Producer, composer, bassist
Veteran music producer Don Was has made a singu lar name for himself as one of the top producers in the music industry. Although he began his career as a co-founder, along with “brother” David Was (born David Weiss), of Was (Not Was), an eclectic and nontraditional band that combined soul, funk, R&B, and rock/dance influences with satiric, often bizarre lyrics, Was is today better known for his ability to attend to the diverse needs and aims of musicians in a wide variety of genres, including Bonnie Raitt, the B52s, and Bob Seger. In a 1994 People article, Was attributes his abilities as a producer to the blend of rock, R&B, and country music he heard growing up in Detroit. Al Teller, chairman of MCA Records, which backed Was’s imprint Karambolage Records in the mid-1990s, described Was to Steve Pond of the New York Times as “the real deal. He has an eclectic ear and perspective, and he can communicate well with a broad assortment of artists. Also, he works from the heart. He doesn’t make calculated commercial decisions. He keeps to what is truly important, which in today’s music business is often forgotten.”
Born Donald Fagenson in 1952, Was grew up in and around Detroit, Michigan. With his friend David Weiss, who later became his “brother” David Was when the pair founded Was (Not Was), Fagenson grew up listening to Motown music and Detroit rock of the 1960s. Acts as diverse as funk frontrunner George Clinton and the hard-rockers MC5 played regular concerts at their high school in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit. Fagenson and Weiss grew up in a suburban middle-class Jewish neighborhood and developed offbeat tastes from a young age. The pair began writing songs in the basement of Weiss’s parents’ home, in a room they called the “Humor Prison.” “[David] wore a Colonel Sanders mask and I wore a President Kennedy mask,” Fagenson told Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone. “This was because it was tough to reject the other one’s ideas and look him in the eyes at the same time.” The pair also published a humor magazine, led a neighborhood comedy troupe, and once staged a show at their high school entitled “You Have Just Wasted Your Money.” Weiss’s mother told Goldberg: “Everyone thought they were strange, including their parents. They were always weird. Both of those kids marched to a different drummer.”
Both Fagenson and Weiss attended the University of Michigan, and Weiss went on to Los Angeles, where he became a jazz critic for the Herald Examiner. Fagenson remained in Detroit, where he variously worked as a record producer and studio musician, and played gigs with local bands. Was (Not Was)—the name originated with a word game of Fagenson’s young son—was created when Fagenson, nearly broke, called Weiss for help, and the two decided to make a recording. With
Born Donald Fagenson, 1952, in Detroit, MI; son of Harriet and Bill Fagenson (both teachers); grew up in Oak Park, MI; married in 1972 (divorced); remarried in early 1980s; children: two.
With David Was (born David Weiss, flautist and lyricist), formed band Was (Not Was) in 1980 (disbanded, 1993; other band members included Sweet Pea Atkinson, vocalist, and Sir Harry Bowens, vocalist); coproduced Sweet Pea Atkinson’s Don’t Walk Away, Christina’s Sleep It Off, and Bob Dylan’s Under the Red Sky; achieved the status of a top-rate music producer by reviving or updating the careers of many artists, including Bonnie Raitt, the B52s, and Iggy Pop, early 1990s; fomed label, Karambolage Records, 1994; produced recordings for Dion, David Crosby, Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Paula Abdul, Bob Seger Willie Neson, Brian Wilson, the Rolling Stones, 1990—; directed Not Made for These Times, a music documentary about Beach Boys’ founder Brian Wilson, 1995; teamed with L.A.-based film production, distribution, and financing firm Lakeshore Entertainment to buy a controlling interest in the Seattle-based independent label Will Records, 1997.
Addresses: Office— Will Records, 1122 East Pike St. #511, Seattle, WA 98122.
money borrowed from Weiss’s parents, they recruited “Sweet Pea” Atkinson and “Sir Harry” Bowens, two African-American Detroit singers, and recorded “Wheel Me Out” in a Detroit studio (the song also featured a rap vocal supplied by Weiss’s mother). The single was released by Ze Records in New York, and gained Was (Not Was) enough positive recognition in Great Britain and the United States for the project to continue. Was and Was began a long-distance songwriting collaboration between California and Michigan, with Weiss supplying lyrics to Fagenson over the phone or through the mail.
Was described the intent of Was (Not Was) to Andrea Sachs in Time: “We would like to sound like the Motown revue on acid.” According to Christopher Connelly in Rolling Stone, the brothers’ debut album, Was (Not Was)— released by Ze in 1981—displayed “a lively fusion of jokey lyrics and hard-edged white-boy funk.” Two years later, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes was acquired by Geffen Records and initiated an ongoing Was (Not Was) tradition of including appearances by unlikely guest vocalists. On this album, rocker Marshall Crenshaw sings the mournful pop standard “Feelings” and jazz scat legend Mel Torme recounts in “Zaz Turns Blue” a situation in which a lover is nearly strangled. Connelly called Tornadoes “a superb example of what smart rock & roll can be: tuneful, toe tapping, refreshingly irreverent.” Although critical response was positive, the album found only a limited listening audience and sold a mere 50,000 copies. Geffen Records, in what Don Was says was not a racist move but reflective of the “reality of the music business,” put pressure on the group to—as he told Sachs—“get rid of the black guys” and make the band more marketable as a one-color group. Was (Not Was) staunchly refused, and soon found themselves looking for another record company.
