COLUMN SEVENTY-FIVE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz
THE MASKED ANNOUNCER STRIKES AGAIN
[More writing by Josh Alan Friedman can be found by clicking on http://www.joshalan.com.]
Label M, on
West 23rd Street in Manhattan, is chaotic, but Joel Dorn sits detached from it
all, slumped back in a chair filing his nails. Like Cadillac salesmen, music
executives can always benefit from a well-manicured handshake. Hundreds of aging
quarter-inch tape reels are stacked on the floor of his office. My one-year-old
daughter grabs one.
touch that!" says Dorn. "It's an unreleased Stan Getz."
these tapes--an obsolete format--from my two years at Regent Sound Studios. When
I was 19, I was mike-setup man there, the lowest position on staff. But I
watched the former Atlantic Records producer in action as he produced dozens of
albums in the mid-?70s. His offices have always resembled the aftermath of a
storm. He's there to work records, not decorate. Dorn began when Renaissance
Italians and Jewish hucksters ran the business.
Martino had some mobster in Philly get in touch," he bellows to one of his
promo men standing at the door. "He warned me to lay off. Lay off? I told 'em
I'm the only one who released his fuckin' albums!"
youthful 60, resembles a ruggedly handsome, switchblade-toting rabbi. He is one
of the last active record men from the days when mobsters and Telephone Booth
Indians--Bud Abbott-types who operated from public phone booths in the Brill
Building lobby--plugged records behind the scenes.
give me that 'Hey, baby' shit," I've heard Dorn warn slick con artists who
suck up to him. "I invented it.
can tell you all the guys who are still making records from when I started 40
years ago. Arif Mardin, Tommy Lapuma and Phil Ramone. Hundreds of producers,
some who were giants for 11 months, are gone. Hit records are a young man's
game, and I fell outta the game--but not out of the quality game."
nonetheless now has a hit album with 24-year-old jazz chanteuse, Jane Monheit.
He discovered her "at some dump." A certain bell goes off in his head
on those rarefied occasions when he hears someone he wants to sign.
moving 10,000 copies a week," says Dorn, of the album Come Dream With Me.
"To think after all those years---to have a hit record again. They come out
Label M, his
current imprint, is a producer's vanity label. Songs That Made the Phone
Light Up and Back in My Disc Jockey Days
are repackaged compilations that commemorate Dorn's beginnings as an
early 1960's jazz deejay at WHAT-FM in Philly. Then a 19-year-old junior at
Temple University, he became known as the Masked Announcer. Jockey Days
includes Dorn's opening radio theme, Hard Times by David
"Fathead" Newman, along with tracks by Hank Crawford, Les McCann,
Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef---all of whom Dorn would come to record when he
became an Atlantic staff producer under Nesuhi Ertegun. The Masked Announcer
boosted his favorite records into jazz hits---at least in Philadelphia.
a record one city at a time. In those days, they were city states, like Sparta
or Athens. A local compilation of doo-wop groups could sell 50,000 records in
Philly alone, and never be released outside Pennsylvania."
inroads into the music business by convincing Atlantic he knew public taste in
jazz. "We had a phone in the studio that listeners called in on," he
writes in the liner notes. "It gave us instant access to what they liked,
didn't like, what worked, what didn't and why. That, along with spending five
nights a week in Philly's jazz clubs, checkin' out audience reactions, taught me
who to sign and how to record them."
Had the labels
promoted Dorn's choices in other city states, he's sure they would have been
national hits. The Kennedy years were a ripe time for mainstream jazz. The pop
charts then included records by Ramsey Lewis, Gloria Lynn, Nina Simone, Ahmad
Jamal or Stan Getz.
