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Tommy LiPuma: Paul McCartney Kisses On The Bottom

Interview | Producer By Richard Buskin
Published May 2012

Half a century into his career, Paul McCartney has paid tribute to the songs that shaped his musical education with his first-ever album of standards.

The dream team: producer Tommy LiPuma (left), Paul McCartney, and engineer Al Schmitt.The dream team: producer Tommy LiPuma (left), Paul McCartney, and engineer Al Schmitt.Photo: © 2012 MPL Communications Ltd / Photographer MJ Kim

One of the wonderful things about the Beatles' recorded output was its sheer diversity. Listen to the White Album alone and you will hear everything from rock to blues, folk to country, music-hall to heavy metal. This reflects the childhoods of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who were tuned into a wide array of musical genres via the gramophone, the radio, and family singalongs.

In the 1920s, Paul's father Jim had his own jazz band, and as his son recently stated, "For years I've been wanting to do some of the old songs that my parents' generation used to sing at New Year. What would happen is us kids would arrive at the 'do', the carpets would get rolled back, all the women would sit around with their little drinks… someone would play the piano and it was normally my Dad. They would sing these old songs all night — 'When The Red Red Robin', 'Carolina Moon' — and I took all of that in.

"I never learned how to play them. All I ever did was sing them at the family sing-songs. They're quite complicated, the chords and things. I'd have a bash, and I did eventually become the sort of family piano player, at New Year, as my Dad got a bit older and I got a bit more capable. But I was always busking it; he knew the real chords and I had to busk my way around.”

Likewise, according to McCartney, John Lennon wasn't just into rock & roll when the two first met. Instead, his favourite songs also included numbers such as 'Little White Lies' (a Walter Donaldson composition, first published in 1930, and recorded by anyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Dick Haymes to Dinah Shore and Ruby Murray), which John reportedly heard his mother Julia sing when he was growing up; and 'Close Your Eyes', written by Bernice Petkere and first published in 1933, which was recorded by the likes of Ruth Etting, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett and Humphrey Lyttelton. "Those were the kind of songs that we'd been listening to, and that attracted me to him,” McCartney explained. "And I do think they did have quite an influence on us melodically.”

Reaching The Bottom

The first sessions for the album took place at LA's Capitol Studios.The first sessions for the album took place at LA's Capitol Studios.Photo: © 2012 MPL Communications Ltd / Photographer MJ Kim

In 2009, Paul McCartney finally felt the time might be right for him to record some of these songs. So he contacted Tommy LiPuma who, during a production career that stretches back to 1964, has garnered 30 Grammy nominations and three wins for his work with, among many others, George Benson, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Al Jarreau and Anita Baker. The result is Kisses On The Bottom, a title lifted from its first song, the 1935 Fats Waller number 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter'. Recorded by LiPuma's longtime studio collaborator, 18-time Grammy winner Al Schmitt, the record also features the piano contributions of Diana Krall and guest appearances by Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder.

"I first got involved with the project two and a half years ago,” LiPuma says. "I guess Paul had been thinking about it for quite some time. I have known Nancy Jeffries, who runs Paul's MPL music publishing company, since she was Elektra's senior vice-president of A&R back in the '90s. When he asked her for a recommendation as to who should produce the record, she contacted me, and July 2009 was when I had my first meeting with Paul. If we were going to do something of this nature, we'd have to agree on what made sense stylistically, so for the next eight or nine months we emailed each other, threw some song ideas back and forth, and in March of 2010 I spent four or five days with him.”

This time together was spent at McCartney's country home in East Sussex and at his nearby recording studio, Hog Hill Mill, housed within a building attached to an old windmill by the sea.

"I had some ideas, but nothing specific,” LiPuma continues. "So to try them out, I brought the pianist Tamir Hendelman with me — not necessarily the keyboard player who I had in mind to work on the record, but someone who could change keys at a second's notice for this trial run-through. Every so often, when we'd come across material that showed promise, we'd put it down on tape so that we at least had something to refer to, and at the end of those few days I walked away with a sense of what Paul's strengths were and what would make sense in terms of doing a project of this nature. I now had a pretty concrete idea as to the stylistic direction we should take and who we should use, so I ran those thoughts by him and we really were in agreement on quite a few things.

