Record company executive
While Tommy LiPuma’s name may not be a familiar one to record buyers, it is an esteemed one within the music industry, particularly intheoverlapping boundaries between pop, R&B, and jazz. A record company executive in name but a studio producer at heart, LiPuma has worked with some of the biggest acts of recent decades with behind-the-scenes efforts that have helped recording stars like George Benson and Natalie Cole earn 30 Grammy Award nominations. LiPuma was appointed president of his own label, GRP—a division of industry giant MCA—in 1995; his office oversees a large roster of both new and old talent, but LiPuma asserts he is in his element when working in the studio with the artist—“in the trenches,” as he terms it.
Like his contemporary Quincy Jones, another producer with a knack for producing hit records, LiPuma began his career as a musician. The young Cleveland, Ohio resident was a saxophone player who took more interest in the way his favorite records were put together. He gained entry at the ground floor of the record industry in the early 1960s as a shipping clerk for a distributor in the city. “That really gives you a sense of what’s going on,” LiPuma said of the grunt work in an interview with Michael Bourne in a Billboard tribute issue. “Just pack orders for a couple months and you start seeing what’s going out—and what’s not going out—not only the hits, but in the catalog.” He eventually became a promoter with Liberty Records, a label with an eclectic roster that included the Neville Brothers as well as Slim Whitman. Internal struggles at Liberty spurred LiPuma to seek work elsewhere; when an offer came from another company, LiPuma was on the verge of quitting until his boss offered him another position within the company as a producer. The first record he made was with fellow Cleveland natives the O’Jays; the song, “Lipstick Traces,” did moderately well when released in 1964. From there, LiPuma jumped ship to A&M Records at the behest of Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert, two musicians just gaining fame as the Tiajuana Brass.
During his tenure with A&M LiPuma first encountered gravel-voiced piano player Mac Rebennack, also known as blues legend Dr. John. LiPuma spoke of hearing an early demo tape of him back then: “I think it was called ‘Ju Ju Man.’ I’d never heard anything like it. It was insane. I dug it,” LiPuma recalled in Down Beat. Dr. John’s first recordings with A&M did not do well, but the friendship between the two would lead to later, more successful collaborations.
In 1968 a friend of LiPuma’s, Bob Krasnow, was thinking of starting his own label and invited LiPuma to sign on as an executive and producer. Together they founded Blue Thumb Records, revered by some music aficionados as a unique force in progressive rock for its issuance of some of the most avant garde jazz and rock music of the era from the likes of T. Rex, Captain Beefheart, the Mark-Almond Band, Hugh Masekela, and Ike and Tina Turner. Richard Henderson assessed the company’s impact in the Billboard tribute issue, wryly noting the label “was home to a collection of artists that, to any sensible record exec with the bottom-line in mind, appeared to be composed of anti-matter.”
At Blue Thumb LiPuma’s job was to work with artists such as Sun Ra in the studio, but he also wound up playing an instrument or two on various projects and even appearing on some album covers. One of his first jobs with Blue Thumb was the making and marketing of an album from English singer and guitarist Dave Mason, formally of the supergroup Traffic. The 1974 record Alone TogetherwenX on to great success; other coups followed. The Pointer Sisters, signed by LiPuma, also launched their career on the label with the LP Yes We Can Can. “The late ‘60s/early 70s was a time when radio play could cut across most categories, and Blue Thumb was one of the few labels to recognize that this was a cultural statement as well as a shift in formats,” wrote Ben Sidran in Billboard. “This artist-orientation was carried through down to the marketing and distribution of the product as well.”
For the Record…
Born c. early 1940s; married; wife’s name, Gill; children: Jennifer, Danielle.
