The music industry woke up to an empty chair at the recording console on Tuesday — legendary producer Tommy LiPuma died on Monday, March 13. He was 81. His passion for music was infectious, and he inspired artists like George Benson, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Natalie Cole, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Barbra Streisand, Queen Latifah, Leon Russell, Al Jarreau, and Miles Davis to achieve some of the best work of their careers. The long list of albums he produced sold more than 75 million copies, including 35 gold or platinum titles. He was honored with 33 Grammy nominations and took home statues five times.
Tommy was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1936. He played the tenor saxophone in high school and was soon gigging with local big bands. Tommy began training to be a barber like his dad but was quickly lured away by the opportunity to tour with a band.
Tommy’s resume truly covers every facet of the music industry. He started his career in an entry-level position, packing records in the warehouse for M.S. Distributors in Cleveland. Eventually he earned his way into a position as the local promotions representative.
By 1961, Tommy was working as a promotions representative for Liberty Records. He also began producing demo sessions for new songwriters. Tommy produced his first hit single for a local Cleveland band called the O’Jays. Their cover of Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces” reached #28 on the R&B Top 40, and the floodgates opened.
In 1965, Tommy joined A&M Records as the first staff producer and proceeded to churn out hits like “Guantanamera” for the Sandpipers, “The More I See You” for Chris Montez, and two gold albums for French singer Claudine Longet.
Tommy was a success, but he was afraid of being pigeonholed into a specific sound. In 1968, he started his own label, Blue Thumb, and assembled a roster of eclectic artists including Ike & Tina Turner, Dave Mason, and the Pointer Sisters.
Tommy really hit his stride in 1974. He took a freelance assignment for Columbia Records to produce an album for Barbra Streisand. This album featured the iconic theme song for the movie The Way We Were. That same year he landed at Warner Bros. Records where two years later he produced his first multi-platinum album, George Benson’s Breezin’, along with his first Grammy for the track “This Masquerade.”
His hard work and success for Warner Bros. paid off, and in 1979 Tommy became vice president of jazz and progressive music. For the next 10 years, he would work with some of the hottest artists of the time, including David Sanborn, Peabo Bryson, Randy Newman, and Aztec Camera.
In 1990, Tommy moved on to Elektra Records, accepting the title of senior vice president. He would produce Natalie Cole’s 7-time platinum, triple-Grammy-winning album, Unforgettable…with Love.
Then it was on to GRP and Verve Records from 1994–2011. Over this time, Tommy collaborated with singer/pianist Diana Krall on more than a dozen albums. Two of the albums, When I Look in Your Eyes and The Look of Love, sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. Tommy also did freelance work for an impressive mob of A-listers, including Michael Buble, Willie Nelson, and Paul McCartney.
Tommy’s story is truly an inspiring example of how far passion, hard work, and an upbeat outlook can take you. Keep smiling, Tommy – we’ll miss you.