Interview with Jack Richardson

Jack Richardson remains one of the most celebrated producers in Canadian history. His work with The Guess Who in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the best-selling single of 1970, namely, The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” which outsold releases by the likes of The Beatles at the time. His credits also include Bob Seger’s Night Moves, Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death, Muscle of Love and Killer, Kim Mitchell’s eponymous debut, Max Webster’s Universal Juveniles, Poco’s A Good Feelin’ To Know & Crazy Eyes, and Badfinger’s Say No More, among others. He also dedicated an enormous amount of time and effort to music production & engineering pedagogy, having played a crucial role in the establishment of Fanshawe College’s celebrated Music Industry Arts program in London, Ontario. We caught up with Jack at his home in London last November. Jack recently passed away, in early May of 2011. As far as the author is aware, this was his final interview.

How would you define production?

Jack: Production is taking all of the elements that go into making a piece of music — the composition, how the composition is structured, musical direction, etc. — which is mostly based on the structure of the group of musicians you’re working with. You’re limited to the makeup of the group, or, if you’re putting something together yourself, your scope is a little broader. Basically you’re bringing all the elements together into a final form that not only makes sense from a musical standpoint, but also has some sort of potential for commercial success.

Was there any sort of method you followed when working with a band or with someone who approached you to produce their material?

Jack: The first thing I want to know is the material. It has to be good. It has to have good structural form, good melodic content. I tend to lean towards the commercial aspect of music although I enjoy some of the avant-garde. I worked with several bands that took that approach. Either way, what you’re doing is working with a bunch of blocks that you’re trying to stack together. Composition is first, the arrangement of that composition is second, and the reason for the arrangement will be the structure of the group. If you’re dealing with two guitars, bass, and drums, then that’s what you’re working with. If you’re working with a group that says they want no sweetening on the date, then you’re stuck with that.

Technology these days makes it easier with multiple passes, etc. …. things we didn’t have… Then the individuals in the group become of prime importance. Every group is different based on the personalities of the individuals in the band. My personal “formula,” if you want to call it that, is that being a producer is 75% child psychologist and 25% what you know you and what you can deliver. You’re dealing with personalities, and not just personalities individually, but personalities as they interface with each other as a group. Quite often what you may see on the stage is not what goes on behind the scenes…

Being a producer is sort of a director of traffic, I guess you might say. I’m not saying there aren’t musical values – you’re pretty well out to lunch if you don’t have some sort of musical background to work with, but the stronger that musical background is, the less difficult it is to bring a cohesive element into the overall production.

One of the things I enjoyed that seems to have changed is that I was able to do all kinds of music: symphonies, country, heavy rock, jazz. There were no barriers the way there are now. Now, [if] you’re a heavy metal producer, you don’t know what a violin is. Everything is so specific now and, I think, music is at a loss because of it.

I think that now there is a hugely homogenous package of what they call music and it’s all basically the same thing, only refurbished. You get the same thing done by a different painter. It also seems that there’s a whole generation (current) that doesn’t place a high value on music and when you reach that point, then music has relatively little importance in terms of its communication value. I was just listening to something from Lady Gaga where the entire lyric was one word — [it makes] you wonder if you’ve missed something. It’s one of those things that has been brought about by changes in technology.

There is a serious reluctance of governments to acknowledge the importance of the role intellectual rights have on the whole direction civilization is taking. If we look back through history, communication, whether through music or drums, or whatever the medium was at a particular point in time, music was a prime influence in terms of advancements in civilization. If you do any traveling around the world you notice the development of particular instruments along similar lines everywhere but the approach to the playing is different. My thought was to bring as many of these other elements into my projects as possible. I remember when we [Jack Richardson and The Guess Who] did “American Woman” I flew in a set of tablas from India — that’s what you hear at the end of the main riff. Music can be so influenced by colour and different instruments generate that colour, and I think that is one of the main things we’ve lost in this business, that lack of colour depth. If you listen to a bunch of old 50s, 60s and 70s stuff, out of nowhere you’ll hear, say, a bass clarinet or a banjo, and you think, “My god, you never hear that kind of thing anymore!” Unless of course you’re dealing with a symphonic project.

I quite often remember when I was teaching and mentioning tonal colour and getting blank stares back from the students. It was then that I realized, “Hey, they don’t know what I know…. they haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through. I have to open up their minds to different ideas for instrumentation.” If you use colour properly in music it can have a tremendously emotional effect or lend a great power if you’re presenting a message. If you take a look at some of the songs that have been produced for various disasters around the world they’ve had a significant impact with their ability to generate thought in people. And if it’s a good production they generate a lot of return revenue for the victims of the disaster. That’s one of the things music can do that the oratist can’t necessarily do; orators don’t have the same kind of access to people that music does.

Do you mean that there’s an industrial basis for this homogenization?

