Creed Taylor has never before granted an interview about the events leading up to the bankruptcy of CTI Records in 1978. Until now, that is. In an exclusive conversation with JazzWax, the maverick producer looks back at one of the most painful periods of his career, reflecting on the shifting record-industry business practices during that decade and how the jazz label he started attempted to survive. [Photo of Creed Taylor in the early 1980s by Chuck Stewart]
First, it should be noted that few record producers have had as big an impact on jazz as Creed. Whatever you ultimately think of CTI's influence on jazz in the 1970s, Creed stands alone as a six-decade industry game-changer. Here's just a sampling of Creed's "greatest hits" —radical innovations at the time that we now tend to take for granted:
1961—Introduced the first modern gatefold album cover (Impulse).
1963—Produced Bill Evans' Conversations with Myself (Verve), the first sophisticated jazz-piano overdub album.
1964—Produced Getz/Gilberto (Verve), which ushered in the cool-jazz bossa nova movement.
1965—Produced Wes Montgomery's Going' Out of My Head (Verve), kicking off the 1960s jazz-Top 40 movement.
1967—Introduced high-art album covers by photographer Pete Turner with the release of Wave (A&M).
1970—Produced Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay (CTI), which launched the jazz-fusion movement.
1971—Produced Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues (CTI), which inaugurated the jazz-soul movement.
1972—Produced Deodato's Prelude (CTI), launching the electronic orchestral-jazz movement.
1974—Started the jazz-legend revival movement with the release of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker's Carnegie Hall Concert (CTI).
And this list doesn't even touch on the Grammy Awards Creed has won or the many significant jazz albums he has produced since 1954. For these, see my earlier posts on the producer (under "JazzWax Interviews in the right-hand column). Initially hesitant to talk about CTI's disappointing decline, Creed agreed to look back at the struggles the label faced:
JazzWax: Is this the first time you’re discussing publicly the problems CTI encountered in the 1970s?
Creed Taylor: Yes.
JW: What happened?
CT: In 1974, CTI's financial controller convinced me that we should handle our own record distribution. His argument was, “Why should we give the middleman a cut if we can handle it ourselves?” At the time, we were using independent distributors to move our records into stores.
JW: How did record distribution work back then?
CT: In the record business in the 1970s, you either got your product into stores nationwide yourself—or you turned that task over to other companies for a percentage of sales. Distributing records came with a wide range of costs, including hiring a sales staff, generating and taking orders from retailers, and a back office forwarding those orders to the record companies for shipment to retailers. There also were shipping and fulfillment costs if stores didn’t sell all that they had ordered.
JW: What did you do?
CT: Right after Prelude hit in 1973, Warner Bros. Records came by the CTI offices, followed soon afterward by Columbia Records. Both companies wanted to handle the distribution of CTI Records. Both labels knew that CTI’s sales were very strong. Their senior executives back at their headquarters wondered why CTI had the No. 1 jazz label in the country and they didn’t.
JW: What did you tell them?
CT: I told them that CTI was going to handle its own distribution.
JW: So CTI went ahead into the distribution business?
CT: Yes. We opened fully staffed distribution offices in eight cities, including in Canada. But once Prelude sold through, we didn’t have other albums generating those kinds of huge numbers. There simply wasn't enough revenue coming in to cover all of our expanded costs.
JW: What did you do?
CT: I had to close down all of our distribution offices. This was a huge expense. Before our financial troubles started, our financial controller actually wanted to load a cargo ship with CTI product and send it to Cologne, Germany, to distribute records throughout Europe [laughs]. That’s how far out in front of our revenue we were.
JW: Did you consider recording disco and soul, which were hugely popular in the mid-1970s?
CT: We did. CTI had a Top 20 disco hit in 1975 with Esther Phillips’ What a Difference a Day Makes. The single sold a million-plus units. But we were still struggling to maintain our distribution offices and make records. To do well, you had to have many different artists doing a lot of different things, not just jazz.
JW: Did you follow up with more disco albums?
CT: Yes, we did some other tasteless things [laughs].
JW: The record business had become much more cut-throat in the 1970s than it had been in the 1950s and 1960s, didn’t it?
