By 1963, Creed Taylor had produced more than a half dozen successful jazz-bossa nova albums for Verve Records. Artists at the label taking a shot at the new Brazilian sound ranged from Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer to Gary McFarland and Cal Tjader. The next step for Creed was to try and duplicate the winning crossover formula he had developed with the bossa nova by identifying pop songs for jazz interpretation. Instead of treating pop as jazz's commercial nemesis, Creed viewed the genre as the contemporary equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, a modern repository of new standards that jazz artists could build on.
Creed's intention was to develop the potential of jazz-pop fusion and double or triple the label's record-buying audience. For the strategy to work, jazz artists had to turn pop hits of the day into jazz classics while retaining their edge and hard-core fan base. Much rested on an album's jazz-to-pop track ratio and the artist's execution. Creed also began signing leading jazz artists such as Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery with plans to create a more sophisticated and esteemed image for them through gatefold albums and art-photo covers.
Today, in Part 3 of my interview series with Creed Taylor on his Verve years, the legendary producer talks about Kai Winding's smash hit recording of More, Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce and Bill Evans' Grammy-winning Conversations with Myself. And, for the first time, Creed reflects on Evans' Plays the Theme from the V.I.P.s:
JazzWax: In May 1963, you recorded More with Kai Winding, one of only about two dozen singles by a jazz artist to make it onto Billboard's Top 40 pop chart. It peaked at an astounding #8. How did More come about?
Creed Taylor: I had just gone to see the film, Mondo Cane, and loved the theme song. In the movie, Nino Olivieri's theme was played five or six different ways. After the film in late '62, I was crossing Broadway and a worker in a manhole had a tinny transistor radio playing. The song coming out of there was Telstar, a big instrumental hit by the Tornados, a British group. For some reason, the song sounded different coming out of the bowels of Broadway. I wondered whether we could re-capture that sound on a theremin [an electronic instrument played by putting your hands near its antennas]. I thought the song would be ideal for Claus Ogerman and Kai Winding, whom I had recorded for years at Bethlehem and ABC.
JW: How did you decide on the rollicking tempo?
CT: When I got back to my office, I pulled all the popular records of More I could find. All had been recorded as ballads. To hear how the melody would sound at a faster clip, I took a 45-rpm of one of the ballads and doubled the speed to 78 rpm. The melody line sounded great. I told Claus, what I wanted to do. I said, “Let's have a theremin play the strong melody line.” He loved the idea. I might add that up to that point, none of the More ballads had become hits.
JW: The song certainly sounds odd, with the quirky theremin and galloping Marlboro Man beat.
CT: That’s funny. "Galloping" is exactly what I said to Claus when I told him what I wanted. Claus made it happen.
JW: Adding a jazz twist to pop songs was becoming a hallmark of yours at this point.
CT: You had to if you wanted albums to stand out in the shifting marketplace. For example, I had always loved Cal Tjader and became well acquainted with him in San Francisco in 1952. When I moved to Verve, I flew out West in 1961 and signed him. Cal recorded out there before moving to New York in 1963. When we recorded the album Soul Sauce in 1964, he had already recorded the title track as Guarachi Guaro for Fantasy in 1954. We changed the name to Soul Sauce because it sounded better than its original name, which wasn't attractive or easy to say or understand.
JW: What's the story behind the album cover?
CT: I had the art director put a bottle of Tabasco on there, and the album took off at the stores. McIlhenny, the maker of the sauce, sued Verve to take the bottle off. To settle, I told them we’d take it off in the next printing. Of course, it never happened. The company was selling a ton of hot sauce by then and quickly forgot about it.
JW: How did you get Bill Evans to sign with Verve in 1962?
CT: I just asked him, and he was available. I don’t know why he wasn’t still signed to Riverside. I had already known Bill for years. He had recorded for me as a sideman at Impulse.
JW: You recorded Conversations with Myself in February 1963. Whose idea was it to have Bill overdub himself twice?
CT: Bill came up with the idea for three pianos. He wanted to record three different lines. I knew about overdubbing and had multi-tracking equipment available. When we went into the studio, we’d record a lead track. Then Bill would accompany himself on the second track while listening to the lead track through headphones. Then he'd record the third track while listening to the other two. I was in the booth listening on my headphones. It was an amazing process.
