I first met Tommy LiPuma in 1972, when I signed to his label, Blue Thumb Records. For the next 45 years I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with him, listening to music, hanging out, driving around and having great dinners. Whatever you were doing with Tommy was one of the best times you ever had, because he was one of the funniest and nicest guys you ever met.
He was one of a kind, a person who made great musicians feel comfortable and even the elevator operator feel valued. He loved music and he made great records, but his real secret was that he was a genius with people. It didn’t matter who he was with: Even if they had just met him that day they wanted to deliver the goods, because there was something special about him. Nobody wanted to let Tommy down.
Listening to music with Tommy was like shining a light into the darkness. He understood not only how to make it but why. For him it was a human thing, not at all technical. He was not particularly technically adept. He had engineer Al Schmitt for that. He trusted his intuition and his emotions in the studio, and when you were around him, you tended to trust yours too; that was one of the reasons he was such a great music producer. He knew that great music came from people in their comfort zone.
I spent the last two years working with Tommy on his biography, and he clearly wanted me to understand just how important certain people were to him along the way, especially those who hipped him, helped him and made him happen: guys like Bobby Dale, Abe Kesh, Red Baldwin, Tom Donahue and Bob Krasnow—if you don’t know who they are, look them up. Tommy says these guys literally saved his life. They were all self-educated street guys who not only turned him on to the business but to books, music, culture and people as well. Tommy said if it weren’t for the music business, they all would have been total misfits. And Tommy was proud to count himself among them.
Tommy believed in songs—that songs could change your life. Just like they changed his life when he was a little kid, trapped in a hospital bed for weeks, months and years on end, listening to jazz and rhythm and blues on the little portable radio his mother gave him. He said that for a long time, that radio was his only friend. Then he joined a band.
He was a pretty good saxophone player, and although he stopped playing around the time he started producing records, in the end he wished he’d kept up with the instrument. He said that people who had pathways of self-expression were his heroes. He loved being close to them. That’s why he sat out in the studio when he worked. He wasn’t gonna let a pane of glass separate him from what he loved.
Most of all Tommy loved laughing, and he once said that Miles Davis was the funniest cat he ever met. They shared the same sense of humor, the same lack of artifice and the same bullshit detector. One day, when Miles was laying in a hospital bed, near the end of his life, he called Tommy up and said, “Man, you got to come over here. I got something I want to play for you.” Tommy got there as fast as he could and there was Miles, propped up in bed, surrounded by all this stuff—drawing materials, a boom box, cassette tapes. Tommy walked into the room and Miles put a tape in the box and pressed play. When it was over, Tommy said, “Yeah, Miles, that sounds great. You know, I think you could…” And Miles cut him off right there. He said, “Man, I don’t want to know what you think about it. I just wanted to play it for you.”