The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma

The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma

These books always suck. A friend, or the writer himself, believes someone with a foothold in the music business once upon a time, even a household name, deserves to have their story written and the result is…unreadable. First and foremost because the author can’t write. And they don’t understand one of the great rules of writing, that sometimes you have to leave the best stuff out, because it doesn’t serve the story you’re telling. The authors are so busy cramming their tomes with stories and facts that the end result is unreadable, and readability is the key. You want readers, and if they’re turned off, your project is a failure. But at least once a week someone begs to send me their book, oftentimes self-published, believing if they just get a little publicity they’ll have a best-seller, and they can smile in satisfaction while they make a bit of money.

But these books always fail.

So they pile up in my house until there’s a day when I course through them, quickly, and put them in the discard pile. And today I had five. I allotted twenty minutes, that was more than enough, but I saved Ben Sidran’s book on Tommy LiPuma for last, because Ben had written me a personal note and Ralph Simon had told me about it on the phone. I just had to convince myself it sucked, and then toss it, justified in my non-read, no matter how close a friend Ralph is. We’re all overscheduled, we all have no time – to listen to someone’s album, to read their book, to watch their movie or TV show is a huge commitment. Usually their friends do and say how great it is, so you can read the few reviews online, and the creator can believe they were a victim of the system, when nothing could be further from the truth.

So, I’ve scheduled this twenty minutes because I’m expecting a delivery, and there’s not enough time to accomplish anything else.

So I started Ben Sidran’s Tommy LiPuma book at 1:15 in the afternoon, and I just finished it at 7:30 tonight. I could not put it down. I blew off everything else, I watched the day fade away, I was engrossed.

I used to hear from Tommy LiPuma all the time, and unlike most of the oldsters, he did not e-mail me to correct me, or to tell me I did not have the complete story, as if I can write an encyclopedia on every subject. Tommy was always friendly and accessible, and informative at the same time. He dealt with me like an equal, which is rare, the music business is one of hierarchy, people look down on you, even if their success happened long ago, they want to send the message that you do not deserve entrance into their club.

And Tommy lived longer than so many of his compatriots. He would weigh in with tidbits when they passed. And then, suddenly, Tommy passed too. He wasn’t supposed to. The longer you live, the longer you live. Statistically that’s true. Think about it. And I have honestly felt his absence in my inbox for the past couple of years, but not so much I was gonna read a bad book about him.

“The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma” is different from all the dreck. You see it’s a compendium of stories. That’s the essence of the entertainment business. Sure, there are some stars, but they can only be on stage an hour or two every night. And it’s a business of grifters and criminals…you need no CV to get into the music business, usually it’s a hindrance, it comes down to who you are.

And Tommy LiPuma was the son of an immigrant barber. Living in Cleveland, cutting hair himself, eventually going on the road to play with a band and getting burned out by the one nighters, deciding to go straight. But he could only cut hair one day, and then he got a job schlepping boxes in the warehouse of a record distributor. How did he get this job? Via the contacts he made as a barber. Right place, right time. Tommy cut hair at the epicenter of radio in Cleveland. And Tommy’s dad could not fathom this choice, making less than a barber shipping boxes, what kind of future was that?

Not the kind you get going to an Ivy League school, getting a graduate degree. you believe that education allows you to start…at least in the middle. But not in the music business, you’ve got to start at the bottom, pay your dues and earn your ascension. Working in the entertainment business is not a right, but a privilege, and to succeed you need to get along, know people and work your network, being good is not good enough.

So, eventually Tommy becomes a radio promotion man, first in L.A., then in New York, and then goes into publishing. You’ve got to do what’s in your heart, what you’re good at. Tommy tried to sell records, he was bad at it. He could do the promo gig, it’s just that he wanted to be closer to the music. And from publishing Tommy went into record production and there begins a storied career.

So, when you get together with music people, it’s all about their stories. Some are famous for it. Donald Tarlton has had me in stitches multiple times, talking about the night the Who got locked up in jail after a Montreal show. Donald got money from the mob, and when he went to bail them out, the members of the band had their hands on the bars and were singing “Don’t Fence Me In.” I’m not sure if that reads funny, but if you heard Donald tell it, the same way he told the story of his thirty minute disco at Expo 67, you’d never forget it. You see there are some facts, which you embellish, which you rearrange, and then you puff yourself up, pump the adrenaline, and do your best to be a great raconteur. Hell, Joe Smith was more famous as a toastmaster than as a record executive. Sure, I’m stretching the truth, but I can remember Joe telling me the story of “Workingman’s Dead”…he signed the band, he kept begging them to make one for ME, and they finally did.

