I’m been in the studio all day and night

I remember one day in 1975 when I went to a friend’s house to hear some new albums played through a state-of-the-art sound system.  “This is going to totally blow you away,” he said, as he lowered the needle on the last track of Queen’s new album, “A Night at the Opera,” an ambitious little number called “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The sound seemed to explode from the speakers.  The lush harmonies, Freddie Mercury’s powerful lead vocals, the quasi-classical piano, the “Galileo/Magnifico” operatic portion, Brian May’s hard rock guitar solo — all of it sounded like it was right there in the room with me.  “Holy crap,” I said, “the production is spectacular!  How do they get it to sound so damn good?”

While the members of Queen deserve plenty of credit, the man chiefly responsible for the crystal-clear sound quality was producer Roy Thomas Baker, one of the titans of the recording studio in the ’70s, ’80s and beyond.  He was a true innovator whose work includes some of the most successful albums of the era.

So what exactly is a record producer?  What does he do?

That’s a loaded question, because he may wear many different hats, depending on the circumstances of the recording session.

In the industry’s early years, different professionals worked for the major record labels, carrying out the various tasks that made up the recording process.  Beginning in the 1950s with the advent of the independent commercial studios, entrepreneurial producers created and occupied a new layer in the industry, taking on a role in the musical process that was more direct yet also more multi-faceted.

Depending on his clout and level of influence, the producer might handle any number of functions.  He may identify up-and-coming artists, select songs, choose musicians, suggest arrangements, coach artists in the studio, control the recording process, and sometimes supervise the post-recording phases of mixing and mastering.  Some may take on broader roles such as scheduling, budgeting, even contract negotiations.

“A producer creatively guides the process of making a record,” summarizes Phil Ek, producer of current indie bands like The Shins, Modest Mouse and Fleet Foxes.  “Basically, his job is to create, shape and mold a piece of music, whether it’s one track or a whole album.”

Perhaps even more important, though, is this key role:  “A producer should be a psychologist,” noted Marc Tanner, producer of albums for Nelson and The Calling, as well as numerous film soundtrack LPs.  “He’s typically working with bands and artists with big egos who think they know everything, so when the producer has an idea and wants to steer things in a certain direction, he needs to make them think it was their idea.  And that’s a tricky thing.”

The producer also needs to know who’s really in charge.  If a musical giant like Paul McCartney is making a new record, clearly he’s going to have the final say-so.  When an industry mogul with the power of a Clive Davis is involved, nothing’s getting released without his stamp of approval.  In some cases, though, the producer himself is the one who holds the most sway, and he can then operate differently, knowing he won’t be second-guessed.

The best producers, naturally, are those whose reputations precede them.  The track record speaks for itself and makes them the most sought after in the business.  They may be pleasant or gruff, but they’re known for getting the best work from their artists.

Let’s take a look at my subjective list of the top dozen rock music producers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  In my view, they’re the ones who developed innovative recording techniques, used them to maximum effectiveness, and brought out the very best in the artists they were producing.


George Martin (center) with the Beatles recording “All You Need is Love”

At the top of the list is George Martin, whose work with The Beatles put him in a category by himself.  He and his talented engineer Geoff Emerick came up with wildly creative ideas and methods to conjure up the sounds John Lennon and Paul McCartney envisioned (in a time before computers and their ability to produce sounds by simply pressing a button).  Martin also knew, as The Beatles learned the recording process and became more adept at executing it, to defer to their wishes and get out of their way when the situation warranted. Martin later worked with McCartney on his solo career, and also with Jeff Beck, Kenny Rogers, Elton John and America, among many others.

Quincy Jones

In both quantity and quality, Quincy Jones qualifies as a god of record producing.  With 28 Grammys on his mantelpiece and more than 80 nominations, he is the most celebrated producer ever.  He’s been a conductor, arranger and composer for everyone from Lesley Gore to Frank Sinatra in the ’60s, from George Benson to the Brothers Johnson in the ’70s, and Miles Davis’s final LP in 1991.  Most notably, he’s the producer of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the best-selling album of all time, as well as Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and “Bad,” and the single “We Are the World,” on which he had to juggle the egos of two dozen rock stars in the same studio.

Phil Spector (far right) ruling the roost in the studio

The late Phil Spector may be in better known for his second-degree murder conviction and sketchy mental state, but that doesn’t diminish the astonishing advancements he made in the field of record production.  His famous “Wall of Sound” technique — in which he used multiple guitarists, keyboardists, drummers, horns and strings to create an all-enveloping sound on record — was one of the most ingenious innovations in the history of sound production.  Designed to enhance the sound coming from AM radios and jukeboxes of the 1960s, Spector’s Wall of Sound took the material being recorded by girl groups like The Ronettes and the Crystals and duos like The Righteous Brothers and made them sound like dense mini-symphonies. He did the same thing later with George Harrison, John Lennon and The Ramones.

Tom Dowd (center) with Dickey Betts (left) and Duane Allman (right)

Among the influential developments that producer Tom Dowd came up with in the 1960s were multi-track recording and methods for altering sound after the initial recording. He has a long and impressive resumé of production credits with some of the giants, including: every album by The Allman Brothers Band; Eric Clapton (“Layla” and “461 Ocean Boulevard”); Rod Stewart (“A Night on the Town” and “Blondes Have More Fun”); Kenny Loggins (“Keep the Fire”); Dr. John (“Remedies”); Wilson Pickett (“Hey Jude” and “Right On”); Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife”); Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Gimme Back My Bullets”); and jazz legends John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Glyn Johns (center) with Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger

From the mid-’60s right up through the 2010s, Glyn Johns has been at the helm of some of the biggest bands and best albums in rock.  He produced every Rolling Stones album from 1963 through 1975, encompassing the group’s very best work.  He engineered and mixed the incredible debut LP by Led Zeppelin.  He worked on The Beatles’ “Let It Be” album.  He produced multiple projects for Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs.  He was producer for the first two Eagles releases.  He worked with Pete Townshend to produce “Who’s Next,” arguably their finest LP and one of the best sounding records ever made.  He also produced “Who Are You” and “By Numbers,” two by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Humble Pie, “Combat Rock” for The Clash, and Clapton’s “Slowhand” and his 2016 release “I Still Do.”

“Mutt” Lange with ex-wife Shania Twain

John Robert “Mutt” Lange, another innovator in multi-track recording, has been a hugely influential rock music producer, responsible for the superlative production on such chart-toppers as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black”; Def Leppard’s “High ‘n Dry,” “Pyromania” and “Hysteria”; Foreigner’s “4”; The Cars’ “Heartbeat City”; and albums for Bryan Adams and Huey Lewis & The News.  In 1997, he produced “Come On Over” for his then-wife Shania Twain, which is one of the best selling country albums of all time.

Albhy Galuten (center) with Barry Gibb (right)

The phenomenal sound production you hear on The Bee Gees’ best known songs is the work of Albhy Galuten, who also produced albums by Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, Eric Clapton and Olivia Newton-John.  He was at the helm of the mega-platinum soundtrack album of “Saturday Night Fever” and Franki Valli’s theme song to “Grease.”  Galuten is a true sound technician who holds several technological patents in the digital age and has served as a chief tech executive at Sony and Universal.

Peter Asher

Take another listen to James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim,” “One Man Dog” and “JT”, and to every Linda Ronstadt album from “Heart Like a Wheel” through “Cry Like a Rainstorm.”  They all sound fabulous due to producer Peter Asher‘s savvy in the studio.  He was one of the few who capably served the dual producer/manager role, and Taylor and Ronstadt were the clear beneficiaries.  He won Grammys for Producer of the Year in 1977 and 1989 for his work on their albums.  Asher also produced key records for Bonnie Raitt, Andrew Gold, 10,000 Maniacs, Cher and J.D. Souther.

