Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Who Makes Singers Great?

Because our understanding of mass art is conditioned by the methods and terminology of the movies, "record producer" is an unfortunate title. "Record director" would be better, for just as films are identified with their directors, so the theoretical responsibility for an LP--with all the sophistication of form, content and technique that has come to imply over the past few years--falls to its producer. The artistic success of three recent releases from Warner Brothers--Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky (Reprise 6365), Lorraine Ellison's Stay With Me (Warner Brothers 1821) and Ella Fitzgerald's Ella (Reprise 6354)--is due primarily to sensitive direction from three producers each of whom deserves more credit than small type on the back of the jacket. Respectively, they are Erik Jacobsen, Jerry Ragovoy and Richard Perry.

It's not surprising that each of these conspicuous examples of the producer's craft is a collaboration with a single artist. Rock groups, even when dominated by one or two individuals, create as a whole, and in a way that tends to exclude the producer. In rehearsal, songs shape themselves around the talents and limitations of each musician; they change again when performed before an audience. By the time a working group reaches the studio, most of its conceptualizing is done, and the producer is left with the all-important but hard-to-notice details. Even his control over sound--the clarity and tone of the recording itself--is shared with his engineer. He may be an auteur, if that's what you're into, but he writes exceedingly fine.

This is not to say that an assertive producer such as Felix Pappalardi can't affect the recorded sound of a strong group (Cream) and overpower a mediocre one (Kensington Market). But his voice can be heard more clearly in conjunction with a single artist. If the artist is a songwriter he can be counted on to perform alone when he performs at all; if he is a performer, especially on the club or soul circuits, he is likely to depend on a standard show of familiar material which he does not plan to record. In each case, the producer must take the place of the group, by hiring musicians, thinking up arrangements, selecting and even writing material, and offering general counsel. Note: by the time Felix Pappalardi was through producing guitarist-vocalist Leslie West, West was touring as the star of a group called Mountain, and his bassist was Felix Pappalardi.

In a less headlong way, Erik Jacobsen functions as Norman Greenbaum's group. Greenbaum, who as a leader of Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band made a hit of "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago" three years ago, is a wryly talented but somewhat insubstantial songwriter-vocalist who would be buried by one of the pipsqueak Tschikovskys (Artie Kornfeld) or Ellingtons (Al Kooper) who produce so many nondescript records. But Jacobsen, who used to work with the Lovin' Spoonful, collaborated for three months of rehearsal and recording with Greenbaum in order to come up with just the right reinforcement.

On the surface, Greenbaum's songs seem very dissimilar. But "Junior Cadillac" (about the neighborhood bad guy) and "Tars of India" (advice to nascent rock stars) and "Alice Bodine" (about a long-departed girlfriend) and "Spirit in the Sky" ("I've got a friend in Jesus") do share Greenbaum's oblique, affectionate vantage. Jacobsen has managed to set each song individually--ersatz r&b for "Junior Cadillac," parody wah-wah for "Tars of India"--in the context of an overall sound that embodies Greenbaum's vantage. Like that of the good-timey Spoonful, this music rocks energetically but never takes its own kineticism too seriously. It is the music which makes the album work, and it is as much Jacobsen's as Greenbaum's.

Jerry Ragovoy's contribution to Stay With Me is even more telling. Ragovoy is a 39-year-old veteran of r&b who in recent years has produced Howard Tate and Carl Hall. His work is admired by soul connoisseurs of both races, and his reputation among hip white fans of black music is so firm that Paul Butterfield chose him to produce the Butterfield Band's latest album. But because Ragovoy likes to experiment with some of soul's more extreme usages, and because the labels he works with often lack the connections to sell even first-rate soul singles, he has had only moderate commercial success.

Lorraine Ellison is a gospel-based singer reminiscent of Aretha Franklin who on her first album was cast by Ragovoy--succumbing to the advice of others--in a Nancy Wilson soul-going-pop mold, which is where Aretha herself was stuck for five years before moving to Atlantic Records and producer Jerry Wexler. She did cut loose for one song, however, a hard-wailing ballad called "Stay With Me" which became an instant underground classic in Harlem. That was where Ragovoy really wanted her to be, anyway, and so the second album included "Stay With Me" and went on from there: nine of its eleven cuts were heartfelt explorations of the persistence of pain.

Its one failure is a certain evenness of tone--Ragovoy resorts too often to slow-tempo songs and orchestra (as opposed to band) arrangements--but in its own excellent mode it is a triumph. Ragovoy plans a third album which will cut back on the strings and allow his singer to break her rich voice into something fast and funky. When he does, the team of Franklin and Wexler is going to have some competition.

Ella, on the other hand, fulfills its own promise. It would not seem much of an accomplishment to get a great album from the most fluent jazz vocalist of all time, but in fact Miss Fitzgerald has not even recorded for several years, and all of her previous attempts at contemporary material ("Can't Buy Me Love," for instance) have been embarrassments. The problem is simple. Contemporary music is rock-based and requires a direct, physical approach to singing, while Ella's forte has always been flights of melodic and rhythmic improvisation. The task of producer Richard Perry, then, was simply to persuade her to sing straight and forget the doobie-doobie-doobie--that's fine for Johnny Mercer, but it's not for Nilsson and Smokey Robinson.

Such transformations are a specialty of the 27-year-old Perry, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Kama Sutra studios who has extracted unlikely albums from talents as diverse as Tiny Tim, Fats Domino and Theodore Bikel. But this one wasn't easy. Recording in London in the midst of a European concert tour, Perry got ten vocal tracks down in four days, and every one represented a compromise between his limited expertise and the habitual inclinations of a genius. Most of the instrumental tracks had to be recorded in Los Angeles, but Perry did get a lot of help from the great rock pianist, Nicky Hopkins, who set the proper tone with his usual robust, no-nonsense chordings. Pro that she is, Miss Fitzgerald learned to approximate this tone herself. In terms of sheer strength she has never sounded better.

The edge of the album, however, is in the material Perry selected, ranging from an unbelievable bang-bang version of "Knock on Wood" to a campy rendition of Randy Newman's maybe-anti-war song "The Yellow Man." Ella does scat for one chorus of Bacharach-David's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," but mostly she just belts, and it's beautiful. Her voice has slipped just slightly, but it's still the best around, and every trill she allows herself works. It's the long-awaited union of a great singer and a great music, a treasure, and it would never have happened if it weren't for Richard Perry.

New York Times, Jan. 18, 1969