"Having been born in 1936, I was not only into R&B as a kid, but I was also into pop music because the radio was always on in the house. In fact, I came down with an illness when I was nine or 10, so I was bedridden for quite some time and the radio became my friend. In my teens, I then became a saxophone player, and I played professionally until the time I got involved in the record business. So I knew the Great American Songbook because I played it for a living, and the things Paul seemed to gravitate to — and have a better sense as to what to do with them — were numbers from the late '20s through the early '40s. They were the ones he felt most comfortable with.”

Call Krall

Ageing has given Paul McCartney's voice a 'vulnerable' quality which, according to producer Tommy LiPuma, helped to convey sincerity and respect for the material. The vintage Neumann U47 probably helped too.Ageing has given Paul McCartney's voice a 'vulnerable' quality which, according to producer Tommy LiPuma, helped to convey sincerity and respect for the material. The vintage Neumann U47 probably helped too.Photo: © 2012 MPL Communications Ltd / Photographer MJ Kim

When it came to assembling a backing group, McCartney was happy to let LiPuma recruit people he had worked with and admired. Chief among them was Diana Krall, the celebrated Canadian jazz pianist who has sold more than 18 million albums worldwide. Since 1994, no fewer than a dozen of her albums have been produced by Tommy LiPuma, so it was natural for him to have her play piano and handle the rhythm arrangements for all but one of the songs. The sole exception is the album's closer, 'Only Our Hearts', which features Tamir Hendelman on piano, along with rhythm and orchestral arrangements by Johnny Mandel.

"When I told Diana about the project with Paul, she said, 'Look, if you need me for anything, I'd love to be involved,'” LiPuma recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, that makes sense. Let us just get to the point where we start assembling the material.' She knows this music so well — nobody knows the period better than she does — and she also plays absolutely fantastic stride piano. So, having her play a key role was a natural choice and, fortunately for everyone, Paul agreed. He knew of her and, I think, he'd heard some of her records and recognised that she's very talented.

"Most of everything — with the exception of 'The Glory Of Love', 'My Very Good Friend The Milkman', 'Get Yourself Another Fool' and 'Only Our Hearts' — had Diana's road-band members Robert Hurst on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums, along with the wonderful jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli,” LiPuma explains. "Then, on the other tracks, we had the bass player John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Anthony Wilson, who are among the musicians I have recorded Diana with in the studio.

"Although the first session for Paul's album saw us recording three days in a row, it was a case of a day here and two or three days there over the course of about eight months. One time, he was going to be in LA for a day, so he asked me if I'd be available, I said I would, and since it didn't make sense to start flying in the road-band guys for just a single date, I told him the ones who play on Diana's records are great and Paul was fine with that. Clayton, Hamilton and Wilson are therefore on 'The Glory Of Love' and 'My Very Good Friend The Milkman', while Wilson is also on 'Get Yourself Another Fool', which has Christian McBride playing the bass.”

Although McCartney played a few guitar lines on the album (a couple of which were later replaced by Eric Clapton), he made a conscious decision not to play the bass guitar, the instrument with which he is most closely associated. "The music called for an acoustic bass and he's not an acoustic bass player,” says Tommy LiPuma. "So, even if he would have liked to try, he knew there were guys who played that style better than he could. John Clayton and Bob Hurst are really great players, and he therefore never had to tell them what he thought they should do… although I'm sure he would have said something if he didn't like what he heard.”

McCartney also trusted Tommy LiPuma's judgement with regard to studios: Avatar Studios on West 53rd Street in New York City and Capitol on North Vine Street in Hollywood, California. "They both have great old Neve 8000-series boards and they're perfect for the music we were recording,” LiPuma remarks. "What's more, I like high-ceiling rooms that give the overtones space to be properly heard. Aside from Al Schmitt's expertise, the reason why the record has a sense of transparency is that mics are like ears and they have a chance to breathe in those settings.”

So, given the desire to capture a warm sound, was there also a temptation to record on analogue? "No, we recorded digital with Pro Tools,” LiPuma responds. "I was one of the last holdouts with regard to analogue. I didn't like the original Pro Tools or the Sony digital machines — when I'd listen to the results, everything sounded clean, but things didn't gel and sound cohesive. However, several years ago it got to the point where Al said to me, 'These things are getting much better,' and he was right. Not only was digital much more practical, but when we A/B'd it with analogue you'd have to be a bloodhound to tell the difference between the two. So there was no doubt that digital was the way to go.”

When Bigger Isn't Better

Pianist Diana Krall was the linchpin of the backing group put together by Tommy LiPuma.Pianist Diana Krall was the linchpin of the backing group put together by Tommy LiPuma.Photo: © 2012 MPL Communications Ltd / Photographer MJ Kim

It was in March 2011 that everyone entered Capitol's legendary Studio A to begin running through the list of songs that McCartney and LiPuma had compiled. "I like going into the studio with great material and a great rhythm section to do some pre-production,” says LiPuma. "That's generally how I work, although from time to time I've also gone in with an arrangement already written. For the most part, I like going in with a small rhythm section and a chord chart and just work out the song right there on the date. When you've got great musicians there in the room and equally great material, you end up getting something that's not only magic, but spontaneous too.

"Initially, we tried a bunch of songs with a small rhythm section as well as two numbers — 'My Valentine' and 'Only Our Hearts' — with Johnny Mandel's arrangements and a full orchestra, and I quickly came to the conclusion that the ones that were done in a much looser fashion had a much better feel. I felt that 'My Valentine' would make more sense if we did it with a small group; Paul was willing to try it and we put the strings on afterwards. With the exception of 'Only Our Hearts', all of the strings were recorded after the fact.

"With a small group, people can play off — and inspire — one another. So, that's what we did, and it suited Paul because it reminded him a lot of how the Beatles used to do things. He told me that when he and John would write a song they'd go in and play it for George, Ringo and George Martin; they'd work it out and within an hour or an hour and a half they'd be ready to record it. So, coincidentally, how I work 98 percent of the time is also how Paul feels more comfortable working.

"Big-band recordings are a different animal, but normally, when you have too many bodies in a room, it makes everything more rigid. You have to stick to a chart, and then if the string section gets it right and the rhythm section doesn't, things can get complicated and you sometimes end up having to make a compromise. On the other hand, when you go in with just bass, drums, guitar and piano, you're able to really concentrate on getting the feel and getting the right tempo.

"I remember, many years ago, I read something that [band leader] Harry James once said; that you can lose a record with the wrong tempo. That stuck with me because he was absolutely right. You can lose a hit by having the wrong tempo, so I'm very, very conscious of that.”

Making A Start

Many of the songs on Kisses On The Bottom feature string arrangements, some recorded at Abbey Road and some, as here, at Capitol.Many of the songs on Kisses On The Bottom feature string arrangements, some recorded at Abbey Road and some, as here, at Capitol.Photo: © 2012 MPL Communications Ltd / Photographer MJ Kim

The first song that Paul McCartney and the band ran through was Irving Berlin's 'Cheek To Cheek', famously performed by Fred Astaire in the 1935 movie Top Hat. However, despite his familiarity with the number and the fact that he was singing into the exact same Neumann U47 microphone that had captured Nat 'King' Cole's velvety tones more than 50 years earlier, McCartney didn't like how it turned out. "It ended up feeling and sounding a little too much like a '20s or '30s pastiche,” says Tommy LiPuma. "Paul is a very savvy guy. A lot of artists don't know when things aren't right for them, but in this case I didn't need to twist his arm to make him realise when things were right and when they weren't.

"We all went in with a bit of trepidation as to whether or not it was going to work out, and 'More I Cannot Wish You' was probably the breakthrough. That, I think, was the song that gave Paul a sense as to how he should approach this material. It was the second thing we did after 'Cheek To Cheek'. We didn't immediately think, 'This is not working,' but we all sort of knew it, and then the minute we got to 'More I Cannot Wish You', he found this spot where he was comfortable with his voice, and that sort of broke the ice and got us going.”

In addition to the aforementioned string arrangement by Johnny Mandel and piano contribution of Tamir Hendelman, 'Only Our Hearts' features Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Chuck Berghoffer on bass, John Chiodini on guitar and, playing harmonica, a certain Stevie Wonder. "That track had a space left open for the solo, although we had no one in mind to perform it,” says LiPuma. "When I suggested Stevie, Paul liked the idea. So, being that they're friends and have worked together in the past, Paul called him, Stevie was into it and he came in just before we started mixing in LA. Well, talk about a giant set of ears — Stevie just listened to the track a couple of times and within 15 to 20 minutes we had the take.”

