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And there was Ahmet Ertegün, who had come from Turkey as a young man. His older brother, Nesuhi, had taken him to see jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway in London when he was just nine. The brothers built a collection of 15,000 jazz and blues 78-records and spent time in New Orleans and Harlem listening to live performances. It was no great surprise, then, that Ertegün became founder and president of Atlantic Records.
Ertegün wrote classic blues songs, including Chains of Love, Sweet Sixteen, and the Ray Charles hit Mess Around. Still, he was more of a business executive than a creative—a hands-off producer who talked in generalities rather than suggesting specific musical solutions. He left it to the artist to communicate his or her vision to the musicians. “You could just tell that he had a lot of years in the record business,” said Jon. “He had so much experience.”
One particular example stood out. “There was one chord we all found very annoying, and he wouldn’t let anyone change it.” Ertegün’s response was, “No, no – irritant factor!” At the time, the musicians thought that was one of the funniest, and strangest, things they had ever heard. What was Ahmet’s formula, they wondered: great groove, great melody, great feel, great performance, and…irritant factor?
“In retrospect,” said Jon, “I realized that Ahmet had to have a plan, and that it may even have been a good one. There had to be something to it, a strategy he had used successfully in his past productions. All I can do is guess at his reasons, but it may have been something as simple as making the song a bit different in order for it to stand out. Perhaps the main objective was to catch the listener’s attention, much as some television ads do by inserting something unexpected.” What seemed annoying to the musicians apparently sounded like music to the listeners—and to the accountants tallying up the record sales.
Ertegün’s unique point of view reminded Jon of another producer’s creative approach. “Wilton Felder, saxophone player of The Crusaders, had a very spontaneous way of producing records,” Jon recalled. “The musicians would come up with chord progressions and grooves which would get labeled A, B, C, and D. Wilton called the shots at the sessions; he’d be on a mike and would call out, ‘Section B is coming up’. You never knew where the song was going until he told you what was next. It was basically a stream of consciousness of sections which they would put together later.”
When Larry Lee, a member of The Ozark Mountain Daredevil, recorded his solo album, Marooned, Jon served as musical director and John Ryan was the producer. Ryan had produced for Styx, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doobie Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, and Vince Gill and Pure Prairie League. “What most impressed me about John was his incredible attention to detail,” said Jon. “Every second, he was keenly aware of the project timeline, musicians’ schedules, the budget, and, not to forget, whether or not we were making hits. He had a real gut feeling when it came to what would sound great on the radio.”
Greg Nelson was another successful and popular producer Jon worked with. He has produced Sandi Patty, Steve Green, Larnelle Harris, Twila Paris, and multiple artist recordings that included Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and CeCe Winans. Greg was also a composer/arranger, and headed Spirit Records, a division of Sparrow Records.
Nelson exuded confidence and drive. Said Jon, “Greg knew absolutely what he was going for and how to get it. He is probably the most hands-on producer I have ever worked with, and highly respected because he always had a solution if something needed tweaking or required a different approach. He had a lot of experience in the full range of instrumentation, be it for the rhythm section, orchestra, or vocals. Sometimes he suggested specific ideas for each instrument or voice, or a particular rhythmic thing to try. His high energy style and direct manner cut to the chase, and his enthusiasm and dedication to each artist and project made you want to be on the edge.”
Jon shared his experience of working with Tony Brown, an extraordinary producer who signed Jon to the MCA Master Series label for the albums Waltz at Big Sky and Letting Go. At the time, Brown was Vice President of MCA Records Nashville, but he would soon go on to become the label’s president at a time when it generated annual earnings of $500 million.
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