Dr. Don Mizell's distinguished career in the entertainment industry has included a number of key events that have impacted the history of contemporary music, from his early days as one of the first publicists covering black music at A&M Records through to the creation of his jazz fusion imprint at Elektra in the late '70s with artists like Grover Washington Jr., Patrice Rushen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terry Callier, Donald Byrd and others; and then on to his work with legends like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles...
Phone interview recorded December 17, 2012
David: I am delighted to welcome to our feature, “Giving R-E-S-P-EC-T” at SoulMusic.com, Dr. Don Mizell. If you go to his website you can get a sense of his history, but we’re going to explore more directly his history in the music and entertainment industry over several decades. As he and I were talking just before we began the interview, we were recalling when we first got to know each other, which would have been when we both lived in Los Angeles. I specifically, at that time, was a music journalist writing for different publications, one of which was BRE
(Black Radio Exclusive). We’re going to hear from him, about his history in music and his history in the industry, and as we do with “Giving R-E-S-P-EC-T”, we’re going to punctuate it with music that is relevant to his journey. So, welcome Dr. Don Mizell.
Don: Thank you, David.
David: Well, let’s start at the start, and the start is where were you born? Where did you grow up, and how did music first become a part of your life?
Don: Okay, well first of all, let me say, I want to give respect to you, and my admiration for your longstanding dedication to black music, soul music in particular, which I always thought was kind of strange. I remember thinking, ‘this white boy – why is he so into black music?’ Then I found out that you had a really, really deep understanding as well a love of the music, and a real respect for from whence it came, not only the artists who made it, but the culture that produced the artists that could create it. So, I have a lot of respect for you, David. I don’t quite know how you got bitten by the bug, but I do know it’s genuine. It’s longstanding, and right from the get go, you were unabashedly passionate about the music and had a tremendous respect for it. I, over time, gained a great respect for you in that regard, not to mention the fact that you’re a hell of a writer.
David: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. I really, really do appreciate it. So, although this interview is definitely about you, I will answer one thing that you said – how I got bitten by the bug. I got bitten by the bug initially, the initial bite came from the music of Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, but the next bite was probably a little bit of a bigger bite, even though I do give complete respect to Dionne and Bacharach and David for the music they produced, but I think the real developing passion came from my interactions with Nina Simone.
Don: Well, that would explain it.
David: Well, because really, when you say - as you did about my understanding of my interest in the culture - that specifically came from my interactions with her when I was a teenager and I was running the first fan club for Nina Simone in the United Kingdom. So, interacting with someone like Nina definitely did affect my whole perspective on music, on art, on civil rights, on freedom. I could just keep going. So, that’s really the root of my passion for everything that we’re referencing here.
Don: Okay. Well, that explains it. She was a force of nature, artistically and also personally. So, I got it, no problem, and what a genius of an artist. Nina Simone, come on! So, moving right along…
David: Now, back to you and where you came from, where you were born, and your introduction to music.
Don: Okay, I came from my mother’s womb, and that was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1949. I grew up in the South for the first eighteen years of my life, during segregated situations. Although, we integrated the schools in the early ‘60s, I became the first president of an all-white student body in the desegregation era. My father had a band called The House Rockers when I was a kid. Before rock and roll was called rock and roll, he had a band called The House Rockers. It was pretty much boogie-woogie combined with honky-tonk and he played piano. So, that was how I got exposed.
Then R&B radio, the top 40 radio, the funny thing with me, David, was I was really into pop music, maybe in the way you were into soul music. We may have been in opposite viewpoints because… some strange reason, I just loved top 40 radio coming up, but my parents were deeply involved in R&B and blues and this and that, and I was raised in the church, and soul music. But, I was a child of the ‘50s and I was exposed to television – the first TV generation, you might know about that, and also top 40 radio. So, I was a very strange kid. Nobody in the black community that I knew could figure out why I liked it. They weren’t listening to it at all, and I was into it and I didn’t know anybody white. So, they were like, ‘what are you doing? They can’t sing!’ But, I was loving the melody, really, and I was loving the harmony. So, it was kind of weird, and that kind of caught on. That was early on.
