‘LET’S MAKE A CHRISTMAS ALBUM’ : Jimmy Iovine Produces a Superstarry Record
Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bob Seger and the four members of U2 were among a dozen rock stars who arrived at a sound stage on West 61st Street expecting only to have their photos taken. They had each contributed a track to “A Very Special Christmas,” an album that benefits the Special Olympics--and the photos would help publicize the project.
Inside the nondescript brick building, however, the performers were being asked by a few reporters about the danger of a backlash after so many highly publicized pop crusades--"We Are the World,” Live Aid and Farm Aid I, II and III.
Several of the musicians were a bit defensive, saying they have noticed rumbles of an “aid fatigue,” but John Cougar Mellencamp wasn’t apologetic.
“Yeah, there has been a backlash,” said the Indiana songwriter, whose music has taken on an increasingly socially conscious edge in recent years. “At Farm Aid (last month), I looked over at Willie (Nelson) and asked, ‘What the hell’s the point? It’s not even an event anymore. I’m not sure anyone even knows we’re out here in Lincoln, Nebraska.’ ”
Still, Mellencamp feels musicians should continue to support social causes.
“I used to think you and I paid taxes so that we wouldn’t have to do these things . . . that the elected officials were supposed to take care of starving people and the homeless, but that’s not the case,” he said.
“Instead of blaming the rock stars for asking for help, people should be asking why people are in such need and start examining who isn’t doing their job.”
However, record producer Jimmy Iovine shook his head when the matter of “aid fatigue” was brought up. Iovine, who masterminded what is easily the most star-studded recording since 1985’s “We Are the World,” doesn’t see much connection between his album and U.S.A. for Africa or other leading symbols of pop altruism in the ‘80s.
In those cases, he said, the record (or concert) was a means for getting money for a charity. In the case of “A Very Special Christmas,” Iovine’s goal was to make a pop-star Christmas album, and the only way he could assemble a lineup like this was to turn over the money to charity.
Said Iovine: “The public awareness from (projects like Live Aid and Farm Aid) was important, but we didn’t set out to invent a charity. That was one of the things maybe I learned from all that. I wanted to turn to an existing charity.
“The Special Olympics is a great organization and it is wonderful that we can help it, but the truth is, I wanted to make my dream Christmas album and I knew the only way I could (get everyone’s cooperation) was if we gave the money away . . . get money totally out of the equation.”
Everyone seemed in good spirits as the performers waited for the photo session to begin. Sting spoke about the nobility of the Special Olympics, Bob Seger mentioned the courage of handicapped people he has met, Run-D.M.C.'s Jam Master Jay (Mizell) cited the inspirational rewards of volunteer work.
But Mellencamp spoke with the most passion. One of rock’s flashiest dancers, Mellencamp was born with a disease of the vertebrae and lives with the knowledge that he was only a delicate childhood operation away from spending his life as a “cripple.”
About the operation, he added: “There was another girl who had the operation the same time I did. I made it and she didn’t. I saw her again, like three years ago, and she’s still in a wheelchair. That’s the reason I did this.”
But the musicians--also including Annie Lennox--seemed stiff once they got in front of the camera. It didn’t even help when someone handed out bright-red Santa Claus hats to the three members of Run-D.M.C.
It wasn’t until Iovine, the short, hyperactive producer who had been standing out of camera range during the initial shots, joined the scene that the mood loosened.
For one thing, Springsteen--a close friend of Iovine ever since the latter worked as an engineer on Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album in 1975--began ribbing the producer. Springsteen had been half an hour late for the session because Iovine had given him the wrong address--a photo studio 40 blocks away.
“You sure throw a heck of a party, Iovine,” Springsteen joked. “And you also make it hard to find.”
But Iovine’s presence in the photo also seemed to serve another function.
“I think the (stiffness) was because no one wanted to step forward,” said one observer at the session. “There is a roomful of stars and no one felt it was really his show. The only one who could step forward was Jimmy because it really is his album.”
If the session ended good-naturedly, the album itself was started by Iovine following a period of sadness. His father, a Brooklyn longshoreman, died Jan. 12, 1985, after a heart attack a month earlier.
