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“The author—who’s also an acclaimed jazz pianist—is a masterful storyteller. LiPuma’s life is a kind of Horatio Alger tale: his Italian roots, his youth in Cleveland, his bucking of convention to follow his own path. Yes, you’ve read biographies with a similar arc. But few are as lively and entertaining as this.... The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma is a funny book, but it’s also warm-hearted, the product of an author who knew and clearly valued the friendship of the subject. It’s also admirable in its candor and forthrightness. And it’s so well-written, so full of memorable passages, that I lost count how many times I interrupted my dear wife—busy reading a book as well—to quote extensively from Sidran’s pages. As an indicator of just how much I enjoyed the book, I cannot think of a higher kind of praise. At its core, the book is about Sidran’s skill at working with difficult people, and at navigating his way through daunting circumstances with style class and—most of all—wit. Recommended.”—Bill Kopp, music journalist, author of Reinventing Pink Floyd; Musoscribe.com
“A big part of this irresistible tale is musician Ben Sidran’s writing. He knows exactly what made LiPuma’s life tick, from the largest achievements to the most subtle details, and has the ability to paint the picture Tommy LiPuma’s fascinating life deserves.... Much of this book might seem like inside baseball, but the facts are so real and righteous every chapter reads like you’re peeking in on history in a game of World Series-size artistic proportions.... A page-burner.” —Bill Bently, music executive / producer, musician
“[W]ritten in hip, conversational, and colorful prose. LiPuma’s collaborators over the years add up to a ‘Who’s Who’ of popular music...and they’re all here, but Sidran tells an equally compelling story of how the young LiPuma overcame countless obstacles to become one of the most producers in pop and jazz history. Ballad is a breezy and engaging page-turner.—TheSecondDisc.com
“[S]eeing the words ‘produced by Tommy LiPuma’ on the back cover of an LP was a guarantee of quality: an assurance that good taste and impeccable musicianship prevailed over marketing gimmicks and trends.... Ben Sidran, who both knew and worked with the producer, is eminently qualified to write about the Sicilian-American’s life. His eloquently-written biography charts LiPuma’s unlikely but colorful journey from a Cleveland barbershop to Hollywood, where he became a Warner Bros mogul. It’s an engrossing, quixotic tale that is packed with insight as well as hilarity. Ultimately, though, it serves as an elegy for a lost age, when the record business was driven by creative mavericks rather than dull corporate accountants.”—Charles Waring, MOJO Magazine
“[A] fast-moving, intriguing read packed with stories—you get tale after tale recounting the shady early days of the record business, the sometimes rough-and-tumble politics behind the scenes, lost nights of drug-fueled revelry, brushes with the mob and more.... Sidran knows his own way around a studio, having released more than 35 solo albums and produced artists like Diana Ross and Van Morrison. That intimate knowledge of the recording process brings a welcome depth and clarity that books about producers don’t always possess. By turns inspiring and amusing, The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma weaves a fascinating yarn, recounting a lost era of music making even as it shares timeless lessons of record production.”—Clive Young, Prosound News
The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma captures seven hit-making decades during the American record industry’s glittering, freewheeling years
MADISON, Wisc. — The versatile, hit-making career of one of the American recording industry’s legendary producers and executives is lovingly told in award-winning musician, writer and broadcaster Ben Sidran’s revealing new biography The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma.
The Nardis Books volume, is 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. It’s an inspired account of how music saved one man’s life, and how he went on to affect the lives of millions of others.
It spins the engaging story of LiPuma’s career, 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). Sidran offers eye-opening behind-the scenes accounts of LiPuma’s record dates with such pop superstars as Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, and Willie Nelson.
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.
The warmth, intimacy, and candor of The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma is the product of more than 40 years of friendship. LiPuma employed Sidran as the organist on a 1973 Blue Thumb date by guitarist Phil Upchurch, and that experience led to a close and permanent bond between the two men, and ultimately to the idea for a book.
Sidran recalls, “Maybe 10 years ago, I said to Tommy, ‘We should write down your stories. Let me interview you. Let’s get ’em on tape.’ He loved telling these stories. The last four or five years of his life, literally every time I was with him, I’d have a tape recorder with me, and I’d start asking him questions about various things. I ended up with dozens and dozens of hours of conversations with Tommy, in restaurants, studios, driving in the car, everywhere.”
Sidran was perfectly equipped to assemble LiPuma’s reminiscences into a compelling narrative, with his background as a well-traveled producer (Diana Ross, Mose Allison, Georgie Fame, et al.), the Peabody Award-winning host of National Public Radio’s Jazz Alive, and the author of the widely acclaimed Black Talk, Talking Jazz, and There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream. He brings a full understanding of the sweep of his subject’s career to The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma.
“His experience encapsulates the modern recording industry,” Sidran says. “You can see the evolution of the way music was captured and recorded and distributed, how it evolved, and the impact of the technologies and the marketing strategies. You can read his story and get all that information just because of who he was and where he was, at exactly the right time.”
He adds, “You experience that arc from a world that was totally music-driven, which is where we were at in the ’60s. By the time Tommy died, it wasn’t a music business at all — it was a subscription business, a streaming business.”
The first-generation American son of Sicilian immigrants, LiPuma took up music after being bedridden for two years as a boy with the crippling bone disease osteomyelitis. After work as a musician around his hometown of Cleveland and in the Midwest, he cut his teeth in the music biz at record distributor MS and as a regional promotion man.
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.”
After moving to Los Angeles to take a promotion job in the early ’60s, LiPuma steadily climbed through the ranks of the exploding record business, meeting everybody who was anybody and producing for Liberty and A&M; during his years at Blue Thumb (which he co-founded with Bob Krasnow), Warner Brothers, Horizon, Elektra, and Verve, he helmed dozens of albums, always staying close to the music.
“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.”
On the jacket of The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma, Paul McCartney — whose Grammy-winning 2012 collection of standards Kisses On the Bottom was produced by LiPuma — says, “Tommy was a fantastic producer. He always had a great sense of humour … He would sit in the studio with us musicians and make every session a complete joy.”
Though in later years he became less active in music, concentrating on his collections of modern art and vintage wines, LiPuma completed Turn Up the Quiet, the last of 11 albums he produced or co-produced for Krall, just months before his death.
“He went out swinging — in the studio, with his favorite singer,” Sidran says. He adds, “Music represented love and emotion and sex and history and fun, a party. If you knew Tommy, you were going to have fun. That’s how, at the beginning, he survived as a producer — he didn’t really know what he was doing, but he knew how to make it fun.”
The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma, Nardis Books, 284 pp., 38 illustrations, discography, index.