Go West Young Man!
The Bossa Nova Hotel and “Maniac(s)”
The ‘Pope of Pop’ and Bossa Nova Hotel
Well, that Christmas turned out to be a momentous one for me indeed. This has not been an account of my personal life but rather my professional one. The events at this time of my life were significant to the path I ultimately took. As mentioned earlier I went through a divorce from my first wife Linda in the first two years at Sigma. I was able to hang on to my job even when I lost my first wife. During the years that followed while working at Sigma I met and married my second wife Geri. We were together for seven of my ten years at Sigma but interestingly my relationship with both ended at Christmas of 1983. Our marriage was “on the rocks” and I was at a very low point in terms of my own mental health as a result. Some time that late summer I even had attempted suicide. My psychologist at the time recommended that I go through the E.S.T. training that was popular at that time. Without getting into the details, I did so (while not becoming caught up in it as I had seen others had done) took from it what I thought was great ways to look at and live your life and moved on. I came away from those two weekends in early December a changed person who wanted my life to be different. I never expected it to change the way it did. Instead of finding a way to work it out with Geri I saw how futile it was to continue and I left her. In fact, I changed almost all of my life. I moved out of my home, began a new relationship with a woman who would later live with me for a while on the West Coast, planned a trip to Los Angles to see if the offers were real, left Sigma, made the trip to Los Angles (some great stories from my Los Angles time later), packed my belongings from my home with Geri into a rental truck and moved to Los Angles. Over the holidays I had moved out, in late January or early February I took the trip to Los Angles, and by April first, my birthday, I had driven to Los Angles, found a place to live, bought a car, got my new driver’s license and even had registered to vote within a week. I then set about working for Stevie Wonder and Michael Sembello as a free-lance engineer in the city of fallen angels, Los Angeles, California.
I drove across the country in a rental truck. Starting with a whole bunch of changes in my life. I left my wife. I gave her the house, one of the cars and “Goodbye and good luck.” I left my job of ten years at one of the most successful studios on earth and I drove all the way across the country. I stopped at three cool places. At least I tried to… I wanted to see the Salvador Dali museum that was in Beachwood, Ohio. I drove to the general area getting there very late at night. I wanted to see the museum first thing in the morning, and I wanted to park the truck somewhere safe and sleep in the cab. I ended up parking in a lot right behind the local police station. It cracked me up that they never noticed me until well into morning as I was pulling out to find the museum. Well, I looked and looked and in a pre-GPS world my map had taken me to the address yet no Dali museum in sight. I finally asked someone, and I was informed that the museum had just moved to St. Petersburg Florida only a month before. I felt like an idiot but years later I finally got to visit the fantastic collection of his work here in America. Well worth it! I recommended you see it anytime!
I next wanted to see the Grand Canyon. That was phenomenal, but I arrived after driving almost all night at dawn and saw a magnificent sunrise but had no time to hang and see it for much longer. I was off again, and my next stop was Las Vegas where I had never been before. I arrived early Sunday morning walked into a casino and was kind of turned off by the lack of daylight or sense of time in there, so I didn’t even stay anywhere even for breakfast. Many years later I returned with my wife Pam and came to love it there. Funny how time can change your perspective. Lastly, I crossed Death Valley. I remember thinking “I sure hope this rental truck doesn’t break down here.” I pulled up to Michael Sembello’s house and asked if I could crash on his couch in the studio for the night. Cruz said OK and offered to let me stay in the house, but I insisted that I stay in the studio and the next day set off to get established in Los Angeles.
