It was 1964 and 17-year-old Jack Douglas was feeling the heat.
Elizabeth Taylor leveled her dazzling, world-famous, violet-hued eyes at him and said simply, “You know, Jack, you really need to stop this stuff you’re doing and play your music.”
Facing that kind of firepower, with Sir Richard Burton looking on in support, what’s a working-class kid from the Bronx, who’s been bouncing between playing guitar, petty crime, and interactions with the local cops and judicial system, to do? That’s right. You play your music.
Jack’s restless spirit has definitely gotten him in trouble from time to time, but it’s also what has kept him learning and growing and challenging himself throughout a long, productive, and celebrated life. As he sums it up, “Anything I can do to not be bored by continuous — by the same thing over and over, I’m into.”
Just Don’t Get Involved in Crime
Jack grew up in a working-class neighborhood (at its very top), with one uncle who was a drummer and another who was a big mafioso. His parents’ goals for him were pretty much just not to get involved in crime, which was generally how things ran in their neighborhood. As Jack recalls, “Things frequently fell off of freight cars…that’s how our apartment was furnished.”
Young Jack was crazy about the movies. “Back then your parents took you to the movie…it didn’t matter if you understood the movie or not…but the music always got to me.” The crazy thing was, he remembered the scores of all the films he saw. He could sit down at a neighbor’s piano and play out the melodies: “Any score, it didn’t matter,” Jack recalls. “I knew there was something cooking.”
Opportunity Is What You Make It
Beyond his musical talent and restless spirit, two things stand out in Jack Douglas’ life story: his ability to attract opportunity and his willingness to leap at it with abandon. Being a magnet for opportunity is certainly helpful, but it doesn’t mean much unless you’ve got the courage to open the door and charge through it.
When his parents got tired of Jack asking to play his music on the family’s sole record player, they decided to get Jack his own record player. Naturally, his father “found” one that fell off a freight car from Chicago — only to discover that the box actually contained a new-fangled contraption called a tape recorder.
Unexpected or not, Jack seized the opportunity and started recording things, anything, everything: the musical themes from his favorite TV shows, the sound of the elevated train that went by their apartment, even the sound inside of his mother’s vacuum cleaner tube, which he’d record at the fast speed and then play back at the slow speed. He was enraptured by the sounds themselves and the ability to edit them into unusual compositions. It was the birth of a sound engineer.
When his dad listened to the music Jack was making, he threw off the headphones, but Jack “thought [the tracks] were really cool. I still think they’re cool, as a matter of fact.” Connecting to a dot much later in his life’s journey, he adds, “I think that probably opened the door to Yoko, to everything she did. Y’know, I totally understood it.”
And then, before too long, another opportunity…not as unexpected, but just as impactful — an acoustic guitar, a Harmony with a cowboy painted on it, fell off another freight car, along with, as luck would have it, a Mel Bay chord book. So, Jack course-corrected a bit and taught himself to play guitar. By the time he was in his early teens, “I was playing anywhere I could — folk music, hootenanny time. That’s what got me into music.”
The Mersey Sound
By the time Jack was 18, the Beatles were making waves on both sides of the pond. Jack and his friend Eddie Leonetti had already formed a few “kid bands,” with each band getting a little bit better as they fired and replaced players and improved their own skills…but musically, they were pretty much just copying everything that was English. Finally, Jack told Eddie: “What we really need to do is go to Liverpool, where all the action is.”
And that they did. A cheap, one-way ticket on a tramp steamer across the North Atlantic in mid-winter, with a crew who often seemed like drunken pirates, no visas, no work permits, no nothing, “except our guitars, little Champ amps, and a suitcase.” Opportunity? Maybe. Naïve, yes. Gutsy, for sure.
