It was the afternoon of Valentine’s Day.
The phone was ringing.
I picked it up and said, “Hello”…
That exuberant reply of, “Hey, Man” was no cliché…
Tommy LiPuma was always and always will be hip.
He was brimming over with enthusiasm that day and I was glad to be able to tell him personally that the record he and Diana had just completed was just beautiful but we soon fell to talking about an exhibition we’d seen or some rare Ben Webster cut that one of us had stumbled on or a riff from a Lord Buckley routine that might help decode the latest tantrum that passes for news or governance.
Diana walked into the room, she’d seen this before but reminded me that they had still some work to do - the final agreements about mastering arrangements – so I handed her the phone.
Well, you’d need a whole wall, let alone a shelf, to house all the great records Tommy LiPuma produced. He knew records up and down, having started out as a record packer and then a song-plugger. He knew music and radio back when that sort of stuff really mattered. Then he’d first trained as a barber, so he already knew it was a cut-throat business.
Tommy ended up with his own shelf of accolades and awards but it was people who were of the greatest importance in his life. He was with his wonderful wife, Gill for fifty years. He was friends with his partner at the mixing desk, Al Schmitt for just a moment or two longer. Among his closest friendships were those three great piano players; Randy Newman, Mac Rebennack, Leon Russell, who go back to his days at Liberty Publishing, demoing songs.
As a record producer, Tommy made radio hits for A&M with The Sandpipers, Chris Montez and Claudine Longet, then co-founded Blue Thumb with Bob Kraznow, where he recorded Dan Hicks, Dave Mason and Phil Upchurch.
At Warner Brothers, he worked with the great German arranger and composer Claus Ogerman and the Brazilian master, Joao Gilberto. He made a chart star out of George Benson and he and Marcus Miller put Miles Davis back on the hit parade. I can’t even begrudge him that he, Natalie Cole and her father beat Burt Bacharach and I out of a Grammy for “God Give Me Strength” in 1996. How could you argue with the “Unforgettable”?
Our only collaboration came quite recently when we contributed a forward and postscript to Dan Hicks’ soon-to-be published memoir. The difference was that while I wrote from the perspective of a fan and acquaintance, Tommy was Dan’s long-time friend and the producer of all the Hot Licks’ great records on Blue Thumb.
Tommy made a lot of records that found great success but also some that just seemed motivated by what was right, as in the case with “All The Way”, conceived with A&R men Joe McEwen and Bill Bentley for Sire, and which returned Little Jimmy Scott to the glory of his sides for Tangerine and placed him in the rightful company of the musicians of the calibre of Ron Carter, Kenny Barron and David “Fathead” Newman, after a period in which Jimmy had been working obscure jobs outside music in his and Tommy’s hometown of Cleveland.
And then there is the time that he has spent with Diana, as record producer, as the President of Verve Records and as her friend and almost paternal counsel.
Such was the intimacy of their recordings that I felt I knew her before we had even met. She wouldn’t mind me saying that she was just a young jazz piano player, who had only recently discovered her singing voice in her mid-twenties, when she and Tommy first worked together. They arrived swiftly at the breakthrough records, “All for You” and “When I Look in Your Eyes”. Tommy has helped her realize many of the most important artistic developments of her recording career but, as a friend, has also seen her through some of the more important and challenging transitions that can happen in any life or any song.
They made some big hits together but that is only the half of it.
I couldn’t know then that the biggest of those records – “The Look of Love” – was actually a coded anticipation of the loss of a parent that many listeners understood only in romantic terms.
It is a tribute to Tommy’s subtly of expression that the record could be felt in one way by the artist and heard in another by the audience.
I think the first-time Tommy and I met properly was at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002. Diana and I were then only friends and I was trying to work out if I might ever be her man. I think she began to give me an answer to a question I hadn’t actually worked up the nerve to ask, when she came out for an encore and played my song, “Almost Blue”. I was sitting next to Tommy that night and he took great delight in seeing me nearly fall off my chair. I think he knew right there and then but he was a producer.
