Between 1956 and 1961, Creed Taylor worked as a record producer at ABC-Paramount, a relatively new label at the time. But rather than function as just another executive, Creed was what we now call an "intra-preneur": A visionary self-starter who is given free reign inside a large company to take risks and produce results. Such types dot the landscape today at Apple, Google and other cutting-edge companies.
With the blessing of ABC-Paramount's upper management, Creed set about developing a new type of jazz record. Instead of mimicking Blue Note's hard bop style or Columbia's lacquered approach, Creed produced albums that remained true to jazz while appealing to audiences beyond the jazz elite. In the years that followed, Creed would build on this winning formula at Verve, A&M and CTI.
In the second installment of my conversation with Creed about his ABC-Paramount years, the legendary producer talks about the Oscar Pettiford Orchestra, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, and how the award-winning Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' Sing a Song of Basie was recorded:
JazzWax: At ABC-Paramount in the late 1950s, you had a bird's eye of the record business. How was the industry changing?
Creed Taylor: Albums went from 10 inches to 12 inches after about 1956 and stereo was coming in. Even in the 12-inch LP era, radio was still the way to move jazz records. It took a while for TV to become a sales vehicle through variety shows. Rock ‘n’ roll, of course, was a different story. ABC-Paramount owned Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and the show was key to moving teen pop records. Also, you had artists like Frankie Avalon who made movies. That was another arm for teen pop acts. I wasn’t involved in that.
JW: What about jazz?
CT: Jazz still sold primarily through radio shows, particularly black radio, which reached an influential record-buying audience and started what we now call "word of mouth." As a producer, I had to know the disc jockeys and the names of the record buyers. In some cases, they were one in the same. For example, the buyer for New York's Korvette’s department store [pictured] had his own radio show. So I got to know the people who worked for him and arranged a lot of in-store displays for my jazz albums.
JW: Did you get the sense then that rock was going to be trouble for jazz?
CT: I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t identify with rock and wasn’t interested in it. Maybe it seeped into my thinking when I started to ask myself what the crossover potential was of a jazz album or single I was releasing. The 45-rpm was important for jazz back then because of jukeboxes. Many people think of jukeboxes as record machines in soda shops and teen hangouts. They also played a big role in moving jazz records in bars and clubs and other places where jazz was played or where owners wanted to create a more sophisticated mood.
JW: The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi albums were superb. They must have been a thrill for you to produce.
CT: They were. Oscar and I were great friends. We talked music whenever we got together for dinner or drinks. When the idea for the albums came up, we’d talk about the musicians who were available. Oscar would say, what about so and so? And I’d say fine, but what about so and so? It was like putting together an all-star baseball team. Quincy Jones was there at the very beginning, too, and arranged some of the compositions, though he was uncredited.
JW: How did that unusual cover come about for the second one, with just the woman's legs showing?
CT: The cover was very clever. Members of the band were lined up, and in between them were a pair of female legs. But no top half. You did a double-take when you discovered the legs. She represented harpist Betty Glamann. I don’t know why Betty wasn’t in the picture. I suspect that’s why only the legs were shown.
JW: Who did the legs belong to?
CT: Fran Scott, Tony Scott’s wife. She designed my jazz covers at ABC-Paramount.
JW: Who’s on the cover?
CT: From the left, that’s Benny Golson, Dick Katz looking at Benny, Ray Copeland, Oscar Pettiford, Sahib Shihab, Jerome Richardson and Tony Scott with his back to the camera. Tony wasn't on the date, so Fran used him without his face showing. I don't know how Fran worked in only her legs, but the image certainly caught the attention of curious record buyers.
JW: How long had Fran worked with you at ABC?
CT: I brought Fran in, and she had an office right next to mine. Tony Scott had recorded for me at ABC when I put a jazz compilation together called Know Your Jazz in 1956. I first met Tony when he was playing with Claude Thornhill’s band back in 1949. Actually I jammed with the band when they played an after-hours club following a dance performance at Duke University. The experience was just amazing. That band had two French horns and woodwinds. It was tremendous fun to play trumpet with them. What many people overlook is that Tony Scott was an essential part of the Thornhill sound. I know that Gil [Evans] put him in that spot in the band. The sound of two French horns and Tony Scott's clarinet was unbelievable.
JW: You also brought Jackie Cain and Roy Kral to ABC.
CT: I first heard them on a transistor radio I carried around with me at Duke. There was a station in Durham that played jazz. I heard them sing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. Their singing blew me away, though I wasn't a fan of the tenor player [Charlie Ventura]. So when I got to ABC years later, I called Jackie and Roy, and they signed. We recorded The Glory of Love, Bits and Pieces and Free and Easy. Jackie’s intonation was beyond belief. She’d nail stuff on one take. Being husband and wife, they’d be totally rehearsed and do it all effortlessly. Jackie and Roy were like two peas in a pod, always happy, always smiling.
JW: Some of those albums were recorded on the West Coast. You flew back and forth?
CT: Well, sure. The West Coast recordings were done in the Capitol Tower. The whole atmosphere was different out there. It was relaxed in a different way. There wasn’t the same sense of humor that prevailed on the East Coast. There also wasn't a Charlie’s Tavern as a central hangout for all the players. Everyone drove to the dates, and there were more white players out there than black ones. It wasn’t my bag.
JW: Why do you think Jackie and Roy never reached a higher level of popularity?
CT: Probably because there was a high level of sophistication and cleverness with their music.
JW: How did Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ Sing a Song of Basie come about in August 1957?
CT: Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks came to me with the idea. I already knew Dave. I used to run into him in Greenwich Village. He made chimneys for people and was a carpenter when he wasn’t singing. Dave and Jon told me what they had in mind: a vocal album of Count Basie tunes. The two of them would be joined by other vocalists, and they'd all sing the different instrumental parts.
JW: What did you think?
CT: I loved the idea right away. Dave had already transcribed the Basie arrangements, and Jon wrote terrific lyrics for the songs. I thought the natural thing to do was to get the Basie rhythm section, man for man. So I made a few calls, and guitarist Freddie Greene [pictured], bassist Eddie Jones and drummer Sonny Payne were there for the date. Nat Pierce was on piano.
JW: Obviously something went wrong.
CT: The studio singers Dave brought to Beltone Studios at 4 West 31st St. didn’t swing. We started recording, and about a half hour into it, I knew the session was a bust.
JW: What happened?
CT: The singers were too rigid. I’m sure they were great at singing ad jingles, but this required phrasing and all the nuances that most studio singers don’t have.
JW: Did Basie’s rhythm section have problems with them?
CT: Right away. It was devastating. The singers were all pros but they didn’t have the feel and couldn't pick it up. With Basie, it’s a swinging thing, meaning you have to sing behind the beat, not on it. Eddie Jones, the bassist, tried to help the singers, saying, “Look, this is the way the band plays it. It’s got to be laid back.” But they never got it. So I had to stop the date.
JW: What happened next?
CT: When the singers cleared out, Dave offered up a solution. He asked whether he, Jon and Annie Ross could overdub all the parts. I said sure, let’s give it a try. Dave said Annie would sing all the trumpet parts, he'd do the trombones, and Jon would handle the saxes.
JW: So how did it work?
CT: First I recorded the Basie rhythm section with Dave, Jon and Annie providing a guide track, which was a straight reading. Once that was done, we had the swing down. Then they overdubbed the additional harmonized tracks wearing headphones and listening to the guide track.
JW: No problems?
CT: Actually we had a big technical one. I was recording at the studio with a great engineer named Irv Greenbaum, who loved jazz. We captured each track on a ¼-inch Ampex recorder, but the hiss was piling up like you wouldn’t believe. Each time you add a track to tape, hiss builds. When we got to the final master, we had some careful EQ-ing [equalizing] to do. In those days, the technical ability to manipulate tapes and get rid of small problems was non-existent. I sat there for days with Irv trying to fix the hiss. Finally we just rolled off 10 to 12k [kilowatts] from the sound, and the result was great.
JW: Did you know right away you had a hit?
CT: Oh, sure. Annie frightened me, she was so good. I was in awe of her. And the session wouldn’t have existed without Jon’s great lyrics. He was totally engrossed in the Basie sections and his words brought the whole thing together.
JW: How many Grammy’s did the album win?
CT: Two. One in 1958 for Best Jazz Performance by a Group and in 2000 when the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
JW: What did Basie think of the album?
CT: I don’t know. Basie was on another road all the time. He was such a self-made bandleader. I’m sure he heard it, but he never mentioned it to me. And I never asked.
Tomorrow, Creed talks about how he started Impulse records, the snag that led to the label's name, the strategy he used to instantly establish the new label's credibility and reputation, and why he let Gil Evans' plodding work style slide.
JazzWax tracks: The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra was a rehearsal band that got together to woodshed new ideas. The band recorded its first album, The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi, Vol. 1, in June 1956. The second album, the Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi, Vol. 2, was recorded in September 1957. Both albums are among my favorites from the period. The sound remains new and fresh, and the arrangements had a major impact on the best big bands that followed, including those led by Quincy Jones and Ernie Wilkins.
Musicians on the 1956 session: Ernie Royal and Art Farmer (trumpets), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Julius Watkins and David Amram (French horns), Gigi Gryce (alto sax), Lucky Thompson (tenor sax), Jerome Richardson (tenor sax and flute), Danny Bank (baritone sax), Tommy Flanagan (piano), Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Osie Johnson (drums). Arrangements were credited to Gryce and Thompson.
Musicians on the 1957 session: Ray Copeland and Art Farmer (trumpets), with Kenny Dorham replacing Copeland on one track; Al Grey (trombone); Julius Watkins and David Amram (French horns); Gigi Gryce (alto sax); Benny Golson (tenor sax); Jerome Richardson (tenor sax and flute); Sahib Shihab (baritone sax); Dick Katz (piano); Betty Glamann (harp); Oscar Pettiford (bass and cello) and Gus Johnson (drums). Gryce and Golson were the arrangers. [Pictured: The orchestra in action at Birdland in 1957]
A CD with all of the sessions including a few live Birdland tracks is available here (ignore the "1959 and 1963" dates in the title; that's an error).
For those unfamiliar with Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, they were among the earliest husband-and-wife jazz vocal teams. Think Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme but with a much warmer approach and hipper repertoire. Much of the Jackie and Roy material for ABC-Paramount has been gathered on a couple of collections here and here.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' Sing a Song of Basie was originally released on ABC-Paramount and later released on Impulse, after Creed Taylor's departure. The album is available here.
For more on Creed Taylor or to buy CDs he produced during his lengthy career at multiple jazz labels, go here.