August 21, 2008

Ralph Schuckett on Writing Hit Songs & Film/TV Music – Part One

In this Member interview, we attempt to cover Ralph Schuckett’s 35-year career in music in 10 questions. He is a performer, songwriter, original score composer for Films and TV, arranger, producer, record executive and a patient music teacher. In part one, Ralph reminisces about Carole King, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Saturday Night Live and more. It reads like there is a book in the works. Enjoy!

You have worked as a keyboard player and arranger with Who's Who in the music industry. What artists evoke some of your fondest memories?

I'd have to write a book to fully answer that question, but I'll try to narrow it down, in no particular order of importance. Here's some that come to mind:

1) When I was very young I did several records and four tours with Carole King and James Taylor, during the peak of their popularity. I can't say that I have specifically fond memories of those years, because my personal life was full of conflict and chaos. But Carole and James are such warm, enlightened, and inspiring people, that I'll always be grateful to them for accepting me into their family. They taught me by their example, not their words, so much about music and life. I'm also grateful to (guitar player/ record producer) Danny Kortchmar, my musical older brother, who hooked me up with James and Carole. You may know him as the producer of Don Henley's most popular album. (The name escapes me). He was a great mentor to me. As was the late Joel Bishop O'Brien, who played drums on many of Carole's and James' records and was my roomate on tour. Officially, I never attended college, but Danny and Joel were my equivalent of inspiring professors. They schooled me on, not only music, but all forms of culture, politics, world events, business, and on life in general. They really encouraged and nurtured my own talents and instincts.

During that same time period, Carole and James' respective producer/ managers, Lou Adler and Peter Asher, taught (also by example, not words) about creating a comfortable, secure atmosphere in a recording studio, so that the musicians could give their best performances, un-encumbered by the constraints of judgement or ego. They also introduced me to the great pop recording paradigm: "less is more". They had incredible ears, great patience, faith and sensitivity. Which, I feel is why they've each made, not only so many hits over the years, but so many high quality, timeless, soulful recordings.

2) Before my time with Carole and James, I joined a band in LA called Clear Light. Our debut album was released on Elektra Records, produced by Paul Rothchild of The Doors fame. Clear Light toured the US several times, and was especially popular in New York. One of our songs, "Mr Blue" was an adventurous, groundbreaking underground radio hit all over the country. Some of the members of that band went on to fame and great success in other bands and as songwriters and film actors. I was a child when I joined Clear Light. The time I spent with those five guys, was a life awakening. They were (and still are) all wonderful, talented people, who gave me my 1st taste of life on the road. It was also my first professional recording experience. It was through Clear Light that I got the incredible opportunity to hang out and jam with Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Neal Young, BB King, Howling Wolf, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Gregg and Duane Allman, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the original Blood, Sweat and Tears, and of course, Jimi Hendrix.

3) I was seeing a girl in NY at the time, whose roommate was with Dallas Taylor, one of Clear Light's drummers (we had two). After Clear Light broke up, Dallas went on to be the original drummer for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and is now a well-respected drug and alcohol rehab counselor. Anyway, Dallas's girlfriend was also one of Jimi Hendrix's many girlfriends (hey-- it was 1967, hippies, free love, etc). Dallas and I and other guys from our band often hung out in the girls' tiny East Village apartment, just talking, listening to music or watching TV.

Sometimes Jimi would drop by and just hang. He was a really nice guy, kind of shy, but when he spoke it was obvious that he was very perceptive and smart. He could see through bullshit, but was also polite, never wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. At times he'd kid around and be really funny, in a sort of stream of consciousness, hippie pothead way (for lack of a better description). He had a large vocabulary and his own stylized version of the English language. Everyone close with him ended up using a lot of his expressions. About four or five years later, after he'd died, coincidentally, I moved in with a new girlfriend, who had been one of Jimi's close friends and companions. I guess Jimi had lots of friends. She was a single mother with a little boy around a year old. She shared an apartment with a couple of other girls from Jimi's "inner circle' and they still used all of his expressions. I'm trying to remember some of them, but at the moment I can only think of one, which was "Blah blah, woof woof." That meant, roughly, "etcetera".

One time, when a tour landed us in New York, Jimi had bought a building in Greenwich Village, that had previously, through the years, housed various restaurants. He and his managers had turned it into a very popular night club, where a lot of just-breaking acts played when they came to New York. Sly and the Family Stone and Buddy Guy were among the ones I saw there. A couple of years later Jimi & Co built Electric Lady Studios in the basement of the same building, but he never lived to see its completion.

