Doug Thompson: Confessions of a Professional Rock and Roll Interviewer Continues – Bobby Curtola, Quincy Jones, and More

I conducted my very first interview when I was 15 years old.  Before I continue, I think a little background is in order here.

I’d been interested in radio since I was 13, so for my 15th birthday in July, my parents bought me a tiny portable tape recorder.  They say size matters, but this recorder only took 3 inch reels, and that was more than enough for me.  It literally fit in my hand (no jokes please).  The interview subject was my 8 year old brother, who talked about his friends, school and what life might have in store for him when he grew up.  Sadly, I no longer have that tape or I would have blackmailed my brother years ago and retired to Kauai.

When I first got into radio in the early 1960’s, I didn’t interview many celebrities.  I was a producer.  Oh, I did meet a bunch, but didn’t interview them.  That came later when I started writing and producing radio documentaries in the early 1980’s.  So for the purpose of this column, I’ll start at the beginning (which is always a most excellent place to start). Pictured: Young Doug

BOBBY CURTOLA ALMOST GOT ME KILLED

Back in 1963, I was interning at CJCA, the number one Top 40 station in Edmonton, Alberta at the time.  CHED would take over that exalted position at the top in a year or two, but in the early to mid ‘60’s, CJCA Channel 93 (also known as ‘Tiger Radio’) was the station most teens listened to.  Of course, this was long before interns were even called that.  We were just unpaid schlepers back then.  I was finishing high school and desperately wanted to be in radio, so I hung around the station, made friends with a couple of the DJ’s and wound up doing all kinds of off jobs, including answering phones on the nightly “Battle of the New Sounds” feature.  The first performer I actually met at the station was Eddie Hodges, he of the 1961 hit, “I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door” and “Girls, Girls, Girls (Were Made To Love”) in ’62.  Eddie was visiting the station and I was assigned (I was working there officially at the time) to meet him at switchboard, then take him into the control room to be interviewed by the DJ on air.  Eddie was really ‘cool’, considering he was approximately the same age as I was…and there’s no way anyone would have described me back then as ‘cool’.

A few months later, Bobby Curtola came by the station, which was located on the 4th floor of the Birks Building at 104th Street and Jasper Avenue in Edmonton.  The station’s switchboard, engineering, production, newsroom and control room were located on the left side of the 4th floor.  On the right side were doctors’ offices.  At the far end, behind glass doors, were the CJCA management, sales and accounting offices.  Now that I’ve set the scene, I’ll tell you a little about Bobby Curtola.  He was Canada’s first home grown teen idol.  Sure we had Ottawa’s Paul Anka a few years before, but Paul went to the States to make it.  He’d gone to New York, made the connection with ABC-Paramount record exec/producer/arranger Don Costa (he worked with Sinatra for crying out loud), and hit the charts with “Diana” in 1957.

Bobby Curtola was from Port Arthur, Ontario (later, the neighbouring town of Fort William and Port Arthur merged together to become Thunder Bay).  Fort William was the birthplace of another famous future musician, Paul Shaffer (“The Late Show with David Letterman”).  I don’t want to hijack my own Bobby Curtola thread, but here’s a quick story about Paul Shaffer.  In the early to mid 1970’s, I was producing a lot of jingles for various  retail clients, one of whom was the Sudbury Shopping Center.  It was early 1975.  We were recording at Manta Sound on Adelaide Street (the studio in which “Tears Are Not Enough”, Canada’s contribution to African famine relief, featuring a plethora of Canada’s biggest music stars, was recorded a decade or so later).  My arranger had hired the musicians for the jingle and he brought along a new keyboard player named Paul Shaffer.  Paul and I chatted for a bit, then we got down to business.  I took note that Paul was one hot piano player (his head was bobbing up and down the entire time he was tickling those ivories).  In the fall of that year, Lorne Michaels (another Toronto show biz alum) hired Paul to be in the band for his new NBC TV show “Saturday Night Live”.  In 1982, Shaffer hooked up with David Letterman and became the bandleader for NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” and moved with Letterman to CBS in 1993.

