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Joel Dorn

The Drifter

When you begin an interview with Joel Dorn by calling him "Mr. Dorn" he bemusedly replies that "this must either be the bank or somebody that doesn't know I'm an idiot." He doesn't stand much on formality is what I'm saying. It scares the shit out of him when you call him "Sir," too... pretty small-time for a multiple Grammy award winner that some have called "a legend."

 
Courtesy of Hyena Records
A lifelong music fan, Dorn started out as a DJ in his native territory of Philadelphia before joining Atlantic Records in the late '60s. He remained there till 1974, when he went freelance. In between, he prolifically recorded an eclectic group of musicians including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Les McCann, Eddie Harris and Hubert Laws. Dancing around the lines between pop, jazz, and R&B, he had big hits with McCann, Harris, Laws and, later, Roberta Flack.

Dorn has also run several record labels since the late '80s. His first, Night Records, released previously-unheard privately-recorded live performances by Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Les McCann and Eddie Harris on records that quickly went out of print when the label itself proved short-lived. Over a decade later, Dorn is re-releasing those titles -- Harris's A Tale of Two Cities, Kirk's The Man Who Cried Fire, McCann's Les Is More and Cannonball's Radio Nights -- as the first batch from his new label, Hyena Records. (For more information on Dorn's Hyena releases, look here. )

I spoke to him at his New York studios by telephone. First we talked about the unique nature of the Night Records recordings, which came from the private stashes of fans, soundmen, and often the musicians themselves...

The upside of tape stashes like this are that at no point did the musicians realize they were being recorded. Even if they were making the tapes themselves to take home and just have as a souvenir, they weren't recording them for any purpose... No one ever thought that these would be released commercially, so all of the self-consciousness or all of the pressure that comes when you make a live record isn't there. So you've really getting what happens at a club...when you listen to it, you've there, and it not only documents the music, it documents where the music was played at a certain time. When old guys like me say man, you should been there when Cannonball or Horace or Miles or 'Trane or whatever was at such and such a club at such and such a time, that doesn't mean a lot. But, when you get the feel of it, and the record actually transports you back to that time, then it's a real explanation of what's going's on...of what went on. And here I think you can -- it's one thing to get the music, it's another thing to get the place and the people and the interaction. When it's really right, the audience is the fifth member of a quartet. You can only get certain things in certain places. At certain times. Now people go down to Sun [Studios], you know, and record there, and think they've gonna get --

Some of that spirit?

-- walk away with a Johnny Cash or an Elvis Presley record. You are -- if you've got Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley back then.

One of the things I like about your records, both these from Hyena and in the last couple of years at Label M, is their sequencing and flow, especially on compilations like Head Jazz. Does much planning go into this?

No, I don't map anything out -- my whole life is intuitive. I come to sequencing from an ex-disc jockey's perspective. A record has to have a beginning, middle and an end, and an hour of radio has to. I mean if you're programming 15 minutes worth of music, it's got to flow from the time you say here's so-and-so's and then three or four sides later you say, that was... you're trying to take them on a journey with you. I mean, I don't want to get too spiritual here but there's an art to programming music on the radio and there's an art to putting a record together.

Another highlight of many releases that have Joel's name on them are the chatty, informal liner notes he writes for each set. Since he knew and/or worked with almost every musician on the records, these are rewarding, often warm portraits of the artists as guys:

I can remember back to when I was a "civilian" and when I was on the other side of the net. It's one thing viewing a movie if you've a member of the audience, it's another thing looking at it from behind the screen. When I was a kid...I'd get a record and I'd look at the cover picture for two hours, I'd read the liner notes 40 times, I'd listen to the record 18 times. I still remember how I reacted when I was young, and I hated those schoolteacher liner notes. It's just the most boring stuff in the world. I think people want a more personalized or a more anecdotal view of the artists and the music. That tune-by-tune breakdown shit that people do? I just hate it. Like "Cut #1: A sprightly blues, that will elevate your... Fuck you! I think people wanna get information they couldn't get anyplace else. So I'm glad you like that-not everybody does. The liner notes I wrote for a Les McCann release on Label M talking about his television viewing habits... a woman from Yale University wrote him a letter and said "How could you possibly let Mr. Dorn write your liner notes? They're a disgrace. He doesn't discuss the music, he doesn't discuss you as an artist." And here I am giving somebody an inside route to who this guy really is and what he does. You don't need me to tell you: "This is a good cut." Or "You should like this". Isn't that nuts? When I was a kid and I would listen to a Ray Charles record, I wanted to find out, like, where he lived, what his favorite food was...I didn't care that, you know, "this was a blues in F." Who gives a fuck about that? But when you can pull somebody into a world or you can paint a picture of a time or place, I think they come away with more.

