The Producers: Tom Werman, Chapter Four
[Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, a large chunk of this installment was lost in one of the Internet’s many tubes. We’ve since expanded it to its intended length, and are now re-publishing it here for your enjoyment. Don’t miss the exciting conclusion of Chapter Four!]
In the Seventies, New York’s music scene was largely downtown in the Village area. Aside from all the traditional West Village clubs like the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, Gerde’s Folk City and the Bitter End, two of the mainstays were the Bottom Line and Max’s Kansas City. Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky opened the Bottom Line in 1974, and it quickly became an adjunct to the New York record business – the premier showcase spot for both new and veteran acts. The owners of the club worked closely with the major labels, and if you worked for one of these labels, you could walk into the Bottom Line on any given night, and you’d know enough record executives there to literally work the room for 30 minutes before showtime, meeting and greeting both your competition and your colleagues.
It wasn’t unusual to find yourself at the club as frequently as three times a week, if you had a band in town, or if you simply wanted to see a newer act that was playing there for the first time. The club made it easy and comfortable for the A&R community; I was as familiar with the dressing room as I was with the main entrance. Max’s was a different sort of place – a much smaller venue up a flight of stairs, and catering to far lesser-known acts. Peter Philbin, a friend of mine at the Columbia label, told me he wanted me to see an act with him at Max’s one night, so I met him down there, and I saw a 40-minute set by a still unsigned Bruce Springsteen and band. Peter then took me to the dressing room and introduced me. I know that John Hammond is credited with discovering Bruce, but Peter must have been only minutes behind him, as he was then and ever after Bruce’s number one booster at Columbia Records – and he wasn’t even a member of the A&R staff. He worked in publicity at the time, but he hadn’t a shadow of a doubt about Springsteen. I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so blinded by the light; I enjoyed the show, and I do remember enjoying my brief chat with Bruce, but I had some difficulty in understanding Peter’s runaway enthusiasm over this artist. I trusted his musical judgment, though, and I knew Columbia would be solidly supportive of Bruce Springsteen.
Perhaps six months or a year later, Bruce was doing a stand at the Bottom Line, and this time around the place was packed. It was something of an event, although considerably before Born to Run was recorded. My wife and I were seated stage right, directly in front of Bruce’s keyboard player — a young high school dropout named David Sancious. I marveled at his playing all through the set, and after the show I took the opportunity to go back to the dressing room and talk to him. I asked him if he had any of his own material, and he responded by grinning slyly at the band’s drummer, Boom Carter, who slyly grinned back.
It turns out that David had a wealth of brilliant piano compositions which he played for me (on that same piano in my office) some time later, and I invited him to record them for Epic as a solo artist. He was delighted, and said that Boom Carter was interested in coming to Epic and drumming for David, too. So without thinking of the consequences, I more or less single-handedly broke up the original E Street Band by pirating two of its charter members and signing them to Epic, just as Bruce’s Columbia Records career was beginning to take off. This wouldn’t be the last time Bruce’s and my paths crossed.
After some discussion with David, we settled on ace Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham to produce David’s first record. It was a brilliant composition, but David never fulfilled his young promise. He was, to my mind, every bit as good as someone like Bill Evans, but he never cracked the commercial barrier and didn’t achieve the solo fame that I felt he should have. He’s since toured with everyone from Narada Michael Walden to Peter Gabriel and Sting, and most recently with Jeff Beck.
After a few years at Epic, it became evident to me that I wasn’t really equipped to do combat in the ring of corporate politics. I always seemed to be the last one to be aware of any situation involving office dynamics or jockeying, and I also seemed to have difficulty in developing the proper perspective necessary for leadership. I found that I tended to get mired in the details, and failed to see the big picture. Despite an ivy league MBA, I simply wasn’t prime CEO material. At the same time, I wasn’t experienced enough to go directly into the studio and become a producer. In fact, the thought of being responsible for the expenditure of a couple of hundred thousand dollars and coming out with a hit record was downright terrifying.
A college friend of mine named Gregg Geller had worked his way up to the position of editor at Record World Magazine, then one of three major weekly industry publications; we would have lunch and compare notes occasionally, and just as I was beginning to feel hemmed in by the office, I sensed that he was starting to feel the stress of having to turn out a finished magazine on time every single week. Basically, Gregg wanted to get back into the record business and get out of the publishing business, and I wanted to get out of the record business and into the recording studio. Epic A&R was understaffed at the time, so I suggested that Gregg come over and meet Don Ellis. He did, and they hit it off very nicely.
