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Grammy-Winning Producer and Label Exec Tommy LiPuma Dead at 80

Tommy LiPuma
Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images

Tommy LiPuma, a veteran producer and industry executive whose name appeared in the liner notes for a long string of hit records for artists as varied as Paul McCartney, Dr. John, Miles Davis, and Willie Nelson, has died at the age of 80.

Billboard reports that LiPuma’s death occurred after a “brief illness,” concluding a distinguished career that included five Grammy wins and decades of corporate stewardship for an assortment of labels that included the Blue Thumb imprint, which he co-founded in 1968.

Born on July 5, 1936, LiPuma spent his youth in Cleveland pursuing a passion for music — he played the saxophone in school — while resigned to his father’s dream that he pursue the family trade as a barber. After cutting hair for a short time and gigging on the side, LiPuma took a job packing records in a local stockroom, and worked his way steadily up the industry from there.

LiPuma moved to Los Angeles in the early ’60s to take a promotion job at Liberty Records, where he spent his downtime in the studio observing sessions for the label’s staff writers and recording artists. “I’d messed around in little studios in Cleveland but I didn’t have a clue. So when I got out to L.A., every spare moment, I would always ask if I could go by the studio,” he told Performing Songwriter. “I would just sit there in the back, not say a word and watch.”

All that watching served him well when he migrated into the publishing side, where he was responsible for wrangling musicians and cutting demos for writers — a gig that introduced LiPuma to Randy Newman, whose song “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” gave him his first placement, and Leon Russell, then a session player who’d go on to enjoy an association with LiPuma that lasted more than 40 years.

LiPuma’s long list of production credits spanned a variety of genres, although his clean style and musical chops tended to serve him particularly well with artists on the jazzier side of the spectrum — a set of skills that arguably reached its commercial peak in the ’80s, when he worked with Newman, Dr. John, Al Jarreau, Stephen Bishop and Brenda Russell, among many others, and fit with his distinct production technique, which found him sitting in the room with the artist instead of observing from the other side of the studio glass.

Although LiPuma’s output slowed in recent years, he continued working; his 21st-century credits include Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom LP and Leon Russell’s Life Journey, as well as a series of LPs with Diana Krall. His final production, Krall’s Turn Up the Quiet, is due to arrive in stores May 5.

“Sometimes, I think about this road I’ve taken and been on and it amazes me as to how I got from there to here,” mused LiPuma in a 2016 interview. “The first job I had was at a distributor packing records for 50 bucks a week. I didn’t care. It wasn’t about the money or anything. It was about being close to or involved in something I loved.”

“Everybody respects him because he treats everybody as an equal,” added engineer Al Schmitt, a longtime friend and frequent collaborator, in an interview after LiPuma’s death. “There are no stars and nobody ‘under’ him, including the assistants and runners. He was my dearest friend in the world.”

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