Then, in high school, I got into folk music and I thought I was Simon and Garfunkel! I was in this group with three white kids called the Bitter Leaves and we would play these coffee houses, and I was the only black person in the room! They were saying, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I was doing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”! Everybody thought I was completely out of my mind. My mother’s like, ‘boy, these people are going to kill you out there across town at night. They hate black people at night. You’re not supposed to be over there’ . I’m just over there singing about ‘how many roads must a man walk down.’ I’m singing gospel. That’s kind of strange.
Then I went to this fancy college in Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, which was founded by the Quakers. These white guys asked me to join there rock and roll band they had. I became the lead singer in a rock band: the multi headed hydra!. I would hang around and people would be like, ‘Are you Jimi Hendrix?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! Absolutely!’
So, the long and the short of it is, we toured up and down the East Coast; I was in college. We played at The Café Wha, where Hendrix got his start in Greenwich Village, and we were in the battle of the bands. I realized that I wasn’t that good of a singer. I was good at posing on the mic in front of cameras, and walking around as though I could sing, but I knew better underneath it, although I got a lot of girls out of it. Then, the black revolution came along and… I discovered jazz. I didn’t grow up around that much. Where I came from, it was blues and R&B mainly, and Top 40. So, I didn’t have a real deep understanding of really where rock and roll got its’ roots from. It was kind of like a reverse way, and that jazz, I discovered all of this in college. When I did, I did it through books really, and then I got deeply involved with Coltrane, and then I discovered Miles Davis right around the same time, and he was entering into fusion. So, I didn’t really get a deep understanding of jazz from a historical standpoint. When I hit jazz, it was around fusion, except for Coltrane who had just died. So, the bottom line is that I got into jazz and then I formed a band where I was doing black militant poetry running around representing the revolution.
I had a trio and I would stumble upon this cat name Gil Scott-Heron, and he was so good that I was like, ‘Well, I guess I know my place in the universe’ , but he and I became friends and I started performing, opening for Gil before he started singing. We were just doing poetry with our little trio or whatever, but he decided he wanted to write songs and the next thing I know, he got a deal with Bob Thiele who was Coltrane’s producer at Flying Dutchman Records. I realized that I couldn’t really sing that good. I kept understanding the limits. I had a deep passion for music for some strange reason throughout, but I was always in college or in school and doing very very well, finishing at the top of my class usually, and managing to keep going, which I did.
Then, I did my thesis on the history of black music; the evolution of black music in the context of American racism is what the thing was. I got these awards; I got a fellowship to go to Africa, and I went to Africa for a year to study the musicology of Africa to trace the retention of Africanisms in the evolution of the black experience from Africa through slavery into modern times. So, I came at it from an academic standpoint. I was studying in West Africa, certain structures and sub-structures of African music, and really trying to see to what degree Africanisms were retained as black folks went through slavery in the new world. Because, at that time, they were saying that all black culture had been destroyed from Africa in the course of slavery. I came to a contrary conclusion and I put this all together.
