Rant’N’Roll: Exclusive! One-On-One With Legendary Producer Tommy LiPuma

Legendary producer Tommy LiPuma was honored earlier this year in his Cleveland hometown for decades of incredible productions with the likes of Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Dave Mason, Paul McCartney, Dr. John, Diana Krall, Anita Baker, George Benson and dozens of artists who certainly wouldn’t have sounded as good had not this cat’s ears told him what to tell them. He steadfastly refuses to see Don Cheadle as Miles in the movie Miles Ahead because, as he says, “they made Miles look like a thug.” His newest charge is jazz trumpeter Dominick Farinacci and guess what? Short Stories is one of the jazz CDs of the year. LiPuma may be 80 but he has the soul of someone half his age.

Congratulations on Cleveland. That must’ve been some night! So out of all the people you’ve worked with in the studio, who stands out?

Natalie Cole [1950-2015]. She was wonderful. Hard to fathom just how talented this classy lady was. She was absolutely a stone natural. Just like her father. Her sense of harmony? We did this one thing on the follow-up to Unforgettable [Take A Look, 1993] called “It’s Sand, Man!” She put the lead [vocal] down, but then told me she was going to do a second part, then a third, and knocked all three parts out of the ballpark effortlessly. Losing her was a real tragedy. She was way too young to die.

Dominick Farinacci’s CD is incredible.

I have a school in Cleveland for the performing arts where I first met Dominick. It was his last year as a student. He must’ve been 20. As it turns out, his grandmother was my sister’s best friend. Plus, as a saxophone player, I was once in a band with his uncle. Anyway, this kid’s got great ideas. He’s totally unique. He reminds me of Harry James [1916-1983], especially when he does standards. And he’s a student of jazz. He knows all about people like Bix Beiderbecke [1903-1931]. He’s studied them all. He could play you Clifford Brown solos verbatim.

I figured there was a personal connection because at this point, you must pick and choose what artists you want to work with.

I always did but even more so now. If I’m not going to have fun, I’m not interested. I mean, I’m certainly not doing this to make a living anymore.

That must feel great to see your name enshrined in cement at The Tommy LiPuma School For The Performing Arts.

You have to leave a legacy and I prefer mine to be within education for the kids.

One of the artists who paid tribute to you in Cleveland was Leon Russell.

I worked with Leon Russell the very first day I landed in Los Angeles from Cleveland in 1962 to take a job in promotion at Liberty Records. Herb Alpert and Phil Spector loved this guy. Everybody was using him in the studio. By ’64, he was swinging! In ’62, though, he was still gigging at this club no longer there called Pandora’s Box on Sunset Blvd. He was backing up vocalist Jackie DeShannon. I’ll never forget it. He was wearing a blue suit and a burgundy tie. David Gates, way before Bread, was in the band. Leon was probably there less than a year from Oklahoma. Carl Radle was on bass long before he hooked up with Clapton in Derek & The Dominoes. By the time I started producing, Leon was very helpful to me. I was green and he showed me the ropes.

Dr. John [Mac Rebennack] also was one of the artists in Cleveland for you.

Oh, me and Mac go back to ’66 together. I thought his [1968] Gris-Gris debut was one of the most unique sounds I’d ever heard. I gravitated right towards it. We ended up doing four albums together and won a Grammy Award for his Rickie Lee Jones duet on “Making Whoopee.” He’d always crack me up, especially when he referred to [Atlantic Records President] Ahmet Ertegun as “Omelette.”

You’re working on your eleventh album with Diana Krall.

I started working with her 22 years ago. This is what I’m talking about. I have absolutely no interest in working with assholes. And I’ve worked with a few.

Like who?

[laughs] I’m not about to diss anybody. But any time I’ve run across one, I’ve made sure I’ve never worked with them again. Truth be told, I had a lot more patience when I was younger, but I do not like being abused. I’ve been lucky. There hasn’t been that many that I’ve run across.

People tell me horror stories about Miles and Streisand but you don’t seem to have a bad word for either one of ‘em.

Believe me, they’re just perfectionists, that’s all. Artists can smell fear a mile away. If you walk in there, and it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re doing? It’s over.

You must have some stories. Where’s the book?

I’m working on it.