The man at the helm of classic tracks like Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” and Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged and Journeyman albums, takes us inside the making of a hit.
by Billy Amendola
Three-time Grammy-winning producer Russ Titelman’s name is attached to the work of dozens of classic pop and rock’s greatest acts, including Little Feat, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Cyndi Lauper, Rickie Lee Jones, George Harrison, Chaka Khan, the Bee Gees, Ry Cooder, Paul Simon, Aztec Camera, George Benson, David Sanborn, Womack and Womack, Patti Austin, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton. Consequently, he’s been in the room when some of history’s great studio drumming performances have gone down. It’s an enviable position to be in, and one that has given him rare insight into the creative process.
“Russ Titelman is brilliant, innovative, and among the most well-respected producers in modern times,” drummer John “JR” Robinson, a regular Titelman collaborator, tells Modern Drummer. “Russ has amazing song sense and knows what it takes to get the absolute best out of the artist. His pairing of musicians and artists is pure magic, and his hits are timeless.” Russ is also widely considered to be one of the most down-to-earth and friendly guys you’re likely to meet at the top levels of the music industry.
Titelman was born in Los Angeles on August 16, 1944, and began writing at a young age, landing his songs with, among others, the Monkees, the Hollies, Dusty Springfield, and Linda Ronstadt. He’s also cowritten with legendary behind-the-scenes figures such as Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Jack Nitzsche, and Ry Cooder, and he’s worked beside production giants like Phil Spector. He’s made his mark on stage as well; among his early gigs was playing rhythm guitar in the house band for the popular ’60s TV show Shindig!
After scoring a publishing deal in the early ’60s with music entrepreneur Don Kirshner, a nineteen-year-old Titelman came to New York City to ply his songwriting skills, on occasion returning to L.A., where he did session and film work and enjoyed a twenty-five-year association with industry executive Lenny Waronker and Warner Bros. Records. In 1983, missing the energy and excitement of New York, he moved back to the East Coast, where he continues to work as a producer. Titelman recently took time out of his schedule to talk about some of his more memorable recordings and to offer tips to aspiring players.
MD: What are the most important qualities that you believe every drummer should have?
Russ: For me the most important quality every drummer should have is the ability to listen. A drummer must also be able to understand the basic underlying groove of a piece of music, and to play it simply, elegantly, and imaginatively.
MD: As the producer, how hands-on are you as far as getting drum sounds?
Russ: I’ll make suggestions if I need to. If I’m not hearing something I want to hear, I’ll jump in. I might say to the engineer, “Put another microphone over here so we can get more room sound,” or “Maybe the kick needs to be a bit punchier.” As a producer, it’s a matter of casting and hiring the right people for the job, whether it’s engineers or musicians. You want someone you trust and who you know will get the right sounds. And then let them do their thing. So if an engineer wants to use something I may not be used to, I let them do it. If I’m not hearing what I’m looking for, I might suggest something. If the person is great and it sounds great, I don’t say anything.
When we were doing Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again,” [engineer] Tom Lord-Alge was so creative. We did drums at Studio B, a small room at Unique Studios in New York City. He had mics all around and made the room sound great. Sometimes, though, when you’re mixing, the engineer has to go outside the room for a few minutes and get away from it. And if it’s not quite there, I know how to work the board well enough that I can get it sounding the way I want. So it’s a collaboration of the engineer’s fantastic ears and ability to get it on tape. Engineer Jason Corsaro knew how to get that Power Station sound. He’d take an RCA 44 mic and put it behind the drummer near the snare and also have the regular snare mic nearby.
MD: Do you have favorite go-to microphones?
Russ: Yes, but it depends on the room. We’d use [Neumann] U87s for overheads or [AKG] C414s, [employing] different mic techniques for different records. Some records were more close-miked, and sometimes we’d back off the [close] mics to get more room sound. A Royer stereo mic is great for overheads.
MD: How about drum gear—are there any specific models that you prefer?
Russ: No, I leave that up to the drummer. I trust the drummer that I hire. A producer is like a movie casting director. Most producers love Jim Keltner because he’s so creative. He was always one of the go-to guys. Another one I love is Steve Jordan.
MD: Who else comes to mind?
Russ: There are so many, and I’d hate to leave anyone out. I like Shawn Pelton—I only worked with him once, on the Lyle Lovett track “Summer Wind,” which we used in the baseball movie For Love of the Game. Nice little swing chart with horns. I liked working with Paulinho Braga on John Pizzarelli’s Bossa Nova album. I love Mickey Curry [Hall and Oates, Bryan Adams]. There’s Rick Marotta, who I worked with a few times. I’ve always wanted to work with Bernard Purdie but haven’t had the opportunity to yet. I loved Earl Palmer’s playing. Gary Chester—his drum fills were twisted. Listen to Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”—amazing drum fills. Buddy Saltzman, who did all the Four Seasons records. L.A. drummer Jesse Sailes was on one of the first demos I made of my original songs. I recorded it at Gold Star Studios with Larry Levine as the engineer. That demo ultimately got me signed to Don Kirshner’s publishing company, and that’s when I first came to New York City.
I also love Andy Newmark. I first met him in the early ’70s, before we did the George Harrison record . The rhythm section on that was Andy and Willie Weeks. Before that, I’d brought Andy and Willie in on Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys album , which is half Newmark and half Keltner. Andy is on the tracks “Rednecks,” “Louisiana 1927,” and “Mr. President.” Then I worked with Andy on the James Taylor Gorilla album in 1975. That one was Andy and Russ Kunkel. And Newmark and Steve Gadd are on the [1977 self-titled] Rickie Lee Jones record I did. Mark Stevens played brushes on “Easy Money,” and Gadd played on “Chuck E.’s In Love,” which was the first time I worked with him. [Jeff Porcaro also appears on the album.]
MD: Speaking of the George Harrison album, I found this quote from a press conference in 1979: “The last couple of albums were really difficult to make. You know, you write all these tunes, you sing them, you play on them, you produce them, and you mix them. You know, you go crazy—I do. You can get a bit lost, so I decided I would work with somebody else. So I prayed to the Lord to send me a coproducer, and I got a coproducer. And that helped a lot.”
Russ: Wow! I’m happy the Lord sent me to him. [laughs] George was so great to work with, and he was so modest. I really wanted Andy and Willie on that record, so I suggested it to George. I didn’t know that he had already worked with them, so he was happy about it. On the track “Love Comes to Everyone,” I wanted it to have an R&B feel. So I asked Andy to just play the toms—kind of like a [Philly soul producer] Thom Bell record. George and I worked so well and trusted and supported each other on that album.
MD: You did a lot of great records with Jimmy Bralower programming. Did you pro-gram the drum machines with Jimmy?
Russ: Absolutely! The two of us were a great team. I’m a frustrated drummer. So I would say, “I want the kick drum part to be like this,” and we would work out the parts together. He would get the basic groove, and then I might change the kick pattern or say, “Let’s make it like a Stevie Wonder fill on ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered.’”
MD: How do you explain to a drummer what you want him to play?
Russ: If I’m looking for a certain feel and they’re not yet getting it, I might reference another record. I’ll give them something to relate to. There have been times when I knew exactly what I was looking for and would suggest a part. Of course, I’m fortunate to work with the best musicians, so they would give me something better than I could ever imagine.
Sometimes I might say, “Try a cross-stick instead of the snare hit,” and then between us we’ll come up with the part. And it’s wonderful when everyone has an open mind. Just because it’s your part, you can’t hold on to it if it’s not working. You try it, and if it’s not working, you go for more ideas until you get it. I usually hire a band that I know will bring it for that particular session and song.
MD: Earlier you mentioned the title track to Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life album. Can you talk about the track “Higher Love” from that album?
Russ: On “Higher Love” we had a basic drum machine going that Winwood wrote the song to. At first it was flat, with just one pattern looped over and over. So we’re a few months into working on the record, and we have all the basics down. [Keyboardist] Robbie Kilgore was important in terms of getting the right sounds on that record. At one point I said to Steve, “We have to write a kick drum part for this record that will work with your bass part.” He was playing keyboard bass with his left hand. I believe Nile Rodgers was coming in to play guitar that day, and that kick would be the foundation of whatever else would be going on the record. So we spent a day writing that part.
One of my favorite records at that time—and still today—was “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye. So we kind of used that feel with an inverted, slightly changed pattern. And then that day we wrote in the extra little parts for the bridge and verses. I remember Steve said, “Make the snare drum feel like it’s rushing a bit in the bridge, because I want it to feel more exciting.” So we pushed a bit ahead of the beat.
When JR Robinson came in on “Higher Love”—he’s on most of the album—he played the whole kit all the way through at first. And, not to blame him, but we were all sitting there, going, “This is not really working with this part.” But we had machine hi-hat and machine conga going, and at one point I asked him to lay down a real hi-hat. So he played that all the way through, with all of his fantastic fills. We then sampled his snare and kick from what he’d played in the room and keyed it into the program. When [the places for] the drum fills came, we turned him on onlyfor those. But it sounds like a live person playing. It’s a complete combination of human and machine, and later we kept the real hi-hat, but there’s also machine hi-hat on there.
When Chaka Khan came in to do her vocal parts, way toward the end of the track—the song was long, like seven or eight minutes—JR started playing this pattern, and she turned around and said, “What is that? It sounds like voodoo music!” To be honest, I’m not really sure whose idea it was to fly that drum pattern he was playing to the beginning of the track. But that’s why you don’t know where 1 is [at first]. And that tension builds until the song kicks in. Then, when Tom Lord-Alge was working on the mix, we created that breakdown [section] and brought it back in. We had so much fun making that record.
MD: Any last bits of advice?
Russ: The most important element of being a musician is listening to what’s happening, especially when it’s a live session. You have to be present at all times. If you’re prepared, it’s easy, so always be prepared. And remember, you’re not there to prove anything. Don’t play too much. Think about all your favorite records. They’re all fundamentally simple at their core. The grooves are not complicated. It’s all deep feel—listen to Norman Roberts, James Gadson, Earl Palmer, and Al Jackson. It’s all about being in service to the song.