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.