Longform

Happy Trails

Page 4 of 6

"Spec and I, goddamn, we'd argue," Garrett says. "You know, friendly arguing. We'd tear a song plum apart, the two of us. But Spec was at that time the most talented producer I had ever known."

Spector eventually left Liberty amid suspicions that he had planned all along to take the label's money and save his best work for his own label, Philles Records. Garrett remains reluctant to criticize his eccentric old friend.

"I've heard that it was all planned by Spec, okay," he says. "I don't know. I never asked him. He's a talented guy, he was an asset to Liberty for the 12 to 14 hours he was there. That's good enough for me. He's a talented son of a bitch."

In 1964, Lou Brown--piano player for Garrett's neighbor, Jerry Lewis--tried to persuade Garrett to go see Lewis' son's band, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, during their engagement at Disneyland. Garrett passed, but when Brown told him they were rehearsing at the Paramount lot, and offered to buy lunch, Garrett agreed to check them out.

What he heard was run-of-the-mill, generic mid-'60s pop-rock, but his commercial instincts told him that with some promotional help from Jerry Lewis, Garrett could sell this band.

Shortly afterward, while on a song-hunting trip to New York, he heard a tune called "This Diamond Ring," and put a hold on it, with Lewis' band in mind. At that point, Garrett says he quit his Liberty job, and went into independent production, although he did end up leasing the Lewis masters to Liberty.

Garrett's records with Lewis were almost inevitably light, fluffy expressions of lost love, but they were also potent examples of Garrett's recurring ability to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. For one thing, Lewis was a hopelessly wimpy vocalist whose sense of pitch was less than reliable. "He was no threat to Mario Lanza, I can tell you that," Garrett says with a twinkle in his eye.

For the Lewis sessions, Garrett tripled Gary's reedy voice with other singers and employed a powerhouse lineup of up-and-coming session players, including Leon Russell, J.J. Cale and Jim Keltner. To this day, he considers Russell the most gifted musician he's ever known.

"I don't think the word 'genius' and all that crap comes into the music business, 'cause we're not setting things in stone," he says. "We're making pop records for people to buy. But Leon Russell is the most talented person I've been around.

"Some of the most fun times that I remember making records was Leon and I laying on the floor. He had a studio up at his house on Skyhill Drive, and we used to go up there and put the tape on slow speed, and we'd lay on the floor and talk and get ideas."

One such dialogue involved Garrett telling Russell that clown songs sell, with Russell replying that "everybody loves a clown." Using the phrase as a title, they crafted a massive hit for Lewis.

On another occasion, while driving on the freeway, Garrett heard a Beach Boys song on the radio, and came up with the idea for a Beach Boys takeoff called "She's Just My Style." He jotted down some lyrics, and when he got to the studio, he asked Russell to pull out a guitar and find a surf rhythm. The result was yet another hit for Lewis.

Lewis put together a string of seven straight Top 10 hits in 1965-66, but a military commitment irrevocably wrecked his career momentum. After Lewis' star faded, a 30-year-old Garrett sold his production company, and temporarily quit the music business. A year later, he started a new company, Garrett Music Enterprises, and decided to produce another of his neighbors, Cher.

Garrett had bought a lavish, 13,000-square-foot-home in Bel Air next to Sonny and Cher. Garrett wanted to restore the house to its original 1922 state, an effort that took a year to complete. While Garrett and his family waited to move in, Johnny Musso of Kapp Records suggested that Garrett and Cher would work well together.

Garrett had no interest in Sonny and Cher as a duo, but he believed he could produce a solo hit for Cher. He told songwriter Bob Stone that he wanted something with a similar feel to "Son of a Preacher Man," Dusty Springfield's 1968 hit. Stone came back with a song called "Gypsies and White Trash." Once again, Garrett sensed that he had a hit song that needed a slight alteration. The song was retitled "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves," and it once again took Garrett to the top of the charts.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia