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One On 1: Titelman Produces The Songs That Make The World Sing

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One of the most influential people in the performing arts world is behind the scenes. NY1's Budd Mishkin goes One on 1 with music producer Russ Titelman.

Click here to view extended interview clips with Russ Titelman.

Russ Titelman could spend all of his time telling stories from the past, like driving with George Harrison.

"He was like a race driver, going over 100 miles an hour on country lanes. And I thought I was going to die," he recalled. "Yeah, like because I'm with a Beatle, I'm not going to die."

But the man who's produced so many great artists over the last 40 years: Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, George Benson, Steve Winwood, is hardly sitting back for a victory lap.

Titelman has a small production company. This year, he produced a record for Broadway-star Christine Ebersole. He has also been working a rising trumpet star, Dominic Farinacci, and his band that includes the saxophonist Joe Lovano.

"These are guys that are so at the top of their game that they kind of listen to the thing and figure it out on the spot and play it a few times and bang there it is," Titelman said.

Titelman has seen the business go from acetates to digital, 45s to MP3s.

While a great song may be a great song, Titelman says television and YouTube have created a different reality.

"There is no place for people to fail, like you fail in public now," he said. "It's not like you go and work in a little club for long time. It still happens, of course. They are still great groups and still great musicians. But I think it's harder for people because of 'American Idol' and things like that, where they think you know the return has to be immediate."

But, according to Titelman, there are some elements of the job that have not changed.

"The job is having the right people there, like being a great casting director," he said. "So if you have a song and you think, 'oh this drummer is perfect and this bass player,' if you're not working with a band already. So you are casting the thing."

Titelman says he likes recordings with "lots of space" and interesting arrangements. But each artist requires a different touch.


"You can't impose your will on every situation," he said. "You know you are not going to make a James Taylor record that sounds like a Rufus record."

Titelman is never without his trusty camera – even in his second home, the studio.

Even though he has produced records all over the world, he says New York makes a difference.

"No matter who you are, you have to go out of your apartment and walk down the street and get in a cab and bump into a lot of people and you know there is a feel that translates into music," he said.

Long before he produced some of the biggest names in popular music, Titelman was himself a performer, and a songwriter. He even had a big hit with "The Hollies."

"I've never really wanted to be in a band and be performer," he said. "I've always loved the process of making records and working with great song writers and working with great singers."

He grew up in Los Angeles, California, the son of parents who played Nat King Cole and Fats Waller and lead-belly records.

But his father died when Titelman was 12.

"It's a terrible time to lose a parent, either one, but for a young boy to have your father gone, you know it was fairly difficult thing," he explained, "and so I think I looked for the male figure."

One of those male figures was Phil Spector, the legendary record producer now known primarily for facing murder charges. His first trial ended in a mistrial.

But when Titelman was growing up, Spector was a friend of the family.

"They used to rehearse in my living room when I came home from the junior high school," he said. "I was like 13, I guess. I idolized Phil Spector. I just thought that he was the greatest person in the world, very, very intelligent. He is very talented and very charming and he was also very mercurial, and look what happened."

In the mid-1960s, Titelman came to New York to work with the great songwriting teams Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill and Gerry Goffin and Carole King. But he eventually returned home to produce at Warner Brothers.

He and his partner Lenny Waronker didn't always know if a good song was going to be a hit.

With Randy Newman's "Short People," they had to hear it live.

"The place went nuts," he said. "People were laughing so hard and we were sitting in this row and he was like, I don't know, five seats away from me and erupt in laughter when he sings the song and we both looked at each other, and were like, 'ah ha.'"

Sometimes a producer needs another opinion. Like when friend and composer Dave Grusin came to listen to Steve Winwood's "Higher Love."

"He just sat there and listened to the whole thing. When it was over, he said, 'that's a great, great record,'" Titelman said. "And I was like, 'Okay, I got the blessing of the master.'"

Occasionally, the connection to a musician extended beyond the studio.

While producing George Harrison, Titelman stayed at his house outside London, and received perhaps the world's most beautiful wake up call.

"I was hearing music, and I was hearing 'Here Comes the Sun'" he said. "It was something like guitar music and he was singing. I get up and opened the door and I said, 'George?' And he was crouching down, playing the guitar."

There've been poignant moments, too, like producing Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," a song about the death of Clapton's four-year-old son.

"I remember the engineer was rather emotional about it," Titelman said. "I was like, 'just try to pay attention to what he's doing and be sure the vocal is good.' I mean, we all know how awful it was."

He won three Grammy Awards. But Titelman says producing an album, especially back in the 70s and 80s, was like being in a show, "all encompassing" months that sometimes meant working nights and weekends.

It helped end his marriage of 17 years.

"I think there are sacrifices," he said. "I don't know if I can really speak about them, but I think there are emotional sacrifices that you made and time sacrifices and relationship sacrifices, all kinds of things that become second secondary to the work that you are doing."

At 64, Titelman says retirement is anathema to him.

Despite changes in taste and the whimsical nature of the business, the goal of each session remains the same.

"Go in and make something great, what happens after is up to the gods," he said. "The fact I've gotten to have a whole life in music is pretty fabulous."

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