Producer Playback: An interview with Jimmy Bowen

April 12, 2014
In a special multimedia interview program held in the Ford Theater on Saturday, April 12, the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum welcomed legendary recording executive Jimmy Bowen, who was visiting Nashville from his home in Arizona. Museum writer-editor Michael McCall introduced Bowen as an “agent of change” throughout his long career as producer and executive with labels including Reprise, MGM, MCA, Elektra/Asylum, Warner Bros., Universal, and Capitol. In Nashville, McCall said, Bowen led the campaign to increase labels’ budgets for their country music departments, promoted the transformation from analog to digital recording, increased pay for musicians, put women in positions of authority, and advanced the careers of other executives, some of whom are still active on the Nashville scene.

True to his reputation, Bowen was outspoken and witty, delighting the audience with stories of working with top-flight country and pop artists. Referencing Nashville’s recent building boom—including the Music City Center and expanded museum—Bowen joked, “What the hell happened to this town?  It took me an hour and a half to find this place!”

McCall played a video clip of Reba McEntire, who expressed her gratitude to Bowen for helping take her career to a much higher level. Early in their association at MCA, she recalled, , she told him she wasn’t satisfied with what she’d been recording up to that point: “He said, ‘Woman, what is it you want?’ And I told him the country music I liked best was the Merle Haggard, Ray Price type.” After agreeing to produce her, Bowen went to see one of her shows. “I could tell she had a strong male, Bill Carter, as her manager, and her first husband [rodeo champion Charlie Battles] was also a strong, masculine guy,” Bowen said. “But when she took themicrophone, that was hers.” 

In recounting his work with Reba, Bowen stressed his underlying production approach:  “With any artist,” he said, “the music is theirs. The musicians’ and the producer’s role is to help support the artist.”

Ideally, Bowen continued, the artist will be able to write songs, but if not, he would tell the singer, “Find songs that say what you want to say.”  In Reba’s case, he put her with a trusted assistant Don “Dirt” Lanier, an excellent “song man” who “hit it off with Reba,” and sent them to scour Music Row for material.

At one point, Bowen recalled, “She asked me, ‘Why don’t country artists sell albums like pop artists do?’” In his view, Bowen told the audience, “An album needs to be a forty-five- minute concert, with an opening, peaks and valleys, and then a closing. A hit single is an advertising tool, but the sale is the album.”  Bowen told Reba he wanted her albums to be “like her shows.”  Opening and closing songs, he said further, are the “radio part” of an album. The peaks and valleys fill out the show. “Finding songs and recording became part of our relationship,” Bowen stressed. “After that, she was off and rocking.”

Around the time of Reba’s divorce, Bowen relayed, she was reviewing her life and her career, planning what to do next. He vividly recalled her asking what it took to reach the highest levels of the industry. “I said, one, you have to want it more than anything in your life, because your competition does,” Bowen said. “Two, you have to control all aspects of your career.”

“Well, I do need some money,” Reba told him. Although she had netted relatively little for MCA at that point, “I knew she would,” Bowen said. He arranged an advance against her future sales royalties.

Having chosen songs, the next step was recording them. “With each artist’s voice,” Bowen explained, “I analyzed it, and I made sure I had the right musicians. And I  made sure each instrument was balanced to strengthen the vocal.” With Reba, Bowen said, after a run-through so everyone could learn the song, “We’d usually get the basic track in two or three takes, and sometimes on the first take. Then, she would record her vocal two more times, just so we could use parts of those tracks to replace a word or phrase on the vocal on the basic track.

“I wanted artists to co-produce,” Bowen affirmed, “so they knew what was involved.” The process included not only finding song material, but adding additional instruments to the basic tracks. When Reba and Bowen finished the tracks needed for their first album together, she asked him, “What are you gonna use for sweetening?”  Bowen put the responsibility back in her hands: “I asked her, ‘What are you gonna use for sweetening?’” When they agreed on instruments and musicians, Bowen continued, “I told her to sit down at the mixing board and said, ‘OK. Add your sweetening.’ Then I went and got a cup of coffee.”  Mixing multiple tracks down to a final mix, however, took much longer, Bowen explained, and Reba’s busy schedule wouldn’t permit her to devote a day or more to this arduous process. “So she’d listen to mixes on the road,” and let him know what she thought.

The result of their initial project proved well worth the effort they’d put into it. My Kind of Country (1984) helped her win her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award and eventually went gold.

Bowen also shared behind-the-scenes stories about Reba’s recording of “Whoever’s in New England.”  Learning that she thought the song was too pop for her, he told her to bring it to the next session, and if they had time, they would cut it. With a half-hour left, they cut the basic track, plus Reba’s two customary extra vocals. “Everybody was knocked out,” Bowen said, assuring her it wasn’t too pop at all. “I think you bridged it. This is gonna be the biggest thing you’ve ever done.” His prediction was on target. Reba’s first #1 country album and first gold album, Whoever’s in New England yielded two #1 singles (the title cut and “Little Rock”) and launched her toward superstardom. The collection eventually went platinum.

McCall then played excerpts from Reba’s Bowen-produced hits including “Have I Got a Deal for You,” “Whoever’s in New England,” “What Am I Gonna Do About You?” and “Sunday Kind of Love,” prompting these words from Bowen:  “She grew so much as an artist between the first and last of those. She’s starred on TV, on Broadway—nothing she’s done has surprised me. Country music is lucky to have her. It’s been emotional listening to these.”

Reminded that he’d been a part of the “rock & roll uprising” of the late 1950s, Bowen reflected on his years as bass player and singer for the rockabilly outfit Buddy Knox & the Rhythm Orchids, which scored a #1 pop hit in 1957 with “Party Doll” (sung by Knox) backed with “I’m Stickin’ with You” (#14), issued under Bowen’s name.  “When the girls quit screaming, I could hear myself sing,” Bowen said. “It was pretty obvious I needed to find another way to make a living.”

By early 1960 Bowen had signed with American Music Publishing in Los Angeles, making $75 a week as a songwriter, and, with Glen Campbell, making another $75 each to record demo tapes.  “Across the hall,” Bowen said, “I watched rock producer Phil Spector make his ’wall-of-sound’ recordings. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Bowen’s chance came when a New York publisher’s representative, an older friend who shared Bowen’s love of baseball, told him he had recommended him to Frank Sinatra, who owned Reprise Records and needed additional staff.  Mo Ostin, head of Reprise, offered Bowen $150 a week plus an expense account. “I said, ‘How about $100 a week and 1 percent of what we sell?’ Mo agreed right away. I guess he thought he was saving $50 a week.”

At the time, Bowen elaborated, Reprise had about 120 artists, many of them signed by Sinatra.  Bowen saw immediately that the roster had to be cut drastically: “It was the greatest roster in the world—unless you wanted to make money.” But Ostin balked: “I’m not gonna drop anyone. You’ll need to see Sinatra.”  Unsure of how Sinatra would react, Bowen went to see the singer at his home. After sharing a few sips of Jack Daniel’s, Bowen made his proposal. “‘Well then,’ Frank said. ‘Take care of it.’  Then he went back into his bedroom, and I downed the rest of my Jack Daniel’s and went back to a month-long program of dropping artists.” It was a difficult and sometimes painful process, Bowen related. Clint Eastwood, one of those dropped, wasn’t happy about it: “I guess he thought he could sing,” Bowen joked. Bowen also recalled comedian Soupy Sales, who came into the office dancing and singing, giving Bowen second thoughts about letting him go: “’Welcome to the roster again,’ I said.” 

Bowen wanted to produce Dean Martin, who hadn’t had a big hit for some time. Other artists might have refused such a young producer, but Martin told his friends, “Give the kid a try.” For the final song needed for a “mood” album, pianist Ken Lane offered his own co-written “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which had already been recorded many times. When this song became an international hit for Martin in 1964, Bowen said, “I learned that it didn’t matter how many times a song had been recorded before.” If you paired the right song with the right artist, you never knew what might strike the public’s fancy.

