This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Joe D’Ambrosio, founder/CEO, Joe D’Ambrosio Management.
Understand about Joe D’Ambrosio that unless you are a client, you are not going to get the last word in, and you probably will be buried in a flurry of animated bravado between the opening and closing of any conversation.
D’Ambrosio, you see, is a closer.
Oh boy, D’Ambrosio a closer, but this former Yankee batboy is a closer with heart, and with unmatched music industry knowledge.
Joe D’Ambrosio Management, based in Mamaroneck, New York, manages producers, mixers, engineers, arrangers, songwriters, engineers, musicians, and executives.
Among its clients are producer/mixers Tony Visconti, Hugh Padgham, Kevin Killen, Jay Newland, Elliot Scheiner and Joe Zook; producer/mixer/engineers Brian Moncarz, Mario McNulty, Lawrence Manchester, Nic Hard, Isaiah Abolin, and Phil Joly; producer/songwriters David Kahne, and Scott Jacoby; and mixers Frank Filipetti, and Jay Dufour.
The firm also represents Bill Lefler (producer/mixer/songwriter); Rob Mounsey (producer/arranger/musician), Hill (producer/mixer/songwriter Hillary Kourkoutis), Clifford Carter (pianist, keyboards), Keith Cotton (keyboards), videographer Darryl Estrine, arranger Larry Gold, and music executive Fraser Hill.
In a nutshell, Joe D’Ambrosio Management holds the keys of services for recording, mixing, remixing, programming, live sound mixing. and remote recording. It organizes studio sessions and live productions, providing contractors, project managers, studios, session musicians, rental gear, travel, accommodations and so on.
D’Ambrosio was previously GM of Phil Ramone Inc. the music company of the South African-born production legend, as well as personal manager of the 14-time Grammy-winning producer.
As Ramone’s point person, D’Ambrosio provided critical backup support for such projects as: “Yentl” by Barbra Streisand; “L.A. Is My Lady” by Frank Sinatra; “Valotte,” and “The Secret Value Of Daydreaming” by Julian Lennon; and the Billy Joel’s albums, “An Innocent Man,” and “The Bridge”; as well as for Ramone-produced TV and film work featuring Madonna, Lou Reed, John Hiatt, Roberta Flack, and Ashford and Simpson.
While with Ramone, D’Ambrosio also served as director of Operations for N2K Encoded Music label, focusing on business development as well as production and manufacturing.
D’Ambrosio began his professional sports career with the New York Yankees rising from being batboy to working in the team’s front office from 1977-1982. This included being director of the Yankees’ Speakers Bureau, handling personal appearances by players. He is the proud owner of a pair of World Series Championship rings from the ’77 and ’78 Yankees.
During a 1987-1991 stint in Los Angeles, D’Ambrosio was director of promotions and marketing for the popular China Club; and, then 1991-1997 in Chicago, he continued his work with the Chicago China Club and then was Midwest director of sales for KAO Infosystems, a media manufacturing company pioneering CD duplication in the United States.
Why do people approach you for their production needs?
People come to me for the collective acumen of the people that I represent.
Your office is in Mamaroneck (New York). That’s in Westchester County next to Larchmont?
Yes. We have been here for about 9 years. I’m near the water. Mamaroneck is on the harbor. We are going to be here for as long as we can. We just signed a new lease. Let’s face it. This isn’t a business where people are going to come and say hello. If clients come by to discuss business or I do some consulting work from here we have offices. We have proper offices with proper files and about 60 gold records I’m incredibly proud of. Many from Phil’s days, many from my days.
How many people work for you?
Two. That’s it.
You have to be a closer in your line of work?
Oh yeah. Who’s on my wall? I have never thought of it. Mariano Rivera’s jersey signed is on my wall. The frickin’ frame is so gigantic. It’s on my wall.
(Panamanian-American Mariano Rivera spent most of his professional career as a relief pitcher, and served as the Yankees’ closer for 17 seasons. Rivera, one of the most dominant relievers in major league history, saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons, and posted an ERA (earned run average) under 2.00 in 11 seasons, both of which are records.)
Your adherence to closing reminds me of the most famous scene in David Mamet’s film “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) which doesn’t exist in his play that has Alec Baldwin as Blake telling the sales team, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”
You gotta be a closer, right?
You gotta be a closer. I’m a very aggressive guy. I try to go after stuff, and I am fairly successful at getting it. I’m aggressive at closing deals. I’m aggressive at doing budgets. I try to be aggressive without being off-putting. It’s a delicate balancing act.
If anyone was managing music producers, engineers, and sound mixers before Sandy Roberton launched his company Worlds End in London in the late ‘70s, there’s no apparent record of it. Or they only represented one or two clients.
He’s the Godfather as far as I know. He’s the one that started this as far as I know.
(Sandy Roberton set up Worlds End, named after an area near King’s Road in Chelsea, London, where the company’s office was first located, in 1979 and began handling several clients, including Phil Thornalley and Tim Palmer. He relocated to New York in 1987, and has been in Los Angeles in 1988.)
Top producers, engineers, and mixers for years disdained management. Most figured their successes would continually lead to more work. Then they often faced periods when that didn’t happen.
