Industry Profile: Bob Ezrin
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bob Ezrin, Part One
You may know about Bob Ezrin but you probably don’t know his whole story.
Canadian-born Ezrin is an entertainment chameleon, an innovative production and technological wunderkind with a career that spans almost 40 years.
Ezrin is best-known as the music producer who has worked with Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack, Peter Gabriel, Dr. John, Rod Stewart, Berlin, Hanoi Rocks, Nine Inch Nails, the Jayhawks, the Deftones the Darkness, Jane's Addiction, L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio and many, many others.
For his production work and contributions alone to Lou Reed’s “Berlin,” and Pink Floyd's “The Wall” there should be a statue of him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
From January 2007 to July 2008, Ezrin was the chairman of Live Nation Recordings as part of Live Nation Artists. He had also produced Jay-Z's film "Fade To Black” in 2004.
And Ezrin’s career is still moving at a dizzying speed.
He was the stage director and music producer for the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Gardens on May 3rd that featured Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Richie Havens and many others. He is currently working on the DVD and PBS-TV special of the event.
He is also currently producing a new Peter Gabriel album.
He is a co-founder and a partner in Bigger Picture Group– an artist development company in Nashville. Its first success is the Zac Brown Band (originally signed to Live Nation Recordings) via Atlantic Records.
He is a co-founder and partner in both Vega Musique, the Montreal-based music company; and The Nimbus School of Recording Arts in Vancouver which opened its doors recently.
He is a partner in the music technology company BeatKangz Electronics based in Nashville
He is, along with U2's the Edge, Gibson Guitar chairman/CEO Henry Juszkiewicz—with support from Guitar Center Music Foundation and the Recording Academy's MusiCares--a co-founder of Music Rising, an initiative that replaces the musical instruments that were destroyed or lost in Louisiana’s gulf coast region due to the hurricanes and flooding of 2005.
He is also a founder of MusiCounts, CARAS' music education initiative in Canada; and VP of the Mister Holland's Opus Foundation in the U.S.
Ezrin attended Oakwood Collegiate Institute High School in Toronto, graduating in 1967. By that time, he had married his high school sweetheart and had his first child David. His now ex-wife, Arlene Sarner later wrote a 1986 movie about the experience called “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
Sadly, David Ezrin, also a music producer, passed away on Dec. 4, 2008 in Los Angeles.
During high school, Ezrin studied classical piano and composition at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Later on, he and a cousin formed a folk duo called The Messengers. His uncle Sid Ezrin co-owned The Penny Farthing Coffee House, which had been the early training grounds for Joni Mitchell, Jose Feliciano, the Irish Rovers and Neil Young, in Yorkville Village.
Playing Yorkville Village in the ‘60s, Ezrin was part of the early music folk and rock scene in Toronto. Walk down the street, during an evening then and you'd hear such folk acts as Gordon Lightfoot, the Dirty Shames, Bonnie Dobson, the Stormy Clovers or such rock acts as David Clayton Thomas and the Shays, the Ugly Ducklings, Jack London & The Sparrow (later renamed Steppenwolf) and the Mynah Birds (featuring Rick James and Neil Young).
Buffy Ste. Marie wrote "The Universal Soldier" in Yorkville. Phil Ochs wrote "Changes" there, too.
Ezrin was an excitable young man in those days, an all-around golden boy, running around discovering life and new forms music for the first time.
His first big break came in 1970 when he was hired for “around $100 per week” by respected local music producer Jack Richardson to work at Nimbus 9 Productions, then riding high with the success of the Guess Who.
Soon afterwards, Ezrin got tapped to check out Alice Cooper at Max's Kansas City in New York. Recalls Ezrin, “The place was filled with people wearing spandex and spider eyes. They all had black fingernails and black lipstick. And they all had deathly white complexions."
Despite not having any production experience, Ezrin brashly convinced Richardson that he could work with Alice Cooper and Richardson gave him the chance. Ezrin produced the 1971 classic “Love It To Death” album with the hit single “I'm Eighteen.”
Ezrin and the band then delivered three stunning albums in a row: ”Killer” (with “Under My Wheels”;“School’s Out” which soared to no. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart; and “Billion Dollar Babies” which reached no. 1. on the strength of its singles "Elected" (which peaked at no. 26 on the Billboard pop singles chart); "Hello, Hooray" (no. 35); "No More Mr. Nice Guy" (no. #25); and the song "Billion Dollar Babies" (no. 57).
Ezrin's reputation, of course, skyrocketed. Offers from other major acts followed, most notably Kiss, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd.
In 1993, deciding to slow down his record production work, Ezrin co-founded 7th Level that developed and published educational and entertainment CD-ROMs including an innovative series of Monty Python games.
In 1999, he co-founded Enigma Digital, a pioneering Internet radio provider that he later sold to Clear Channel, where he became vice-chairman of Clear Channel Interactive before joining Live Nation Artists Recordings in 2007.
Bob Ezrin was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame during the Juno Awards in 2004. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2006 as part of the Canadian Music Industry Awards.
Where are you living these days?
We are based in Fort Lauderdale (Florida). We have a rental (home) in Nashville and we keep a summer place in Toronto as well.
There seems to be a circle of life to your work today. You are again working with folkies; working with (former Live Nation chairman) Michael Cohl whom you’ve known for 40 years; and working with Peter Gabriel who you produced over three decades ago.
Isn’t that great? You are right. There has been a circle of life. Having lost my son David in December, I basically went underground. I stopped thinking about things like work and what I was going to do next. It was almost divine intervention that the things that fell into place first involved long-time friends and re-connecting to my beautiful past and to my youth. I don’t know why or how that happens but it happened and it has been cathartic to me.
What led to you becoming chairman of Live Nation Recordings?
What brought me into Live Nation was my relationship with Michael. Cohl (now a partner in S2BN Entertainment). I was also then working with Randy Lennox (president & CEO of Universal Music Canada) on the first all-rights artist development company. Also, in another co-venture with Universal Music Canada, we had signed Elsiane (the duo of singer/songwriter Elsieanne Caplette and drummer Stephane Sotto) to Vega Musique in Montreal.
The concept behind Live Nation Recordings sounds similar to the development company you had been planning with Universal Canada.
Randy and I were talking about doing a similar thing on a much smaller scale. We were going to start (in Toronto) and try to build it to become larger and more international. We weren’t going to do just Canada. Canada was a great place to start.
What happened with that Universal Canada co-venture?
Well, it got interrupted. We were pretty close (to a deal). Michael Cohl was going to be an investor originally. Instead of investing, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to do this big thing with Live Nation. He talked about the kind of scale they were dealing with and so on. “Would I come in and run the recording and publishing side of the business?” At that time, I thought it was a little more than that just recording and publishing. But whatever, it was a huge opportunity to really push the model.
Was the idea that you would helm the record company that would have Madonna, Jay-Z, Shakira and Nickelback and others?
Yeah, I was hired to run the recorded side of that business.
You were hired despite the fact that you have never run a record company before?
It was because I had never run a record company before, not despite of it. We didn’t want a record company. We didn’t have a record company. The things that record companies do the best, we were going to rent from record companies.
You still would have had recorded music to push through distribution systems.
The mandate was to find new systems. Today is like those early days on the web. This is a new frontier where people are finding new ways to connect with stuff that they love. We haven’t quite found the economic model yet but it will develop because we live in a free market system and economics will prevail.
This wasn’t just about selling recorded music. In fact, that was just one part of the equation. It really was about putting the artist directly in line with the people who love them. Creating a larger fan for them wherever possible. And then making sure that those fans had much better access and much more dynamic access to the stuff that the artists they loved were creating.
It’s a great idea. But I’m not sure that any of us, looking back, would agree with some of the business moves that were made. But some of them, we do.
The Live Nation 360 deals with Madonna, Jay-Z, Shakira and Nickelback encompass future music and music-related businesses, including albums, touring, merchandising, fan club, web site, DVDs, TV & film projects and associated sponsorship agreements, are based on performance but the money being discussed sounds impressive.
I think these guys (Live Nation executives) were just looking at the next touring cycle or two and the investments they were making was pretty safe money with the artists that they were dealing with. It certainly was a lot of money and scary to people who were uninitiated.
With Michael Cohl leaving Live Nation and with reports that Michael Rapino (president and CEO of Live Nation) was considering doing licensing deals on an artist-by-artist basis, you also left?
Were you disappointed?
Somewhat. Yeah. Fundamentally, sure. Disappointed that we never got to execute on an idea. I was dedicated, along with Michael, to building a new model for artists that would address the realities of the modern business and to also helping people to find new ways of connecting to their audience directly.
You are a co-founder of and co-partner of the Bigger Picture Group in Nashville that has the Zac Brown Band released via Atlantic Records. The band had been signed to Live Nation Recordings. What happened there?
When Randy Lennox and I were planning our co-venture, I began looking for companies to roll-up. I believed that the strongest genres, in terms of viability, were country, children’s and Christian music as well as comedy. I looked at various companies, including Broken Bow Records (which has released recordings by Jason Aldean, Joe Diffie, Craig Morgan). I called and talked to (fellow Torontonian) Allan Kates (COO of Broken Bow). He was intrigued by what I was talking about and he came to MIDEM so we could talk. We met and became instant friends.