When they arrived in Liverpool, British immigration were neither amused, nor welcoming, immediately informing the boys that they would not be allowed into England. But the Beatles had just released the revolutionary “Rubber Soul” album that week, and Jack Douglas was not about to be denied this opportunity by a couple of guys quoting regulations. Slipping off the ship that first night, he not only scored a copy of “Rubber Soul” at a local record store, but also managed to plant a bit of sensationalistic catnip with the largest Liverpool newspaper, the Liverpool Echo: two young American musicians were being held captive on a ship in the harbor!
After numerous front-page headlines — including photos featuring Jack with his classic Les Paul guitar — and a TV segment featuring girls (hired by the station) marching the docks carrying “Free the Yanks!” signs, immigration agreed to grant them student visas…provided they ship their guitars and amps back home.
Suddenly, the two “Yanks,” Jack and Eddie, were celebrities. The good times lasted for a few weeks, coming to an unceremonious end when immigration figured out that they were actively playing gigs with various bands around town. They were promptly arrested and deported…on the good ship SS United States, in steerage.
Back in the States, since no one knew they’d been deported, they rode their “triumphant” Liverpool cred into some really good bands. Jack ended up going on the road with Chuck Berry’s band as the bass player, “which was a real experience because, first of all, it’s Chuck Berry and that’s rock-and-roll school at its finest, and also I got to see what it was like to tour the south with a black man.”
The Opportunity Shell Game
And then the next opportunity showed up, in the form of the Isley Brothers, whose recent hit “It’s Your Thing” had resulted in their own record company called T-Neck Records. Yes, the Isley Brothers signed Jack and Eddie’s band to T-Neck Records, and yes, they produced their album. However, the real opportunity was found not in that career-enhancing deal, but rather in the wreckage of the experience.
Suffice to say, the Isley’s didn’t really know what to do with the songs that Jack and Eddie’s band had recorded. They suggested that the boys go home for a couple of weeks, while they re-mixed the album. When the band came back to hear their record, they couldn’t even identify their tracks amidst the massive overdubs of congas, horns, female backup singers, and strings. After exchanging a few choice words, all three Isley Brothers got up and left the room. Jack turned to Eddie and said: “Well, I think that went pretty well.”
And then, as Jack recalls, “Rudolph came back, the oldest brother, the guy who ran the business, and said, ‘If you don’t like it, you mix it!’ and pointed to me.” Boom!
It’s The Sound…
Jack remembers it vividly. “I sat for two days mixing this thing with the engineer, who was great, and I just stayed out of his way and thought, ‘God, I love this.’ This reminds me of everything I’d ever wanted to do…plus the amount of control you have is, like, everything.”
Even today, “It’s the sound that’s still driving me,” Jack says. “When I’m working with sound, to me it’s like clay: it’s tactile, I feel it. I feel every color, and part of it. That’s why it doesn’t matter to me the kind of music it is, it’s the sound of it, and the look of it…I see it. And so, I’m addicted to that process.”
Following his passion, he told the band he had to leave — “I have to do this” — and took a job as the janitor at a studio called the Record Plant. “My foot was in the door. And then I struggled and worked like a fuckin’ maniac — I mean, I practically lived there, working my way up.” From jingles to cutting demos for major artists, he gradually became the guy, closeted in a little out-of-the-way room, who was cutting everything that came through the studio that needed edits.
And then, a few days into working on an untitled John Lennon project, Lennon himself walks into Jack’s editing room, looking for a quiet place, “I think to escape Phil Spector,” Jack assumes, “who was a madman. He asked, ‘OK if I sit down in here?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ He sat down on the other side of this little console. I couldn’t see him, I could just see his feet up on the glass and his cigarette smoke. And after a while I said, ‘I’ve been to Liverpool.’ His head popped up and he said, ‘Everyone in Liverpool wants to come here. Why…?’ I said, ‘Well, as a musician, it was ’65 and I wanted to dive into the Mersey river and come out with the Mersey sound all over my music.’ He said, ‘So how’d that work out for you?’ I said, ‘Good and bad. Bad, I got deported. But, good, I made a lot of noise before I did.’ ”
“And then, he looked at me and said ‘Are you one of the crazy Yanks?! It was in all the newspapers…was that you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘We released a fucking record — it should have been just us all over the front pages, and you and your buddy…’ And then he said, ‘Do you still have that black Les Paul? That’s a fuckin’ nice guitar. We were lookin’…me and Paul, look at that — a fucking Les Paul with a stock Bigsby.’ Then he was like, ‘Why don’t you come down to the main stage — you should be working with us. Yoko is going to go crazy; this means something.’ ”
And it did mean something. Jack laughs heartily, remembering the scene. “I went down to the main studio, and the chief engineer, Roy Cicala, looked at me like ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’m with him.’ So, Lennon said to Roy, ‘Can you give Jack something to do?’