Producers have said to me, to my face, “I don’t believe in managers. I don’t think that they do anything.” That is the first thing that Phil Ramone said to me when he was my only client. In my third go-around with Phil, running his company at 26 until I was 31, helping him at his label 1997 to 1999, and then to 2000, just before I started my company in 2002, I was Phil’s manager. He was my only client. He was kind of stuck a little bit. One morning in the winter—it was snowing in Mount Kisco (New York), he lived in Bedford—I said, “Let’s go to lunch.” We went to lunch. “Any suggestions?” I said, “You need a manager.”He said, “What a manager? I don’t need a manager. Managers are no good.” I said, “No no no. I will do it.” He knew me from our friendship going back to 1979, and then working for him from 1982 to 1987. He trusted me.
(Once nicknamed “The Pope of Pop,” the late Phil Ramone passed away in 2013. In his lifetime, he worked as recording engineer, and producer with a staggering list of top artists including: Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Karen Carpenter, Julian Lennon, Shelby Lynne, Barry Manilow, Richard Marx, Anne Murray, Olivia Newton-John, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, and Dionne Warwick.
The South African-born phenomenon collaborated with Streisand on soundtracks for “A Star Is Born,” and “Yentl”; worked on stage productions of “Chicago,” “The Wiz,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Ramone also led the way in technology trends in recording. Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” album, released in 1978, is considered the first major release on CD, and for his 1993 productions of the pair Sinatra “Duet” albums, Ramone pioneered a technique of recording contributing artists remotely via fibre-optic telephone lines.)
Surely, Phil had no real difficulty getting work. Was any problems that he had in handling the back office? Like overseeing negotiations, bookings, billing and so on?
The hustle. Phil was having trouble getting work in that one little period of time. A six to eight-month window. He said to me, “What’s your plan?” Great question. I said, “My plan is to get on the phone and talk about you. Your career is unparalleled to almost anyone.” The same thing that I told Tony (Visconti). “Let me get on the phone, allow me to get on the phone, and work the phone.”
Phil and Tony, along with Hugh Padgham, Kevin Killen, Jay Newland, Elliot Scheiner, and Joe Zook are all prominent producers with extensive résumés. Are there times when somebody might say, “We’d like to get Tony Visconti, but we could never get him nor can we afford we him?” Like the most beautiful girl in school not asked out because everybody assumes she’s been asked. The same goes with you chasing such high-flying potential producer clients.
Yeah, but somebody has to ask her. You have to ask to see if you’ve got a shot. I was very blessed. Tony asked, but Hugh Padgham I had to call. I flew to England. I sat with him. We became friends. We are together now 10 or 11 years. Larry Gold is now 10 years. Joe Zook is 10 years. It was between me and another high-powered manager when I went after Joe. His career was just starting to blossom. A producer and a businesswoman told me about Joe and said, “You have to get him right now.” We sat down, and he was very tough on me. He wanted to insure I’d work hard for him. As Kevin Killen told me after calling quite a few people to make sure I was who I said I was, “If you are going to represent me, I have to know who you are.” Now I stay at Joe’s house. Kevin and his wife are friends, and we go out to dinner together. It is important to have a bond with the people that you represent.
Who was your first client?
The first client I had was Bradshaw Leigh who I knew from the first day that I walked into the studio with Phil at A&R Recording. I met Phil Ramone. I met Jim Boyer, Phil’s right hand. A storied engineer. A storied mixer. Bradshaw Leigh was their right hand. Bradshaw is big Red Sox fan, big sports guy. Just a great guy. So when I started out (in management), and I started taking people to dinners (to pitch my services), Brad said, “I’ll be your first client. I want you to know though, this is how the business works. People are going to come and go. You are a really sweet person, are you ready for that?” I said, “Yes.” I said “yes” a little too quickly. Everybody hates it when somebody walks out of your life. Brad eventually left because he wanted to engineer and to build studios. He’s a big part of the build-out of Sterling Sound Nashville for Ted Jensen. We are still friends, and he was my first client.
You also knew Elliot Scheiner from when he worked with Phil at A&R Recording.
I knew Elliot. He worked directly for Phil at A&R.
Elliot came close to being a professional baseball player,
Many of your clients you met before you opened Joe D’Ambrosio Management.
Just looking at the roster. Elliot, Frank (Filipetti), and Rob Mounsey I knew prior. Tony Visconti I met one day. My second year when I went to interest him on some mixers, he said to me, “Would you ever consider representing me?”
Was Tony living in the United States at that point?
He was living in the States. He had a studio at Looking Glass Studios the studio (located on the 9th floor just a half a block north of Houston Street on Broadway) that he shared with Phillip Glass, the classical composer. I was elated. I said, “Of course.”
When was that?
I would say late April 02. We’ve been together 16 years and here it is Fall 2018.
How much travel do you do?
Four to six weeks a year in L.A. Two weeks in Toronto but it’s broken up into four trips. Two weeks a year in Nashville. One trip for at least a week or 10 days in Europe, London, Germany wherever it takes me.
Do you get much work in Europe?
I do actually. Joe Zook and Jay Newland are the ones. Jay through France, and Joe through the UK. Tony (Visconti) does plenty of work in London. I also represent Hugh Padgham.
