Don Was, the Grammy Award-winning record producer who’s president of the legendary, 75-year-old label, Blue Note Records, will appear at 11 a.m. Friday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation’s Sync Up Conference for a keynote interview.
Saturday the Los Angeles-based Was assumes another role, leading the all-star band for a starry, sold-out tribute to Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre.
Detroit native Was released pop-R&B hits in the late 1980s with his group, Was (Not Was). And then his back-to-back production work for two hit comeback albums in 1989 — Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time” and the B-52s’ “Cosmic Thing” — launched his producer’s career in a big way. Was’ list of production clients includes the Rolling Stones, Aaron Neville, John Mayer, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, fellow Detroiter Iggy Pop and, up next, Neil Diamond.
Before “Nick of Time” and “Cosmic Thing,” Was experienced years of struggle in the music business. For the latter two breakthrough albums, he didn’t do anything much differently from what he’d done for earlier projects.
“I don’t fully understand how all that happened,” he said recently from L.A. “And I don’t understand how it still happens. Some things resonate and some things don’t.”
Yet going into the Raitt and the B-52s projects, Was knew how lucky he was to be working with great artists. And after the B-52s’ “Cosmic Thing” comeback, the soft-spoken, unpretentious producer cringed when he read that he’d made the group’s resurrection possible.
“Well, I was there,” he said. “But they’ve been a great group forever. Same with Bonnie. They were amazing people who caught some breaks and then didn’t get a few breaks, but then it turned again. All of this is cyclical. All you can do is ride out the trough and maximize the crest.”
Was remastered Raitt’s “Nick of Time” last month for the album’s 25th anniversary edition. A life-changing project for Was and Raitt, it won three Grammy awards, including the album of the year Grammy, shared by the artist and her producer.
“It’s the first rock ’n’ roll album where the artist was not preening and pretending to be 10, 15 years younger,” Was said. “Bonnie embraced the issues that come up at 40. She did it so honestly and soulfully, without apology. That resonated with everybody else who was going through the same thing.”
More recently, Was helmed Aaron Neville’s dream project, “My True Story,” a collection of doo-wop and R&B classics released by Blue Note early last year.
“The dichotomy about Aaron is that he’s one of the most intimidating-looking characters you’ll ever run into and the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet,” Was said. “It’s an exotic combination.”
Was co-produced “My True Story” with Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who also played for the album.
“We had so much fun,” Was said of the sessions. “It was like playing a gig, almost. Aaron would call a song and, if people didn’t know it, we’d download it, listen to it once and then go play it. We had a list of songs but we deviated quickly. It was very stream of consciousness. Aaron did live vocals right in the room with everybody. It sounded amazing. He’s got that incredible spirit in his voice. It’s a beautiful record. I’m proud to be associated with it.”
In his role as Blue Note Records’ president, Was wants to follow the original vision of label founders Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. As a mission statement from a 1939 Blue Note flyer states: “Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive.”
“If you don’t take risks,” Was said, “you can’t possibly make great new music. Those entrepreneurs — like Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records) and Chris Blackwell (Island Records) and Jac Holzman (Elektra and Nonesuch) and Art Rupe (Specialty) — they didn’t care. They gambled with their own bread and stayed at the table till they won.”