Tommy LiPuma: Paul McCartney Kisses On The BottomAbbey Road's Studio Two was where the London Symphony Orchestra's contributions to 'Home (When Shadows Fall)', 'My Valentine', 'Always', 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and 'Get Yourself Another Fool' were recorded when Paul McCartney had to be in England. Having already worked with the LSO on a number of occasions, this was fine by Tommy LiPuma. "Those musicians are absolutely brilliant,” he says. "I used the full orchestra on Diana Krall's Look Of Love album, but this was a cut-down version of the LSO, with about 32 players. We only had violas, violins, celli and a harp.”

When he and LiPuma were both in the UK, McCartney also tracked his backing vocals at Hog Hill Mill. "We also did a few overdubs there,” says LiPuma, "but most of what you hear are just the straight takes that Paul did with the band at Capitol and at Avatar. We might redo a phrase here or a bridge there, but we'd still want to save the original takes.”

As he approaches his 70th birthday, McCartney's vocal range has audibly diminished and, according to Diana Krall in a February 2012 interview with the Daily Express, the voice we hear on the new record "has something vulnerable, feminine, broken… I played and I had chills listening to this melancholy, this fragility. And then on some tracks, like 'My Valentine'… his voice became blues, powerful like a crooner.”

For his part, Tommy LiPuma wasn't aware of any vocal limitations impacting McCartney's approach or performance in front of the microphone. "Of course, I didn't work with Paul when he recorded things such as 'Blackbird', so I don't know if he'd now need to change keys,” he says. "Like any singer, some days are better for him than others, but he found the spot that made sense for him with regard to how we should approach this material, and that's what really changed the whole picture as to whether or not we should go forward with this project.

"The thing I'd really like to stress here is not only what a pro Paul McCartney is, but how he deals with musicians and — in my case — the producer. He lets you do your job, and that isn't always the case. Some artists I've worked with are so insecure, they can't help but try to second-guess you, but it was never like that on this project. This project was sort of new territory for Paul, although, believe me, he knows when things are right or not right, regardless of what territory he's in. If the sessions hadn't been going well, it might not have been quite so simple, but he felt very comfortable with all of the musicians who I surrounded him with, and also with Al Schmitt, who is the stellar recording engineer.

"Among the many qualities that Paul has, he recognises talent and respects it. He always made a point, when walking into the studio, to shake hands with all of the musicians and say a few words to them while looking them straight in the eye. Even when we had the string dates, he would make an effort to say hello to each of the players, spend a minute saying something to them and put everybody at ease.”

Rich Pickings

Paul McCartney puts the 'big band' through its paces at Capitol Studios.Paul McCartney puts the 'big band' through its paces at Capitol Studios.Photo: © 2012 MPL Communications Ltd / Photographer MJ Kim

In total, about 24 tracks were recorded during the Kisses On The Bottom sessions, and while 14 made the final cut, two bonus tracks are on the Deluxe Edition: a cover of 'Baby's Request', which first appeared on the Wings album Back To The Egg, and 'My One And Only Love', which Frank Sinatra recorded back in the early '50s. "Paul did such a smashing job on 'My One And Only Love', I wanted to put it on the regular album,” LiPuma admits. "But, in the end, I felt 14 songs were more than than enough and, given the terrific balance, none of them deserved to be replaced. With about 49 minutes' worth of music I figured, 'To hell with it, we'll just use these as bonus tracks,' and Paul was in complete agreement.

"The entire project, at least when we first ventured into this area, was a challenge. Paul loves the music and, as he was surrounded by it when he was growing up, he's obviously familiar with it, but he's never made a living performing it. That's why he approached it almost with a reverence. I love the 'verses' on a lot of the songs — the intros that a lot of people aren't familiar with — and I was really impressed by how Paul got it right away when it came to recording those numbers. It was only after the fact that I thought, 'Of course he knows all about them.' After all, he wrote things like 'Here, There And Everywhere' which also have those types of intros. He'd been influenced by them as a kid and I'm sure his father played a lot of the 'verses'.

"It was Paul's idea to record 'Home'. He knew it from his father, and for me that song, 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and 'Always' are among the album's highlights. I love to see people's reaction when they hear the beginning of 'Always' and have no idea what the hell they're listening to until, suddenly, he comes in with the chorus. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do this — I knew it would be a refreshing manner of hearing these songs.”

