It’s somehow fitting that if you stand on a bluff above Lou Adler’s Malibu home office, you can look up and down the misty coastline and almost see forever. If there was one person who helped popularize what’s known as Southern California cool, it’s Adler, a 66-year-old music producer and record company entrepreneur who was involved -- Zelig-like -- with virtually every big youth culture explosion in the formative years of modern Los Angeles.
Adler restlessly devoured every new pop trend: early ‘60s surf and car culture (he produced many of Jan & Dean’s hits), L.A. folkie romanticism (he produced and put out the Mamas & the Papas’ hits), the Sunset Strip club scene (his discovery, Johnny Rivers, put the Whisky a Go-Go on the map), protest rock (he produced Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”), rock festivals (Adler co-produced the Monterey Pop Festival) and ‘70s stoner culture (Adler launched Cheech & Chong and directed their first movie, “Up in Smoke”).
That still leaves out plenty of other career highlights, like writing Sam Cooke’s "(What a) Wonderful World” and producing Carole King’s mellow-music classic “Tapestry” and bringing “The Rocky Horror Show” to America, but you get the idea. Pop historians still haven’t made up their mind if Adler was a wily opportunist or a sage hipster with an uncanny nose for talent.
But from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, wherever the zeitgeist was, Adler wasn’t far away, always part of the scene but safely behind the scenes. As the Mamas & the Papas singer Michelle Phillips once put it: “Lou was rich, wore interesting hats and didn’t give a lot of clues to his innermost being.”
To this day, Adler has remained offstage in the shadows. And that’s the irony. Adler has been so media-shy that when he was on the dais at a music business dinner a few years ago, industry toastmaster Joe Smith introduced Adler by saying, “After all the gold records and the smash hits ... Lou is known as the guy with the hat and the beard who sits next to Jack Nicholson at the Lakers’ games.”
Adler sat down for a rare interview the other day at his Malibu office, which has a half-court basketball court in the driveway, a drum kit and amps in the living room (his son Cisco’s band uses the office as a rehearsal studio) and a host of vintage photos, including one of Adler and John Phillips on the cover of an early issue of Rolling Stone. But Adler only parted the curtain to promote a cause, not himself. He and his wife, Page Adler, have helped organize a one-night celebrity benefit for the Painted Turtle Camp, a new spinoff of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camps for children with life-threatening illnesses. The new camp, on 173 acres near Lake Hughes, is expected to open in late 2003. The benefit, a theater reading based on Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories, will be held Nov. 4 at the Kodak Theatre. The A-list talent includes Nicholson, Newman, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Warren Beatty, Bruce Willis, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Goldie Hawn and Edward James Olmos.
Days of serendipity
Adler has always been surrounded by talent. He grew up in Boyle Heights, then L.A.'s great melting-pot neighborhood. His Roosevelt High basketball team, he recalls, “had a Japanese kid, a Russian kid, a black kid and a Jew -- me.” Adler went to Los Angeles City College in the ‘50s, where he befriended a trumpet player who had a trio that played weddings and bar mitzvahs.
The trumpet player was Herb Alpert, who started writing songs with Adler.
They shopped their material to Bumps Blackwell, a legendary R&B; talent scout, who hired them as apprentice artists-and-repertoire men. When Blackwell needed a song for a Cooke session, Adler and Alpert wrote “Wonderful World” with Cooke, using the pseudonym of Barbara Campbell, Cooke’s wife. “We cut it in an unfinished recording studio on 3rd Street,” Adler recalls. “The walls still had fiberglass pack in them. We had a 16-year-old kid play the drums because the regular drummer wasn’t there.”
Adler’s first discovery was a pair of volleyball players named Jan Berry and Dean Torrance. As Jan & Dean, they helped popularize California as an eternal playground, with hits like “Ride the Wild Surf,” “Dead Man’s Curve” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” Adler recorded their early songs on a one-track mono machine with the duo singing at a piano in Berry’s garage. “We often had to do 30 or 40 splices to get the vocals right,” Adler says. “Then we’d go into the studio and have the musicians match the rhythm of the vocal track.”
Everything was done on the fly. Adler remembers cutting a record one night, taking it to a pressing plant on Wilcox Avenue and getting it on Top 40 giant KFWB four days later. One night Adler wandered into a club on La Cienega and saw Johnny Rivers, a young white guitarist who did slick covers of black R&B; hits. Rivers was so exciting in a club setting that Adler decided on a novel strategy for launching a rock act -- he had Rivers cut a live album at the Whisky a Go-Go, a new club run by pal Elmer Valentine. The “live” billing was something of a stretch -- much of the record was sweetened in the studio with studio musicians and a trio of backup singers called the Blossoms. “If anyone is carrying a tune on the record,” Adler jokes, “it’s the Blossoms.” Still, the album was a huge hit and established the Whisky as the hip nightspot in town.
