Tommy LiPuma, Grammy-Winning Producer, Remembered By Those Behind the Scenes

Mar 14, 2017

Tommy LiPuma
Credit Chart Room Media

Tommy LiPuma, who died on Monday at 80, was a record producer with a golden touch, and a track record virtually unmatched in his field. LiPuma was honored alongside his fellow NEA Jazz Master, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, at WBGO’s 2011 Champions of Jazz Benefit. That evening included performances by Natalie Cole, pianist Danilo Pérez and singer Lizz Wright, who hailed LiPuma on Facebook earlier today as “one of the first friends I made in this wild business.”

Other tributes have begun to pour in from some of the artists LiPuma produced, and from listeners that his albums reached. But there’s a special sort of insight that can be found only among those who worked alongside him day after day, behind the scenes in the record business. Below, find a sampling of those voices.

Bud Harner, VP of A&R at the Verve Music Group, 1999-2006

I’ll never forget the day I received the call from Tommy LiPuma’s assistant, Ruth Rosenberg, saying: “I have Tommy LiPuma calling for you.” I was VP of Promotion for Verve (Polygram) at the time. Tommy’s voice came on: “Hey man, I’m coming to L.A., want to get together?” Of course I thought I was dreaming, but we spent a day together listening to music, talking, laughing. That led to me becoming VP of A&R at the new Verve/GRP. For the next seven years, I had some of the best times of my life, spending time with Tommy in studios, restaurants and offices. He could bring out the best in people not only in making records, but in living life.

Michael Goldberg, Director of Finance at Elektra 1990-95; Chief Financial Officer at Verve, 2001-07

Tommy was a joy to be with. He had tremendous gratitude for the opportunities that he had in his life. He never forgot his humble upbringing in Cleveland, and enjoyed sharing the riches of life with all of those around him. Music, food (blackfish at Milos!), art, travel, and people. His memory will indeed be for a blessing to all who knew him personally and were touched by his work.

Jon Vanhala, Senior VP, Digital and Strategic Marketing at Verve Music Group, 2000-07

The underlying key word and consistent thread to his incredible body of work is the word “musical.” Tommy was incredibly musical. And that is among the highest praise a musician can give. Everything he produced had this deep thread of musicality to it. He had an incredible ability to align a great song with the right performers — plus the right arrangers, sideman, leaders and engineers (Al Schmitt!).

John Newcott, Director of Marketing at Verve, 1998-2002; Senior Director of Marketing, 2002-10

Just getting to witness Tommy be Tommy was such a treat, and one I never took for granted. That I had the privilege of watching him work in the studio with his partner, the great Al Schmitt, was an experience I will always treasure. Tommy's process was so intimate and private, that as a marketer it left me feeling somewhat frustrated, on more than a few occasions. For Tommy, the recording studio was a sacred chamber where the only thing that mattered was the music. He was so protective of the artists he worked with (especially Diana Krall) that it was rare for us to have the opportunity to capture video footage and such for marketing materials. Ultimately though, it didn’t matter, because it was all about the music, and Tommy delivered every time. 

GRP/Verve reunion, November 2012
Credit Courtesy of Maureen Murphy

Regina Joskow, VP of Publicity, Verve Music Group, 2001-10

Everything about his personality was big, with the sole exception of his ego. He was incredibly humble. One day, shortly after I started at Verve, I was in Tommy's office, and I was looking at all of the cool stuff that lined the walls. One item in particular caught my eye: it was a barber's license that had been issued to Tommy by the City of Cleveland. It had a photo that looked relatively recent, so I asked him about it. He said, "I regularly renewed it until very recently." I asked "Really? Why?" He smiled broadly and said, "You never know, babe." And he meant it.

Scott Morin, Intern to Tommy LiPuma, 1999-2000; Director of Verve Music Group Canada, 2000-08

I'll never forget running through the streets of Manhattan with a folio to Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, which I had tracked down at Colony Records. I was rushing it to Tommy, who was at lunch with Diana Krall’s managers. Diana wanted to look at the chart for an upcoming TV special, and it was like an episode out of Mission Impossible running through the St Patrick’s parade on Fifth Avenue to get Tommy this chart on time!

Dave Grusin, Tommy LiPuma, Larry Rosen

Michael Kauffman, Head of Sales at GRP and Verve, 1996 to 2006.

I was fortunate to work for him during the mid-‘90s to mid-00s while at GRP and Verve, a time of significant transition in the business. Through those tumultuous years, Tommy graced us with a rich soundtrack that was a unifying thread of life-affirming songs and recordings. Gracefully created through his personal connection to the finest artists in the world, his impeccable choice of repertoire, the incredibly talented musicians he gathered in the studio, the actual placement of the microphones in the studio, the friendships and work of Al Schmitt and many others that helped create that LiPuma sound. When you listen to his records, close your eyes… you’re IN the room.

Suzanne Berg, VP Promotion, Adult Formats, Elektra/Asylum Records, 1987-1996; SVP Promotion, Verve Music Group, 1996-2007

I was making phone calls in my office at Elektra Records, on the 15th floor at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, when Tommy called. “Babe, c’mon up. I want to play you something.” So I went up one floor to Tommy’s office and sat on the couch, and he played me what would become a phenomenon: Natalie Cole’s duet with her father, Nat King Cole, and the lead track from her groundbreaking album Unforgettable… with Love

I was blown away.  Tommy smiled that famous smile; he knew this was magical. He gave me a cassette, and I ran down to my office and called every radio programmer, cranking my stereo to play them this amazing song. It was a Number 1 hit at Top 40 radio; won six Grammy awards, including Album of the Year; and sold six million copies at the time (over 14 million today). Tommy made magic, as he did with every record he made.

