By late 1964, Creed Taylor could see the writing on the wall. Teen transistor-radio sales were skyrocketing, and the surging success of the Beatles, the Supremes and other rock and r&b groups was daunting. Clearly, business as usual for jazz records and jazz artists had to change or they were going to suffer financially. Creed realized early that a new jazz hybrid was needed to stand out among the new sounds coming from pop, r&b, Detroit soul, boogaloo, girl groups, folk acts, male heartthrobs and British Invasion bands.
But as Creed weighed his options, he knew that simply having jazz artists record albums of radio hits was imprudent and risky. Pandering to teens could backfire, tarnishing the reputations of jazz artists and the art form itself. Rather than chase after a dwindling teen audience, he decided to produce jazz albums that would appeal to hip young adults, mature sophisticates and the cosmopolitan mass market. The trick was to produce smart jazz interpretations of carefully selected hits, allowing existing and new audiences to appreciate contemporary music through a cool, instrumental filter. [Pictured, from left: Gary McFarland, Jack Parnel and Creed]
In Part 5 of my series of conversations with Creed on his Verve years, the legendary producer talks about how he convinced a doubtful Wes Montgomery to record the pop hit Goin' Out of My Head, why he did not produce Oscar Peterson or Count Basie at Verve, recording Walter Wanderley's Summer Samba, and why he left Verve in 1966 for A&M:
JazzWax: Wes Montgomery's Goin’ Out of My Head in November 1965 is really the first album where you begin to have Wes record pop hits of the day with a hip jazz flavor. Why did you choose that pop tune?
Creed Taylor: I listened to all of the pop and r&b stuff that came out at the time. I heard Little Anthony & the Imperials rehearsing for a show at New York's Paramount Theater, and the group's song, Goin’ Out of My Head, really stuck with me. I thought it could be great for Wes. The song was written by two guys named Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein.
JW: How did you broach the idea with Montgomery?
CT: Wes was playing at the Half Note with Miles Davis’ rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. That’s where we had recorded Smokin’ at the Half Note in June. I took a copy of the Little Anthony 45-rpm down to play for him. Wes listened to it and said, “Creed, you must be going out of your head. I can’t do that kind of stuff.”
JW: What did you say?
CT: I told Wes, “Listen to the chord changes and the melody, and you’ll find there’s something there that’s going to be very useful for you in a recording studio.” I also told Wes that Oliver Nelson was arranging and that he already had the chart in his head. “Forget the vocal and performance,” I told Wes. “Listen to the changes.” That was the only time I had to talk to Wes in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. [Pictured: Oliver Nelson and Creed; photo by Chuck Stewart]
JW: What was Montgomery's reaction?
CT: He wasn't completely won over. I told Oliver that I needed his help. I said, “Wes is turned off about the source of the song. I don’t think he’s hearing the arrangement and chord changes that you have in mind.”
JW: What did Nelson do?
CT: Oliver made a demo on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Wes didn’t read music. When Wes heard what Oliver had come up with on the Fender, he loved it. He rehearsed the song based on Oliver's tape recording. Then he and Oliver came up with a hit. After that, everything was smooth. Wes trusted me. He was a lovely person to work with.
JW: As soon as Wes heard the recording, he knew it sounded great?
CT: Oh yeah. Wes was never an obstinate guy. I would certainly never give him a song to record that wasn’t top quality.
JW: The organist Walter Wanderley [pictured]. He recorded a string of albums for you at Verve and then at A&M. How did you discover him? Where did he come from?
CT: I had him come up from Brazil in 1966 to record Rain Forest. He came directly from the airport, walked into the studio and sat down at the Hammond B-3 that Rudy Van Gelder had done all his tricks to with the electronic attacks. Walter did the whole album in one take.
JW: Who created the track list?
CT: It was all music Walter brought with him or wanted to record, including Summer Samba, which became known as So Nice. It was a huge hit. We just recorded it, and that was it. Walter could swing up a storm. He was playing clubs down in Brazil. The country was filled with gems. I learned about these artists through a grapevine I had established between me and my Brazilian sources. The beauty of Rio back then is everyone knew everyone else. [Antonio Carlos] Jobim knew [Eumir] Deodato, who knew Astrud [Gilberto], who knew [Luiz] Bonfa, and all knew Walter [Wanderley]. When Jobim and Gilberto first came to New York from Brazil, someone gave me a tape of Walter playing.
JW: Did Walter adjust the organ when he came up?
CT: The organ Walter [pictured] used was the same one Rudy Van Gelder had tweaked for Jimmy Smith and other soul-funk organists. But when Walter came in, he adjusted it the way he wanted it, with a more pure organ sound. The album became a huge hit for Verve.
JW: Were you the sole producer at Verve?
CT: I produced the bulk of the jazz albums. There was guy doing all the comedians, which became a growing business for record companies in the 1960s. Norman Granz, however, handled Oscar Peterson and Count Basie.
JW: Why weren’t you producing them?
CT: I didn’t want to. Norman managed Oscar and Basie, and I didn’t want to do any of the acts managed by Norman. From an operational point of view, I didn’t agree with his approach to producing records. He and I were on opposite ends of the artistic spectrum. He continued to handle Oscar, Ray Brown and Basie. Or he turned them over to the guy who was producing the comedy albums. Norman’s albums were loosely produced at best. He had an entirely different approach than I did when producing records.
JW: When did you leave Verve and why?
CT: I left in 1966. But the groundwork was already in place at the Grammy Awards dinner in 1965. There, Getz/Gilberto won Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Instrumental Jazz Performance. Astrud [Gilberto] was there. Stan [Getz] wasn’t, even though he won for Best Instrumental. He never came to any of those things. When he won a Grammy a year earlier for Desafinado, he handed it to me and said, “Here, this is yours” [laughs]. Awards weren’t his thing. [Pictured from left: Astrud Gilberto, Creed, Sammy Davis Jr. and Monica Getz at the 1965 Grammy dinner]
JW: What happened at the 1965 Grammy dinner?
CT: Herb [Alpert] and Jerry [Moss] were there, and we spoke. Then they started calling me soon afterward asking me to come over to A&M Records. I gave them my manager’s name, Clarence Avant. They wanted to record jazz, and I guess they thought who better to turn to than Creed Taylor. [Pictured, from left: Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss]
JW: What was the deal sweetener?
CT: In effect, they had agreed to let me start my own subsidiary label, CTI Records, within A&M. I would have complete control over the artists, the material, the album titles, the packaging, the marketing, everything. I had been working toward that level of creative independence my entire career.
JW: Once you were free of all restraints, did your vision bear fruit right away?
CT: The first album I produced when I arrived at A&M under the CTI name was A Day in the Life with Wes Montgomery, which was a pure play on what I wanted to do with jazz and pop. The record instantly became a bestseller.
In the coming weeks, Creed and I will pick up the story of his career and talk about his years at A&M Records and the development of CTI Records and eventual spinoff of the label.
JazzWax tracks: To hear more about how Creed came to join A&M Records, click here to see a video clip interview with Clarence Avant, Creed's agent at the time.
Wes Montgomery's Goin' Out of My Head, Smokin' at the Half Note and A Day in the Life; and Walter Wanderley's Rain Forest are available as downloads at iTunes. The Wes Montgomery albums are available on CD at Creed's site CTIJazz.com.