Last time Creed Taylor and I spoke in May (Parts 1-4), the legendary jazz producer talked about his early years growing up in Virginia, his arrival in New York in 1954 and his first job as a producer at Bethlehem Records. During his brief two-year tenure at the company, Creed won the respect of leading jazz musicians and turned a bleeding company into a premier label. While at Bethlehem, Creed produced critically acclaimed LPs by Chris Connor, Herbie Mann, Oscar Pettiford and many others.
This week, Creed picks up the story where he left off and reflects on his four years as jazz producer at ABC-Paramount. He also looks back on the multi-pronged strategy he used to launch Impulse Records in 1960. Over the next five days, Creed will share stories about working with Ray Charles; Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; Jackie Cain and Roy Kral; Gil Evans; Oliver Nelson; Bill Evans; and John Coltrane.
Today, in the first installment of my five-part series, Creed talks about the challenges he faced after joining ABC-Paramount in 1956, how he balanced jazz with the commercial trends of the day, the quirky success of the Creed Taylor Orchestra, and what he did to outrage anthropologist Margaret Mead:
JazzWax: When you joined ABC-Paramount Records in 1956, were you pressured to produce pop records?
Creed Taylor: No pressure at all. You have to remember, ABC-Paramount was a startup even though a major corporation owned it. The label began in 1955, a year before I arrived. I knew as much or more about the record business as everyone else who was there. Sam Clark was the label’s president and Larry Newton was in charge of sales. Both had been in the record distribution business and knew virtually nothing about producing.
JW: Who did you work for?
CT: I reported to Harry Levine, a vice president. Harry and I had a very close relationship. He had been the talent booker at the Paramount Theater in the 1940s and early 1950s, so he knew show business and liked music very much. Harry and I often talked after-hours about all the legends he knew. He told me Harry James [pictured] was a real egotistical pain and that being married to Betty Grable didn’t help. He also said Gene Krupa was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet in spite of the gum-chewing, pot-smoking image the media had put on him. These talks with Harry helped ease me into the world of music superstars. Behind all the glitter, it turned out they had the same problems all of us have.
JW: Did you plan to record jazz when you arrived at ABC-Paramount?
CT: I definitely had an agenda to record jazz artists who had been with me at Bethlehem. Larry Newton was in charge of the pop side with artists like Paul Anka, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and all the little rock ‘n’ roll groups that appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand [pictured in 1958], which ABC owned. I had no interest in that part of the operation nor did I have any responsibility for it.
JW: But you recorded more than just jazz, yes?
CT: Sure. I had a daily pattern of visiting record shops, particularly the one across the street from my office, to see what was selling and how we could take advantage of the trends. I didn’t arrive at ABC and tell them, “Hey, I‘m not producing anything but jazz records.” I kept jazz going along with other things that I thought had a place in the market and could sell well.
JW: How did you rationalize producing albums like More College Drinking Songs along with albums by Oscar Pettiford?
CT: I produced what I liked. While I was never a fan of barbershop quartets, I was familiar with that kind of music. Having graduated from Duke a few years earlier, I fully understood the appeal of drinking songs and the audience for the records. And they sold well.
JW: What was your first jazz album for ABC?
CT: Probably Kenny Dorham and the Jazz Prophets. We recorded the album in April 1956. Kenny was not unlike Chet Baker. His sound and flow of ideas were similar to Chet’s. And like Chet, Kenny was without any kind of showy pretensions or technical stunts. He was a real player. And he had a sound similar to Chet’s, even though he had a bit more edge and was more associated with Art Blakey and Blue Note's artists.
JW: What was your first big seller?
CT: Quincy Jones’ This Is How I Feel About Jazz. Look at the guys on that date. Every single musician was an amazing talent. The album did very well. Quincy and I were already close friends when he recorded the album. We were the same age and had the same musical taste and had hung out together at places like Charlie's Tavern since my Bethlehem days. He was a trumpet player and I was a trumpet player. We had an unspoken empathetic relationship.
JW: What was the Creed Taylor Orchestra? I've seen albums with odd-looking covers.
