Continuing his fascinating journey in the world of music and entertainment, Dr. Don Mizell shares about running KJLH, working with Stevie Wonder, Disney, Sebastian The Crab, Ray Charles and fulfilling a life-long dream with his own music project...
Phone interview recorded December 17, 2012
Don: So, there I am, I’m sitting there on the shores of my crashed dreams, and I’m wondering, so now what? And then, somebody who I had helped put together some concerts with Kareem Abdul JabBar at the Dorothy Chandler Music Hall, a radio station guy named Rod McGrew. I had backed Rod during Elektra night, and he had a night at the Dorothy Chandler Music Hall when he was running KJLH. So, Rod calls me and he’s like, ‘What are you doing, man?’ And I said, ‘Well, not a whole lot, but I wouldn’t mind having a talk show on Sunday night on your radio station. Rod, have you got any slots?’ He said, ‘How would you like to run the station?’ I go, ‘Well, I don’t really know anything about it. I had a radio show at Harvard, but I don’t really know.’
He said, ‘Well, it’s a piece of cake, believe me.’ He says, ‘I’ve been doing it and Barry White wants me to come and run his label, and Stevie Wonder just bought the station and he won’t let me leave unless I find somebody to replace me, and I’ve been looking for six months. I couldn’t find somebody who really knew the record business and could relate to Stevie and who can handle this, and I know you can do it easily, Don. Why don’t I arrange that you can talk to Stevie. I said, ‘Okay,’ because I didn’t have anything to do. This is 1980. This is January. So, he set up a meeting with Stevie two days later, and I went in and Stevie was an hour-and-a-half late. Just when I was leaving, he came in. He says, ‘Don, what’s your sign?’ And I go, ‘Taurus.’ He said, ‘Okay, you’ve got the job!’
David: You’re kidding!
Don: No, I’m not kidding. So, I go in there, and we talked for an-hour-and-a- half and that was it. He was like, ‘Well, can you start Monday?’ This was like Thursday or something. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Boom. So there I am. I’m suddenly in charge of KJLH Out of the blue. And Rod is like, ‘Thank God. Now I can go get with Barry White,’ who was really hot right then, because [Rod said], ‘I want to get in the record business and you can handle this until you and Stevie start his label later.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’
I was living in Hollywood Hills, David, and now I’m going down to Crenshaw Boulevard. I’m running a radio station and I have no idea what I’m doing, but I do know one thing. I know music. I know what kind of music I want to play and I know what kind of format - I basically want to take the format I’ve been working with from like, black music from around the world with really hip rock/pop artists blended in with rhythm as the key. Highly intelligent music, very sophisticated, very smooth, conscious music and DJs that don’t talk a lot but they speak well, and they are knowledgeable and they have latitude. So, bam, we get in there and I come up with ‘Survival In The ‘80s,’ radio vision, all of these cutting-dge concepts, trying to reflect what Stevie’s inner vision thought was. We explode in the market and we go from last place to first in the Southern black-oriented competitive stations without any teenagers at all. I was strictly interested in the adults. We became on the cutting-edge of all the hipsters, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Malibu, Santa Monica. Everybody came to KJLH and we’re popping, and here comes the Los Angeles Times. I’d do these concerts featuring Black Uhuru and all these progressive artists and bring reggae to the forefront of black radio at a time when it really was pretty much a white audience. A lot of things in that way, and Stevie and I hit it off very well. He asked me to come and sit with him sometime in the studio while he’s working on his next album - he hadn’t made an album since SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS, which was just a soundtrack for a movie. So, this was going to be the first album he has out in about six years. I go in there and I help him. I encourage him to put some reggae in there. He had already done “Boogie On Reggae Woman”, and some other things. I didn’t really produce it or anything like that, but he bounced a lot of things, and ideas, and basically, he gave me an acknowledgment on the record called HOTTER THAN JULY and that’s the album that featured the song dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King called “Happy Birthday”.
David: Absolutely. Well, let’s play that because of course that is now an anthem that is heard throughout the world, and anyone who is going to be listening to this will know it. So, here it is.
Don: That was part of a campaign that Stevie wanted to get going to create Martin Luther King national holiday, and so he used the radio station to galvanize the black community in LA and then the California legislature to get legislation passed that would make that a state holiday, and Stevie had me working with him to help mastermind the strategy of the campaign to create this birthday as a national holiday. I served as his speech writer for the campaign, in particular the first one in Washington D.C. on King’s birthday in the middle of winter, where we had like a couple hundred thousand people show up. Gil Scott-Heron ran the show, Diana Ross came. This is where Stevie premiered “Happy Birthday”. That’s when the whole audience just freaked out. I later received the first NAACP image award for “Community Service By A Broadcaster” for my work in helping Stevie get the Martin Luther King birthday made into the first National holiday recognizing an African- American in African-American history. So, I’m very proud of it, and that’s why I picked this track. I didn’t write it. I didn’t inspire it, but I have a real sense of affinity with the sentiment and I had a role in what happened with it.
David: Which is really, really important. So, let’s play that. Here’s “Happy Birthday” – I was going to play it a few moments ago, but I’m glad you stopped me because that part of the story is really critical and important, and it’s important for people to know your contribution to having that happen because of course now it is a national holiday in the United States and recognized throughout the world for Martin Luther King’s birthday on January 15th. So, here is “Happy Birthday” from the album HOTTER THAN JULY from 1980.
Don: Great track
[HAPPY BIRTHDAY by STEVIE WONDER]
David: Stevie Wonder with the classic anthem “Happy Birthday” dedicated and written in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and from the album HOTTER THAN JULY from 1980. So, here we are. Here you are. You’re in Los Angeles. You’re running KJLH, a radio station that anyone who lived in Los Angeles in that time period would know absolutely very well. So, what’s the next step in your journey?
Don: Well, here’s the funny thing. Terry Callier had a song called “Martin St. Martin” that he dedicated to Martin Luther King’s memory on the TURN YOU TO LOVE album that was two years ahead of Stevie’s song, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m supposed to be connected to Martin Luther King because Terry’s is completely different – It’s like a Gregorian chant almost, and I just wanted to draw that connection there because it’s a really gorgeous record. If people have a chance to dig it out and listen to it, they’ll see what I mean. So, I’m in LA. It’s popping. People say that that’s the golden ear of black radio. It was at the apex of its’ power and relevance in the community, and we certainly were setting the pace and on the cutting edge playing a broad diversity of music that was really special, and doing some really progressive things.
I was very conscious about bringing music from England, from even Paris, from Africa, from Jamaica, from Brazil, and Cuba, and creating a kind of world sound along with the best of black music at that time, and I just think the music was sensational all around in that period. [With] Stevie, at a certain point, I thought we were going to start a record company, but he didn’t get around to it and I decided that I would take some time off in 1984. That’s when I met you [again]. I wanted to figure out how could I get closer to music if I could, or writing, or something. I wasn’t trying to stay in radio forever. I respected radio a great deal, and I knew the power of radio, but I really wanted to get closer to making music if I could on some level. I could be a DJ, I do a show on KJLH on Sunday afternoon called “Afro Centric” which was picking up on the show that I had in Cambridge when I was at Harvard, and it was highly rated, had a great following…
But there’s [another] part of me – I got married at the end of ’83. So, I took some time off and went to Mexico and I started writing screenplays and then I came back and I met you [again] at that point when I was doing some things with Sidney Miller, the publisher of Black Radio Exclusive, which was the top radio-oriented trade publication at that time. I was filling in for Frankie Crocker on Sidney’s weekly national syndicated radio show called “Hollywood Live” and writing for his magazine and doing different things and trying to find talent that I was interested in working with. People kept wanting to pay me for being a lawyer, but nobody wanted to pay me to be a producer. That was a problem. Nobody every wanted me to be a producer. Everybody was always sending me back to being a lawyer. To go to law school, and then go back, ‘Hey, what are you doing over here? Are you crazy?’ I got Morris Day and DeBarge and a number of artists that were big, but as a lawyer. There’s a part of me that was creative, but nobody was willing to pay me to do that. So, at some point here, you’ve got to understand, David, this bug I was bitten by, nobody was ever trying to get me to do it, but everybody was always trying to put me in the lawyer straight jacket and box.
I kept going in there and jumping back out as quickly as I could. Over time, I’m weaving in and out of this. I went to law school really to fall back on that. That’s exactly what I did over the course of the years, and then I stumbled into Michael Eisner, who has taken over Disney and again, they said, ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with you, but why don’t you come in.’ I wanted to get into the studio, the motion picture side. They wouldn’t let me. They told me to consult with the Walt Disney Records, which had been kind of dormant. I went in there and I basically wrote up this paper encouraging Disney to go into pop music directly, and also they were starting out with re-upping their animated films, and they were going to be using pop music more. So, we got [inaudible] from Broadway and put together these songs with the first animated musical type movie, like Snow White or Cinderella, one of those from the ‘50s, and it was called The Little Mermaid.
So, they asked me to develop a marketing plan for The Little Mermaid, the pop music part of it, which I did and it went platinum, double platinum, and then it won the Grammy, Oscar, this and that. It was huge. It launched the golden age of Disney animation. From there you had a string of hits, there’s Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas… and the other, The Lion King. There was a string of them, but The Little Mermaid started it, and I was in a key element in the marketing of “Under the Sea”, which was the song by the crab called Sebastian. He stole the movie from the mermaid. He was a little black Jamaican Rastafarian crab in the movie. “Under the Sea” became the big big record.
So, I went to Disney and said, ‘After that, why don’t you let me produce the sequel to The Little Mermaid an album on Sebastian?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, but he’s a secondary character,’ and for Disney, they don’t make records on black artists; it’s the mermaid. I was like, ‘Yeah, but the mermaid can be on this record. They’re friends. Why don’t you let me go to Jamaica and make an authentic record? Not one of these Hollywood studio records. I can go get Third World and reggae bands, and get some authentic records from Bob Marley and Arrow and Jimmy Cliff and Harry Belafonte and all these people and do something that’s truly authentic to the history of Caribbean culture, and have the crab be from Jamaica. Do the stuff with them, and I’ll create a story line that we can have that will kind of tap into, and pick up where The Little Mermaid movie left off, and it will have a great record and it won’t cost a lot of money. ‘
They’re like, yeah, ‘But we don’t have a movie that goes with it.’ [I said], ‘We don’t need a movie. Why don’t you just let me do it?’ Well, Disney doesn’t do it like that. ‘Well, why don’t you just let me do it anyway? I know how to do it.’ They were like, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘Come on, man. Just give me the money. ‘So, they said, ‘Okay.’ So, they gave me $35,000 and I went to Jamaica and I rented this house next to Donna Summer and Keith Richards, and then I went and had somebody hook me up to Third World, went to Kingston, and I met with them and I said, ‘Look, I have a chance to bring reggae music to the children of the world through Disney.
What I want to do is a record that honors the real authentic history of the culture through the great music, and I know you all love music, and you can have a couple of your songs on it, and look, I’ll just give you the money, $25,000 upfront, and just come to Ochi, I have a big band, pool, everything. Just park here for two weeks and just cut the tracks, and then leave. Here’s all the money, cash.’ They were like, ‘You’re kidding?’ So, they took it. I said, ‘Now look, if you mess this up, that means you weren’t serious about bringing reggae music to the children of the world. Therefore, you’re full of shit if you don’t do it. I’m not going to look over your shoulder, and I’m certainly not going to tell you how to make the music. I know the songs I want, and you can add the other ones that I’m not thinking about. I just want you to cut the tracks and leave, and then I’m going to have the crab come in after you leave, and then I’m going to produce his vocals on the tracks.’
They said ‘Cool, man.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m not even going to be there. I’m going to go over to Negril for two weeks. When I come back, I want you to be finished.’ I came back in about eight days, and they were already finished. It was unbelievable. So then I called the crab from New York, and I said Sam, ‘Come on down.’ He came down and we cut the tracks and then I wrote two songs also that I added and Third World had thee and then we did two Bob Marley’s, two Jimmy Cliff, Harry Belafonte, a couple of Arrow tracks, and we put together this record called Sebastian, which was a sequel to The Little Mermaid, which the New York Times called the greatest children’s album ever made at that time, and so now Disney, they have a habit of not keeping things out in the market forever. They pull things from the market periodically and then they blast them out later.
But, the song I wrote was the one that featured The Little Mermaid. The storyline was the crab was missing her. She ran off with the king, the prince. He decides to throw a party for her, and they rehearse with the band. They have a party, and she shows up and she joins him on the mic and she does the song, and then everybody gets all groovy and then they all boogie on down until the party’s over. Okay, so she performs the song I wrote, which has shown up in all of the compilations featuring The Little Mermaid in her integrations since then as one of the best songs. It’s not in the movie. It’s called “Dance the Day Away”, but the crab songs that he did were like “Three Little Birds” and “Don’t Worry About A Thing” and “You Can Get it if You Really Want it” and this and that and the other. It’s one hell of a record, David. So, that was why I listed Sebastian as one of the songs that had a real significant role for me because this was at a time when I had my first child, and I was doing a lot of this Disney stuff because I was a new dad, I had a young kid, and I was the coolest guy in the world because I was like making records with Disney and taking her through the VIP entrance at Disney World. She was like, ‘Dad! You’re so cool! She’s like four- years old. So, it was special for me because a lot of it had to do with me just wanting my daughter to really be plugged in to my daughter’s experiences at that point in a way that reflected also a lot of where I was at.
So, the storyline though of Sebastian. The crab was trying to convey values to the children about how they could live and how they should handle things, and to go through their day. So, ‘you can get it if you really want.’ All these things had some kind of a moral compass in them. I was trying to bring a certain consciousness that was consistent with Stevie’s type of artistry and Bob Marley’s and so forth because that’s of course a reflection in why I was even interested in those artists in the first place.
David: Okay. Gotcha. Well, let’s continue on. I’m going to see if I can find that track. I am looking online. I have not been able to find it. What was the name of the song again that you wrote?
Don: Oh, I wouldn’t want to play that one because it’s not that great, comparatively. I would rather play “Three Little Birds” or “You Can Get it if You Really Want” because that’s Bob Marley stuff. That’s Third World. My song’s called “Dance the Day Away”, but that’s the mermaid. I’m just trying to give you some real insight into my connection to Disney and the little hand I had in the little period which launched what they called the golden age of Disney animation, until Pixar knocked them off with Toy Story, and ever since then, these animated movies are now computer- generated, and they’re not music-driven anymore.
But, during that period, they were music-driven and basically based off of Broadway musical concepts, although Sebastian was really going through the Caribbean, cutting the record with only Jamaican musicians, playing the music that they grew up with and love, so it had a level of authenticity that I was really proud of. And, of course, David, you could see how that connects back to me going to Africa, twenty years earlier to find African basics, so much of the music. In some ways, to me, it harkens back and it had a special feeling because through everything that I had learned and done twenty years before now in the context of the Disney marketing juggernaut, and I thought that was kind of cool.
David: Alright. So, in the remaining time we have, we want to go on to a very important chapter in your life, and then moving on to the present day. That chapter involves, I guess one of the most important musical figures of our lifetime, and someone who in many ways was responsible for bringing the word ‘soul’ into popular vernacular at least as it pertains to a certain aspect of music, and I’m referring to Ray Charles. So, tell us about how you came to be involved with the project that was I guess his final- in some ways - hurrah, although I don’t like to say it like that. In other words, the project that brought him back into prominence for millions of people all over the world. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your involvement with that?
Don: I’m very proud of that. It’s a weird story. I don’t know how much time you have. I’ve talked a lot and had a lot of digressions, but I thought that people would find it interesting – these sidebars, but listen. Sidney Miller, our friend and publisher at BRE, he had all these records. He happened to have a box set from Rhino Records of Ray Charles’ music. This was around 1998. I went in the office and I got a hold of it. I was like, ‘Sidney, let me borrow it.’ So, he let me borrow it and I went through it. I had always liked Ray Charles. My father and my mother were big fans. Ray Charles, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, this was everywhere. This was deep in my bones, but as far as I knew, Ray Charles wasn’t really making any records that were album-oriented. Say, in the ‘70s when I really came into my own consciousness of the music, or even in the ‘80s, every once in a while he popped up with these commercials with Quincy and Chaka Khan, but basically Ray had fallen off the map as far as I could tell. I was like, ‘Oh my god, Ray Charles is the man. You have all this country music, and I realized that he was not only a big star, but David, he was maybe the most important seminal figure in pop music history from 1950 on. Consider that number one, he’s one of the seminal creators of R&B, which is the father of rock and roll music, number one. Number two, he brought the electric Rhodes piano to jazz and blues in 1959 with “What’d I Say”. That was a predictor or precursor of jazz going electric in the ‘60s, which changed the whole thing. That created jazz-fusion.
Then, in 1962, he made country music with an orchestra. Nobody had ever even thought about that. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with an orchestra? That brought country music closer to the mainstream, and it’s ironic that a black R&B artist, who came out of Gospel, would be the one who had the greatest hand in bringing country music into the mainstream of American culture. How much more of a contradiction can you have than that? That set the stage for Willie Nelson and everybody. They all know that. So, that’s three powerful factors. You have the invention of soul music, which laid the foundation for rock and roll. You had the electrification of jazz. Then you have country music combining with symphonic set up to bring it into the mainstream. How much more would you have to do to be considered important? Forget how many records you’ve sold. This impact on the evolution of the genre and the music; it’s just phenomenal.
Then that voice. With all the people that copied Ray Charles’ vocal styling in rock and roll, who readily admit that they basically were inspired by Ray and they were copying Ray and they all looked up to Ray. So, I’m saying, ‘Here’s a guy people have forgotten and this is a crying shame.’ I was walking around talking to a friend of mine and he said, ‘I know Ray Charles’ son.’ He said, ‘ I think you’ve got a hell of an idea.’ I want[ed] to make a record that really acknowledges Ray before he’s out of here, because I knew he was getting up there in his years. I said, ‘Well, let me meet him.’ So, he brought him over to my house in the Hollywood Hills. We met and he said ‘Well, my father doesn’t like to be involved in music, but I’m in charge of his foundation, and if you’ll do some legal work for me on the foundation, I will set up a meeting with him for you about the music.’ This lawyer thing, David, has been a trip. I was like, ‘Here I go again. I have to be a lawyer to get in the room.’ I was trying to be creative. So, I said’ Yeah, well I want to talk to Ray first before I do that.’ He said, ‘Okay.’
Okay, so I went in there one day and Ray came in and I did my five-minute spiel. I said, ‘Ray, people don’t realize that you’re the most significant force in the creativity of pop music in these crucial genres that emerged during this time, and I think that’s a crying shame and something needs to be done about it.’ He leaned back in his chair and he said, ‘Well that’s alright.’ Then he said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I want to make a record’ and he said, ‘Well, go ahead, but they’re not going to want to do it, but don’t let it discourage you.’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding? This is going to be a piece of cake.’
But, his son was really shocked that his father responded so quickly to my concept, because he said, ‘My father never says ‘yes’ to anything that quickly.’ I said, ‘Well look, I called him everything but a child of God. So, he was shocked and he was pleased.’ So, what it was was this, I wanted Ray to make an album, and he hadn’t really been that concentrating on albums for a long time. He hadn’t been writing songs for a long time. He’d made a lot of money touring live and he would make money and take time off and really wasn’t trying to make an album and our generation, David, as you know, we grew up on albums. I wanted to make an album that was geared to the baby boomer generation, my generation. I wanted it to be homage from our generation, for the baby boomers who were the children of the people who loved Ray, but had grew up under Ray and went on into album-oriented listening. So an homage for the artists who were in a sense, Ray’s disciples over time who were deeply affected as young folks, as young artists, who copied his sound, who looked up to him, who were inspired by him, etc. Also, a valentine from Ray to the boomers.
So, an homage from the boomer artists, Ray’s disciples or his progeny – whatever you want to call them, and an homage, and a Valentine from Ray to the boomers, who he had never really addressed as an artist. What we did was, I suggested all these boomer artists, like Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, who owed a debt of gratitude, NoraH Jones, to Ray. Either I knew that they were deeply, deeply passionate about his music, or that he had inspired them, or artists who really that Ray liked a lot. People like James Taylor and so forth. So, the reason why GENIUS LOVES COMPANY worked was because it wasn’t just a salute to Ray, it was a salute to Ray and a salute from Ray. So, we started and we had picked these artists that were finally settled on where either artists that loved him or artists that he loved, built around the music he had recorded or that they had written as an inspiration from Ray’s music. That was essentially what was interesting and different about the concept.
Ray also insisted on having a few of his pals like Willie Nelson and B.B. King in the mix. Not because they were his pals, but because he wanted to get the country element. It was going to be in effect a kind of retrospective of the music territory he had covered in the course of his career. He wanted to get the blues element, and that would be B.B. and Willie. And then Johnny Mathis was another one that he just loved because you remember Ray Charles was first and foremost a Nat King Cole fan and was copying that in the beginning and it wasn’t until he got to Atlantic and Jerry Wexler I think it was, challenged him to find his own sound, but Johnny Mathis was that Nat King Cole part of Ray that he wanted to be sure was included as part of the mix.
So, the reality is this, David, I went around to nine different labels trying to pitch this album and every one of them turned me down. Finally, Concord Records came back to me and said they were interested in the record because Starbucks was interested in Ray. Starbucks had this concept where they were having these great artists put together compilations of their favorite music and it turns out that Ray Charles’ album, his compilation of what he liked that they were selling over the counter, was their number one seller of all the Starbucks fans. So, they knew that Ray Charles was big with their customers. So, when they found out that a Ray Charles record might be doable, Concord was a very small jazz label at the time, David. So, they basically were not willing to put up all the money that it would take to get all these superstars. Starbucks stepped in and made up the difference. So, that’s why the record was a joint release between Starbucks Music and Concord because the record would never have gotten made if Starbucks didn’t put up the money. Starbucks was trying to get into the music game at that point and it did make a big splash. That record made over one hundred million dollars for Concord and Concord did put that money and some additional financing and went on a buying spree, buying up all these jazz labels, like Fantasy. They bought Stax, David. They bought up a lot of these labels with the Ray Charles record money.
David: That is amazing. I didn’t know that part.
Don: Now they’re huge in the black music game. They bought up Prestige Records with all the classic jazz recordings, Riverside, Fantasy. They bought Stax, and then they went on another spree and signed all of the jazz acts that were not signed. They had been released by other major labels. So, it really put Concord on the map in a big way, sold over six million copies and it reinvented Concord Records. It’s now the Concord Music Group.
Now look, I was not the only producer. Phil Ramone, the legendary British native who is probably the greatest pop producer, along with Quincy Jones of our time was at the helm. But it was my concept. Phil was the guy who had a lot of the connections to these artists that we wanted to get, and he was also the one who was masterful at creating such a super polished sound. John Burk from Concord was in there, myself, and one other guy were the producers. My role mainly was in bringing Ray to the table in the concept of the record and then I also brought Natalie Cole to the table because I knew that Ray was a big fan of her father, Nat. That was the song, the track that I was actively involved with, the duet between Ray and Natalie on the GENIUS LOVES COMPANY album. That’s the long and the short of it.
Now, that record, David, won the Album Of The Year Grammy, which is the highest and most prestigious Grammy you can get. It’s the only Grammy where you have to have two winners: the artist and the producer. Everybody else is one winner, song or album of the year. So, it’s special, and the other thing is it was the crowning achievement, which was what I had wanted for Ray, but the problem was that he was scared. He died one month before the album came out. That was ironic for me because I accomplished what I said. Ray didn’t get to hear it. At the same time the movie came out. It was a perfect storm. When the movie came out, and this record had already hit big and caused a major splash, but when the movie came out that really kicked it to another level and it matched THRILLER, Michael Jackson’s THRILLER for the most Grammys in one year by an album, which was great.
So, it’s historic in the impact that it had on Concord Records, before and after, profound in that period since then, Starbucks got into the record industry in a big way and got out in a big way, almost immediately, and Ray Charles was restored to his proper place in the pantheon of really the seminal iconic artists who were pivotal in the evolution of pop music and is perhaps the most significant contributor to the evolution of the pop music genres that dominate the world today from 1950. So, I’m really proud of the success the record has had in getting Ray the attention he might not otherwise have received, at least in the eyes of the public, even though Ray didn’t get a chance to see it. He knew it was coming. He was sick, David, the whole time, and those artists propped him up emotionally because he was on his sickbed trying to finish this record, and he finished it and you can hear he wasn’t at his best. He wasn’t as strong and vigorous, but he finished, and I thought this is a pro. This is like the fighter who gets up off the canvas and finishes even though he’s punch drunk. Ray Charles is a great, great artist. Those artists that were on the record, and there were many more artists that wanted to be on the record, but Ray had the final say so, and my role pretty much just to stay out of Phil Ramone’s way.
David: Alright, well let’s back track from there, and I think the one that you are zeroing in on, and understandably from everything that you’ve just said, is Ray Charles with Natalie Cole on the Little Willie John classic, “Fever”.
David: So, here it is, from GENIUS LOVES COMPANY.
Don: And Natalie is smoking.
[FEVER by RAY CHARLES & NATALIE COLE]
David: Alright, well, I think we’re winding to our very end now. So, just give us an update from that time of working on that project with Ray Charles, the late great Ray Charles to now. So, what have you been doing in recent times?
Don: After the Ray Charles success, I moved to South Africa, to Durban, in Zululand on the Indian Ocean for a year, and started working on an African music opera on Shaka Zulu. I was developing it for a year, but then I decided I better come back. I needed to have more money than I had to carry it off, and on the way back home I stopped where I’m from, which is in South Florida, on the East Coast, and my family hijacked me and chained me to the beach and told me, why are you always going somewhere else? You haven’t been here in thirty-something years. Why don’t you stick around here? I had reached my pinnacle of my career success. I won’t be able to get any higher than the album of the year. So, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll stick around and make a contribution here.’I started working on legacy-related – all my work, David, really, it’s music, but it’s really all about legacy, about my continuing effort to make sure that African-American creative achievements are properly recognized and given the respect and awareness that they deserve. If you look at everything that I’ve done, that was my mission, that was my purpose, and those were the results I’ve been able to accomplish. I thought, ‘Well maybe I’ll try to look into that aspect of my whole motivation with the South Florida music scene from which I came.’
