If someone was going to write a book about legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, Ben Sidran would be the perfect candidate.
So he did it, condensing years of research and around 80 hours of interviews with LiPuma to produce The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma, which was released earlier this week.
But what about that 80 hours of tape?
“To be fair, I rolled tape with Tommy for years, so I have all this incidental, coincidental and specific stuff that went back a very long time,” said Sidran. “It was only the last four, five years that I started transcribing it and talking to Tommy about writing a book. But I have tapes with Tommy that go back 30 years.”
For Sidran, it was a labor of love and not just a tribute to his friend, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 80, but the telling of an unforgettable story and time.
“Tommy passed away a couple years ago and he really represented a classic American record business story in the sense that it told the story of a great guy, but also of an amazing industry, and the industry has collapsed, as we all know,” said Sidran. “So Tommy’s story really traces the rise and, in some ways, the end of this cultural tsunami that we knew of as popular music. Today, one stream on Spotify is worth .006 cents, which means that if you get a million streams, you can make six thousand dollars. That’s not a business.”
Few knew that business better than LiPuma, a Cleveland native who worked his way up from the bottom to the point where he owned his own label, Blue Thumb, and worked with the likes of Miles Davis, George Benson, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Natalie Cole, just to name a few, winning five Grammy awards along the way.
He also worked with Sidran, who released three albums on Blue Thumb from 1971 to 1973, giving the Chicago native a unique perspective on LiPuma. That’s not the only reason why Sidran was the perfect man for this job. It’s because he’s not just a writer telling a story; Sidran is a renowned musician in his own right, someone who has been there and done that in this business. And that means a lot for us as readers in terms of getting the full story in the proper context. For Sidran, it’s capturing one unique life.
“Tommy’s story starts with him opening boxes in a warehouse, so it covers the entire scope of what the business is, from promotion to publishing to production to running labels,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the guy, but there’s also a larger story and, clearly, once Tommy passed away, it was time to pull it all together and do it.”
It’s a captivating read, one that goes behind the scenes of a musical period we might not ever see again. Or as Sidran puts it, we won’t see again.
“You’re talking to somebody who came up in the 60s, and all those records, that was just what was being released on Tuesday,” he laughs. “We knew it was great music, but it was the everyday thing. I think we have to ask the question, are we gonna see guys like Tommy anymore? Here’s a guy whose father was a bootlegger, whose grandfather was murdered on a dirt path in Sicily, who wound up the most successful jazz record producer ever. That’s not gonna happen anymore, that’s for sure. I think that’s just a classic American story.”
As we discuss the book and LiPuma’s life, we get to talking about another American original, Muhammad Ali. Sidran said watching LiPuma work was like seeing “The Greatest” in the ring.
“He raised this stuff as high as you could raise it,” Sidran said. “From the feet up. The beauty is when you were in the studio with Tommy and you watched him work, it looked like he wasn’t doing anything except ordering lunch. Somehow all his records came out sounding similar and gorgeous. But when you went into the studio and watched, there’s nothing going on. It’s like watching Ali duck punches. He’s slipping everything. He’s not doing anything, right? Yeah, he’s doing everything. There’s something about the elegance of these old school guys and learning from body memory, learning from the inside out.”
It may be almost too easy today, with technology the way it is enabling folks to make a great sounding record in their bedroom on a laptop. It makes things almost sterile, something LiPuma and his contemporaries fought hard against.
“Toward the end of his life, he was listening to Ben Webster, he was listening to Benny Carter,” said Sidran. “He was all about sound. That’s what he loved and what he would talk about. That kind of personal sound that Miles (Davis) had, that we revered 50 years ago, that was the goal. You had to have your own sound, and that’s not something you can teach. You can learn it, but you can’t teach it. So we’ve got brilliant musicians, and who knows, maybe one of these kids will find a new path that nobody ever saw before. It’s always possible.”
Sidran recalls a day in the recording studio.
“The engineer stopped the tape because he wanted the trumpet player to empty out the spit valve because he could hear it. I said to him, ‘Are you crazy? That’s part of the cat’s sound. That’s what he sounds like.’ (Laughs) So today, with all the kids, they can fix everything because it’s all digital, but of course it turns out that just because you can fix it doesn’t mean you should fix it. And that particle we today would consider noise was part of the sound.”
Yeah, Ben Sidran is old school. And there’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with the music today. It’s just different.
“Like Tommy, I’m nostalgic,” he said. “I think most people who were active in the mid to late 20th century are, by definition, nostalgic now. I have a son who produces and creates and composes music, and he loves the old records, but he loves what’s happening today, too. It’s a bridge too far for us, but not for kids coming up.”
For more information on The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma click here