Producer helped shape Atlantic Records’ sound
Joel Dorn, a producer who won two consecutive Grammys for record of the year at Atlantic Records while helping to shape that label’s distinctive jazz sound, died Monday after suffering a heart attack in New York. He was 65.
“Joel bridged the worlds of jazz and pop with enormous skill and grace, never compromising the integrity of his artists and their music,” Edgar Bronfman Jr., chairman and chief executive of the Warner Music Group, which includes Atlantic Records, said in a statement. “A great character, he loved and understood the music, and he had a rare gift of identifying genuine talent and drawing out their best work.”
Dorn worked for Atlantic from 1967 to 1974, when the label had some of the hottest producers in the business, including label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, as well as Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet’s brother and head of the jazz division.
Dorn’s use of pop production techniques brought new attention to jazz artists, including drummer Max Roach, flutist Herbie Mann, pianist Les McCann, saxophonist Eddie Harris, vibraphonist Gary Burton and saxophonists Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef.
In the pop field, he produced singer Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which was named record of the year for 1972. Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” also produced by Dorn, took the same honor the next year.
He was also the primary producer on Bette Midler’s debut album on Atlantic, “The Divine Miss M.” Among the other leading pop artists he worked with were the Neville Brothers, Don McLean, Lou Rawls and Donny Hathaway.
Dorn was born April 7, 1942, and grew up in suburban Philadelphia. As a teenager he knew he wanted to be in the record business and started corresponding with Nesuhi Ertegun.
“I’d send letters telling him who I thought they should have duet with Ray Charles, what talent they were missing out on, all sorts of critiques and suggestions,” Dorn recalled in an interview some years ago.
Ertegun took notice in the early 1960s after Dorn established himself as a disc jockey at the influential Philadelphia radio station WHAT-FM. By 1963, Dorn was producing records for Ertegun, and four years later he joined Atlantic as Ertegun’s assistant. In that capacity, he produced records, signed acts and became involved with promotion and marketing.
He once noted that his work as a producer was most influenced by the songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and producer Phil Spector.
“To this day, before I go in and make a record, I’ll throw on ‘Be My Baby’ or a Coasters record,” he said.
Dorn left the label in 1974 after accumulating 10 gold albums, five platinum albums and seven gold singles.
Over the next three decades, he started his own labels, including 32 Records, which reissued albums from the Muse and Landmark vaults.
His biggest commercial success during that time was the “Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon” compilation series of traditional acoustic jazz, which brought together a broad spectrum of artists.
He also consulted with firms such as Rhino, GRP and Columbia in producing reissue packages for compact discs. For Rhino, he produced the 13-CD historical overview of Atlantic Records’ jazz years, as well as “The Heavyweight Champion,” a seven-CD box set of work by John Coltrane.
In 2003, Dorn helped start Hyena Records, an independent label mixing new and archival recordings by a variety of artists including Dr. John, Bobby Darin, Thelonious Monk and Joe Williams.
More recently, he was the voice of Sirius Satellite Radio’s “Pure Jazz” channel.
He is survived by his longtime companion, Faye Rosen, and his three sons, Michael, Adam and David, who is senior vice president of digital strategy for Rhino Records.