Jack: Well, it’s being driven by technology. It’s being driven by people that make things, that make noise, and you don’t need any training or skill in order to use.

How different is the approach to production these days?

Jack: The technology has taken over 70% of the work of the musician. The musician is going the way of the polar bear. We’re going to be put on the endangered species list… and in all possibility become extinct. I don’t know. It’s unfortunate but what happens now is people buy a guitar and learn three chords and think they’re an artist and a rock star and that’s as far as it goes. They don’t bother getting into compositional aspects or theory or harmony and they stick with their three chords. I listen to a lot of modern rock and think, “Wow, that’s almost the same three chords they had in the last song… and the song before that…”

Is that a failure in production? Should the producer hold some accountability for that?

Jack: No. Well, how should I phrase this… I would say part of it is a failure in production and part of it is an arrogance, a general disposition that people feel like they already know everything from the time they get out of the womb. I find it very difficult to work with artists now. I had no problem telling artists that they were full of B.S. and what they proposed wouldn’t work, and they believed me. I’ve always had a policy that if you can show me how your idea is better than my idea we’ll go with yours, but I don’t lose too often…

Everyone now seems to be an expert. The level of the bar has been lowered and lowered and lowered… I heard Barbara Walters saying that [Canadian pop-star Justin] Bieber was God’s answer for the music industry. Good lord I hope that’s God’s serious sense of humour!

I think we’re going through a trough — God I hope it’s a trough anyway! — and music is at the bottom end of that trough. The only thing that seems to be happening is that we’re just coming out of the ‘age of independents.‘ They don’t have a lot of money but they make that little bit of money work harder. They take on groups that no one else will take on and quite often some of those groups have some pretty crazy, but great, ideas. But it’s not exactly what I would say is the Tin Pan Alley of the music days…

You talked about musicians educating themselves but how about producers? When you’re thinking about arrangements (etc.) how aware are you of the engineering aspects of production?

Jack: Oh, very aware. I’m an engineer as well. You’re always thinking, “How is this thing going to go together, what do I have to do to get it to sound the way I want it to…” Do you remember “[Baby You Can] Ride My Car” by The Beatles? You know the barking dog and how he moves around? It took me two-and-a-half days to figure out how to do that. We brought in an SQ Encoder, and lopped all the bottom off everything, and put it through the SQ Encoder. When we finally got it into the mastering studio in L.A., Doug Sax said, “Guys, get in here and hear what these crazy bastards have done!” We had the banjo/violin going around [the horizontal plne of the mix] in a figure-eight and it was great!

You bring your experience as a musician, and I don’t know of too many producers that aren’t musicians, your experience as an engineer (learned from working with great engineers, like Phil Ramone and Ryan Christian), and all your other experiences, to the table, in order to bring something new or a little bit different to each production. You have to try and bring something new to everything project that you work on, something a little bit different. It can be subtle or like a hammer in the head, but you always try to look for something a little bit different. And this is where colouring really does help in terms of getting some of those differences into your work. How you structure your composition in terms of arrangement is very important. [The song] has to start, it has to build, you want to bring the listener back down again, and then let them climax. I think that’s when you have what I’ll call a “re-listener.”

Do you have an awareness of what the final structure is before you hit ‘record’?

Jack: Oh yes. At least I think a good producer does. It’s not helter skelter.

I’m asking because I’ve heard and read Brian Eno discuss “building in the studio.”

Jack: Well, sure, you build things in the studio. But you build things from some sort of a strategy that you have sitting way back in your head. When we did “American Woman” with the Guess Who, it came out of a riff Randy [Bachman] came up with during a live show. They brought the tape back to me and said, “We got a real buzz on this one…” I said, “Yeah, if we could package 10,000 people with every album we sent out maybe we’d have some success, but if you want to sit down and put it together properly we may get something out of it…” Needless to say it was a #1 record. The irony of it was that they were invited to the White House for somebody’s appearance and I told them, “Don’t play ‘American Woman’,” and two days later we got a call from the American embassy with the request not to play “American Woman.” You know, it’s a put down on the American way of life? The funny thing about it was when we first gave the album to RCA, they came back with a cover that had this gorgeous blonde on it and I said, “What in god’s name is this? Have you listened to the song? It’s a putdown on the American lifestyle… you’re not going use that as a record jacket…”

That’s another thing you have to keep an eye on as well: you have to watch what happens to your product as it goes through “the process”. There’s always some point in time where someone else gets a chance to get their hands in the glue and you want to keep that as policed as possible.

When you’re working with a band, do you act as an intermediary between the band and the label?

