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The ballad of Cleveland record producer Tommy LiPuma

Tommy LiPuma's book
Nardis Books
Cleveland-born record producer Tommy LiPuma died in 2017, and a biography by jazz great Ben Sidran sheds light on LiPuma's upbringing and six-decade career.

One of the most respected ears in the music business grew up in Cleveland. And a recent book, “The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma,” profiles the record producer who worked with everyone from Miles Davis to Paul McCartney.

When pianist Ben Sidran signed with Blue Thumb Records in 1972, he had no idea that he’d one day be friend and biographer to the label’s owner, Tommy LiPuma. Sidran say in a career spanning six decades LiPuma was always influenced by his Cleveland roots.

Bhatia: In the book you go into his background here in Northeast Ohio, before his career even began. What are some things that you learned in that research, which would have shaped him and shaped his ear?

Sidran: "I went to Cleveland a couple times with Tommy. He took me to the old neighborhoods and showed me where the barbershop that his father had was, and where he worked as a barber for a while. And then we went out to this summer camp where he went because he had a bad leg; one leg was a couple inches shorter than the other. So, he was in the hospital for, literally, a couple of years when he was a kid, nine or 10 years old. He showed me the place where he lived. Because he couldn't go to school, and he couldn't go out and play with his friends, his only friend was a portable radio that his mother had given him. And on that radio, he discovered music, rhythm and blues particularly, and it just touched him when he heard Mahalia Jackson and Charles Brown and some of the early R&B stuff that was played in Cleveland. It became part of him and part of who he was. Even when became a barber for a while, he always wanted to be in the music business. Music saved his life when he was a young boy."

One of LiPuma's best-known productions is the 1976 LP "Breezin'" by George Benson:

Bhatia: How did you first meet?

Sidran: "I met Tommy when I was signed to Blue Thumb. That was his label. His partner was Bob Krasnow, and Tommy was just a great musician, but he was also a great friend to musicians. We immediately started spending a lot of time and over 50 years, Tommy and I spent literally days together in studios and in different countries and we became very good friends. He told me these great stories that I thought, 'This is amazing.' I encouraged him to write his book, and he never did. I started recording conversations with him and after several attempts to put it together, Tommy passed away and then I was motivated to really pull it together. And that's how the book came to be."

Bhatia: I see your Blue Thumb albums usually credit you and Bruce Botnick as producers. Tell me how Tommy LiPuma influenced your work.

Sidran: "I always worked with an engineer and either took the producer's credit or split it with the engineer. I really never had a regular producer until the last 10 years or so, when I've been working with my son Leo, who has produced my records and really shaped [them]. Up until then, I was pretty much free rein and left alone. But Tommy made records when I was on Blue Thumb with Dan Hicks, The Crusaders, and others which shaped the way that I wanted to make records. Being on the label, you're naturally motivated to fit in and do music like that.

"In the record business, some people treat musicians like they're strange people [like] rock and roll artists who throw televisions out the window or something. Tommy really understood that everybody was just people. There was no mumbo jumbo about him. When you made records for him, even back then, when everything was kind of glitzy, you tried to be authentic. You tried to really make music that was true. That was him. That's who Tommy was.

"Tommy was a total Midwesterner. I'm from Wisconsin, so it's hard to define what we mean by 'Midwestern personality,' but it has something to do with being down to Earth. It has something to do with having a more human touch; it's not just all about business."

Bhatia: What do you hope people take away from this book?

Sidran: "Tommy's story is such a prototypical mid-20th century music story. If you want to know how people got in the business, what kind of people went into the business, why did they go into business, what was the business like at the time it transitioned from old-style music to, initially, rock and roll and jazz, that's in Tommy's personal story. But there's also this other story about willpower and human desire and how powerful it can be, to fall in love with something when you're young and have that drive be the engine of your life. It doesn't happen all the time."

LiPuma passed away in 2017. Sidran’s book, “The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma,” was released last year and was honored with an Independent Publisher Award this past summer. Sidran has not only released a series of well-regarded jazz LPs over the past 50 years, but he was also host of NPR's "Jazz Alive" and VH1's award-winning jazz showcase, "New Visions." Here he performs one of his best-known compositions, "Piano Players":

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.