Four years later he and Gill were in the choir that sang and lit candles at our lads’ 1st Birthday party. I don’t think Tommy ever failed to ask how my Ma was doing, even though he’d only met her the one time at our wedding.
Tommy was a loving father and devoted grandfather but always wanted to know what we were up to with our boys. He’d be absolutely tickled to know he produced several of my elder son, Matt’s favourite records, like the sides featuring Cornell Dupree and cohorts that he fondly recalled. He did work that spoke to everyone but his sense of family gave him the sensitivity to what really matters and the ability to appreciate the reasons why we sing.
You fall in love and have children but even as you become a parent, you may begin to lose a parent. That can even make you question the way you feel about music on which you’ve always counted.
This is why I’d say that Tommy’s production of Diana’s own composition, the contemplative, lyrically specific lament “Departure Bay” is an equal if very different achievement to all the swinging and romantic music for which they are better known.
Tommy knew when to step forward and when to let the artist work things out.
When Diana produced Barbara Streisand’s “Love Is The Answer” album, Tommy acted as “Executive Producer”, watchful as the singer and the producer worked through a huge list of songs for possible inclusion. When I arrived for a visit along the corridors of Capitol Studios lined with portraits of previous residents; Judy Garland, Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra, the sessions were swinging from high drama to riots of laughter. Barbra took me aside confidentially and told me that, “My Thief”, an early favourite from the repertoire list – written with Burt Bacharach - was actually going to be on her next record. Tommy, had produced Streisand before but never intervened in any of those deliberations, letting Barbra and Diana arrive at the tunes they would tackle to great and chart-topping effect. As producer, Diana had learned some lessons in artist care from Tommy, even making and then taking a sandwich out to the podium to make sure the great arranger, Johnny Mandel was well-sustained during a long string date.
The roles were once again reversed, when Tommy produced “Kisses on The Bottom” for Paul McCartney with Diana as musical director and bandleader. I was among the invited audience for the “Live Kisses” video shoot at Capitol Studios with Diana at the piano, a hand-picked band and string section and Paul singing everything live in the middle of studio “A”. This had something of the old radio air shot about it, as although it was being recorded for DVD release, it was going out live over the internet.
Paul and the band were in the middle of the meditative “More I Cannot Wish You”, when I glanced through the control room glass to see an animated Tommy LiPuma, attending to some small technical detail with Al Schmitt as the beauty of the music continued undisturbed. The scene was all the more unique as Tommy usually liked to set up in the studio among the musicians with his score and his headphones, rather than as a disembodied voice over a talkback mic from behind a curtain like “The Great and Powerful Oz”.
Diana and Tommy’s recently completed work – “Turn Up The Quiet” - will inevitably be heard at first in a somewhat melancholy light but this would be to deny the great joy and tremendous energy that they brought together in the studio, Diana gathering familiar friends; John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Christian McBride, Karriem Riggins, Anthony Wilson, Russell Malone and Alan Broadbent and Tommy working for the first time with Marc Ribot, Stuart Duncan and Tony Garnier and delighting in what their unique musical personalities brought to the sessions.
If we must all accept that our friend and his family were spared the diminishment of prolonged suffering, his creative and artistic spirit were entirely undimmed until the last.
When we speak of the achievements of a long career, we often have to reach back into the past for the evidence of that greatness but Tommy LiPuma was at his very best until a matter of weeks ago, something that any of us would be fortunate to achieve.
I am grateful to my friends in the audience of two recent shows in Antwerp who unknowingly bore me up in these last sad days of anticipation. Truthfully, it was hard to be in the middle of a performance wondering whether your phone was ringing backstage, bringing bad news, only realizing you were distracted as your fingers or your tongue betrayed you. I hope I did not let anyone down, as I know someone who would have been looking for the best possible take on every song.
Soon we will gather to recall the many evenings spent together around the dinner table, Tommy’s wonderful tales, the pleasure he took in raising a fine glass at the end of a working day; to music, to art, to friends and family.
I will miss Tommy more than I can say and send my love, respect and my deepest condolences to dear Gill, his daughters, Danielle and Jen and his grandchildren, Matty, Julia, Chloe, Ava.