Jack Douglas

Vocalist Steven Tyler has credited producer Jack Douglas with being “the unofficial sixth member of Aerosmith.”  He brought out the best in a very rowdy band on their hugely successful ’70s records — “Get Your Wings,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Rocks” and “Draw the Line.”  And it was Douglas at the soundboard controls when John Lennon returned to the studio in 1980 after a five-year sabbatical to record the songs that comprised the “Double Fantasy” and “Milk and Honey” LPs.  He also produced records for Cheap Trick, Montrose, Alice Cooper and Slash.

Roy Thomas Baker (lower left) with Queen

Roy Thomas Baker, mentioned at the top of this essay, was at the helm for such classic albums as Queen’s “II,” “Sheer Heart Attack,” “A Night at the Opera” and “Jazz”;  The Cars’ debut LP, “Candy-O” and “Shake It Up”;  Journey’s “Infinity” and “Evolution”;  Free’s “Fire and Water”; Foreigner’s “Head Games”; Ozzy Osbourne’s “The Ozzman Cometh”; and the soundtrack LPs to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Wayne’s World.”

Bob Clearmountain

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and watch the great producer/mixing engineer Bob Clearmountain at work in his home studio just down the road from me in Pacific Palisades. He has worked on many dozens of classic albums by artists including Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA”), The Stones (“Tattoo You”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Bryan Adams (“Cuts Like a Knife”), Roxy Music (“Avalon”), Simple Minds (“Once Upon a Time”) and Crowded House (“Woodface”). Not coincidentally, these LPs are among the best sounding albums in each artists’ careers.

Gary Katz

Gary Katz gets a nod of appreciation for the incredible results he got working with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and a host of session musicians on the records of Steely Dan. At first they were just a six-man band, but five of their seven albums saw the songwriters in search of evermore-pristine production values, and Katz was instrumental in helping the artists find that near-perfection, especially on “Aja” and “Gaucho.” Katz also produced albums for Diana Ross, 10cc and Joe Cocker.


Honorable mentions go to a few other talented producers: Daniel Lanois, who steered the ship on multiple LPs by U2 (“The Joshua Tree,” “Aching Baby”), Peter Gabriel (“So”) and Bob Dylan (“Oh Mercy,” “Time Out of Mind”); Bill Szymczyk, the man behind the sound for every album by The Eagles beginning with “On the Border,” the first three LPs by The James Gang, Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind,” B.B. King’s “Completely Well” and Michael Stanley’s “Friends and Legends”; and Eddie Offord, who specialized in progressive rock records by Yes (“The Yes Album,” “Fragile,” “Close to the Edge,” “Relayer”) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (“ELP,” “Tarkus,” “Trilogy”).


In the realm of record production, there are many artists who have taken on the producer role for their own albums.  Baker had this to say about that:  “All artists, I think, would like to produce their own records.  To me, it’s like someone trying to be their own lawyer in court.  Even if you are a lawyer, everyone knows you shouldn’t do it.  Artists should never produce themselves.  They still need someone else around to make sure they get the best out of themselves, because you can’t be two places at once.”

There are always exceptions to the rule.  Self-professed “studio nerds” like Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and ELO’s Jeff Lynne are listed as producer on nearly all of their albums.  Bob Dylan produced many of his works from 1975 on, and Pink Floyd — as a group — are listed as producer on their LPs.

Most notable, I think, are these two examples:

Brian Wilson was not only composer, singer and bassist for The Beach Boys, but became their sole producer beginning in 1963 when recording studios were still extremely basic.  But Wilson had an extraordinary ability to hear sounds in his head — in many cases, fully formed songs — which he diligently, and successfully, worked to transfer to tape.  All those amazing Beach Boys hits, culminating in “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” from the “Pet Sounds” album, sound as stunning as they do because of Wilson’s producing talent.