So, the intro to this book says it’s based on stories Tommy told Ben. Oh, there are biographical elements, but then every event, recording the Sandpipers (who knew they were originally the “Grads”?), forming Blue Thumb with Bob Krasnow, cutting “Breezin'” is told as if you were sitting at Martoni’s and Tommy sauntered in and sat down and told you what just happened. Most people are not famous, it’s these stories that are the highlight of their lives.

As for the origin story…

I guess people today don’t understand how those of yesteryear fell into the business. They loved music and they got an opportunity and they kept following that opportunity. Most got spit out, but some kept going and stayed in.

You can’t quantify music. No way. Just because a track reaches #1 we all know that does not mean it’s great. How do you create a great record, how do you capture that magic?

There are some tricks in this book, but I would not read it for that, in reality it’s history. Anybody who survives from the golden years, who is still working at a label today, will tell you it’s the same as it ever was, that today’s acts are just as good, and if you don’t think that way you’re an old fart. But that’s not what it says in this book. Tommy says when the bean counters came in, it was all over. Now it’s all about priorities, there is no artist development. People tell me all the time of the story of artist development on an act, and it’s always about ONE ALBUM! On Warner Brothers, they’d give you a chance to make four or five, to find yourself, to establish a base. Today, if you don’t hit right away, you’re done. And did you read Neil Shah’s story in the “Wall Street Journal” today?

“From Rihanna to Kanye West: Why Music’s Biggest Stars Aren’t Focused on Actual Music – Between fashion collabs, music-competition shows and selling rosé, artists are choosing to follow the money – and the money isn’t in albums”

Everybody on the inside knows this, they’ve known it for years, but when it’s printed in the financial paper of record…the investors know it, the same people who fund the music business (all three major labels are publicly traded, if not alone, as part of a larger conglomerate), and suddenly it’s common knowledge. Yes, we’ve been selling the emperor’s new clothes. Accept it.

And as this article proves, it’s all about the money. Acts will do anything for money, even play for dictators. Credibility is secondary to income and lifestyle. So, if you’re Tommy LiPuma who got into the business for the music, your stomach turns and you retire.

Actually, I think this article in the “Wall Street Journal” is a good thing. Maybe it can represent a turning point, getting back to the garden, making it about music, the most powerful elixir in life other than sex.

So, if you want to know how it used to be, read this book.

But the truth is most youngsters today don’t care, the only thing they want to know about the past is what to sample.

But if you were there, these stories will resonate, and you’ll learn new things. And unlike Clive’s book and movie and…this is not hagiography, it’s just the story of a life (and Tommy takes a swing at Clive too, he doesn’t respect the music “Mr. Music” is responsible for, other than Whitney Houston, he thinks it’s evanescent junk. But Clive is a master of promotion, and the dumb media plays along and we end up where we are today. Clive goes to the studio and his behavior makes Tommy wince.)

So “The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma” is readable. I can’t believe Ben remembered all these stories, but in the intro he says they were good friends. And it demonstrates how nobody from nowhere can make it in music by sheer will and desire…and a passion for the music. And the truth is all those high-paying jobs, especially on Wall Street, they’re essentially empty, there’s no nourishment of the soul, workers just take this cash to buy front row seats, to use their connections to get screeners, because it’s entertainment that rules this world.

And Tommy LiPuma knew how to create it. For every project he had a vision. And he cast his players accordingly. And he learned from Phil Spector to respect his players, and some of the best records were cut very quickly. Today they hammer these tracks trying to make them perfect, when the truth is you either catch lightning in a bottle, or you don’t, it’s just that simple.

My favorite story in the book is the recording of “Only You Know and I Know,” the opening cut on Dave Mason’s legendary “Alone Together.”

“But what really made the song happen was Jim Gordon’s drum part. ‘The rhythm pattern he came up with,’ says Tommy, “which was like a march, just opened the door to the song. When I heard it, even though it was just bass and drums (the initial recording), I knew I had the goods.'”


The record is fresh, timeless. Whenever I write about it people e-mail about the Delaney & Bonnie version, which came out first, which of course I own, demonstrating their “knowledge.” But it’s not about knowledge, it’s about FEEL, it’s something elusive, which is why even though you know the stats, you cannot work in the music business, why trained musicians usually fail in popular music.

I could never put my finger on it. Why I could never burn out on “Only You Know and I Know,” what made it so endearing, to the point every time I hear it it seems brand new, today I found the missing link, now I can see the whole picture, it’s the DRUMS! And Tommy goes on to say the drums are the one thing you’ve got to get right, you can wipe everything else, replace it, but if the drum track is not right, your recording will never be right.

“‘Cause you know, that I mean what I say”

And what I say is if you’re the audience for this book, you’ll dig it.
I’ll let you decide whether it was written for you.

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