(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz


[More writing by Josh Alan Friedman can be found by clicking on]

Label M, on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, is chaotic, but Joel Dorn sits detached from it all, slumped back in a chair filing his nails. Like Cadillac salesmen, music executives can always benefit from a well-manicured handshake. Hundreds of aging quarter-inch tape reels are stacked on the floor of his office. My one-year-old daughter grabs one.

"Don't touch that!" says Dorn. "It's an unreleased Stan Getz."

I recognize these tapes--an obsolete format--from my two years at Regent Sound Studios. When I was 19, I was mike-setup man there, the lowest position on staff. But I watched the former Atlantic Records producer in action as he produced dozens of albums in the mid-?70s. His offices have always resembled the aftermath of a storm. He's there to work records, not decorate. Dorn began when Renaissance Italians and Jewish hucksters ran the business.

"Pat Martino had some mobster in Philly get in touch," he bellows to one of his promo men standing at the door. "He warned me to lay off. Lay off? I told 'em I'm the only one who released his fuckin' albums!"

Dorn, a youthful 60, resembles a ruggedly handsome, switchblade-toting rabbi. He is one of the last active record men from the days when mobsters and Telephone Booth Indians--Bud Abbott-types who operated from public phone booths in the Brill Building lobby--plugged records behind the scenes.

"Don't give me that 'Hey, baby' shit," I've heard Dorn warn slick con artists who suck up to him. "I invented it.

 "I can tell you all the guys who are still making records from when I started 40 years ago. Arif Mardin, Tommy Lapuma and Phil Ramone. Hundreds of producers, some who were giants for 11 months, are gone. Hit records are a young man's game, and I fell outta the game--but not out of the quality game."

Dorn nonetheless now has a hit album with 24-year-old jazz chanteuse, Jane Monheit. He discovered her "at some dump." A certain bell goes off in his head on those rarefied occasions when he hears someone he wants to sign.

"We're moving 10,000 copies a week," says Dorn, of the album Come Dream With Me. "To think after all those years---to have a hit record again. They come out of nowhere."

Label M, his current imprint, is a producer's vanity label. Songs That Made the Phone Light Up and Back in My Disc Jockey Days  are repackaged compilations that commemorate Dorn's beginnings as an early 1960's jazz deejay at WHAT-FM in Philly. Then a 19-year-old junior at Temple University, he became known as the Masked Announcer. Jockey Days includes Dorn's opening radio theme, Hard Times by David "Fathead" Newman, along with tracks by Hank Crawford, Les McCann, Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef---all of whom Dorn would come to record when he became an Atlantic staff producer under Nesuhi Ertegun. The Masked Announcer boosted his favorite records into jazz hits---at least in Philadelphia.

"You broke a record one city at a time. In those days, they were city states, like Sparta or Athens. A local compilation of doo-wop groups could sell 50,000 records in Philly alone, and never be released outside Pennsylvania."

Dorn made inroads into the music business by convincing Atlantic he knew public taste in jazz. "We had a phone in the studio that listeners called in on," he writes in the liner notes. "It gave us instant access to what they liked, didn't like, what worked, what didn't and why. That, along with spending five nights a week in Philly's jazz clubs, checkin' out audience reactions, taught me who to sign and how to record them."

Had the labels promoted Dorn's choices in other city states, he's sure they would have been national hits. The Kennedy years were a ripe time for mainstream jazz. The pop charts then included records by Ramsey Lewis, Gloria Lynn, Nina Simone, Ahmad Jamal or Stan Getz.

"Roland Kirk, before he became Rahsaan, called me one morning and said, 'I got somebody for you to sign.' It was a girl named Roberta Flack, his bass player's wife. I said, 'What does she sound like?'

"He got nuts and said, 'She sound like a colored lady!' then slammed down the fuckin' phone. So I never followed up. Then Les McCann called. He said, "I got someone for you to sign. Roberta Flack.' That's two times in a row from two guys like this."