A few times, after the show, the club would close its doors for a jam session, over which Jimi would preside. They would allow a few people from the audience to stick around, either to play, or just to listen. Since Dallas and I knew Jimi through the two girls, he and I ended up staying and jamming. I think Doug Lubahn, the bass player in Clear Light did too. A lot of famous musicians would take part in those jams, including BB King, Eric Clapton and Ted Nugent.

By the time we'd get to the club after our own gig, a keyboard player named Al Kooper, the leader and founder of Blues Project and the original Blood Sweat and Tears, would usually be playing the house Hammond B3 organ. He was a very bright guy with a great sense of humor. He and I were friendly but I always felt competitive with him. He’d played on most of Bob Dylan's big records, as well as the Rolling Stones' and lots of other big hits and I was jealous. He was also a Columbia Records executive, and his name was always mentioned in the press. I felt I was a much better player than he, but Al always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and had a lot of self-confidence. I kind of resented him, although when I got to know him better, I learned that he was a soulful, nice, caring guy. Great songwriter and producer, too. He discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the great Southern rock bands.

So I would sit on the edge of the stage listening, and every few minutes I'd go up to Al and ask him if I could play. He'd always say, "A little later." I'd be seething inside as I sat there listening, always thinking about the cool things I would have played if I'd had a chance. Eventually, with me pestering him all night, he would say, "Okay, Okay! Christ, be pushy why don't you!" Even though he acted angry and kidded me a lot, I could feel that he liked and respected me, as sort of an annoying but cute little brother. I'm grateful to him for letting me play. He was never competitive. He'd had a lot of success, had made his mark and had nothing to prove. He was just having fun. He's one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He even wrote a well known book about his experiences in music, with Dylan, The Stones, and a lot of other rock'n'roll greats. I think the title was "The Man Who Ate Dog Food" and it's probably out of print, but it was very funny.

Jimi and guests jammed till 8 or 9 AM and it was always strange and surreal to leave the club in daylight, after being up all night. The club was on a busy street and there were all these ordinary people on their way to work, and all the restaurants, pharmacies and news stands that catered to them. They were just waking up, and we were ready to sleep all day. At the all-night sessions, there was often a shortage of drummers, so Dallas would end up playing all night-- for hours with no break. By the time he hit the street in the morning, his clothes were drenched in sweat and he was several pounds lighter.

When there was another great guitar player like BB King, Jimi would lay back respectfully and play rhythm guitar -- just a guy in the band groovin'. Eventually as the night wore on the other guitar players would get tired and leave the stage. Then Jimi would start to really play, and experiment with new sounds. The sounds coming from his amp were amazing, and nothing like anyone had ever heard before. It was amazing to witness. Sometimes he strapped on two guitars at once, one on each shoulder and tried all these crazy things with both hands, or knocked the two together or rubbed the strings of one with the strings of the other and let them both feedback. Jimi had a two track reel-to-reel tape recorder on stage and recorded everything.

I hear Jimi's influence in so many popular bands these days. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against The Machine come to mind at the moment. He was a guitar God. One morning, a couple of years after Jimi's jams, I was back in LA after a tour with Carole and James. I turned on the radio and heard of his death, and I cried.

4) In 1974 in New York I had been playing on a Bette Midler album. One night about 2AM, I was fast asleep in my apartment when the phone rang. It's hard to imagine now, but this was pre-voice mail or answering machine. I tried to ignore it but I finally got up to answer. It was the producer of the Bette album, who said in a conspiratorial stage whisper, "Ralph, you won't believe who just walked into the studio with Bette! Bob Dylan! And they want to record some duets right now. Call some musicians and get down here immediately!" Dylan was like a God to me and if asked whom I'd want to play with out of anyone in the world, he'd have been in the top two or three.

So I started waking people up, eventually found a few musicians to do the date. I bought about twelve coffees for everyone and headed downtown (I lived uptown). The studio was still set up from the previous day. When we donned our headphones, the Bob and Bette, now on mike in a booth, were in the midst of a running, sort of stream of consciousness conversation, which they kept on for the whole session, between takes. They were such extremely bright, witty people, at the top of their game, and were very funny. They really got a kick out of each other, and cracked everybody up. Moogy Klingman, the producer, kept tape rolling throughout the whole thing. Somewhere in Atlantic Records' vaults are some multi-track tapes with their repartee, in addition to the songs we recorded. We worked till past daylight, trying a few things, including a new Dylan song, "Buckets of Rain". It's the only one that ended up on the record. I can't remember the details, but my guess is that on the other tracks, Bette or Bob, or the band must have sounded pretty dreadful. We all were smoking, drinking or inhaling God knows what (don't tell the kids). That night was like witnessing a comedy special with two living legends. I never talked to Bob, though I had the
opportunity. I was too shy and in awe.

