John Porter made his name with British indie and rock music — but is now arguably the world's leading producer of blues records.
Two years ago, John Porter embarked on yet another chapter in his four-decade journey as a producer, waving goodbye to the LA recording industry that had served him so well for the previous 20 years and moving across country to New Orleans, a city that has always been very close to his heart. Porter does still occasionally trek outside the borders of Louisiana to track at different studios, but records in the city where possible, and almost always mixes at his own Independence Street mix room.
"I love New Orleans and I've always loved New Orleans music,” John tells us. "There is nowhere — certainly in America — where there is more music going on 24 hours a day than New Orleans. There's so many great players, I have good friends here, and I thought it would just be a good place to get involved in the local music scene. The record industry is completely different from the way it was 10 years ago, so there was no reason that we had to remain in LA.”
While in Los Angeles, John produced an almost constant stream of top artists including Ryan Adams, Joe Walsh, Maria Muldaur, Stephen Stills, Los Lonely Boys and Carlos Santana, but it's his life-long love of blues and blues-related music that has brought Porter a staggering 10 Grammy awards. Buddy Guy, BB King, Taj Mahal, Otis Rush, RL Burnside, John Lee Hooker, Lucky Peterson, John Mayall, Jimmy Smith and Keb' Mo' are just a few of those to benefit from John's assured production techniques and studio acumen. Porter also helped set up Cello Studios in Hollywood in 1999, running the successful multi-room complex for several years before opting out in order to concentrate on his own independent productions. Cello was located at the legendary United Western Recorders building on Sunset Boulevard, and is now operating as the equally prestigious EastWest Studios.
To British music fans, though, John Porter's name probably has very different associations. Prior to his move to LA in 1990, his credits during the 1970s and '80s include Bryan Ferry, Andy MacKay, Billy Bragg, the Alarm and the Smiths. "In England, I think if I had any reputation at all it was probably as a producer of those English 'alternative' guitar bands and of very English-sounding records,” explains John. "Then I came to America and I started producing these blues artists and I suddenly seemed to have a reputation for being the guy that only made blues records, which is almost diametrically opposite to what I was doing before. So in England, I've been perceived as a guy that only did jangly guitar bands and in America I've been perceived as the guy who works primarily with black men over the age of 60!”
John Porter was born and brought up in Leeds. As a kid, his family home was always buzzing with music, albeit of a classical bent. John's own musical turning point came at the age of 10, when his mind was blown by a rock & roll track played on Uncle Mac's Saturday morning Children's Favourites radio show on the BBC. "I heard Little Richard singing 'Lucille', which must've been in 1957,” Porter recalls. "It was like an epiphany and I very quickly started to find out as much as I could about that kind of music, although information was quite hard to get hold of in those days.”
By the age of 13, Porter was already gigging as a guitarist with local bands, playing a mix of rock & roll and instrumental tunes, as popularised by acts like the Shadows, the Ventures and Duane Eddy. In the very early '60s, John discovered the joys of American Forces Network radio, which was broadcast to the UK from a base in Germany. "I got hugely obsessed with the blues and black music and R&B,” says John. "And I guess there were lots of other younger guys like the Stones and the Beatles and everybody else, basically listening to the same stuff, unbeknownst to each other.”
In the mid-'60s, Porter was studying Fine Art at Newcastle University, where he met Bryan Ferry. John joined Ferry's R&B/soul outfit the Gas Board, who were attracting a sizeable local following. In 1967, the band were invited to lay down some tracks at Pye Studios in London for an American producer. This was Porter's first time inside a professional recording facility and he believes the "awful experience” helped shape the way he personally approached record production further down the line.
"We were playing this song we'd written, and we just kept hearing this disembodied voice in the headphones saying, 'Play it again! Play it again! Play it again!',” explains Porter. "We weren't allowed to hear it in the control room, and there was never any kind of constructive criticism or anything like, 'Let's find out what's working and what's not working,' just a bored voice saying, 'Ah, take 24!' Would you believe? That left an awful taste in my mouth, but it was quite a formative experience, because later on, especially if I was in the studio with young guys, I was always very aware that it was really important that musicians felt comfortable in the studio and that they knew what was going on and that they were made to feel they belonged there. If you've never been in a recording studio before, it's such a weird environment… especially if you're used to playing in front of hundreds of people in clubs and there's terrific feedback between you and the audience. Suddenly, you're in this room with headphones on, hearing something that probably doesn't sound at all like what you're used to hearing. It can be very disconcerting.”
