Hit songs? Top of the charts? These days most of us involved in recording music rarely get our hopes up for having hits or seeing our work place high on the Billboard charts. But imagine working in a world where this not only happened - it was expected. In 1959 at the age of 19, Thomas "Snuff" Garrett found himself working in promotion at Liberty Records in Los Angeles. Within a year he was producing top-charting singles with Johnny Burnette and Bobby Vee, soon becoming Liberty's head of A&R. After seven years at Liberty, he left and started Snuff Garrett Productions and its offshoots, Viva and Snuff Garrett Records, with more hits from Gary Lewis and the Playboys and others. Retiring at 30, he sold Snuff Garrett Productions to Warner Brothers Records for millions. But retirement didn't last long, with Snuff returning to cut many hits for Cher in the '70s. In the late '70s and early '80s, Snuff moved into film work producing soundtracks for Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood films (The Cannonball Run, Sharky's Machine and Every Which Way But Loose), followed by Burt's TV shows up through the nineties. A stroke at 45 slowed Snuff down, but when I visited him in his cowboy memorabilia- filled home at his Idle Spurs ranch in Arizona, his cuss-filled tales of rambunctious record wrangling were as lively as could be. Our conversation brought us back to a time when songs were paired to singers (or vice versa), studios booked, arrangers and musicians brought in and hits cut. Here's Snuff Garrett, a producer of more number one hits than Phil Spector, and a former renegade cowboy of the Hollywood music biz.
Did you ever learn to play an instrument?
When I was a kid I thought as soon as Roy Rogers stepped off Trigger they would pick me, just like every other kid in America hoped. I went to a guitar school in Dallas and took lessons for three years. Finally they told my mother, "Mrs. Garrett, we know you're a single mother and we don't want to take your money. We want to tell you that Tommy has no musical talent whatsoever. None." Years later I got a call from them saying, "Sorry. We were wrong." I didn't know one piano note from another. When I had my first four hits I hired a piano player to come over and teach me piano. Three weeks later he said, "While I've been trying to teach you to play 'Blue Hawaii' - which you haven't learned yet - you've made a fortune. You don't need to know music."
In your teens you were hanging out at a radio station in Dallas?
The instigating station of Top Forty radio - KLIF. Gordon McLendon was my boss. I later married his secretary. [laughter]
How did you end up in a radio station as a teenager?
Because I wanted to be a disc jockey.
Did you get to be a disc jockey there?
No. You have to realize how important the major disc jockeys were in those days. Those guys were the highest paid in the country. I did odd jobs and made a few dollars a week as music librarian. I listened to thousands and thousands of fucking records working at KLIF. They told me to get rid of all the 78s. I said, "Can I have them?" I was riding the bus and I'd carry them. I'd listen to both sides of all of them. I realized what I liked and didn't like. Later I ended up in Lubbock - they got me a job. When those guys said, "Hey, you've got to hire him", I got hired! I went up to Lubbock, got to be friends with Buddy Holly, and Waylon Jennings did a country radio show there. I was on the pop station. I moved from there to a little town called Wichita Falls, Texas. I used to sit in the window at KSYD – it had a bullet hole in the corner of the window – in the downtown area.
You were DJ'ing in the window?
Yeah. George Carlin replaced me as the DJ when I left town. Then I had a dance place in town. I got records from the distributors in Dallas to sell - it was called Snuff's Hop Stop & Record Shop. [laughter] Everybody would come down. I had a TV show three days a week. Buddy Holly was gonna bring me to New York with him - we were gonna do a record company called Taupe Records. That was the idea. I knew Trini Lopez there and I'd tell him, "Boy, I'm gonna be in the record business. I'm gonna make records!" Years later I brought Trini to L.A. [laughter]
How the heck did you get from being a DJ in Wichita Falls and doing sock hops to heading out to Hollywood and joining Liberty Records?
I'd already been there. I left home at 15 1/2. My daddy died and I left home. I lived with the disc jockeys [in Dallas]. They all lived in beautiful apartments with women everywhere. I loved that life! [laughter] They were like older brothers to me. I would keep their houses and apartments clean. One of the jocks, Bill Jenkins, got fired. He said he was moving to California, and I asked if I could go with him. I quit school and I went to L.A. Bill got a job at KPAL in Palm Springs, so here I was, stuck in fucking Palm Springs. He had a little apartment - I slept on the floor there. Then I caught a Greyhound bus and went up to Hollywood. I'll never forget coming into that station. I slept in Plummer Park in Hollywood and looked for work in records. I got a job at [Wallach's] Music City, behind the counter, at Sunset and Vine.
The record store.
Right. I wouldn't let you back in your fucking car if you didn't buy something. I was a selling son-of-a-bitch.
You moved there and then moved back?
I went back to Texas and disc jockeyed for about two years. After Buddy Holly died in 1959, I quit radio. I thought, "I'm never gonna be able to be in the music business in Wichita Falls, Texas. So fuck it. I'm going to New York or L.A." L.A. was much warmer, and I'd already been there for a year. I just went out. I didn't have a job or anything. I called Al Bennett [formerly of Dot Records], who I knew from when I was at Big State Record Distributors in Dallas. Al was president of a label called Liberty Records. I said, "Al, I want to quit my job." I lived in a room in a house on Orange Street so that I could walk to work. My car didn't work. In fact, when I had my first four hits, Liberty said, "You gotta be at the office at 10 a.m. on Monday morning for a shift." They took me out to the parking lot and guys were driving brand new Cadillacs around me. They said, "Pick out your gift!" They put my name on it in gold. It was my first new car - a white Cadillac convertible. But then I learned about the music business. After they got through with the press of telling everyone about giving me the car for having all these hits, they deducted it from my royalty statement. I learned the music business quickly!
What were those first hits?
The first two hits I had were Johnny Burnette's "Dreamin'" and "Devil or Angel" with Bobby Vee. Then I had "You're Sixteen", a song I found in Chicago, which I bought for $5,000. I had "Rubber Ball" with Bobby Vee, who I patterned after my good friend Buddy Holly. I had a lot of hits at Liberty - "Old Rivers" by Walter Brennan, Gene McDaniels' "A Hundred Pounds Of Clay" - Capitol Records owns all that now.
When did you work with Leon Russell?
I'd known him around town, but I'd used an older piano player named Gene Garf on most of my records. I could talk style with him and he'd do it. I'd name a record. I'd go, "I like the piano on this..." And he'd go, "Okay," and do the piano part. Young guys didn't know that. But Leon had come over to the Liberty Studios to do a demo of a song that I had. I'd sent it to everybody - Johnny Cash, [Tennessee] Ernie Ford - everybody turned the fucking song down. Finally I cut it myself in kind of a classy way. It's called "Old Rivers" [recorded by actor Walter Brennan] - that was Leon's piano work. I fell in love with his playing.
How did you go from being a DJ to a record producer? Obviously you're picking the songs.
Well, we're not talking about inventing stuff that saves your life or anything.
No, no. What was the learning process? You didn't walk into the studio the first day knowing what to do.
No! Thank god for Sy Waronker who founded and owned Liberty. Here's a true story nobody knows - this is a classic! I was doing local promotion. The president (he was like a brother to me) he told me I was the worst promoter. Well, I wasn't – I was a good promoter, but he couldn't say anything nice to me. I said, "At ninety bucks a week, what the fuck do you want?" I told him I wanted to make records. So, one day Simon Waronker calls me and said, "Snuff, I'm gonna give you a chance to be a record producer." Simon Waronker was the guy who hired all the musicians. He was a fiddle player. Liberty had fabulous studios. I loved how they did everything. It was a classy operation. I always told the artists, "Look, what you're getting into is a totalitarian dictatorship. When you walk away and the album doesn't do good for you, it's my fault. If it does do good for you, it's my fault." Somebody's gotta wear that. I come here to win. You either do it or you don't. I came to win, and nobody gives you that.
What was your connection with Phil Spector?
I'd hired [Phil] Spector to be my man in New York - brought him into Liberty. I was a great fan of Spec. Music-wise we had the same thoughts and ideas, but Spec didn't cut the kinds of records that I would enjoy making. Spec was as good as they come - the most talented guy I knew at the time. Leon Russell I felt was as talented - he replaced him as my right hand man.
Part of working as a producer is assembling your team around you.
If you ain't got that you ain't got nothing! I don't know anything! Of my whole job making records, my favorite thing was to get through with a project. Everyone would be looking around to see what I'd say. I'd get my money clip out, [sniff it] and they'd say, "Okay, he smells money!" I knew when I had a fucking hit - I never got surprised. There are a hundred records on the charts every week. If you don't have something on there you shouldn't even be on this Earth. I had six records on the charts one week when I was at Liberty. Six! Some of them were in the top three. I got in on Monday morning and called Al Bennett. He said, "Well, people are talking about you! You got six records on the charts." Of course I was proud. He said, "If you got in earlier, you could have had twelve records on the charts!" And then he hung up! That's how I learned!
Who were some of your favorite arrangers that you worked with?
When I first got to produce records, Simon Waronker said, "Now you're going to need an accomplished musician to work with. I'm gonna have Felix [Slatkin] help you." Now this is the conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Symphony. So, for the first two or three records, Felix would be there conducting. We had six violins, I'd take two of 'em and put them in the sound chamber. Felix would say, "You can't do that." I'd say, "The fuck I can't!" We did a trillion records together. I told Sy there was one musician I'd like to work with - I'd always idolized his records – [pianist] Ernie Freeman. I thought Ernie drove a white Cadillac and lived in a big home. That wasn't exactly the way it was. Ernie was the greatest. We were always busy - I did twelve albums a year back in the day.
What engineers did you work with?
I worked with Eddie Bracket. He's the one.
What was the difference between a run-of-the-mill engineer and someone like Eddie?
Someone who had the taste like I did. You understand? Eddie would make these contorted faces and I'd be screaming in his ear, "Hey motherfucker!" It would look like his face was gonna blow up. He died young - he had a bad heart. I'll tell you a great story. I'd just cut the best record I'd ever cut - "Run To Him" by Bobby Vee. Listening back, 4 o'clock in the fucking morning, one for stereo and one for mono, Eddie said, "Did you hear that?" I said, "Hear what?" "We're getting a zzzzz sound in between Bobby's vocals." There was an electrical sound. So, Eddie and I are sitting there wondering what in the fuck is going on. I was leaving the next morning to do an album in New York. I told Eddie, "Have we checked everything?" Eddie said we were okay. We go to the tape before – there were inaccuracies and things I didn't like about it – but the tempo was okay so we decide to edit it. Three days later, I'm in the Liberty office. Eddie called and I listened to the tapes on the phone. I'm so excited about this song and record. I knew it was going to be the biggest thing I had done. I said, "Eddie! You intercut the wrong fucking track." He'd reversed the vocals. He was editing from the first take to the second take, with the wrong vocal take!
Did he have to go back and reassemble it the right way?
He said, "I'll fix it."
I just imagine all those pieces of tape sitting on the floor!
He said, "I'll call you as soon as I'm through." So, the next morning the phone rings and Eddie plays it. I said, "That's it! Lock it in." It went to number two, broke my fucking heart! It's hard to make it to number one!
Well, the music industry... it's even harder now.
It was never easy. There's no new fucking route. Eventually I quit Liberty. I was there seven years, then one day they said, "You're cold." I said, "Hey, it happens to all of us. My turn." I was colder than hell. I was pretty scared. They didn't pay me anything - but I got two cents a record.
For the songs?
No. For every record that sold I got two cents. So, I went from $90 a week to $140,000 in the first year. I thought, "Okay! I've done the right fucking deal." I stayed there seven years, then quit and started my own company - Snuff Garrett Productions. Columbia and RCA both followed me with good job offers, but I turned them down because I had to start my own business. I went and found this office behind Capitol Records. I thought, "I've gotta change everything." I changed the string sounds and everything I'd been doing for seven years. The first record I cut sold 1,200,000 records - "This Diamond Ring". That was overdub, overdub, overdub.
With Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
When I was a kid I was a Jerry Lewis freak, and I have been all my life. It was funny to pick up his kid. Jerry's piano player, Lou Brown, is probably the funniest man I've ever known in my life. He told me, "Jerry's son Gary has got a group in Disneyland." I said, "Hurray for fucking Disneyland. What do you want from me?" He said, "You've got to come see them." I said, "No, I don't! I'm not going to Disneyland to see some fucking group." The song is the thing. I don't need anybody to make a hit record except a song. Once you've got the song, you can cut a fucking hit with any-fucking-body. [laughter] But that's really the way it is, unless you're an idiot and you think you can do it the other way - but you can't.
Did you go see Gary Lewis play?
No! Lou came up to the office one day and he said, "Gary and his band are rehearsing at Paramount." Now, that's right down the street. So he said, "I'll buy you dinner." And I said, "You got it!" So, I went on over. Gary wasn't even the singer in the group - he was the drummer. So I got rid of the singer and made him [Gary] the singer. I had the song already, "This Diamond Ring", and I knew it was a hit song.
Al Kooper's [with Bob Brass and Irwin Levine] "This Diamond Ring"?
I got it in New York. I had a really good run with Gary, but then one day Gary fired me! [laughter]
I found a quote about you from Gary Lewis. It says, "He did have a talent for picking songs. He knew the timing of when to put them out and he was a great producer. But his god was money and it probably still is."
He's absolutely correct. He's just a part of the plan. I couldn't have done it without him. I put Ron Hicklin's voice over Gary's. Fucking money. I had just made a deal with Al Bennett for Gary to get one million dollars to resign and get a new deal. He doesn't even know this. He fired me.
What else were you doing with Snuff Garrett Productions?
I was buying old songs. I was taking the money and buying "Summertime Blues" and "My Special Angel" - songs that I really liked. I brought Leon Russell in as my junior partner at my new company.
Was he doing production work and A&R?
Yeah. Whatever we needed to do. We'd work all weekend recording something and on Monday I'd go out and try to sell the damn thing. $2,500 or $3,500. I was out all the time, trying to make a living.
When did you start Amigo Studios?
I bought this studio for $70,000 from a sax player, Steve Douglas, in 1968. I called my friend J.J. Cale and I said, "Look. I bought a studio at lunch," and I took him out there. "You fix it up. Tell me what we need." Cale had his sleeping bag and he slept out there. A few days later my secretary says, "Cale's on the phone." He said, "Drop what you're doing and get out here right now." He was sitting in the control room and he had a great big flashlight. He said, "Look under the console." I said, "What are all those car batteries in there?" He said, "That's what makes the studio turn." I said, "We need to change that," and he said, "Of course we need to change that." There was a real good [studio] designer, Dave Mancini, so I went and got him. Cale put it all together. I hired an engineer in June 1968, Greg Venable, who'd done the sound effects for Disney cartoons. I also hired Hank Cicalo.
Where had Hank been working?
I hired him off RCA.
Where was Amigo located?
Compston Avenue in the San Fernando Valley. The first session at Amigo I'll never forget. I pulled up in front of the studio in my Rolls with the windows up, cut the key off and it sounded like they were sitting in the car with me. Now that's pretty fucking strong. It looked like the building was vibrating. The amps were stacked up - just a wall of these amps. It was the loudest thing I'd ever heard. I owned the song they did - "Summertime Blues". The group was Blue Cheer. I'd never seen amps stacked like that.
Was J.J. Cale engineering on this session?
No, that was Hank Cicalo. Greg Venable was the second engineer.
How did Viva Records come about?
Randy Wood, who owned Dot Records, gave me $250,000 to start a record label, and I did. I was in a plane going from New York to L.A. I got back and told Leon, "I want you to arrange these 12 songs for string quartet." Leon looked at me like I'd lost my fucking mind. I made up a name - The Midnight String Quartet. We sold 300,000 of that album [Rhapsodies for Young Lovers]. We did follow up albums.
Were these cover songs?
Yeah. We cut the whole album in an hour and 45 minutes. Is this what you'd call easy listening? Yeah. I'd done well with The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett - 28 of those albums I'd done at Liberty. You can't just make a living doing rock 'n' roll. There was a new show called Shindig and there was a group on there called The Shindogs and we had them on Viva.
The house band for the TV show?
Yeah. And The Leathercoated Minds' A Trip Down The Sunset Strip.
Eventually you got out of the business, for the first time?
I started [Snuff Garrett Productions] in 1965 and sold it to Warner Brothers in 1968 for $2,250,000. I was 30 years old, I'd left home at 15 1/2 and I fucking quit - I was caught up. I never wanted to listen to music again. So they bought it [and] my people went with it.
Was Amigo Studios part of the sale to Warner Brothers?
Uh huh. I laid off a year and my friend, Clint Murchison, Jr. who owned the Dallas Cowboys, said, "Why don't you go do it again?" I said, "Are you crazy? It's too fucking hard." But after I'd sat around for a year I found that I can't do anything. So I rented the cheapest offices I could find on Sunset Boulevard and hired some people. I kept that company until my stroke - for 15 years.
Had you divested previous songs to Warner Brothers?
Sold it all. Started again. I'd bought a big home in Bel Air. While I was working on the house, this couple whom I hadn't seen in years comes from next door and said, "We're having trouble. We've already spent all the money from our success." I said, "Well, I could cut a hit with you." I hadn't worked in a year. So, I went and cut Cher's "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves". There was this thing we wrote called "Living in a House Divided". The next song I did was "Half-Breed". They all went number one and they all sold over three and a half million. I went and published all those songs. Sonny and I couldn't get along. He ain't here, so I can't say anything bad about him, but I don't have anything good to say about him either. One time I went next door to Sonny and Cher's house and I took this song over. I told Sonny, "This is a hit." He played the demo and threw the demo back at me, "That's a piece of shit!" I said, "No it's not. That's a hit. I was gonna do it with Cher." He said, "But it's not a hit!" I said, "Hey! I don't need your fucking approval." We went in and cut it a few days later on my own label. Went number one, sold three and a half million - "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" with Vicki Lawrence. Fuck you! It's the only way I know how to play. It's a game! I loved it and I miss it.
Would you find the songs from songwriters and offer to buy the publishing?
No, I'd get a songwriter and tell them what kind of song I had in mind and what kind of song I wanted. There were songwriters I hired and they worked for me. The guy [Bob Stone] that wrote "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" - the original title was "Gypsies and White Trash". I was good at finding what I wanted. I wish I had a list – I used to keep a list of songs I was gonna do when they let me become a producer. I worked on that list.
That's the magic list! [laughter]
One of the first things I was gonna do was "Blue Velvet". But I got beaten to it. I had friends who could write. I gave a song to Glen Campbell when he got hot. On the West Coast there weren't that many outlets for songs, so I would go to the East Coast many times a year to look for material. When I would make the rounds I would say, "I don't like any of these songs." I'd go to the next place and say the same thing. I'd usually beg writers to come up with something I could use. I'd come by and say, "When did Mickey Most [successful UK producer] get here?" and they'd tell me he had just come by last week. He was doing the same thing as me. I had to keep changing my schedule to come back before him. That's how we became friends. [laughter] One day in New York we had lunch and we became dear friends.
What were those 50 Guitars albums about?
When I was a disc jockey in Wichita Falls, Trini Lopez and his band used to come stay with me. I told him, "If I ever get to make records I'm gonna have an orchestra of guitars - a whole, beautiful symphony of guitars." So, I did The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett album. Actually, on the first session there were thirty-five top-of-the-line, best musicians in L.A. that played guitar. I had mallet men. They had to come up on the second level. Huge marimbas. I lived in Studio B at United [Western Recorders]. The last time I was there was about eleven or twelve years ago. They asked me to come by United, so I came by and I got tears in my eyes. They had a plaque on the wall, "Snuff Garrett: The guy that built Studio B". I spent my fucking life in there. I got to where I thought I couldn't get a hit [without that place]. We all get our little niche that we like – I had a blanket and pillow there. Fuck, I didn't go to bed until I was 32! [laughter] 50 Guitars went through the roof. It started to sell all over the world. Now I'm a fucking genius! If I can do that, wait 'til you hear The 25 Pianos of Tommy Garrett! I looked down Sunset Boulevard – there was nothing but trucks taking out pianos. I thought, "What the fuck have I done?" It's all fucked up in the streets. So I called Sy Waronker and said, "Sy, I need help."
Did you figure out how to record 25 pianos?
Hell, no! Sy said, "You've got a mess here, kid." [laughter] Him and Felix came down. There was a problem – we ended up with the pianos ghosting in the middle channel. It was a fucking mess! It cost me a fucking fortune. I didn't do a part two.
Did it get released?
Oh, yeah. I've got a copy somewhere, but I've never heard it again.
I heard a record of yours recently - Snuff Garrett's Texas Opera Company's Classical Country.
It's one of the best concepts I've ever had. It starts out big classical, then turns to a fiddle that'll rip your nuts off. It was really good.
Were the players feeling like it was a cool, different kind of challenge for them?
Fuck 'em. It only matters if it sounds right.
Do you still find yourself listening to new music?
I don't listen to anything where I don't know who wrote the music and who published the stuff. It's all I can think of. I don't have any interest in new music. Someone can't say to me, "You'll love my new song." No, I won't! I don't love anything. I'll want to change it and then I'll want to kick their fucking ass. I know what to do. I miss it so very much. You never get away from it - I never have.
It was a different world, – the world you were working in – finding talent and whatnot.
It used to take me – the hours I spent doubling and tripling Bobby Vee's voice – and he was the best I've ever seen. Another good engineer I worked with a lot who I loved was Dave Hassinger. He's a great guy.
What producers did you admire?
If I had been a singer, which I couldn't do, there were two guys that I always wished I could make a record with that I really respected. One was Bobby Crewe with The Four Seasons. He made great fucking records. And Mickie Most - my dear friend. Those were my ideal producers of my era. They always made my mouth fall open.
Were there other people before that?
The only other people were the ones that were country producers, all the George Jones stuff and everything by Billy Sherrill.
Didn't you do a bit of recording in London?
One time I was there at a hotel. The phone rang and this guy said, "Are you Snuff?" I went down and it was The Rolling Stones. We sat around all that night and laughed and talked. Mick Jagger told me how it was recording over there. It was so fucking antiquated - even in those days – [compared] to what we did here. We were so far ahead at that time.
The number of tracks and studio design?
It sounded like pre-World War I. I'll never forget.
Did you work at EMI's Abbey Road?
I hate that fucking studio. I'll never forget working there. I hated it!
The studio is upstairs and you have to walk those fucking stairs - I was out of breath! When I talked to an artist, I never did on talkback. I wanted to talk to the person, not the fucking room. So I was up and down the goddamn stairs. The chairman of the board [of EMI], Sir Joseph Lockwood, showed me - I'll never forget this - these huge, huge machines in this room. Those were the first computers I ever saw. He said, "In two more years we'll be able to tell you how many records we've sold in the entire world that day."
How did you get into film soundtrack work?
Clint Eastwood called and he said, "I want you to listen to some stuff with me and tell me what you think. I'm at the office." So I go over there, we have a beer and sit on the floor in his office. He started playing the music. I asked him, "Where was this cut?" It didn't sound local or very well done. It was recorded someplace down south. He said, "What do you think of this music?" I said, "I think it's the worst crap I've ever heard in my life." [laughter] He said, "Do you think you can do better?" I said, "Son, I can do better than that standing on my head with a tape recorder. It's fucking awful." So he said, "Okay. You've got two weeks. I hear you've been wanting to do a film." That was Every Which Way But Loose.
Where did your career go after doing more of the movie stuff?
I had my stroke.
Well, I started the record label again. I had the label, Viva, that I'd sold to Warner Brothers when I was 30, but I made them give me the name back. I decided on country music after that. There wasn't any money in country music then. They gave me Viva back and I told Clint, I said, "Okay, we'll start the label back up." And we had nothing but hits!
It's interesting that you went from selling records at a store to selling songs to labels to selling a company to a label.
See, my grandmother and grandfather basically raised me and they worked for L.B. Price Mercantile Company. They were out in the country, outside of Dallas, We sold door-to-door merchandise, bedspreads and bibles with your name printed on them. It was a dollar down and a dollar every time we could catch you. We got ten cents for every dollar we collected. I grew up doing that 'til I was ten years old. I wasn't embarrassed to go ask somebody, "You want one of these?" I've just never known anything else. I made records to sell. This is not stuff that's gonna change the course of the earth - it's entertainment. It really is. They may think they're fucking golden and all that - I never looked at it like that. It's just entertainment. I loved certain records, and I loved songs that never got recorded right. But I loved every second of it.
Thanks to Nettie for her patience, Greg Venable for fact checking and engineer Clarke Rigsby for sitting in and cajoling Snuff for our initial interview. Archive photos courtesy of Snuff Garrett.