“When you get hot, everybody starts calling.” So says legendary drummer, producer, songwriter and performer NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN, who had risen to fame as a jazz-rock drummer in 1974 with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra before transforming himself into a disco dude with hits ‘I Don’t Want To Dance (With Nobody Else)’ and ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’ in the late ’70s. In 1980, Narada’s career took another surprising twist when he consciously sought to move into the world of pop and R&B production starting with precociously-talented teenage singing prodigy, Stacy Lattisaw. When her Narada-helmed Cotillion album, ‘Let Me Be An Angel,’ was a smash hit, the phone started ringing with offers of production work and eventually led the producer to work with some of the greatest voices in R&B, including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Phyllis Hyman, the Four Tops and many others. In the second part of Charles Waring’s interview with Narada – whose new album, ‘Evolution,’ finds him returning to an accessible soul/funk groove – he looks back at his time playing with jazz-rock guitarist Jeff Beck, making his own solo breakthrough on Atlantic Records, and metamorphosing into a top pop and R&B producer in the 1980s when he helmed memorable hits for Aretha and Whitney…
As well as playing with Weather Report in the mid-’70s, you toured and recorded with British guitarist Jeff Beck as well. How did that come about?
That came after ’75 after we made the last Mahavishnu Orchestra album called ‘Inner Worlds’ (pictured left) at the Honky Château. That had a very big Hendrix influence. John (McLaughlin) was very tripped out using this six-string synthesised guitar. Each string had a Moog synthesiser on it and then he put that through what was called a ring modulator with all these pedals on a board on the floor and he could trip you out to a place you wouldn’t even recognise – it wasn’t even a guitar anymore – like Hendrix would do. He was experimenting a lot with that on ‘Inner Worlds’ and it was just mind-blowing to hear the sound on the playback come back. I don’t know how to explain it to you, it was just otherworldly, and so after making that album, which I really enjoyed putting my heart into it, I got a call to come to the UK to jam with Jeff’s band with (drummer) Bernard Purdie and Wilbur Bascomb on bass and Max Middleton on piano. They had opened and closed for the Mahavishnu Orchestra when we toured Australia and America.
So you got to know Jeff well?
I had a chance to really watch him a lot and realised that when he played things like Stevie Wonder ‘s ‘Cause We’ve Ended Now As Lovers,’ with those pretty kind of changes, he would just sparkle. So when the time came to go to the UK, I went there to jam with Jeff for the ‘Wired’ album. They had one song called ‘Red Ruth’ which Max Middleton had written, and again, I’d tape it on my tape machine – I’m glad I did because the pattern I’d gotten into playing, I would have forgotten it when it came time to record it, it was so intricate. We’d just jam it in a little warehouse and then when they came down to record it we went in the studio with George Martin as producer. There’s George Martin again – he was there the first time I recorded on (the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1974 album) ‘Apocalypse’ and there he is again on ‘Wired’ with Jeff Beck, and I was like ‘damn, the Beatles producer, here he is!’ He was so calm; an English gentleman and just all-knowing, and intensely wanted to put you at ease by being calm. So he makes you feel like everything’s fine and then we cut ‘Red Ruth’ in one or two takes. Then Jeff told me he wanted more material and God blessed me with some ideas that I wrote on the piano downstairs at the old Trident Studios. When McLaughlin was mixing ‘Inner Worlds’ upstairs I’d be downstairs on the piano and I wrote four pieces that Jeff liked; ‘Come Dancing,’ ‘Sophie,’ ‘Play With Me,’ and ‘Love Is Green,’ and we tracked them for the LP ‘Wired’ and it worked out to be a wonderful thing. It was my first gold album and I think maybe Jeff’s first gold one and it was just a wonderful time in our history.
And I suppose that led to your solo deal with Atlantic. How did that come about?
It was hard because I didn’t get signed right away. I made ‘Wired’ with Jeff and I was kind of a hot commodity but it took time for people to want to sign me as an artist. Epic paid for my demo. I recorded a song on my demo called ‘The Sun Is Dancing,’ with David Sanchez on keyboards and Ray Gomez on guitar and Will Lee on bass. Then Epic said ‘yeah, we think you’re great, but we’re not going to sign you.’ So then I was kind of floating for a long time trying to find who would take me and then I got a call from a guy named Ramon Fields at Atlantic saying ‘hey man, let’s talk about it,’ so then he took my stuff to (Atlantic bosses) Jerry Greenberg and Ahmet Ertegun. Then they got back to me and wanted a meeting. So then Barry Platnick, my attorney, took me over there and they signed me. But believe me, I was very anxious because it was months and months now. But they took me in and I’m so happy that they did. They offered me a choice of producer and said ‘who do you want as a producer? Either Arif Mardin or Tom Dowd?’ I said ‘oh my God, I can’t make that kind of decision ‘cos they’re both staff producers.’ So my sound at that time was more rock than it was R&B, so I decided I’d rather go with Tommy Dowd. I made the right decision at that time and had Tommy help me produce it and what a teacher he was. That’s probably one of my best albums, ‘Garden Of Love Light,’ with me David (Sanchez), Will Lee and Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck. Sometimes the first things you do in life are sometimes the best.
By the time your third album came out, ‘Awakening,’ you had embraced dance music. What brought that change about?
Okay, it’s very simple. Atlantic said to me, if you don’t have a hit, like a real Top Ten hit – not jazz-rock fusion – then we’re going to have to drop you. I had just gotten married and moved to San Francisco at that time so the idea of being dropped was just frightening beyond all fears. So then I had to think, what is a hit right now? So the hit was disco. And they told me if you want to have a hit, disco’s where it’s at, so I studied disco and walked through New York, walking the streets and ‘You And I’ was big by Rick James (start singing the melody). It had all the horns and all that, like Motown going on steroids. So it was easy to switch gears to go to dance. I holed up at Hilton downtown and wrote ‘I Don’t Want Nobody Else (To Dance With You),’ and wrote those four songs on side one (of ‘Awakening’) in five days and got Bobby Clearmountain, who was my favourite co-producer and engineer at the time, to help me cut them at the Power Station because I loved everything that he did with Chic and Nile Rodgers. You couldn’t beat that sound. At that time the sound of ‘Good Times’ was the bestselling record in the world. And that’s Bobby Clearmountain, and Nile Rodgers, and Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson on drums, who had been a student of mine actually. So hiring Bob Clearmountain to work with me was God saying green light. Man, I went in the studio and put those things down with Hiram Bullock on guitar, another friend and a few cats, and also playing an arranging role was Patrick Adams, who was a disco type of guy. But having him around made Atlantic feel more comfortable because he was legitimate in disco. He did the string arrangements on the first four tracks and he was a really gifted writer. He also added some spooky space sounds on ‘I Don’t Want Nobody Else (To Dance With You).’ He doubled the bass line and added that (make siren-like sound affects noise) kind of thing. And we got the Brecker brothers to come play the horns with David Sanborn. I got a hit and Ahmet Ertegun threw a big ass party. Wow, I couldn’t believe it, all of a sudden it was a great thing and it saved my career – without doing that I would have been dropped and forgotten about.
And with your next album, ‘The Dance Of Life,’ you went into disco overdrive…
Yeah, I went into overdrive and had a couple of hits, ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’ with T.M. Stevens on the bass, who helped me write that with Allee Willis, the great Earth, Wind & Fire writer.
‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’ had a great bass line. One of the greatest ever…
The way that was done, T.M. was my guy from touring. I said T.M. just play whatever you want to play over this groove I’m going to play. When I hit the cymbal every time, change, just ride the change, and we did about eight or nine, maybe ten, plus changes before out came (start singing the bass line to ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’). I said that’s it, and started hearing (sings in a high voice) ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya.’ I started singing it in a loud voice in the rehearsal and it was born, just like that. I said, ‘Frank(Martin) play’ and Frank started adding the chords and Corrado (Rusticci) added the funk and it was on and then Bob Clearmountain came out to California to co-produce the cut ‘The Dance Of Life,’ so I got to work with him again and he was so fastidious. He said, okay, we can record at Hive Street Studios but you’ve got to put wood down in the corner up under your drums for the sound. So I said right, and we put down wood on the floor and it gave it a tight sound. He was a genius at knowing how to tune the snare drum. There’s a certain place where you’ve got to put the snares where they rattle – you would think it was too much rattle but no, it sounded great. So Clearmountain was another damn genius. So the good Lord was always looking out for little Narada because I could have been a long, forgotten thing, man. These masters came along and gave me some light, they helped me out.