Jack: No. I talk to the label and find out what they want. Then I go and talk to the band and find out what they want. Now, if they’re in opposition that’s the time to say, “I’ll pass”. If they’re in key with each other, then fine. In other words, I don’t want a label expecting a Bonnie and Delaney and I bring them in Lawrence Welk. You have to have an understanding of what the label expects and the reason for that is… the label is the financier and you’re dealing with their money. That’s one of the reasons I was always a fairly tough taskmaster in the studio. We’d start at 11am and go until 3am the next morning seven days a week. The result was that I produced albums that came in with reasonable cost and done on time. [The Guess Who’s] Wheatfield Soul was done in five days, and the most expensive album I did with The Guess Who was in the $18,000 range.

Do you prefer recording digitally or to tape?

Jack: Tape. It sounds better.

Mixing. Do you have a particular approach? Do you set anchors…?

Jack: No, not really. I have definite ideas about how I think I want things to sound. I like a fairly high degree of separation between elements. I use the full stereo spread, I’ll use every inch of space. You’d be surprised, something that you can’t hear you move an inch on the pan pot and all of a sudden its got a hole to pop through. I don’t think there’s enough consideration given to the positioning of sounds anymore, now it seems to be more of a wall-to-wall dance.

How about depth?

Jack: Oh yeah, I not only consider depth but the microphones themselves. Whenever I do anything I audition at least five microphones on the singer or whatever. You know, you use the same microphone on the same source four months from now and it sounds different. You have to make judgement calls as to what you’re going to do. The big thing with instrumentation is that you can’t have everything in your face, and everything shouldn’t be in your face anyway because it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to provide some sort of platform for the element that you do want to showcase, which often case is the vocal. What you’re trying to do is provide that nice Linus blanket to surround it without it getting in the way. Mixing has been an evolutionary process for me. From wire to 1/4” tape which was mono only… in fact [The Guess Who’s] “These Eyes” was one of the first stereo singles that was released.

Who decided that? Was that you?

Jack: I did, yeah. The Guess Who did not want to release “These Eyes” as their first single. They fought me, literally. I had Burt up against the wall and I said “Burton, I’m gonna hit ya.”

What was the matter with it from their perspective?

Jack: Nothing. They just didn’t want their first single to be a ballad. I said, “I don’t give a damn what it is, it’s a good song.” Don Birkheimer was the A&R director at RCA and he hadn’t heard These Eyes yet so I took a soft-cut down with me and he listened to the whole record from beginning to end and he said, “Jack, I think ‘These Eyes’ is a smash!” I said, “I think so too, but the group hates it,” and he said, “Well, I think they’re wrong — you interested in a deal?” I said, “Yeah, certainly we’re interested in a deal”, so he made an offer and I said, “No. But I’ll be here until 6pm tonight, talk to your people and get back to me.” So he came back with a much better deal and that’s how we wound up with RCA. The band wanted the first release to be “Love And A Yellow Rose” and I said, “Oh Christ, you guys are nuts!” The thing about it was that it did establish the fact that I knew what I was doing. We wound up with 27 chart singles and I’ve got 35-36 gold and platinum records, a lot of which are Guess Who. It’s one of those things you have to overcome if you believe sincerely in something, and I believed sincerely in that song. It was tough but I fought them all the way. They say now that they pushed for “These Eyes” — they did like hell! We had a thing like that with “Sour Suite.” There were no guitars on it and Randy took exception to this, so I had to fight to keep it just the four celli, piano, bass, drums, and Burton. It’s one of my favourite tracks because it just oozes so much emotion. I’m a very emotionally-based producer, I like to feel what’s happening in the music.

What about specific gear? Can gear help to convey those emotions?

Jack: Microphones might give you a bit of an edge if you have choice but if you walk into a studio that only has x or y equipment then that’s all you’ve got to work with. You just use what you have. If you have a selection just make sure you pick the best one for the source. All too often somebody develops a passion for a specific microphone to the degree that they forget that there are other microphones. I do prefer, if I have a choice, some of the older tube mics like 47s or 49s. Tube driven machines tend to be a lot warmer. I also like dynamic microphones, they’re not as flexible but they do have a sound quality I like.

I guess the ability to roll with whatever technology is at hand is predicated on really knowing the technology in general…?

Jack: Oh you have to. You have to keep abreast of the technology. I did the first direct-to-disk date up here in Canada, and I think I did the first computer date too, on an Atari.

With the whole analog vs. digital thing I notice a particular difference in how compartmentalized the record making process can be. Do you —

Jack: It’s so compartmentalized now that there can be very little interplay between actual people on an entire project. You can miss things now. I used to set up sessions so that no matter what happened everything was usable, even scratch tracks. A guitar take might only be a rough guitar part but I set it up properly so that the take could be used if necessary. The prime example was on “Magnolia” by Poco. The vocal on there was a scratch vocal that was done with an SM53 that [Ritchie Furay] sang along with the bed tracks. When we went to do the final, we spent two days and never got anything as emotional as that scratch track. I’m a firm believer in that philosophy; if you’re going to record it, set up properly because you never know what may happen.