Dorn is what you call your sharp cookie. And though his love and pride for and in the artists he worked with back in the day is apparent, it's also evident he's not just living in the past. At one point he turned the tables, briefly interviewing me...

What was the first thing that nailed you? What was the first artist or kind of music that just pulled you out of the line?

In my life?

Yeah.

Well, I was a teenager in the '80s, so for me it's a lot of...the first stuff was like techno pop and synth music like that was coming out of England in the '80s, like the Thompson Twins, ABC and Human League.

What about Joe Jackson?

Funny you should mention that. Joe Jackson came a few years later (for me), but I am a huge Joe Jackson fan.

Right. I remember a lot of kids got nailed on that. One of my sons, my youngest son, Adam, he does a techno thing under the name of Mocean Worker and boy, he's opened my ears to a boatload of stuff I would never have gotten to unless he turned me onto it. That whole Fatboy Slim, Oasis...

More kind of, dance and modern rock...?

Yeah, dance, but I'm more into the listening stuff. Beck, I like. The more intelligent stuff.

As someone who brought some jazz artists to popular success, you naturally had to face criticisms from those who thought this cheapened the music. Gary Giddins, music critic and recent Bing Crosby biographer, called you "a gimmick monger if ever there was one."

I don't make decisions based on what's happening in the marketplace. I make decisions based on whether in the first 10 or 12 seconds I get that feeling in my stomach. So I don't know if it's going to be Leon Redbone, or Rahsaan, or Bette Midler, or the Neville Brothers, you know? I just like to record music that I'm moved by.

At this point our conversation was interrupted briefly when Joel had to answer another phone in the room. I heard him excuse himself to the caller, explaining that he was doing an interview with "a nice young man" -- news to at least one of my ex-girlfriends -- and we resumed talking about the lines, sometimes of the battle variety, drawn between categories of music.

Categories last a minute. So if your thing is disco, you got a two or three year window, unless you can pick up on the next trend... If I hear something and it knocks me backwards, that's what I want to record, not what category it's in or if it's "What's happening now." [But] that's a difficult path. I didn't realize that when I was younger and by the time I realized it, I had to regroup and come back. But it's 40 years later and I'm still making records, so something's working.

Doing something right.

I'm not doing something right, but I'm able to do it. For me it's right.

Lets go back to the artists that are coming out on Hyena/Night right now.

Go.

The one of the four that really knocked me out, in terms of somebody that I hadn't heard too much of before was Eddie Harris.

Of course. Eddie Harris was a genius. And Eddie Harris is forgotten. Lemme tell ya something interesting about Eddie Harris. He had three legitimate hit records -- not jazz records, jazz hits, but real hits -- in XXX he had his version of "Exodus," that was like a top ten record. And XXX he had "Listen Here," and then in '71 he had "Compared to What" with Les McCann. He had a way of playing that was extremely commercial but it wasn't a cop-out kind of commercial. An amazing musician, and he had quite a bit of commercial success. But when he would have a hit, he would simultaneously be glad he had a hit and angry that people would think that's all he could do. So he would go ten different ways. He had an odd personality, and I say that with love. Les and I still laugh about trying to figure Eddie out. But when you listen to what he could do...that first thing (on A Tale of Two Cities), "Chicago Serenade," that is as good an example of how you can swing lightly and pull an audience with you... you feel that audience on that?

Oh, very much so.

Even with all of his hits, he's just one of those guys that fell through the cracks. Now some of it was his fault, because he didn't like to play ball. So he would sometimes become ornery and just go the other way, rather than become, in his view, a victim of his successes. But he was some musician, man... I knew you were gonna say it was Eddie, because he's the one people kinda write off as "Oh yeah, he had a couple of hits." Bullshit! He could really play. I was in Switzerland a few years ago at Montreux. They set up a little jam session. And a young jazz musician, very prominent young jazz musician, and Eddie were put on the same stage to have like a sax battle. So this kid took about four or five choruses. Big name, you know? And Eddie came in; he started after him...Eddie did everything that the kid did in four or five choruses in a half a chorus. And then fed him his head. He handed him his head on a plate!

