Never Say No To A Rock Star, p.1
Copyright © 2016 by Glenn Berger
First Paperback Edition
Printed in the United States
Cover and Interior Design: James Kiehle
Author Photo (current): Joshua Silk
Author Photo (A&R Studios): Brad Davis
Excerpt from Lyrics to “Harpo’s Blues” by Phoebe Snow, Copyright © 1974, granted by Permission of the Estate of Phoebe Laub.
Other parts of this book have appeared previously in different form in the following online publications:
Literal Latte (“Oddballs and Angels: Phoebe Snow”);
Esquire (“Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks: The Untold Story”);
SOS (“Phil Ramone and the Secrets of Vocal Production”)
For permissions and copyright information, contact the publisher: Attn. Permissions, Schaffner Press, POB 41567, Tucson, AZ 85717. No part of this book may be excerpted or reprinted without the publisher’s written consent, except in brief excerpts for review purposes only.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Berger, Glenn, 1955-
Title: Never say no to a rock star : in the studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger, and more / by Glenn Berger.
Description: First paperback edition. | Tucson, AZ : Schaffner Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2016017682| ISBN 9781943156085 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781943156108
(epub) | ISBN 9781943156092 (pdf)
Subjects: LCSH: Berger, Glenn, 1955- | Sound recording executives and producers--United States--Biography.
Classification: LCC ML429.B33 A3 2016 | DDC 781.49092 [B] --dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016017682
Dedicated to Milton Brooks, aka “Broadway Max,” and the rest of the staff at A&R Studios.
Photo provided Courtesy of A&R Facebook Page
Table of Contents
Prelude: “It Was All Me”
Track One – Day One: Yes, Sir, James Brown!
Track Two – The Schlepper
Track Three – Phil Ramone Plucks Me from Obscurity
Track Four – Paul Simon: The Superstar
Track Five – Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks: The Untold Story
Track Six – Judy Collins and Arif Mardin: A Turkishly Delightful New Years
Track Seven - Too Much Too Soon: The New York Dolls
Track Eight – Oddballs and Angels: Phoebe Snow
Track Nine – The Freaks, the Pricks, and the Gems
Track Ten – The Night I Didn’t Have Sex with Bette Midler
Track Eleven – Fifty Ways to Leave Your Mentor
Track Twelve – “The Saddest Thing of All”: My Thirty Minutes with Frank Sinatra
Track Thirteen - All That Bob Fosse
Track Fourteen – How Paul Shaffer Almost Got Me Killed
Track Fifteen – The Time Mick Jagger Sang “Honky Tonk Women” Just For Me
Postlude: It Was All Them
Glenn Berger: A Select Discography
Foreword by Judy Collins
Glenn Berger’s new book, “Never Say No To A Rock Star,” is such a great view of the entire recording experience, the people, the music, the personalities, the tension, the magic—the food! The scenes feel totally real. Glenn captures the excitement of making music and gives the reader a true feeling of being a part of the drive and fantasy, the magic and insanity, the moments of sheer exasperation and sheer wonder. It was always a pleasure to work with Glenn in the midst of the madness as well as the moments of bliss when it all came together. He reminds me in his book of the time of my recording “Send in the Clowns,” which was created with the help of Arif Mardin, Phil Ramone, and Jonathan Tunick, three of the most amazing geniuses in the business. I loved that Glenn was there, with his delight and wonder at the center of it all, where everyone wanted to be, in those mostly closed sessions. They were historic, melodic, frantic, delicious and full of contrast— from the sublime to the ridiculous. Glenn takes the reader to the universe of the great A&R Studios in New York where some of the most memorable music of the past century was made. Congratulations, Glenn, you tell it the way it was. And I loved reliving it with you.
—Judy Collins, Grammy Award-winning
singer/songwriter and author
“It Was All Me”
One of my psychotherapy clients, despite years of earnest work on himself, still ached with loneliness. Stephen had been living a noble life. He had been sober for decades. He cared for his mother with Alzheimer’s and his developmentally-disabled brother. He’d been training to be a therapist like myself.
But this upstanding life wasn’t enough for the ultimate breakthrough. Stephen couldn’t find someone to love. Unable to show all of himself, he shied away from his more tender feelings, even with me, his therapist, whom he had known for years. He knew that he would have to make himself vulnerable in front of another human being if he wanted an intimate relationship. If he had any chance of getting to that raw, open place, it had to begin with me, one of the few people in the world he trusted.
Stephen regularly listened to his most beloved music while driving in his car. Recently, he found himself overwhelmed with emotion while listening to his favorite songs. The chords and melodies broke him open in a way that he couldn’t close back up. He figured that if he brought in these recordings, and we listened to them together, maybe he would have no choice but to let me see his heart.
I welcomed Stephen into my sanctuary at our next session. I was in my usual shrink uniform. One of the lesser reasons I became a therapist after years in the music biz was because I was starting to look like one. Bald, bespectacled, short, and Jewish, in my navy blazer and fine chocolate corduroys, in my respectable mid-fifties, I could have been a 21st century, New York, ex-hipster version of Sigmund himself; no one would have suspected the life I once led.