It was after graduating from university that John Porter realised he wanted to forge some kind of a career in recording. Initially, John saw his future as a session guitarist and, after moving into a flat in Notting Hill, he began spending every possible waking hour at Island's Basing Street Studios. Not only were the studios almost opposite John's flat, but he also had friends who were engineers there, and whenever there was any down time in Studio One or Studio Two, Porter's phone would ring and he'd shoot over the road to cut tracks with other like-minded musicians, taking advantage of what was generally regarded as staff "learning time”. In addition, legendary American producer Bob Johnston — of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Simon & Garfunkel fame — gave John an unofficial semi-apprenticeship in record production while he was visiting London.
"Bob came over to do a bunch of records in England, and I think he had six or seven albums to do,” recalls John. "He took a liking to Island Studio Two, which was the studio downstairs, and he liked to work with Bob Potter, who was my best pal and a young engineer there. First of all, I just used to go in there and sit down with Bob Potter, and if they were having a session, I'd be rolling a few joints and making cups of tea, but then it got to the point that if I wasn't there, Bob Johnston would call up and say, 'Why don't you come down the studio?' He'd say, 'What do you think of that?' And I'd say, 'Well, I think the kick drum's a bit sloppy,' or 'Maybe that chorus could stand out a bit more.' He would quite openly ask me what I thought, and I felt very easy about voicing my thoughts about how it was being recorded or whether that solo was good enough or whether the take before was a better take. He basically took me under his wing in a way, and it was very, very kind of him, because I was just a young kid. At the same time, there was a lot of great music going on at Island and I got to sit in on all kinds of peoples' sessions, like Stevie Winwood and the Wailers, watching records being made. I was taking it all in and I do remember at the time thinking, 'Well, why don't I just ask if I can become a tape-op and start engineering?' But I didn't really want to become an engineer, because I was more interested in the creative end of it.”
Ferry's Foolish Things
After spending a year in California, struggling as a session guitarist without a green card, John Porter returned to the UK in 1972 to find that his old pal Bryan Ferry's new band, Roxy Music, were flying high following the release of their debut album. Ferry immediately got in touch when he heard about John's return, and asked him if he fancied becoming the group's new bass player. Although he didn't want the role full-time, Porter agreed on a temporary arrangement, whereby he would play on Roxy's second album, For Your Pleasure (recorded at AIR Studios in early 1973), and would gig with them until they found a permanent member.
Almost as soon as For Your Pleasure was in the bag, Bryan Ferry wanted to get back in the studio to cut a new record. "Bryan said, 'Look, I'd like to make a solo album, but we'll do cover songs and we'll keep it separate from all the Roxy things. Would you like to produce it with me?'” explains Porter. "And I said, 'Oh yeah, I'd love to!' because I think Bryan knew that I was very happy in the studio and I guess, doing that Roxy record, he could see that I knew what was going on, as I was sitting at the desk a lot of the time making suggestions. I also knew quite a lot of musicians in London, probably more than Bryan did at that point — so that was These Foolish Things, which was basically my baptism in the world of record production. It was done pretty quickly and it was fun. It did quite well, and I'd got the bit between my teeth, and that's when I really decided that production was where it was at.”
Porter produced a solo record for Roxy Music's Andy Mackay soon afterwards, and the work started steadily trickling in. Within just a few years of becoming an independent producer in the UK, John Porter was not only incredibly busy on a mixture of smaller and larger scale projects, but he had also settled on a production approach that would ensure he got the best out of each and every musician he encountered.
"I would still say that the most important thing is to try to make everybody comfortable,” says John. "If you feel good, you play good — and if you play good, the music sounds good. It really is that simple! The psychological state needed to play well in a studio is completely different from that needed to play live in front of an audience, although the technique required is really the same. It's all about making people comfortable, with whatever that entails. That's the kind of Pandora's Box of record production. Sometimes all that's required is to make a cup of tea or a cup of coffee at the right moment; or, conversely, you might be in the studio with some young guys and to make them comfortable might involve doing almost everything — helping them to write the song, arrange the song and possibly play it. This especially happened with the punk thing in the early '80s. I think a lot of the art is in actually being able to quickly size up the situation and see what's required and who requires what. Different people require different things, so it's a matter of coaxing and encouraging, and it can be a bit like filling in a jigsaw. It's like there's a picture there somewhere and there's 500 pieces to this jigsaw but they've only got 210. So you have to come up with the other 290 pieces, or at least show them what those other 290 pieces should look like.”
