Ted Templeman has had a long and distinguished career in the music business, as a performer, producer and label executive. Greg Renoff, the co-author of
Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, became aware of Templeman’s work the same way that many other music fans did: by seeing Templeman’s name on the credits of albums by artists as varied as Captain Beefheart, Carly Simon, the Doobie Brothers, and Van Halen.
A multifaceted career poses a conundrum for a biographer. Readers interested in performers like Nicolette Larson may not be interested in reading about performers like Aerosmith. Gearheads who want to know the technical details of recording a song may not be interested in whether a band’s members get along with each other. So the biographer has to choose. Do they skim through the events in the subject’s life, and include a superficial bit of everything? Or do they go for deeply detailed descriptions, and let the reader focus on whatever interests them the most?
Templeman and Renoff chose the “deep dive” approach. Admittedly, because of the amount of detail, the book’s narrative takes a while to get rolling, but ultimately this strategy works, because it illustrates how Templeman’s work and career choices were continually informed by his eclectic experiences. Starting as a jazz-obsessed young trumpeter, he became a drummer and percussionist – and eventually reluctant vocalist and frontman – in the band that evolved into Harper’s Bizarre, who had a US Top 20 hit in 1967 with a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”.
Harper’s Bizarre were unable to repeat that success, partly because their elaborately layered vocals were difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce live. But Templeman was intrigued by the process of creating that sound in the studio, and as the band’s career wound down, he spent more time watching how producers and engineers worked.
His first production credit was Harper’s Bizarre’s last single, and that launched him into the job he describes as “part-time psychologist, coach, cheerleader, and musical director”. He also became an executive with Warner Brothers Records, which meant he not only produced new acts, but discovered them, signed them to recording deals, and helped build their careers. And in the era Templeman lucked into, working with artists was a long-term commitment. Record companies were willing to nurture a new artist as they developed their craft, rather than immediately dumping them if their first effort didn’t produce the desired returns.
Unlike some well-known producers (see: Phil Spector), Templeman avoids having a signature style that he uses on every record. Instead, he works with each act to create a unique sonic framework that shows them at their best. He produces everything from the hushed intimacy of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” to the rolling rural harmonies of the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” to the arena-rocking swagger of Van Halen’s “Panama”.
Templeman also learned the value of imperfection. He admits that there are audible mistakes on some of his records, but asserts that maintaining the energy and spontaneity of some performances is more important than slogging through tedious rounds of re-recording or re-mixing.
It would have been very easy for a book such as this to descend into endless variations on “me me me and aren’t I great”. Anyone with as many accomplishments as Templeman would have more than enough reason to boast. But the theme that emerges throughout the book is Templeman’s genuine affection and respect for the acts he’s worked with – even the ones that he fought with and the ones that he feels he missed the mark with.
Some readers may feel there’s a little too much discussion of Van Halen – certainly a topic Renoff is familiar with, having previously authored a history of that band. But that extensive section is still interesting as a case study of how the dynamics within a band, and the evolution of its members’ musical interests, can doom even the most confident and commercially successful act.
Templeman is now largely retired from the music business, after executive shuffles at Warner Brothers resulted in his being dismissed from the company, and his subsequent struggles with substance abuse and depression. His last production was the 2010 album for the Doobie Brothers, World Gone Crazy. He and Renoff have undertaken a challenging task in chronicling his extensive career, but the result is a fascinating account of a panoramic musical journey.