Stephen came into my office with his favorite songs programmed on his iPhone. We set up the I-dock. He sat opposite me in the identical chairs I use in my office. His party-boy looks had faded a bit with age, with his knowing smile, wide nose, little goatee and cropped white hair. He hailed from South Georgia, a part of the country so different than my own that he could have just as well been from Mongolia. But, strangely, we related to each other on many levels, our deep appreciation of certain kinds of music being one of them. I sat with my notebook on my lap, ready to note any revelation Stephen might have. He reached over to the screen of his smart device.
The song began.
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t help moving my head to the loping easy rock-gospel groove.
The female background singers took it up and sang, “Don’t trouble the waters,” and a voice totally recognizable to me answered in call and response.
It was Aretha Franklin. She was my favorite singer of all time. Hailing from a gospel upbringing, she began her recording career with a stint as a conventional easy listening act in the early ‘60s. Then she was liberated into the heights of R&B heaven by the sage impresario, Ahmet Ertegun, who founded, and, with his brother Nesuhi, ran Atlantic Records in the 1940s. They turned the world on to American Rhythm and Blues. By the 1960s, with the influence of the likes of producers Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, Atlantic represented the New York soul sound at its funkiest and classiest.
Her hits for that label in the late ‘60s, like “Chain of Fools,” “Rock Steady,” “Respect,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” will remain soulful till the saints come marching in. No one could move you and groove you like Ree.
And here she was singing, “I know that, if you only believe.”
After the i
Then the moan of an electric guitar told us it was time for the entrance of the Queen of Soul.
She took it up and launched into the first verse of her rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” By increments she took it higher, and by the time she sang the hook line the second time, she was opening up to the heavens, she was finding that place inside where nothing is held back. She was pure. Everything that Stephen — and I — wanted to be.
With my eyes still closed, I swayed, overtaken by the rhythm and the sound. I snapped back for a second and opened my eyes to check on Stephen. I could see he was feeling it deep. I closed mine again, and Aretha’s voice hit me in the center of my being.
Then something unexpected happened. Rich, strong, caramel-colored emotion started coming up from my depths. It was rising from my core, lifting higher. All of a sudden the heat was in my chest, and then my throat, and then my face. Losing all self-control, tears burst out my eyes, rolling down my cheeks. It was a feeling I could find no name for — not pain, not sadness, exactly — something I didn’t comprehend.
Just when I thought I could take no more, and Miss Franklin couldn’t get any deeper, she sang, and I ascended beyond mere emotion. I became full of the spirit. I don’t believe in God, but I knew Her in that moment.
Aretha took me by the throat and dragged me to the pulpit. She took it to the podium through the bridge and into the climax. She was no longer a person, she was an oracle, she was possessed, she became the wind of life, part of the chaotic maelstrom of the primal energy. I was caught in the tidal waves of emotion that washed through me. I became one with the wave, with the feeling. I became feeling itself. My face was wet with tears as my body rocked to the rhythm of the track.
I cried and Aretha sang.
The song faded out and I reveled in a minute of precious silence. Finally, I opened my eyes.
I saw Stephen sitting opposite me, his face also streaked with tears, looking at me with shock, surprise, and then delight. He had wanted to see if the music could open him up. He hadn’t thought about what it would do to me. Neither had I.
He told me that now he felt connected to me in a way he never had before. We had both stood at the pearly gates and met the place’s musical director. We giggled through the crying. This moment changed everything: him, me, us. His healing blew open. Whatever had kept him stuck had now set him free. I was certain of it.
But what did it do to me?
The ninety minutes were up, the therapy session ended, and Stephen left my room. Alone, my body vibrated with the experience I had just been through. Stephen didn’t know the half of it, and neither did I.
The catharsis felt good, but troubling. I knew my emotion was about something more than Aretha’s soul-healing performance. Hearing that song, at just this moment in my life, awoke something unfinished from many decades before, something that was still unresolved for me.
The feeling and the troubled confusion stayed in me like an after-image from staring too long at something. Incidents I hadn’t thought about in years started to emerge. It was Paul Simon’s song that had done this odd thing to me.
Then, weirdly, I started hearing his music wherever I went. I walked into the gas station and heard a song of his called “My Little Town.” I’d worked on that track many years before, in what seemed like another life. I had known Paul. As soon as I got back in the mini-van with my two little kids strapped in the back, I turned on the radio and heard his beautiful song that captured the spirit of 1968: “America.” I had actually watched Paul copy the lyrics to that song, and I still had the scraps in a book on my shelf.