Gregg had excellent ears, an encyclopedic knowledge of rock & roll, and was extremely organized – just what Don needed to keep things running smoothly as I began my unannounced and unapproved transition from A&R executive to record producer. I figured that I could do better in the studio than in the office, and at that time there was simply no one at Epic who knew how to supervise the making of a record. As a musician, a talent scout and a music editor, I was ready to try to be that supervisor.
Meanwhile, Gregg went on to sign Labelle and Elvis Costello, and to subsequent positions at both Columbia and RCA A&R, before returning to the Epic label as head of A&R until 1983. So it was a move that turned out well for both of us. Gregg now does fine work producing retrospective works for a variety of labels and artists, including Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Meanwhile, I spent as much time in recording studios as time would allow an A&R executive with a growing family.
In 1975 a fellow named Lew Futterman came to see me in my office one day, and informed me that he now managed Ted Nugent, and that Ted was available as an artist. I barely knew who Ted Nugent was; Lew went on to say that Ted had dissolved his group, The Amboy Dukes, that he had assembled a new band, and was basically out on his own as just plain Ted Nugent. Initially, I wasn’t bowled over by this news, but Lew kept phoning me, and finally I agreed that I would go to see Ted in Chicago, since I was flying in with some other Epic people to see an important Labelle concert.
The evening prior to the Labelle show, I went to see Ted play in an auditorium at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I really try to avoid the phrase “I was blown away,” but frankly, I was blown away. Ted ran onstage and screamed into the mike “Howdy, I-I-I-I-I T!!”, and the energy kept on rising from that point on. After the show, I went in to the dressing room to meet Ted for the first time. He looked at me expectantly, and I, not knowing exactly how to word my response, simply made a fist. He grinned that devilish Nugent grin from ear to ear, and he’s always reminded me of that moment, because he says that’s when he knew I “got it.” Ted had been looking for someone who really responded to what he was trying to do and say musically, and for that reason, I was welcome in the studio when he recorded his first record for us.
On the flight back from Chicago, I bumped into Ina Meibach, an attorney who represented, among others, Pete Townshend of the Who. I told her that I was interested in having Pete produce Ted’s record, and she thought it was amusing, but not really practical at the time, given that the Who were at their peak, and Ted was virtually a brand new artist on the label. I confess to having felt a bit foolish, but six months later when Ted’s first LP crossed the million sales mark, earning him a platinum album award, Ina was nice enough to write me a letter of congratulations.
What I had failed to understand at the outset was that the deal Epic made for Ted stipulated that Lew Futterman, his manager, would either produce the record or designate a producer of his choice. Looking back, I can’t quite fathom this kind of disconnect between A&R and Business Affairs, but t here it was. What was I going to do to protect my investment? Lew was a nice guy, all right, but to my mind he clearly wasn’t a rocker at heart. I began visiting the studio with some regularity, and with Ted’s encouragement, I began to contribute musical ideas. Lew seemed fine with this, and over the course of the first album, I managed to have quite a bit to say about the music and the sound. Lew was generous enough to give me a co-producer credit. We left for the summer CBS sales convention, and when I returned, Lew presented us with the final mix of the album. I was severely disappointed with what I heard.
Don Ellis, meanwhile, had left CBS to head A&R at RCA, and he was replaced by the dynamic head of Columbia Records promotion, Steve Popovich. When he arrived at Epic, Steve sat me down and asked me what I had been doing at the label for the last four years, and my tales of woe must have gotten to him. He had asked me what I wanted to do at that point, and I related my experience with Ted at the Chicago show. He expressed interest, and we flew out to the Lansing, Michigan Ice Arena, where Ted had landed an opening slot for Aerosmith. David Krebs, who managed Aerosmith, had learned of Epic’s interest in Ted, and was in the process of buying Ted’s management contract from Lew Futterman. One night of watching several thousand kids tearing it up, all dressed in denim, leather and motorcycle boots, convinced Steve that something was indeed going on in the Midwest, and he supported me in Ted’s signing.
Because of this, he was sympathetic when I explained that the album needed to be remixed, that it could be significantly better, and that I needed an other $8,000 to accomplish this. I went back to the studio in Atlanta and engineer Tony Reale and I remixed the whole album. I took a few liberties, but Ted was very pleased, and initially the record sold a million and a half copies.
Shazam — I was a producer.