Stevie always called Los Angeles “LA LA Land”. I had come out in late February early March for a week or so to make sure that I was doing the right thing. I wanted to be sure both of them were serious about the work that they had offered. I had an interesting visit. I flew in, rented a car and stayed in a cheap motel to save money. I was invited to come with Michael to a session or two and with Danny. One night was very memorable. Danny and I were merely hanging out. Michael was working. He was mixing a song for Marilyn Scott I believe, at the Record Plant LA or some other prestigious Los Angles studio. With us was a young woman that had recently sung on a hit record Michael had made. She was single, attractive and both Danny and I were interested in “spending some time” with her. Danny was recently moved to Los Angles and very much enjoying the single life. I had only just left my wife and was in a new town and “on the prowl” as I was not working either. Danny and I enjoyed a mutual friend that night. The friend was one we were sharing with the young lady and others hanging around too. The friend was Cuervo Gold Tequila. Yes, since I was not working and in fact, on a fact-finding vacation of sorts, I saw no harm in enjoying this pastime which I had only recently begun enjoying. I had rarely ever been a drinker but the woman I had been seeing in Philly immediately after parting with my wife liked the fun of the shot, the salts and the lime! Oh yeah! Well, that night we were enjoying quite a bit of the Gold. Danny had managed to slip off with the young lady in question to a small room somewhere in the complex where they had locked themselves in and were not responding to anyone’s call. I was, as were all of us who were enjoying the Gold, as they say, feeling no pain. Well Michael finished the mix, paid the bill and was trying to leave. He couldn’t leave without Danny, but he was still not answering the door. He threatened to get the staff to open it and still no answer. Well, I told Michael that it was not necessary that I could open the door. He said that I should as we were all waiting around to leave. So, I took a martial arts kick at the door and being as “under the influence” that I was, I kicked it so hard that part of the frame near the handle smashed out of the wall and the door popped open! Pieces of wood from the doorframe went flying into the air and Michael Sembello stood there, dumbstruck for a moment hardly believing what had happened. The couple inside were soon yelling and coming out with their clothing in much of disarray. I immediately freaked out having never expected to pop it open let alone destroy the door jamb! I began apologizing and offering to pay to fix it (fearing I had just blown one of the only two clients I had in Los Angles). But instead of admonishing me, Michael began saying that it was one of the coolest things he had ever seen! He threw his arm around my shoulder and laughed like crazy calling me a total maniac and saying how glad he was that I was going to be around to work with and hang out with. When I again offered to pay for the repair he laughed and said the record label could afford it. Danny on the other hand was not as thrilled and was a bit mad about it in that it had been a more than somewhat embarrassing moment for the two of them when the door broke open and the light came in. He later told me that he came to appreciate it more in the cold and sober light of day. Danny, John, Michael and Cruz Sembello and I had many great times in LA LA Land. That was one of the first.
Some of the other people I met and worked with in Los Angeles were producers and artist that met through working with both Michael and Stevie of course. First of all, I want to mention Michael’s wife Cruz Baca Sembello. She was fundamentally Michael’s business manager and partner. She was, before Michael, a singer often featured in records by Sergio Mendes and his band Brazil ‘66 among many other artists both as a lead and background singer. She often sang on Michael’s productions for various artists as well as Michael’s own solo albums. She co-wrote sometimes with varying combos of the Sembello brothers and in fact co-wrote “Gravity” which Michael wrote and produced for the movie Cocoon. I stayed in touch with Cruz long after I left Los Angeles, as she was a force of nature and as sweet a person as I have ever met.
Partnered with Michael in those years that I was out there was Dick Rudolf who co-produced a great deal of work with Michael. Dick was the widower of Minnie Riperton, the amazing singer, and of course the father of Maya Rudolf of Saturday Night Live fame. Dick was a great man who loved golf as I did in those years in Los Angeles. He was always trying to suggest ways for me to improve my game by correcting the worst slice in golf ever. He was a dream in the studio as he was so well seasoned and comfortable with ever aspect of the job. My favorite story about Dick is the one that Michael told me about Minnie’s big hit “Loving You”. Listen carefully to that song and hear that there are very few components to it. First of all, there is Minnie, not doubled or artificially altered in anyway whatsoever, just pure pleasure. A voice that Stevie Wonder refers to as one of the greatest and most beautiful voices he has ever heard. Next is a stereo electric piano played by “El Toro Negro” (Stevie was signed to Motown and could not officially appear on the record). On the left and right channels appear two acoustic guitars. One is Michael Sembello the other is Dick Rudolf. Other than the bird sound effects, there is no more to the record. It is a masterpiece. Thanks Dick and all who gave it life.
Marylyn Scott and original members of The Yellowjackets, Russell Ferrante on keyboards and electric bassist Jimmy Haslip, were introduced to me through Michael and became occasional clients. I worked briefly on Marylyn’s solo album that Michael produced. In fact, my first official Los Angles session was overdubbing percussion with Paulinho Da Costa, one of the finest in Los Angles on her album Without Warning. We did it at Michael’s home studio, The Bossa Nova Hotel. The studio was the converted garage behind his home in San Fernando, California. When I moved to Los Angles, I knew I’d be working with Stevie at his room, Wonderland, in central Los Angles and Michael’s in San Fernando. I took out a map and put my finger down literally halfway between the two studios and the map said Van Nuys. So, I looked there and in 24 hours I had found a small house to rent. Sometime after finishing that album Marylyn, Russell and Jimmy, who wrote often together (they wrote seven of the ten songs on that album), booked me to do some demos in a small room in Hollywood. That happened every now and again. I always thought that they were extremely talented, but Jazz musicians don’t always make Pop music as successfully as they would like. In fact, Michael used to kid in the studio when Danny or a synth programmer or any musician we might be overdubbing, that if the chord or its voicing was to too jazzy, he would say, “Whoa… that won’t do! No 9ths or 11ths! What are you trying to do… have the Jazz Police bust us?”