Iovine was devastated. He was especially close to his father and had always spent the Christmas season with his family in New York, even after he had moved to Los Angeles five years ago. Instead of huddling around the Christmas tree, however, the family spent the 1984 holidays at the father’s bedside.
The Christmas album was Iovine’s way of erasing some of the pain.
Says Bobby Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and a former newspaper reporter: “Everybody keeps saying that to publicize this album, we’ve got to have all these record stars come and do a photo or go on TV, but I keep thinking to myself that if I were a reporter (again), this album would be Jimmy’s story . . . a very human story because he really did this in honor of his father.”
In a profile on Iovine in the latest issue of Musician magazine, writer Vic Garbarini recalls his impression of Iovine the first time they met in 1980.
“Jimmy was like some character from a Scorsese film, a Brooklyn punk with a sense of humor and the proverbial heart of gold who’d managed to work his way up from the mean streets without losing his essential spark,” he wrote.
Iovine, 33, is quite a ways from the mean streets these days, though he can’t quite sever his ties with this city. While he is committed to Southern California (Iovine and his wife, Vicki, are building a home in Malibu), he still keeps a place here--partly because the 15th-floor apartment on Central Park South offers a gorgeous view of the park, but also because he spends a lot of time in the studio here.
Iovine got his start in the record business more than a decade ago, helping engineer records by John Lennon and Springsteen. He eventually graduated to producer, chalking up such credits as Patti Smith’s “Easter,” Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes,” Dire Straits’ “Making Movies,” Bob Seger’s “The Distance” and Stevie Nicks’ “Bella Donna.”
More recently, he has worked with U2, Lone Justice, Simple Minds and the Pretenders. He is now back in the studio with Smith, the hugely influential poet-turned-rocker who is working on her first album in almost a decade.
Sitting in his apartment with his wife, Iovine is wearing a sloppy sweat shirt, jeans and a Notre Dame cap as he he talks about putting the album together.
Iovine produced or co-produced seven of the album’s 15 selections, including Madonna’s update of Eartha Kitt’s playful “Santa Baby,” the Pointer Sisters’ Spector-ized treatment of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and Whitney Houston’s gospel-accented rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear.”
He also worked in the studio on the Pretenders’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Seger’s “The Little Drummer Boy” and Nicks’ “Silent Night.”
Other tracks recorded for the album but not produced by Iovine: Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland,” Mellencamp’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” Run-D.M.C.'s “Christmas in Hollis,” Bryan Adams’ “Run Rudolph Run,” Bon Jovi’s “Back-Door Santa” and Alison Moyet’s “The Coventry Carol.” Two selections--Bruce Springsteen’s “Merry Christmas Baby” and Sting’s “Gabriel’s Message"--were B-sides of earlier singles by the artists but never appeared on an album.
About the record (which was released two weeks ago on the Special Olympics label, distributed by A&M;), Iovine said: “I’ve wanted to make a Christmas record for years because I am a big fan of Christmas music. Every year I go to a record store and look around for a new Christmas album, and it’s not there. There is the Phil Spector record (“Phil Spector’s Christmas Album”), which is fantastic, and the Presley record (“Elvis’ Christmas Album”), which is very good. But those records are 25 years old. I wanted to make a new Christmas record.
“Most of the ones you hear are put together real fast. They go into the studio for a couple of days and concentrate on maybe two or three songs, and then just run through the rest. I wanted to make an album where you spend as much time as you do on a normal album, maybe 400 to 500 hours in the studio and working with different artists.”
But there were potential problems--major ones.
“I knew it would be hard to put the album together because the people I wanted weren’t all on the same label and there would be the question of what to do with the money, so I just kinda forgot about it for a while,” he said. “Besides, I was busy with other albums.”
His priorities shifted, however, when his father died.
“At that point, I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to do something or else I’m going to associate Christmas with this terrible time in my life.’ I said to Vicki, ‘Let’s make a Christmas album. I’ve always wanted to do this and it will be great therapy for me. Let’s give the money away to some great people who could really use it and let’s have some fun.’ ”
The question was where to give the money.
Iovine met informally with representatives of various charities, but nothing connected for him--until the day he went to a party at TV newswoman Maria Shriver’s house in Los Angeles.