This is before this became the common teaching that it is now. I was on the cutting edge of that, but I got a really good understanding of how so much of what is popular in music now comes from black music in America, which is a combination of what black folks from Africa brought and European sensibility in combinations. I got a really good handle on that, then when I came back, I went to Harvard law school. I started a radio show called Afro-Centric, and since I had been throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and Brazil, I had a real good grasp of all this black music that had roots in Africa, but was from all over. I put together this show featuring black music from around the world. This new band called The Wailers that nobody had heard of, this album called TO CATCH A FIRE, ARROW, and this and that, and Fela (Kuti), putting it together, mixing Stevie Wonder’s “Music Of My Mind” with Bob Marley, and really on the cutting edge, and I really had a hot show in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then, mixing in Gil Scott-Heron, so I was really on the cutting edge of the hit black music, and the hip music period. Mixing it with jazz, where it had just gotten started, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Miles Davis, and I had a really dope show. It started getting tremendous feedback. This was the early ‘70s, ’72, ’73. I was a music nut. I met Nesuhi Ertegun from Atlantic Records, and I told him I wanted to be a producer, and he said, ‘Don’t be silly. You’re in Harvard Law School. Stay there. Why would you do that? Producers are a dime a dozen.’ And I was like, ‘Bullshit! Producers are the greatest thing on Earth!’ He was like, ‘Look, stay there. Period. And see me when you come back. When you graduate. ‘
When I graduated, I went to L.A. I didn’t want to go to New York; I was tired of New York. My cousins [Fonce and Larry Mizell] had started to become big as producers of Donald Byrd. They’d created this album, BLACK BYRD in 1973 I believe it was, which exploded. It’s the biggest selling record in Blue Note history up until Norah Jones came along, and it was all their music. It was just incredible. They created this whole sound of R&B-type jazz, and I had been more into the jazz-rock aspect of it, and ironically, here comes my family – my second cousins – with this other version of jazz for baby boomers, I guess is what you could say, which had vocals and this and that, that really set a new template along with Grover Washington who was doing MR. MAGIC…. Donald Byrd’s music was really unique because it wasn’t just doodling over a sax. This was some really different, fresh music, and it blew my mind. This was my cousins? ‘Whoa, shit, maybe I should get into the record business.’ So, I staggered out to L.A. after I graduated and I was trying to be a goffer. And they said, ‘You’re crazy!’ And I was like, ‘But I want to be a producer!’ And they’re like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you man? Everybody can’t do what we do, and everybody can’t do what you do.’ I was like, ‘But you know what, I was bitten by the bug,’ David. I couldn’t get the deepest part of my passion for music out of me, and so I was trying to find a way in.
I had a good friend named Ed Eckstine, who is the son of Billy Eckstine. We used to hang out and chase girls, and then Ed had gotten Quincy Jones…[but] let me back up for a second. [My cousins] Larry and Fonce Mizell had let me write the liner notes for the album that they did called “Stepping Into Tomorrow” [by Donald Byrd] in 1974. That was my first piece of work in the business. I got into the business, let me just say this indirectly, by way of my writing skills, just as you did. So, I share your love of the music and your ability and interest in knowing how to write about it, David. That, ultimately, was my ticket into the game. Okay? Because when I wrote the liner notes, I wrote them as a poem because I was harkening back to my Gil Scott- Heron period, and everybody noticed it. I loved that. So, it was Donald Byrd, STEPPING INTO TOMORROW… and that was why I picked that album as one of the key albums [in my life] because that was when I realized that I might have a way into the business even though I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t play that well either. I had a deep love of the music and this was a way to get into it, which was what I was after. I didn’t want to go in as a lawyer. I wanted to go in on the music side of it. And Ed Eckstine was a writer too. So, we all share that.
He was writing in these little newspapers, these little hippie newspapers. Ed and I used to get together and talk about all this obscure music that we knew about. I knew a lot of stuff, and Ed knew a lot. He knew everything that I didn’t know about the history of jazz because his father made it right? No only that, but he knew all the people, because they were at his house. This was not something that I had; I didn’t have any of that, but I did have my experience going around the globe under my own little weird navigational compass, finding all this strange music and putting it together in different ways. It’s sort of on the cutting edge of world music, really, and jazz-fusion. Then my cousins were there.