Not long at all after doing my first sessions at the Bossa Nova Hotel, I was booked at Wonderland. Stevie and I had a great relationship in the years I spent in Los Angeles. The irony of which is that my name does not appear on any Stevie Wonder album. The one he was working on while I was on the West Coast was In Square Circle, but I only ever recorded demos of songs for it, never the recordings that were used on the album. The reason is simple. Stevie had a full time contracted First Engineer who had been working with him since Songs in The Key of Life: Garry Olazabal. Gary O, as everyone referred to him, was Stevie’s long time number1 go-to guy for his own albums. I knew this and had no illusions that I was going to be anything other than a second stringer when he wanted to work on things that were not his albums. He had said to me that there would be plenty of work and at first there was. One project we did was a Japanese singer who was at the time very big in Japan but unknown everywhere else. She came to Los Angeles and recorded an album in Japanese by the way, with me at Wonderland. I cannot recall her name for sure unfortunately (I think was Miyuki Nakajima) and, I assume, it was only ever released in Japan. I was very busy and just kept going forward trying to balance time with Michael and time with Stevie. If I could have cloned myself the first two years I was out there, both of me would have been busy all the time.
Time spent at Wonderland was always very interesting and almost always out of the ordinary. I remember one of the first times there that instead of showing me the room and getting familiar with the gear Stevie brought me to the lobby where there was an air hockey game. He almost immediately wanted to play me. I thought, “Really? But you can’t see the puck, I’ll kick your a**.” I was hesitant, but he insisted. Rock and Roll, the tech guy, and a number of other people who worked there including a security guard or two all gathered around to watch. This made me even more nervous. As I looked at them, they all were smiling and giggling a little. So, Stevie and I started to play. He kicked my a**. Big time! He was so quick, and so accurate with almost every exchange of the puck that I was hardly able to score at all. In fact, I think the crowd was watching to see if he would shut me out. I barely scored once or twice in the few games we played but in no time, it was remarked by one and all that Stevie was still the undisputed air-hockey champ of Wonderland. No one would play him after a while because he always won.
I was lucky enough to be invited at some point to meet with Stevie’s girlfriend Melody to discuss a project I might begin with her. I was listening to the radio in my car on the way over to Stevie’s home and I heard his just released single “Do I Do”. I went in the house and Melody and I sat in the kitchen making small talk getting to know each other, talking about the house (it once was Paul Robson’s) and it had some amazing features including a small screening room off what was called the ballroom which I think was mostly used to entertain guests when Robson lived there. I asked her if Stevie was home and she said, “Yes… and knowing his usual patterns that he would be getting up soon.” We continued talk about the proposed project for a while and sure enough, we heard Stevie coming down the stairs into the kitchen. We said hi and after getting himself some tea said, “This is your first time here, isn’t it?” I said yes, and he said well be sure to take a tour of the place and don’t miss the bed in the bedroom, Paul gave it to me for when we worked on “Ebony and Ivory”. I said I would and then he asked if I knew his song “Overjoyed” and I answered saying how much I loved it and only had the bootleg of his performance of it with just him on piano from his appearance on Saturday Night Live but played that to death. He said that he knew that everyone had heard it from his concerts and that performance and that he thought that people would be by now bored with it. He said that he had a new song he had just recorded the previous night with Gary O, and he wanted me to tell him what I thought of it. I said that I would be glad to hear it and give him my opinion. He rooted through his bag that was filled with tapes and all sorts of stuff. He searched and searched but couldn’t find it, so he said, “Never mind. Come here.” So, he got up and walked out of the kitchen into the living room where I saw a shelf full of Grammys and front and center his Oscar. It meant a lot to him, as a sightless person, to have been so highly honored in a visual medium. He walked over to the beautiful white grand piano sat down and said for me to sit on the davenport and he played the song for me. I kept looking over at Melody asking with my eyes, “Is this really happening?” She looked back with a knowing smile as if to say, “You bet, I live this every day.” Well, he sang the song and when it was over, he asked what I thought. I said that I thought that it was a good song but that having only have heard it one time it wasn’t easy to compare to a song that I loved so much I had to bootleg it to hear it again and again. I said that he really needed to include “Overjoyed” on his next album over that song if need be. He thanked me. I think that was one of the best things about my relationship with him, that I always said exactly what I really thought instead of being another person who told him that everything he ever did was fantastic and the best thing ever. He chose to put that song (I think it was “Whereabouts”) on his next album that was In Square Circle, but he also ended up recording a fantastic studio version of “Overjoyed” as well.
