How did you come to work with Van Morrison?
I was working as a listener at Warner Bros. Records. A&R ace Lenny Waronker, along with WB general manager Joe Smith, had helped me sign The Doobie Brothers, and we were co-producing their first record. One day Joe told me I should take a trip to San Francisco with him to learn the ropes. We flew to up and drove to Marin County to meet with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. Len cautioned me: "Ted, don't eat or drink anything he offers, it might be laced with acid."
After that, we drove to Fairfax, California to see Van Morrison. He and Joe talked about his next album. Van was quiet, polite and self-effacing, and I took an immediate liking to the guy. His Irish brogue was hard to understand sometimes, but I could tell he was a super-smart cat. We talked for a while, then Joe and I headed back to Burbank. A week later, Van called and asked me to come up and listen to some tunes. He played new song ideas, and we listened to records, and found we had a common interest in Jazz. We both liked The Modern Jazz Quartet, Mose Allison... We listened to the Les McCann and Eddie Harris track "Compared To What" three or four times in a row… Then he played me some new song ideas that were terrific. But I was completely surprised when he said "Wanna work on a record with me?" I couldn't believe it… he was giving me the chance of lifetime! His talent is undeniably beyond compare. His ballad lyrics have the warm sensitivity of Shelley or Keats on "Tupelo Honey," yet he can deliver vocals with the power of Hemingway on a song like "Wild Night."
You'd already done the first Doobie Brothers album? Or what had Van heard of your production work?
He'd heard nothing… and wouldn't have known of the Doobie Brothers, because "Listen To The Music" from their second LP wasn't even written yet. He had no idea. He doesn't think like that. He just said, "You wanna work with me on this?" I said, 'yeah' and we decided to co-produce. We went right in to the studio. He'd decided to give this young rookie a shot.
What studio was this?
Wally Heider's in San Francisco. We had a wonderful, understanding engineer, Stephen Barncard. I'd go in and get the musicians warmed up and microphones ready, then he would get sounds while I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Fairfax, pick up Van, who had no driver's license. It was great, because he'd selected the musicians, and they'd be ready to go when he walked in. Not like I called in studio cats; he knew exactly how to put a band together. They knew what to expect. If he'd rehearsed them, he'd sometimes walk in, pick up his guitar… tell them which song he wanted to do, then go: "one, two, three, four" and boom… they'd start.
I was nervous, but he was understanding. He's stop and say, "So Ted, are we getting a good sign in there?" In his Irish brogue, he was saying "sound." He sang every track straight through, live with the band. That's how he captured the spontaneity. That's an important lesson I learned from him. I used that approach in all my future projects. Never burn out the band doing take after take.... just get the little parts ironed out before hitting the record button.
There were certain terms that confused some of us. Americans think of songs in terms of verse, chorus, bridge, etc., but Van called a bridge "the middle eight," which makes perfect sense. I was nervous as hell. I was afraid of over-modulating [distortion] and tried not to look unhappy or puzzled…because musicians look at the expression on the producer's face. So here I am, trying to make sure we didn't mess something up, while at the same time being in awe of Van's talent. His pitch is perfect, and his vocal ability and musical instincts are second to none.
Ronnie Montrose, who you later produced with future Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, is on this record.
Ronnie Montrose was a godsend to me; we got to be really good friends. He had a sense of humor that would make Van laugh, and that's an important thing. He was the guy who kept the fucking session alive, and I'm not joking, because I was too serious. I was scared. I was nervous, and he kept things light and happy.
Did Van have demos of the songs before you started working?
No, he would play me stuff on the guitar at his house. And then we'd go in to the studio...There's where the genius comes in, because he writes poetry off the top of his head, and then he comes up with chords and a melody, and he would do that just sitting in his living room. It was like sitting next to Marc Chagall while he just knocks out an amazing painting.
These days, technology makes things so much easier; back then you'd be splicing tape takes together with razor blades and tape…
I remember one very stressful situation. Back then the producer or engineer would press record and say something like "'Wild Night,' take one" and it would put a tone on the tape called a slate. One time the tone didn't print on the multi-track. So Van asks [from the studio] if the take was good. I wanted to check….and we couldn't find the tone. That day, there were, as there often were, some famous people sitting down in observer's seats on a level lower than the recording deck, looking out the window watching Van record. I'm frantic, because we can't find the take, and Grace Slick, Mike Bloomfield and someone else is there, and Van comes in and says "where's the take? Listen Ted… is it gonna be the soup …or the nuts?" I didn't know what he meant, but luckily, I found it and all was good. I later found out he was referring to dinner, starting with "soup," ending with "nuts." I think part of my problem was I was constantly in awe of his talent and felt terrible if I screwed up. Anyway, at the end of the day -- after a trip to his house in Fairfax and back again to my hotel in San Francisco -- I would call my mentor, Lenny [Waronker]. Every single night! I'd play him something I was concerned about. He'd listen over the phone and say: "Ted, it sounds fine… Just get it done!"