Then, somebody called me and said Ed Eckstine said to call him. He’s over at A&M, I had lost track of him. He’s working with Quincy Jones. ‘A&M has a job and you should call.’ So, I called Ed. ‘Ed, what’s up?’ He says, ‘Okay, there’s this gig in black publicity at A&M and he says, and you should call David Dashev, and I’m going to put a good word in. I called David, and David had me come in. David sent me to Gil Friesen (who just died). Ed put a good word in. Lo and behold, and I was already at a law firm, David, in Beverly Hills, doing what I was supposed to be doing, but I was not happy. I quit the job at the law firm and everybody said, ‘What are you doing? To go be a publicity hack at a record company? What’s wrong with you?’ I was like, ‘You have no idea!’ The chance to get paid to write about music? What could be better? Listening to music all day and then writing about it? That was like dying and going to heaven as opposed to studying, and going into a law library and writing some brief for you, and to exaggerate about something you don’t care about? This is what I love. So, Gil Friesen said to me, ‘I don’t know why you want to do this, but if you want to do it, come on in. We don’t even know what to do with you, but why don’t you just go park there until we can figure out what to do with you.’ I was like, ‘Great!’
So, I started writing these bios on the artists. You know about this stuff, David. Then, writing reviews. The next thing you know, I’m setting up interviews, and then taking the artists out on the road to meet with the press, the station, the magazine, the newspaper, the store, this and that. Then I decided that I would start writing these reviews, these bios, as though they were profiles talking more deeply about what the album is really about, where the artist is really coming from, because I really understood this and I didn’t want to just be saying, ‘Oh he was born here.’ So, the next thing I know, one day Herb Albert, the owner of the company comes flying past my window, which was on the parking lot, you know the A&M Records lot. I was right there. So, Herb slides by my window, and he says, ‘Hey, listen, I like the way you write about music. Why don’t you come over and sit down with me.’ I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ I was only there for like six weeks, something like that. So, the next thing I know, I’m sitting in there with the chairmen of the company, and he’s like, ‘Listen man, I don’t know the story, but I just love the way you hear music and the way you write about it, and the way you think about it, and I want you to come and work with me.’ I was like, ‘What?’ That’s how it happened, David! I stumbled into Herb Alpert’s den from writing. The next thing I know, I’m in the studio with him, helping him do Gato Barbieri and Letta Mbulu and Ornette Coleman, and then Chuck Mangione, and then they put me with Billy Preston to take him out on the road, and LTD, and this and that. Everybody was wondering how I pulled this off, and I didn’t pull it off at all. It was the power of the pen. Herb was just knocked out with how I wrote about music, and that’s how I got started.
David: Well, let’s go backwards, just a little bit, because obviously you made reference to your cousins Fonce and Larry Mizell. And you made reference to Donald Byrd, and I know that one of the tracks that we want to play is related to all three, Donald Byrd, and of course produced by your cousins, Fonce and Larry. There’s a particular track that you have assigned as something that should serve as our introduction to your introduction – in a sense – to working in the music industry initially by writing the notes for the album, you mentioned….
Don: Right, STEPPING INTO TOMORROW.
David: Right. So, this particular track is “Design A Nation”, correct?
Don: Right, featuring Donald Byrd and Gary Bartz.
David: Fantastic. Well, let’s play that. Since that represents a very seminal part of your journey. So, here it is. Here’s “Design a Nation”.
[DESIGN A NATION by DONALD BYRD]
David: Alright, so we’re back; we’re now at A&M and you’re now working with Herb Albert. Just give us a year for that, an approximate year for that.
