What does the engaging new autobiography of top rock music record producer Ted Templeman, famed for his work with the likes of Van Halen, the Doobie Brothers, and Little Feat, have to do with Oklahoma?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
First of all, Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music (ECW Press) is an as-told-to tome written by Greg Renoff, a native of Bronx, New York, who has been a Tulsa resident for more than a decade. Second, during his decades of immersion in the pop music scene, Templeman kept running into Okies making their marks in the business.
Since Templeman began his music career on the West Coast in the late ‘60s, it was only natural that the first Oklahoman to work with him would be Leon Russell, the transplanted Tulsan who, at the time, was one of the top session players in L.A., working with a group of all-star studio musicians that came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. When the two first became musically involved, Templeman hadn’t yet gone into the production end. Instead, he was a member of a group called Harpers Bizarre, who’d hit it big on the charts in 1967 with a single called “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Russell not only arranged that recording; he also played on it.
“One of the first things Ted told me about was doing ‘Feelin’ Groovy,’” recalls Renoff. “When we were emailing back and forth, he was talking about Van Halen, and I don’t know how it came up, but he said, ‘You may not know it, but I was in this group called Harpers Bizarre, and we made a couple of records in the ‘60s.’ ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ was one of the first songs he sent to me, and he went through and talked about all the people who played on the record.”
That group, adds Renoff, included another famous Tulsa transplant, drummer Jim Keltner. Later on, Renoff himself unearthed a third name, one that might surprise some.
“J.J. Cale was on that record,” says Renoff. “I just found that out recently. I don’t know exactly what he played on ‘Feelin’ Groovy,’ but he’s on the American Federation of Musicians contract for the session as John Cale.”
Of course, the release of ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ dovetailed with a time that Russell was helping a lot of his fellow musicians from back home, including Cale, so maybe it’s not such a surprise. Neither is what Templeton remembered about the band’s collaboration with Russell.
“Ted talked to me at great length about Leon,” says Renoff. “It wasn’t just ‘Feelin’ Groovy.’ They also went into [the famed recording studio] Sunset Sound and did a couple of album tracks with Leon, songs that Leon had written. He arranged them, too: ‘Raspberry Rug’ and ‘I Can Hear the Darkness’ [both co-written by Russell and Donna Washburn]. They’re on the first Harpers Bizarre album.
“That was,” he notes, “the first time that Ted was able to go into Sunset Sound, and he said, ‘I could really hear how live Studio One was when Leon went in there and played that piano.’ That became, for Ted, kind of the magic studio, and later on he had so much success going in there with his bands and recording.”
Of course, the bulk of the book relates – with laser-like detail – the triumphs and trials of Templeman and his acts as he shepherds them through their paces and onto the charts. Most of them are bands and performers with no particular Sooner State connections. However, Oklahoma-linked music figures pop up regularly in the book. For instance, there’s a cameo from Tulsa’s Mary Kay Place, who introduces her friend, Templeman associate Nicolette Larson, at a live gig. Templeman recalls Place channeling Loretta Hagers, her country-singer persona on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman TV show. There’s also a section involving former northeastern Oklahoma resident Jerry Lynn Williams, a top-notch songwriter associated with Eric Clapton, among others. The time Templeman spent with the tandem of Williams and Clapton makes for some often harrowing reading. But, as is the case throughout the book, Templeman always praises a person’s talent when it’s praiseworthy – even when the accompanying personal behavior may not be.
One nice bit of behavior, however, came courtesy of Jim Keltner. Renoff sets up the story:
“Ted was a drummer starting back in the late ‘50s; he’d always played drums. In late 1978, the Doobie Brothers were finishing an album called Minute by Minute, with a song on it called ‘What A Fool Believes.’ As I detail in the book, they were having a lot of trouble inside the studio trying to get the feel of the song right. They’d done an enormous number of takes. It was a struggle. So Ted’s engineer, Donn Landee, said to Ted, ‘Go play it.’ Ted hopped on the drum kit and showed them what he wanted from the two drummers – and it worked.
“Fast-forward six or eight months. There’s a No Nukes concert in Madison Square Garden, with James Taylor, Carly Simon, Graham Nash – every big star in the L.A. scene at that time – there to do this week-long series of concerts to raise money for nuclear disarmament and help nuclear safety after Three Mile Island. Ted played drums there with the Doobie Brothers – you can see it on YouTube – and when he walked offstage, he encountered Jim Keltner, who was playing with Ry Cooder. And Keltner said, ‘Ted, I had no idea you could play drums like that. You’re my new favorite drummer, man.’ And he gave him a hug.
“Ted said that was the ultimate musical compliment he ever got in his life, because it came from Jim Keltner, the drummer he thought was the best of the best of all the amazing drummers there.”
While not all of them are upbeat or inspiring, Ted Templeman is rich with those sorts of anecdotes – exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from an upper-echelon record producer who also comes off as an unfailingly decent guy. Yet, according to Greg Renoff, it took some persuading to get Templeman interested in the project. The reason it happened undoubtedly had to do with Renoff’s authorship of the 2015 volume Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, a critically acclaimed book about a group whose members and music are intimately intertwined with Templeman.
“One of the things you get, probably with a lot of record producers, is that they don’t like to take credit for things,” says Renoff. “They like to stand in the background. Their motivation is that they love music and they want to make their artists sound good. So I told Ted, ‘Look, it’s not going to be the day-to-day life of Ted Templeman as this sort of puppeteer making all these magical things happen for his artists. It’s going to be about the music, and songs, and performances, and your relationships with your artists. It’s going to really pay tribute to them.’”
“When I couched it in those terms,” he concludes, “that’s when he became enthusiastic about the idea. It was really apparent that Ted cared so much about a guy like Ed Van Halen, or [the Doobie’s] Tom Johnston. He was there when the Doobie Brothers were playing biker bars for no money, eating beans out of cans. He was there when Eddie Van Halen and his brother had to wire the door of their car shut with guitar strings, because the lock was broken. Obviously, he worked with some people who were already established. But the people he helped break through – those were the ones he held closest to his heart.”