Dorn went to see her at a club, feeling she was too good to be commercially successful. "When I signed Roberta Flack, we put her in the jazz category. A chick who played piano and sang in jazz

Doc Pomus
was Dorn's

clubs. But we started making pop records. You might get a hit by mistake, like Etta Jones got with Don't Talk to Strangers. And Roberta got one with First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

Dorn followed up with Where Is The Love and Killing Me Softly, making him a hot property in the early "70s, when he copped his Grammies. His mentor, Doc Pomus, used to say, "Always stick with originals who have world-class ability." Pomus introduced Dorn to Bette Midler, a girl he'd been coaching as a singer. She was playing to an audience in the gay bathhouse below the Ansonia Hotel in Doc's neighborhood. Dorn produced Midler's debut, The Divine Miss M, in 1972.

"When you have million sellers and Grammys together, that buys you years of people takin' a shot with you. I must have bought myself five or six years beyond when I was actually making hits.   Studio A and Studio B at Regent Sound Studios, on West 57th Street, were booked round the clock with Dorn's projects.

"It was like a 24-hour aural circus," says Dorn. "You really came when we were wailin'. Remember the fuckin' group of people that came through? I had the wheel." Dorn would produce up to five albums at once---the likes of Steve Goodman, Yuseff Lateef, Peter Allen, Joe Venuti, even one track on the Allman Brothers' Idlewild South. Bette Midler in the morning, Lou Rawls at lunch and Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the wee hours. And he would pair them up on each other's albums.

A conceit of Dorn's was to pair Kate Smith on a duet with John Lennon---presumably because it amused him, not for any legitimate musical reason. But Lennon didn't think it was amusing enough.

"I couldn't get Lennon," says Dorn "so I got Dr. John instead. I think Mac is America's premier musician. If you just think of him as Dr. John, you're missing the whole trip. He knows how to adapt to any island you drop him on."

The single was called Smile, Smile, Smile."

"I remember meetin' Kate and her bodyguard," says Dr. John today. "I'm thinkin', this 300-pound bitch needs a fuckin' bodyguard? They should bring Kate Smith back right now, let her sing God Bless America in her own inimitable style. That was her shit, man. She was ahead of the times."

Dorn produced Don McLean's fourth album, Homeless Brother. Not long after McLean's massive hits, American Pie and Vincent, Dorn released a piece of fluff for the single called, La La Love You, which I remember being remixed hundreds of times, with nary a difference from one mix to the other.

"I fucked up La La Love You. Chased the jacket and the slacks more than the body of the song," admits Dorn. "It should have been more like a white-guy rock 'n' roll song."

The real hit on the record was Wonderful Baby, an Irving Berlin-like ditty which entered high for a few weeks on the Easy Listening chart.

"But McLean's manager, Herb Gart, had a fuckin' knock-down, drag-out screaming match with the guy who ran United Artists [McLean's label], who killed the record to teach him a lesson." A slight consolation for McLean occurred when Fred Astaire recorded Wonderful Baby," inviting McLean to London to hang during the session.

Sometimes Joel Dorn is too hip for the room. When he refers to "the Birds," he means the Dixie Hummingbirds, of gospel legend--not "The Byrds." "The Swans" are short for Swan Silvertones, the most sublime spiritual group of their era. Their 1959 gospel standard, Oh, Mary Don't You Weep with the Rev. Claude Jeter's improvised line "I'll be a bridge over deep water," supposedly inspired Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Waters." Dorn produced a cover of Bridge for Roberta Flack, with the Newark Boys Choir and Cissy Houston behind her.

"At the very end Roberta holds a note while the Choir sings over it," remembers Dorn. "At that time Claude Jeter was recording for Scepter, a pop label with Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas. I wanted Claude Jeter at the end of the record, in his falsetto, to shout that line, "I'll be your bridge over troubled waters!"

"Would have been a nice touch," I say.

"No shit," comes Dorn. "I wanted to document just one line at the end. So I called the guy who was producing Jeter's records. We were making a lot of money then, I wanted him bad. I told this gospel producer at Scepter, Listen, I'm a record producer, I'm producing Roberta Flack, we just recorded Bridge Over Troubled Waters. First, he didn't believe I produced Roberta Flack. I said, You want my number? Call Atlantic Records. So he did, then he asked, Well, how much will you pay? I said I'd give him a thousand bucks just for that one line, a lot of money in those days. Union scale was only fifty to a hundred dollars. And the guy said, Just a minute, what do you think I was born yesterday? Nobody's gonna pay that much. I said, Tell me where you are and I'll walk the thousand over now. He said, No, I don't think so. This is some kind of trick. So I couldn't get Jeter. For fifty bucks, I probably would have gotten him."

Dorn, who loved pairing old show biz legends with current artists (Francis Fay with Peter Allen, Mac and Kate), had a similar experience on Leon Redbone's debut.

"Lemme tell you who the ultimate American singer of all time is. You couldn't guess in ten fuckin' years. Harry Mills. The easiest singer I ever heard. He could never sing poorly. The 1930's stuff is breathtaking. I tried to get the Mills Brothers during the Leon Redbone album."

"Would have been a perfect match," I say.

"No shit," snaps Dorn. "There were three of them left--Harry was alive. So I tracked them down to Boston. Can't get through to them, but I got their guy. Slick white guy. Can't get past him. Told him I'm Joel Dorn, recording Leon Redbone, blah, blah, I'll give 'em two grand, whatever they want.

The Mills Brothers
didn't need
Leon Redbone

Guy just laughed. I said I'd fly 'em in. They don't want to fly. I said I'd come up to Boston, rent a studio, it'd be simple. This guy Redbone's real hot right now, it could reactivate their catalog, focus attention on them. The guy said, 'Listen. They've worked with Al Jolsen, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald.

They don't need to work with Leon Redbone, okay. They're tired.' And ya know, he was right. What the fuck did the Mills Brothers need with Leon Redbone to cap off their career?"

Dorn began at Atlantic Records at the height of its powers. Mom-and-pop by corporate terms, Atlantic nonetheless was home to Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Bobby Darin, The Coasters, The Drifters, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, the Allman Brothers, Cream and Led Zeppelin. Atlantic was sold in 1967 to the Kinney (Parking Lot) Corporation for what turned out to be a massively underpriced amount--$17.5-million. (Kinney then turned over to Warner-Seven Arts, then Warner Communications, then Time-Warner, ad nauseam). Nevertheless, the heavy hitters--Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun Brothers--remained at the helm.

"I had complete freedom from Nesuhi [Ertegun, head of jazz] to do whatever I wanted," says Dorn. "As I started to get more successful, then I wasn't just Nesuhi's boy at the company. Because I had hits, they felt compelled to come in and help. I had developed somewhat into a spoiled brat. See, when you're just a pure artist, when you do what you want when you want---that doesn't lay well with business people. It does as long as you make them money, they'll put up with your nonsense. When I lost Nesuhi's protection, I had to interact with other people at the company. So I left Atlantic."

Dorn continued playing out a 15-year run in the fast lane. "Then things went bad for me for several reasons," he says. The hits ended as his records grew more stylized and esoteric.

"There is an old record business and a new record business," Dorn explains of the fundamental change. "The old record business was run by a combination of insane, fanatical music fans who had to make their own records. Guys with exquisite taste who specialized in a certain kind of jazz or folk or pop. Hustlers, tough guys, gangsters. If you had any credibility, you could walk into someone's office and say, 'Listen, I got a girl who can sing.' Then in the mid-70's those guys started selling their companies off or dying. The record business became a real business. It had been this magnificent cottage industry from its inception---all of a sudden, music became a part of everybody's business.

Now there were lawyers walking around in fuckin' Nehru suits listening to the Grateful Dead. It became big American business, with Trans America, Warner-Seven Arts, Gulf & Western buying up all these properties. Instead of buying a copper factory or a steel mill, they'd buy a record company and run it the same way."

Dorn's last stand came when Doc Pomus hipped him to the Nevilles. He went nuts after seeing them at the Bottom Line. "The same bell rang, I ran backstage. It took a long time, but I finally got them signed to A&M. Nobody wanted them. Three of the four brothers had done time, so they had a reputation as tough guys. We recorded Fiyo on the Bayou. I thought it was the best record I ever made. A&M hated it, didn't do a thing. Some idiot there said You can't get on Black radio with this. I said It ain't a Black act. He said What are you talking about, everybody in the band is Black. I said Yeah, but they play clubs with white college kids. I said Take a look at Leontine Price and Jimi Hendrix, my man."