Matt Pierson, Executive VP, General Manager for Jazz, Warner Bros., 1995-2004.

We’ve lost the heart and soul of the jazz business. As a producer, Tommy was addicted to melody and groove, always honing in on what is special about an artist and putting it front and center. “Tell a story and get your ass shakin’, man.” We were friends and competitors: when he was at Elektra, GRP, and Verve, I was at Warner Brothers. However, he’s the guy most responsible for my move from Blue Note to Warners, because he recommended me to Mo Ostin. As a friend, he was such a funny, warm, giving, and brutally honest mensch. For me personally, without Tommy’s inspiration and support, I’m sure I’d be playing trumpet in a wedding band back in Detroit.

Ben Sidran, longtime friend, now working on a biography of Tommy LiPuma

I was nervous about interviewing Miles Davis, but Tommy, who was in the middle of making the Tutu record with him, said: “Man, you got nothing to worry about. He’s a sweet cat. Just be yourself.” So Tommy and I drive out to this pad on the beach in Malibu and ring the doorbell, and the door opens, and there’s Miles. He’s looking absolutely burnished, like his skin is glowing, from all of the energy that has been projected on him from other people over all the years. He hugs Tommy, and Tommy says, “Miles, this is my friend Ben Sidran,” and Miles throws his arms around me and gives me a big hug. We go inside and sit down and commence the hang. We’re talking music, Miles makes rice and beans for lunch, and after a couple of hours, he says, “So you want to interview me?” I say, “Yeah, Miles.” And he says, “Ok man, let’s go.” Tommy totally took a situation fraught with anxiety and expectation and turned it into one of the most natural, normal passages of time in memory.

Garrett Shelton, National Manager, Jazz Promotion, Verve Music Group, 2001-03

My first job out of college was managing Verve’s jazz radio campaigns. I spent a lot of time at WBGO early in my career. More accurately, I spent a lot of time dragging musicians out of bed early so we could make Gary Walker’s show. I forget why, but we arranged for Tommy and Bruce Lundvall to come to the station together for an interview with Michael Bourne in 2002 — and of course, I was just over the moon about getting to spend the day with these two giants.  I was 23. I loved Tommy, he was role model for me on a pretty deep level. He started out as a promotion person too. We both dealt with physical disabilities in childhood through music. He was a legendary producer, he ran Verve. All the boxes were checked.

Regina Joskow

Whenever you would walk into a restaurant with him, the people who worked there would genuinely light up. He knew everyone's name, they always looked sincerely happy to see him, and one after another would rush over to say hello. He treated everyone so kindly, and whether you were alone with him, or part of a bigger party, he always made it a point to pay close attention to everyone, really listen, and make you feel as though what you thought and what you were saying mattered. You would think that a guy who was that busy — running a record company, producing albums, signing artists, etc. — wouldn't really notice what people did on a day-to-day basis. But Tommy noticed, and made it a point to thank people for their work, and would get really specific, so you knew he wasn't just paying lip service.

At "The Tommy's," 2001: Steve Macklam, Diana Krall, Tommy LiPuma and Ron Goldstein

Michael Kauffman

A favorite memory is from Los Angeles in 2001. The Universal Music and Video Distribution Conference was being held at the Century Plaza Hotel, and our Verve sales department (self-dubbed “The Jazz Pack”) had to present our upcoming releases to the global sales and marketing teams. Instead of the typical slick video presentations favored by many of the pop labels, we chose to host an awards show called “The Tommy’s,” filled with categories, videos, and live performances that highlighted both our artists and our leader. The opening song-and-dance number involved Adidas tear-away track suits worn over tuxedos; choreographed dancing; and a back-up crew consisting of the XFL’s LA Xtreme cheerleading squad. It culminated with Tommy being led through the curtains of the stage and down to his front-row seat amidst a rousing standing ovation that produced a massive smile.

Scott Morin

You just wanted to do good things for Tommy, make him proud of you, because the feeling that gave you was like a hundred gold records. All he cared about was making music that moved people, that gave them that chill up their spine that he felt when he heard the same music. His life's goal was to allow a listener to experience even a fraction of the joy he felt when he heard the perfect song, or recording. He was the last of the great A&R men, and a man I absolutely loved.

Michael Kauffman

A few of us traveled to Cleveland last year to celebrate his 80th. So glad we did. It was a night of stellar performances: Diana Krall, Dr. John, the late Al Jarreau and Leon Russell — followed by another after-party back at the hotel, drinking Tommy’s amazing wine while listening and laughing into the wee hours to the many, many stories filling the room. Music biz stories for the ages. Tommy stories.

Garrett Shelton

I never got to thank Tommy enough for what I did for me, and even if I repeated “thank you” a million times over, I don't think it would be enough. My big regret right now is that I have had “CALL TOMMY” in red on my to-do list for several months. I guess this will have to suffice as a goodbye. Thanks for everything, babe.