The credits add up. Seminal, massively important, and popular works for Simon & Garfunkel, The Band, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and many others were produced by John Simon, yet we rarely hear enough about him. Our pal, Howard Bilerman, interviewed John onstage during the POP Montreal music festival in Montreal, Canada, a number of years ago, and we culled some amazing stories and thoughts from this event. Be sure to check out John’s memoir, Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life in and out of Rock and Roll. -LC

The impression I get, from working with you, is that the lyrics of a song have to make sense, and vocals have to be audible and intelligible.

That’s a big part of it. You forgot music! We’ve been talking about some projects that are in the works. My comments about some of those songs have been, as far as the lyrics go, “What are you saying? What is this song about? Let’s get a focus.” Vocals that you can hear? That’s part of communicating. These are small issues, but all part of the big thing of being a record producer. People often say, “What’s a record producer?” I say, “Well, it’s somebody other than the artist, whom the artist trusts, values, and can bounce ideas off of.” In my case, I’m a musician; I am not an engineer at all. I have no idea. Sometimes I’ve written down numbers and letters of microphones, and I’ve lost them, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve always worked in tandem with an engineer I could trust. I feel that I can get just as moved by a record that was made in the ‘20s with one microphone as I can by a record that was made with every bit of state-of-the-art equipment now.

I specifically asked about lyrics, because I remember you saying if the interpretation of a song is open to the audience, and can vary from person to person, then the songwriter hasn’t done their job.

I sort of feel that way. There are two ways to look at it. But, if they’re leaving it totally open, it’s easier to do that than to focus a song and get people to think what they want them to think, as well as in the order that they want them to think it. They may start off a song that’s about something, and in the middle the listener realizes, “Oh, he’s talking about something else.” They see how it might apply to their life or situations.

In correspondence to me you said, “First thought, best thought.”

That’s about inspiration. Before I was a record producer, starting in Cub Scouts, I wrote my Cub Scout’s den theme song. I’ve been a songwriter since I was that age. I’ve had assignments in my life to write songs. Sometimes, I’ve come up against a brick wall and couldn’t figure out what it was, so I had to go for inspiration. That’s why I brought up “first thought, best thought,” which may or may not be a Buddhist saying. It’s opening your mind, getting all the input needed for the task, realizing it’s all stored there, and then opening up your mind to let some bigger power come in and make you be the agent of what the answer should be. Some people are more gifted agents than others. People have different gifts, as agents for inspiration.

Specifically, you’d told me a story about a guitar solo.

Oh, boy. Okay. I’d done a few albums with The Band. I did the first two [Music From Big Pink and The Band]. I hadn’t done anything with them for years, and then they reconstituted themselves in 1993 – Levon [Helm], Garth [Hudson], Rick [Danko], and new guys – to do an album [Jericho]. Jimmy Weider, who was a very talented player, had taken Robbie Robertson’s place on guitar. We were overdubbing a solo on the song “Remedy” that he wrote with Colin Linden. Jimmy said, “What time do we start?” I said, “How about 11 o’clock?” I show up there at 11 at Levon’s house, which is the studio where we did this album [Levon Helm Studios – “The Barn”]. Jimmy has a dozen amps set up, and as many guitars. I asked what it was all for, and he said, “Oh, I want to try this and this and that.” I said, “Okay. I’ll tell you what. This is your song. You have an idea somewhere in your subconscious of what this should be. Let that all gel and give it your best shot.” He played the solo and said he wanted to fix some notes. He asked me to give him another shot. I said, “Okay, I’m going to leave. You’ve got an hour here with this wonderful engineer. Go for it.” I came back in an hour, and you know the answer: He stuck with the first solo. Gil Evans was a fabulous arranger and a friend of mine. He arranged the famous Miles Davis orchestral album, Sketches of Spain. I was working on an album with David Sanborn, and I asked Gil, “Why does David want to do take after take after take of sax solos?” He said, “It’s easy. All these musicians are in a recording studio, with the most expensive set of headphones on they could ever have. They have the best microphone in the world in front of them, they can mix the background track as much as they want to their delight to get the support they need underneath them, and then they can play away for hours. Why wouldn’t he sit there and play solo after solo after solo?” That’s from that perspective. From the producer’s perspective, or a record company’s perspective, it’s too long. A producer can get bored, and a record company can see the expenses start mounting up. The thing is to strike a happy medium. So much of being a producer is psychological; trying to work things out and make everybody happy. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started out very young as a producer. I was about 24. I didn’t know beans back then. I made a lot of mistakes. But, as time went on, and the music that I worked with and loved became less popular and new music came in, I got more and more qualified to do my job. Now, it’s second nature to me to produce, but the music I sync up with has faded off in the distance.