Cut to the Fall of 1988.  I was working for John Candy and recently moved to LA (Westwood actually, 15 minutes from the Pacific Ocean and 12 minutes from one of my favourite restaurants, Ye Olde Kings Head Pub at 3rd and Ocean in Santa Monica).  We were launching the “Radio Kandy” weekly 2 hour radio show and John and I were attending the NAB convention in Washington, D.C. to promote the series with our network syndicator, Unistar.  Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band was part of the convention entertainment.  John had known Paul (Candy and Shaffer, not Lennon and McCartney) from Toronto, when many of his friends (and later SCTV alum), had been in the Toronto production of “Godspell” during the early 1970’s.  Paul had been the musical director.  We ran into Paul at rehearsals on the first day and when John introduced me, I said to Paul, “You probably won’t remember this, but you played piano on a couple of commercials for me back in the mid 70’s”.  Instantly, Paul blurted out the clients’ name – “Sudbury Shopping Centre”.  I even had to think for a second what client it was because I wasn’t sure, but Paul was correct.  I asked him how he could remember it so quickly.  He said “I didn’t play on many commercials and the money really came in handy.”  Amazing memory.  Amazing musician.

OK, so back to Bobby Curtola and Edmonton.  Bobby had been having hits since 1959 and was a major heart throb to teenage girls everywhere in Canada (Justin Beiber is the Bobby Curtola of the current generation).  Girls were screaming at Curtola concerts long before The Beatles showed up.  The station had promoted that fact that Bobby was coming and a few dozen girls were already waiting in switchboard.  When Bobby made his appearance, he was trailed by about 40 more.  There was a glass window in the hallway that allowed you to look into the control room.  While Bobby was being interviewed, there wasn’t even a millimeter of space in that hallway, the girls had literally taken up all the space.  One of the Doctors complained to station management later about all the commotion.  After Bobby’s interview was done, the DJ asked me to take him down the hall to say hi to the Program Director.  We were followed closely by THE GIRLS.  Just before I opened the glass door to go in (here THE GIRLS couldn’t follow), Bobby turned, stopped and started to sign a couple of autographs.  That took about 10 minutes.  At this point, we were pressed up against the glass doors (which opened out towards us) and it was getting pretty crowded at that end of the hall.  THE GIRLS were inching closer and closer to Bobby (me, they could care less about, but since I was standing right beside him, I was kinda hard to ignore).  Nobody in the management offices seemed to think anything was wrong as Bobby and my back were pushed further and further against the glass.  I started to hear a faint creaking sound and thought that this might just be the end of Bobby and me (I instantly knew I wouldn’t even rate a mention in the newspaper headline the next day in the Edmonton Journal: “ADORING FANS CRUSH TEEN IDOL IN FREAK GLASS ACCIDENT”) when we heard a very loud, authoritative ‘HEY!”

It was DJ Barry Boyd who’d popped out of the studio to grab a coffee and saw that we were in trouble.  He got THE GIRLS to back up enough to allow me to open the glass doors and Bobby and I disappeared into the offices.  We waited nearly an hour before venturing out.  Thankfully, it was after 5PM and THE GIRLS had all gone.  They may have been outside the building waiting for Bobby.  I never knew as I only took him to the elevator and sent him on his way.  I mentioned this to Bobby a few weeks ago when I interviewed him for my TV series, “Hi Fi Salutes” and he remembered that he was pretty scared as well.  I guess you get used to that kind of danger when you’re a teen idol.

QUINCY JONES MADE ME WAIT

During the second season of “The Producers”, 12 one hour profiles that Warren Cosford and I produced for Telemedia Toronto that aired in Canada during the spring and summer of 1983, we choose a list of hot producers.  In Season I, we’d profiled Phil Spector (never did get to interview Phil even though we tried really, really, really hard, but we did manage to interview most of the artists who worked with him), Richard Perry, Phil Ramone, Shel Talmy, Jimmy Iovine, Roy Thomas Baker, Ted Templeman plus 5 more.  Quincy Jones made the list for Season II.  Calls were made to his people, he agreed to the interview and after lining up a couple more producers to interview on that trip, I flew to LA.  This was in early November of 1982 and Quincy’s interview was scheduled for 10AM the morning after I arrived.  I had been given instructions on how to get to Q’s house on Stone Canyon Road, just off Sunset Boulevard near the Bel Air gates.  At 8:30 the next morning, the phone in my hotel room rang.  I was still in bed.  I like sleeping.  I really, really like sleeping).  When I picked it up, it was Quincy’s assistant asking if we could postpone the interview until 4 that afternoon.  I said ‘sure’. figuring there’d be more time to sleep.

There was.

At 3:15, I hopped into my rent-a-car and headed to Q’s joint (trying to be Spike Lee hip here).  I got there at ten to 4 and rang the doorbell.  Quincy was still married to actress Peggy Lipton at the time, but unfortunately I never saw her.  I was escorted into Quincy’s study and not long after I’d set up my Nagra tape reel-to-reel tape machine, the man himself walked in.  We chit chatted a bit – I was surprised by how much he knew about Canada…especially Canadian musicians.  He knew Doug Riley, Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass and naturally he knew Oscar Peterson.

I rolled tape and we began the interview.  I asked Q about his time as the first African American Vice President of Mercury Records, his hits with Lesley Gore, etc.  In the course of our interview, Quincy’s defined what he thought a producer was: “I started producing before I even knew what they called it, they used to call you an arranger or an A&R man.  There’s one word I guess that could be a catch all for producers and that’s magician.”

I’m not usually impressed by celebrities, but Quincy was something else, man.  I mean come on, he grew up with Ray Charles in Seattle.  He wrote the score to over 50 films, including one of my all time favs, “The Pawnbroker” with Rod Steiger as well as scoring the TV miniseries “Roots”.  He found Oprah Winfrey on a local TV talk show in Chicago and convinced Steven Spielberg to cast her in “The Color Purple”.  His arrangement of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon” was the first music played during NASA’s first lunar landing in 1969 (“That’s one small step for man.  One hip tune for mankind”).

THE MAN IS A LEGEND for crying out loud.  Q’s worked with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles AND Michael Jackson.  Q wrote hundreds of amazing tunes, including the instrumental “Soul Bossa Nova” (you probably don’t recognize that title).  It was used as the opening and closing for a Canadian TV game show in the 1970’s called “Definition”.  A young Mike Myers, growing up in Toronto, used to watch that show, remembered the song and used it as the theme for his “Austin Powers” series of movies.  It’s the hip, swinging opening theme.  (Now it’s familiar, right?)

And speaking of the ‘Gloved one’, when we got around to talking about MJ, or ‘Smelly” as Q called him (the reason he called him that was because Michael could ‘smell’ a hit song), Quincy recounted how he’d worked with him on “The Wiz” movie and how Michael was looking for a new record producer and Q offered his services.  He talked about “Off The Wall” and creating grooves with the music and how it has to be organic, then he mentioned the rescheduling of the interview.  He said, “The reason we had to change the interview time to this afternoon is because I was in the studio until 4 o’clock this morning doing the final mix on the new Michael Jackson album”.  I asked him about it, but he didn’t want to jinx anything so he didn’t divulge any information.  He did say, “I think it’s pretty good though.” 

Pretty good?  Pretty good?  That album turned out to be “Thriller” (which was released at the end of November 1982).

Holy crap, my interview had been pushed back to finish an album that went on to sell 110 million copies and win 8 Grammy Awards, including ‘Producer of The Year (Non Classical)’ for Quincy Jones.

WOW!

OK, time to stop, but I didn’t get to tell you about my time with producer David Foster in the studio, or lots more great stuff.  think I might have at least a couple more columns in me, so we’ll see you next time.

Doug’s column will be appearing the first Friday of every month.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

Doug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

One Response to “Doug Thompson: Confessions of a Professional Rock and Roll Interviewer Continues – Bobby Curtola, Quincy Jones, and More”

  1. Mike Cleaver Says:

    Great to see Doug starting to tell some of his stories here!

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