After that, you transformed yourself into an R&B and pop producer, didn’t you?
I did, man. I took what I knew and learned as a kid; I knew pop records and Motown were the best teachers in the world. All of Smokey Robinson’s records, the B-sides of Smokey Robinson’s records, the B-sides of Curtis Mayfield records, and then I looked at what Curtis Mayfield produced for the Five Stairsteps. That was before your time but go back to the early Five Stairsteps, these kids out of Chicago, even before the Jackson Five were hot. ‘Danger! She’s A Stranger’ – it was genius, man. I knew his work so when it came down to having a knowledge of music, I thought let’s just go for it, and I went for it. Stacy Lattisaw was signed by Henry Allen at Cotillion, and I produced some smashes for her. I said Henry, let me go and just do four songs on Stacy and if you like it, I’ll finish the album. If you don’t like it, you haven’t lost that match, but I was really hot at that time and he said okay, do that. And bro’ I got tight, I was here was my crew. I had T.M. (Stevens) on bass, Frank on piano, and Corrado, and also my friend George Hirst, who helped me rehearse my music so I knew what I was going to do when I got with my cats, and I wrote ‘Let Me Be Your Angel’ with Bunny Hull and ‘Dynamite!’ and ‘Jump To The Beat’ with Lisa Walden and ‘My Love,’ and cut those things in a matter of two days, so fast, I was way ahead of budget so that when I turned my music in it, with Stacy sounding really great with strings on it, they said ‘man, you’ve come in under budget and the music sounds hot, go and finish the album,’ and it was a big smash. So that started the phone ringing and then Clive Davis rang and said do you want to work on any new projects for Arista? He had Aretha Franklin, Angela Bofill, and Phyllis Hyman – that’s how it happened, man. When you get hot, man, everybody starts calling.
What did it feel like to produce Aretha (pictured with Narada and Whitney Houston below) for the first time?
Frightening. On a human level, on the animal level, frightening because she does have fire living in her eyes, the eternal fire when we speak about the spirit. When she looks at you you see flames in her eyes. And if she likes you – she liked me – it was friendly fire, but nevertheless it was fire. So you’re ever respectful of her because just by looking at her, you know she knows everything. She can go to the piano and outplay anybody. And she can go to the microphone and out-sing anybody. (Laughs raucously).
And ‘Freeway Of Love,’ which you co-wrote, re-energised her career, didn’t it?
Yeah, but the first two things we cut were ‘Who’s Zooming Who’ and a song called ‘Until You Say You Love Me,’ and her father had just passed away, so she was kind of tender. So when she sang ‘Until You Say You Love Me’ it was really an emotional experience and I can remember just massaging her back and shoulders just ever so lightly just to relax her because it was the first time that she had been back in the studio for a couple of years because her father had been in a coma for two years. So that’s how we first got started, recording those two songs, and I came back the next time with the ‘Freeway of Love’ track. Music is what made me feel more at home with her. It made me more relaxed and be on a more even footing because we were both there to serve the music and then I was okay. Then I could say, okay, let’s do this again or try that again or this or that or whatever it was. Now we’re both working on the same project but if I was just there, to hang out with her without the music, it was as frightening as hell. She’s all-knowing. But then she’s also very nice. Let me say this about Aretha Franklin, she’s so nice. When she wants to really befriend you and be nice to you, she can just say, well, where are you staying? Why you staying there, why don’t you stay at this place? Why are you eating there? Why don’t you eat at that place? She can really look out for you so I learned not to be afraid of her anymore and I could be myself with her and then we really got good together.
I suppose the legend gets in the way of the person sometimes.
It does, like when I met Ray Charles, it was the same way. Here was the guy whose album I carried in the snow when I was a kid that I could sing back to him. This guy was like the Himalayan mountain.
We can’t talk about your career without mentioning the late Whitney Houston (pictured left with Whitney in the 1980s). What are your memories of working with her?