That was it, Dorn burned out, he couldn't do it his way anymore so he quit. It took years to figure out how to reinvent himself.  When Dorn tried to return to the industry a decade later, he couldn't get phone calls returned. He was humbled by record execs of the day who didn't know his name.

The arrival of CD technology reawakened
the music business

Dorn had four growing boys who he says were rich kids for a while---then they weren't. So, he "did shit. I'll tell you what I want to tell you. I did some security work for a while. Nothing illegal."

Then came the arrival of CD technology. Everything old was new again. The vast archive of two-inch Ampex tapes Dorn had stored in a New York apartment suddenly yielded gold. He went to the cutting edge of the reissue biz, supervising jazz compilations for Rhino and Sony. Repackaging became his stock in trade.

"All of a sudden they needed guys for box sets," says Dorn. "You could get a chimpanzee to say John Coltrane recorded the following six albums and here they are in a box. But we started coming up with unreleased  material, pictures you'd never seen, alternate takes, lost sessions and  live stuff never heard. Documentaries."

Coltrane had been dead for years, the Atlantic Jazz vaults sucked dry of his every note. But the story wasn't over: "I'm floatin' around this pigsty warehouse in New Jersey," says Dorn, "and there's water dripping down from the roof onto some tapes in the back. I figured if there's  gonna be something valuable, it's gonna be in the wrong place. I'm sure Debbie Gibson's tapes were encased in lead. So I ask the custodial guy, "Hey, what's over there under the water?? And he goes, "Ah, that's just some slop, shit." I said, "Good, I'll go over there." Water was dropping onto the shelves, and I walk over to it and it's all Coltrane. Boxes of outtakes of Giant Steps, with studio conversations. We could actually  trace all the developments of Giant Steps. There's a reason most unreleased stuff is unreleased---cause it stunk. But I found shit that was incredible. Not just alternate takes. Breakdowns of the stuff, Trane talkin' to all the musicians. It was released as a $99 set, we sold a hundred-thousand. We made it into something, there was a whole story. While I'm in the warehouse, I'm at C near Coltrane. So I wondered, what's at D? The first tape I pick up is Bobby Darin, a demo of 'Dream Lover recorded at a Seattle radio station. I gave that to Rhino for their Darin compilation."

Label M's contributions to society also involve repackaging jazz balladeers in their twilight---like Etta Jones and Little Jimmy Scott Female jazz vocalists patterned their styles after Scott during in the '50s. But his best records were continually withdrawn from release by court order. Savoy Records, run by one of the fanatical music gangsters of yore, tyrannized Little Jimmy Scott's career. Dorn produced a Scott album for Atlantic in 1969, also pulled from the stores---but just repackaged on Label M. In the new liner notes, Dorn writes:  ". . .Through most of the fifties, Jimmy Scott was under contract to Savoy Records, a label owned and operated by one Herman Lubinsky, a hemorrhoid of a human and close personal friend of The Devil, whom even the worst record business golems of the era shunned. . . For decades, Jimmy Scott waited in the wings for his ship to come in while singers who couldn't carry his throat spray took their turns in the spotlight."

Scott was "rediscovered" at Doc Pomus' funeral in 1991, when he brought down the house during his turn to sing. Jerry Wexler attended Jimmy Scott's record release party. But Little Jimmy had long since lost his fastball.

"All these young Hollywood record execs were suddenly singing his praises," says Wex. "I felt like having cards printed: 'It's not necessary to be hip, It's not necessary to be hip.'"

Dorn continues to strike a few blows for the old record biz. And occasionally, as in the case of Jane Monheit, score in the new business.

"What I do for a living, my man, is spot talent," says the Masked Announcer, kicking his feet up on his desk, manicured hands folded in his lap. "I pick out a good butcher, a good tailor. That's my gift."  ##



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