The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma
by Ben Sidran
Nardis Books, Unlimited Media Ltd
Here’s a classic “rags to riches” story set in the post-war Rock and Roll boom. Tommy LiPuma grew up in Cleveland’s tough Sicilian goomba neighborhoods. He spent much of his childhood in the hospital and initially took up his father’s trade of barbering. Cleveland had a recording scene in the ’50s, and Tommy cut the hair of the producers and promoters. That led to a job packing records, and then selling them. His father was aghast when Tommy left home, moved to L.A., and abandoned the family trade, but it was a brilliant move. He soon met Leon Russell, also new to town. Right time, right place, right personalities.
His career was launched, and Tommy had one foot in the tough street scene and one in the studio, but his biggest asset was the gift of gab. Now we read about the good stuff: the undoubtedly redacted tales of sex. drugs, and the power of promotion in the L.A. music scene. Tommy discovered, or at least made famous, dozens, including Dave Mason, George Benson, and Dan Hicks, and went on to win a shelf full of awards.
All standard stuff, but storytelling style here grabs you and keeps you grabbed. The Sicilian toughness and native entrepreneurship made America great for them even if it wasn’t all legal. As we read, we learn what a producer does, exactly: He does everything needed to make the record happen, except sing and play himself. That includes booking studio time, hiring session players, mixing, pressing, and promoting. He learned the hard way, by jumping in with no formal or even informal training, and ended up with six pages of successful songs by artists from Jazz to power pop.
Along the way, stories reveal the inner workings of the L.A. scene, from the bars on Sunset to the mansions above Beverly Hills. My favorite is how Lenny Bruce accidentally fell naked from his hotel room and survived. It was a wild ride, and not everyone survived the drugs and fast living. This biography shows a classic slice of American musical history, written in a breezy style with multitudes of short-but-fascinating tales of art, excess, and the cream of stardom.
It’s a great read for the beach or your mandatory quarantine.
The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma: bensidran.com/project/nardisbooks