“The art of a producer is to take what we have to work with and make it accessible, as well as artists; to connect that artist with the audience without losing integrity,” says Narada Michael Walden. “We don’t have to be a Michelangelo every time out, but it is important to let people know that you’re not trying to put one over on them.”
Walden’s career as a record producer has spiraled to the top of the charts since his tenure drumming with John McLaughlin a few years back. These days, he spends his time writing songs and producing hits in the San Rafael, Calif.–based Tarpon Studios (formerly Tres Virgos Studios) for artists including Aretha Franklin, Clarence Clemons, Whitney Houston, Sheena Easton and Lionel Richie. He’s also been collaborating with George Benson on his new album, a multi-production affair.
“We’re using three producers,” says Benson. “We started with four, including me, but I got crowded out by the songs that were presented to me by the other three producers. Narada is doing most of the tunes. He came in with five great songs. I ran past him in an airport not too long ago just long enough to say, ‘Hey man, let’s talk on the horn!’ and, lo and behold, a few weeks later, we were producing an album.”
Benson is also working with Kashif at his home studio in Connecticut. The third producer on the project is Tommy Lipuma, Benson’s associate through three Platinum and four Gold George Benson albums, including the multi-Grammied Breezin’.
“Narada is like a lighting bolt,” says Benson. “He’s really good at what he does. He understands the modern record buyer and the modern listener very well. I’m relying on him a lot in certain areas, but I’m also trying to stick to some of the things that have been working for me.”
Walden sees his role on Benson’s album as very simple: “To help serve George’s mission and get his best on the table, and hopefully have something that in 20, 30, 40 years, we can look back on and be proud. I feel really blessed because George is someone whom I’ve loved for many years and I’ve always wanted to work with him…but I didn’t know it would come so soon. All of a sudden, there was a chance for me to work on this album, and I was very honored. I had sent him a piece of music called ‘Teaser.’ He liked it and responded by coming out here with a song he was working on, and we had a great time embellishing on it.
“I don’t like to think of myself as a producer so much because I don’t really relate to what I do in that way,” Walden continues. “I relate more as a coach, like the guy who stands on the sidelines and roots for the cat. So I just give a push to find the best vehicles and to leave plenty of room to let happen what has to happen.
“People like that cool sensibility George has. So whether we want to do a smokin’ dance track or a stock R&B thing or a totally pop ballad that even Tony Bennett might do, we leave plenty of room for George to add whatever he spontaneously feels inspired to bring to it. That’s the key for us. Lay out the skeleton, but leave plenty of room for this man to bring his magic to it.”
Walden recognizes that to stay geared up for his level of output requires a clear head and a positive attitude. “The golden rule is to stay inspired. Before I come to the studio, I like to go out and run, play tennis, sweat a little bit, come in here and feel fresh. Don’t bring yesterday’s problems in here; come in with a brand-new attitude. It makes a world of difference. And I like to go fast, because the first things that come to me are usually the strongest. The first inspiration is like—pow!—like when you first fall in love. I want to keep that feeling.”
Having his own top-flight studio enables Walden to maintain an intimacy with his artists while his staff caters to their recording needs. Says Benson, “I depend on Narada’s expertise. He has a great spirit in his productions. People around him are really up because of what he generates. And his production crew is really good dedicated people.
“This is the first time I’ve come into a studio and seen all of the other musicians plugged into the console. I mean, the whole rest of the band was in the control room—double keyboards, electronic drums, rhythm guitar, bass—they were all in there playing directly through the console. I was out in the studio all by myself! I was so inspired and knocked out by that, it created a nice lift for my day.”
Benson notes that the fine art of music production includes not only what is put in, but what is left out. “The key to a great artist is making whatever it is he’s selling believable,” he says. “I learned something from a producer many years ago who said, ‘You can sell anything if you take away all of the objections to it.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about at first, but I’m doing this with Narada right now. Everytime I hear an objectionable thing on my record, I say, ‘Let’s take that out.’
“I spend a lot of what I get from the record company as front money to finance a Class-A project,” says Benson, “because years from now, I want to look back and say that what I did meant something. I don’t want to be ashamed of even one song. I feel that if you give people what they want, they will reward you. I’ve seen that since I was seven years old. I worked in nightclubs in ’51 and ’52, and whenever I gave them something they loved, they threw money on the bandstand.”
In the final analysis, for Walden as well as Benson, they key is to enjoy the work. “Everyone should just remember to be happy,” says Walden. “Happiness is the essence. George and I are both God lovers, and God inspires us to be happy.
“Try and bring out your inner self, your heart, your soul and be happy. That happiness will be pure energy. Like gas in your car, it’ll put magic in your life. Even if you have to force it, force yourself to smile and it’ll make a better record. It’s as simple as that.”