, the wealthy and powerful lord their position over us, tell us they know what’s right while they rip us off and leave us behind. And that’s the damn truth, that’s why Hillary couldn’t win the election, because of all that money she made selling books and giving speeches. How about us, who’s gonna look after us?

Certainly not the musicians looking to follow in the footsteps of the techies. Scratch today’s superstar and you’ll find someone invested in startups. The music just ain’t enough.

But it used to be.

When legends like Tommy LiPuma walked the earth. Bridged the gap from what once was to what became, from jazz to rock and roll and back again.

Because not only is it only rock and roll.

It’s only music.

And I mean what I say.

And when I listen to “Alone Together,” all I think of is this guy who did not change his ethnic name, who cared not about image, but delivering the truth of the artist on wax, back when producers were footnotes, literally, that we unearthed and read like Dead Sea Scrolls, and it’s been nearly fifty years and “Alone Together” remains and sustains. Will the best work of Max Martin achieve this goal?


“Only You Know And I Know”:

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