After discussing the project, I was sent off to tour the house. It was very big and the bed he told me to check out was in fact something special. It had been a gift from Paul McCartney. It was a four poster with a built-in amazing entertainment system, state of the art for the time with speakers mounted on each poster which was the early fore runner to surround sound-Quad, a projector in the headboard with all the audio and video playback components, and a screen mounted on the wall across from the foot of the bed. It was quite a setup indeed! The aforementioned ballroom and screening room was very cool too. The screening room had seats with an aisle, a film projector in the back and a screen in the front just like a movie theater only somewhat scaled down. This room was not in use but amazing testimony to the previous owner.
One other room was of note; a bedroom upstairs into which I stepped and to my surprise saw a Yamaha 24-track digital multitrack recorder (only recently available on the market valued at about three quarters of a million dollars that was given to Stevie to check out for as long as he wanted it), a MIDI sampling/programming system a few mics and an assortment of percussion instruments. I immediately recognized that those percussion instruments were the very combination that I had just heard in the car on “Do I Do”. In an instant, I knew that sometime earlier Stevie had sat in this room and programed the track for that song and left everything sitting there. If he had used the 24-track machine or not I never knew. But the drum and percussion sounds were obviously done in that room on that MIDI system then eventually was transferred and completed in Wonderland with Gary O. It must be nice…
Another interesting Wonderland moment was one day we were sitting in the studio working on something but there was a lull and Stevie, as he sometimes loved to do, said, “Let’s play Oldies”. I hadn’t ever before. Others were not as thrilled as it was something that they all had done apparently many times before. The game was played like this: you named an oldie and Stevie would play and sing it, but the only rule was that you had to sing along with him to prove you knew the song. He loved doing that with people and was almost never stumped by a song request. In fact, here is a snatch of an “oldies” moment from a Sigma MYX session of Stevie playing a Blood Sweat and Tears tune and the young guys in the band not really knowing it that well.
Well, we were doing that and suddenly Rock and Roll came running into the studio with a box in his hands saying, “It’s here! It’s here!” I was curious as to what was so exciting to him and to Stevie and was amazed to see him pull out of the box a stethoscope! I look at it shrugged my shoulders and asked what the big deal was and what was it for. Stevie immediately pointed to its side and showed the RCA audio output on it. He was instantly listening to his heart and everyone else’s as well. I did not know what he was going to do with it, but we soon put it away and went back to whatever we were doing, and I forgot about it. I forgot about it until In Square Circle came out. I was of course extremely pleased to see that “Overjoyed” was on the record. I played it and was amazed to hear and read on the cover just how he had produced it. He had recorded it entirely acoustically. There are no electric instruments at all. From the real string section and harp to the acoustic guitar and piano to the upright bass all with microphones, all real. But the most amazing part at first is reflected in one of the photos on the cover. He is sitting on the ground in front of the front door of that house holding in his cupped hands some golden leaves. They are dry leaves from a deciduous tree, a maple maybe, leaves that turn gold, fall off in the autumn and dry out. He had taken such leaves and crunched them in his hands in front of a mic and sampled them into a digital programming system making them sound something like a shaker. Also, he sampled the sound of a pebble falling into a pond (probably the one in his back yard) and put it into the programming system to be the back beat. He had also recorded his own heartbeat with the stethoscope I had seen him receive months before and added it to the system to be the bass drum. He then created what sounds like the “drums and percussion” parts of the record adding all those acoustic instruments on top of the beat created entirely from natural sounds. He added bird and other nature sound effects (recorded by Gary O and/or Assistant Engineer Steve Van Arden) and sang the song. I was of course blown away. Genius. Shear genius. Even though I didn’t get to record it with him it was an honor to be in and around his life at that time.
Eddie Murphy was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles around then as his film career was blossoming. He also was a good friend with Stevie. While I was there, I was asked by Stevie’s cousin Aquil Fudge to record an album that he was to produce for Eddie Murphy. It was called “How Could It Be?” I worked on the first half of the album at Wonderland. One session of memory was a string date on the title track. I had never been in a room with such high ceilings before. Sigma had low ceilings compared to many big rooms. I had put microphones up so high that the Assistant Engineers, and even Aquil, I think, thought that I had gone insane! I had high mics on the drums for the tracks too but for all those strings! Wow, I just had to hear what that would sound like.
The thrill of working with Eddie was added to by the fantastic times we had when Stevie would drop in and when he overdubbed on one track. He eventually wrote and produced a song for the album. Watching Eddie and Stevie kid each other and just hang out was always great fun. Stevie is a very funny guy and Eddie and he simply just got along tremendously!
Some very funny moments happened in the studio while working on that album. One night when Eddie was to record his voice on the album for the first time, we set up a mic out in the big room that is a room removed from the control room. This meant that the only way to see what was happening in the studio was with closed circuit TV cameras. We did this all the time of course. Eddie however wanted to sing in complete darkness. So, when we killed all the lights all we saw was a totally dark screen. Now this was odd to begin with, but Eddie started to do bits from his stand-up act and one of which was “Elvis”. It was so weird to see nothing and hear Elvis that all of us, the assistant, the producer, the vocal arranger, in fact everyone who was there all reacted the same way. We were freaking out because he sounded so much like Elvis that it was like we were hearing Elvis’ ghost! Hearing him do Elvis while watching him is one thing but this was somehow much different.
Another night we were recording reference background vocals with Daryll Phinissce who did a lot of background vocals on the record. We were stacking just him to show Eddie what it would be like when we had a group of pros sing it with Daryll. So Daryll is out at the mic and slowly one track at a time layering all the harmonies and Eddie decided to kid him about it. In the studio, there is a button for talking to the performers when they are out in the studio. It sometimes feeds into speakers in the room and other time simply into the earphones. It is called the talk back button. So, what happens is a producer will push the button and talk to the artist then let it go and speak to the engineer or whomever is in the control room and the artist can’t then hear what the producer says. Well Eddie was goofing around with Daryll and would push the button and say, “That was fantastic man but try it again” and then he would say to us in the control room while still holding down the button but pretending that Daryll couldn’t hear and then say things like “He soooo sucks! He’ll never work with me again!” then he would repeat that bit of telling him that how great it was then said something like “I’ll see to it that he never works in this town again” and on and on. Eddie did this so many times, and each one was funnier than the last that we in the control room were losing it. I laughed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath at one point. It might have been a “you needed to be there moment” but man did we laugh. Eddie kept going on and on and as he did Daryll began to not think it was funny anymore, eventually he got really mad. And Eddie and everyone in the control room found that even funnier… so Eddie kept doing it saying that he’d stop but then doing it again and again. Eventually Daryll got really mad and stormed out! Eddie had to eventually calm him down to get him to return a few days later.
A favorite night at Wonderland happened as we were leaving at three or four in the morning. Stevie and one of the security team members for the studio at the time were constantly riffing in a “street” manner about who was “gonna kick who’s a**” etc. This had been a regular thing with them and was going on that night as we walked out the side door of the studio into the parking lot. Some construction work of some kind had been underway at that time and there was some debris from the work strewn around the lot. As Stevie was stepping out into the lot he happened to bump his foot up against a 2×4 lying on the ground. He at once thought that it would be funny to pick it up and brandish it at his buddy while hitting him with all sorts of threatening riffs. So, he bent over and grabbed the end of it and began to pick it up. We saw what he was doing and immediately began laughing as we could see it and he could not. It was at least about twelve feet long. He immediately realized it too while trying to pick it up and realizing also that its length made it even funnier, he picked it up rather awkwardly and began swinging it around anyway. He kicked up his tirade of threats as well of course. We were hysterically laughing, and he kept swinging it and walking about and swinging it more and more. As it came around one time however, it almost hit his car. As he picked it up again and began another sweep with it, John, his cousin and driver for the night, and others made a mad dash at him. They grabbed the 2×4 and him while screaming “Not the Rolls! Not the Rolls!” They wrestled it out of his hands and tossed it to the ground and we all were laughing so hard and so loud that we thought we might wake up the people sleeping on the other side of the block. My God, it was a funny moment. I recently visited Los Angeles and got to visit with Stevie and told him I was writing this book and quickly told this story as an example of what I was writing and smiled and said that he looked forward to checking it out when it was finished.
