Michael Omartian: « Working with Steely Dan could hardly be considered “fun” »

9th June 2012

Interview. Michael Omartian has contributed his talents to over 350,000,000 albums and CD’s sold worldwide as a producer, composer, arranger, artist or musician. This impressive number shows the importance of this musician in the history of American pop music. He has been kind enough to answer to my questions about his career and to talk about his work with Steely Dan, Christopher Cross and Donna Summer.

What were your earliest musical memories?

I guess that my earliest musical memories were hearing big band recordings and some early, early rock and roll, mostly the doo-wop stuff of the 1950’s. I wasn’t a real fan of that particular genre at the time, so I seemed to take to swing and jazz records. Remember that this was at a time when a single played at 33 1/3.
To most of your readers that would be considered the “Stone Age”. There wasn’t a lot of music played around our house, so what I heard was on the radio and at record stores in the Chicago, Ill. area.

Do you remember when and why you started playing music ? Did you follow a classical or a jazz training?

I remember my mom telling me that I would constantly be singing and tapping out rhythms with my hands and any sticks that I could get a hold of, so my parents started me on piano and accordion lessons when I was four years old. My early memories were that I would get scolded by my instructors for improvising and not sticking with the music that was on the page. Being from a very unmusical family, it was hard for my parents to recognize that this might be a good thing. Anyway, I also got into playing drums at around 6 years old, so music was becoming a real joy for me at an early age. I liked classical music, and that was the early training that I had at the piano, but I really gravitated towards jazz, mainly because it was so improvisational. That changed when the Beatles came out with their first album. Something about the “English Invasion” really appealed to me and pulled me toward pop music.

Los Angeles was the place to be for a musician in the 70s and 80s. How was life when you arrived there? Was it as wild and exciting as it is often said?

I moved to Los Angeles in 1967, mainly because it seemed that every time I bought an album by an artist or group that I liked, the credit for where the music was recorded seemed to be at least 75% of the time in Los Angeles. This was a big move for me, since I came from a rather ethnic neighborhood and the thought of anyone moving away from their family or “the neighborhood” was viewed as absolutely unacceptable. My parents were rather heartbroken that I would do such a thing, but they accepted that a few years later when their “son” represented the family and neighborhood in a positive way.

When I arrived, I was both excited and overwhelmed with the task of trying to break into the music business. I basically starved and did anything I could just to be included in some project that might get a little attention. This went on for 3 years. I got as a break in 1971 at a recording session that included, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn and a few other musicians that were the “first call” players of the day. The producer of the project really didn’t want me there, but the artist insisted I play on the song I co-wrote with them and the producer gave in. Needless to say, I was petrified and I was somehow convinced that I would screw up. Anyway, I evidently did all right and after the session, Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn took my phone number and I was booked on 7 sessions the following week. It took a long time and a lot of perseverance, but I was fortunate and blessed to have that opportunity.

You have worked closely with Steely Dan on several albums. Was it a good training to your arranger and producer career? I have often read that it was awfully difficult for musicians to work with Steely Dan. Can you confirm that?

Working with Steely Dan could hardly be considered “fun”. But it was rewarding. When you functioned as a studio musician, you had the opportunity to observe various producers and artists and how they arrived at their decisions and the degree of perfection they required. I worked for people all over that spectrum.

When you worked with Gary Katz, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, you planned on long hours and not a lot of affirming moments. When they were happy, you would pretty much hear the words, “we got the take” and that was it. You would realize you did a good job when you got a call to do the next song.

I enjoyed their dry sense of humor and there was a lot of good hang time with great musicians. I know that they appreciated what the players did, but it was not something that you would feel secure about at the time of recording.

I would, on occasion, be asked to go to Donald’s house to work on putting together some charts on a few of the tunes, so I functioned as a co-arranger on some of the tracks. This, along with my time at ABC Dunhill, working as an A & R guy and staff producer and arranger, honed my skills at arranging and eventually helped me evolve into a producer. This would not have been possible without the mentoring of a gentleman named, Steve Barri, who I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude for his belief in me and allowing me to be part of the company. Steve was head of A & R and has had a tremendous career as a producer himself. We had a great time working on many projects and I credit him for giving me the opportunity to grow as a musician, arranger and producer.

You were the producer of the legendary first album of Christopher Cross. Could you tell me how it was recorded? Did you feel while making it that it would be such a great record?

Christopher Cross was sending demo tapes to the A & R department of Warner Brothers Records during the late 70’s. Steve Barri left ABC Dunhill to be part of the Warner Brothers staff and insisted that I go with him. So in the late 70’s I ended up in the A & R department with the likes of, Lenny Waronker, Ted Templeman, Russ Titleman, Gary Katz, Michael Ostin and Steve Barri. Google any of those names and you will be impressed with the credentials of each one of these people. Anyway, to the point of the question. At one of our Wednesday morning meetings, Lenny Waronker announces that “Yet another Christopher Cross demo” had arrived. As for me, that would be the first time I heard of Christopher Cross. They played the demo and it included the songs, “Sailing” and “Ride Like The Wind”. I reacted immediately with enthusiasm. Lenny looked at me and said, ” if you like this, you produce an album on Chris”.

