July 1, 2020 -
The ballad of Tommy liPuma
Ben Sidran (Nardis)
by Kyle Oleksiuk
An uncut gem, the music biography of the year. The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma is about record producer Tommy LiPuma (1936-2017) but is not a traditional biography—more compressed, more fun and less careerist. If biographies are beer then this is tequila.
The man himself is mostly famous for having produced wildly popular jazz records in the late 20th Century. His style was unusual; he would remain on the same side of the glass as the musicians. The records he made this way were real commercial triumphs, but the highest highs of his production career are the lowest lows of the book; Natalie Cole, Paul McCartney, George Benson and Diana Krall, the artists that LiPuma won Grammys with, are great musicians but boring characters and Ben Sidran can’t wring much drama or humor out of the production process.
The real content of the book is its freewheeling stories of LiPuma’s personal life. The first of these begins when his father Sam moves from Sicily to America in search of the man who killed his father Giuseppe. He never succeeds. Instead he opens a barbershop in Cleveland and starts using hair tonic to make bootleg liquor. Soon he’s wrapped up in something called the Cleveland “Sugar Wars”, getting visits from the Feds. The book is filled with unexpected stories like this, of people going from the donkey trails of Sicily to the gangster wars of Cleveland, from the barbershop to the red carpet. During the depression, kids start out on the baseball field and end up on the iron lung. In the ‘60-70s, LSD- inhaling jazzniks are making piles of money and in the ‘80s in rehab complaining about gangsta rap.
The common element is LiPuma’s sense of humor. Describing his childhood, he says: “My mother, bless her heart, could not carry a tune... and when she got a few bars into a song, apparently I told her, ‘That’s okay, Mommy, stop singing and I’ll go to sleep.’” After his father retired from bootlegging, “the Feds continued to come by his shop every so often to check up on him. They would say, ‘We want to check that delivery of hair tonic you just got.’ Sam would say ‘Go ahead, take a drink.’” Even among the famous and talented, there are goofs and gags: paranoid Phil Spector throws a coffee maker into a ravine because he’s convinced it’s a bomb. Miles Davis hears a guitarist playing too quickly and says “Man, I’m gonna send you to Notes Anonymous.”
Sidran is a songwriter and used the songwriter’s toolbelt to write this book. One part is vernacular language. People know where the bodies are buried, they’re riding high and riding low, an honest person isn’t in anybody’s pocket, an ugly man has a face for radio and sadness is as deep as the ocean. Another part is simple, slapstick fart joke-level humor that most everybody enjoys. He writes all of Sam’s dialogue like this: “I’m-a gonna sit down next to you and hold out-a my hand”. The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma is very special and the world would be a better place with more books like it.
For more information, visit bensidran.com