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Talking a life in music with producer Richard Perry

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Talking a life in music with producer Richard Perry (photo courtesy Richard Perry)

Anyone who followed music in the 1970s and 1980s knew the name of Richard Perry. He became the go-to producer for some of the biggest names in the business and was seemingly at every awards show and every social event of note.

He helped the quirky Herbert Khaury achieve success in a new persona, reaching the Top Ten with his debut album, GOD BLESS TINY TIM, turned Barbra Streisand into a pop star with STONEY END, and produced career standouts like NILSSON SCHMILSSON for Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr’s RINGO. Perry started his own label, Planet Records, in 1978 and ran the company for six years, teaming up with the Pointer Sisters for a number of hits and paired Rod Stewart with the great American songbook in a series of best-selling albums.

Perry recently published his autobiography, titled “CLOUD NINE: MEMOIRS OF A RECORD PRODUCER,” that tells the story of overcoming childhood challenges and rising to the heights of the music world. He was gracious enough to time to answer some questions about his upbringing and career via email.

Rich Kimball: Richard, I absolutely loved your book! Why was it important for you to be the one to tell your remarkable story?

Richard Perry: Thank you! At first, writing my book was more of a release—I wasn’t producing as much music, and I was looking for something to do. Writing kept me busy, and in a way, still involved in the music world that I had lived for so long. I knew that it had to be me to write this book, not somebody telling my story, because I was the only one who lived through the stories I shared. It had to be told in my voice, as if I were reliving each experience for the reader.

When I first started to write, I asked myself—what message do I want the reader to walk away with after reading? Did I really just want to record my story? Was it simply about a kid from Brooklyn who was lucky enough to see his dreams come true? Sure, that was part of it, but the more I wrote, the more I realized the book could contain important lessons about passion, ambition, drive, and commitment. I wanted to use each chapter to show the reader that when you decide what your path—your purpose—is, you just use every day to advance that dream. And one of the best ways to ensure you’re always on the right path? Don’t ever settle for anything less than the best.

Then, as I got to the end of my story, there was one more lesson that became apparent: life isn’t just about work. It’s about forging connections, friendships, and building relationships with people you love, who share the same values as you, and who will be there through the best of times and the worst of times.

RK: Your parents seem like amazing people. I'm a high school theatre director and teacher when I'm not on the radio, so I loved learning that your parents built the company that provided instruments for young people, the work your mother did at Camp Harmony, and the role speech contests played in leading you to performing.

RP: That’s fantastic and it’s great to hear how involved you are with the arts!

My parents were amazing—you’re exactly right. I was extremely fortunate in that sense. My mom was strong and ambitious, and my father was incredibly intelligent and whimsical in nature all at the same time. They were the perfect fit together, and great role models for me and my siblings.

They both realized how important it was to allow music to play a role in a young kid’s life. For them, music was a tool for development—they believed music taught children creativity, “outside the box” thinking, expression, and confidence. This allowed me to pursue and realize my creative dreams from day one, with full support from my family.

RK: By the way, we share the experience of performing in “The Mikado” when we were young! I was Koko, the Lord High Executioner, and had to sing "Tit Willow" in front of my peers. Getting through that made anything seem easy!

RP: That’s great! I can certainly relate! With my stutter, my role in “The Mikado” (and really, any performance) was a completely daunting experience. I know that performing in front of your peers can be challenging and anxiety inducing. But I firmly believe that everyone should be involved in the theatre at least once in their life. Once you get through a performance, anything after that seems achievable!

RK: You write about all of the challenges you had to overcome as a young man, from polio to stuttering, and concerns about your physical appearance. How did you develop the confidence to take on singing, acting, and then jump into the music business?

RP: I have to say that much of this is in thanks to my parents. Without my parents, I likely would not have been exposed to music in the way that I was. My mother pushed me to learn how to play various instruments—one year, she convinced me to learn to play the oboe and signed me up to play at the Brooklyn College Symphony Orchestra. I was the only teenager in a sea of adults! My father supported me when at age thirteen, I decided to start a musical group with my friends. My parents let me and my friends take over their living room for rehearsals, and put up with us when we turned the volume all the way up to practice our sets.

So really, my parents were instilling in me a strong musical confidence from day one. Without their involvement in the musical world, I’m not sure if my life would have taken another path, but I’m glad it didn’t! They really are the reason I was exposed to arts, theatre, and music and everything just snowballed from there. My parents taught me to just jump right in, and to not let anything hold me back.

RK: What was it that led you to the University of Michigan and how important were those MUSKET Theater productions to your future success?

RP: University of Michigan was close to home, but far enough way to allow me the college experience. I was also intrigued by their musical theater program and at the time, I really thought my future was theater. Music production was not yet on my radar as a potential career path.

My years at Michigan were extremely important—it was the turning point for me and skyrocketed my confidence in the arts. MUSKET was the first professional production that I had ever been a part of, and it taught me great discipline. It also allowed me to become even more clear as to what I wanted in my career—I was ready to go to Broadway, baby!

Even though my career path took a completely different direction post-Michigan, the experience of being part of those productions helped me immensely in my all my future album productions, starting out with Tiny Tim. I don’t think I could have given the same finesse to any of the albums without my Michigan experience. Producing an album was so much more than just the music for me. Mastering the tracks was just one piece of it. I approached every album as if it were a Broadway play—the musician I was producing was my lead actor, the backup vocals were the play extras, I was the director. Without my background in theatre, I would not have been able to give nearly the same amount of production to the albums I worked on as I did.

RK: One of my favorite stories in the book involves you giving Pete Seeger a tour of the campus on your Vespa. For anyone who hasn't yet read the book, can you explain how that all came together?

RP: That really was one of those “right place, right time” moments for me. First off, I was lucky that Pete Seeger was a friend of my parents. But between us, I really wasn’t a big fan of folk music yet, so while I knew Pete Seeger, I don’t think I realized how much of a musical icon he actually was at that time. He happened to be coming to Ann Arbor for a concert so I mentioned to this to my mother and offered to host Pete for dinner, if he wanted to meet with a familiar face.

I was really lucky that I was studying at Michigan when this concert happened, because if not, I would not have been able to offer to meet Pete. Like I said, right place and right time. My mother agreed and passed my phone number off to Pete, and told me that Pete would call if he had time. The rest is history: he called, I invited him to dinner, he accepted, and so, I brought him to my apartment for a what I thought would be a nice, relaxing dinner before his concert. Little did I know, my roommate Sam Zell (yes, the future billionaire from Chicago), invited ALL of our friends over to welcome Pete in! I’ll stop there—I don’t want to give away all the details of this dinner! The rest is in the book.

RK: Singer Goldie Zelkowitz is a key player in your story. How would you describe her?

RP: Goldie is fantastically talented. She sang lead in The Escorts, the musical group I formed with friends. Her voice has a soulful quality to it, and The Escorts became quite successful, for a bunch of kids just trying to have some fun with music. We ended up having a #1 record in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. It was our first record on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. I hope that Goldie was just as thrilled as I was! It was quite an accomplishment.

Eventually, The Escorts retired as a group, and Goldie and I parted ways. She went on to become very successful in an all-girl rock band. She was even compared to Janis Joplin at one point.

RK: How did you get together with the multi-talented Kenny Vance what made you such a good team?

RP: Kenny and I met through his fiancée, Marilyn Kupersmith. Marilyn and I knew each other in high school, and she was one of the best dancers I knew back then. I happened to run into her several years after we had graduated and she told me she was engaged to Kenny. She thought that the two of us would get along well, and wanted to introduce us to each other.

She couldn’t have been more right—Kenny and I had so much in common. We were just two guys from Brooklyn, trying to make it in the world of music and arts. At that time, we had both been part of a musical group (me with The Escorts and he with Jay and the Americans … although he had several more major hits than I did!). We hit it off right away; sharing the same passion in music made it easy to work together. Because Kenny had been more successful in his music career by that point, he had some connections to Lieber and Stoller. Eventually, he convinced me that if he and I put our heads together to write some music, he could get us a meeting with them. I was thrilled! They were the most successful songwriters at that time, so it was easy to get onboard with Kenny’s proposal.

We immediately got to work, and Kenny took care of all the business, so that I could pour my talents into the music. From there, Kenny introduced me to Gary Katz, who eventually became my first business partner. Without him, Cloud Nine Productions would not have started as quickly as it did.

RK: You had to make a choice to either continue as a performer or partner with Gary Katz on Cloud 9 Productions. Do you ever wonder how different your life might have been or do you think you still would have eventually entered the world of producing?

RP: That’s a great question, and you know what? No, not at all. Once I got involved in music production, that was it. I knew that was my career. Every other desire went out the window and I didn’t think again about Broadway or switching gears to go back to theatre performance.

Now, if I hadn’t met Kenny, and then Gary, would I have continued to pursue performance or would I eventually have made it over to music production? I really can’t say.

RK: What made you believe that a move to Los Angeles was the right way to go?