In the mid-'80s, John Porter began getting calls to produce albums in America, and by the end of the decade, he was spending so much time away from both his home and his young family that his wife Linda decided that it was time to relocate. One of the first albums John produced after moving to the States was Buddy Guy's critically acclaimed 1991 long player, Damn Right, I've Got The Blues, although, perversely enough, the record ended up being cut in London. This stands out as possibly one of the most important projects of Porter's career. Not only did it secure John his first Grammy, but it also completely revitalised Buddy's career, while also helping ensure the Leeds-born producer would get to work with some of his other all-time blues heroes. Porter had initiated the project from the very beginning.
"My friend Andrew Lauder was running Silvertone [Records] at the time, and I'd said to Andrew some time before, 'Look, if I can get hold of Buddy Guy and if I can get him to do it, would you put a Buddy Guy record out?' and he'd said 'Yeah, yeah, sure…',” says John. "Buddy hadn't done a good record in 10 years or something. I actually then did a couple of gigs with Buddy in London with Eric Clapton, and it went really well, and Buddy's then manager was fired up for it so we talked to him, and later Andrew made the deal. At the same time, I think Silvertone made the deal with Zomba [Records] and Zomba owned that studio in Willesden [London] called Battery, so Andrew said, 'Can we do it at Battery?' So, having just moved to America, I said, 'Well, yeah, sure!'”
One of John's initial priorities was selecting a stellar line-up of musicians to accompany Buddy Guy across the Damn Right… sessions. Choosing the perfect players for the job is one of Porter's many strengths as a producer, and his weighty contacts book gives him considerable advantage. Guy flew out to London from Chicago with his own bass player Greg Rzab in tow, while John arrived from LA with his old drumming friend, Richie Hayward of Little Feat. Keys players Mick Weaver and Pete Wingfield were also recruited, while Neil Hubbard and Porter himself contributed additional guitar. Backing vocals came courtesy of Tessa Niles, Katie Kissoon and Carol Kenyon, sax duties sat with another old pal Malcolm 'Molly' Duncan, and when John noticed that the legendary Memphis Horns were gigging in town, he duly booked them into Battery to lay down some additional brass. It was then that Porter decided Buddy Guy's comeback record might attract a little more attention if a few British guitar legends could be coaxed into playing on a track or two.
"I spoke to Eric Clapton and I think Eric was on the road in Dublin, so I flew over to Dublin, booked a studio and got Eric to play on a track,” explains Porter. "And I called Jeff Beck and Jeff turned up and played on a couple of tracks, and then I called Mark Knopfler and he played on it. Buddy was going out for, like, 500 bucks a night or something, and was very low-profile. He was always one of my absolute heroes as a guitar player and as a singer, so I thought, 'Well, let's load this record up a bit with a couple of 'names' on it and maybe we can sell a few copies'. At that time, that wasn't being done that much, but it was done to death subsequently, to the point where I was sick of looking at somebody's record and seeing 'names' on it! But it was released and it did very well. I believe it sold a million copies, and I think it is one of only four or five blues records that have ever sold a million copies. It did wonders for Buddy's career. And, funnily enough, after all those years of recording I was actually able to make a blues record, something that had been an initial motivation years before.”
Making The Blues Work
With 10 Grammys in the bag, it can certainly be said that John Porter knows a thing or two about how to make a successful blues record. Lesson number one, particularly when working with some of the genre's older players and singers, is to gain the confidence of the artist to guarantee a great performance. "Some of the real blues guys, like the guys who started off on the plantation or whatever, can have quite a lot of baggage,” says John. "And I have to be careful here, but some of those older generation guys have had really, really hard lives and have been dreadfully exploited by the music business. Many of these people made records that, over the years, have been hugely successful, but they haven't made a penny out of them, so they can be very guarded. To make a successful record with them, you've got to gain their confidence. If they see that you understand the music and you understand where they're coming from and you have a real love of the music, then they can open up. I'm not trying to denigrate anybody by saying this, but some guys have been so ripped off that they don't basically expect much out of it. And if they don't expect much out, they won't put much into it. They'll go through the motions. They'll be friendly and everything, but they won't necessarily open up.”
Selecting a high-quality, fitting and musically sensitive backing band is another important production decision. Across that vast batch of Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated blues records Porter cut between about 1991 and 2006, the musicians were tried and tested. "I pretty much had a nucleus of musicians,” explains Porter. "The band I used on a lot of the blues records was mostly the same — there'd be three or four guys that were appearing on most of them, and there was a pool of about 10 musicians that I regularly worked with.”
As far as song choices go, John would always research, prepare and suggest a selection of possible songs that each of the artists might end up recording. However, when it came to choosing new material written by the artist, it would sometimes have to be a case of waiting until the band were in the studio. "I particularly remember this with Otis [Rush] and to a certain extent with Buddy [Guy] too. We'd be talking a few weeks or sometimes months before the sessions, and I'd say, 'We need some new songs!'” recalls John. "And they'd say, 'Oh yeah, I've got songs'. But quite often I would never hear these songs until we actually did them in the studio, the reason being that I think they didn't want to have them stolen. I think that used to happen quite often in the old days. So it wasn't a case of my saying 'This is a good song,' 'This is not a good song,' or 'Let's do it this way,' because I didn't hear them almost until we were recording.”