While at Live Nation I had tried to either purchase (Broken Bow) or come up with a different construct for where Allan and (Broken Bow’s chief creative officer, producer) Keith Stegall would be the Nashville arm of the operation.
Mike Luba (then president of Live Nation Artists) and I signed the Zac Brown Band that Keith had produced to Live Nation Artists. Then this whole thing blew up which meant there was no Live Nation Recordings.
I then decided just because there no Live Nation Recordings that didn’t mean there should be no us. So I spoke to Allen and Keith about forming a partnership. Bill Hein (former Live Nation Recordings GM) came down here and we formed Bigger Picture Group.
The purpose of the label is to develop new talent and provide them with all of the resources and infrastructure that they need to develop and run a healthy career We can do the same with some established artists too. Provide them with a career solution in a box.
The Atlantic deal turned out to be great for Zac Brown and for us. We love our friends at Atlantic Records. We love working with them and we are hoping that that relationship will continue to grow and deepen. Craig Kallman (chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records) is fantastic. He’s a real music guy.
Being the stage director and music producer on the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Gardens on May 3rd must have felt like going back to summer camp for you.
Yes, there were moments when I could stand back and smell summer camp. While it was a little bit of going backwards, it was an awfully lot of dealing with current realities. Some of these people have become such big stars that wrangling them all and getting (all of the performances) into a coherent 4 1/2 hour show was really something. It was one of most difficult but rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.
It was huge job. Just huge. So many moving parts. So little time. So many things to control. And that is when I am the happiest guy in the entire world.
[Among those on the Seeger birthday bash bill were Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, (Kate's children Rufus and Martha Wainwright) Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bruce Cockburn, Billy Bragg, Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Taj Mahal, Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury and Roger McGuinn.]
We had 70 guests for a 4 1/2 hour show. We ended up with 38 songs. We had Springsteen, Matthews, Mellancamp and some of the great folk royalty like Joan Baez and some of Pete’s life long friends like Tom Paxton. And (rock guitarist) Tom Morello, who turned out to be one of the most versatile of all of the people there, played with everybody. And Roger McGuinn who was just fantastic.
Everyone there had to have their moment in the sun.
And we had to figure out how to do that. At the same time (we had to) tell the Pete Seeger story and make sure everybody got included. And make sure that there was an arc to the show. That the audience had an emotional experience. Not just the feeling of sitting there for 4 1/2 hours hearing song after song.
Reconnecting with this music and with some of the people I had loved as a teenager, was wonderful. Some of these were people I never thought I would have an opportunity to work with. To be on a stage working with Joan Baez was such a huge thrill. And Emmylou Harris who is so fantastic. I sat in Emmy’s living room working on “The Water is Wide” with her. When I left, I called my wife and said, “Okay, I can die now. I have seen heaven.”
Pete Seeger and the Weavers were among the first folk artists your generation heard.
My family was a musical family. We did a lot of singing around the piano and in the living room. Even though my father tended to be conservative, he unwittingly inculcated me with some left wing values in introducing me to the music of Pete Seeger and the Weavers and the other folkies of the time.
Folk singer Oscar Brand was hosting several TV shows in Canada in the ‘60s. There are several YouTube clips of Joni Mitchell performing on his show before she was famous.
My uncle (Sid Ezrin) was a half-owner in The Penny Farthing Coffee House on Yorkville Avenue (in Toronto). Not only was I introduced to folk music as a young kid but, as a teenager, I used to sit in the audience chewing though my braces on a baguette and trying to drink cappuccino while watching this beautiful blond-haired girl from out west named Joni Anderson. And watching this amazing blind kid Jose Feliciano and of course, there were (the local Dixieland band) Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers.
[While Joni was playing in the basement section of The Penny Farthing, Chuck Mitchell and Loring James came into town and played upstairs. Joni later married Chuck.]
Did you perform at The Penny Farthing?
I played in the basement as Bob Ezrin and I played there as a duo, the Messengers with my cousin Nancy (Cole).
Were you any good?
The Messengers were pretty good. How good can a 15-year-old with braces be? My big number of the night was the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot. It’s my favourite song ever. I wrote some things but we mostly covered other peoples’ stuff. We would do folk music.
Sid Ezrin was renowned for collecting stereo equipment. He also had one of the first stereos in Canada.
He had the first stereo which my parents and we kids smuggled (into Canada) from a family vacation in Buffalo, New York in 1959. Sid was a lawyer with an absolute passion for music. He had Ampex tape recorders, transcription turntables, microphones. Plus, the largest privately-owned jazz collection in Canada.