Todd Rundgren, who took on the artist/producer dual role from the very beginning of his career in 1970, was, as his album title suggests, “a wizard, a true star.”  He has successfully experimented with new equipment, new techniques and new approaches to album production ever since, and it has served him well.  A number of other artists took notice early on, and tapped Rundgren to produce their albums:  Grand Funk (“We’re an American Band”), Hall & Oates (“War Babies”), Badfinger (“Straight Up”), The Tubes (“Remote Control”), The Band (“Stage Fright”), the New York Dolls debut, and most successfully, Meat Loaf (“Bat Out of Hell”).


Get ready, ’cause here I come

Henry Ford gets credit for inventing the mass-produced automobile, but in a way, he is also partly responsible for Detroit’s second-most important product:  Motown.

A young man named Berry Gordy emerged from the Army in 1953 at age 24 and began working at a Ford assembly plant, while putting in time at a jazz record store on the side. The monotony of the job gave him the freedom for his mind to wander and think about his passion:  Music.  Rhythm and blues, mostly.  And he thought about how the way a car was made — empty shell moving along the assembly line, brakes fastened on, motor hooked up, upholstery installed, finishing touches added  — could be a template for how a song might be made.

Five years later, he founded a record label and publishing company, named after the city he lived in and loved:  The Motor City.  Motor Town.  MoTown.  Additional subsidiary labels and corporations sprang up — Tamla, Gordy, Jobete — but that was just window dressing. The public will always know and define the wondrous, infectious, sexy, soulful music that came from there as Motown.

I should say right here that, as a 9-year-old in 1964, I wouldn’t have been as aware of Motown music without the considerable influence of my then-12-year-old sister Carrie, who was a fanatic for the contagious, danceable, singable music of Motown artists.  I am forever grateful that she exposed me to the irresistible melodies, harmonies, bass lines and lyrics of the iconic stable of musicians that, collectively, will forever be known as The Motown Sound.

And what a stable it was:  Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.  Marvin Gaye.  The Temptations.  Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.  Little Stevie Wonder.  The Four Tops. Mary Wells.  The Marvalettes.  Gladys Knight and the Pips.  And, of course, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Motown’s greatest success, who rivaled The Beatles on the US singles charts with five consecutive #1 hits in 1964.

Gordy never played an instrument and wasn’t a singer, but he had an uncanny ear for what could be a hit, and he could even compose a great song now and then.  In 1960, he co-wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” which became Motown Records’ first hit, sung by Barrett Strong and later covered by The Beatles, among others.

It was the beginning of a spectacularly successful, even revolutionary company — and a sound and approach that shook the popular music scene to its core just as it was evolving from a safe, white-bread confection into the multi-headed juggernaut that redefined pop culture forever.  An exaggeration?  I don’t think so.  Every wedding reception band you’ve ever danced to still plays Motown.  Satellite radio stations still play Motown incessantly.   Retail stores play it through their sound systems.  It’s intrinsic.  And in my view, that’s a good thing, because it’s just so damn great.

Gordy’s mission was simple.  As the Fifties became the Sixties, he was tired of watching as black artists wrote, recorded and released great music, only to have it ignored or sidelined on mainstream pop radio in favor of inferior cover versions by white artists who bleached the soul and emotion out of it.  Witness Pat Boone’s lame take of “Tutti Frutti” compared to Little Richard’s incendiary original.  “It drove me crazy,” said Berry.

He strove to create an environment where black artists could write, produce, sing and record great songs that black AND white American audiences could enjoy.  Gordy made it very clear:  He wanted tracks that were catchy, memorable, easy to digest, and sounded great on a transistor radio or through tinny car radio speakers. Early on, he bought property in Detroit that became the “Hitsville U.S.A.” studio, eventually buying several adjacent properties as the business grew.

