What Does A Producer Do?

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Mike McCarthy
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What Does A Producer Do?

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri May 01, 2015 7:17 pm

Producing music is a strange branch of engineering development. (I call it that because I became a hardware and software development manager in the computer industry and the parallels are close.) I came across an excellent example of the role of the producer the other day, this one by Beatles producer George Martin ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WkUgNKOtSE

Here the producer has taken a musical sketch -- essentially a song plugger's demo -- little more than the audio equivalent of a lead sheet -- a recording that would have flopped in its original form -- and turned it into a hit recording that everyone of my generation knows and likes, and that sold enormously well. . (By the way, Martin's information is all new to me. Until I came across this video I knew only the end product "A Day In The Life", not anything about where the song idea had come from from or how it had been developed.)

Of course not every Beatles musical idea was Martin's, but he created the climate in which the experimentation took place and in which the things that had proved not to work were discarded while the things that did work were retained. He was also smart enough to keep the original Lennon guitar/vocal track. Evidently he knew he would never get a better take and he didn't waste time trying. It's as with Robert Cray, the blues session guitarist. He'll give you as many takes as you like, but most of the time you'll prefer the first one because of the combination of freshness and perfection. Subsequent takes are always good and always flawless, but there is usually some loss of spontaneity.

The album that this piece closed so dramatically was an astonishing line in the sand of pop music history, as was the piece itself. Before Sergeant Pepper albums were a kind of supermarket buy-one-get-twelve deal, like my dearly loved Chess Records "One Dozen Berries". After Pepper they were ... well ... the album itself was now the musical product -- the musical art object -- and the songs were simply components of the album.

As it happens I personally didn't care for this development though of course the broad market loved it, as did the major record companies. What bothered me was that it left no room in the business for artists who had less than an album's worth of things to say musically. In other words, no more three-hit Junior Walkers ...
and certainly no more one-hit wonders like Fantastic Johnny C ...
and most especially no more not-even-a-single-hit wonders like the Johnson Twins ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJ8sR77Otxo
who had been a Stax/Volt studio vanity recording walkin that Steve Cropper overheard and decided to produce, and who were never heard from again.

Those were the good old days and I'm still mired in them to a very great extent. I know about the "He's My Guy" recording only because I bought the Stax/Volt full catalog release CD set, which also contains this gem by one Johnny Taylor ...
The tasteful, simple horns arrangement here is by Packy Axton, son of legendary country producer, songwriter and publisher Hoyt Axton. Axton the younger wrote all the Stax/Volt horn section charts and played trumpet on them when trumpet was scored. (And now you know what a musical director does.)

An aside regarding Shotgun ... It contains the line "I said we're going down here, listen to the flame blues". I didn't understand the reference till 35 years later when, in 2003, I happened to be driving down a shabby major street in Detroit one night and passed a dive named the Flame Lounge. It turns out that James Brown named his "Famous Flames" after that same venue.

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Re: What Does A Producer Do?

Postby JBnID » Thu Jun 18, 2015 12:40 am

Fascinating stuff! You mentioned guitar licks put down right the first time---On the country side of the musical mountain, there is the timeless "ElPaso" by Marty Robbins. It was Grady Martin that was hired for the El Paso (and gunfighter) session but he was "much less than sober" by the time El Paso came he almost nodded off in the first take and was unable to continue for a second. Two more pickers were recorded, but it's Grady Martin on the record. He used to brag that he beat two of Nashville's finest pickers when he was too drunk to fish.
Grady Martin recorded at least two more versions as instrumentals, but they feel contrived and over done to me. The original 1959 is the one song I know in the world that can be separated into pure vocal and lyrics or absorbed as an effortless trilling guitar that weaves the same story with power and timing.

Mike McCarthy
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Re: What Does A Producer Do?

Postby Mike McCarthy » Mon Jun 22, 2015 8:27 pm

Interesting that you mention "El Paso" because I'd planned to use it as example lyrics in the In The Studio song lyrics section. I'll have more to say there but here I will note that Robbins packed a world of imagery and social commentary into just seventeen words ...

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso,
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.

Jack, I'll add to what you wrote about the session by mentioning something I saw in a Marty Robbins interview about ten years ago. He said that he wrote the lyrics while riding in a long haul bus. Tour bus? Commercial? I don't recall. What I do recall is him saying that the entire lyrics set was written, polished and wrapped in two hours.

And now for something completely different. Werman was Ted Nugent's producer. "Cat Scratch Fever" was Werman's first real production effort but he was forced to share production credit with somebody else, I forget whom. However ... and drum roll please ... His second time out he did a serious post production job on Nugent's "Stranglehold", which is here ...

In an email to me Werman said that he had done this production job behind Nugent's back and presented him with a completely finished piece that Nugent wasn't expecting. Nugent said to him "I really, really like what you did here, Tom ... But don't ever touch a Ted Nugent number that way again without checking with me first" Tom says that he learned his lesson and never, ever did that again.

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