In the early ‘60s, New York was still the center of the pop-culture universe, home to the media taste makers and most of the established record companies. All Los Angeles had was its decaying movie studios, run by aging moguls whose idea of cool was making movies with Ricky Nelson. “The surf records really put L.A. on the map,” Adler says. “The music drew the attention of the record companies and then the media and the ad agencies, who started using ‘a Go-Go’ in their ads and putting California girls like Peggy Lipton and Michelle Phillips in their commercials, and soon there was a whole scene here.”
Almost overnight, the Sunset Strip blossomed with clubs showcasing a new generation of L.A. rock bands like the Doors, the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield. “Kids would drive by, hanging out the car windows, playing tambourines,” Adler says. “You couldn’t walk on Sunset because it was so crowded.” By then Adler had his own label, Dunhill Records. He tried to sign the Buffalo Springfield, but lost them when he refused to give their road manager a payoff. When a ragged quartet of hippie singers called the Mamas & the Papas showed up to audition one day, he didn’t make the same mistake. Adler told them: “I’ll give you whatever you want, just don’t go see anybody else.” The band’s leader, John Phillips, replied, “What we want is a steady stream of money from your office to our house.”
The San Francisco bands preached peace and love. The L.A. scene thrived on hustle. Adler makes no claim of sainthood. “We were street guys going up against a lot of big companies, so we did what we had to do,” he says.
“There weren’t a lot of attorneys in the business then, so if we were taken sometimes, we did some taking too.”
When the antiwar movement began in the mid-1960s, Adler gave a copy of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” to his in-house songwriters, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, who until then had been performing as the Fantastic Baggies and writing songs like “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’.” Soon they were writing protest anthems for Adler like McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” When Adler and John Phillips put on the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, Phillips penned his own festival commercial, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which Adler released on his new label, Ode Records.
Immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Monterey Pop,” the festival launched the careers of innumerable rock and pop icons, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Laura Nyro and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. By the late ‘60s, Adler and his pop star pals were mixing it up with the young royalty from the movie business. When the Mamas & the Papas played the Hollywood Bowl, everyone from Keith Richards to Steve McQueen was in the audience. Peter Fonda was hanging out with David Crosby, Mia Farrow was buying Mama Cass silk robes at her favorite shop in Beverly Hills, and Jack Nicholson was dating Michelle Phillips, who introduced Adler to his basketball buddy.
When asked if he crossed over between music and movies, Adler laughs and says, “Well, I dated a lot of actresses.” “Ride the Wild Surf” starlet Shelley Fabares, his first wife, did the liner notes for Jan & Dean albums. Adler cut an album with Peggy Lipton, an old girlfriend. Ann-Margret, another girlfriend, nicknamed Adler “Spunky,” which he used as his writing credit on Jan & Dean’s “Honolulu Lulu.” Britt Ekland, mother of Adler’s oldest son, turned him on to “The Rocky Horror Show,” which Adler put on at the Roxy, a club he launched in the early 1970s.
Keeping his hand in
Unlike Nicholson, who has shared Laker seats with Adler for 30 years, the producer has given up dating for domesticity. Adler has been married to Page, Daryl Hannah’s sister, for 11 years. Adler now has seven sons (the youngest four with Page), who range in age from 1 to 30. As he drolly puts it: “Toys in my shower for 30 years.” Adler still keeps his hand in, organizing the Painted Turtle Camp benefit and producing a new TV version of “The Rocky Horror Show.” But his days as an industry player are over -- he’s content to let the next generation have the stage. His oldest son, Nic, runs the Roxy and manages Whitestarr, a band whose singer is Adler’s 24-year-old son, Cisco. His 18-year-old son, Sonny, is in film school in Denmark.
Adler keeps up with current music -- his favorite artists include Ryan Adams, Norah Jones, John Mayer, No Doubt, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dixie Chicks. But he’s dismayed by the overwhelming corporatization of the music business.
“The creative process always suffers when the corporate side of the business has more control,” he says. “It’s amazing how much power the record companies have today -- they have a right to stop artists after they’ve recorded their rough mixes and make them cut something they think can get played on the radio. When I did ‘Tapestry’ with Carole King, the record was spare and simple, like a demo. If someone had told me to go back and put horns on it, it would’ve been all wrong. If you’re enthusiastic enough to sign an artist, let them do what got you enthusiastic.”
Of his role in helping shape so much of L.A.'s pop iconography, Adler simply says, “I was always curious. I just got a thrill out of discovering new things.” He has no regrets about keeping such a low profile.
“I always respected what the artists did. They’re the stars. Whatever I did, I felt more comfortable in the background. I was just happy to be along for the ride.”