Was (Not Was) produced no more recordings for five years. During the interim, Don Was became a prominent record producer, handling the board for Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning album Nick of Time, among many other mainstream pop records. Nick of Time resurrected the 20-year career of Bonnie Raitt, sold three-million copies, won the singer four grammy awards, and garnered for Was a growing reputation as a producer able to resurrect and modernize previously outmoded careers. Bonnie Raitt commented on Was’s laid-back and sympathetic approach to production: “He’s totally un-neurotic, completely amenable to any suggestion, and he does not let his ego get involved in any decision.” Was commented to Pond: “Ideally an artist needs someone who understands their vision of where they want to go with a record. Because once they get involved in the process, they lose their objectivity…. And once you lose your objectivity, you need a producer to suggest things that you would have suggested if you had that distance from it.”
Finding their contract with Geffen purchased by an English label, Fontana, Was (Not Was) returned in 1988 with What up, Dog?, which featured the hits “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaur.” These tracks became Top Ten hits in Europe, and the album was later released in the United States under the Chrysalis label. The same two cuts became top hits on Billboards dance charts. Among the album’s guest vocalists was Frank Sinatra, Jr. singing “Wedding Vows in Las Vegas.” Steve Dougherty and Jim McFarlin noted in People that “laughs flood most of the grooves, and such titles as “Out Come the Freaks” and “Dad, I’m in Jail” extend—most often with a dance-happy beat—the Wasmological view that life is a terrifying absurdity.”
The group’s next album, Are You OK?, continued to display their knack for the absurd, yet also demonstrated the ability of Was and Was to write more straightforward songs. Despite critical approval, Are You OK? failed to attain the commercial success of What up, Dog? Following the album’s release, Don Was continued to pursue his production career, which began to increase tensions between him and David. In 1993, Was (Not Was) officially parted ways. Don Was commented on breakup of Was (Not Was) to Pond in 1994: “For the past couple of years, my collaborations with David have been uninspired. It was our own fault. There was a time when we made some very specific decisions. We went for hit singles…. [The] lack of commitment to our vision destroyed it and took the joy out of it.” Was added: “In the end, Spinal Tap is the truth. You set out to conquer the world, and eventually the two principles in every band turn on each other.” Prior to the break-up of Was (Not Was), Was had expressed a related pessimism about the 1980s music scene that may have contributed to the band’s demise. In a 1990 Rolling Stone article, Was described the decade as being “most prominent for the death of music as an audio experience. With the importance of video and the use of songs in movie soundtracks, if you can’t associate a song with a seminaked chick or a car chase or some real cool violence, there’s no way to appreciate it anymore…. We’re really making music as a way of advertising films on MTV.”
Despite his anti-commercial stance in the 1980s, Was became one of the top producers in the music industry over the next decade based on his principles. In 1989, the same year he produced Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, Was co-produced (with Nile Rodgers) the B-52’s multi-platinum comeback album, Cosmic Thing. In 1991, Was helped Raitt to maintain her critical and commercial success with a follow-up, Luck of the Draw. According to David Gates and Andrew Murr, Was’s repeat performance established his reputation as “a bankable producer.” Other artists soon sought out Was to revive their reputations among the young, hip set, including Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, and Paula Abdul. Was’s strength as a producer, according to Seger as quoted in a 1992 Newsweek article, is that “he’s very true to the music itself” and does not “put something on your record just to fit some formula.” Was commented to Rolling Stoneon his philosophy: “I wouldn’t take a gig if I had to figure out how to embellish it. I only want to work with people who have an existing point of view and an ability to express it. I should just be there to channel it. Like in photography, turning on all the lights and pointing right in someone’s face.”
In 1992, Was again joined Nile Rodgers to co-produce the B-52’s Good Stuff on Reprise. The album scored a major hit with “Hot Pants Explosion” and was generally praised as seamless, despite the temporary absence of the band’s co-founder, Cindy Wilson. With Robbie Robertson and Jeff Lyne, formerly of The Band and Electric Light Orchestra, respectively, Was produced Roy Orbison’s posthumous album King of Hearts the same year.