Hugh Padgham is the only non-North American on your roster. Do you get approached by producers, engineers, and mixers from overseas?
I have been approached by many, many, but as you get older you want to make logical decisions, not egotistical decisions. You want to understand how it (the business) works, and you want to be honest with people. I have had a lot of opportunities to have mixers and producers from the UK, Germany, and Italy. I have made a lot of friends, but I tell them honestly, “Here’s why it won’t work.” In theory, it will work with hard work and persistence, but it probably still won’t work. You need somebody beating the drums there (overseas). I don’t have that person. Very few American companies have someone beating the drums there, and the person there has to know what they are doing. Not just beating the drums.
Some producers, engineers or mixers from overseas may want to try to use you as a springboard into the American music market.
Yes, that has come to pass.
You opened an office in Paris in 2011, but it closed within 5 years. What happened?
A young French woman came to see me here in Mamaroneck for one of our guys to work with one of her artists. We played the music, and I then explained that the music wasn’t very good and that the budget wasn’t there. As I drove her back to the train, I asked her where she went to school. She said, “the Sorbonne (University).” Then I said, Obviously, you speak English and French, what else do you speak?” She replied, “German Italian and Spanish.” And I said, “Would you consider being our arm in Europe?” And she said yes. At first, jobs were coming in, but with her starting to raise a family, foucising on that, and moving outside of Paris, we both agreed that it was time to part after 5 years.
Have you followed up with anybody else?
I have a partnership with a young woman from Toronto, Michelle Szeto at Paquin Artists Agency (as tour marketing director) who represents me in Nashville, and works and has (president) Julien’s blessing who runs the company. She has been pretty good so far. She’s very well liked. She spends 8 months a year in Tennessee. That helps a lot.
Any other affiliations in the horizon?
There are a couple of other partnerships that I am working on. I have finally come to the realization that help is a good thing. Finding good help is the tough thing. I’m very particular. I am looking actively to find people, and I need to vet them which I don’t do quickly.
Someone seeking the services of one of your clients will likely want to talk only with you unless you bring in juniors who work their own rosters.
I think about it (new employees) all of the time. I’m not there yet.
Does having a colorful sports past give you a common ground with either your clients or those who want to hire them?
I had a meeting with Capitol Records just recently, with David Wolter who is (senior A&R) head of Virgin, and with four of his young A&R staff. His quote to me was, “Joe, your sports talk is falling on deaf ears.” While David grew up loving sports, the men and women that I met as the A&R staff at Virgin and Capitol were really not interested. That being said, they are millennials.
They’d talk gaming.
Yes. When I meet people–and I don’t want to really put a number on it—but, 40 and above, male or female, they may move to talk about sports. Obviously, I’m in meetings for music, and people will say to me, “Where did you come from?” I say, “I was a batboy for the Yankees”—“Really?”—“And, I grew up in the Bronx worshiping music and sports.” I don’t know anyone, and I am sure there are plenty of people, that got to do both of their true loves, and I came out of it with two World Series’ rings that I earned. Nobody gave them to me as a gift. I worked hard for them.
What do you make of the methodology used by the major to sign artists today? Years ago, labels sent A&R teams to clubs and concerts to discover new talent. Today, their A&R is busy checking out YouTube, and the various social media sites.
As Music Business International wrote this week, “Over the last five years, major labels and streaming platforms have been pouncing on data partnerships and startup acquisitions at an unprecedented rate, with the hopes of using algorithms to discover – and predict – the next big pop star.”
Few music industry people want to get their hands dirty doing grassroots artist development. So many labels seek to sign acts following a couple of releases, and after checking them out on streaming social media sites. That’s not healthy is it?
No, and I think that again I’m coming from the perspective of my agency group. In my day, you’d go to a show. You’d see a band, word-of-mouth. You’d see them again. They’d blow it up (becoming more popular, perhaps regionally), and you would sign them. Then you’d develop them, and they would become successful. But you stayed with them. The Beatles, the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the J. Geils Band, they all had careers (after) one, two, three records. And Bruce Springsteen with “Born To Run” (1985) record #3. All of them. You had to grow the act. You had to stay with them.
That’s true of many moments in our culture. NBC executives were so unsure about “Seinfeld” that they decided to only try a pilot as “Seinfeld Chronicles.” It tested so poorly that NBC initially decided not to pick up the show. However, NBC VP Rick Ludwin, convinced the series had potential, ordered four more episodes for the show’s first season which barely gained enough ratings to secure a second season. The show was considered by many to be too New York. Anyone saying they saw the first season of “Seinfeld” is likely lying.
But that’s true of building music artists’ careers. You need to get the word out. I think it still takes three release cycles to break a recording act.
I think you are right on the button about that. I think that some labels are indeed signing on merits, but if you say that out loud, they will counter with saying “Merit is also analytics.” No analytics are statistics. As my dearly beloved New York Yankees who live and die by the statistics, they are dead (this year). Someone just said in a meeting I took that Post Malone had great statistics, but he didn’t hit right away, and now he’s a massive superstar. I don’t know enough about Post Malone to accredit that statement, but yes everybody (labels) has kids, young people sitting shoulder to shoulder—I’ve seen it without saying the names—at labels going through YouTube and Spotify, checking streaming numbers, checking viewing numbers, and signing people that way. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it. But they have bought into that system.
A&R personnel will still go out and see an artist if they are performing.
Well, that’s exactly right, but half of them aren’t playing live, and they can’t play live. Or as an A&R guy told me last week, “I have this artist” blah blah blah blah. “The numbers are great. They don’t know what to do outside of their bedroom. I am getting them into a studio, and I have to have someone who is going to know what to do with them”.
I had a lively conversation with Ed Sheeran when he was honored with the Hal David Starlight Award at the 2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala. I mentioned my wife Anya being from Grimsby in North East Lincolnshire. He laughed and said, “Oh, I’ve played Grimsby.” Jokingly, I said, “I bet you haven’t played Scunthorpe (a nearby industrial town).” Again he laughed and said, “Oh, I’ve played Scunthorpe too, mate.”
You and your clients deal with almost every genre of music and work with labels big and small.
All of the genres. I deal with (major) labels. I deal with indie artists. Indie labels. What did Elton John say (in “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” on “Honky Château,” released in 1972), “Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers?” And some have a lot of great talent. Some have a little less talent. My business has opened up from being just strictly a label business to indie labels and indie artists and vanity projects.
With the abundance of home studios, and with lessened talent budgets and rosters, and with people listening to music through earbuds, why do we need producers today?
I once asked Billy Joel in front of (his producer) Phil Ramone, “Why do you need a producer?” Phil shot me a look like someone entering your house to rob your child. Billy said, “Because everything that I write I think is the greatest thing in the world. Phil is here as producer to set me straight. He knows me. He knows what I am trying to do, and he is an arbitrary judge that is not prejudiced as a writer is prejudiced to one’s own material.”
Recordings produced in home studios may often be flawless, but also there’s often no audio or musical magic. Often the magic in recording is keeping the mistakes in.
Right. Well, listen to the Beatles’ records. It’s amazing the things that they kept, and the things that we treasure nowadays.
Has the rise of home studios coupled with shrinking rosters, budgets, and music sales cut into producers’ livelihoods? Certainly, producer fees are lower in recent years.
To be specific for producers, yes it has cut into our business, but it is mostly an economic issue. Let’s be clear. It is an economic issue. It’s not mostly an economic issue. It’s totally an economic issue because the independent people and the (major) labels don’t have the money to hire a producer for what they used to hire them for. While in California taking meeting recently I said to someone, “Very few people get $100,000 a track anymore” and I mentioned two names that everybody knows. And the prospective client said to me, “They are not getting that anymore. They are probably getting half that.”
Despite the recording side of the music industry re-scaling itself downward, there are growing opportunities for producers, engineers, and mixers to insert themselves into other sectors. For example, Kevin Killen, Jay Newland, David Kahne, Frank Filipetti, Elliot Scheiner, Fraser Hill and, Tony Visconti are all thriving with other types of work. All of them with formidable backgrounds working at studios or in the industry.
Yes, that’s a good point. David Kahne was the vice-president of A&R at Columbia. And he had 415 Records. Frank came up as a musician. Admittedly, he failed, but he took his love of music to audio recording and has received 8 Grammy Awards in recognition of his work.
David Kahne even designed Fishbone’s logo.
Yes. And Elliot Scheiner, if you buy an Acura, the ELS sound system is his design.
(Elliot Scheiner’s prolific experience gained the interest of Acura, who tapped him a decade ago to help with their Panasonic audio system. In 2004, he did the Acura TL, and the ELS Surround system. And he got deeper into car audio.)
Fraser Hill was an engineer at the now-defunct Eastern Sound in Toronto for years before working for several major labels in Canada.
Fraser is my dear friend from Capitol-EMI of Canada, and then he went to Universal Music Canada, and then there was a shift in thinking at Universal. I have tremendous respect for him based on all of the success that he’s had. I told him to come down here two years ago for Christmas. He came down, and I laid out a plan. Through hard work, his connections, my closing, he’s the director of casting on “The Launch” (CTV’s music series). Now it is in its second season. He works so hard to help that show. By no means does he do it alone. He has a team, but he is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met and easily one of the best A&R people. His ears are ridiculously good.
(After 21 years at Universal Music and EMI Music, Fraser Hill now also heads frazietrain productions, an independent music consulting company specializing in A&R consulting and artist development.)
Both you and most of your clients work in different fields.
Let’s take Kevin Killen as an example. He is, is closely associated with Shakira, but he also worked with David Bowie, U2 and Elvis Costello. And what about Sugarland with the first album of the duo’s career to reach #1 on Top Country Albums, and The Billboard Top 200.
Right, Mixed Sugarland’s most successful release, “Love On The Inside” (released in 2008) featuring three #1 hits on the Billboard Country Music chart: “All I Want to Do”, “Already Gone” and “II Happens.”
Who would ever think of that?
Nobody would ever think about that. Bowie’s “Lazarus” (2016) that he recorded and mixed it. A big, big record. (The musical) ran in New York off-Broadway. It ran in London, and the rumor is that it’s coming back to Broadway. I don’t know if it is. But everybody celebrates the cast album.
(Engineer/producer Kevin Killen has worked with some of the premier pop artists in the music industry, including U2, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and Sugarland. He recorded and mixed the original cast album of Bowie’s “Lazarus” and recorded Bowie’s final album, “Black Star,” for producer Tony Visconti. He is Music Technology Artist-in-Residence at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, teaching a new course A new course, Production for Songwriters.)
Jay Newland, who won 12 Grammy, is so associated with Norah Jones but he’s also has worked with Taj Mahal and Johnny Hallyday. Are you kidding me?
Oh yeah, and Eddie Mitchell. And now Gregory Porter, the greatest artist who nobody in America knows. All throughout Europe, you say Gregory Porter. I was recently in Germany, ”Gregory Porter, wow. Jay did (mixed and engineered) that record?”
(Gregory Porter’s third album, “Liquid Spirit,” produced by Brian Bacchus,. won the 2014 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. The album has enjoyed commercial success rarely achieved by a jazz album, peaking at #9 on the UK album chart. It was certified gold by the BPI, selling over 100,000 units in the UK. The album peaked at #187 on Billboard 200 album chart.)
People ask why aren’t more pop acts being signed today. The simple answer may be that developing a mainstream pop act can take four years or more to bring to market, and will break the A&R department’s piggy bank.
One Direction. That’s my best example because my client Joe Zook worked with them. Joe has had great success with One Direction, OneRepublic, Pink, and Katy Perry. One Direction took years. Nobody looks at the years it took. They look at the massive records that they’ve sold. Just massive. Greatest selling artists of their period someone told me the other day. I didn’t know that.
Arista dumped almost a full album by Avril Lavigne prior to her debut studio album, “Let Go” (2002) in which she was teamed with the production team The Matrix (Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards, and Scott Spock). Labels are fearful of this type of pop route because it’s expensive to get it right.
It is expensive, and you better have the damn belief that this is going to last, right?
Ritch Esra, publisher of A&R Registry, and I have talked about how Los Angeles is full of former A&R heads no longer working in the music industry.
Yes, he and I discussed that recently as well. The number of guys that are out of work is unbelievable. I guess that they go to real estate. I’m not making fun of it at all.
Or they try artist management or try to hook up with start-up companies. Major labels keep downsizing, but usually, the first positions reduced are in A&R.
First thing to go.
Yet, so many people entering the music industry want to be in A&R.
Correct. What other job do you get a six-figure salary and a hefty credit card? I recently told the president of a record company who was complaining about his A&R team–and people who read this are really going to hate me–I said, “I will solve your problem right now. You pay A&R people ‘X’ amount like a salesman, and then you pay them on performance.” He said, “We’d never get anybody to do it.” I said, “Wrong. You’ve got these great schools like Berklee, NYU, The Musicians Institute in Hollywood, UCLA, USC, the Columbia music programs, the Columbia Music School in Chicago where my wife went to college, Ryerson in Toronto, and Full Sail University which is mostly for engineers, they will fill your A&R offices. You will settle your problems with payroll, and you will get better performance because people will have to work harder in order to feed their kids.”
The majors, unless forced, have balked at giving an A&R head a percentage of revenues by artists they’ve signed. George Martin left EMI-affiliated Parlophone Records because he couldn’t share in the earnings of the Beatles, Cilla Black, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas and others that he help make successful. He was on salary while there.
I just found that out, and it blew me away.
Interestingly, the British and American production structures differ. Under the British system, trainees go in as tea boy or girl and work up to assistant engineer, then to engineer, and then to being a producer. In America, you may go in on the bottom rung of the studio job ladder, but if you discover a local band you often get to produce them. Two different systems.
No, it’s true. It’s totally true. You are totally telling the truth.
Tony Visconti had to go to Britain to break through in the industry. He was an in-house producer in New York for the Richmond Organization, and he went to London to be Denny Cordell’s apprentice at Richmond’s sister company, Essex Music. He then produced two tracks for Procol Harum’s “Shine On Brightly” (1968), “Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), and part of the lengthy “In Held ‘Twas in I” suite; and produced tracks on Joe Cocker’s debut album, “With a Little Help from My Friends” (1969). This was before working with T. Rex, and David Bowie.
Denny Cordell had come to New York specifically to look for an American record producer whom he could bring back to England to sort of Americanize his productions.
Denny Cordell had faith in him. Tony tells the story straight up.
I highly recommend Tony’s 2007 book “Tony Visconti: The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy.”
It is a good book compared to others. I closed both Phil Ramone’s book deal (for “Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music” in 2007) and Tony’s book deal.
I don’t care for Phil’s book which was co-written with Chuck Granta (who has authored books on Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys). Given Phil’s remarkable career, it’s lightweight.
Phil fired the first two authors. I don’t know if that is common knowledge. He wasn’t getting what he wanted. The book is the book that Phil wanted, and he loved it. Tony’s book was co-written with Richard Havers who sadly died about nine months ago.
(Richard Havers passed away on New Year’s Eve at the age of 66 from cancer. He was a prolific writer who wrote numerous books on the Rolling Stones including “On Air In The Sixties,” the history of the Stones‘ BBC recording sessions, Bill Wyman’s “Blues Odyssey,” and “Rolling With The Stones.”
Richard was a unique, brilliant writer, and a brilliant music guy.
Well, I’ve interviewed Tony, and know him through my wife, former UK radio plugger Anya Wilson, who worked for David Bowie’s management company, MainMan. She also broke T. Rex’s 1970 hit “Ride A White Swan” that Tony produced (his first hit), and which reached #2 11 weeks after release. Tony is a master raconteur.
Oh, him and Phil shared credit in that department. They are both fantastic storytellers and, in their own way, they have led incredible lives.
Still, Phil was quite a shy person, and wouldn’t tell many stories publicly because he was very sensitive of how he was being perceived.
Very much so.
Your life has included plenty of luck.
I’m lucky. I’m beyond lucky. I was lucky the day I was on the field, and on deck with the Yankees when Chris Chambliss in ’76–we didn’t win the World Championship, we got swept by the (Cincinnati) Reds four in a row, but he broke our string of non-winning seasons of not getting to the world series, when he hit the home run (while the game was tied 6 to 6) that beat the Kansas City Royals which was Oct. 14th, 1976. One of the shots heard around the world. The stadium exploded with joy because it was an incredible home run, an incredible time. Nobody expected it. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. My kids being born were the happiest but…
(Chris Chambliss’ home run can be viewed at the 53:00-minute mark at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HpFC392K6E)
How did you land a job as batboy with the New York Yankees?
Greatest story in the world. At the luncheonette where I worked this older guy Artie, who worked for Con Ed, walked in for black coffee every morning at 5:30 A.M., and we’d talk sports. He said to me, “How would you like to try out for the Yankees’ batboy job?” I was 18. I said, “Yes.” He said, “It makes no money.” I said, “I don’t care about the money.” So he got me an interview. I went to the Parks Administration Building in Queens which was near Shea Stadium where the Yankees played in ’74 and ’75 before they reopened Yankee Stadium in ’76. I opened the door thinking that I was going to be the only one that was going to be there. I don’t know. I walked in, and there were 300 kids in the room. I almost turned around and walked out. I’d driven all the way to Queens from the Bronx where I was living with my mom. I had a suit on. I said to myself, “Let me just go through the motions.” A couple hours I wait. It’s boiling hot. I’m the last guy that they talk to. Two folded out aluminum chairs, Patrick Kelly, who was the stadium manager at the time, says “Sit down, kid.”
You’d be pretty tired at this time.
I’m tired, but he’s older and he’s pissed off. He had to go through 300 kids. He asked me my name and where I went to college (Herbert H. Lehman College). “Why do you want this job.” I said, “Because I’m going to do a better job than anybody else.” I meant it. It wasn’t bravado. No hubris. Sincere. He’s an ex-New York city detective, “Don’t give me that crap. Why do you think you will do great with this job?” I said, “Because I’m athletic. I am dedicated. I love the team. And I finish every job I start.” He shook my hand, “Thanks for coming. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. If you hear from us it will be in February. ”I go home. I think nothing of it. February comes and goes. March comes and goes. The first week of April, nothing happens.
Meanwhile, April 13th is opening day against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium
Right, April 10th I get a big manila envelope. I’m walking up the stairs of the two flat that we lived in, and about half-way up the stairs, I realize that losers don’t get manila envelopes. Losers get little white envelopes. I rip it open. I run into my room I put on Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way.” and I’m dancing around my room. I still have the letter. “You have been selected to be the Yankee batboy for the 1976 season.
You showed up at Yankee Stadium a day early.
On April 12th. Why? Because every home team the day before the season opens works out because they have been away all year. The stadium is still being finished. I walk right in. I’m saying hello to people. They don’t know who I am. I walk into the clubhouse, scared, and there’s Pete Sheehy, Babe Ruth’s clubbie (the working Yankee clubhouse man who took care of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, arranging their newly-polished shoes, and fussing with their freshly-pressed uniforms.). I said, “Pete, I’m the new batboy. I just want to introduce myself. I came to help. “Good for you kid. Go clean those shoes.” So I cleaned 40 or 50 pairs of shoes. It got dark and he said, “Get out of here kid. I’ll see you tomorrow. Be early.”
So you make your debut as batboy opening day.
I came early. Scared to death. Ellie Howard (the first African American to play for the Yankees said, “We can do this with you. We can do this without you. Stop worrying. Just do a good job.” And I did. The second year, they fired all the batboys. (Catcher and team captain) Thurman Munson said, “I want him back.” I came back in 1977. We won everything. I road on the parade down the Canyon of Heroes, down Broadway and lower Manhattan.
You had joined a fraternity.
Oh, I’m still friends with all of the guys. I took it so seriously that some of the players approached me on my birthday, August. 27th, ’77—we were getting crushed. Some of the players said, “Are you okay?” I said, “I’m not okay. We lost.” They looked at me like I was crazy. I had all of the losing. They didn’t win until ’77. I was too small for the ’61, 62, ’63 and ’64 years, but in ’76, and ’77 it meant so much to me. Now I am part of it (the family). Of course, I wasn’t a player, and I’m not one of those batboys who thinks he’s a player but I took it so seriously. They had 162 games. They didn’t take it that seriously.
Did you go on the road?
The second year in 1977 I went to Boston, Toronto, Detroit, and to the World Series in Los Angeles. I also did the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium that year.
How physically tough is it being a batboy?
It’s a lot of work. All the other batboys weren’t in shape. I’m heavy now, but then I was a 34 (inch) waist, and 168 pounds like I was going into the army. I ran two miles every day.
Is being a batboy dangerous?
Let m tell you about Carlos May, the guy with one thumb blown off, the guy we got from the (Chicago) White Sox. This is when you are on deck without a helmet, Now batboys have to wear helmets. Carlos one day was taking a bat and twirling it to loosen up his right shoulder. It brushed my hair. It would have knocked me out or killed me. I’m not kidding you. I felt the wind go by my left ear. It just missed me that when I turned to the right naturally it put my head in the line of fire. He saw it, and he jumped to his left. I looked at the bench and their eyes were wide open. He could have killed me.
Being right where the action is…
Twelve feet from home plate
With a wide-angle view of the stadium, the players, and the ball coming toward the batter, what was your first impression?
Oh of wonder. Amazement. How fast the game is, and how amazingly athletic the guys that you think are slow are no way near slow. Mickey Rivers ran like Jesse Owen (four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games).
“Mick The Quick” was a speedy lead-off hitter, and an excellent center fielder.
I’m not exaggerating. Everybody joked that (outfielder) Lou Piniella. was slow. I raced Lou once before my knees went, and he dusted me. Pitchers, how fast they are. How their balls have movement, unbelievable movement.
Coming onto the field at a Yankees game must remain in your memory.
You come out of the dugout, you come up the three steps, and you go left. Some stadiums you walk straight out. Not ours. Not most of them. You kneel on deck, and it is electric. Then when the crowd chants during the playoffs, during the post-season, it goes right through you. It’s akin to being onstage for a rock show. It’s that crazy adrenalin rush that you can’t control because the crowd, especially a Yankee crowd, is a little crackers. When Chris hit the ball in ’76 to put us in the World Series people without thinking jumped onto the field en masse. Thousands. Not a couple of hundred. Thousands. And they just wanted to celebrate. Some had bad intentions, but most just wanted to celebrate.
After being batboy, you stayed on with the Yankees.
They asked me back in the winter of 1977 to work in the front office because I was a journalism major. There was nobody in the office. Now pro sports teams have 20 people in the PR department. It was me, my boss, and an intern. They gave me everything to write because I had a knack for writing. So I wrote three yearbooks in a row ’78, 79 and ’80). I wrote all of the notes after games. Anything that needed writing they gave to me. This was when we had IBM Selectric typewriters and paper. People would laugh because I’d ball paper up and I’d shoot for the can across the room. I’d get it in about 10% of the time. There were rolls of balled up paper all over the floor. But my work got done.
Your career path is simply crazy.
Oh no, it is crazy.
Anyone taking a course in order to work in the music industry would never think up your career route of starting with club work to being the right hand of a famous music producer followed by heading a company representing producers, engineers, and mixers. If they did the teacher would say, “You are in the wrong class.”
They would say that. The part that really defined me ’89, ’90, and ’91 was the China Club, a very well-known club in New York which came to L.A. They hired a PR firm. It didn’t go well, and they decided to find another. I brought them to meet Michael Jensen of Jensen Communications, and they liked Michael He closed the deal, and he put me on the account. Michael was my boss. After a disagreement, he let me go. I called the owners of the China Club to say I wouldn’t be working their account any longer. They asked if I had a spare empty box. I asked, “Why?” They said to get all my stuff and get over to the club. I became their in-house promotion and marketing guy. I was out of work 20 minutes.
Then (the club co-owners) Danny Fried, and Michael Barrett said, “We hired this PR firm before. They screwed up our opening. What do we do, Joe?” I said, “We treat everybody like gold. You do a Velvet Rope because you want to have the panaché, but let me help you. All the New York thugs that came out here to help you run the door have to dial it down 700%, and I need to be your go to for who gets in, and who doesn’t get in.” And it worked like a charm.
Didn’t you launch the China Club’s famed Monday nights Pro-Jams?
The Monday Nights Pro-Jam I named. I didn’t launch it. Allan Kaufman booked it. I named it. Pro-Jam after Pro Tennis and Rock and Roll Jam. That came out of my head. They loved it. It was magical. Having Sly Stone, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting. Sly and George didn’t get up (onstage) but Springsteen, Sting, (Don) Henley, Elton John, Mick Hucknall did, and (the Who’s) John Enwhistle was there 13 weeks in a row playing bass with the house band on Monday nights. Nobody got paid. They could eat and drink, and it was phenomenal.
Meanwhile, the local politicians hated the club, and the city fire department found over-capacity crowds more than once there.
Right. Hated the club. They hated it for a lot of reasons. Some I can’t talk about. But they hated it. They had a point. We absolutely put too many people in.
Let’s also not kid ourselves. The drug culture was highly evident there too.
Oh no, yes, and I’m not a choir boy but to this day at 62 years I’ve never done “blow” (cocaine). I have no interest. There was quite a bit that circulated in that club. It was part of the culture of the time. It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact.
Over the years there’s been different renowned clubs that attracted celebrities including Studio 54 in New York, and The Viper Room in Los Angeles. Clubs that stayed cool for a while, and then the celebs moved on.
Right, right. As you said, we had the lightning in the bottle moment, and then we didn’t. We closed in L.A. ’91, moved to Chicago, and opened there. The owners, called me up one day and said, “Can you meet us for breakfast?” These people didn’t get up for breakfast. They were high rollers as Little Feat once said in (“Hi Roller” in 1975) . So we met for breakfast, and they said, “We have invested in Chicago. Would you come help us? You are a day to day guy.” I didn’t do all of it. I did some of it. But I did it happily.” They made me an offer, and I woke up in Chicago one day, and it was fantastic. The city was welcoming. We had a great time. I made terrific friends who are with me to this day. It was great. It was great working for them in Chicago. Then Phil Ramone called me, and said, “Joe, I miss you.”
How did you first meet Phil Ramone?
Phil and I met in 1978 when I was in the front office of the Yankees. I was backstage at a Billy Joel concert. Phil was sitting in a corner next to a beautiful girl with sunglasses. I went up to him and I said, “Mr. Ramone my name is Joe D’Ambrosio and I am big fan of yours” grumble grumble. He didn’t even lift his head up. “You recorded Frank Sinatra at The Sands. You recorded ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ for the film ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’” Phil said, “How do you know all of this?” And I said, “I’m a big fan. I work for the New York Yankees.” He jumps up, shoos the woman away, and says, “Sit down.” And we talked baseball from that day until he passed away five years ago. We became best friends. I was at his house, hanging out all of the time. It was really an amazing time in my life.
I can only imagine some of the connections you made working with Phil who was then doing so much production work with Billy Joel, and also working Barbra Streisand, Julian Lennon, and Frank Sinatra. You were production manager on those sessions, and his productions on soundtracks of such films as “White Nights,” and “Vision Quest.”
Working with Billy Joel must have been entertaining.
People ask me, “Joe, who is the greatest guy you’ve ever met artist-wise in the business, really?” I don’t have to wait a second. Billy Joel is just one of the more terrific human beings—my hand to God—he treated me so well, ’81 to ’87, during my first go around with Phil. Then I was a nobody. The Yankee thing really helped my status in the music world because a lot of musicians love sports, and Billy among them. Yes, he is a Yankees’ fan.
On Julian Lennon’s debut 1984 album “Valotte” you oversaw sessions produced by Phil that took place at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio; and Bear Tracks Recording Studio A&R Recording Studios, Clinton Recording Studios, and The Hit Factory in New York.
We are friends to this day which really satisfies my heart. I tell people that “if you get let go in the music industry, it really doesn’t matter to me. We are still going to be friends.” I tell that to people, and they kind of smirk at me. But I am dead sincere. It’s friendship that matters not where you work. Maybe, that’s naiveté on my behalf, but that’s truly how I feel.
Meanwhile, securing studios and musicians, booking sessions, and working at all of these locations obviously led you to building a considerable relationship network.
Oh yeah, became friends with (The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka The Swampers) Barry Beckett (keyboardist), Roger Hawkins (drummer), David Hood (bassist) and Jimmy Johnson (guitarist) I met recording in Sheffield (Alabama). They were all very kind to me. A great story about Muscle Shoals is that at South By Southwest 10 years ago I was introduced to the Drive-By Truckers. We are all at the same picnic table. I said to (co-founder and guitarist) Patterson Hood, “You aren’t going to remember this but back in 1984– I came down to Muscle Shoals with Julian Lennon and Phil Ramone and his band including guitarist Justin Clayton, and you were this little kid running around at the studio.” He said, “I remember that.” I said you were like 4 or 5.” He said, “No. I remember that clearly.” He had his baby and his wife with him, and he told the story to everybody at the table who thought it was crazy that I was sitting there having lunch with them 20 years later.
How did you return in 1997 to Phil’s world to be director of production at the N2K Encoded Music label which he co-owned with Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen?
I knew Dave and Larry from GRP Records that they had owned (and co-founded in 1978). We always got along. Dave was always kind. I knew Dave much better than Larry.
And, as an arranger, keyboardist, and producer, Dave Grusin is a genius.
A genius. Phil called on the phone when I was in Chicago working for KAO Infosystems, and that was winding down, and he said, “Dave and Larry really like you. I love you. Come home.” Who does not answer to that call? It was pretty much the beginning of the label. I lived in a hotel for six months. They picked up the tab. I rented a home in New Rochelle. My wife came from Chicago. Then we settled in Westchester Country. Then N2K was bought out.
It was bought by Adam Levy’s Warlock Music.
N2K had some cool releases by Jonathan Butler, Arturo Sandoval, T.S. Monk, Candy Dulfer and, of course, Dave Grusin.
And what nobody remembers Music Boulevard. Look it up. Music Boulevard was the first online at which you could buy music (using Liquid Audio’s single-delivery system). Way before Amazon. Way before iTunes. I think eventually Amazon bought them.
(Music Boulevard, or musicblvd.com, was a retail music information and sales website founded in 1995 by Telebase Systems. In 1997, the Music Boulevard website, operated by N2K, was the first websites to offer piracy-protected music singles for direct download. MusicBlvd went public in October 1997. The website offered more than 300,000 music titles and generated more than 80 million views in its first quarter. In 1999 MusicBlvd was acquired by CDNow which was itself was acquired by Amazon.com in 2002.)
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.