Bowen had already learned that Sinatra was a man who didn’t like to waste time. In recording “Softly, As I Leave You” with the singer, Bowen remembered, “I had everything ready in the studio when Frank arrived.” After the session, Sinatra asked Bowen what he thought. “I think it’s about a #30 record,” Bowen replied, “but it will get you back on the charts. Then we can do big hits after that.” Luckily, “Softly” went to #27. Bowen-produced Sinatra hits also include “Strangers in the Night” (#1, 1966) and “That’s Life” (#4, 1966), and “Somethin’ Stupid” (#1, 1967), a duet pairing Sinatra with his daughter, Nancy. In addition, Bowen produced Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (#11, 1968). “Sammy used this to close his shows until he died,” Bowen remarked.

In Los Angeles, Bowen formed business relationships with various executives who later came to Nashville. For instance, working in the Warner-Reprise organization put Bowen in touch with Warner Bros. promotion executive Bruce Hinton, later head of MCA Nashville. Both became involved in A.M.O.S. Productions and the A.M.O.S. label, for which future superstar Kenny Rogers produced the band Shiloh, then including Jim Ed Norman, future head of Nashville’s Warner Bros. office. Rogers, meanwhile, was recording for Reprise with his fellow members of the First Edition, first with producer Mike Post, and later under Bowen’s direct supervision. Rogers’s lead vocals on hits such as “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” pointed him toward his enormous success in the country music market.

As president of MGM Records, Bowen often traveled to Music City to look for material for his artists and communicate with MGM Nashville staff. In particular, he approved Hank Williams Jr.’s request to record the album Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, thus allowing Williams to move beyond recordings styled after his famous father and create his own hybrid of country and southern rock.

Bowen moved to Nashville from Los Angeles in 1977. “I had flown into Nashville often to find songs,” He said, “but I found Nashville more welcoming then if you were a visitor. If you moved here, you were a carpetbagger.”  Spending a year with “Professor Tompall Glaser” and producing artists at Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” studio broadened and deepened his knowledge of country music. “He spent hours playing records by country greats,” Bowen said, “and explaining the business side of Nashville. It was like an entire education. I knew I had to change things, but if you don’t know where something came from, you can’t change it.”

Bowen briefly ran the Nashville office of MCA Records, starting in 1978.  But lack of cooperation from company headquarters in New York made the experience frustrating. “You have to control your own destiny,” Bowen stated. “You have to be an entity unto yourself. National promoters didn’t care about country music. There were invoices not getting paid for 120 days.”  When the company mistreated an employee Bowen considered a friend, he resigned in protest.

Landing at Elektra/Asylum’s Nashville operation in 1978 reunited Bowen with Hank Williams Jr., who had already recorded half of what would become his Family Tradition album. Bowen encouraged Williams to record more of his own songs, and finished the album with him. As he’d done with Reba, Bowen advised Hank to take charge of his career to the greatest extent possible. “Probably the most fun I’ve had in the studio is recording Hank Williams Jr.,” Bowen affirmed.  Selections from “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down),” and “Family Tradition” let the audience—including Williams’s daughter Hillary—enjoy the fruits of this collaboration. At Elektra, Bowen also oversaw hits recorded by Mel Tillis, among other artists. In 1983, Elektra was merged with Warner Bros.’ Music City operation, with Bowen taking the reins.

Explaining Nashville’s 1980s transition to digital recording and big-budget albums, Bowen allowed that he’d been especially outspoken at the time, but hadn’t meant to criticize Nashville, so much as labels who spent $15,000 on a country album while budgeting ten times that figure for a pop album. Likewise, Bowen said, “We had great musicians, but the technology wasn’t there.”  Bowen helped three different studios upgrade to digital equipment by guaranteeing them enough sessions to minimize the financial risk involved.

Bowen also doubled the musicians union pay scale for many of his recording sessions to make sure he had the players he wanted, and he paid cartage fees to cover the cost of delivering instruments to the studio. Often he had caterers bring in food so everyone could stay at a studio during breaks and enjoy meals together.