As Jack got deeper and deeper into the “Imagine” album, he and Lennon developed a close friendship. They worked together for the rest of Lennon’s life. Lennon even asked Jack to work with Yoko, which began his work on a string of Yoko records, including as producer for the couple’s penultimate “Double Fantasy” album, for which he won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
“I was always surprised,” Jack muses. “It’s like Picasso could really draw; he was quite good — and I was always surprised and had a great deal of respect when I saw Yoko sit down and play piano. At that point, I went ‘Oh, okay, fine.’ I had told her that I didn’t care if she played the piano from inside the piano, or sat down at the stool, that it was all OK. But the fact that she could play, and she understood music, in fact she could read it, meant a lot to me.”
Time To Produce
It was Bob Ezrin, the long-time producer of Alice Cooper, who initially encouraged Jack to start producing…eventually asking him to produce Alice. As Jack relates it, Ezrin said, “I don’t want to do it. It’s the last Alice album with the band [“Muscle of Love”] and I don’t like funerals; I don’t want to be there.”
True to form, Jack jumped at the opportunity.
He’d worked with a lot of producers and had watched and learned and kept notes: “I had books…this works and this doesn’t.” Well… when he told Lennon he was producing Alice Cooper, Lennon responded, “That’s great. Where are you doing it?” Jack answered, “Wherever they tell me to do it.” To which Lennon countered, “No. Here’s the thing…you’re the producer now…you tell them where you want to do it.” So, Jack brought Alice out to Los Angeles to record “Muscle of Love.”
Asked if he learned anything else from Lennon that stood out in his mind, Jack doesn’t pause: “If you make a mistake, make it loud…so that someone thinks you did it on purpose. You know, he would get in and start playing guitar, and he would take either his A or his D string and tune it a little flat, always. And I said to him, ‘Why do you de-tune your guitar a little bit?’ He said, ‘I got into the habit of it because all our early records were mono, and if I did that I could really hear my guitar. I could tell my aunt Mimi, you hear that? That’s me, coming through.’ And he liked it. So, his guitar was always just a slight bit out of tune, which added a whole real dimension to everything he did.”
Since we’re talking about learnings, here’s a quick lightning round of Jack’s learnings from a few other important people in his life.
• Chuck Berry. “Rock ‘n’ roll school at its finest. He taught me to keep your eye on the fret board of his guitar. He never started things in the same key — wherever his hand went, that’s the key you’re going to start in. I’d say, ‘Chuck, what key are we doing (any particular song) in?’ And he’d say he didn’t know; he’d say, ‘Just keep an eye on my hands. Where it lands is the key.’ He was wild on stage, so he didn’t always hit the G or the A; Could be G sharp, A flat — it worked. It’s all 1,4,5 anyway…once you start it in the right place, it’s going to be the same.”
• Robert Kennedy. “I learned never to go into politics. As much as I loved him, he was a rather ruthless guy.”
• Miles Davis. “Respect. He was known to turn his back on the audience in live performance, but he never turned his back on the control room, or the musicians in the room, because he was really respectful in the studio. Everybody, people in the booth, other players…really even and mild.”
• Aerosmith. “So much…that’s really where I got my producer chops honed, because we became so tight. I learned to listen…to every member of the band…and not act like the producer knows everything. I learned to listen to each member of the band, because the best ideas come from the artists themselves. However,” he says, chuckling, “I would be free to change, if I felt… I think maybe the thing I learned most from them, and producing them, was to only fight the good fight.”
Jack Douglas’ time with Aerosmith is a career in and of itself, not only producing and engineering numerous albums over five decades, but contributing musical material as well, when they came up short on certain projects. As he says, “I’m the sixth Aerosmith…that’s family for me. Look at that band, it’s all the same guys, they are a family, and I’m part of that family…and now my son is part of that family.” (His son is a Grammy-nominated drummer who’s now playing percussion with the Aerosmith residency at the MGM in Vegas.)
Keeping It Fresh
Jack recalls a period where he was starting to feel trapped. “I once read in Rolling Stone, after I’d produced the first Aerosmith album, and I’d already produced Alice Cooper, and I’d already engineered some of “Who’s Next,” and they wrote: ‘Heavy metal maven Jack Douglas.’ And I went, ‘Heavy metal maven?!’ And I thought, ‘I’ve got to get something else to do!’ ”
“And so, out of the blue comes a phone call from Bob Dylan who wants me to co-produce with him Allen Ginsberg — spoken word with music. And I jumped on it, just so I didn’t have to…and because of that, Patti Smith followed. So now I’m out of that [heavy metal] box.”
But sometimes you’ve got to shake things up yourself. Consciously reaching out for a fresh breeze, Jack recently produced a run of contemporary classical music, by a group of young Juilliard composers. “I just had a blast!” he enthuses. “Saxophone quartet, duet for viola and piano, string quartet, mixed ensemble…so you have this mixed ensemble and I have an electric guitar in it. Just really cool stuff.”
And Keeping It Going
Norman Lear, in his latest book, quotes mid-20th century character actor Hans Conried: “I work to work, and the rest follows. When it isn’t about money, it’s funny how much seems to come your way.”
Jack Douglas never stops working. This year, at 73, he’s embarking on a brand-new adventure — one that entails significant risk, both financial and reputational. And he’s grabbing it with every fiber of his being.
With his partner, Aaron Smart, Jack is committed to creating a new recording studio and a new record label…actually two new record labels, one run by each of them. Needless to say, this is a huge undertaking, one that requires them to develop artists, develop other engineers, and develop other producers.
“I’m looking to recreate the things that I love most about studios; a world class studio, and not someone’s home studio.” Jack is in his element — it shows in his unfettered enthusiasm and energy. “There’s something about analog that is as real as I’m standing right now. It’s not a sample. It’s uninterrupted. So, we have all this really incredible analog equipment — really rare stuff. We have every microphone in the Recording the Beatles book — not the actual microphones, but the very rare models that they are. And then racks of Toltecs, racks of very old Neve mics, Fairchilds, all in amazing condition. And, we also have the finest digital stuff, as well…software…so we can go in any direction.”
Jack’s record label is called LA Confidential. His vision for the label is to be really eclectic. Jazz, world music, rock, contemporary classical, spoken word: “I don’t want to be a one-horse label.”
He’s already signed a girl named Kelly Cloko out of Savannah: “She’s fantastic — a singer, writer, she’s very young and she looks like Audrey Hepburn”; he’s licensed a group out of the Valley called the Glam Skanks, “an all-girl band, just amazing…they write these political women’s songs”; and he’s producing Silver Planes, a rock band, himself. “I’d like to sign Meklit Hadero; she’s Ethiopian and she’s incredible. I want to sign Ria Fowler, who’s an incredible violinist who does really out-there contemporary classical music with spoken word, really on the edge.”
Skill Is Timeless
“I don’t pretend to have the energy that I had when I was 35, and I don’t pretend to understand music that is not — like rap and pop today…I can’t produce it…I don’t want to or try — but I know what’s good and I’m happy to have young producers do it. So, I know what I can do, and I love doing it.”
Good for him. And good advice for the rest of us.
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