Vicki--who hosts “Star Trak,” a daily syndicated rock radio feature for the Westwood One network--had been working with the Special Olympics as a volunteer and was so enthusiastic about the organization that she brought her husband to the fund-raising party at Shriver’s house. While there, Iovine met her father, Sargent Shriver, president of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.
Iovine casually mentioned that he was thinking about a Christmas album and was looking for a place to donate the money. The next day, Bobby Shriver, a longtime friend of Vicki’s, called Iovine. The project was soon under way.
Bobby Shriver, an attorney and venture capitalist, grew up with the Special Olympics. The concept began informally in the early ‘60s when his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, started a summer camp in her back yard for people with mental retardation.
The program was soon formalized and by 1968 there was enough support for the First International Summer Special Olympic Games at Soldier Field in Chicago. More than 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada competed.
Today, Shriver estimates, more than 1 million mentally retarded children and adults participate in such activities as basketball, bowling, figure skating and canoeing in Special Olympics programs across the country. The organization’s most ambitious project--the nationally televised VII International Summer Special Olympics competition in August at the University of Notre Dame--attracted more than 4,600 athletes from 73 countries.
Soon after meeting with the Shrivers, Iovine turned to Herb Alpert, co-owner of A&M; Records, who agreed to release the album on a nonprofit basis. Charging for marketing and manufacturing costs, the record label will pay the Special Olympics about $2.50 per album sold.
If sales match the platinum (1 million-plus) prediction of Bob Reitman, A&M; vice president and general manager, the Special Olympics will receive $2.5 million. The artists and Iovine have donated their production, performance and songwriting royalties. About 725,000 units have been shipped to stores.
Reitman said A&M; is concentrating its initial promotion push on in-store visibility--asking retailers to put the records in a prominent position and to play the album over the sound system--with a radio campaign beginning Nov. 18.
Shriver, who works out of a 26th-floor office in mid-Manhattan, said the $2.5 million would be by far the largest single donation--"other than the (Kennedy) family’s donation” that launched the organization--ever given to the Special Olympics. Most of the organization’s budget (about $6 million in 1987) goes for coaches and other support materials.
Shriver said he has heard about the grumbles about “aid fatigue” and the perennial criticism over the way ad hoc charity groups handle their finances, but said, “I think the problem in some cases has been follow-through. Old man Rockefeller once said, ‘It’s harder to give away a dollar well than to make a dollar,’ and I think that’s true.
“You have to invest the money in people who will follow through, and follow-through work is a dirty, boring, non-glamorous business . . . real grunt work. My mother is a grunt and a successful one in this business. She likes grunting it.”
But this album isn’t the Special Olympics’ first entry into the record business. An earlier contract between the organizing committee for the August games in Indiana and a small L.A. label has led to a number of lawsuits. (See Dennis McDougal’s story, Page 65).
Iovine holds a copy of “A Very Special Christmas,” glancing over the credits on the back.
“It looks so easy,” he said. “But I was like a wreck for months. The album could have ended at any minute. Even after artists said yes, you couldn’t count on it until they were actually in the studio. A million things can go wrong, even under the best circumstances.
“I remember when we had eight tracks, I kept thinking, ‘That’s enough, isn’t it?’ I mean ‘Born to Run’ only had eight tracks, right?”
But he also reminisced about the good times over the last 12 months--about the night his wife brought home a copy of the film “Meet Me in St. Louis” so that the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde could hear Judy Garland’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the July afternoon U2 recorded “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” during a sound check before a show in Glasgow.
He also recalled listening to the Temptations’ recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” with Seger before going in the studio to cut the song, and how he had imagined closing a Christmas album with Stevie Nicks singing “Silent Night” ever since he made a demo of the song five years ago.
Before heading downtown to see the results of the photo session, Iovine paused and said, “Everyone had their own reason for doing the record. Some did it (for me) as a friend, others to help the Special Olympics. But one thing you can’t discount is that a lot of people wanted to record a Christmas song.
“This was really a lot of fun for everyone. They got to make music on a record that isn’t going to be judged the way a regular record would be--'Oh, is this Run-D.M.C.'s new direction?’ or ‘Oh, is Madonna going to do jazz from now on?’
“The album was sort of a little sidestep for a lot of people because they got to relax, take a day off. You might even think of it as a Christmas present to ourselves. The fact that we can help others in the process is a bonus.”