As recording studios went from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 24 tracks, did you find that the records took longer to make?

When I started out, it was going from 3-track to 4-track. The usual standard was that they’d have a three hour window to do four songs. The song would have been chosen and the artist would have rehearsed. The arranger would’ve already created the arrangement. The musicians were all handpicked and could read anything stuck in front of them. The drums were set up and mic’d. They’d go through the songs, and it was over. When I started on 3-track, the singer was in the middle and the band was in stereo, separated on both sides. Then they added a fourth track, so we could have a couple of options for the singer, with room to add another element. The big change in music came with The Beatles. Prior to The Beatles, youthful acts were controlled by somebody else; either their producer, or whoever was footing the bill. When The Beatles came in, they had an excellent producer in George Martin. But, because of the fact that they brought in so much money for EMI, and then Capitol, they had a lot of power. I was working for Columbia Records at the time. Every record company was saying, “We want our four lads from Liverpool. We want to make the kind of money that Capitol is making.” The record company executives would go out and play golf with the managers of groups. When they got to the 18th hole, the managers would say, “Oh, I’ve got your four lads from Liverpool. They’re four lads from Levittown, but you’ll love ‘em. The kids love ‘em. Long hair, costumes, and the kids go crazy for them.” The record company execs didn’t know anything and were desperate. They’d give the money to us producers and say, “Here are these guys. Make a record like The Beatles with them.” Producers like me, in that era, were assigned to make mountains out of molehills; to make great records with these people. Remember, The Beatles had already been together ten or eleven years, rehearsing and playing together. They were musicians. I always prefer live music, because I value the musician. I value the artist so much. These new people were not musicians. They’d go in there and they couldn’t play together! Maybe the drummer, if you sat and beat the time in front of him, could keep it steady. Maybe the bass player could stay with him. The guitar player would play the wrong chords, and the singer couldn’t sing at the same time. It was a mess, so we had to overdub. We’d have two 4-track machines, and go back and forth, ping-ponging. We’d lose generations and get more hiss every time we went back and forth. Then, Ampex came out with the 8-track. I could take the band, put it on four tracks, and then have four tracks to use to fool around with a guitar solo. We could take the best tracks, combine them all together, and manufacture a guitar solo. That would get three more empty tracks. Then we could put a vocal on those three tracks, take bits and pieces of that, and put that on a track. Then we’d have two empty tracks to put on percussion, or whatever. Once that came in, people began to ask, “How about 16?” They went from 1-inch tape with 8-track, to 2-inch with 16-track, and then to 24-tracks. It became not only a situation where we had more tracks to cover the inadequacies of the performers, but it also gave us all space to create. Go back to The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Brian Wilson, and people who could use these multitracks and do creative work. They didn’t need them. They could use them to make a higher art.

There was a production you worked on that got you out of your office job: “Red Rubber Ball” by The Cyrkle.