M.S. Distributors, Cleveland, OH, local promotions representative, c. 1960; Liberty Records, Los Angeles, CA, worked in promotions department, then transferred to Liberty’s New York City office to work in the publishing department; A&M Records, staff producer, 1965-69; Blue Thumb Records, cofounder and executive, 1968-74; Warner Brothers Records, producer, 1974-77; Horizon Records (a division of A&M), president, 1978; Warner Brothers Records, vice-president for jazz and progressive music, 1979-90; Elektra Records, senior vice-president for A&R, 1990-94; GRP Records, president, 1995—.
Addresses: Office— GRP Records, 555 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
After LiPuma and Krasnow sold Blue Thumb in 1974, LiPuma moved on to industry giant Warner Brothers as a producer. There he collaborated with more accessible artists and helped them achieve almost unheard-of success at that time. LiPuma worked with Barbra Streisand as a producer for the soundtrack to her 1974 film The Way We Were, one of the top-selling releases of that year and done live in the studio with an orchestra. “You set up an atmosphere in the room that puts people in a comfortable position where they can forget themselves,” LiPuma told Billboards Bourne. “And when they forget themselves, that’s when you get the stuff.”
Yet LiPuma’s biggest achievement at Warner Brothers during this era came with jazz guitarist George Benson, for whom he produced the album Breezin’, a work significant for its jazz/pop crossover success. Originally planned as an instrumental work, since Benson never sang, LiPuma—having heard him belt out a few bars once off the cuff—convinced the musician to give it a try, and Benson wound up singing on several of the tracks. Breezin’ became one of the best-selling albums of 1976, bolstered by the success of singles like “This Masquerade,” which earned a Grammy for record of the year; Breezin’ also took home the Grammy for album of the year.
LiPuma left Warner Brothers briefly around 1978 to head Horizon, a division of A&M Records where he produced two albums by Dr. John, but returned in 1979 to become Warner’s vice-president of jazz and progressive music. Over the next decade LiPuma worked with a roster of acclaimed artists that included Al Jarreau, Miles Davis, Jennifer Holliday, Earl Klugh, and Everything But the Girl. In 1990 he became senior vice-president at Elektra Records, and his association with this label was crowned by his involvement in Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable album. He coproduced the 1990 work, which utilized recordings laid down decades earlier in the studio by her father, Nat King Cole. The much-lauded recording went on to win the Grammy for album of the year.
LiPuma’s long list of achievements in the music business earned him a top executive slot in 1995 when MCA named him president of its GRP division. In his new position, LiPuma attempts to strike a balance between his executive duties and his responsibility for making hit records in the studio. Shortly after LiPuma signed on with GRP, MCA moved its entire jazz catalog over to the division, including the Blue Thumb back catalog. The label had lay dormant for several years, and much of its output had never been reissued and was becoming increasingly hard to obtain.
Dr. John became the resurrected Blue Thumb’s first release with 1995’s Afterglow. While LiPuma was busy adding new artists like Jonatha Brooke to its roster, older fans were hopeful that some of his most avant garde works as a producer would become available again. Under his direction GRP has also put new money and energy into the Impulse! label, home of more traditional jazz, and has scheduled a number of reissues for the late 1990s. Standard jazz efforts by artists such as George Benson—one of the first to sign when LiPuma came on board—will be released under the GRP label, as well as re-releases from the label’s vaults of the famed Chess and Decca catalogs.
Industry insiders and well-known artists alike praise LiPuma for his know-how and ear for music, as well as his interpersonal skills. Natalie Cole told Billboard ‘that LiPuma “has no ego. The music is the star. We are the vessels.” Record industry colleague Sal Licata, a longtime friend and former roommate who worked with LiPuma during the Blue Thumb days, explained that LiPuma “knows that there’s flesh and blood behind the product. Not every president understands this. He’s the kind of guy, were Tommy to walk up to you and slap you in the face, you’d thank him because you probably deserved it on some level.” Dr. John, also quoted in the Billboard tribute issue, described LiPuma as “a conscientious musician, a thinking cat who cared about the music first… There’ve been a few guys like that, but not too many.”
Billboard, September 16, 1995, pp. L1-L28.
Down Beat, July 1995, p. 20.
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