April 1st, 1983 was an important date both for Stevie Wonder and for me. It was my birthday. I wanted to take my relationship with Stevie up to a higher personal level. Up to that point I had always only been professionally with those people. Yes, there were occasionally invitations by some to parties or other social events not to mention some Sigma events that some of the clients attended. But the times that I was invited to their homes or I invited them to mine were very few and far between if not non-existent. Work was work and time at home with family was down time from work. So seldom did the two coincide. Stevie was such a different and remarkable human being that I was drawn to take my already excellent working relationship up to a more personal one. I was relatively new to Los Angeles and did not know a lot of people and had been very friendly with the Sembello’s (an obvious exception to the rule) so I wanted to be more in Stevie’s life besides the studio. On my birthday, with no other plans, and being all alone in a new city I decided to call Stevie and ask if he wanted to have dinner together wherever and however, he would be comfortable (it’s not easy to show up at a restaurant, even in Los Angles with Stevie Wonder and his small but ever-present entourage). I was prepared for him to say no and offer to get together another time or even say yes. When he answered the phone I nervously spoke first and said, “Hi what’s happening?” He took a deep breath and then said, “I guess what’s happening is that Marvin Gaye was just shot.” I gasped and started to say how sorry I was. In the very brief conversation that followed I heard the sorrow and pain in his voice of a man who had lost his dear friend, mentor and father-figure. Marvin Gaye was perhaps the first person in Stevie’s life who said to him as a teenager while still under a strict contract to Motown, “You can do all this yourself. You don’t need others to produce you. You don’t need mandatory co-writers of your songs.” The grief in his voice spilled into my heart. I said that I knew he had much to do and people he would be needing to talk to, told him how sorry I was, and we hung up. I sat there in my house heart broken. Strangely heart broken. I did not know Marvin Gaye. I had never even met him. Yet having felt Stevie’s deep grief I was grief-stricken too. So much for a birthday dinner with Stevie. So much for the relationship taking that kind of turn as he was not around for a while and the opportunity and any future effort to go that way was somehow clouded by that heartache. It never was to be. I still enjoy a wonderful friendship with Stevie, but I unfortunately never became closer in the way I had hoped. We have stayed in touch over the years, and I am happy to say that in the summer of 2017 Pam and I took my son Rustin, his wife Vickie and our two grandchildren Katie and Ryan to Los Angles on vacation. We did all the usual tourist stuff, got bad sunburns on the beach at Santa Monica, went to Universal, stayed in Laurel Canyon and visited where Jim Morrison and Joni Mitchell lived, etc., but we also got to go one night after dinner and visit Wonderland. Not exactly your usual tourist destination. Stevie very generously (as always) gave of his time and let us come by and say hello. He also played us some of his new songs from an album he hoped to release that fall. Oh man, were they great tracks! But what else do any of us mere mortals expect from him. Can’t wait for the whole world to hear them! Thanks again, Stevie you are the best! Family pic L to R: Ryan (grandson), Vickie (daughter-in-law), Pam Mammarella (wife), Katie (granddaughter), an old friend, Rustin (son), and me.
While I lived in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to be working with both Stevie and Michael Sembello. Both were perfectionists, and both had perfect pitch. This was sometimes difficult for an engineer. They both always expected the best and sometimes more. I was Michael’s “go-to guy” for a while, doing almost all the recording at his studio whenever I was not at Wonderland with Stevie. Some of the projects I recorded for him were his first solo album Bossa Nova Hotel, tracks for Chaka Kahn, George Benson, Michael’s second solo album and more. I worked with a number of great co-producers that he teamed up with along the way. Besides his brothers John and Danny Sembello, they included Dick Rudolf, Russ Titelman, Bobby Cauldwell, and last but not least Phil Ramone. The Sembellos called Phil, the ‘Pope of Pop’. Not sure if they started that or not but it was there in the Bossa Nova Hotel where I first heard that very cool and very funny nickname. My first session with Phil was interesting in that I was a bit nervous as his reputation as a great engineer preceded all his fantastic success as a producer. So, I was a bit concerned. So much so apparently that Phil had to stop me from asking him as we recorded each different thing if it was ok, and said, “Look I know you are a great engineer or Michael would not have hired you. Don’t worry about how it sounds, I’m sure you will do great. If we hear something we don’t like, believe me we will let you know.” And he smiled at me and I smiled at him and we went on to record 90% of Michael’s first solo album, Bossa Nova Hotel that resulted in something like nine Grammy nominations, including “Best Engineered Album” which included four other engineers who worked on the project as well. Nine nominations would have been huge news any other year except that it happened to be the year of Thriller. It got fourteen nominations and won nine. Michael won one or two I think, after all the single “Maniac” was in a big movie, Flashdance, and the soundtrack album and another category may have come through for him. My category was won by Thriller with Bruce Swedien winning that category once again and he won it again a few times after that year. I was proud to have been nominated. After all, if the album I was nominated for was one of the five best albums made that year in every category except Classical, then we must have been doing something right!