Times were not so tough then. We’d actually get job offers when we got out of college. Can you imagine that? I had two job offers: both to be trainees. One was for an advertising agency, where my destiny might be to write commercials for aspirin, and the other was to be a trainee for Columbia Records. I chose Columbia, and they put me in their trainee program. I had a guy in the personnel department I had to report to every week. I’d be assigned to a different part of the company, go in there with my little notebook, and find out what the art department did, find out what the pressing plant did, find out what the salesmen on the street did, and all these different jobs. The destination they had for me was the Special Projects department. Goddard Lieberson was the president of Columbia Records; a wonderful, erudite, sophisticated, and cultured man who wrote classical music and also knew jazz. He could intelligently talk to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus on one side, and Leonard Bernstein on the other. He had his pet projects, and they needed some lackey kid to do the grunt work; that was me. I was doing it for maybe a year and a half. The head of the A&R department – artist and repertoire and producing – came in, looked at his staff, and told me that I didn’t belong there. He wanted to put me in something more musical. They started giving me pop acts to co-produce at first, and then to produce. Frankie Yankovic and His Yanks’ polka band was a lot of fun. A couple of jazz acts, like Carol Sloane and Charles Lloyd. Then a guy, Nat Weiss, walked into my office and represented himself as Brian Epstein’s American associate. I knew who Brian Epstein was; he was The Beatles’ manager. He said he wanted to play me a tape of kids from his alma mater, Lehigh University. I listened to it, and they played this song, “Red Rubber Ball.” I said, “This sounds catchy.” I went to my boss and asked if I could have $3,000 to cut a demo with the guys. It was hard for me to ask. He said, “Here, take $5,000.” I went in the studio and did “Red Rubber Ball.” I played the organ on it and wrote the arrangement. Lo and behold, it was a number two record. All of a sudden, they gave me an office with a window and a plant, and they elevated me from trainee to associate producer.

John Simon

What happened after that?

The A&R department guys figured I must know what I was doing. They gave me Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and Blood, Sweat & Tears to produce. When I got to Blood, Sweat & Tears, Al Kooper [Tape Op #73] said that I should be on my own; a freelance independent producer. I said, “There are such things? I don’t have to work for a company?” He said, “Yeah, and you’ll get royalties.” “Royalties? What are those?” I did Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album up to the point where I wanted to leave Columbia Records. They were very slow putting it out. I did a portion of that album, and I did Leonard’s album [Songs of Leonard Cohen]. Then I did the first Blood, Sweat & Tears album [Child Is Father to the Man] as my first freelance job. I got hooked up with Albert Grossman, who was the manager of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Richie Havens, Ian & Sylvia, and Paul Butterfield, and I started producing his acts.

When you were assigned Leonard Cohen’s first record, Songs of Leonard Cohen, were you familiar with him as a poet and novelist?

No. John Hammond, who had discovered Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, discovered Leonard as a songwriter and singer. He brought him to the attention of the record company. He recorded the first session with Leonard and had him stay at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. But, as Leonard told me when I met him, he could wait a month for John Hammond to schedule a session for him, and when he got to the session, John would say, “Oh, I can’t make it today. We’ll have to schedule another session about a month from now.” It was driving Leonard crazy, so he asked for another producer, and they assigned me to Leonard. To plan the album, we went up to my folks’ house in Connecticut, because I knew they were out of town. The only thing I think he did when he was there was that he went through my father’s library and read everything he could after I went to sleep at night. Then we talked about the material. Of course, I appreciated his writing. The only thing I had done close to that was Paul Simon, but Leonard’s was more poetic. I was excited about it, because Leonard had no preconceptions about what he wanted his backing to be. He was very openminded. I got to use some arranging ideas that I had. In particular, I was happy that I could use women’s voices instead of horns or strings as background. Not as background voices, but more oohs and instrumental patterns. I had a good time with that. Then I went off to work with Blood, Sweat & Tears after I’d left Columbia Records. There were still a few things Leonard wasn’t happy about. I could understand that. He found a band called Kaleidoscope that played odd (to Western ears) Middle Eastern instruments. I wasn’t there because I was on a holiday, but they spiced up the album in certain places.

I appreciate the arrangements on that record. There is a lot going on, but it’s in no way obtrusive to the lyrics and melody of the songs.

One of the dangers of being a producer making a record is clutter. I’ve been guilty of clutter. At this point, I’ve come to appreciate records with clarity. One of the things that always happened with multitrack recording was the artist would say, “Oh, I like that, but I’d like to hear strings here.” Or, “No, I don’t like that. I want to hear a guitar part here.” Or, “Oh, I like that, but save it. I want to hear a different guitar part here. How about some background vocals or something? I like that, but save it. Let’s try this.” When we’d get around to mixing, we’d have all this stuff. One could make five or six different records with all this, and they don’t know where they want to go with it. I’ve always been one to make a commitment right away. Print the reverb and echo on the original track. Print the reverb with whatever color and attitude it adds to the song, then we’re locked into an attitude for the song. To my mind, that’s good. Pick something that works. Why not commit and say, “Yeah, that sounds great enough to be part of the song”? Then everything else can fit in with it. That eliminates a lot of other possibilities.