One of my favorites of Dorn's releases on Label M was a compilation of the work of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and I told him I wanted to hear a similar career overview on Harris: "I made one, called Artist's Choice, on Rhino. But it was more Eddie's -- the reason I called it Artist's Choice was because he wanted to pick all the songs. He didn't necessarily pick what I thought were the best examples of an overview of his career... we had to fight to get the hits on there. Because he didn't want to put 'em on. He just wanted to put the ones where he shows you he can play underwater, and the one where he shows you he can play running up steps backwards. That was Eddie's view. But there is probably a record yet to be done that'll be an overview, a la the Desmond record."

Dorn's artist-producer relationship with Rahsaan Roland Kirk was especially steadfast, lasting from the mid-'s to the multi-instrumentalist's death in 1977 and beyond--Dorn continues to keep an eye on Kirk's legacy and supervises most re-releases of his recordings. So I was a little bit nervous, probably needlessly, to tell him the next bit.

You of course have a very long past with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I read Bright Moments (John Kruth's book on Kirk) -- for me, that's someone that my opinion of keeps evolving.

He's like olives.

How so?

You like him or you don't, you know? He's not for everybody...to a lot of people he was a circus act. Or it was yeah; he plays three horns (at once!), who cares? Look, if he had only played the saxophone, if he had done nothing but play the sax and maybe the flute, I still think he would have been a hall of famer...(but) to some people no matter what he did when he played more than one horn it was the same thing. Whereas to him it was here's three horns, here's two horns, here's this combination, here's it in this genre...but once again, not for everybody, and sometimes, like with yourself, not out of the box.

We turned to discussing the visual side of recording artists, specifically whether seeing them before you heard them or vice-versa made a difference in the way audiences perceived musicians like Kirk or, as Joel brought up: "Listen, I had an act one time, a guy named Leon Redbone...he sang '20s and '30s songs in a unique kind of way. [When] the record first came out it was like "eh, some guy singing old songs". [But] when people saw him on Saturday Night Live, they were so transfixed by the visual aspects, his look, the vibe he laid out, the record sold a million. But you had to see him in order to appreciate what it was that he did."

Getting back to those liner notes...each of the new Hyena reissues of the Night Records recordings contains the original liner notes as well as new, updated comments by Dorn. In the 2002 notes for McCann's CD, he writes: "I really wish I had time to tell you about what Les and I did backstage at the tribute Michael Jackson threw for himself last year at Madison Square Garden..." I'm perverse. I bit. Joel?

When Michael Jackson threw this tribute to himself at Madison Square Garden...one of the things that they did is they put together another "We Are The World," and they invited a bunch of jazz guys...like Fathead, Herbie, Clark, Jimmy Smith, Les, I think Ray Charles was there for that, and a couple other people...I was with Les to help him schlep around cause there were a lot of steps to climb and stuff, and he needed a little help you know [McCann had a stroke about six years ago], he gets around pretty well. Les and I are like bad kids, right? You know, the kid in high school that was always in trouble? Well, that's the way I was outside of Philly and that's the way Les was in Lexington. So we started fucking around, messing with people's bodyguards and driving 'em nuts, just trying to get in trouble, but not get arrested, you know what I mean? Would you fuck around in school, or were you a good kid?

Oh, I was not what you'd call a good kid, no...

Good. So you understand. So anyway, like we were fucking with N'sync's...that's Fathead in the back, right?

[Joel -- who by the way only has about 35-40% hearing thanks to a childhood bout with the mumps -- was referring to the music I had playing quietly (I thought) in the background, which was indeed the soul-jazz of David "Fathead" Newman. I don't know if Dorn was showing off, but I was a little bit impressed.] Yeah, that's the "Can't Always Get What You Want."

So...we got in real trouble, like people were saying don't mess with the bodyguards, don't bother these people, like there were a lot of old movie stars there and we were annoying them. And we just got in trouble.

Going up and pointing and saying "that guy's got a gun?" That kind of thing?

No, no, no, no, no. "That guy's got a gun." Are you kiddin'? No, just annoying the bodyguards. We were asking, like, Britney Spears, she was there, we were asking her bodyguards if she would like to go out to dinner with me and Les afterwards and then when they said no, she was busy, we started saying Les had a stroke, and we didn't know how much longer he was going to live...

Oh, Jesus...[laughing]

That kind of shit, right? But we got onstage...ever see Michael Jackson from 10 feet? Fucking house of wax. What a scary sight. Couldn't believe it.