CT: [Laughs] It was a group of studio musicians that I put together originally for a special project. The purpose was to create a series of albums that used music and sound effects to tell a story. There were no lyrics or narration. They were sort of like soundtracks to stories. You had to use your imagination to think about what was going on. I used Kenyon Hopkins [pictured] as the arranger and conductor. He was a master of film and mood music. I couldn’t use his name at the time because he was under contract to Capitol Records.
JW: Give me an example of one of the recordings.
CT: We had albums called Shock Music, Panic: Son of Shock and Lonelyville. One track from Shock Music was called Gloomy Sunday. You’d hear an alto flute playing the song’s melody along with the sound of footsteps creaking on a dock. You’d hear water sloshing around and then the person getting into a boat, and oars being used to row out into the water. The person kept rowing. Suddenly there was a big splash. The guy went overboard, and you’d have to use your imagination to figure out what happened.
JW: So these were like audio comics?
CT: Exactly. Another one of these "sound pictures" from the Shock album was called High on a Windy Hill. This one featured an alto sax. It started with a guy walking through the forest and the sound of a strong wind. Then you hear silence, a tree starting to crack followed by a crash, with the guy quietly exhaling his last breath. He didn’t scream. It was cool.
JW: How did they do?
CT: Quite well. They were in print for years, and some even made it to CD.
JW: Were they difficult to pull off?
CT: Sure. When we made them, there was no such thing as overdubbing. We had the best sound-effects guy in the business, Keene Crockett. He’d come in and put bed sheets and chains on a table and start creating audio pictures. We’d talk through the fundamental story line in advance. Then Ken Hopkins and Keene would write out the arrangements very carefully. Ken would conduct Keene to come in at certain points.
JW: Did you get pushback from parents?
CT: No. But I sent an advance copy of an album to Margaret Mead with a letter inviting her to write the liner notes. I said her words would be important because these were unusual albums that made a statement about the psyche of teens. She sent back a scathing letter asking how could I subject impressionable young people such harmful psychological episodes. In other words Miss Mead didn’t do the notes. [laughing]
JW: Weren't these albums at the opposite end of the taste spectrum from jazz?
CT: Not at all. They were just for a different audience. And most of the musicians on these dates were jazz players. On the two I just described, Jerome Richardson [pictured] played the flute while Phil Woods was on alto sax. Jazz was very much an undercurrent for the album series.
JW: It was a great branding move for you, too, yes? You had your name on the album cover.
CT: I suppose. I had always included my signature on all the albums I produced, even the 10-inch LPs at Bethlehem. It was a way of telling the buyer that the albums met a specific individual's standards. It showed I was personally taking responsibility for the result. It was an extra touch that distinguished these albums from the rest.
Tomorrow in Part 6, Creed talks about the Oscar Pettiford Big Band, Jackie and Roy, and the making of the double Grammy-winning Lambert Hendricks & Ross' Sing a Song of Basie, which put the vocalese group on the map and established Creed as a maverick producer with a golden touch.
JazzWax tracks: Kenny Dorham and the Jazz Prophets
features Dorham on trumpet, J.R. Monterose on tenor sax, Dick Katz on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Arthur Edgehill on drums. The 1956 album is available at Amazon.
Quincy Jones' This Is How I Feel About Jazz was recorded in September 1956 and was an early prototype of the Quincy Jones Big Band of 1959 and 1960. The 1956 ensemble included Art Farmer on trumpet, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, Herbie Mann on flute and tenor sax, Gene Quill on alto sax (Zoot Sims and Lucky Thompson played tenor sax on different tracks), Jack Nimitz on baritone sax, Milt Jackson on vibes, Hank Jones on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Charlie Persip on drums. It's available at Amazon.
LPs of the Creed Taylor Orchestra (1958-1960) featuring jazz-influenced horror motifs are collectors' albums today going for over $100 each. Some are available on CD used from independent sellers. To get a taste of what these jazz dramas sounded like, go here and listen to Heartbeat from Shock Music (scroll down and click on the red link, "The Creed Taylor Orchestra, Heartbeat").