5) In the '80's I arranged and played on couple of songs on a George Benson album. I haven't ever heard the final tracks. Recently, when looking for the album online, I saw my name on the credits of a George Benson compilation so, figuring that was the one, I ordered it. When it arrived I unwrapped it excitedly and threw it on the box. I discovered that, though I was credited as String Arranger, I'd never even heard or HEARD OF the songs I was credited with. So I still haven't found the exsisting tracks. I can't remember the name of the original album, but I recently found the string chart in my attic for one of the songs I arranged. It's called "I Almost Believed You."

I had been a fan of George's great guitar playing on many jazz records, way before anyone knew he could sing. When I worked on one track, I put in some sophisticated jazzy chords and basslines, which I rarely got the chance to do on most of my arranging gigs, which were mainstream Pop or Rock'n'Roll. Kashif, the producer, was really hot at the time and doing at least three other albums concurrently, including Whitney Houston’s. She was at the peak of her popularity. I also did a track for Kashif on her album. He would pop in the studio every now and then, but pretty much left me on my own. Kashif's state of the art studio was in his beautiful home in Stamford, Connecticut. The house was a historic landmark because it was where Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player, and his family had lived when he’d played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '50's.

Anyway, Kashif came in to tell me George would be arriving soon, but that he (Kashif) couldn't be there since he had an important meeting. So eventually George came in, with his son, who was probably in his late teens/ early twenties at the time. George said, "Let's hear whatcha got." So I played my midi arrangement for him to sing along with, (thinking to myself, he's gonna love this shit.)

George listened to about four or five bars, and made the gesture of a finger across his throat, to signal "Stop". I stopped the track and he looked at me, seeming very annoyed.

He said, "Man, don't be doin' no JAZZ shit on MY record! I was momentarily devasted, then he smiled and put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Damn, boy! We want this M***F*** to sell! Ain' no room fuh NO jazz on heah!" I felt like a jerk and realized I should've known that, but I'd let my ego get in the way of my Pop judgement. Then he said, "We gon' go get us some dinner, but when I get back, I wanna hear some pop music, boy. No jazz. We makin' HITS here!" As it turned out it was pretty easy to change the track and when he got back he listened and was satisfied.

To make sure the tracks were in the right key, I asked him to sing along a few times, in a couple of different keys. Most great improvisers I know get bored with repeating a song over and over the same way. George was no exception. So, to keep himself interested, each time he sang he imitated another well-known singer. He did Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Al Green, and I swear, if your eyes were closed, you'd think that they were all right there in the room singing! An astounding thing about George is that, even though he's recorded with so many great singers and musicians, including Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones, George never learned to read music. He has such a good ear, as well as instincts and memory, that he could learn quickly. So despite not reading, he could still play his ass off without getting lost in the chart.

You have Gold Albums to your credit. What are the magic ingredients that helped achieve them?

First and foremost always, is the songs. The songs have to be memorable lyrically and melodically. Great pop lyrics these days have to be conversational, not poetic or pretentious. If you're in a rock band with great players, a great sound and a distinctive sounding singer, there's more leeway. Also with certain types of singer-songwriters. But a good pop song has to sound like the artist is talking to you personally, in the simple language that everyday people use.

My own personal opinion these days, is that a hit song needs to be both clever and sexy. It has to express one main opinion, emotion or concept and has to get to the point quickly. The title and chorus have to be about one idea only, and every verse line has to support that idea and build up to it. To me, that's a lot harder than it sounds. I myself don't like triteness and cliches-- things that have been said in songs a million times before. It's possible to have a hit with something trite, but it wouldn't move me. The hardest thing to write these days is a love song that is simple, sincere and real, but not corny, cliched and sentimental. But that's just me. A perfect example of a recent song that hits all the marks is "Crazy" by Gnarles Barkley. I never met a person who didn't like that song.

Sometimes you played with the Saturday Night Live band. What were some of your other collaborations with SNL cast members?