RP: Well, at some point, it felt like I had outgrown New York City. It had taken advantage of every opportunity that came my way, and I was starting to feel stifled in New York. There didn’t seem to be anywhere else for me to go. I knew that there was magic in Los Angeles, and I just had a feeling that I would explode (in the best way) in the environment there. There was room for growth, my creativity wouldn’t be culled, and the music scene was becoming more and more developed. I wanted in and was more than ready to make the move.

Once in Los Angeles, there was one moment in particular that further cemented for me that the move was the right decision. It was when I started to work with Captain Beefheart. I just remember sitting in the studio with Beefheart and his band—it was sort of a surreal moment. Don (Captain Beefheart) had put together a band of extremely talented individuals, true musical geniuses. Don’s voice was unique—he was influenced by the blues but the material on the album was a mish mash of everything (rock, R&B, jazz, African rhythms, and of course, blues). They were literally a “magic band” and I was getting influenced with every note they played. Being part of that—my first real life-changing studio session—was exactly the experience I needed to confirm that my place in Los Angeles was meant to be.

RK: Can you talk about the role George Goldner and his daughter Linda (Perry’s ex-wife) played in establishing your career?

RP: It was huge. For a long time, I shared my work with George and Linda first, before anybody else, and it was a huge confidence boost. They both supported me and everything they heard me produce. I never felt like I had a bad song and they would always say that I had “good song sense.”

When we were dating, Linda and I would spend a lot of time with George. We would hang out in his apartment in Manhattan, and the creative exchanges we had there couldn’t have been more instrumental in building up that good song sense. I had such a unique opportunity with George—I was able to play him every demo of mine, run through all the new ideas I had around creating different sounds, and I could always discuss with him my plans for upcoming albums. He was a great sounding board. I used to call Linda my “secret weapon,” as well. Working in the industry, Linda herself had a fantastic ear for music and what was always impressed with what I brought to her. We just always seemed to be on the same page.

RK: We recently talked with Peter Ames Carlin about his wonderful book on the history of Warner Brothers Records. From your perspective, what made it such a unique environment?

RP: Honestly, just the support. Warner Brothers gave their creative staff more support than any other record company did at that time. I truly believe that

Warner Brothers embraced every type of musical artist and producer, and they allowed their staff to take full, complete, creative license to create hits. This created a wonderful environment of respect—everybody working at Warner Brothers felt free and open to create what they wanted to create, and producers felt supported in their choices. I think Warners knew from the start that talent could come from anywhere and anybody. And it paid off. From the start, they decided to support the avant garde and they took chances on artists that nobody else would (take Peter Ivers for example—a Harvard graduate with a classical language degree but who decided to pursue a career as a lyricist, and he was a brilliant one at that).

Warner Brothers really gave out opportunity. And, the collection of people that came to work there because of this was amazing. They were each so different, but each one brought something special and unique to the table. As far as my time at Warners goes—I was really allowed to sign anybody I wanted. Fats Domino was a perfect example of that. He may not have fit the mold at a lot of other production companies, and other companies may have felt he was old news. But at Warners, we brought him back and we were even recognized by Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone for this accomplishment.

RK: Tiny Tim was such a unique individual. What's the biggest misperception about him?

RP: I think most people just thought that he was just a novelty act and not a serious musician. He was just so different than what anybody had ever seen before, so I think people’s first reaction to that was that it was all an act. But the fact of the matter is—he was magic. He was an extraordinary artist, with wild dreams about how music could be made.

To this day, his album is still one of my favorite productions that I have worked on. I don’t think Tiny Tim got the credit or the recognition that he deserved as an artist. There was a depth to his talent that could have taken him far if he would have been taken more seriously.

RK: I believe that you introducing Barbra Streisand to "new" music made a huge difference in her recording career. Was there a mutual level of respect there that enabled you two to have such great success together?

RP: Oh yes, absolutely! I don’t think she would have even considered going into the studio with me if there wasn’t. Knowing the level that she was looking to grow to in her musical career gave me the opportunity to step in and show her that I knew where she wanted to go. When I introduced her to the idea of moving in the direction of contemporary popular music, I think something clicked between us. She saw that I was taking her career seriously, had something creative to offer, and was steadfast in my purpose—to take her in a direction she had never gone before.

Then, once we got together and began to create, that respect for one another just continued to grow stronger and stronger.

RK: You and Carly Simon seem to be the perfect match of singer and producer. What did you bring out in her that might have otherwise gone unexplored?

RP: Carly was the folk jewel of our time, and I was determined to have her emerge into the role of a rock ’n’ roll artist. Without my pressing us to go in this direction, I’m not sure she would have ever explored it.

In fact, when I proposed this move to rock, Carly was not as receptive. It took some coaxing to get her to agree and I’m not going to lie—it wasn’t a perfect road to rock. There were some bumps in the studio, but I remember the moment that it clicked for Carly and she heard what we were doing. She leaned into the mic, and spontaneously whispered, “Son-of-a-Gun.” That’s when I knew everything was meant to be—our working together was kismet.

RK: The "Ringo" project was an incredible combination of your skills as a producer, as well as bringing talented people together, whether it was the tremendous vocal work of Harry Nilsson or Paul McCartney creating that kazoo-like effect. Were there moments during that process when you were able to mentally take a step back and look around at the talent you had assembled?

RP: Oh yes, absolutely. I was working so hard to put this album together and assembled everybody so quickly that I felt my pride integrated quickly into the project. But once we were all in the studio together, and the music magic was happening, it was really a surreal few days for me. What was extraordinary about that album was that nothing had been written down in arrangements ahead of time. Other than who was coming in to the studio, nothing wasplanned. Every day was different—a different member of The Beatles, different songs, different music. That is what made it all so exciting—it was really a test of my production skills. I had the best talent pulled together, and then it was on me to find a way to marry it all up in the moment.

RK: I'm a huge Nilsson fan and I feel he did his best work in partnership with you and then proceeded to ignore your advice. Was it more of a professional or personal disappointment to see him do, frankly, less than his best work in subsequent albums?

RP: It was honestly a little bit of both, and it was more than just a disappointment. It was almost like I went through some version of a heartbreak with Harry. Like a really intense breakup. Harry and I both had big dreams together so to see it all disintegrate that quickly was hard to process. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol was his downfall. I really wish things had gone differently, but unfortunately, sometimes life just happens the way it happens.

Harry was one special artist. He was a little bit of a nut, but his personality was unmatched. We created a unique vocal personality that to this day is still widely recognized and loved by music lovers all over the world. I’m truly grateful for every day that I spent with Harry.

RK: Recording engineer and producer Bill Schnee was recently on with us. How important was his work in the studio in creating the sound you were after?

RP: When I started to work on Carly’s album for Columbia, I was assigned to work with Bill Schnee, an audio engineer. He was very young and just starting out himself in the industry. But together, we ripped. When we worked together in the Columbia studios, we just exploded with talent. He was so important and soon, he became my “ace in the hole” engineer; he was a willing partner and listened to the ideas I had and open to experimenting with what I wanted to hear sound wise. We both wanted to create killer hits, and so we were ready and eager to work together. I thought we were the perfect match.

RK: Bill told us he thought your work with the Pointer Sisters was some of the best you ever did because they lacked direction before you got together with them. Would you agree with that?

RP: I think Bill hit the nail on the head—the Pointer Sisters were so deserving of mainstream success, long before I was able to get them there. But they weren’t even aware that you really needed a hit single to go on to have a successful career in music. And unfortunately, they got caught in the past. They were creating an image of a musical group that belonged in the forties or fifties, and they were fast becoming old news. But, once we got together, we were able to right that ship quickly and finally get them a hit single. From there, they finally got recognized in the mainstream media like they should have all along. I’m just glad that we were able to get there.

RK: I would be remiss if I didn't ask about one of my favorite albums, Art Garfunkel's "Breakaway". Once again, you found great songs that showcased Art's incredible voice, and instrumentation that added to it without overwhelming him. It seemed he could be difficult to work with at times...was he pleased with the final product?

RP: I sure hope so! He got a number one record out of it!

RK: What was it in Rod Stewart that made you believe his take on The Great American Songbook would turn out so well?

RP: Well, first the obvious: it was Rod Stewart!

I always loved the classics and wanted to be involved in them, no matter the artist. So, how could it go wrong with somebody as great as Rod? When I approached Rod with the idea, and showed him my track record with other standards albums (like Carly Simon’s Moonlight Serenade, Art Garfunkel’s Some Enchanted Evening, and The Temptations For Loves Only), it was an easy “yes.”

RK: You seem to have very good relationships with many of your have you been able to make that work?

Well, I think that some of it comes from the fact that we were part of the generation of love. You know, the generation from the sixties took on a new meaning of friendships, relationships, love, and camaraderie. It was natural to love and respect everybody, whether friends or loved ones.

For me personally, my relationship with each of my exes was built from a foundation of friendship first. Because of this, there was always an immense sense of respect for each other, and so, even though things didn’t work out in the end as we had planned, we had a strong foundation of mutual respect for one another. And so, it felt natural to eventually move into a friendship.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 December 2021 08:35


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