Two months after taking his first job as a record producer for Bethlehem Records in 1955, Creed Taylor was on a roll. He inaugurated the 10-inch LP at the label with vocalist Chris Connor; befriended Quincy Jones; signed Oscar Pettiford, Herbie Mann, Ruby Braff and many others to the label; and was fast on his way to transforming the way the jazz LP was produced, packaged and promoted. [pictured: Creed Taylor with Oliver Nelson]
Ultimately, what set Creed apart was naivete and determination. Unfamiliar with conventional recording-industry practices, Creed created a winning recording formula from scratch, going after up-and-coming artists and giving musicians space to realize their musical visions. In sum, Creed brought a grace and polish to jazz recordings that didn't exist yet in the early LP era. Between 1954 and 1956, he produced dozens of records that conveyed an urban, love-struck sophistication on the cover while the recordings themselves captured a new energy and intellect emerging among cutting-edge artists. The results were LPs that connected with hard-core jazz listeners and romantic youth alike. [pictured: Creed Taylor with Freddie Hubbard]
In the final part of my conversation with Creed on his Bethlehem years, he reflects on Carmen McRae, Charlie Shavers and Jack Teagarden, and muses on the one recording session he wishes he had captured:
JazzWax: You were one of the first to record Carmen McRae in 1954, in a small group setting. What was she like?
Creed Taylor: Carmen’s sound and her attention to the meaning of a song's lyrics were incredible. Look, I don’t want to put down a great artist like Ella [Fitzgerald]. But Ella and I would not be on the same track. For me, Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and even Anita O’Day had enormous respect for the meaning of a song’s lyrics. They’d use little nuances and phrasings, plus all of the stylistic stuff you’d expect from a singer. But if Ella sings Cottage for Sale, she’s not going to sound like Chris Connor. Ella is fantastic, but when she sings I always wonder what happened to the meaning of the song.
JW: So the song’s “story” is lost with Ella, or perhaps her focus was on perfection rather than emotion?
CT: I think so. For me, at least.
JW: You recorded Charlie Shavers at Bethlehem. What was he like?
CT: What a funny guy. We did an album called Horn O’ Plenty in October 1954. On that album we recorded a medley of songs illustrating the jazz trumpet's history. He played all the styles, from New Orleans through Dizzy’s Salt Peanuts. It was narrated by Al “Jazzbo” Collins, a hipster disc jockey at the time. Charlie blew up a storm on that date.
JW: What made Charlie so special?
CT: His phrasing was different. He had an enormous range. And his vibrato was different. He could play strong without losing his great sense of humor. I recall a vocal he did that was so spur of the moment. The written lyric went something like, “Into the tent he crept” but Charlie added, parenthetically, “naked as a jay bird.” And then he roared with laughter. These guys all could think on the go and add enormous humor to the art they were creating.
JW: You recorded Jack Teagarden several times for Bethlehem.
CT: What an artist. Jack made it look so easy. Most people are unaware that he used unusual slide positions on the trombone because his arms were short. His vocals were sensational. Yet he was so quiet when he wasn’t playing. He really didn’t talk much.
JW: Is there a recording session at Bethlehem that you wish you could go back and put together?
CT: Sure. Jack Teagarden and Chris Connor. That would have been some pair. Somehow their paths never crossed.
JW: Which artists who recorded for you at Bethlehem had exceptional sounds on their horns?
CT: Urbie Green and Hal McKusick [Hal pictured, center]. Their sounds were sensational and unmistakable. You knew Urbie’s trombone from the first notes. And Hal’s sound was pure. We did that East Coast Jazz, Vol. 8 recording together, with Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson. Hal’s sound was not unlike Paul Desmond’s. Both were pretty.
JW: You didn’t do the West Coast producing for Bethlehem. Why not?
CT: Back then it wasn’t economical. Red Clyde produced sessions for Bethlehem on the West Coast. As far as I was concerned, nothing was happening on the West Coast anyway.
JW: Why did you leave Bethlehem in 1956?
CT: Just as I read Billboard today, I read the magazine then. Back in 1956, I saw an article about ABC Paramount starting a record company. I liked the idea of ABC. I thought the exposure would be bigger for me there. So I wrote Sam Clark, ABC Paramount’s president, and set up an appointment. I really liked Harry Levine, his vice president. What Harry had done at the Paramount Theater [pictured] booking Frank Sinatra and all the big bands was mind-boggling. Harry loved show business.
JW: How did your interview go?
CT: Great. Sam hired me on the spot. I liked the fact that ABC recorded many different genres of music. When I worked there, I used to go across the street to a record store and thumb through the bins to see what genres were available and which ones weren’t. So I wound up doing an album of college drinking songs, an album of drinking songs under the table, songs of World War I, Flamenco music, and so on.
JW: You put jazz on hold?
CT: Not exactly. I had to sneak it in. I didn’t want to go full stream with guys who didn’t know what jazz was about. Except for Harry Levine, of course. I had to work my way in with jazz gradually. I had to show them first that I could produce profitable albums of all music styles. Only then could I start concentrating more on jazz.
JazzWax tracks: Charlie Shavers' Horn O' Plenty (1954) featured Bennie Morton on trombone, Hank D'Amico on clarinet, Kenny Kersey on piano, Aaron Bell on bass and Panama Francis on drums. Go here.
Charlie Shavers also recorded an album for Bethlehem backed by strings. Long out of print, the tracks on Charlie Shavers with Strings (1955) [pictured] have been released on a LoneHill Jazz release called Charlie Shavers: Complete Intimate Interpretations. Go here.
Another beauty produced by Creed was The Return of Howard McGhee (1955), featuring McGhee on trumpet, Sahib Shihab on alto and baritone saxes, Duke Jordan on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Go here.
And perhaps my favorite of all is The Herbie Mann-Sam Most Quintet (1955), featuring Mann and Most on flutes, backed by Joe Puma on guitar, Jimmy Gannon on bass and Lee Kleinman on drums. Go here.