I've only ever seen him on television, but I agree with you.

You can't imagine. You gotta really be there to see what he did. It's insane.

On the McCann CD, I had been especially blown away by how apt "Compared To What," written and originally a hit in the Vietnam era, seemed to be here today, with its lyrics about President's wars that the people just don't know the reasons for.

Well, they all had one. This one had Vietnam; the other one had Grenada, now we got Iraq. It ain't goin' away.

Moving on to cheerier topics, I had discovered in preparing for this interview that Joel and I shared a love for '50s and '60s recording artists The Coasters, whose records were all produced and mostly written by the celebrated team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

My biggest heroes as producers are Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, and the stuff George Martin did with the Beatles, like post Rubber Soul, y'now, stuff like that. The Coasters were spectacular and I actually saw them at the Apollo at the height of their powers. And if you think they were great on record, and they were great on record because Mike and Jerry really knew how to use them and create stuff for them -- you should have seen them in person. They were like -- are you into cartoons at all?

Oh yeah.

You into Tex Avery?

Very much.

Yeah. Well they were like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life on stage. You never saw anything like it. I saw them at the Apollo one night; I was so blown away. I saw them do "Shopping For Clothes" live.

Oh, that's such a great record.

When you listen to a Coasters record you also looked at it, even if you didn't know you were. The picture you got in your head from a Coasters record...

I think it says this in the liner notes for [The Coasters: 50 Coastin's Classics, a double record set from Rhino] that it's like little radio plays, really.

Yeah.

Uses imagination in the same way.

And speaking of imagination...the reasoning behind Joel Dorn's label names is something to behold. 32 Jazz is reputed to have been named for the number that all his football heroes wore. And Label M...supposedly... was a anagram of the initials of Dorn's "three favorite Jews: Albert Einstein, Lenny Bruce and Meyer Lansky." So why Hyena Records now?
Well, here's the story that I tell people.

Is it the story you tell people, or is it the truth?

Well, let me tell you the story.

Okay.

My parents were wildlife photographers and when I was a kid they were doing a shoot in Africa for the National Geographic. And during the shoot they found an abandoned hyena cub...they brought him home, and he was my pet in grade school & junior high. His name was Buddy, and I always wanted to name a label after him... guy called me last night and said that certain people are writing that as if it's the truth.

[Gullible fools. Your humble correspondent, of course, never believed a word. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.]

And I thought people would just crack up and say, like, yeah yeah, pet hyena. But sometimes how you say...

Taking your pet hyena for a walk around the block --

Exactly! "Here, Buddy!"

So we talked about the ways in which the jazz scene has changed, and Joel's attempts to counterbalance the "institutional" presentation of the music with something a little more colorful and funny.

One of the things that people forget is (that) jazz used to be music to dance to. And it used to be music you went out to, to have fun. It's not all serious and complex and abstract. So, y'know being an ex-fuckup in school and a wiseass and alla that shit I try and bring another perspective to it. There's enough academic serious, adult views of jazz... [and] records in general.

I think in the Rahsaan book...isn't there a part where you compare yourself to like a carnival barker, in a way?

Absolutely.

Just gotta get people into the tent.

Right! Get 'em in, you know? And when they come in, there's something there of substance.

Which will bring us back to Dorn. For all his charming self-depreciation, he is someone who has achieved what the writer Harlan Ellison has defined as successful maturity: He makes a living from something at which he has fun, doing as an adult what he dreamed of as a child. With something more than casual interest, I wanted to know how he did it, and about the price. "When I was a teenager, right, it was in the '50s. Sports was great, chicks were great, music was great, cars were great, it was a great time. And I felt great, and I just didn't want to not feel great moving forward. So to me, what you do for a living -- if you can do it -- should be something that you would do for fun. Not everybody can do that, and it's not easy -- you pay a price for that. It's not an easy way to live. But I never, from as far back as I can remember, envisioned myself going someplace, doing something, just because... that was a way to get paid. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and make a living at it. So, I kinda never thought differently."

This didn't come without a warning:

Now, I've gone up and down financially 14 times because I live at the will of the people who buy or don't buy what it is that I make. But I'd rather have that kind of up and down existence. Like the last 10 years has been up, the '80s were down, the '70s were half-and-half; the '60s were...on the way. You've just out there wandering aimlessly, and you'll be stunned what you can find when you wander aimlessly...the right way. I've tried to waste my life properly.

You know, that sounds like a really good closing quote.

[laughing] OK, baby!
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