Over the next two years, Was embarked on a variety of projects that established him as one of the most visible and eclectic pop producers of his day, according to Steve Pond in the New York Times. In 1994, with the backing of MCA Records, he launched his own independent label, Karambolage Records; worked on Raitt’s next album, Longing in Their Hearts; put together, and performed in, an all-star band of alternative musicians to record covers for Backbeat—a documentary about the early days of the Beatles—including R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner; and produced the MCA album Rhythm, Country, and Blues, featuring 11 genre-bending duets by such soul and country music artists as the Pointer Sisters and Clint Black, Lyle Lovett and the Reverend Al Green, Vince Gill and Gladys Knight, Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood, and Sam Moore and the late Conway Twitty.
In late 1994, Was helped the Rolling Stones record Voodoo Lounge, which many reviewers praised for Was’s ability to update the Stones’ quintessential, trademark style. In 1995, what began as an unplugged studio project as the band prepared for the concluding European leg of its Voodoo Lounge tour turned into a huge live-taping party. The end result was Paradiso, a live album co-produced by Was, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards and composed of cuts from two shows at the Paradiso Club in Amerstam. According to Was, the project is intended to “capture the tremendous energy and power the Stones have developed over the past 30 years.”
In 1995, Was made his first foray into film production when he directed Not Made for These Times, a documentary about the life and career of Beach Boys’ singer/songwriter Brian Wilson. The film, which focuses on Wilson’s composing and producing talents while only briefly referring to the troubled musician’s problems with friends, drugs, and mental illness, featured an assemblage of twenty years of footage, with Wilson performing such songs as “Caroline No,” “Warmth of the Sun,” and “Do It Again” (the latter delivered with the help of his daughters). Was explained to Melinda Newman in Billboardhow the movie came about: “I had become friendly with Brian, and we started doing a few gigs. We did a pediatric AIDS benefit, and he dug deep into the song “Love & Mercy”;it was just one of the most remarkable performances I ever heard.” Was added: “It was so different from his public image of a drug burnout or someone catatonic propped up by a greedy psychiatrist. That was when I decided to make the movie.”
The film initially premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival in Utah and aired on the Disney channel, earning Emmy and cable ACE Award nominations following the Disney broadcast. Janet Maslin in the New York Times labeled the film “fascinating” in that it illuminates Wilson’s music and makes interesting and accessible a sense of his genius, while Jason Cohen in Rolling Stone found the documentary both affectionate and informative. However, Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times deemed Not Made for These Times “a disappointing and unhappy film, made sadder for its glibness. It wants to praise Brian Wilson, but it actually buries him—under dime-store psychology, and the inane accolades of David Crosby and Graham Nash.”
Was released an accompanying soundtrack to Not Made for These Times on his Karambolage imprint in August of 1995. Was’s ownership of the increasingly successful label ended his relationship with MCA Records in 1996, presumably due to a fear that the bigger rival would lose musicians to the younger upstart. In 1997, Was teamed up with the Los Angeles-based film production, distribution, and financing firm Lakeshore Entertainment to buy a controlling interest in the Seattle-based independent label Will Records. With Lakeshore, Was conspired to release soundtrack albums from films produced by Lakeshore as well as the label’s existing artists. Was stated to Chris Morris in Billboard: “I think it’s got a better chance than most of these start-up labels because, wow, what a great roster they’ve got…. They’ve signed some great groups, and they’ve got great taste.” Acts include Sage, Katies Dimples, and Lucky Me.
In late 1997 Was produced the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Rainmaker. New projects for Was include developing a dramatic film about a fictional R&B label of the 1960s for Lakeshore, as a solo album on Verve that will reflect both his musical and cinematic talents. Set for release in February 1998 is Forever is a Long, Long Time, which Was described to Morris as “a collection of Hank Williams songs turned inside-out.” Guests include Merle Haggard, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, and Harvey Mason. The album will be issued as an enhanced CD that includes a short film directed by Was and produced by Coppola.
With Was (Not Was)
“Wheel Me Out” (single), Ze/Antilles, 1980.
Was (Not Was), Ze/lsland, 1981.
Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, Ze/Geffen, 1983.
What up, Dog? (includes “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaur”), Chrysalis, 1988.
Are You OK? (includes “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”), Chrysalis, 1990.
All Music Guide, Volume 1, No. 1, 1993.
Billboard, August 5, 1995; March 1, 1997.
Boston, October, 1990.
Creem, January, 1984; July, 1984.
High Fidelity, April, 1984.
Melody Maker, May 12, 1990.
Musician, November, 1983.
Newsweek, August 20, 1990; December 28, 1992.
New York Times, March 27, 1994; August 16, 1995; August 27, 1995.
People, December 12, 1988; July 11, 1994.
Rolling Stone, October 13, 1983; December 18, 1983; October 6, 1988; November 17, 1988; May 17, 1990; June 14, 1990; September 6, 1990; November 15, 1990; August 8, 1991; July 9-23, 1992; August 11, 1994; May 4, 1995; July 13-27, 1995; September 19, 1996.
Stereo Review, February, 1984; June, 1989; October, 1991.
Time, January 30, 1989.
Vogue, March, 1994.
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