McCabe's concert booker, Grammy-winning producer John Chelew, dies at 65

It began as a musical version of fantasy baseball. But for singer-songwriter John Hiatt, it turned into a career-rejuvenating project, and all of it was because of a dare put forth by concert promoter John Chelew.

“One time between shows we started talking about making some kind of record,” Hiatt told The Times in 2008 about Chelew, who died Dec. 17 in New Orleans of congestive heart failure at age 65. “He threw out this idea: ‘Wouldn't it be cool to go into a studio in Santa Monica for a couple of days and do something with Ry Cooder and [drummer] Jim Keltner?’”

Hiatt told Chelew if he could wrangle the musicians, he’d “do it in a heartbeat.” Chelew then asked Hiatt who he wanted on bass. 

“I told him Nick Lowe was my favorite bass player, so he said, ‘You get Nick and I'll work on the other guys.’ I went home to Nashville, and a few days later he called and said, ‘They'll do it.’ I said, ‘You're kidding?’

“At that point I called Nick and said, ‘This guy John Chelew has Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner ready to go into a studio -- would you be interested?’ He said, ‘I'll be on the next flight.’”

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That turned into Hiatt’s commercial and critical breakthrough 1987 album “Bring The Family.” It was a quintessential example of the passion and musical savvy Chelew consistently brought to the acts he booked at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica during his 12 years as the venue’s concert director from 1984 to 1996.

Chelew had another career as a record producer, working with Hiatt, the Blind Boys of Alabama, folk group Pentangle, British guitarist Bert Jansch and numerous other roots music acts he loved.

"Sometimes when I felt bold enough," Chelew said, referencing his experience wooing Hiatt into a recording studio, "I'd say, 'I sure like your shows, but I sure don't like your records.'”

Veteran record executive Bill Bentley praised Chelew as “an incredible human, a quiet shaman really, and a true teacher to us all. I never met anyone like him, and felt such an instant kinship.”

Nancy Covey preceded Chelew as McCabe’s concert talent director and happily handed the reins over to him after launching her own music-focused travel company in the early 1980s.

“For over 30 years I have treasured John’s friendship, advice and unparalleled enthusiasm for music,” Covey posted on Facebook. “It is a real loss to lose my music confidante. I ran all my ideas by John [and] really valued his friendship. We had such history together. New Orleans won't be the same.”

Veteran music publicist Cary Baker noted that “on top of establishing McCabe's as a world-class concert venue, he was a wonderful record producer and prince of a human being.”

Of his dozen years at McCabe’s, Chelew told The Times in 2008: “It's been such a great meeting place for so many different people. Arlo Guthrie was getting ready to go on stage one time, and [poet] Allen Ginsberg was there because we had him booked the next night. He said, 'Let me talk to Arlo; I haven't seen him in 20 years.' And they had this wonderful discussion.”

John Hull Chelew was born June 1, 1951, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and when he was 4, his family moved to the Monterey Peninsula, where he lived until he was 16.

It was there he attended a concert in 1964 by Peter, Paul & Mary at the Monterey Folk Festival, an event that helped cement his growing interest in folk music.

At 16, after the death of his father, Chelew returned to Southern California, relocating to Costa Mesa. He graduated from Corona del Mar High School.

He moved again, to West Los Angeles, in the early ’70s, and landed a job at the Regent Theatre in Westwood, where the clientele he encountered included celebrities such as Bob Dylan, Groucho Marx, Mel Torme and J. Krishnamurti.

Life in West L.A., combined with his love of folk music, led him to McCabe’s, the focal point of the L.A. folk community in the 1960s and ’70s. After attending numerous concerts there, he struck up a friendship with concert director Covey and soon became her assistant, taking over that post when she decided to move on.

Chelew produced his first recording for ex-Pentangle member Bert Jansch in 1980, working with his brother Rick as co-producer and enlisting musicians Albert Lee and Jennifer Warnes on the album, recorded in Silverlake Recording Studios “on a shoestring budget  of borrowed funds,” Rick Chelew recalled.

He produced dozens of albums for Donovan, Richard Thompson, Charlie Musselwhite, Pentangle, Arthur Adams and numerous others.

To produce an album in 2012 for singer Ruthie Foster, he traveled to New Orleans and, his brother said, “fell in love with the city,” and subsequently moved there, producing additional sessions with Cajun-zydeco singer-accordionist Jo-El Sonnier, Peter Rowan, Papa Mali and others.

Chelew reveled in the Crescent City’s richly diverse music scene. He told The Times in 2015 that he found it inspiring to live among the brass bands, traditional jazz groups, cutting-edge singers and songwriters, gospel groups and hip-hop performers.

Veteran L.A.-based music writer Steve Hochman recalled that “in the hundreds of conversations I had with John Chelew over the course of more than 30 years — phone calls, emails and mostly in-person encounters — not once did he fail to share some new thought, idea, inquiry, scheme or notion, bouncing ideas off me, seeking input and opinion, agreeing with or strongly countering whatever I said, often with scattershot free associations and shifts of topics and perspectives.”

His brother, musician and songwriter Rick Chelew, writing on Facebook, described his relationship with his older and only sibling as being “buddies, business and creative partners and compatriots.”

Chelew collected three Grammy Awards as producer of successive albums from the Blind Boys of Alabama.

“There is a great album he did with the late Vic Chesnutt featuring Bill Frisell, Van Dyke Parks and Don Heffington,” Rick Chelew wrote. “More recently he made great albums in New Orleans with Ruthie Foster and Papa Mali. The list goes on: Donovan, Richard Thompson, Peter Rowan, Rattlesnake Daddy (Ryan Hedgecock of Lone Justice fame), Crosby Tyler (with Sarah and Sean Watkins)... and so many more great artists he worked with, always doing whatever he could, in his very direct and opinionated way, to bring out, and sometimes wring out, the most authentic and vital music that was possible.”

Chelew is survived by his brother.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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An earlier version of this post listed the date of Chelew's death as Dec. 19. He died Dec. 17.
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