Another lesson learned for John Porter on those blues-based recordings was to ensure his engineer always had the tape rolling. "The moment that anybody was playing, I tried to make sure I had the tape rolling, because a lot of the blues stuff was often first takes and quite often not even first takes,” says Porter. "Sometimes, somebody would just play an intro or start something up, the band would fall in and three minutes later it'd be done. There was a couple of instances with Buddy Guy where we'd all be sitting around in the studio with everybody holding their guitars and telling stories, and then suddenly somebody would play a lick and bang, it would just go! If we didn't have the tape running, there was no question of ever saying, 'Oh well, let's do another take of that!' because it wasn't like doing a commercial single, or something where you've worked out an arrangement of a song and you've got to present that song in a certain manner. It's live, and the only time it happens is when it happens.”
Since his move to New Orleans, back in 2010, John Porter has been as busy as ever, both mixing records at his own home-based facility and recording artists in various studios in the city and its surrounding States. These days, John engineers 80 percent of his production projects himself, although it's not a state of affairs he particularly favours. "There is nothing I like better than being part of a team,” he sighs. "I love working with great engineers, and it's great having a second engineer and support staff, but the cost to maintain all that has to be passed onto the artist. Budgets quite often can't support that. With initial tracking, I like to be more involved in the arrangement and the creative end of it, rather than the technical end of it. For example, if I'm fiddling with vocal compressors and getting vocal levels, I might not notice something the guitarist has played that might've been a signature riff. Two heads are better than one.”
Recent projects for John Porter have included mixing a new Curtis Salgado album, producing records by both Jon Cleary and the Honey Island Swamp Band, and working on the audio for a video-game commercial. One group, however, have pitched Porter's career around full circle. The Dunwells, whose debut album John produced at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Texas, are an English guitar band. From Leeds. "I think it's really kind of ironic that I end up working in Texas with a band from Leeds, because I'm from Leeds!” laughs John. "I think they're a great band and I think it's a good record. They're a band that I have high hopes for.”
John Porter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'How Soon Is Now?'
Of all the records that John Porter produced in England, before moving to Los Angeles in 1990, it's arguably his work with the Smiths for which he is most well known. John produced their debut self-titled album, which was released in 1984, followed by singles including 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. The tremolo-drenched 'How Soon Is Now?' was originally released as the 'B' side of the 'William…' single, before Rough Trade put it out as a single in its own right in 1985. Sadly, its recording marked the end of Porter's main period working with the Manchester group: "I was very, very excited about 'How Soon Is Now?'. I thought it was a breakthrough for me and for them, although at the time, it wasn't seen as such. In fact, I got fired after that because [Rough Trade] said that I was changing the sound of the Smiths too much. I was trying to do something that would break them out of the cliquey kind of sameness that their records tended to have. I felt that they were never going to do it in America unless they started to expand a bit, so I was very consciously trying to make something that might help break them over there, which I think it did subsequently.
"We went into Jam Studios in North London and we had one main song to record, which was 'William…' which they'd already written and we got it down very quickly. Then there was another song that was in its embryo state, which was 'Please, Please, Please' [Let Me Get What I Want], which I really love to this day, and we put that down very quickly. I think we'd booked Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the studio, and it was Saturday morning and we'd done the two things that we'd set out to do, so I said to Johnny [Marr], 'Have you got anything else? What have you got?' and he played me this little lick, very similar to 'William' actually — this high-picking lick thing.
"So I said, 'Hold on, let's do something where we don't have all these chord changes! Let's do something like, say, James Brown where it's all about the groove, sticking around on one chord forever and then maybe go to a bridge.' I remember I was sitting down with a guitar playing 'That's All Right, Mama', the old Arthur Crudup tune which Elvis did, and I said, 'Let's do something like this.' I think Johnny was tuned to F#, and he started doing this groove thing and we started digging it. I said 'Just play the groove thing for fucking ages and then go into that other 'William bit' [the B section] but do it two octaves down, at the same tempo as the groove.'
"Then I programmed a Linn Drum percussion loop and we brought in Andy [Rourke, bassist] and Mike [Joyce, drummer] and played it to them. I remember saying to Mike, 'Just try and hold the groove down, don't worry about fills or anything!' We rehearsed it for a few minutes and then recorded two takes, and I edited the best bits of each take together. They came back and listened and everybody [apart from Morrissey, who wasn't at the studio] said, 'Oh yeah, this is great!'