Don: The year was 1976, the middle, or late ’76 to the middle of ’77 because things really accelerated really fast. For some reason, people really took notice of me and all of a sudden, Clive Davis is knocking on my door and asking me to come and work for him because I went to Harvard Law School and so did he. I think I was the first guy from the law school that was creatively-oriented that he knew about. So, once I got on his radar, he was all over me. I almost went, but then Joe Smith popped up from Elektra Records. He had just gone over there from Warner Brothers. David Geffen had moved on to try to get into films; he had been the chairman of Elektra. Joe was in there. Joe wanted to take Elektra/Asylum solid into black music. He wanted to get into black music by first letting everybody know he was interested because they didn’t have any history in that area, by putting some jazz out as a kind of a bait to the bigger R&B labels, like Kenny Gamble’s Philly International who was kind of shopping, Dick Griffey’s Solar [label], and like that. He wanted to use me, I think, as the bait, to verify that he was interested in black music by starting with a footprint with jazz. He convinced me that I could have my cake and eat it too, and being twenty-seven years old, I really believed that. You live and you learn, no, it’s not that kind of party. I though, ‘Oh wow. ‘ So, I bailed and I launched my label, Jazz Elektra Fusion in the middle of 1977. I didn’t have any records come out until the beginning of ’78, but I went over there. I immediately start competing with Bob Krasnow, who was at Warner Brothers doing jazz and Clive who was trying to get into it – jazz was kind of hot right then.
It was a weird thing. I had carte blanche, so I just went after it with both hands and both feet. I signed Donald Byrd. I signed Patrice Rushen. I signed Lee Ritenour, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lenny White with Marcus Miller. I signed Side Effect with Miki Howard. Terry Callier, who I fell in love with when I was in law school, with his recordings from Cadet Records, and I went and tracked Terry Collier down. Where is he? Nobody knows. I tracked him down working at a post office in Chicago. I called him up, and I said, ‘Terry, you don’t know me, but I’m just a big fan of yours from the OCCASIONAL RAIN album. I’m the head of this new label at Elektra. I want to sign you. ‘ He was like, ‘Get out of here! Don’t bullshit me!’ He hung up on me.
David: Wow! That’s a big wow!
Don: He said, ‘Look, I’m not in the mood for jokes. Who is this?’ So, how about that one?
David: That’s amazing.
Don: So, I said, ‘No no no. I’m sending you a ticket. I want you to come out here. We’ll sit down.’ He said, ‘I don’t have time.’ I said, ‘I’m not kidding.’ So, I sent him the ticket and he came. So, we sat down and he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I’d given up all my dreams. I’d given up all my hope. ‘ So, we sat down and I said’ Look, I want to just pick up from where you left off and we just got in there and we made two fabulous records. The first one was FIRE ON ICE and the second one was TURN YOU TO LOVE.
David: Okay. Let’s pause for a moment because I want to actually play a track from the Terry Callier album you mentioned TURN YOU TO LOVE, and of course we recently unfortunately, Terry passed away this year, as I assume you know that. So, it was a very sad passing for people because one of the things that was amazing is that he did build up, later in his career, a really strong following amongst jazz and soul fans in the U.K. So, he’s always.
Don: David, I took him to Europe for the first time.
David: Oh, you did? I didn’t know that.
Don: Yeah, in 1979. I had an Elektra Jazz Fusion night at Montreux. I had Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lee Ritenour, Grover Washington, and Terry Callier, and Hermeto Pascoal from Brazil. I took the whole crew to London. We played Hammersmth, I believe. Then, we went to Paris. We played there, and then we went to Montreux. I took Terry up in the Swiss Alps. I rented a BMW, and we went over to Lausanne and we went to this place called the hotel Girarde, which at that time was supposed to be the best restaurant in the world. It was a five-star Michelin, and of course Claude Nobs at Montreux had the hook up. He was representing the country. He calls the chef and tells them to take care of us. Terry and I go zooming through the Swiss Alps. We have a twelve-course lunch courtesy of the chef, and then we go back and we have a fantastic night that night, doing the show. Terry and I were soul mates really.
David: Let’s play a track from that album, TURN YOU TO LOVE, and I believe the one that you’ve chosen is “African Violet”, correct? [Editor’s note: the track “African Violet” is on Terry Callier’s album FIRE ON ICE]
Don: Yes. Part of me has always been a Gil Scott-Heron-oriented, politically minded and Terry could do great love songs, with the greatest delicacy, but he also had kind of a strident indignation that I was drawn to in terms of injustice. This song captures that part of Terry’s artistic groove.