The vulnerable quality that Diana Krall mentioned with regard to Paul McCartney's voice speaks of a bold honesty on the part of the artist; a willingness to lay himself bare in a musical setting that places the spotlight on him and from which he makes no attempt to hide. As he sings in tribute to his newfound love in 'My Valentine': "She makes me certain that I can fly. And so I do, without a care.”

"I love the fact that he not only exposed himself, but that he also treated these songs with such respect,” Tommy LiPuma concludes. "One of my main jobs is being able to recognise a performance, and what really got me — and what you can hear — is the sincerity and respect with which he approached all of the songs. He knows how great they are and he showed this in the way he sang them.”  

Original Vintage Material

Among the suggestions producer Tommy LiPuma made was that Paul McCartney contribute some of his own compositions to this album of standards. These would not be revised versions of well-known, old-style songs such as the Beatles' 'Honey Pie' or Wings' 'You Gave Me The Answer', but newly penned numbers. While fitting in with the overall style, these would also help to differentiate McCartney's project from the nostalgic efforts of artists such as Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams.

"Paul played me a piano demo of 'Only Our Hearts' during my first visit to Hog Hill Mill,” LiPuma recalls. "Not familiar with all of the Wings and later material, I thought the song may have been from that period, but he told me he had written it during the past few years. I liked it, and when I said it might be a good idea for Paul to write a few more originals that fit with the style of the new album, I think that inspired him and he subsequently wrote 'My Valentine' during a vacation in Morocco.”

McCartney was there with Nancy Shevell, the woman he began dating in November 2007 and married on 9th October, 2011 (on what would have been John Lennon's 71st birthday). According to his own recollection of events, when Paul complained that it kept raining, Nancy reassured him that they could still have a good time, and this proved to be the starting point for the album's lead-off single. "There was an old piano, slightly out of tune, in the foyer of the hotel, and there was this lovely Irish guy who knew so much old stuff, like 'Beautiful Dreamer' [and] 'If You Were The Only Girl In The World',” McCartney would subsequently recall. "Again, stuff from my Dad's era. I used to enjoy listening to him and he put me in mind of that genre. So, one afternoon when it was raining, I was in that foyer and, without anyone noticing except a couple of waiters who were clearing up, I sat at the piano and started knocking around with this little tune: 'What if it rained? We didn't care. She said that some day soon the sun was gonna shine…'”

At least one more original was recorded but eventually not used, as LiPuma mentions: "I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually re-records 'If I Take You Home Tonight', which is another relatively new composition. It's a good song but it was still being developed and I wasn't sure if it would fit stylistically with everything else we had done.”

A Happy Coincidence

In addition to 'My Valentine' and 'Only Our Hearts', four of the 12 standards on Paul McCartney's latest album — 'More I Cannot Wish You', 'We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me)', 'Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive' and 'The Inch Worm' — are also published by companies owned by his MPL music publishing. Yet, according to Tommy LiPuma, this factor had no bearing whatsoever on the choice of material. "Nancy Jeffries told me right from the start, 'We publish a lot of great songs and it would obviously be nice if some of them end up on the album, but Paul's already made it very clear to me that this is not what the project is about,'” he states. "At the time, quite frankly, I didn't know what songs Paul's publishing company had. I subsequently learned they have some absolute gems, but I just picked things that I thought made sense for him and this had nothing whatsoever to do with whether he did or didn't own them. They were just good songs.

"Frank Loesser's 'More I Cannot Wish You' wasn't in the movie version of Guys And Dolls, it was in the Broadway show, and when I heard the original soundtrack album, it really touched me. It's just beautiful, and it also rang some bells in Paul because he's got a young daughter and the song's lyrics are like he's giving her advice. Then again, it just so happened that there was a Frank Loesser centennial concert that Paul invited me to, and while a lot of Broadway vocalists sang the Loesser songs, 'The Inch Worm' was performed by the Muppets. I was familiar with that number from Danny Kaye's performance of it in [the 1952 film] Hans Christian Andersen, and I had also done it with another artist many, many years ago. So, a few days after I heard the Muppets do it, I told Paul, 'Gee, we should give it a shot. It's a great song, let's see what we can do with it,' and he agreed.”