Christopher flew in from Austin, Texas and met with me in my office. I could tell that he was not very enthusiastic about the meeting, which seemed weird to me. Anyway, Christopher was counting on one of the veteran producers working with, not some “new guy” that couldn’t possibly do justice to his work. After the meeting, he went to Lenny’s office at which time a discussion about me playing on Steely Dan’s records ensued. At that moment Christopher insisted that “I would be the only one who would do his record justice”. It turned out that Christopher’s absolute favorite records were, you guessed it, Steely Dan’s.

We went into the studio with his band and his engineer and worked for 6 months on that record. Steve Barri preached the gospel of having a great song to work with. He would say the rest would just fall into place. Christopher had been working for years on a small collection of songs and I felt they were all great.
The only problem I could foresee was that radio was playing nothing but “punk” and “Hard Rock” and I wondered if we were out of step with what was going on. Russ Thyret, the head of promotion at Warner Brothers called me after he heard the album and said that they had decided to delay the release for some reason.
I was a bit stunned so I don’t even remember the reason, but I knew that he was worried about putting money and energy into a record that could be construed as irrelevant for the time.

6 months later, they reluctantly released the single, “Ride Like The Wind” and it took off like a rocket ship. It was on almost every pop and rock station within a week and the reaction was incredible. Russ called me back a few weeks later and cautioned me about giving him too much credit for what had happened.
He said that even though he liked the record, he wasn’t convinced that there was hit track on it. 5 singles made it into the top ten and we had two number one songs. You never know know what is going to work.

In the 90s, you departed Los Angeles and you relocated to Nashville. Was it the end of the musical dominance of L.A. and also the end of a musical era?

Music was changing drastically in the late 80’s and early 90’s. There was less recording with rhythm sections and spontaneous creativity was being relegated to the “dust bin”. Computers, midi instruments, drum machines, Moog bass lines were becoming the order of the day. Guitar and keyboard players had job security, but try being a drummer or bass player during those days and the work was drying up. Los Angeles was always on the cutting edge of music, so the new technologies and methodologies were embraced with enthusiasm.

Congestion, traffic and the fact that many artists were moving out of the city and going to different parts of the country seemed to set up the possibility of not having to be in Los Angeles any longer. I was flying to Nashville with my engineer, Terry Christian, two or three times a year to produce things for Amy Grant and other Nashville artists. The thing I liked about Nashville was that community was so important. You went into the studio, just like the old days, with 4 or 5 musicians and you recorded rhythm tracks as a group. I loved the fact that you could decide to live in the city or in the country and that entailed a 15 minute drive.

I believe that Los Angeles was experiencing the end of a particular era. But I also think it wasn’t limited to L.A. All of music was changing. It just took a little longer for those changes to be felt elsewhere, including Nashville.

You have recorded several albums as a solo artist. Which of these albums are you particularly proud of?

I have had the opportunity to record a few solo albums. My favorite was my first. It is called White Horse and it was such a joy to record. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I recorded it in the early 70’s and I still get letters and e-mails about how people still love it today. That makes me feel really good.

You have worked on many projects with the late Donna Summer? Could you tell me how did you meet her and what kind of person and artist she was?

I met Donna Summer in 1980. She heard the Christopher Cross record and was very interested in working with me. I went to her house in Los Angeles to meet her and we sat in a large room with wood floors and no windows. There was a piano in the middle of the room and she asked me to play a song so she could sing.

I really don’t remember what the song was, but i almost fell off the piano bench when she started to sing. I was familiar with the “disco queen” stuff, but I never heard her really “belt” out a tune. Our families became fast friends. Her daughter, Amanda, and my daughter, Amanda, grew up together, so Donna and Bruce and my wife, Stormie and I would get together all of the time for dinners and outings. I can’t tell you how I miss her. I had known of her battle with cancer since I was diagnosed with cancer the very same day that she was, and our chemotherapy treatments were also on the same day. So we talked all of the time about our respective ordeals.

She was always totally positive and very encouraging. Donna viewed her career as a small part of her life. She would give herself to doing charitable work tirelessly and always cared about you more than herself. She was special. As an artist, I am not sure whether I have been around someone with such a great ability as her.

She was a person of inspiration. She would get so many ideas for songs and had the ability to make her thoughts into poetry. She was also a really fine painter.

Is there a missed opportunity in your career that you deeply regret?

Clive Davis asked me to see him one afternoon about a new artist that he was signing and he wanted me to produce her first album. I remember going to his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he played me a VHS of her performing and a cassette of her voice. I said that I was very busy and wouldn’t be able to do anything for quite some time. Her name was, Whitney Houston. Enough said!!!!!!!

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