But one of my favorite memories of Phil Ramone was the night I unknowingly was a “mule” for him and the Sembellos. I was there at Michael and Cruz’ home just hanging out. It was not a session, but I had, as I often was, invited over just to hang out. I often did as I was new in town and did not know a lot of people. Michael and Phil were doing a pre-production (Michael was and still is I bet a bit of a workaholic) and I was hanging out with Danny and Cruz. Michael asked me if I would mind if I drove to the airport to pick up his brother John, who was flying in from Philly. I said fine and I was given the flight info and left for LAX. I met John and he had with him two large gym bags with him. Now John was not much of a dresser. I don’t think I ever saw him in anything but workout type cloths ever. I thought nothing of the fact that he had two bags, we tossed them in my car and drove back. We chatted about the project and some of the writing and even the MYX project we had worked on together in Philly earlier in the Fall. When we arrived, we walked directly into the studio and Michael, Danny and Phil all started kind of franticly asking John, “Ok, where are they?” and “Come on John, give ’em up!” and stuff like that and I was totally at a loss as to what was up. John said, “Ok, here they are.” And opened one of the two gym bags to reveal more sweats and his clothes. He laughed and grabbed the other bag opened it to reveal that it was completely full of TastyKake products: cupcakes, TastyPies, TandyTakes, Krimpets and the like. Now I was as happy to see the haul as any of them. At that time, the Tastykake Company from Philadelphia did not yet distribute their product to the West Coast. Other than a good cheesesteak, there was nothing more that a native Philadelphian missed more out West. John must have emptied a shelf or two in a grocery store back home before he left for the airport filling the second bag. Needless to say, we jumped on that bag and began devouring them like there was no tomorrow. Even Phil, a New Yorker, appreciated them and was as enthusiastic as anyone. A little while later Cruz came out of the house and stepped into the studio to find us wolfing the TastyKake supply like mad dogs and was immediately angry as we had selfishly wolfed them and did not call her! She was mad as hell because they were almost all gone! I don’t think they lasted twenty minutes, maybe only ten. She would have missed them altogether if she had not come out just then because we were like wild people, Maniacs you could say… So, unknown to me I had been a TastyKake “mule” smuggling for the ‘Pope of Pop’ and the notorious Sembello gang of San Fernando.
The Sembello crew and I had a lot of fun together besides making a few great albums together. We did both of Michael’s solo albums (one on MCA and one on A&M), a track for one of the Rocky films, a track called “Gravity” which credits Cruz as a co-writer that was in the movie Cocoon, the Marilyn Scott album, and other stuff as well. But some of the best times we had were out and about in Los Angeles while we weren’t working. One day Michael said that he had been watching some professional wrestling and was blown away by the crowd! Not the event but the people there watching and acting crazy in and around the events. So, he said we should go to one just to experience this craziness. I was always game for crazy and thought it would be very funny too. So, I was in. Michael got us tickets to a big wrestling event: The Battle Royal (or something like that) in which a lot of pro wrestlers all start in the ring at once and the last man standing wins. Well Michael did not want to miss that one so off we went the night it rolled around. On the way there, we planned to do it right just like most of the fans and stopped at an In & Out Burger stand to eat, as it was somehow appropriate to eat this very unsophisticated fare before the bout. We stopped there on the way and I had missed lunch, so I was starving and we proceeded to order giant chilly cheeseburgers, one each. They were touted to be massive and almost dangerous to eat. I wolfed one down and was still hungry and started to go back to order another and Danny and Mike stopped me and said that was a huge mistake that I might not survive a second one and that I should wait and see if I would really need more later. Well, they were right. It was a strenuous gastronomic experience to say the least. But the real fun started when we got to the LA Coliseum or wherever the Battle Royal was held. It was quite a spectacle indeed. But the show was in the stands not in the ring. People were very strange and into this “sport” which of course is merely staged entertainment and not really wrestling at all. The outcome was as obvious as was the nature of the “sport”. The wrestler Andre the Giant was very popular at that time and really was a huge man dwarfing almost everyone in the ring. In a relatively short time, he had tossed everyone else out and won. Then we made tracks for the car as we thought the crowd to be rowdier than the wrestlers and now pretty damn drunk too. So out of there we fled.
Another night out with Danny and John was a free ticket to the last Sixers/Lakers game for the championship held at the Forum in South Central LA. Yes, Philly sports fans Michael, John and Danny Sembello, born and raised in Ardmore, PA, were asked to go with an executive from MCA records but Michael chose to stay home and write as he had pressures on him from the label, so he offered me his ticket. Off we went and John, a renowned paranoid, was telling us all the way there in the car to be very cool and not make ourselves obvious Philly fans in “enemy territory”. Well, Danny and I kept saying “Sure, John, Sure” and looking at each other like sneaky schoolboys who had no intention of behaving well at all, which of course we didn’t. We got there and at first as we walked in and headed to our seats we looked around and John’s paranoia had definitely affected us, and we were subdued for sure. There we were in the middle of tens of thousands of avid Lakers fans screaming their hearts out. The Lakers had their backs against the wall down three games to none with Philly one game away from a sweep for the championship. Well as the buzzer sounded to start the first half, we were sitting there quite subdued and suddenly from a seat about two or three rows in front of us a huge African American hand reached up as high as it could, clutching in his enormous fist a tiny broom and with a booming, deep, monstrously loud voice he screamed one word: “SWEEEEEP!!!” Well, we all looked at each other and started roaring laughing! We cheered as vigorously all night as if we were in the Spectrum back in Philly. No one was going to mess with us with that guy right in front of us! So, we got to cheer the “Twin Towers”, Doctor “J” and “Moses” Malone and the 1983 Champion Philadelphia Seventy Sixers on to the sweep victory that night in Los Angles. Needless to say, we made quite a “B” line to the car after the game and got out of there ASAP, celebrating all the way back to the valley and then home! A great night indeed, and thanks again Michael for being so generous to me that night and the whole time I was out there.
Other examples of the generosity of the Sembellos are numerous. We used to go to all kinds of out of the way Mexican restaurants to find the most genuine “real” Mexican restaurants in the Los Angeles area. I was taken out to dinner with them and introduced to sushi as well as Thai food. Danny loved really spicy foods. I mean he could eat food so hot that it was hard to believe. To illustrate this, I remember a time Danny, Michael and I went to a new Thai place that opened on the block I lived on in Van Nuys. Our food came, and Danny tried it and called the waiter over and said that it wasn’t hot enough even though when he ordered it he had asked for it to be extra, extra hot. The waiter took it back into the kitchen and a minute or two later all the chefs came out the door to look at Danny in astonishment, eyes wide and heads shaking they went back in and the food came out hotter than imaginable and Danny was happy. It cracked me up to see them looking at him like that, their eyes asking, “Is that skinny little white kid for real?” Danny was the real deal. I had mentioned earlier about his leaving MYX, moving to Los Angeles and signing a songwriting deal at MCA. But my favorite part of that story is the one about his house. After the signing, MCA had Danny sit down with another writer named Allee Willis and told them to write some songs together. In a very short time (maybe a day) they wrote three. Two of which were placed with MCA artists and recorded on their next records almost immediately. They were “Neutron Dance” for the Pointer Sisters and “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up” for Patti LaBelle. Both of these songs ended up in the film Beverly Hills Cop. Needless to say, Danny, owning half the songwriting of those three songs, got a huge payday sometime later (six months or a year later) when a pile of royalty money all came in (the check was rumored to be $750,000 and that was only the first one, they came every six months and although they were smaller every time they continued to add up). In the meantime, before the big payday Danny was living in a duplex bungalow in Santa Monica and was often up very late writing his music much to the chagrin of his next-door neighbor who had a day schedule. On the day that the big check arrived Danny picked up the phone, called his landlord and after that conversation immediately when next-door and informed his neighbor to start packing. Danny took over both sides of the property (if not bought the whole place), worked on one side and lived in the other.
Another example of their generosity was the yacht party Michel and Cruz arranged for everyone who was involved with the huge success of his first album Bossa Nova Hotel which included the big hit “Maniac”. So, Michael and Cruz rent this thirty or forty-foot-long yacht and invite a bunch of us out to cruise off the coast of Los Angeles out almost to Santa Catalina and back. Now I am not a boat person, and I knew it. So, I took a bunch of pills for sea sickness to be able to go with them. Unfortunately, I was so seasick anyway that I spent the whole trip below deck lying in a bunk bed nauseous. I even skipped dinner out that night with everyone just to go home and sleep.
Another great example was the months that Danny, Michael and I all studied Tae Quan Do together. The martial arts instructor we studied with was at times a bit off his game and once accidently struck me in the right shoulder when he was supposed to show us the strike move without actually hitting me. Unfortunately, he damaged my shoulder to such an extent (which was not realized at first) that I could no longer throw a baseball to my son which I did a lot at that time as he was about ten and in Little League. I did not see my son very often while I lived in Los Angeles but did see him whenever I was home and had him out at least one week for three summer vacations with me on the West Coast. I vividly recall the disappointment Rustin experienced when I was unable to throw well, if at all at times to him. At a different point after my accident in the Dojo Michael had a similar moment in which the sensei almost broke Michael’s left hand. Well, that is the hand he really plays guitar with as a right-handed person. Needless to say, that was the end of that. Michael went on to bodybuilding after that, which I did not do with him.
Unfortunately, we have lost both John and Danny Sembello. John Sembello (February 22, 1945 – May 1, 2013) had recorded an album with his writing partner Ralph Dino in 1974 simply called “Dino and Sembello” and it included some beautiful songs like “Neighborhood.” John was also a member of a fabulous local area band called “Home” that had released a great single (record) at the time. (Vince Warsavage, the editor, has a copy of that single.) The band had a horn section and was similar in structure to “The Chicago Transit Authority” (AKA “CTA” and eventually just called “Chicago”). Danny Sembello (January 15, 1963 – August 15, 2015) drowned in the Schuylkill River after he jumped in the river to escape the heat of the day while he was attending the Hidden River Blues Festival, an outdoor blues concert hosted by WXPN’s Johnny Meister. Danny had written or co-written many great tunes including “Neutron Dance” performed by The Pointer Sisters and “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up” by Patti LaBelle. Danny wrote for and worked with many other greats such as Celine Dion, Chaka Kahn, Cindy Lauper, Donna Summer and more.