The A&R guy who signed the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen looks back on a ‘Life in Music’
In this utterly delightful remembrance, the man responsible for a shocking number of the biggest records of the 1970s and 1980s emerges from behind the mixing board to recall working with the Doobie Brothers, Van Halen, Nicolette Larson and a hundred others with clarity, affection and even glimpses of wisdom.
With “A Platinum Producer’s Life In Music,” Ted Templeman has broken the law. Two laws, actually. The law that dictates rock memoirs must focus primarily on sex and drugs, and the law that those made rich and famous by the record business must still view all aspects of that business with contempt.
Templeman’s remembrance of his early days is so refreshing for the appreciation he shows for those who played roles in shaping his career. He counts producer and record executive Lenny Waronker as both a genius and a generous mentor, and cites Warner Bros’ sophistication in breaking his 60’s vocal pop group Harpers Bizarre as an instance in which the artist would not have had the career they did without the label’s guidance and the strategic smarts of the people who saw something in them.
A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music
Ted Templeman with Greg Renoff
Templeman doesn’t just make assertions. He backs them up with examples. For instance, Ted’s early psych group The Tikis rock hard, and his outlook is influenced by Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape. They got their lucky break when Warner Bros. bought the defunct Autumn Records, and dumped everyone except The Beau Brummels and The Tikis. Waronker decided The Tikis needed a change of direction, as well as a name change. With acid rock and the Summer of Love blowing everyone’s mind, Templeman and the band were skeptical of the wimpy direction the producer prescribed for them. Waronker brought in a little number called “Feelin’ Groovy” written by an unknown folk rocker called Paul Simon. Templeman’s skepticism turned to horror when Lenny wouldn’t let any of The Tikis play on the record and loaded it up with strings and Four Freshman style harmonies. The band, now known as Harpers Bizarre in a stupid pun on the similarly named fashion magazine, hated the record. And it climbed to No. 13 and launched a career in the record business for the skeptical young kid.
From artist to producer
Templeman uses his status as a Warner Bros. artist to start haunting Hollywood recording studios Western Recorders and Sunset Sound. On October 18, 1967, he was hanging out in the lobby at Western when Frank Sinatra walked in. The great crooner asked the blond-haired kid how he liked his new shoes. Then allowed him to sit in with the great engineer Lee Herschberg.
The reader can feel Templeman’s excitement at having been admitted to the castle as he sets eyes on a full orchestra with a conductor, plus drummer, pianist, guitarist, and bassist and female background vocalists. Producer Jimmy Bowen says into the talkback microphone, “That’s Life, take one.” Templeman is awed by Sinatra’s pitch and command, saying that in the three-hour session he never once missed a note. Sinatra notices a bad note on the trumpet player’s sheet music, the only one to hear it amid 30 some professional musicians.
At the same time, Templeman notices that Sinatra doesn’t always take Bowen’s suggestions. Would that classic record have been even better had the producer been in full command? It was the question that would guide the next several decades of Templeman’s life.
Next thing you know, Mia Farrow asks Harpers Bizarre to play at the party she’s throwing to celebrate her first anniversary with Sinatra. The band performs three sets for Yul Brynner, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, George Burns, Natalie Wood, and the cast of Peyton Place. Templeman’s enthusiasm for these old-time entertainers, after having achieved so much success with the biggest rock bands of the 70s and 80s, is infectious. It can actually be too much, even for me. Like the story of the time Templeman didn’t speak to Raquel Welch when Harpers Bizarre appeared on the Bob Hope special.
As Harpers’ short career winds down, Templeman continues to hang out in studios, soaking up what he could beside great producers and engineers and occasionally serving as second engineer. The reader is amazed to discover that Elvis Presley did all of his stage moves while singing in the studio. When Billy Strange asked him to do another take, The King would say “Yes, sir,” even at the height of his fame. Another memorable session had Ike Turner producing Tina at Sunwest. Donn Landee was engineering.
“Ike stared me down before turning his eyes back to Tina, who was out in the studio. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I spotted a pile of blow on the console in front of him. His left hand hovered beside his coke while his right gripped a black revolver. I’m not sure if the gun was meant to intimidate everyone in the room or maybe just to keep everyone’s noses out of his powder, but it got the message across either way.”
Even though he’d enjoyed some success as a musician, Templeman is willing to humble himself as he embarks on an effort to build a career as a producer and A&R executive. Having appeared on television and the Billboard charts, he starts at Warner Bros. as a lowly tape listener for $50 a week.
In the way that many of the best baseball managers were mediocre players – not stars, but also not guys who never played — Templeman’s experience in Harpers Bizarre gave him a sense of the difference between a band with one song up its sleeve versus something transcendent like The Doobie Brothers or Van Halen. He explains that “identifiableness” is the key element even more than excellence. Ted hears that quality in the Doobie Brothers’ guitar interplay and Tom Johnston’s “easy going biker” lead vocal approach.
Templeman has some early success producing a Van Morrison record and then gets his biggest break when the label lets him sign the Doobie Brothers and produce their first album. Even more startling, Joe Smith and Mo Ostin don’t lose faith in Templeman after the Doobies’ debut tanks. Lenny Waronker continued to vouch for him. This is so different from the “low-character back stabber” portrayal of all record executives in all other rock memoirs.
