If you’ve read any chapters from my music memoir, you know that artists and producers in the recording world of the 1970s could be dramatic. I have tended to emphasize stories featuring these kinds of characters because they are more entertaining, and they were representative of the times.
On occasion, though, I would work on a record where the folks making it were nice and somewhat sane. And on rarer occasions, these records were beautiful, and the people who made it were excellent at what they did. One such album was Tiger in the Rain by Michael Franks, produced and arranged by John Simon.
Mr. Franks was the kind of artist who would be hard pressed to get a deal these days. (Pretty much anyone but Taylor Swift and her pop artist compatriots would have a hard time getting a deal these days.) But fortunately for our culture, the seventies was a time when a quality guy like Franks could be supported by a major label, and sell a respectable number of discs, as well.
Franks was on Warner Brothers records, who made a thing of signing off-beat artists who were into tastefulness and depth. Since his first splash with an album called, The Art of Tea, Michael has written a boat load of sophisticated, wry, witty, subtle, jazzy tunes, which he has recorded with the best cats in the biz. His vocal approach is in the tradition of the California cool jazz sound, with a knowing twinkle redolent of the post-Beatles era.
Mr. Franks was cranking out records yearly at that time. He came into A & R Recording to record his fifth album and I got the gig to engineer. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Franks’ music before we started working together, and it was a delight to discover the work of this artist. His rich musicality and his unique, intelligent, poetic lyrics earned my respect. He was also a very sweet, down-to-earth guy. I liked him a great deal.
Michael had hired John Simon to produce this record. Now that was a guy I had heard of. He had produced the album that is number one on my list of albums to take to a desert island, the eponymously titled second album by The Band, popularly called “the brown album.” I’ve been listening to that record now for forty-five years, and I love it as much today as I did then. It is as close to a perfect album as I can imagine. John had also produced The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink. This was no slouch of an album, too. If John had only worked on these two albums, he would be an immortal in the annals of rock music, but he also produced great stuff for Janis Joplin, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Leonard Cohen and plenty of others, on top of making his own records.
So I was in awe of Mr. Simon, but he was a regular guy, too, and we hit it off. His towering strengths, in addition to his production chops, were his skills as an arranger and orchestrator. I tended to connect with arrangers. They were the member of the team I usually worked most closely with, because it was my job to make sure that all the parts they wrote could get heard. Also, as they were writing notes for someone else, they tended to be less ego-driven.
Michael gave John full reign to write orchestral arrangements for this record, and John outdid himself. Working with some of the top studio rhythm section cats, like Ben Riley and Rick Marotta on drums, Kenny Barron on piano, Joe Caro and Bucky Pizzarelli on guitars, Paul Griffin on organ, Reubens Bassini on percussion, and Mike Mainieri on vibes; the hottest horn and woodwind section the world has ever known, including Seldon Powell, Tom Malone, Randy Brecker, Lou Marini, Lew Soloff, George Young, Dave Liebman, Howie Leshaw and David Sanborn, incredible string players like Jesse Levy and Charles McCracken led by the inimitable Harry Lookofsky; and jazz greats like Ron Carter on bass and Flora Purim on vocals, the album is tastiness defined.
I just wish they could have found a better recording engineer! Looking back, I shiver to think that I worked among such exalted company. There’s no big story here, except that this album was a blast to work on. I cherish the memory of being there when New York was the best place in the world to make music, when in the course of a day I’d get to hear dozens of the greatest musicians in the world play, and I got to make records with brilliant, beautiful people like Michael Franks and John Simon.
Hey, give it a listen. Tiger in the Rain, by Michael Franks.