McCall noted that Bowen had helped women acquire executive positions in a hitherto male-dominated recording industry. “What’s wrong with women?” Bowen asked. “I’ve had five wives. I like women.”  In truth, he allowed, he had been responsible for advancing the careers of female executives including Martha Sharp, Janice Azrak, Shelia Shipley, Janet Rickman, Sherri Halford, Katie Gillon, Pat Schoffstoll, Joanna Carter, Cathy Gurley, and Patsi Bale Cox. Bowen added that women seemed to understand his maxim: “Take care of the music, and it will take care of you.” Promotion and marketing are secondary, Bowen maintained.

In 1983 Bowen returned to MCA, becoming president of MCA Nashville; his former Los Angeles colleague Bruce Hinton served as vice president/general manager. “I wanted to do it again—the right way,” Bowen said of taking on this new challenge. “It’s always good if there’s competition. And the experience was great for me.” 

In addition to Reba, Bowen’s MCA roster included George Strait. “George needed people to find songs for him,” Bowen allowed, “but he took control of his music.” Erv Woolsey, Strait’s manager, told Bowen he thought Strait should add “choreography” to his stage shows—instead of simply standing at the microphone.  Bowen watched Strait perform, noticing that he always took his hat off at the end of his shows to thank his audience—and the audience went wild, especially the women. Sticking to his principle that artists should retain creative control, Bowen told WoolseyI think George should take his hat off one more time during each show.” Crowds already loved Strait, Bowen stressed. “All he had to do was stand there and look pretty and sing his butt off.” Excerpts from some of Strait’s hits proved Bowen’s point.

By contrast, Bowen said, Conway Twitty didn’t need help finding songs, or knowing which ones were best for him. “He was the song-huntin’-est artist I ever met in my life.”

Bowen also put accomplished musicians including Tony Brown and James Stroud in executive positions. “Having music people in charge gives you an edge,” Bowen said, adding that while at MCA he said this to encourage artists to sign with the label.  Other executives Bowen mentored include Nick Hunter, Sam Cerami, Bill Catino, and Wayne Halper. “Their 100 percent dedication locked them with me as friends and colleagues.”

In 1988 Bowen created his own label, Universal Records, in partnership with MCA. A little more than a year later, Bowen moved to Capitol. As division head, Bowen supported Garth Brooks and Allen Reynolds, Brooks’s producer, in choosing singles for release. Bowen said he relied on Bob Doyle and Pam Lewis, Brooks’s managers—as well as Brooks himself—to secure exposure through key multi-artist concerts and television programs. “Garth has the smartest business head of any artist I’ve known,” Bowen said. After seeing Brooks perform, he told his staff to do the same, and to earmark most of their budgets for promoting the singer. Additionally, Bowen worked with parent company EMI’s New York office to prioritize the marketing of Brooks’s multi-platinum second and third albums, No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind.

“I wasn’t particularly pro-video then,” Bowen said, “but Garth’s ‘The Thunder Rolls’ video moved me. Then we had an incredible stroke of luck when some stations banned it. That’s the best thing that can happen, because it gets coverage in newspapers and on TV news.”

Bowen also supported Brooks’s quest for an unprecedented new recording contract that gave him extremely favorable terms. “Garth and I would talk privately,” Bowen explained. “I told him, ‘I can’t give you what you want; only the president of EMI [which owned Capitol and Liberty] can do that.’” Bowen agreed to call the president, and Garth went to Aspen, Colorado, to begin negotiations with the executive. “There were lawyers present at the final meeting,” Bowen said, “But Garth did the negotiating. He wound up with the best deal any artist has ever had.”

After a successful struggle with thyroid cancer, Bowen moved to Hawaii in 1995 to recuperate. Since then, he has largely remained in retirement.

Summing up the lessons of his Nashville years, Bowen had this to say: “First, country music sounds as good as any genre,” given the right technology. “Second, there is no limit to what country-based singers can do with their art. Tompall Glaser taught me respect for country music and its history. I got to work closely with many great artists, and I played a small part in the career of the most successful country artist of all—Garth Brooks.  It was a great ride. People in Nashville have been wonderful to me, and I really appreciate your inviting me back for this program.”

—John Rumble