Judy Collins and Susan Hamilton: My Best Female Mentors

It’s true that guys need male mentors who can shepherd them into the advancing stages of life. But I’ve lately come to realize how some of the most important mentoring relationships I have had have been with women. I was brought to this realization through the miracle of modern technology.

I’ve recently “connected” with two extraordinary women, Judy Collins and Susan Hamilton. from my early adulthood who taught me invaluable life-lessons, and gave me life-changing opportunities.

judithThe first connection came through the great software, Rhapsody. For those of you who haven’t been turned on to the wonder of Rhapsody, it is a music subscription service. For $9.95 a month, it allows you to play almost any song or album ever recorded at the touch of a button.

I was driving the kids to Staples to pick up some supplies, when the song “The Weight of the World” started to play. The voice was plangent, subtle, heart-filled. It was a familiar voice. A voice I knew well, personally. It was Judy Collins. The tragic song, and its perfect rendering, about a sister’s reflections on her brother who died in war, filled me with emotion.

The feeling expanded in my chest, and took on a multi-colored hue. I was transported back 36 years, to the autumn of 1975. I was all of 19 years old. I had hair the color of fire and I was as skinny as an ice-cream stick. I stood in the control room of studio A-1 at A and R Recording next to the big 16-track tape machine. The orchestra has just finished playing the song, “Send in the Clowns,” from Judy’s Grammy-winning hit-album, Judith. Judy came into the control room and stood next to me for the playback. After listening to the take, she turned to me, and looked at me seriously with those blue eyes so striking Stephen Stills named a song after them. She asked, “What do you think?” I wasn’t used to this kind of treatment. I was the assistant engineer, and expected to be dealt with worse than a well-trained monkey. Judy had the grace and the confidence to treat even the assistant engineer with care and respect. I’m not sure why she asked. Judy had unerring taste. She had put together an ensemble of the best artists in the business to create this masterwork. The legendary and late Arif Mardin produced. His equal, Phil Ramone, was on the engineering controls. Jonathan Tunick was the orchestral arranger. Yet she encouraged me to find my own way to evaluating the artistic quality of the recording.

Perhaps the deepest learning I gained in getting to work with Judy was about this artistic sensibility. Of course she had a great ear, and knew how to pick the best songs. She was responsible for virtually discovering Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. She herself received the deepest artistic mentorship from a woman, her teacher, Antonia Brico, the first female conductor, who she spoke of with reverence.

What is this elusive artistic sensibility that I speak of? It is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a sensitivity and responsiveness to the highest levels of quality and feeling. It is an approach to life and work that involves aspiring to the most penetrating insight into truth. It demands that we be willing to put all of ourselves into everything we do with total passion.

Simply being in the presence of that approach to living and work inspired me and taught me how to be. After assisting on two albums, Judy was one of the first artists to give me the opportunity to engineer on my own. I had the incredible fortune to engineer her retrospective album, “So Early in the Spring,” which covered her career from 1961 – 1976. I got to listen to all of her recordings, and learned to appreciate on the deepest level the early work of this master. Judy not only mentored me as a role model, but by giving me that opportunity, she advanced my career and artistic development.

This depth of being has held Judy in good stead. Her most recent, 2010 album, “Paradise,” on her own label, Wildflower, is a masterwork that continues a career of beauty, depth, and great artistry. Her voice is more radiant, powerful, and gorgeous than ever.

The other woman responsible for so much of my career recently “friended” me on Facebook. For me, this is the miracle of Facebook. It has reconnected me to so many incredibly important people from my past with whom I have lost touch. This woman’s name is Susan Hamilton. Susan was also a piano-playing child-prodigy. In an era when music production was completely dominated by men, she ran the biggest and most successful “jingle-house” of the era. They created music for countless TV and radio commercials for the biggest accounts of the time.

Susan was one of those musicians who possessed an ear far beyond those of mere mortals. She’d listen to an orchestra run though a piece and say, “In measure 35 on the second beat, the oboe should be a b natural instead of a b flat.” Not even the conductor heard that nuance.

Susan was a powerhouse – she had to be to survive in that male world, but she was also terrifically sensitive and supportive in ways that were often overlooked, because she did this in unassuming ways. She truly gave me my first chance in the biz. I worked as an intern at her jingle house when I was 17-years-old.

I remember one incident from those early days that revealed who she was. she All of the top Chevrolet clients came in to the office, a lovely townhouse in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of New York City, for a presentation meeting. She asked me to put up and play the reel-to-reel tape of all of the music for the new campaign. I pressed the wrong button on the tape machine and it “ate” the tape. She could have – and had the right to – scream at me, and freak out – there was a chance that I had ruined an extremely important presentation with a major client. But she saw what happened, stayed cool, and quickly launched into some funny anecdotes to entertain the clients while I tried to pull the tape from the guts of the machine, smooth out all the tangles and play the tape. She kept one eye on me, and when I finally accomplished the task, she simply nodded, and I hit the play button. Catastrophe averted.

That’s the way she always was. She understood what was important, and supported the growth of others for the greatest good. With a phone call, Susan provided me with the opportunity to get a job at A and R Recording, where I got to work with Judy and many other extraordinary artists. She was also the very first person to give me the chance to sit behind the recording console as an engineer. Most people in the business, and perhaps in life, are followers. They do not have the inner security to lead, to take a stand, to know their own mind, and to risk the courage of their convictions. But not Susan. She knew what – and who – was good, and she gave many of us our first opportunities, because she was great at recognizing, supporting, and promoting talent and hard work.

Susan was a deeply generous spirit. She brought me, and many others, into her world, sharing her homes, her wonderfully eccentric parents, her talent, and her wisdom with all of us.

I learned how to be cool under pressure from Susan. We could take on the toughest challenges, and through flawless, top-quality work, we would succeed. I remember one time we worked with Ray Charles on a campaign for the United Negro College Fund. He had a reputation for being very difficult to work with in the studio. Susan ran the session and I was the engineer. Ray left a happy man, and we knew we had reached the pinnacle.

Susan embodied many qualities that appear to be in short supply today: brilliance, excellence, generosity-of-spirit, and a deep loyalty. This standard of excellence, this spirit of Susan Hamilton, lives on in everything I do today, as a therapist, a creative person, and as a husband and father. Daily I hope to match the standard she set for me all those years ago.

I wonder now if there is something different about the mentoring of women. They did not seem threatened by me, and were encouraging and supportive in ways that I rarely got from men. Something interesting to think about.

There is also a sadness I feel when I think about my extraordinary women mentors that I had in my youth. In many ways, though I learned so much from them, I feel like I missed out on so much of what was being offered to me.

As a kid it was so important for me to present myself as being cool. I didn’t want to ask questions, or admit that I didn’t know something. I couldn’t be humble and ask for help or advice. Out of my own narcissistic insecurity, I had to appear the know-it-all. I didn’t know enough to appreciate what was being given to me, and to express that gratitude.

It wasn’t easy working at that level in my early 20’s, and I had other dreams, and I tossed it all away. Maybe that was the right thing to do, but I never said thank you the way I should have. As my father used to say, “Too soon old, too late smart.”

The miracle of technology still doesn’t allow us to travel back in time and do it all over again. What would I do differently if I could? I’d sit at the feet of these, and the other, extraordinary women, and men, who so generously taught me and gave me opportunities throughout my life. I’d soak up everything I could from them. I’d tell them how amazing they were, and say thanks. I can’t go back, and the lessons I learned and the gifts I received now live inside of me. But I can express my appreciation for these women, and the many others who I have not named here, and say I am honored to have known you and I will cherish forever the gifts you shared. Thank you.

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