As a producer, it can be tempting to substantiate your own existence by adding complicated arrangements just for the sake of it. I appreciate that your work doesn’t get caught in that trap.

I think that’s one of the seven deadly sins, making it seem like I’ve added something, or making it seem like I have some value. The first thing is to go to the artist and ask what they want! If they just want them and their kazoo, great. “What do you want your kazoo to sound like? Great, I’ll do my best.”

What do you do when you feel the artist is wrong?

Oh, the artist is never wrong. The first thing that Leonard Cohen said to me was, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Whatever any one of us does is satisfying our own taste. Our taste has to be in accord with the artist. That’s why there has to be a good match between the artist and whoever’s working on the record.

I saw some documentary footage of Janis Joplin recording “Summertime.” It looked like you weren’t enjoying yourself.

Um, yeah. You have to remember this was in 1968 or so. I was a smug, know-it-all guy. I’d been working in New York City, wearing a jacket and tie. This was my second act for Albert Grossman. The first one was Gordon Lightfoot, a wonderful guy. I did the horn and string arrangements [on Did She Mention My Name?], which I’m very proud of. Then the ‘60s hit in San Francisco. I flew out with Albert Grossman on the plane, still wearing my jacket and tie, and I met Janis and Big Brother & the Holding Company in a loft in San Francisco. I may have smoked my first joint a couple of months before that. I walked in and it was like a Cheech and Chong movie, with all the pot smoke inside the car. Wherever Janis walked there was this cloud of patchouli. Albert took us out to a Chinese restaurant. We sat in a private dining room; they brought us a big entire fish, and the guys in the band were fighting over who could get to eat the eye. I behaved badly, in general. I thought I knew enough. I thought I knew more than they did. I didn’t give enough credit to the counterculture that was happening in San Francisco. I also saw that some of the guys in the band were not the best musicians. I was used to working with really good musicians. I had never worked with anybody who wasn’t a master on his or her instrument. Whether they were studio players or an artist, if they could get in front of a microphone, they knew what they were doing. The guys in Big Brother could do a wonderful live show. They would have the light show going on, and it was crazy loud. If they made a mistake, it didn’t matter. We tried to get the excitement of a live show. We went to the Winterland [Ballroom] in San Francisco and recorded with the remote truck. Nothing worked, except for one song [“Ball and Chain”]. Everyone wanted a live album, so we went back to New York and very carefully did the studio album. We faked an audience. We used Bill Graham’s introduction from the Winterland show. We had a huge recording studio. We had people around coughing, moving chairs, cheering, and whistling. We recorded a couple of tracks and used the original applause from Winterland. The album, Cheap Thrills, is a cheap trick. It’s not a live album, except for that one song. In the course of that, as you said, I didn’t get along too well. I was trying to get an album done, and these guys weren’t cutting the mustard. We would do songs like “Summertime.” They wanted the introduction to sound like a Bach fugue, but their idea of a Bach fugue was two guitars and a bass playing even eighth notes, but it didn’t work out. They weren’t playing in the same key or anything. Before every session started, we’d practice the introduction to “Summertime.” I had to be a teacher/educator/tutor/guide on this. I assumed the position above, which is always trouble. We had this teacher/learner friction in the beginning. That was tough. Janis was game, and she was trying to make it all happen, but I didn’t really get Janis at the time. I preferred the people who were her idols, like Big Mama Thornton and Tina Turner. I said, “Why don’t we go listen to the original?” Later on, I’ve come to appreciate the particular sincerity and soul that she brought to it.

John Simon

Because of your association with Albert Grossman, you found yourself involved with The Band. It seemed like your relationship with them was more intimate.