"I think that it was possibly at that point where I thought it'd be good to have a tremolo effect, because initially the guitar we put down wasn't tremoloed. We tremoloed the guitar in a number of different ways, using a noise gate triggered from a cowbell programmed in the Linn Drum and using three Fender Twins. I was standing in front of the Twins adjusting the tremolo speeds, and we would punch in then punch out whenever the Twins got out of time with each other. Then we did the B section again, but Johnny did it through a Leslie cabinet, I put on some slide guitar licks and we put some harmonics on it. Then I suggested to Johnny to play some licks all the way through it, which he did, and I picked out just a couple of them, put them into an AMS sampler and spread them out into places where I thought they might fit the track.
"I then made a copy and drove up by Morrissey's place on the way home and posted it through his letter box, and I think he came in the next day with his lyric book. Pretty much what is there is almost all his first or second run-through. At that point, I was starting to think, 'Right, this is sounding really fucking good,' and Johnny was getting really excited. I did have to mix it one more time, though, because at the end of the vocal, Morrissey had said, 'OK?' and I left that in because I thought it sounded great but Morrissey really didn't like it. Because it wasn't an automated mix, I had to mix it again to take the 'OK' out, and I think that mix was actually better than the one we did originally.”
It could, perhaps, be assumed that someone so passionate about old blues records might be old-school analogue through and through, but this is far from the case. Digital audio has long been an area of fascination for John Porter.
"I was always really interested in digital recording and the possibilities of multitrack hard disk recording, and I always thought that it was going to be the way to go, probably as long as 25 or 30 years ago,” John explains. "It was possibly a little bit premature at that time, because it was extremely expensive to store relatively small amounts of information. I was using the first Yamaha CX5 computer with MIDI ports when it came out. I was very into the old Atari computers running Cubase and samplers like the Synclavier and the Fairlight, and then the AMS and the Publison, and all those other subsequent digital recorders. So when Pro Tools [Sound Tools] came out, I got into it. It was still primitive but it was still fascinating. I was recording to tape all the time, but if I needed to, I would edit in Pro Tools. Sometimes, if we didn't have long to make a record, using Pro Tools enabled me to have much more control after the fact. It was much easier than editing on tape. I would dump everything into Pro Tools, edit, and then dump the edited parts back to tape. I think there's an awful lot of hot air about digital versus analogue, given that the really important thing is a really good performance. How the music's captured is always going to be less important than a bad performance or a bad song. The medium is not the most important thing. The song and the performance are the most important things. I think tape is great but I've also found the quality of new tape, the last two times I've used it, to be very inconsistent… and, of course, using Pro Tools means you don't have all the problems we used to have in the old days with additional tape hiss during the mixing process.”
If there's one instrument that a blues producer has to know how to capture properly, it's the guitar, and John Porter has had a lot of experience in doing so. "The actual process of recording and the tools that one uses for recording are probably, in my case, pretty much the same whatever the music is. A guitar's a guitar, basically. It's either an acoustic or an electric and the way that you record them is pretty much the same whether they're playing Chinese music or whatever.”
John Porter's favourite mic for guitar cabs is a Shure SM57, positioned right up to the grille at the edge of the voice coil. "That's as good as it gets, for me. If you'd like a little more room, a Neumann U67 is a great mic to put a few feet away, but there's all kinds of mics you can use. The thing generally with a mic is when I put the fader up, I want it to be punchy and as close as possible, right there at the front of my nose. In terms of rock guitar and overdriven guitars, the closer you can get them, the punchier it'll sound. A sort of cardinal rule of recording is that it's easy to make something more live-sounding or more roomy-sounding after the fact, but it's impossible to make something less roomy-sounding after the fact — so suddenly you can't get 'close' enough to a guitar part and you're fucked! If the mic is at a certain distance, or the room has gone down the mic, once it's in that position in the room, you can't bring it any closer — whereas you can take it further away by re-amping or re-miking or using effects.”
As far as amps go, Porter leans towards the classic Fender models. "If you're working with somebody who basically spends every night on stage standing in front of a couple of 100 Watt stacks, he's probably not going to be very happy if you tell him, 'Well, here's a Fender Champ!' But, having said that, I do like small amps. I've used my old '59 or '60 Tweed Deluxe and my '59 or '60 Tweed Bassman more than anything else in all kinds of situations. AC30s and Marshalls and other things have been really useful, but the workhorse amps on probably as much as 50 or 60 percent of the guitar sessions I've ever done have been one or two of those amps.”