I got three of Burton Cummings’ lead vocals, which were supposed to be scratch vocals. As a producer you’ve got to realize that the psychology of recording can be overpowering to certain people. When there’s no red light on, no one worries and they try things they normally wouldn’t try. You get these licks, turnarounds, or whatever that once the red light goes on they would never do because “this is supposed to be a keeper.”

I used that trick surreptitiously in New York once. We were doing a string session and we were running 8-track then and I wanted to double the strings but you couldn’t do that under the AFM [American Federation of Musicians] agreement at that time. You couldn’t double strings even if you paid them double; you had to hire other musicians. The mentality was that if you wanted sixteen strings you had to hire sixteen musicians, but eight strings doubled doesn’t sound the same as sixteen strings. So we had two tracks left and I went over and unscrewed the record bulb and said, “Can I have that once again and get a bit more of the violas on this one?” You know there were always limitations. When we got 8-track we though that was going to be the cat’s ass. I did the first Guess Who album on a 4-track that was The Wild Pair…

The story I heard with The Wild Pair is that you approached Coke to finance it?

Jack: No, I was…. the account executive for Coca Cola at the agency. I guess it was about 1964-65, and Coke wanted to get into what they called a “self-liquidating premium.” You’d get six bottle caps at a buck and you’d get something else. They wanted to get an album so they approached Columbia, CBS, and others and were going to pull from their catalog. So I said, “If you’re going to do it why don’t you do something original? Get an artist and do a project specifically for it.” Fortunately the president of Coke and I were pretty tight, so he said, “Well, if Jack says it’s OK, go ahead an’ do it…” The first one we did was with Bobby Curtola. Then I did a French version with Michelle Lavant, and they sold more than 100,000 copies in Canada, which was pretty great at that time. Then they wanted to come up with another one and I said, “Let me see what I can do.”

The Guess Who had just come back from a bollocksed English tour. They were broke and about to break up, and I approached them and asked if they’d be willing to do half of this album for Coke. I said, “I’ll pay you the full mechanical royalties and we’ll pay you 10 cents on each record sold.” They agreed. I approached the Staccatos to do the other side and we did five songs with the Guess Who and five with the Staccatos. Phil Ramone came up and did the engineering at Hallmark in Toronto. We did all the bed tracks to 1/4 inch two-track and because we didn’t have sel-sync we transferred the backup vocals and the live lead vocals at the same time to 1/2-inch 4-track without sel-sync. They had to sing live while we did the transfer. It was a big success and went close to about 150,000 units, and that’s what sort of brought me in touch with The Guess Who.

When we formed our own company, I approached both The Guess Who and the Staccatos to come with the company. The Guess Who said ‘yes’ so we bought their contract out from Quality records for $1,000 and George Struth never forgave me. He wouldn’t sit at the same table with me; he was the president of Quality at that time. He said, “Well, we get to keep the old masters…” and I said, “I don’t want the old masters!” But our first outing was not too good. We did three sides and luckily they were good enough at least to elicit some interest from New York. We took them to New York and put them up in a hotel. Phil Ramone was originally supposed to do the date but he got tied up with another band and recommended David Green to me (with whom I’ve worked on many projects since – he did the first two Guess Who albums and all the direct-to-disc albums I did).

I have one last question. It’s about Bob Ezrin. How involved were you with his projects?

Jack: Well, I started Bob [Ezrin]. It was just one of those relationships that happened out of the blue. He was originally working at the Bayview theatre in Toronto doing staging and things of this nature and one of my partners, Alan MacMillan, said, “You should talk to this young guy, he has lots of ideas…” So Bob came in and talked to me. He wanted to start a management company and he talked and talked and I said, “Bob, stop! There is no way in hell I will ever get involved in being a manager. I don’t want to be the one to get calls at four o’clock in the morning saying ‘Hey, can you get me out of jail?’…” But, I said, “In talking to you I feel that you have the potential to be a good producer. Would you be interested in coming on as a journeyman producer?” He said yes, and he came down with me on two or three projects in Chicago.

I used to win money off [Bob], particularly with edits. I would say, “That bar is not going to work, cut it out,” and he’d say, “You’re not gonna cut the tape!” and I’d say, “gimme a razor blade,” and zip-zip-zip… I’d cut the tape and take his 20 bucks. I won a fair amount of money from him.

I co-produced [Alice Cooper’s] Love It To Death and Killer with Bob. I was executive producer, which meant that I just watched the store. When I first met him he just had the potential to be a great producer. He’s a very show-type producer; a lot of his stuff is very dramatic. He was quite successful with it. He did most of the Alice Cooper stuff. I did three and he did the rest of them.

Well thank you so much, this was fantastically generous of you.

Jack: My pleasure, I don’t mind doing this at all!