Veteran music executive and producer Tommy LiPuma died Monday March 13 following a brief illness. The five-time Grammy winner had worked with George Benson, Natalie Cole, Miles Davis, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand over a career that spanned five decades and positions at A&M Records, Elektra and Verve Music. Author David Ritz remembers his longtime friend.
Tommy LiPuma has never been more alive.
It’s a spring day in 1995 and he’s holding court at the coffee lounge of Capitol Records studios in Hollywood. He’s telling stories. Al Jarreau is listening. Joe Sample is listening. David Sanborn is listening. Maybe they’ve heard the stories before or maybe they haven’t, but it doesn’t matter because Tommy tells stories the way Coltrane constructs solos. You’re entranced listening to him. His riffs are effortless, his digressions hypnotic, his enthusiasm infectious. He speaks a language flavored with street salt and book smarts. He takes you back to his Cleveland childhood where he’s shining shoes and cutting hair at his dad’s barbershop; he’s hawking peanuts at the Indians’ baseball games; he’s opening his own barbershop; he’s out of the barber business; he’s blowing sax in local bands; he’s packing records in a warehouse; he’s a promo man in L.A.; he’s producing the O’Jay’s; he’s working with Dr. John, Queen Latifah, Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis, who is giving him joy rides in a canary yellow Maserati though the mountains of Malibu.
On another day in another season you meet Tommy in Chicago and you’re off to the Art Institute where he’s explaining how, with their elegiac still lives and misty landscapes, his favorite American modernists — Arnold Friedman, Alfred Maurer, Marsden Hartley — feed his soul. The portrait LiPuma wants you to see today is Hartley’s rendering of a husky black man, a study in fierce starkness.
“Outrageous!” says Tommy, employing his favorite term to describe the art that moves him most.
In New York City, you meet Tommy at ASCAP headquarters where pianist Marian McPartland plays a solo recital. You watch Tommy studying McPartland’s fingers as she weaves a web of achingly exquisite chords over “Someone to Watch Over Me.” He slowly nods his head and closes his eyes. When his eyes open, they’re filled with tears. “The thing about jazz,” he whispers, “is how pain becomes beauty.”
In the same city, on the Upper East Side, he expounds on the beauty of good Italian food and fine French wine over dinner at Sistina. Sitting across from him, you realize that his passion for homemade pappardelle is as powerful as his passion for paintings. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a gourmet; it doesn’t even matter if you don’t drink. Tommy’s unbridled gusto is enough to get you tipsy. He grooves on all that is delicious — pasta, Bordeaux, but mostly the sheer joy of human camaraderie.
Watching him with Leon Russell on another day, you ask the singer why he chose Tommy to produce him. “Most of those stiffs stand on the other side of the glass like schoolmarms,” Leon explains. “Tommy gets in there with the players. Tommy’s in the mix. He’s in the music. He is the music.”
When, on a different coast in a different studio, you ask Little Jimmy Scott the same question, he answers, “’Cause he’s the only cat with the soul to understand what I’m all about.”
If soul signifies sweetness, Tommy has soul in abundance. If soul signifies sincerity, Tommy has a double dose. He isn’t a man you simply like or admire — you adore Tommy.
After years in his company, you hardly see him as a saint. He’s too worldly, too funky, too happy to gossip, too out-and-out sensuous. For all his corporate success, he’s no company man. With rueful sadness, he bemoans the demise of the business he used to love. You think of other music moguls who, in becoming art collectors and wine connoisseurs, turned pompous and pretentious. LiPuma’s the least pretentious man you’ll ever meet.
That’s because wherever you find him — chillin’ in his country home, kicked back in his cozy Park Avenue crib or haunting galleries up and down Madison — you feel like he isn’t far from the barbershop. For all his erudition and impeccable taste, he’s still the chatty barber who’s glad you stopped by.
It’s the twinkle in his eye, his easy smile, his contagious laugh. You feel his warmth, his caring, his endless supply of empathy and all-embracing love. But what you mostly feel is that his indomitable spirit is alive, and always will be.