You worked briefly at CBC-Radio in the ‘60s.
I started writing sketch material for Howard Bateman, a producer at CBC Radio’s “Sunday Morning.” I was just a kid. I was 17 or 18. I had a vision of becoming a writer.
Were you out of high school yet?
I had just got out of grade 13 at Oakwood Collegiate Institute at that time (1967). I had finished my year early because I had been invited to leave he school. I ended up writing my grade 13 exams on my own. I was looking for any kind of work from selling encyclopedias to selling comedy sketches to the CBC. Then these people at “Sunday Morning” gave me a break.
How did you come to work on the theatrical production of “Spring Thaw ’70?”
When Howard Bateman (and John Uren) leased the rights to (the annual revue) “Spring Thaw,” and decided to do “Spring Thaw ’70,” he hired me as his script editor. My job was to compile a script of sketch comedy written by people like Hart & Lorne (with the future co-creator of “Saturday Night Live” Lorne Michaels and Hart Pomerantz). It was also decided that it’d be a good idea to modernize the show and to have a rock music score rather than the usual Broadway-type score.
The musical director of the show was (arranger) Allan Macmillian who wasn’t as comfortable then with coming up with rock material as he was with pop material. So I volunteered to become his assistant musical director. My job was to go out and get the music and arrange the music for the stage. I hired my friends and the band Icarus (with Eddie Schwartz who’d later write “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” recorded by Pat Benatar ) which I happened to co-manage with Michael Cohl to be the house band. Then I went out looking for music. Some of which the band wrote and much of which was written by other people, including a promising young writer I met in Ottawa named Bruce Cockburn.
In a way, this was my introduction to what later turned out to be my style of production. Which is working with people on their material, on the arrangement and on an effective live version of songs.
It was rich cultural time in those days in Toronto.
Toronto underwent a cultural eruption in the middle to late ‘60s that produced an inordinate amount of talent and personalities--many of whom are still successful to today. Some of whom changed the face of their industry. From great writers to television talent to film makers and musicians.
At a club called The Global Village downtown on any given night you would find Lorne Michaels and Hart Pomerantz onstage doing comedy. (Film maker) David Cronenberg talking to Ivan Reitman in the back about his latest movie. And the members of Rough Trade huddling and trying to figure out what they were going to do on their first album.
Allan Macmillian was a partner in Nimbus 9 Productions with (arranger/composer) Ben McPeek, (producer) Jack Richardson and (engineer) Peter Clayton. Is that how you came to work with Jack?
On working with the “Spring Thaw” music, Alan said, “I’d like to introduce you to my partner. I think he could use this kind of assistance.” I came in the door thinking that I was going to be a manager. Not knowing that management didn’t mean working on peoples’ music. Jack said, “I think the word you are looking for is ‘producer.’ C’mon in kid.”
[The Nimbus 9 partnership stemmed from the partners’ collaboration on music for a Youth campaign for the Coca Cola account and working on Honda commercials. It was the Guess Who’s frontman Burton Cummings on the “Two-wheeled Freedom on a Honda?” ad in 1967. It led to Richardson discovering that the band’s recording contract with Quality Records of Canada was expiring. The debut Nimbus 9 album was “A Wild Pair” in 1968 that featured the Guess Who and the Staccatos (that later became Five Man Electrical Band) made exclusively for Coca-Cola. It reportedly sold 85,000 copies and led to the Guess Who being signed direct to the Nimbus 9 label.]
Jack Richardson was Canada’s first major music producer.
The first world class producer in the classic sense in Canada was Jack. He came from the advertising world but he had quickly recognized after doing “The Wild Pair” for Coca Cola that the Guess Who was an amazing talent. He thought that they were under-appreciated (in Canada). He literally mortgaged his house to buy them out of their Quality Records’ contract and launched them to be one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. That is pretty remarkable.
You are a co-founder of and partner along with Jack’s son, producer Garth Richardson in The Nimbus School of Recording Arts in Vancouver that has just opened. So Nimbus 9, the name lives on.
Yeah, isn’t that great? That is so fantastic. Both Garth and I believe that there is an art to what we do. There is an art to making great recordings. Not just making hit records but making great recordings. Things that will endure. And there’s an art to working in that environment that is applicable not just to us making recordings but to life in general. The things you learn being an effective studio person are life lessons that will inform everything you do going forward. We think that is important that kids should have that kind of an education. We have looked at the landscape. There are some very good schools out there but there aren’t enough of them.