Berry Gordy in front of the Hitsville U.S.A. property in 1964

He put together the assembly line he had envisioned:  He hired songwriters and producers like Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, and William “Smokey” Robinson, and Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, to come up with the great material and give it the compelling sound that would make the songs burst through the radio.  He brought in a band of largely unheralded studio wizards known loosely as The Funk Brothers —  Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson (bass), Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen (drums), Robert White and Joe Messina (guitar), Jack Ashford (percussion), among others — to provide the all-important accompaniment.  And most prominently, he cultivated the vocalists who would be the very visible “face” of Motown.

“The Funk Brothers” accompanying Stevie Wonder

A crucial part of that plan was the presentation.  When the Supremes, the Tempts and others appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other mainstream venues, they were polished.  They were impeccably dressed.  They were choreographed to the hilt.  This was no accident.  Gordy knew that if they were to be accepted by white audiences back then, they would have to be charming and delightful, not even remotely edgy or threatening.  He even brought in some charm school people to give the artists etiquette lessons.  This all translated into major chart success and packed houses at their ever-broadening live appearance opportunities.

The Supremes with Ed Sullivan (L-R): Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross

This acquiescence to a “safe” approach had its detractors, particularly among blacks.  Stax Records, operating out of Memphis with acts like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, offered what many felt was a much more authentic “soul music” experience — grittier guitar parts, horns instead of strings, vocals far more passionate.  The lyrics of the Stax songs were more suggestive, more sexual, more genuine, and the records of these artists sold better in black communities, and, in hindsight, they’re arguably the more vibrant recordings (“Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin; “Shake” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding; “In the Midnight Hour” and “Funky Broadway,” Wilson Pickett; “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” Sam and Dave).

But Motown ruled the roost, in the broader public eye, from the early ’60s into the 1970s. Beginning with Barrett Strong’s “Money” in 1960, Motown started slowly but strongly, with moderate chart hits like “Shop Around” (The Miracles), “Please Mister Postman” by The Marvalettes (the first #1 Motown hit), “Do You Love Me” (The Contours), “You Beat Me to the Punch” (Mary Wells), “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (Marvin Gaye), “Fingertips” (Stevie Wonder) and “Heat Wave” (Martha Reeves).

Smokey Robinson

Robinson recalled how Motown’s approach allowed acts to tour all over the country and internationally, even into segregated cities and venues that were reluctant to host Black artists. “We were not only making music, we were making history. Acts were going all over the world. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized it, because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back, and now the audiences were integrated, and the kids were dancing together and holding hands. ”

In response to the British Invasion, The Beach Boys and other mainstream pop artists of that period, Gordy cranked up his assembly-line hit machine with The Supremes and the Temptations and others, and for five years or so, it seemed that no one could touch Motown.  From 1964 through 1969, Motown artists had an incredible 65 Top Ten singles.  In 1966 alone, 75% of the songs they released reached the Top 40. In the first week of 1969, five of the top seven hits on the Top 40 were by Motown artists.

The Four Tops

I mean, come on.  It’s a ridiculous embarrassment of riches:  “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” “Baby I Need Your Loving.”  “Get Ready.”  “For Once In My Life.”  “You Can’t Hurry Love.” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  “My Guy.”  “The Tracks of My Tears.”  “Baby Love.” “Nowhere to Run.”  “I Can’t Help Myself.”  “Uptight.”  “My World Is Empty Without You.” “Ain’t That Peculiar.”  “My Girl.”  “More Love.”  “Dancing in the Streets.”  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”  “I Was Made to Love Her.”

Sure, the Motown labels had struggling artists who never reached the chart success of their peers.  Have you heard of The Velvelettes?  Shorty Long?  Marv Johnson?  Choker Campbell?  Debbie Dean?  Didn’t think so.  But mostly, Motown had a superlative track record.  A few had just one or two hits — The Contours (“Do You Love Me”), Junior Walker and the All-Stars (“Shotgun,” “What Does It Take”), Edwin Starr (Agent Double-O-Soul,” “War”) — but they were HUGE hits.

