Producer/Executive Tommy LiPuma Dies at 80

Music-industry stalwart produced Grammy-winning albums for George Benson, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall

Tommy Lipuma

Tommy LiPuma

Tommy LiPuma, a Grammy-winning record producer who worked with numerous jazz artists including George Benson, Natalie Cole, Miles Davis, João Donato, Bill Evans, Al Jarreau, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Diana Krall, Ben Sidran, Gabor Szabo, Yellowjackets and many more, and who had major roles at a number of record labels over a 50-plus year career, died on March 14 at age 80 in New York. His death was confirmed by his wife, Gill LiPuma.

LiPuma’s pop, R&B and jazz productions resulted in 35 certified gold or platinum albums, 33 Grammy nominations and five winners. He also served in leadership roles at A&M, Warner Bros. and Verve Music Group.

Born in 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio, LiPuma became enamored of music as a child; saddled with a bone infection at age 9 that left him bedridden for nearly three years, he took solace in the R&B and jazz songs he heard on AM radio. After he recovered he began taking tenor saxophone lessons, playing with local big bands as a teenager and eventually dropping out of high school. A stint as a barber—following in his father’s footsteps—proved unsatisfying to LiPuma, and he eventually landed a job with a record distribution company.

By the early ’60s, LiPuma had moved to Los Angeles to work for Liberty Records in promotions, and by 1963 was working as a producer. For the duration of the decade, he was involved primarily in pop music production for both Liberty and A&M Records.

In 1969, LiPuma and Bob Krasnow formed Blue Thumb Records, giving LiPuma creative control to sign artists across genres, and he soon inked jazz musicians Gabor Szabo, João Donato, Hugh Masekela, the Crusaders, Ben Sidran and others to Blue Thumb’s diverse and eclectic roster.

After selling Blue Thumb to ABC Records in 1974, LiPuma moved to Warner Bros., where he produced a string of successful jazz and crossover albums, including George Benson’s Breezin’, for which he won his first Grammy. Among LiPuma’s credits in the 1980s were saxophonist Michael Brecker’s first recording as a featured artist (Cityscape), Bob James and David Sanborn’s double-platinum album Double Vision and Miles Davis’ career-reviving Tutu.

In 1990, LiPuma moved to Elektra Records as their senior vice president, where he worked with Natalie Cole on the multiple Grammy-winning Unforgettable, garnering LiPuma his second award.

From 1994 to 2011, he served as president of GRP and later as chairman of Verve Music Group (after the GRP-Verve merger), helping to reinvigorate the brand through signing emerging acts including Danilo Perez, Lizz Wright, Russell Malone, Donald Harrison, Groove Collective and Diana Krall, whose 2003 album Live in Paris, produced by LiPuma, earned him his third Grammy.

In 2011, after a brief retirement, he earned his fourth Grammy for producing Sir Paul McCartney’s standards album, Kisses on the Bottom, and his fifth award for the Live Kisses video soundtrack. He continued to work in the profession he loved, with his final production, Krall’s Turn Up the Quiet, due out in May.