Templeman doesn’t delve into his drug and alcohol use much (it gets out of hand late in the story) and he doesn’t reveal virtually anything about his personal and family life. He marries Kathi and doesn’t describe any ups and downs other than one touching spot where there are complications during the birth of their first son and Van Morrison, who’s been emotionally distant to the point of off-putting, hops on a plane to be with his friend. The absence of personal context gives this otherwise warm and approachable book a bit of a chilly feel. For example, Templeman mentions as a quick aside that he got his sister Roberta a job at Warner Bros and she helped sign Devo and Dire Straits. I want to hear that story! And how does a marriage survive 40-plus years of rock n roll? C’mon, Templeman, share these secrets as readily as you share how you got that guitar sound on “Unchained.”
Still, these recording details can be just delicious. Hearing that Curtis Mayfield charted the horns and strings for the Doobie Brothers “Music Man” and refused to charge Templeman because he was such a big Doobies fan was wonderful to envision.
The book moves along at a brisk and even gripping pace. Let’s give a shout out to co-writer Greg Renoff, or should we say “Dr. Renoff,” because this longtime VH fan and author of Van Halen Rising actually holds a history PhD from Brandeis.
It’s worth mentioning that the audio version of this book contains one of the worst narrations I’ve ever heard. Sean Runnette has a lot of audiobooks on his resume and a couple respectable acting credits. But for a story so intimately connected to sonic quality, it’s just odd that the producers selected a performer who sounds like he has a mouthful of marbles and no real feel for the drama of these great stories. For example, take Templeman’s Harpers Bizarre bandmate and old friend Dick Scoppettone. Runnette murders Scap’s name every time he pronounces it and does so a slightly different way every time.
Renoff avoids the temptation to pretty up the manuscript with flowery flights of prose. The story and the life are so compelling they really benefit from his “first this happened, then that happened” approach. As an occasional cowriter myself (no offense taken by the term ‘ghostwriter’!), I value Renoff’s impulse to let the narrative be the star here.
Breaking up with Van Halen — and Donn Landee
That “just the facts” approach makes Templeman’s version of the various feuds that mark any rock band much more believable. Particularly those that ended the producer’s long association with Donn Landee, the ace engineer who was at Templeman’s side throughout the golden years. Much has been written about Van Halen’s split from Templeman, which occurred after the massively successful 1984 album. That quarrel coincided with the band parting ways with front man David Lee Roth, who was either fired or quit to pursue a solo career, depending on which catty interview one chooses to believe. What’s not in dispute, however, is that Landee, who forged a strong working relationship with Eddie Van Halen, stepped out of the shadow of his former partner, Templeman.
We will have to wait for Landee’s memoir to get both sides of the story. But throughout the book Templeman is unfailingly generous in crediting his former engineer and truly honors the covalent bonds between any successful producer-engineer duo. One detail I loved picturing was all four original members of Van Halen dressed in tuxedos at the 1980 Grammy Awards. Templeman was nominated for three awards and recalls that one of the members slipped him a “grammy” in a vial for luck. Templeman wins Record of the Year for the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and takes the stage. In his acceptance speech, he thanks Warner Brothers “and our engineer Donn Landee,” adding “We couldn’t have done it without him.” The gesture meant a lot to Landee’s family at the time.
But it’s not just words in a decades-later memoir. As producer, Templeman got three points for every Van Halen record – 3% of sales. Templeman voluntarily gave Landee one of those three points. When Landee essentially sided with Eddie Van Halen, enabling massive deadline misses and endless songwriting cul-de-sacs, it feels like the magical pairing that had produced so many hit records for so many different artists has come to an end.
Van Halen had many hits after parting with Ted Templeman. Their four Sammy Hagar-sung albums all hit No. 1, including For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, which reunited the band with Templeman after the nasty split. And it’d be hard to argue that Sammy Hagar, who Templeman already knew from producing Montrose, is not a better singer and musician than Roth. But the vinyl doesn’t lie. Van Halen never made a magical record – or even a good sounding one – without David Lee Roth. Templeman’s observations about Roth’s skill as a lyricist and even as a thinker are valuable in explaining the enduring appeal of the original line-up. Roth’s ability to inject humor and light-heartedness into the ultra-heavy and misogynist metal genre allowed Eddie’s peerless guitar excellence to cross over and find new ears.
The Van Halen break up – both with Templeman and with Roth — produces some of the most exciting drama of the book, naturally. It also reveals the incredibly tight bonds that can form between a band and longtime producer. Especially in Templeman’s case, where he was not only a producer but the Executive Vice President at Warner Bros. who discovered and signed the band.
One great anecdote that I wish had gone on about 20 pages longer takes place after Van Halen has dumped Templeman. It’s New Year’s Eve 1989 and the producer gets a panicked call from Eddie Van Halen’s wife, the actor Valerie Bertinelli. She needs him to get to their house in Coldwater Canyon immediately. Templeman arrives to discover that Valerie’s father had punched a drunken Eddie so hard that “the side of his face was purple and blown up like a balloon. I helped her get Ed into the car and we raced to the emergency room at St. Joseph’s hospital in Burbank. I stayed with them that night while she put the wheels into motion to get Ed into a month-long treatment program for substance abuse.”
That lesson is the lesson of the book and the lesson of Templeman’s well-lived and fascinating life: A good producer doesn’t just pick the songs, sequence the songs, and muscle the songs into shape. He also cares about the band and nurtures them into a place where they can create these little three-minute bursts of magic.