Happy 87th Birthday, Lou Adler

One of the most influential record producers of all time, he is still the coolest

“ I worked with Carole King, John Phillips & Sam Cooke! How lucky can somebody be?”
Lou Adler at Home, 2018. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

Who knew 87 could look so cool? Of course, people asked that when he turned 67 too, and then 77. But as we have come to understand, it’s not about age. It’s about Lou. Since his start in this business of music, cool and Lou went together. But it wasn’t random; the man earned it. It’s the reason he was beloved and trusted by a vast range of iconic and brilliant artists with whom he worked closely, gently guiding them to do their greatest and most successful work.

These included Sam Cooke, Carole King, Barry McGuire, The Mamas & The Papas, P.F. Sloan and even Cheech & Chong (who were discovered, signed and produced by Lou). His collaboration with Carole King was a long and loving one, producing her landmark Tapestry, one of the greatest and most successful albums of all time. The organic focus on the songwriter and songs exemplified in that album impacted the music world and the arc of popular song from then on, ushering in the age of the singer-songwriter.

Yet talk to Lou about Tapestry, or Sam Cooke, orany of this other historic music he created, and that legendary cool surfaces, and he smiles behind his shades and laughs at his good fortune, while letting the stars shine. He attributes little of this glory to himself, but to the great fortune of working with geniuses.

“I was so lucky,” he said. “I worked with Carole King, John Phillips and Sam Cooke! I mean, how lucky can somebody be?”

In truth, it was more than luck. Lou Adler had an uncanny knack for recognizing the full potential of an artist before the rest of the world caught on. Artists who not onlywere ideal for that moment in time, but who were making timeless work which would have a lasting cultural impact.

In his spacious home on the ocean, big waves crashing outside under endless blue skies, he still marvels at the wonder of getting to be the guy who worked with these remarkable songwriters.

“And they’re all such different kinds of writers,” he said. “Carole, who was from that Brill Building-Tin Pan Alley songwriter; John Phillips, who was writing vocal arrangements cause he wrote for a group; and Sam Cooke, who was just a pure poet.”

It started with Sam Cooke, who he managed, produced and even co-wrote songs, including “What A Wonderful World.”

Then came The Mamas and The Papas fully-formed already with their classic song that he produced, “California Dreamin’”.

When Carole King began recording her own songs after years of writing them, with Gerry Goffin, for others, Lou saw the potential – long before most of the industry did – of what became the advent of the “singer-songwriter” movement: great songwriters like Carole or her friends James Taylor and Joni Mitchell performing their own songs, and delivering them with a soulful intimacy sent directly from their hearts and minds to their listener.

Lou and Carole did three albums of her songs, but it was the third – combining brand new classics like “It’s Too Late” and “So Far Away” with Goffin-King gems such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Natural Woman.”

He spoke of the great care and love poured into every aspect of making Tapestry, even the sequencing. To ensure he got it right, this delicate balance of astounding songs, he left town to focus, and spent an entire month in Mexico to perfect it. He always understood that all aspects of an album have to be perfect – the title, sequencing, production, promotion, artwork and, of course, the songwriting.

Lou knew that the songwriting mattered the most, and as a songwriter himself, knew both great songs and also how to work with songwriters. That is the constant through all his work, and which led him to work extensively with the late great P.F. Sloan and his songwriting partner, Steve Barri.

Then came Cheech and Chong, who he discovered at the Troubador, and produced their albums and movies; The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which he brought from a little live theater to the big screen, creating a phenomena, and much more. He’s even one of the founders of The Roxy on the Sunset Strip, a club that became an L.A. institution.

Like other Angeleno music folks who have been here for decades, I saw Lou often at The Roxy (and also the Rainbow, next door). With his iconic aura of cool chapeau and shades, you couldn’t miss him. Yet I had no idea who he was for years. He was that friendly guy hanging with his pal, also in dark glasses at night, Jack Nicholson.

Being that cool, however, as Tom Petty learned soon upon his first arrival in Los Angeles. Signed to Leon Russell’s label Shelter, he went to a party at Leon’s home in Encino, at which both Ringo and George Harrison showed up. Beatles! From the very “Top of the Poppermost,” of which Tom always dreamed of ascending.

“Those cats were so cool, ” Tom said, “that I found myself slipping my sunglasses on. Leon said, ‘What the hell are you doing with the dark glasses, man?’ I said, ‘It feels cool, you know…”

Leon did not approve. “‘Wearing sunglasses at night is an honor you earn,'” he said. `Jack Nicholson made really shitty Boris Karloff movies before he put his glasses on! Lou Adler had Johnny Rivers and the Mamas and Papas before he put them glasses on!”

Tom took them off, grateful for the advice. (And went on to earn the right, as you might know).

Lou’s love of great songwriting and the songwriters who did it led him to work extensively with one of our dear friends, and the world’s gerat songwriters, P.F. Sloan. Phil, as hie friends called him, was a gentle genius. He wrote “Eve of Destruction” one night with four other songs while still living at home with his family. Lou transformed it into a number one hit for Barry McGuire.

It’s also the reason why he signed The Mamas and The Papas, as he discusses. They came in with those voices, sound and harmony. But most importantly, they came with the song “California Dreamin’.” A classic from day one.

Lou confirmed that it was P.F. Sloan who composed and played the beautiful guitar intro for “California Dreaming,” though he was not credited for it.

Lou was also the guy behind other cultural phenomena, such as two Latino comics named Cheech & Chong he heard at hootenanny night at the Troubadour. He produced all their albums and movies. And when he saw a oddly provocative musical at a local theater called The Rocky Horror Picture Show he had the vision to know the whole world had to see it, and turned it into a movie. It’s become a cult-classic.

Born in Chicago in 1933, he became a lifelong Californian when he was still a kid, after his dad drove to Los Angeles, loved it, and drove home to fetch his family. Lou grew up in Boyle Heights, where he entertained the idea of a career as a newspaperman.

When he and his friend Herb Alpert started managing music acts, they took on Jan and Dean, and while not managing, wrote songs for them and other acts. Their song  “Only Sixteen,” was a hit for Cooke in 1959. And with Sam they wrote “What A Wonderful World,” a hit for Sam and then recorded years later by the trio of Simon, Garfunkel and Taylor (James Taylor). They also wrote “River Rock,” recorded by Bob “Froggy” Landers and the Cough Drops and other songs.

Lou & Carole King

His next label was Ode, where he launched another cultural milestone linked to that 1968 “Summer of Love”: Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Also in 1968, he changed the landscape of rock & roll festivals – with subsequent rock festival films, by starting the Monterey Pop Festival and producing one of the first epic rock movies, Monterey Pop (1968). The ongoing cultural impact of this festival still reverberates, as it launched successive iconic artists, including Janis Joplin, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. Lou produced the Live at Monterey album which showcased the miracle guitar playing of Hendrix, as well as several other live Hendrix albums.

We spoke in a big room lined with instruments. Besides many electric guitars, basses, keyboards and amplifiers, there was a full drum set. I asked if this was where he recorded, and he said no, it’s where he would jam with friends. The recording studio was separate, he said, and led us there through corridors lined with posters from concerts, movies and more he created. In the studio was a grand piano under a poster of Carole King.

He and his son were in the midst of a new musical project, having collaborated frequently. He was also in the midst of building a house for his son and family right there on his vast acreage in the hills above Malibu, that he showed us in mid-construction. I said how lucky his son was. In typical Lou style, he just laughed, then said he was blessed that his son wanted to be so close.

I’m the lucky one,” he said.

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