David: Okay. Well, here it is. Here is “African Violet”, Terry Collier, from the classic album, I would really consider it now a classic album, TURN YOU TO LOVE [see note above]
[AFRICAN VIOLET by TERRY CALLIER]
David: I think what’s most important, as you’re sharing your journey with us, Don, is that I think - as you were mentioning – the artists that you were responsible for, when I look back at that time period, that was very, very crucial. The artists you’re mentioning, and that whole movement at EleKtra, and I remember. I remember it. Now, that we’re talking, I actually know that you and I definitely interacted with each other during that time period…
Don: I think so, David. I definitely think so because I feel like I’ve known you longer then since ’84. I really do.
David: Absolutely. During that time period, in fact I will go back to when you were working at A&M because I remember interviewing Letta Mbulu on the A&M lot!
Don: Yes, I was working with Letta and Herb right there.
David: So, we probably met there initially, but certainly during your Elektra years when we definitely would have interacted. I want to say, the important thing to reference here is that you, the work you were doing, with Elektra was really groundbreaking. You mentioned the artists you just did. For anyone who studied this period of black music, they know that having Donald Byrd, having Grover Washington Jr., having Dee Dee Bridgewater, having Lee Ritnour, having Terry Callier, all on a label, one label, Patrice Rushen, this is a really, really important time in the development of black music and the development of soul and jazz. So…of course we’re not going to gloss over it, but I just want to highlight the important role that you played in signing these artists because the story you just told about Terry Callier is classic, really. But, each of those artists in different ways, were at different places in their careers, but certainly I would say that the work you did with Terry and Dee Dee Bridgewater, bringing them to the fore, in the area of black music, popular black music, that’s how I would say it.
Don: David, let’s don’t forget Lenny White with Marcus Miller.
Don: THE ADVENTURES OF THE ASTRAL PIRATES was a really pioneering jazz rock fusion album. I’m very proud of that [even though] everybody thought was a little bit too hard rocking and a little bit too funky and a little bit too far out, but now they’re calling it a classic album and that band was incredible. If I would have overlooked Lenny – he played on “Bitch’s Brew” when he was seventeen and he was in “Return to Forever” with Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea so Lenny’s got serious credentials, and that band was a monster. I know they weren’t the blackest band that you could imagine, but they went on to do some funky stuff, like “Peanut Butter” and this and that later.
David: Absolutely. So, tell us a little bit about how Dee Dee Bridgewater became a part of your stable of artists at Elektra.
Don: I don’t want to get sidetracked too much, but some of these stories are pretty interesting and I have to backtrack a little bit. I got a fellowship from Chase Manhattan bank in the summer of ’71, and what they can do, they picked a certain outstanding college student, and said, ‘You can go and work somewhere in New York City anywhere you want, at some agency, and Chase will pay for it,’ and we have to meet once a week at the bank and say what we did. So, you could go work for a poverty agency or for some elected official, or you could go to work for the New York Public Library. You could go work for the Bridge Authority, whatever you wanted to do. Find some place and go be of service, and Chase will pay for it. So, they would do this when corporations were trying to be more do-gooders than they are now. So, most of the people I knew were going to work for poverty agencies or some health clinic or whatever, but I found that there was this organization called jazz mobile that had just started. I was like ‘Holy shit!’ The Jazz Mobile. Doctor Billy Taylor had started this – they had opened up an office on 125th street over the YMCA, and I had rented a summer place with my college friends at 104th and Central Park West, so I had a bicycle. So, I decided I would go up and try to go work for Jazz Mobile, which nobody was even thinking about amongst the twelve people that were picked. I went up there, and I had my ten-speed. This was the era of hot pants, and I’m in my short pants, and my sandals and my dashiki and my big afro and my aviator sun glasses. I’m the coolest guy in the world. At that time, nobody had a ten- or twelve-speed racing bike in Harlem. So, I take the bike and I put it on my shoulder and go walking up the stairs, it’s two flights of stairs. When I got to the top of the stairs, there’s this gorgeous babe sitting there at the reception desk and she goes, ‘May I help you?’ I go, ‘Well, I came to work for Jazz Mobile.’ She said, ‘Well, we don’t have any money to pay a salary.’ I said, ‘Well, you don’t need any. I’m just going to help you. ‘
She’s like, ‘Excuse me?’ I go, yeah, I just want to help. She’s like, ‘Well, what’s your name?’ I said, ‘Don Mizell.’ She said, ‘My name is Dee Dee. I’m Dee Dee Bridgewater.’ So, that’s how I met her. She’s married to this trumpet player named Cecil Bridgewater, and she’s just started out singing Monday nights at the Village Vanguard for the Thad Lewis Big Band. Dr. Billy Taylor is over there, and Dee Dee’s the receptionist. She says, ‘Well what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Well what do you need?’ She said, ‘Well, we put these concerts on all over New York, every day at different places, and we need somebody to call the police and make sure they come. They call the fire department and make sure the water hydrants, and then we have the flatbed truck we have to get the musicians there at a certain point in time. They get on the flatbed and we drive in and block off the block and everybody in the tenements can hang out of their windows or down on the stoop and by the fire hydrant and we can play. Our first concert is going to be Charlie Maynard.’ I was like, ‘What?’ So, I roll up my sleeve, and I went in there. I got on the phone and I started doing stuff that I do to help get shows going, and that’s how I met Dee Dee. Then I went down to the Village Vanguard because I was hitting all the jazz spots at night. Miles was playing a lot. Tony Williams’ band, John McLaughlin from England who has started Mahavishnu Orchestra was still playing with Miles. I was all over New York every night. I was like twenty years old.
I go in there and Dee Dee is doing this old fashioned jazz, which I wasn’t into. I was into fusion, but she was doing Thad Jones big band music. She was killing it. We were the same age. So, okay, fast forward to Elektra. So, now I’ve suddenly got this label situation and the question is ‘Well, who is going to be the girl singer that I want to get?’ Well, guess who I was thinking about? David, when I got the chance, and got my hands on all the knobs, what I did was went and dug out the artists that I already loved who were from my generation that people did not know about. I wanted to give my people, my generation a voice in jazz in a contemporary way, and Dee Dee was right there. She had married Gil Moses, who was a big Broadway director at that point and they had moved to LA to try to get him into movies and she was doing some acting and this and that. So, I signed her. We made two albums. I went and found this guy named Stanley Clarke, and gave him his first producing gig that he ever had. We made a record called JUST FAMILY. On that album, we had a keyboard player named George Duke, who had been playing with Frank Zappa, and was from the Bay Area. Stanley and George met, they clicked, and we made a very cool record. We had Dee Dee on the cover; she was nude and pregnant in the desert… before Demi Moore. Everybody was like, ‘This is crazy! What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, what am I doing, man?’ They’re like, ‘She’s naked!’ I’m like, ‘Look, it’s a silhouette; she’s pregnant. It’s art.’
The next album that Dee Dee made… Stanley got really busy and hot,… so we got George Duke to do her second album, producing, that was George’s first album producing someone other than himself. That was called BAD FOR ME. As you know, David, at that point disco had taken over. Dee Dee had thought that she wanted to be a diva in the disco queen sweepstakes. I wasn’t going to get in the way of that because I knew she could do it. George, he was doing his funky piano thing, and so we made a record that was really her entry into the disco queen sweepstakes. It was called BAD FOR ME.
David: Okay, do you want to play the title track from there?