Kirk, before he became Rahsaan, called me one morning and said, 'I got somebody
for you to sign.' It was a girl named Roberta Flack, his bass player's wife. I
said, 'What does she sound like?'
nuts and said, 'She sound like a colored lady!' then slammed down the fuckin'
phone. So I never followed up. Then Les McCann called. He said, "I got someone
for you to sign. Roberta Flack.' That's two times in a row from two guys like
Dorn went to see her at a club, feeling she was too good to be commercially successful. "When I signed Roberta Flack, we put her in the jazz category. A chick who played piano and sang in jazz
clubs. But we
started making pop records. You might get a hit by mistake, like Etta Jones got
with Don't Talk to Strangers. And Roberta got one with First Time Ever
I Saw Your Face."
up with Where Is The Love and Killing Me Softly, making him a hot
property in the early "70s, when he copped his Grammies. His mentor, Doc Pomus,
used to say, "Always stick with originals who have world-class
ability." Pomus introduced Dorn to Bette Midler, a girl he'd been coaching
as a singer. She was playing to an audience in the gay bathhouse below the
Ansonia Hotel in Doc's neighborhood. Dorn produced Midler's debut, The Divine
Miss M, in 1972.
have million sellers and Grammys together, that buys you years of people takin'
a shot with you. I must have bought myself five or six years beyond when I was
actually making hits. Studio
A and Studio B at Regent Sound Studios, on West 57th Street, were booked round
the clock with Dorn's projects.
like a 24-hour aural circus," says Dorn. "You really came when we were
wailin'. Remember the fuckin' group of people that came through? I had the
wheel." Dorn would produce up to five albums at once---the likes of Steve
Goodman, Yuseff Lateef, Peter Allen, Joe Venuti, even one track on the Allman
Brothers' Idlewild South. Bette Midler in the morning, Lou Rawls at lunch
and Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the wee hours. And he would pair them up on each
A conceit of
Dorn's was to pair Kate Smith on a duet with John Lennon---presumably because it
amused him, not for any legitimate musical reason. But Lennon didn't think it
was amusing enough.
couldn't get Lennon," says Dorn "so I got Dr. John instead. I think
Mac is America's premier musician. If you just think of him as Dr. John, you're
missing the whole trip. He knows how to adapt to any island you drop him
The single was
called Smile, Smile, Smile."
remember meetin' Kate and her bodyguard," says Dr. John today. "I'm
thinkin', this 300-pound bitch needs a fuckin' bodyguard? They should bring Kate
Smith back right now, let her sing God Bless America in her own
inimitable style. That was her shit, man. She was ahead of the times."
Don McLean's fourth album, Homeless Brother. Not long after McLean's
massive hits, American Pie and Vincent, Dorn released a piece of
fluff for the single called, La La Love You, which I remember being
remixed hundreds of times, with nary a difference from one mix to the other.
up La La Love You. Chased the jacket and the slacks more than the body of
the song," admits Dorn. "It should have been more like a white-guy
rock 'n' roll song."
The real hit on
the record was Wonderful Baby, an Irving Berlin-like ditty which entered
high for a few weeks on the Easy Listening chart.
McLean's manager, Herb Gart, had a fuckin' knock-down, drag-out screaming match
with the guy who ran United Artists [McLean's label], who killed the record to
teach him a lesson." A slight consolation for McLean occurred when Fred
Astaire recorded Wonderful Baby," inviting McLean to London to hang
during the session.
Dorn is too hip for the room. When he refers to "the Birds," he means
the Dixie Hummingbirds, of gospel legend--not "The Byrds." "The
Swans" are short for Swan Silvertones, the most sublime spiritual group of
their era. Their 1959 gospel standard, Oh, Mary Don't You Weep with the
Rev. Claude Jeter's improvised line "I'll be a bridge over deep
water," supposedly inspired Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Waters."
Dorn produced a cover of Bridge for Roberta Flack, with the Newark Boys
Choir and Cissy Houston behind her.
very end Roberta holds a note while the Choir sings over it," remembers
Dorn. "At that time Claude Jeter was recording for Scepter, a pop label
with Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas. I wanted Claude Jeter at the end of the
record, in his falsetto, to shout that line, "I'll be your bridge over
have been a nice touch," I say.