As I drove, I looked at the suburban road ahead, but saw other pictures in my mind’s eye. While my kids clamored behind, I was alone in my memory world. I’d been looking out the windshield and seeing that past with a vivid intensity since the session I’d done earlier with Stephen. As a shrink, I know that if you stimulate the brain with something similar enough to an old experience, a dance of choreographed, lit-up neurons pulsating in harmonious frequencies organize themselves in your head. Pictures, feelings, body sensations, thoughts can all rise up like spring water from a well, unspoiled by time. Since the session with Stephen, I felt all lit up. But I still couldn’t put a word to the feeling. I still felt more confused than anything else.
I knew one thing. I had to get up to the attic. I had to get out that tape and listen to it. Maybe that would give me a clue.
When I got home, I went right to the hallway on the second floor of my split-level house. I yanked the rope in the ceiling, pulled down the attic ladder, and climbed up the wooden stairs. The kids were a pain in the ass, as usual, getting in the way of my agenda, but this time I was willing to put up with it.
“Can I come, daddy?”
“No.” I felt more than the usual annoyance about trying to get something done and having to make sure the kids didn’t kill themselves at the same time.
“Why not?” in chorus.
“I’ll be right down.”
“Who said it was going to be?”
Above the house, I pulled the old reel-to-reel tape recorder out of a pile of detritus put up there like everything else from my personal history. I didn’t know where else to keep this old stuff. I carefully wobbled down the steps with the analog relic, weighty with some big, old electric transformer in its guts.
“What’s that?” my son asked.
“You’ll see,” I said distractedly.
I went back up the rickety staircase a second time and found the oversized translucent storage container filled with the white cardboard boxes of old reel-to-reel tapes and memorabilia from another era.
Carrying the plastic crate was another awkward trip down the ladder.
“Can I help?”
I started feeling excited now. Did I really own this tape? Did this really happen? After all, you never knew what might come out when you press “Play.” Had I made it all up?
Almost forty years had passed. Forty years. Could that be true? I shouldn’t have been so surprised to discover that I still felt unresolved, all these decades later. That’s the way the psyche works with things like this. Despite the years of maturing, the idiotic mistakes, the advanced degrees, there was still something about those early days I couldn’t reconcile.
I took the cover off the machine, revealing its knobs and meters, take-up reel, transport, and head-stack. I plugged the machine in. The machine vibrated to life. It made a weird noise and glowed. An old friend. My kids sat around me, suddenly interested, wanting to touch it, like something that had just landed from outer space. What the hell was this weird machine? It acted its age much more than I did.
I went through the boxes and played a bunch of the old tapes. Here was the basic track of “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan. I had been on that session. Here was the Sinatra tune, “The Saddest Thing of All,” that I’d worked on. The Stones, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow …
We recording engineers had a geeky penchant for collecting scurrilous tapes of famous people saying things they oughtn’t. Back in the day, before it all became universally available on YouTube, we traded these underground wonders with each other, mostly because they all provided evidence of what only we cognoscenti knew: artists were wonderful, fascinating, and, by and large, loony. We loved them and complained about them at the same time. They were a strange breed, always good for an anecdote.
“Wait till you hear this one!” I tried to engage my kids. “This is by one of the greatest actors of all time, Orson Welles!” Poor Orson. After making groundbreaking films, like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil, he had been relegated, in his later years, to doing advertising copy. He was a big man in every way, and his Falstaffian appetites needed to be fed. He was desperate for the dough. On this aud
Welles’s stentorian rumble rattled the tinny, built in speakers. “What do you want in the depths of your ignorance? I wouldn’t direct actors in Shakespeare the way you are doing this! If you can show me how to emphasize the word in in a sentence, I’ll, I’ll go down on you!”
The sounds had so much meaning for me, but the joke fell flat for my little ones. They hadn’t spent years at repertory movie houses in New York City studying classic films by guys like Welles, trying to discover the secrets of existence.
Within minutes the weird old machine and the strange sounds it emanated lost its cool for the kids, and they drifted off, chasing the dog. I smarted at their total incomprehension and lack of interest.
In this moment, I felt oddly distanced from them. I had lived an entire life before they were born, an entire life before I had married their mom, an entire life that no one had lived but me. Memories could be wonderful, but also estranging. I was alone within my glowing neurons.
Anyway, I soothed myself, this wasn’t the one I was looking for.
Then I found the tape. The white, cardboard box had black Sharpie writing on it, in the printing style I use to this day with an “s” that looks like a lightning bolt. It said “It Was All Me.” I felt this little thrill. Yes — it does exist.
Anyone could get the Orson Welles thing on line now; but only a handful of people had ever heard this one.
I pulled the clear plastic disk filled with black analog audio tape out of the box. My breath caught. I held it lightly, like a precious relic, which it was.
I deftly threaded the tape onto the take up reel, muscle memory intact. I hadn’t lost my touch. I hit the play button. The motor moaned and barely turned, like a horse way past its prime that was asked to drag a heavy load. Was the machine going to die just before I’d be able to hear this thing? I stuck my finger in the hole at the center of the five-inch reel and gave it a turn. It kicked into gear and started to spin at seven and a half inches per second. I listened to the tape hiss in anticipation of what was to come.