I learned a lot from them. Whereas Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel used to listen to the radio every week to hear what was current – so that they could be on the cutting edge – the guys in The Band used to listen to records that were 30 or 40 years old – real roots music – to see what there was about that that was wonderful. They exposed me to all that music that I hadn’t heard before. They exposed me to both Black and white music, but particularly to bluegrass music. I got that internalized. I could intellectualize what it was, but in working with them, and the way that they emulated Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, George Jones, Hank Williams, and all these wonderful guys, I worked with that scale – that five note pentatonic scale of bluegrass music – over and over again until I had it in me. I could dream in that, sing in that, and express myself in that. Then I realized, when I finished with The Band, that the blues scale is also a pentatonic scale. Shortly after that, Taj Mahal asked me to join his band. I got myself immersed in this from the Appalachian bluegrass side, and now I was going to learn it from the Delta and Chicago side. That was a great opportunity. Every one of us can learn so much from every other one of us. It’s human nature.

As much as you learned from The Band, Levon is on record saying, “Nobody knew us like John Simon.” What does that mean?

I lived with them. How could I not know them? They were, and are, wonderful people. I lived across the driveway from Robbie – we shared a driveway. I’m the godfather of his firstborn. At a point, Richard [Manuel] and I were going to share a house, but it didn’t work out. I was connected with them. I wanted to join The Band, but he [Robbie] said, “Hey, we’ve already got two piano players.” You probably want to know how a typical Band recording session might have gone. Before …Big Pink came out, we did five songs in the studio in New York City that used to belong to Columbia Records, where we used to do four songs in three hours. I was so familiar with it. We did five songs in six hours there and gave them to Albert Grossman to peddle. He got a deal with Capitol Records. This was in January, and we were living in Woodstock, New York. What we did was to go out to L.A., right away, in January. We checked out Capitol Studios [Tape Op #114], and then we sat around and enjoyed the sunshine for a month until they said, “Hey, aren’t you guys supposed to be making a record?” So, we finished the record up. But for the second record, after the success of …Big Pink, we didn’t mess with Woodstock. We went out there and rented a house [Shangri-La] that used to belong to Sammy Davis Jr. We were all in this big house. We drew lots for who would get to sleep in Sammy Davis’ bedroom the first night for the first month. The others got to stay in the hangers-on rooms, which were like hotel rooms. He had a pool house, and that’s where we were going to do the recording. We got equipment from Capitol Records. On the second album, Robbie [Robertson] hadn’t written all the songs yet. On the first album, the songs were already done.

This is endemic for most albums. For the first album, everybody’s been writing songs for three years and they are all ready to go. They have some songs, and we pick the best. They get a big hit and go out on the road, and then, all of a sudden, they want another album. “Uh oh, no material.” Robbie would be writing the songs, and we’d work them out and cast somebody to sing each one. We’d work out parts and go into the studio and work on them for a whole day. Then we’d knock off for the night, come in fresh the next day, and we’d have a song. It was usually two days per song. I’ve always been a producer who doesn’t like to be in the control room; I’d rather be in the studio with the musicians. I’m a musician and a conductor. We came up with the idea of putting the recording console in the studio with the musicians. We had no recording booth. We would get the sounds on instruments and then play it back, listen to it on speakers, change things around, and go back again. There was no objectivity of being in the control room. We started cutting the songs. I would stand right in front of Levon’s drums to indicate the sections of the songs to him. The only one who could read music in the band was Garth Hudson. The guys who had melodic parts – the guitar and the bass parts – they had their own notes for melodies; to remind them what sections were different from the next ones. But as a drummer, it’s a little bit different. It may be harder to remember which section is which. I would stand three feet from Levon. He’d be behind the drums, and I’d be the divider. The next section would come up, and I’d point to this cymbal, like, “This is where we’re going on this cymbal.” That might be what Levon meant!

 

Was it ever a possibility to work with Bob Dylan?

I had the opportunity to. When I was living across the driveway from Robbie [Robertson], I was napping on my couch one day. There was a knock on the door, and I went to get it, half asleep. It was Bob Dylan, and he was wondering if I could help to be a “musical secretary” for his movie. I thought about it, and I didn’t want to be a musical secretary. I wasn’t sure that he knew what he wanted. I hate doing things more than a couple of times, arbitrarily for this or that reason. I don’t mind doing it for myself, but if it’s somebody else and they don’t quite know what they’re doing in a particular area, it’s not the most fun. So, I said politely, “Bob, thank you very much, but I think you better get somebody else.” He was part of The Last Waltz, and he was also part of a couple of benefits that The Band backed him up for. He recognized me the last time I saw him some years ago.