Don: If you want to. Whatever you want to play, I’m good. That’s the story of Dee Dee and I. Just to show that I covered a lot of different types of black music, which you can say is soul music, a lot of it has a jazz connection, but it’s really not straight ahead jazz per se. That’s why I came up with the concept of calling it jazz fusion as opposed to jazz rock or jazz rock fusion or fusion jazz, or whatever. Jazz fusion was my way of trying to incorporate the spirit of jazz into these other musics, African, reggae, whatever, soul, in a way that kind of made it clear that I wasn’t saying this was traditional jazz, but at the same time it wasn’t necessarily straight on R&B.
David: Alright, well let’s play “Bad for Me” because that sounds like the most logical thing to play right now. This is Dee Dee Bridgewater, produced by George Duke, on Elektra. Actually, was it called Elektra Jazz Fusion, am I correct?
Don: Yes, sir. I came up with the Jazz Fusion logo, so we were a separate operation, but it was on Elektra.
David: Alright. Well, let’s play that right now. Here it is.
[BAD FOR ME by DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER]
David: Alright, so I’ve got one more Elektra-related release actually that we have listed as one of the songs that’s going to keep continuing to tell your journey. That is Grover Washington Jr. So, would you like to share with us a little bit about the background for your choice of that particular track.
Don: Yes. As a matter of fact, David, let me just say that Dee Dee went on, as you know David, to become the preeminent, if not the preeminent, one of the most preeminent straight ahead jazz singers of our time since that period, and has won several Grammys and enjoys accolades at the highest level with Diana Krall and Dianne Reeves as the very best jazz singers of our time, our generation, and I’m very proud that I was able to be a part of her evolution and her legacy. I just wanted to say that about Dee Dee, and she’s just a wonderful person also.
Now, as far as Grover, Grover had been making these great albums with MISTER MAGIC at CTI, and I needed a big marquee name, and we gave him a lot of money and the first record he made was something where he just really didn’t want to keep making formula records. I didn’t pressure him to do anything different than what he wanted to do, and he made a violin record with this violinist, and everybody thought I was crazy. ‘What are you doing?’ But, after that, I was like ‘Grover, can we make a Grover Washington record now?’ And he was like, ‘Yes.’ And he gets Bill Withers and they do “Just The Two of Us”, and it becomes the biggest record of his career, and a classic R&B song for forever. That was on the WINELIGHT album.
David: Alright, let’s play that now. This is from, of course the classic – I think known the world over – “Just The Two of Us”, Grover Washington Jr. with Bill Withers, from the album WINELIGHT.
[JUST THE TWO OF US by GROVER WASHINGTON JR. featuring BILL WITHERS]
David: Okay, that was Grover Washington Jr. of course with Bill Withers on vocals, “Just The Two of Us”, from the album WINELIGHT. Alright, so let’s continue on with your journey. So, you’re at Elektra. You’ve got all these great, you’re really masterminding, supervising, working with all these incredible artists. What’s the next thing that happens?
Don: Well, I got drowned by the disco tsunami. I’m trying to get in there with Dee Dee and a couple of other people, like a group called Five Special and these cats Wilson and Deck who had been in the The Ohio Players. I just was a day late and a dollar short. I got washed ashore by the disco tsunami in 1980 and wondering what hit me. I had all these great artists and these albums, and this and that, and all of a sudden, nothing was really happening. So, I got bounced to the curb. Right after that, all of our records hit. I had four records in the top ten in R&B, in jazz, and by that time the [Recording] Academy had decided that they would create a jazz fusion Grammy. They said,’ Look, you came up with the term, would you sit on the first committee?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Sure. So, I created a jazz fusion – that was the term for my imprint, but I marketed it so effectively, David, that it became a generic term. Then, they adopted it as a Grammy category. So, I’m very proud of that.
So, while I was getting honored with a Grammy category, I was getting kicked to the curb at the same time. That’s the record business. It’s totally wild. So, there I am, I’m sitting there on the shores of my crashed dreams, and I’m wondering, so now what?
Dr. Don Mizell's website is:
He recently completed co-producing new albums by Kevin Toney ("New American Suite") and Azar Lawrence ("Mystic Journey")
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.