Ben Sidran’s ‘love song’ to a legendary producer
Musician writes Tommy LiPuma biography, hosts radio show
In a book brimming with informative and colorful stories from behind the scenes of the entertainment business, one story was not told. Not completely, anyway.
It’s how Ben Sidran met Tommy LiPuma, a celebrated music producer and the subject of Sidran’s new book, “The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma.”
Sidran, a septuagenarian jazz pianist with a worldwide following, has called Madison home, with his wife, Judy, for a half a century.
It was in Madison in 1971 that the story behind the new book really began.
A phone rang, and a groggy Ben Sidran answered. It was 3 a.m. On the line from New York City was Bob Krasnow, a music executive who a few years earlier had launched a record label called Blue Thumb.
Capitol Records had just released Sidran’s first album, “Feel Your Groove.” A DJ friend played it for Krasnow. Sidran’s phone number was found. Who cared that it was the middle of the night?
“Krasnow was notorious for being free range,” Ben recalled recently.
From New York, Krasnow said, “I want to sign you to my label. What do I have to do?”
“You have to call me back tomorrow morning,” Sidran said.
He did. In the light of day, they clicked. Sidran was soon in Krasnow’s office, signing with Blue Thumb.
Into the office strolled the man who would become Sidran’s good friend for nearly 50 years. Tommy LiPuma, Krasnow’s partner in Blue Thumb, was a jazz-obsessed Cleveland native who produced from a musician’s mindset.
After being introduced in the Blue Thumb office, LiPuma invited Sidran to a recording session that afternoon. Phil Upchurch, a jazz guitarist destined for greatness, was cutting the album “Darkness Darkness,” with LiPuma producing. Sidran ended up playing organ on one track.
Fast forward two decades. It’s 1991, and Krasnow is running Elektra Records, with LiPuma riding shotgun and producing. They have a meeting with Natalie Cole, new to Elektra, and LiPuma suggests she do an album of songs made famous by her dad, Nat King Cole.
Natalie says maybe, but let’s do another album first, then the homage. Tommy argues that if she doesn’t do it, someone else — maybe Johnny Mathis — will get there first with an album of Nat King Cole songs. Natalie agrees to do it. LiPuma produces.
“Unforgettable” sells 15 million copies and wins five Grammys.
“He was an oddity in that he came from a player’s point of view,” Sidran said of LiPuma, when we spoke last week. “Musicians loved him. He understood what they were going through in the studio, and also in the business.”
Sidran shared nearly weekly telephone conversations with LiPuma across several decades. He first mentioned the possibility of a book about 10 years ago. LiPuma’s work with legends — including Miles Davis, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand and Willie Nelson — had produced a deep well of stories he loved sharing while hanging out, an activity LiPuma raised to an art form.
“Over 50 years I had heard all these great stories,” Sidran said. He implored LiPuma to write a memoir.
“It was a bridge too far for him,” Ben said. “So I started recording all our conversations.”
Sidran figured he would coauthor LiPuma’s autobiography, but Sidran couldn’t get comfortable with that format.
In December 2016, the two had dinner together in New York City.
“Tommy,” Sidran said. “I can’t write this thing in your voice. I think you should let me write it the way I want to write it.”
“Go ahead,” LiPuma said. “Do whatever you want.”
Earlier that year, there had been an 80th birthday tribute celebration in LiPuma’s hometown of Cleveland. Streisand and McCartney sent video testimonials. Diana Krall, who working with LiPuma sold more records than any jazz artist ever, came on stage and sang several songs. LiPuma was so moved he couldn’t read the speech he’d prepared.
Less than a year later, LiPuma died. The new book, written in Sidran’s voice and informed by his own long journey through the music business, still allows the reader the chance to effectively sit with LiPuma, glass in hand, and listen to his stories.
“The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma,” due out early next month, can be preordered in Madison through the local bookstore Mystery to Me.
Because music is at the heart of the story, it’s also appropriate that Sidran is hosting, weekly through April, a two-hour show on SiriusXM radio devoted to LiPuma and his music. It’s on Sirius’ Real Jazz Channel 67 and will air Thursdays (the first was last week, the next three are April 16, 23 and 30) at 7 p.m. CST, with repeats Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Tuesdays at noon.
Ben summed up the project nicely: “It’s a love song to Tommy.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.