What was your role on that project?

I was hired as the musical director, not the arranger. They were going to do a concert with all of their favorite musicians, and they were going to be the backup band. The guys in The Band don’t read music, so somebody had to interpret what the artists were going to do in order to make sure it all worked together. Joni Mitchell came in and I said, “What’s that chord you’re making there Joni? I don’t recognize that.” She said, “I always tune my guitar to some strange tuning to make myself ‘stupid’.” In other words, she didn’t know the chord. She wanted to play around and find something that sounded great. We pieced out what the chord was, figured out parts for the guys to play, and figured out sections of the song.

How long were the rehearsals for that?

A week. Each person rehearsed once. But with all the different people, it took a week.

Was it chaos?

No, it was wonderful. The dress rehearsal was the best. Rick’s bass was way out of tune for the whole show. The fellow who was mixing the horns through his 8-track had a penchant for the baritone sax. He didn’t like much else. So, the horn track was mostly baritone sax. This was not a good mix, so we had to do the horns over again in New York City. There were a lot of vocals that Richard and Rick wanted to do over again. Levon refused to do anything again, bless him, so his parts are totally live. Robbie was not happy with almost all of his guitar playing, so he wanted to do everything over again. That’s The Last Waltz myth, exploded.

In terms of you and your work, what do you think bring to the table?

I don’t like to settle. I like to get the best out of a project that I can get out of it. I got a call to go down to Nashville. Last minute, I found out I’d be producing Steve Forbert – a really good songwriter – for Columbia Records [Jackrabbit Slim]. I met Steve down there. We go in the studio, and here’s the crème de la crème of Nashville’s musicians. They’d played with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline. These guys were legendary in Nashville. The first day’s work was getting used to each other and trying out a song or two. Steve says to me, “I don’t want to work with these guys.” Here are these Nashville veterans, and I don’t want to insult them. They’ve got contracts, that’s the budget, and there’s no more money. I go back to my hotel room, and I’m asking myself what I’m going to do. I see a Gideon’s Bible sitting there, like there is in every hotel room in Nashville. I open it up in the middle, and there’s Psalms [18.1]. It says, “To the chief musician…” This person didn’t address this psalm to a record producer four thousand years before Christ. They addressed it to God. So, I said, “Okay, it’s taken care of. God’s got it.” I closed the book and went to sleep. I got up in the morning, went to the studio, and the contractor of these legendary veterans said to me, “You know, we’ve been thinking about it, and we don’t think we’re right for the project. We have a bunch of younger guys who we think would be great for it. And you don’t have to pay us.”

How do you feel, over the course of an artist’s career, when you’re not chosen to work on certain projects?

I have felt both ways. I’ve felt very flattered and delighted that Leonard Cohen was still using women’s voices on his records. But being told that you’re not on the next album hurts. Like the Steve Forbert album I mentioned. Steve and I are friends, but I assumed I would do his next album, because the first album was a success. Then I found out, out of the blue, that I wasn’t.

John Simon

Have you done anything as a producer that could have jeopardized your career?

Have I made mistakes I had to cover my ass for? “Probably,” is the answer. I likely blot them out in my memory. There were probably mistakes in dealing with people. A producer has to be a psychologist. I can’t offend people; I still offend people. I’m a jazz musician, inside of me, and there’s a thing about improvising where if I hear a sound that goes one way, I take it and make it a little different. If somebody makes a crack, I’ll make a crack back. It might not be what I’ll intend to say coming out of my mouth, but I’ll say it. Whether I made musical or producing mistakes? Well, that could be a producing mistake. I’m sure I’ve offended a lot of people!

I feel like you speak your mind.

I do speak my mind. We should certainly be diplomatic if we can. It’s a lesson I’m supposed to be learning myself. Yes, it’s important.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More