Don Was Is Happy Feeling Blue

In an exclusive interview, GRAMMY-winning producer shares what he hopes to accomplish as president and chief creative officer of Blue Note Records
  • Photo: Gabi Porter
    Don Was
November 14, 2012 -- 2:34 pm PST
By J. Poet /

When Don Was, co-founder of the Detroit funk/pop band Was (Not Was), was offered the position of president and chief creative officer at Blue Note Records, he was as surprised as anyone.

"I was in New York [producing] a John Mayer record and had breakfast with Dan McCarroll, president of Capitol [& Virgin Label] Group, who is an old friend," recalls Was. "I'd just seen [jazz singer] Greg Porter, one of the best singers I'd seen in a decade. As we're paying the check, I suggested that if Blue Note was part of Capitol, he should sign him. By the time we were out the door, I was weighing the possibility of working at Blue Note. It was an irresistible offer, like someone asking you to play bass with the Rolling Stones."

Was' impressive résumé is extensive, including actually playing bass with the Rolling Stones, as well as helping produce Stones albums such as Voodoo Lounge, Stripped and Bridges To Babylon. Was started producing albums during his days with Was (Not Was), but his production on albums such as Bonnie Raitt's GRAMMY-winning Nick Of Time and the B-52's Cosmic Thing established him as a true icon. Was has gone on to collaborate with Al Green, Bob Seger, B.B. King, Richie Sambora, and a growing roster of country, rock, blues, jazz, and pop artists. He won the prestigious Producer Of The Year GRAMMY in 1994, and more recently he picked up honors for Best Musical Album For Children for Family Time in 2009.

Was will participate in a keynote question-and-answer session at Billboard's FutureSound conference Nov. 15–16 in San Francisco, speaking on topics such as app development and other relevant issues related to music and technology. In an exclusive interview, Was spoke about the origin of the name Was (Not Was), his exposure to Blue Note Records' music growing up and what he hopes to accomplish with the venerable label.

Do you remember the first music that inspired you and made you want to play music yourself?
I was playing records ever since I can remember. Van Morrison just put out an album called Born To Sing: No Plan B. That's me too. I never considered another calling. My dad gave me a [$5] guitar and showed me D, G and A [chords] when I was 8, and I never put it down. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and saw the girls screaming and was dumb enough to think I could replicate that experience. Some people back up their [music] career with a practical job, some fly by the seat of their pants and make it work. I was one of the latter.

Was the sound of Blue Note albums a formative experience for you as a musician?
I loved the look of the albums, the sound of the music [and] the photos on the covers. I wanted to be in that recording studio full of shadows and no walls where I imagined those records were cut. When I was 16, I got Ornette Coleman's At The Golden Circle Stockholm. I had my mother get me a trench coat and top hat so I could look like him and be cool. Dave [Was] and I lived in the suburbs, but we'd take a bus into Detroit to look at new Blue Note albums. We couldn't afford to buy 'em; we'd just stand around the record store and hold 'em in our hands.

Can you do anything at Blue Note that they haven't done before?
We're not remaking '60s jazz in perpetuity here. We already have the finest catalogue of that music ever assembled. [Recently] I was in London and the iTunes Festival had a night of new Blue Note music, headlined by the Robert Glasper Experiment. His music isn't just some wild mutation of hip-hop, neo soul and jazz. It is jazz. The Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver and Art Blakey were pretty funky. It was radical music at one time and became part of the Blue Note tradition. The fact that iTunes was willing to go out on a limb for us is an affirmation that we're going in the right direction.

Are you involved in the remastering process of Blue Note's back catalogue?
Intimately involved. You can't editorialize or change the sound of the records. If you listen to Rudy Van Gelder's masters, they sound different than the records. He did compression and EQ [aimed at] vinyl records that gave them a singular clarity and power that became part of the Blue Note sound, but you can't just transfer the original tapes. It's not what anyone intended. We have the original vinyl pressings for every Blue Note record that got the feeling right [and use that as a template]. From an audio standpoint, there is beauty in limitation. There are no meters that measure feel. We added liner notes to explain why the music is still imperfect 50 years after the fact. We're trying to release things that show breadth of the catalogue, [such as] Out To Lunch! by Eric Dolphy and Larry Young's Unity, an album that redefined the approach to the organ as a jazz instrument.

You were the musical director at the 2009 MusiCares Person of the Year gala honoring Neil Diamond. Would you be open to doing that again?
I did it the year they honored Neil Diamond and the year they honored Neil Young. If they get another Neil, I'll show up again. There's a tremendous energy around that concert. [MusiCares raises] a lot of money for indigent musicians. They've helped people that turned around and helped me, so I owe them a debt.

How did you come up with Was (Not Was) for your band name?
My son Tony, who is now 34, was 3 years old and discovered the theory of reversibility and the concept of opposites. He'd paint a red picture and say it's blue. If you'd look at him and say, "It's red,' he'd say, "Blue," pause a beat and say, "Not blue." We added a verb and some bohemian punctuation to his pronouncement and had a name that asks more questions than it can possibly answer. A record label guy told us it was a terrible name that no one would remember. We thought, if you do remember it, you can never forget it.

Are you still writing Was (Not Was) songs? 
Dave and I are working on a couple right now. You go through periods when things wax and wane. When you bleed for a good song, you have to go inside and dig deep to get it. If you're a boxer, you have to go 12 rounds. It's the same in music. I was a boxer for a while, and if you can go more than two rounds, it's amazing. We're still in the ring. 

(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)

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