shit," comes Dorn. "I wanted to document just one line at the end. So
I called the guy who was producing Jeter's records. We were making a lot of
money then, I wanted him bad. I told this gospel producer at Scepter, Listen,
I'm a record producer, I'm producing Roberta Flack, we just recorded Bridge
Over Troubled Waters. First, he didn't believe I produced Roberta Flack. I
said, You want my number? Call Atlantic Records. So he did, then he asked, Well,
how much will you pay? I said I'd give him a thousand bucks just for that one
line, a lot of money in those days. Union scale was only fifty to a hundred
dollars. And the guy said, Just a minute, what do you think I was born
yesterday? Nobody's gonna pay that much. I said, Tell me where you are and I'll
walk the thousand over now. He said, No, I don't think so. This is some kind of
trick. So I couldn't get Jeter. For fifty bucks, I probably would have gotten
Dorn, who loved
pairing old show biz legends with current artists (Francis Fay with Peter Allen,
Mac and Kate), had a similar experience on Leon Redbone's debut.
tell you who the ultimate American singer of all time is. You couldn't guess in
ten fuckin' years. Harry Mills. The easiest singer I ever heard. He could never
sing poorly. The 1930's stuff is breathtaking. I tried to get the Mills Brothers
during the Leon Redbone album."
have been a perfect match," I say.
"No shit," snaps Dorn. "There were three of them left--Harry was alive. So I tracked them down to Boston. Can't get through to them, but I got their guy. Slick white guy. Can't get past him. Told him I'm Joel Dorn, recording Leon Redbone, blah, blah, I'll give 'em two grand, whatever they want.
laughed. I said I'd fly 'em in. They don't want to fly. I said I'd come up to
Boston, rent a studio, it'd be simple. This guy Redbone's real hot right now, it
could reactivate their catalog, focus attention on them. The guy said, 'Listen.
They've worked with Al Jolsen, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella
They don't need
to work with Leon Redbone, okay. They're tired.' And ya know, he was right. What
the fuck did the Mills Brothers need with Leon Redbone to cap off their
Dorn began at
Atlantic Records at the height of its powers. Mom-and-pop by corporate terms,
Atlantic nonetheless was home to Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Bobby Darin, The
Coasters, The Drifters, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, the Allman
Brothers, Cream and Led Zeppelin. Atlantic was sold in 1967 to the Kinney
(Parking Lot) Corporation for what turned out to be a massively underpriced
amount--$17.5-million. (Kinney then turned over to Warner-Seven Arts, then
Warner Communications, then Time-Warner, ad nauseam). Nevertheless, the heavy
hitters--Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun Brothers--remained at the helm.
complete freedom from Nesuhi [Ertegun, head of jazz] to do whatever I
wanted," says Dorn. "As I started to get more successful, then I
wasn't just Nesuhi's boy at the company. Because I had hits, they felt compelled
to come in and help. I had developed somewhat into a spoiled brat. See, when
you're just a pure artist, when you do what you want when you want---that
doesn't lay well with business people. It does as long as you make them money,
they'll put up with your nonsense. When I lost Nesuhi's protection, I had to
interact with other people at the company. So I left Atlantic."
playing out a 15-year run in the fast lane. "Then things went bad for me
for several reasons," he says. The hits ended as his records grew more
stylized and esoteric.
an old record business and a new record business," Dorn explains of the
fundamental change. "The old record business was run by a combination of
insane, fanatical music fans who had to make their own records. Guys with
exquisite taste who specialized in a certain kind of jazz or folk or pop.
Hustlers, tough guys, gangsters. If you had any credibility, you could walk into
someone's office and say, 'Listen, I got a girl who can sing.' Then in the
mid-70's those guys started selling their companies off or dying. The record
business became a real business. It had been this magnificent cottage industry
from its inception---all of a sudden, music became a part of everybody's
Now there were
lawyers walking around in fuckin' Nehru suits listening to the Grateful Dead. It
became big American business, with Trans America, Warner-Seven Arts, Gulf &
Western buying up all these properties. Instead of buying a copper factory or a
steel mill, they'd buy a record company and run it the same way."
stand came when Doc Pomus hipped him to the Nevilles. He went nuts after seeing
them at the Bottom Line. "The same bell rang, I ran backstage. It took a
long time, but I finally got them signed to A&M. Nobody wanted them. Three
of the four brothers had done time, so they had a reputation as tough guys. We
recorded Fiyo on the Bayou. I thought it was the best record I ever made.