We also believe that what Jack Richardson taught us in that classical style was unique and special and needs to be passed on. So much of what we’re doing is really regurgitating what we learned and maybe filtered through 40 years of experience and refined to be a bit modern. But the fundamental principals still hold true. So the idea is that we do something to keep that spirit alive and teaches the art and science in the way that we were taught.
What did you pick up from going to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. for two weeks when producer Phil Ramone came to teach the first recording workshop there in 1970.
I picked up a lot. I was a human sponge. By the time I walked out of Eastman, I understood signal path and I understood how a console worked in a general sense. I lost whatever fear I had of knobs. They let me mix which was amazing. They let me in the studio at night to play with the equipment. I lived every single moment either in the little studio room or sitting at someone knee and asking questions and making notes or observing. Then we did a live recording with the Paul Winter Consort. It was a wonderful learning experience in the real world.
Was working with Alice Cooper your “high school” as a producer?
Oh, it was my grade school. It was kindergarten. Talk about jumping into the deep end. I saw them in New York and I felt that there was something there we had to do. I came back to Toronto selling to save my life and theirs. Jack finally said, “Enough already. If you like them so much, you do it.” I said, “I’ll do it” with all of the bravado of a 19 or 20 year old. I leapt into it without any knowledge of how to do it. I’d done a few sessions with Jack. Just a few. I had been in the studio about five or six times, mostly on the other side of the glass, playing. Not really understanding the technology or the producer’s role.
The only thing you had to go on with how Alice Cooper sounded was their two Straight Record albums “Pretties For You” (1968) and “Easy Action” (1970) which we were pretty tame.
Honestly, I listened only to a small amount of those albums and ignored them from that point on.
You recorded “Love It To Death” at RCA’s Mid American Studios in Chicago where Jack Richardson had recorded the Guess Who. You couldn’t record Alice Cooper in Toronto?
I’m sure we could of but we were dealing with an American band too with five members and the road crew and so on. They were living in Pontiac, Michigan. To get them all the way up to Toronto and to get them across the border, especially with the way that they looked would have been difficult. It wasn’t trivial.
Did Alice Cooper’s success at both AM and FM radio surprise you?
I wasn’t at all surprised. As far as I was concerned this was more than music. This was the beginning of a cultural movement. I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of (radio) frequency bands. I was thinking of it simply in terms of a segment of society, meaning kids and that I felt being one of them, that this was what was happening. Which was that we were adopting a more fantastical approach to our entertainment. We were beginning to embrace experimentation with the stretching of boundaries and the bending of norms. We were doing it politically already. We were kind of doing it lyrically in our music, but we hadn’t touched on things like how we dressed or what our sexual orientation was through our music.
Did you still have one foot in commerciality through working with Jack Richardson and all of that pop music “hit” environment?
Maybe that was imprinted on me in language but not in reality. Sure, someone would say, “You need a hit.” So I’d say, “You need a hit.” But I had no clue what a hit was. I think the bottom line was that where (the universality) came from was my classical and my folk training. From having some folk music in my background and having played folk music for so long, I understood what a really great song felt like. I had played a lot of them.
The Alice Cooper albums are ambitious for their time. You did string arrangements for them, for example
I learned on Warner Brothers’ dime. I decided that there just was nothing that couldn’t be done. it was that blissful ignorance of youth. So I was I able to roll forward and do things that shouldn’t or couldn’t be done, that were technically improper and upside down. But they suited the situation and captured what we needed to capture at the time. You listen back to it now and it’s pretty primitive stuff. But it was appropriately primitive. That is who they were then.
The original Alice Cooper wasn’t that good of a band. They were good but not great.
No but they weren’t that bad either. They were a lot better than they thought. It was a matter of them learning the discipline of recording, rehearsing material, really poring through it to make sure that what they were doing was working with the other members of the band and jettisoning stuff that was unnecessary. These were things that they had never thought about. You just get together and everybody plays and it just kind of works. Except in most times, it just doesn’t. You really have to do think these things through. I brought that sensibility to the group.
One of the most interesting albums you did in that period was Mitch Ryder’s “Detroit” album in 1972. You recorded an outstanding version of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” with his band.
It’s not bad. Aside from the original, it is the best version of “Rock and Roll.” I loved working on that record. I loved the whole Detroit ethos and the simmering revolution that never was.
Did you get approached to produce MC5?
No. I never got asked to do MC5. There were different camps at that point. Alice was more on the psychedelic tip than the political tip. Nobody saw him as political, although he was, perhaps, more counter culture than anyone, just in a very assiduous way. What he looked like, what he stood for, the lyrics of his songs were much more about the reality of the youth counter culture than the MC5 and some of the other bands around.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.