So, I looked around, and I started working with unknown artists who I thought had the talent to emerge on the world stage, and one of the artists who I started working closely with for a while was a young lady by the name of Nicole Henry, who has begun to really attract people’s attention as a great, great jazz singer. She’s recording an album and coming on, so look out for her. Nicole Henry, gorgeous and really, really talented, and she’s big on the continent in Europe, especially in France and Italy and Japan, and she’s really something else.
I started working on the Mizell family legacy, my family is a significant family in the history of the area for over one hundred years, and did some things with that, and giving speeches and writing articles and basically working with the young talent here. Finally, I decided, ‘So what?’ This is my last point. I decided that, ‘You know what? What I have not done yet is I haven’t made a record of my own music.’ Even though I was a signer in high school and college, I’m not a great singer, I do have great ears. I know what sounds good and I know how to get it. So, I decided to form a band and now that I’m over sixty, and I call the band Not Dead Yet.
David: I love it. I love it.
Don: I’m putting out an album at the beginning of next year featuring all of my own songs, and arranged, and lyrics, and I’m performing with the band and the album is called AMERICAN STEW. It’s a retrospective of all the pop music and soul music influences of our era interwoven in fresh ways that are not a soup or a melting pot, but a stew. So, the chunks are recognizable, but they’re in a nice stew that’s sort of blends everything into a fine framework, and I didn’t do this for money, David, and I’m not doing this because I’m such a great singer. That’s not the case. It’s just I wanted to do it before I’m sixty-four. I was thinking, I’ll be sixty-four, and I was thinking about Paul McCartney, [the song]“When I’m 64,” I’m bound to get it out before I’m sixty-four, and this will be my final solid contribution to my musical legacy, after which I’m going to turn to write my memoirs, and finish a documentary. I’ve got ten songs in the can. I’m finishing the last one. It’s a hell of a band and people are loving the music. They tell me they think it’s very strong. I’m doing it because I can, and I’m doing it just because in that way I would have covered every angle and this is a guy who everyone kept telling, ‘Don’t bother about trying to be close to music, to being creative, to producing, to writing,’ and I ignored them every step of the way and nobody ever tried to pay me to do it and I don’t know what part of me is so crazy that I just had to go ahead and do it anyway and that’s kind of what I did. It’s not like people were beating down my door saying, ‘Oh, come sing.’ It’s just a deep passion I had. I could not be taken away from the music in that way, even as I was able to use my lawyering to run companies or radio stations or manage artists. I managed Stevie Wonder for a while in the early ‘90s. I was always doing that because that’s what they were willing to pay me for, but in my heart of hearts I wanted to present the music of great artists and make sure they were properly recognized as meaningful contributors to the evolution of the genius of African- American cultural creativity.
David: Well, I don’t think we can go any further. That sounds like a last word.
Don: There you go.
David: I want to thank you on behalf of all our listeners and readers at SoulMusic.com for sharing your story with us, sharing your journey with us. It’s certainly been, and continues to be, a remarkable story and a remarkable journey, and clearly you’ve impacted and worked with many of the great, great people in our music. So, I want to thank you for that.
Don: And, David, I want to thank you for even thinking of me as being worthy of this opportunity to share some of my experiences and my insights. It’s a privilege and I’m deeply honored. I’ve enjoyed this thoroughly because I know that I’m talking to somebody who knows what I’m talking about.
David: That is true. There isn’t anybody that you’ve mentioned that I didn’t know who they were, or I haven’t worked with myself. Yeah, that was really great.
Don: Yeah, that’s why I think this was a great interview, and it was pretty good because I knew that whatever I was talking about you understood it instantly. You had your own connection to it, and therefore I could just really say it the way it really happened and I hope I wasn’t too wordy, but I was just really trying to get some really insights into how these things can go.
David: Okay, well thank you so much, again. This was for our Giving R-E-S-P-E-C-T feature at SoulMusic.com. Again, I want to thank you, Dr. Don Mizell.
Don: Thank you, David. Bye.
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.