Gordy and his team were remarkably good at listening to a song in production and identifying it as a hit single.  As legend has it, every Friday there would be a staff meeting, at which everyone was asked to listen to the latest songs in the works and ask themselves: “If you have a dollar and you’re really hungry, would you buy a hot dog, or would you buy this record?”  In most cases, if they wanted the record, it ended up as a million seller.

But his Midas touch was not without its missteps.  My favorite anecdote involves his inexplicable refusal to fully appreciate “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  Written by Whitfield and Strong in 1966, the song was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, but Gordy was unenthused, and sent it back for re-tooling. Then Marvin Gaye took a stab at it, but that too was rejected.  Finally Gladys Knight and the Pips tried a faster, upbeat arrangement, and Gordy approved, and it went on to reach #2 on the charts in late 1967. But it was in the summer of 1968 when Gaye re-recorded it, and although Gordy was hesitant to release it as a single in the wake of Knight’s successful version, he finally relented, and it not only went to #1 but became the definitive version. Creedence and other bands went on to do credible cover versions based on Gaye’s rendition.

L-R: Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland

Ultimately, like all empires, Motown began to crumble.  Holland-Dozier-Holland, the trio that wrote and produced dozens of major hits for the Supremes and others but didn’t own their songs, felt slighted by their pitiable royalty payments and defected in 1967.   By 1968, the country had become a different place, between the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and the Motown artists insisted that their songs should comment on what was going on, despite Gordy’s preference for sunny songs about love and heartache.  He resisted, but Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, in particular, won the right to compose and produce their own material, and the result was a radical shift from boy-girl love songs to diatribes about the state of society, reflected in songs like The Supremes’ “Love Child” (1968), The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” (1970), Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971) and Wonder’s “Living For The City” (1973).

Gordy was not blameless for Motown’s fall from grace.  He had his own share of personal dalliances, most notably a relationship with Diana Ross that produced a child and ended up bringing about her departure from The Supremes in 1970 for a successful solo career (and she ultimately left Gordy and Motown a decade later).

Stevie Wonder in 1971

Still, Motown remained a powerful force in the ’70s and ’80s.  Wonder’s extraordinary string of self-produced records (“Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” “Songs in the Key of Life”), three of which won Album of the Year Grammys, and the emergence of The Jackson 5, who showed up in 1969 and dominated the charts in the early ’70s, kept Motown profitable and in good stead.  (Of course, Michael Jackson the solo artist was a Motown thoroughbred, and he eventually became the biggest star in the universe in the ’80s, but he’d left for Columbia Records by then.)  And new sensations like The Commodores and Thelma Houston helped the label navigate the evolution from soul to funk and disco.  Even into the ’90s and beyond, artists like Boys II Men, The Dazz Band, and Tony! Toni! Tone! kept the Motown boat afloat, but Gordy had sold his interests at that point.

The Jackson 5 in 1971

Gordy was rightfully inducted early into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Non-Performers category in 1988, and his 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, Magic and Memories of Motown” is definitely worth reading, if a bit too self-aggrandizing. In 2013, “Motown The Musical” made a big splash on Broadway and in various touring versions nationwide.

If you want to learn more about the Motown story from an entertaining perspective, I strongly recommend the 2002 documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which tells the tale from the viewpoint of The Funk Brothers, whose musical stylings played a crucial role in the Motown Sound’s widespread popularity.

Berry Gordy in 1988

Gordy deserves a world of praise for the results of his “Hitsville USA” efforts back in that long-ago era.  It was truly a magical time, the mid-’60s…  Magical music that still resonates passionately today.  As the 1967 song lyric goes, “Reflections of the way life used to be…”


This Spotify playlist of Motown songs runs long (80 selections!) because it offers a cross section of most of the label’s best artists and includes huge hits and lesser-known gems as well. Press “play” and enjoy!