Tommy LiPuma, legendary record executive and producer, died March 13 in New York after a brief illness. He was 80 years old.
Recordings produced by LiPuma sold more than 75 million during his career, with 35 certified gold or platinum albums, 33 Grammy nominations and five Grammy awards. He produced some of the biggest stars in jazz and popular music, including Miles Davis, George Benson, Diana Krall, Dr. John, Sir Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Randy Newman and Natalie Cole.
As a record executive, LiPuma served as the first staff producer at A&M Records and co-founded Blue Thumb Records in the 1960s. He served as the head of Jazz and Progressive Music at Warner Bros., senior vice-president of A&R at Elektra, president of GRP and Impulse and chairman of Verve Music.
Born Thomas LiPuma in 1936, he grew up in Cleveland and was drawn to music while recovering from a long-term illness.
“I lived a pretty normal childhood up until the time I was nine or 10,” LiPuma said in a 2003 interview with DownBeat Publisher Frank Alkyer. “I was an active kid, but I ended up coming down with this illness, a bone infection, which slowed me down. I was literally horizontal for a few years. Part of this thing was a blessing. The radio, and music, turned out to be my best friend.
“Going through the dials, I found this station called WJMO. In those days, it was an r&b station. Suddenly, at 10, I became introduced to Charles Brown and Louis Jordan and Ruth Brown. I suddenly found an entirely different genre of music than I had been accustomed to hearing around the house. Finding this music was like finding God. I started recovering when I was around 12. When I got in school, maybe when I was 13, I started playing saxophone. By the time I was 16, I was working clubs.”
LiPuma was so busy as a gigging musician that he quit school at 18, and became a barber because his father insisted that he learn a trade. With money borrowed from his father, LiPuma opened his own barber shop in downtown Cleveland. It became a hang for musicians as well as record distributors and music promoters in town.
“I’d bug everybody for a gig,” he said. “You have no idea how much I hated the barber business.”
Eventually, LiPuma landed a job packing records for $50 a week. A year later, he moved to Los Angeles to be a radio promoter for Liberty Records. It was there that he got his first shot at producing.
“There was this group, a totally unknown group at the time, and I thought that they were great,” LiPuma said. “So, the first record I did was Aaron Neville song called “Lipstick Traces” with this group. They were The O’Jays.
“As it turns out, it was a regional hit in two or three areas: Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland. But things really started bopping when I hooked up with two friends of mine. One was a promotion man and the other one was a songwriter. They had a hit record and started a company, and I stayed friends with them. In 1965, they asked me to join them because they were getting a little larger. There were five of us when I joined. That was Herb Albert and Jerry Moss [at A&M Records].”
In 1968, LiPuma left A&M to found Blue Thumb records with Bob Krasnow and Don Graham. The label delivered recordings from a wealth of artists such as Captain Beefheart, The Crusaders, Hugh Masekela, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Jimmy Smith, Gábor Szabó and Ike and Tina Turner. The label was known for finding great artists, but had difficulty succeeding financially.
“It seemed like every time we had success, Columbia or somebody would come along and buy the act from underneath us,” LiPuma said. “We need up selling the company to ABC/Paramount, and I went over to Warner Bros.”
There, LiPuma produced his first major hits, George Benson’s Breezin’, Al Jarreau’s Look To The Rainbow and Benson’s Weekend In L.A. The latter included the hit “On Broadway.”
At his final stop as a label executive at GRP/Verve Records, he began his collaboration with Diana Krall. The relationship yielded 11 records, multiple Grammy nominations and more than 15 million albums sold. Their 12th and final collaboration, Turn Up The Quiet, will be released on May 5. Click here for more information.
In 2011, Paul McCartney asked LiPuma to produce, Kisses On The Bottom. The record was a critical success for the Concord Music Group, garnering a Grammy Award for Best Pop Standard Album (Vocal). LiPuma continued producing records for everyone from his long-time collaborator, Leon Russell, to up-and-coming trumpeter Dominick Farinacci.
Outside of music, LiPuma’s passion was art, specifically 20th Century American Modernism. Works from his collection—which features pieces from such artists as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Alfred Maurer—have been displayed at numerous museums and galleries around the United States.
In 2012, the Board of Trustees of Cuyahoga Community College named the College’s arts center the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts, in recognition of his support of the Cuyahoga Community College Foundation, the college and the students served.
LiPuma is survived by his wife, Gill, daughters Jen Monti and Danielle Wiener, and grandchildren Matty, Julia, Chloe and Ava. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in his name to the Tommy LiPuma Endowment Fund at Cuyahoga Community College or to City Meals on Wheels. Plans for a public memorial service will be announced. DB