The three singles were "Wild Night," "Tupelo Honey" and "(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball." What was your favorite of those, and did you agree with those choices?
"Wild Night" -- I really wanted that to be a single. We both agreed. And "Starting a New Life," I knew he was just writing about being out there from Woodstock. I saved a couple reviews, because some were saying that that second record was the best he'd ever done. I didn't really think so. I loved Moondance; that was my favorite album.
We did a session at a place called Funky Jack's in [San Francisco's] Fillmore District. We had a lot of incidents. My wife was pregnant and I'm in the Bay Area all the time, then there was a big earthquake in Pasadena [where he lived]. This is really something: When my son was born, we were at the Huntington Hospital [in Pasadena], and it was taking forever; eventually they decided to do a cesarean. Van walks into the hospital to be with me during this time. I was so out of sorts worried that I didn't know what to do. Van and I went up to my house, and he was doing James Brown impressions and dancing and trying to keep me from worrying. That's what a sweetheart he is. He's a very sensitive cat.
He was there for me in a time of need. And he gave me my first hit record. I'll never forget that. Van gave me my start in the music business. The highlight of my life was being at the Rainbow Theatre with him, because that live Too Late to Stop Now album that I love -- we did part of it at the Troubadour, part of it at the Santa Monica Civic. But when we went to the Rainbow Theatre, I've never experienced anything like that.
When I heard Van doing "Gloria," the Rainbow Theatre [in London] was pulsating; I had fucking chills. It was unbelievable; he had never been back there since he was in the group Them. He left and did the Bert Berns stuff and "Brown Eyed Girl" and all that stuff he did in the United States, but he'd never been a solo artist. When we were doing the live recording for It's Too Late to Stop Now, I would run back and forth from the truck to site; we borrowed Pete Townsend's [mobile recording] truck. Van, sometimes he'd be talking into the mic, talking and singing to the audience, and started talking to me too. He'd say in the middle of the show, "Ted, you get that?" In those days, you're running an 8-track machine, and you'd have to change reels. You couldn't do it in the middle of a song, so I had to coordinate that, too, running back and forth. I had Donn Landee, who's a genius and did every record with me, and the one I won the Grammy for and all of that. So it was a nail-biter for me.
Even though you were young and stressed, it sounds like Van never doubted you. He always wanted your opinion.
Yeah, but he'd also say, "No, let's do that." But gave me the shot. You're driving along, and you hear "your" song -- I drove off the road and stopped. When I heard "Wild Night," I thought, 'Oh my God, I did it.' But it was Van that gave me the chance, nobody else. You never forget your first hit record.
And you guys went quickly into the next record, into Saint Dominic's Preview, right?
Yeah, yeah. And then the Doobies broke. I had a hit with "Listen to the Music." But mainly working with Van is what I really looked forward to, because I would learn so much.
Was the mood similar in the studio with Saint Dominic's as it was with Tupelo Honey?
No, it was a lot more fun, I think because we'd worked together before. He liked having a co-producer. Having worked on It's Too Late to Stop Now, it's like being married to somebody, doing that album in three places. We were constantly reviewing and together going over stuff. By the way, he was talking about me in the lyrics of "Saint Dominic's Preview." He said, "You got your pen and notebook ready, don't you think it's time for us to begin?" That was about me, because I always had my notepad. He'd never vacillate. He'd sit there and write lyrics, and he never needed help on that. He was prolifically a genius.
It's like he believed in you more than you believed in you at that point.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. There were times, I swear, I'd say, "I don't know," and he'd say, "It's OK, Ted, come on, come on." Let's put it this way: I never would've had Van Halen or the Doobie hits that I had without him, because they all came after.
I know you love the song "Jackie Wilson Said." Do you remember him writing that?
Yeah, I love that song. He actually came up with a lot of the melody of that in the studio. And that came as a groove, and he already had the lyrics down. The same with "(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball." I loved both of those. I sang on "Cannonball," me and Ronnie.
When was the last time you listened to the records you did with Van?
Probably when I finished them. No, I listened to the live stuff [before this interview]; "I Believe to My Soul," and then there's another one on there where you hear the strings -- it's a slow one. But I don't like to go back and listen to things I've done anyway. I never do it. I always hear the clams.