I'll answer that in a minute, but first here's a funny story of my first SNL experience:

On occasion I subbed for one of the keyboard players in the SNL band. The first time, I was hired by Tom Malone, the trombone player from the Blues Brothers Band, who'd played in the SNL band since the show's inception, and wrote a lot of their arrangements. I was pretty nervous because that band was like an exclusive club. I'd worked or played with most of the guys before, and had hired some of them on sessions. But those guys were not only very cocky, but sarcastic, merciless pranksters.

On that show at that time, there were three separate stages in the main sound stage, which was a huge warehouse-like room deep in the bowels of Rockefeller Center. It had seats for the audience, and some little side rooms where the producer, director, sound engineers and video mixers did their thing. The idea was that each stage would be the home for a skit or bit, and as soon as that one was over, the cameras would all roll to the adjacent stage and film that, while the crew tore down the previous stage and set it up for another skit later in the show.

The band played on a platform directly above the main stage where the guest host did the opening monolog. That night it was Harry Anderson, star of Night Court, who's an amazing magician. It was really interesting to watch his slight of hand tricks from above and behind, where we could see the gadgets and gizmos he used to accomplish his impressive feats. While he kept up his casual, humorous patter, one hand or another was speeding around behind his back, in and out of pockets, up sleeves, etc. The audience saw him casually reading a newspaper and laughed at his little witticisms, but one story above on the band platform, we could see the required craft and artifice needed to make a trick look simple and effortless to the audience. Harry must have practiced for years to perfect his act. People don't become stars by accident.

At that time, no one in the live or TV audiences could actually see the band, who were behind a screen. In earlier and later years, the band was visible to all, but for some reason that year they were hidden. That gave the guys in the band the freedom to engage in lots of shenanigans, which no audience (or the bosses of the show) would ever see. They were all great, seasoned players who could sight read well and always kept their cool, but they always tried to tease and mess with each other when they were on the air. It was a badge of honor to remain unflustered and play the charts even if your buddies were trying to make you laugh or screw up.

When you do a live TV show like that, the musicians wear headphones. In the headphones, in one ear you hear (hopefully) your own instrument in a mono mix with the rest of the band, the dialog that is on the air at that moment, and the voice of the person you are accompanying. In your other ear you hear the director shouting cues to the three or four cameramen, who are scrambling to move where he tells them to. If you're accompanying a singer for example, it’s hard to hear yourself or the singer, because the director is shouting in your ear, "Camera one! Tight shot on Eddie on three. One, two three! Beautiful! Camera two, wide shot on the girls from the left side on three! One, two three! Excellent! Where the fuck is Harry? He's supposed to be at the door right now! Somebody find Harry! Who forgot the table? Somebody grab the table! Not you, Jack! Jesus, everyone can see you! Oh fuck! Camera one, dissolve! George, go to commercial! " And stuff like that. No one had warned me that, when I played for the skits, I would barely be able to hear a note of music or the voice. I was, to say the least, unprepared.

It was in that crazed atmosphere that I made my SNL debut. In the first musical bit, I was supposed to accompany Eddie Murphy, (just him and me). It was a very funny skit where he played a black militant terrorist armed to the teeth, and decked out in camos and bandolero belts. His character, who spoke hard core ghetto slang in a loud, harsh voice, had the absurd ambition to be in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical on Broadway. The G & S light opera, "Pirates of Penzance", written by two upper class Englishmen in the 1880's, was a hit on Broadway, produced by the famous theatre impresario Joseph Papp. Eddie hadn't come to the rehearsal that afternoon, but I'd gone over the music a couple of hours before in Tom's office. Though it was a pretty simple part, I hadn't any idea of how Eddie's performance would be phrased or paced.

This is the routine: Eddie, playing the high strung, desparate terrorist, breaks into Joseph Papp's house, where Papp (the real Papp, playing himself) and his nice little family are curled up in front of the TV, and threatens to kill them all unless Papp will let him audition for "Pirates of Penzance". A terrified Papp gives him the go-ahead and Eddie, accompanied by yours truly at a piano thirty yards away, with the director shouting in my headphones, proceeds to sing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General", a very British, stiff, white, upper class, polite, prissy 19th century song with lots of complicated, tongue twisting syllables going by, at lightning speed. All the while holding Joseph Papp and family at gunpoint. I was struggling to focus, knowing that millions of people were tuned in at that moment.