JW: Was Bill captivated by his own sound or hindered by hearing it?
CT: He thoroughly enjoyed it. The music was coming out of Bill Evans’ brain and talent three times. Why do you ask?
JW: Many artists dislike listening to themselves. They hear mistakes and things they would have liked to have done differently. Bill didn’t have that problem?
CT: None of that stuff with Bill. We might have re-recorded the lead track to a song a few times and then the second and third. But he had no problem hearing himself and dealing with himself as a separate artist.
JW: Who came up with the album’s title?
CT: I did. It was obvious: Bill was having conversations with himself. He was talking to himself two times. Bill liked the title. That’s what he was doing.
JW: What did Bill think of the final result?
CT: He was happy, in as much as Bill Evans ever exhibited happiness. Bill was a very serious fellow. He had a great sense of humor, but he didn’t smile a lot. He was serious all the time.
JW: The album was recorded on three different dates. One track per date?
CT: No, Bill didn’t record all the lead tracks on one date, overdub second one on the next, and the third on the final date. Instead he’d finish one song at a time, all three tracks. Then we’d move on to the next one. New York's Webster Hall, where we recorded the album, is a huge ballroom with balconies. RCA leased it out Monday through Friday, and there was a glass booth you could roll in and out for the engineer and producer.
JW: How was the piano set up?
CT: We didn’t use gobos [baffles] on this date. There was a thick velvet drape on a runner up at the top near the ceiling, allowing you to move it around to adjust the reverberation. That’s the only thing we did as far as changing the sound in the room. We ran the drape around a few feet from the open side of the grand piano to minimize audio leakage.
JW: Who would call for alternate takes—you or Bill?
CT: It’s hard to remember. We worked together very comfortably. After Bill would finish a track, he’d look up and either he’d ask for a take or I would hold up a finger for another take. My index finger [laughs].
JW: Well, it seems out of character for Bill. You don’t hear his signature sound much, and the strings are somewhat oppressive. Plus the album's movie-music concept was a little unusual for him.
CT: It’s such ancient history. But I’ll tell you, since it’s what I told Bill. MGM owned Verve at the time, and Verve had an open door to MGM’s movie themes. I cooperated with the head of MGM when he had a movie with a good theme. For example, Walk On the Wild Side for Jimmy Smith I got from MGM. MGM executives would invite me to meetings where they’d preview movie themes and give me the soundtracks. I would hear about the movies that were coming out as well as their themes. The MGM people would give me a copy of the scores.
JW: So V.I.P.s in retrospect was an odd fit for Bill.
CT: I wasn’t crazy about doing the V.I.P.s album, but MGM wanted to get the songs out to promote the movies. My hands were somewhat tied.
JW: What did you tell Bill?
CT: I said to Bill, “Let’s do this album. I don’t think you or I are that gung-ho on having you do movie music, but let’s get Claus [pictured] to cover us. It’ll be an endless benefit to both of us from a marketing and promotional point of view with MGM’s people.” And it was. That was the only blatant business thing Bill and I got into. Bill understood it. He had no artistic temperament about it.
JW: Looking back, would you have done that album differently? Or would you have done it at all?
CT: There are quite a few things in life I would have done differently or not at all. But one moves ahead. Sometimes you leave a trail of dust you’d wish would go away.
JW: Is that album one of them?
CT: I didn’t say that.
Tomorrow, Creed talks about Bill Evans' Trio '64, his conversations with Evans during drives to Rudy Van Gelder's recording studio in New Jersey, the shortcomings of the Evans-Stan Getz dates, and recording Wes Montgomery's Movin' Wes and Bumpin'.
JazzWax tracks: Kai Winding's More is hard to come by as a download or CD. Go here to listen to the track and then compare it to the Tornados' Telstar here. Shortly after Winding's single began climbing the Billboard pop chart, reaching #8, Vic Dana recorded a vocal version with virtually the same arrangement. Go here to hear it. Dana's single peaked only at #42.
Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce, Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself and Plays the Theme from the V.I.P.s can be downloaded at iTunes. Jimmy Smith's Bashin' and Evans' Conversations can be found on CD at Creed's site, CTIJazz.com.