JW: How did you offset mounting costs?
CT: In 1975, Warner Bros. came by our offices again to propose a deal. They suggested that CTI and Warner Bros. alternate albums with [guitarist] George Benson, who was with CTI at the time. The plan was George would record an album for Warner Bros., then the next one would be for CTI, and then back to Warner, and so on.
JW: What was in it for CTI?
CT: The hope was that if George had a big hit with Warner Bros., we’d get the next album. The thinking was that if he had a hit, the momentum of the hit would carry over and help CTI’s sales. So we did the deal, and George recorded the first album for Warner Bros.
JW: What happened?
CT: As luck would have it, George recorded Breezin’ in January 1976, which included This Masquerade. The song was a massive hit. Which was great, since we’d get the next album with George.
JW: What did you record with him?
CT: We didn’t. Warner Bros. prevented him from recording with CTI as a solo act. While we did record George on Benson & Farrell in late 1976, it wasn’t his date. Warner Bros. had reneged on our deal, under the assumption that they’d rather fight us in court and drag it out if necessary than risk letting us get his next big-selling album.
JW: The following year you turned to Columbia Records, yes?
CT: Yes. We cut a distribution deal with Columbia. Months earlier we had had to close all of CTI’s distribution offices, so we had little choice.
JW: What was the deal with Columbia?
CT: Columbia would distribute CTI records. Patti had been recording with CTI's Kudu label as a session singer since 1976. We then signed her as a pop solo artist for CTI, and she was having great success on the label. I took her down to Muscle Shoals [Alabama] to record her next album with the studio band there that had backed up Paul Anka, Otis Redding and so many others.
CT: Very strong. But Columbia's marketing efforts were all wrong. They attempted to market her without any black radio promotion. A big mistake at the time. The album fell on its face, leaving CTI in a bind.
JW: What did Columbia do?
CT: Columbia loaned CTI $600,000 to continue operating. But when CTI couldn’t meet the loan payments in 1978, CTI had to file for bankruptcy, and Columbia got the CTI catalog. The catalog was collateral for the loan.
JW: Who has the CTI catalog today?
JW: Are you happy with how the CTI catalog has been handled?
CT: No. The releases have been uneven, and many have not been remastered. Also, in the CD age, many CTI albums have been issued with one or more alternate takes that I would never have released. Other albums are out of print.
JW: This must have been a frustrating period for you, yes?
CT: Well, sure. Aside from the monetary part, I have all these albums in my office. I listen to Eric Gale and Joe Farrell and hear all this great stuff. But it’s gathering dust in some corner of Sony’s vaults now. That’s frustrating beyond all the monetary value.
JW: In the late 1970s you went into court and sued Warner Bros. over their attempts to block you from recording Benson.
CT: Yes. Once the jury heard that Warner Bros. had threatened to pick off CTI artists one at a time, it ruled in CTI's favor. The total award was $9 million, $6 million of which was part of the triple damages. But the judge decided to cut it to $3 million. My lawyer screamed, but the judge said we could appeal if we wanted to. We realized that would take years to even get back on the court's calendar, so we agreed to the lower amount.
JW: Knowing what you know now, would you have moved forward in a different way with CTI?
CT: We should have stopped opening branch distribution offices, that's for sure [laughs]. I was going straight ahead with producing music and didn’t think about the impact of my controller’s advice. We had become a distributor instead of a major label with a large catalog in the pipeline. We should not have gone into the distribution business.
JazzWax note I: This summer Creed is producing a series of performances by the CTI All-Stars. Eight European jazz festivals are planned, while a series of appearances at Asian jazz festivals are in the works. The reunion band is comprised of Randy Brecker, Hubert Laws, [saxophonist] Bill Evans, Russell Malone, Niels Lan Doky, Mark Egan, Billy Cobham, Airto, Flora Purim and Jamie Cullum. The first concert will be held at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 7th.
JazzWax note II: My entire series of conversations with Creed can be found in the "JazzWax Interviews" section in the right-hand column. Clicking on a "Creed Taylor" link will bring up the first part of that series. For the next part in the series, simply click on the link at the top of each page.