Seated next to me at the time, was a young, charismatic enfant terrible guitar player, David Spinozza, who was the most in-demand recording guitar player in New York. You can hear David's work on classics by Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Paul McCartney, Dr John, Paul Simon, Carly Simon and James Taylor among others. David's inspired acts of outrageous humor are the stuff of legend. So David, lounging casually in the SNL Band guitar chair hears Eddie Murphy in his headphones, as I do, yelling, "Shut Up, Joseph Papp! On the floor! All of you! You gon' LET me audition, Papp, or you and your whole family gon' DIE!" And we hear, "Camera one, tight shot on Eddie on three! One two three! Good! Music get ready! Music on three! 1, 2, a-a-a-a-nd three! Music!" And I play the intro and Eddie begins to sing, and David Spinozza leaps out of his chair and in one swift motion, knocks my headphones off my head, sending them skittering across the floor.

So if you're ever watching TV late at night, and you see an SNL rerun where Harry Anderson is the guest host, look for the part where Eddie Murphy plays a Gilbert and Sullivan-spewing terrorist, and if you listen very carefully, in the background you'll hear the piano part fall apart and disappear. You might even hear the whole SNL Band's cackling laughter. And, as long as there are SNL reruns, so will millions of people around the world.

As a Record Executive at Columbia Records/Sony you had to do some serious multitasking. What are the top traits/skills a successful producer should have?

There are many kinds of successful record producers. Some write songs for or with the artist. Some make cool tracks to which the artist adds lyrics and or melody. Some are engineers, who get great sounds and hire the right players. Some producers don't engineer, write or play an instrument, but have a great instinct for nurturing an artist and finding hit songs for the marketplace. Ideally, these create a comfortable, secure, creative environment for the artist and musicians to do what they do best, without having to think about finite things like schedules and budgets. I've produced bands, where they had the material and the sound, and my job was to manage everybody's sensitive egos, and make sure they don't end up killing each other before the record is done.

No matter what their style or physical function, the main job of a producer is to be the one responsible grownup among the children (artists and musicians). To make a great record, the people performing the music should be in a free, childlike state of mind to create something special. Frankly, I usually prefer to be one of the kids. It’s possible to be both, if a person is a great multi-tasker, or have a brilliant assistant or tag-team partner to fill in the cracks. In general, I think a producer should:

1) Be a true fan of the artist or band. Love and respect what they do. Understand not only their art, but their personalities and what makes them tick. Be alert and mindful at all times on the job. Be perceptive enough to recognize how and when the artist gets inspired. Be selfless in the studio, always making the band or singer's comfort a priority. There are exceptions, where you need to shake someone up to get a good performance.

2) Know when to speak, and when to shut up and let them do their thing. When you have a creative comment or a direction for a musician, you have to sense the right time, and the right words, without talking too much and ruining the vibe. Also, know when everyone needs a break and some fresh air, or when a good meal is needed. People tend to get obsessive in recording studios and forget that life exists in the outer world. You have to have an interact with the outer world or your music could become stale. Lots of musicians who create tracks, tend to be introverted and self-indulgent. They might get all hyped on their own work and think they're geniuses, but if no one ever hears it, what's the point? Music is a form of communication. You have to remember that you're making music about people and for people. If you don't get up to date input, you're working in a vacuum, which is the absence of air. No air = death.

3) Have a strong, cohesive, objective vision of what the record should be and never lose sight of that. Sometimes an artist will go off on a tangent that doesn't fit the concept of the record, so the producer has to gently nudge the artist back on track, without the artist's realizing it.

4) Many inexperienced record producers make the mistake of viewing the artists as their own vehicle to fame and fortune. If you're a good producer, it's never about you or your career. It's about how to bring together all the elements to make a great recording.

5) VERY IMPORTANT! The producer is the bridge between the artist and whoever's paying for everything. Major labels are not as powerful as they once were, which I think is a good thing. Still, there should be clear communication with the money source. Sometimes the money source has different goals and tastes than the artist does. You have to help maintain their enthusiasm, without squahing the artist's vision. Adept diplomacy is essential. Your job is also to plan carefully how and on what you intend to spend your budget. It’s true that most superstar producers go over budget, but who has to ultimately pay for it? The artist whose name is on the record. It’s a tightrope dance that everyone who combines art and commerce, has to do. When there’s money at stake, every factor has to weighed, but quick decisions are necessary too.

To be continued ...

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