A&M hated it, didn't do a thing. Some idiot there said You can't get on
Black radio with this. I said It ain't a Black act. He said What are you talking
about, everybody in the band is Black. I said Yeah, but they play clubs with
white college kids. I said Take a look at Leontine Price and Jimi Hendrix, my
That was it, Dorn burned out, he couldn't do it his way anymore so he quit. It took years to figure out how to reinvent himself. When Dorn tried to return to the industry a decade later, he couldn't get phone calls returned. He was humbled by record execs of the day who didn't know his name.
arrival of CD technology reawakened
the music business
Dorn had four
growing boys who he says were rich kids for a while---then they weren't. So, he
"did shit. I'll tell you what I want to tell you. I did some security work
for a while. Nothing illegal."
Then came the
arrival of CD technology. Everything old was new again. The vast archive of
two-inch Ampex tapes Dorn had stored in a New York apartment suddenly yielded
gold. He went to the cutting edge of the reissue biz, supervising jazz
compilations for Rhino and Sony. Repackaging became his stock in trade.
"All of a
sudden they needed guys for box sets," says Dorn. "You could get a
chimpanzee to say John Coltrane recorded the following six albums and here they
are in a box. But we started coming up with unreleased
material, pictures you'd never seen, alternate takes, lost sessions and
live stuff never heard. Documentaries."
been dead for years, the Atlantic Jazz vaults sucked dry of his every note. But
the story wasn't over: "I'm floatin' around this pigsty warehouse in New
Jersey," says Dorn, "and there's water dripping down from the roof
onto some tapes in the back. I figured if there's gonna be something valuable, it's gonna be in the wrong
place. I'm sure Debbie Gibson's tapes were encased in lead. So I ask the
custodial guy, "Hey, what's over there under the water?? And he goes, "Ah,
that's just some slop, shit." I said, "Good, I'll go over there." Water
was dropping onto the shelves, and I walk over to it and it's all Coltrane.
Boxes of outtakes of Giant Steps, with studio conversations. We could
actually trace all the developments
of Giant Steps. There's a reason most unreleased stuff is unreleased---cause
it stunk. But I found shit that was incredible. Not just alternate takes.
Breakdowns of the stuff, Trane talkin' to all the musicians. It was released as
a $99 set, we sold a hundred-thousand. We made it into something, there was a
whole story. While I'm in the warehouse, I'm at C near Coltrane. So I wondered,
what's at D? The first tape I pick up is Bobby Darin, a demo of 'Dream Lover
recorded at a Seattle radio station. I gave that to Rhino for their Darin
contributions to society also involve repackaging jazz balladeers in their
twilight---like Etta Jones and Little Jimmy Scott Female jazz vocalists
patterned their styles after Scott during in the '50s. But his best records were
continually withdrawn from release by court order. Savoy Records, run by one of
the fanatical music gangsters of yore, tyrannized Little Jimmy Scott's career.
Dorn produced a Scott album for Atlantic in 1969, also pulled from the stores---but
just repackaged on Label M. In the new liner notes, Dorn writes:
". . .Through most of the fifties, Jimmy Scott was under contract to
Savoy Records, a label owned and operated by one Herman Lubinsky, a hemorrhoid
of a human and close personal friend of The Devil, whom even the worst record
business golems of the era shunned. . . For decades, Jimmy Scott waited in the
wings for his ship to come in while singers who couldn't carry his throat spray
took their turns in the spotlight."
"rediscovered" at Doc Pomus' funeral in 1991, when he brought down the
house during his turn to sing. Jerry Wexler attended Jimmy Scott's record
release party. But Little Jimmy had long since lost his fastball.
young Hollywood record execs were suddenly singing his praises," says Wex.
"I felt like having cards printed: 'It's not necessary to be hip, It's not
necessary to be hip.'"
to strike a few blows for the old record biz. And occasionally, as in the case
of Jane Monheit, score in the new business.
"What I do for a living, my man, is spot talent," says the Masked Announcer, kicking his feet up on his desk, manicured hands folded in his lap. "I pick out a good butcher, a good tailor. That's my gift." ##
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