She was a happy genius, a confident artist. I never knew anybody as confident. You could hear Aretha’s confidence absolutely, so I did know Aretha in that regard as far as her confidence, but for a young upcoming singer, I’d never known anybody to be so confident – to be so young and just happy and all-knowing as well. She had that same all-knowing that Aretha had but in a nineteen-year-old body. All-knowing to the point where you could just have fun with it. Like she’d say, why are you tripping out? She’d look at you like, why you trippin’ out? And I’d go I’m just kind of stunned because you’re this good so young, and so beautiful, and she’d just laugh it off. But that’s how she was. Everything was just absolutely effortless. If you can imagine a car that you might drive which is so effortlessly fast, like a Ferrari, or whatever you might think is super-fast and you just touch it and it goes, that’s kind of how I describe her in a way because it would just fall out of her with the greatest of ease.
I suppose someone like that, it makes your job as a producer easier – or does it?
In a way it does and in a way it doesn’t, because now you’re given choices that are so brilliant, which choice are you going to go with? That opened up a whole new bag. I made up this phrase: ‘choosin’ is confusin’. I’d just go with my gut – I wouldn’t try to out-think it because if you use your mind with her, I’d still be there working on ‘How Will I Know’ now. The choices that she could give you were just so death-defying but then you just have to go with your gut and go you know what, this is the best mainstream record, this is the best thing that will live forever, and just go with it. But the choices could be staggering bro’.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Well, it’s all been a highlight. I mean having my children’s a highlight, talking to you now is a highlight, living this long I can sit with the phone in my studio and talk to you right now and getting flashbacks is definitely a highlight because I don’t get a chance to think about that deeply unless I’m talking to a cat like you. Being discovered was a highlight – shit, without John McLaughlin, I’d be shining shoes somewhere. And without the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here. Without my mother and my father, who were such strong disciplinarians and loving and sensitive. My mum was so damn sensitive and my dad was such a commando: ‘get shit done, now, don’t clean at it, clean it… ‘ Without that, I couldn’t do it, so, hey man I’m just very grateful to be in the incarnation I’m in and to be born in the ’50s when I heard real music. Real rock ‘n’ roll. I told God, I want to go down now. I understand it. When I look back, hearing a 78 crackle, snap and pop and Little Richard singing ‘Lucille’ or ‘Long Tall Sally.’ It was electrifying. Even to this day if you put it on it’s electrifying. So that’s why I’m happy I was born at that time to hear this music that we heard, ‘cos otherwise I think you missed the best time if you missed that music. Before that, everything was cool and mellow. But when we came down, we were snap, crackle, pop (laughs raucously). I was happy to come down at a time to hear the birth of that stuff and hear the configuration of like Vanilla Fudge taking what’s gonna come down in ’73 and then twisting it with rock, and Hendrix doing his thing at Woodstock, a song called ‘Isabella,’ and all the hippie movement. I’m glad I saw all that. People coming together, trying their best, taking acid, LSD, whatever it was, to open their mind to find a place where they could find a common love for each other. You know, flower power and all that, man. Back in Michigan, we heard about flower power. I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, hearing about flower power on Haight and Ashbury – that’s how powerful it was.
Have you got any unfulfilled ambitions?
Oh yeah, I’ve got tons. I want to keep doing what I’m doing and tour the world and make myself a big star and play and pack houses. Playing, talking, doin’ it and having fun with it. I want to keep making more records and I want to be able to keep taking care of my family. And I want to work with all the great people who want to work with me. I had a dream of making a ‘Wired’ II with Jeff Beck last night. I’m so happy that I’m going to go back in the studio with Jeff and make another ‘Wired’ idea. It made me happy, I woke up happy. So, yeah, man I got a lot of ambitions. I’d like to work with Prince one day. I want to work with anybody that wants to work with me. I’m really wide open because I learned a long time ago don’t say no because… Sometimes we say that we don’t want to work with that person but when you meet the person, you really like that person. So I’ve learned don’t let your mind talk you out of a blessing. I’m really open to whatever the good Lord wants to give me and shoot for the stars, man, and just have a lot of fun at it and keep the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll alive. That’s all I want to do.
NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN’S new album, ‘Evolution,’ is out now via Tarpan Records.
Read the album review here:
Read Part 1 of SJF’s Narada interview here: