Lou Adler’s career in the music business got rolling when he and Herb Alpert got together in 1957. Adler had a tremendous career producing records for Sam Cooke, Johnny Rivers, the Mamas and the Papas, Spirit, Cheech and Chong, and Carole King, running several record labels, plus co-producing the Monterey Pop Festival as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The interview took place in December 1996, in Adler’s home in Malibu, California.
Craig Morrison : What was your first entry into studio work ? Was it with Sam Cooke ?
Lou Adler : Herb Albert and I started out as song writers and we did some demos with Herb singing. We took them around to anyone that would listen to them. One of the places we went was Keen Records, which had just started with Sam Cooke, and they hired us as apprentice A&R men.
CM : You wrote a song for him.
LA : We wrote “Wonderful World.”
CM : I guess you saw the movie with Harrison Ford when he’s dancing to that song. How did that feel ? Was it used appropriately ?
LA : Yeah, Witness. I liked it. Yeah, it was great. I thought it was really good.
CM : I’m particularly interested in the ’59 to ’69 period. On the West Coast, there was the Pacific Northwest, with “Louie Louie” and Paul Revere and the Raiders coming out of Seattle and Portland, and a rhythm and blues scene in Vancouver. That’s one area. Then San Francisco had folk rock and psychedelic. And there’s the LA sound. Do you think it’s legitimate to think of those as three separate areas ?
LA : Certainly San Francisco was. I’m not quite sure about the Northwest. The Northwest in the ‘50s was rock and roll, Kingsmen and all those, more of a garage sound than even LA. That was really unsophisticated rock and roll ; it was raw. Where San Francisco didn’t develop until later.
CM : I remember “C’Mon and Swim” by Bobby Freeman , and the Autumn label [of San Francisco].
LA : And “Do You Want to Dance” [Bobby Freeman’s 1958 hit]. The first you heard about it was Sly Stone [who co-wrote “C’mon and Swim” and produced it – one of his earliest successes in the record business]. He was pretty much doing rock and roll but a combination of black and white.
CM : Do you think there is a West Coast sound ?
LA : Not anymore.
CM : Was there in the 1960s ?
LA : Yeah, there was definitely a West Coast sound, mostly because of the rhythm section that we were using. The people that were producing were using a particular rhythm section [known as the Wrecking Crew]. I don’t know if Phil Spector could be considered a West Coast sound but he had a definite sound that was coming out of here and that wasn’t coming out of New York.
CM : Yes, the Wall of Sound.
LA : Los Angeles and New York were the two areas. Nashville hadn’t been really developed yet, and Chicago was mostly blues. I think LA was a little rawer sound, even though California is known as slick. I think the producers that were developing on the West Coast were a little less sophisticated. Most of the sounds coming out of New York had of strings, [like with] the Drifters, a lot more orchestrations. We were a lot more about a rhythm section. Certainly, the surf sound was definitely West Coast.
CM : Were you involved in the surf sound ?
LA : I produced Jan and Dean.
From left : Dean Torrence, Lou Adler, Jan Berry, Herb Alpert. Photo source here.
CM : I remember a lot of their songs that I heard growing up in British Columbia. What was it that caused you to emphasize the rhythm section ?
LA : No particular reason. At that time we did records in sections, so the rhythm section was the basic thing that we worked with. And if I could complete a record without hearing strings or horns. Also I had a real good working relationship with the people that I was working with in the rhythm section, both as musicians and as people that were giving me input to the final sound of the record.
CM : Would you build up the bed tracks with the bass, drums, and keyboards, I mean everything live except the voice ?
LA : It depends on the artist. With Jan and Dean we put the voices first.
CM : With a guide track ?
LA : A piano way off in the distance, and then put the instruments underneath them. Mamas and Papas were a basic track and then a lot of vocals. Then if we had any room, we’d come back and add to that. But you know, a lot of that stuff was four-track and then eight-track, so we were bouncing a lot. You can only go down so far before you start hearing ....
CM : You start to lose it.
LA : Exactly, yeah. So it depends on the artist. With Carole King, basically I was trying to do demo sounds, real simple sounds.
CM : And it worked.
LA : Yeah.
CM : Was the transition from the surf sound to folk rock a slow development, or was there a quick left turn at some point because of some other influence ?
LA : I think it was slow and I think there were events that dictated it. As far as folk musicians coming into rock and roll, there was the success of the Beatles, which legitimatized to them that you could write a different kind of lyric and you could play something interesting. They probably had looked down on rock and roll, in the beginning. Dylan plugging in, those kinds of things validated it.
CM : There was a big change with the coming of the Beatles. In your own work, what was your reaction to all that ?
LA : At the time I was recording Johnny Rivers, and in fact we had really great success during that period. We had a lot of hit singles. I don’t know that I was consciously influenced by the Beatles. I was, certainly, by Dylan when he went electric. I made a conscious effort at that point to concentrate on that kind of music.
CM : That was in the Mamas and Papas period ?
LA : That was just prior to the Mamas and Papas. I was recording Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction.” That was definitely because of Dylan.
CM : I spoke briefly with Steve Barri today. He was involved with the Grass Roots. You were too, weren’t you ?
LA : Well, they were on Dunhill, a label I started.
CM : Did you have connections with the Grass Roots ?
LA : I recorded the Grass Roots. The name the Grass Roots [came] out of a book. The group that I recorded as the Grass Roots were originally from San Francisco [and called the Bedouins]. We recorded a Dylan song : “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man).” When I left Dunhill, the group changed. The group that Steve Barri recorded was not the group I was recording. He just kept the name. I didn’t have any connection with those Grass Roots. I was strictly a record company owner at that point. Steve was producing them.
CM : Was he was working with you or was he competition at that point ?
LA : No, Steve was competition never. Steve and P.F. Sloan were writers when I was with the publishing company. I signed them on as writers, and put them together as a team. When I moved over to Dunhill, I took them with me. I never felt any competition with them.
CM : The Grass Roots were one of the first name bands that I ever saw, up in Victoria. They came to my high school in 1968. The sound of the Mamas and Papas, the Grass Roots, and the Turtles, that was one side of the LA sound. There was another side to it in that period also, with groups like Love or the Music Machine with “Talk Talk,” and the Leaves, more of a garage sound.
LA : Yeah.
CM : In that environment, was there a big split, where people felt in one camp or the other or did everybody feel just that they were all playing rock music ?
LA : No, I don’t think so. I never noticed competition in Los Angeles between the different groups, never felt that at all.
CM : When you started with the Mamas and Papas, did you have a sense that they were at the right place at the right time or was it just like ‘we’ll throw this out and see’ [what happens] ?
LA : I don’t think you really have …you’re caught up in the music. You don’t think. At the particular time you’re just moving on the music. You think about those things in retrospect.
CM : Talking about rhythm sections, there’s a lot of really excellent bass lines on those Mamas and Papas recordings, some very unusual notes, also.
LA : Yeah, a lot of that came from the bass player himself, Joe Osborn. He was really a country boy. All his early influences were country, but the intricate bass lines were the bass lines that seemed to be harmonic with the vocals and the keyboards. A lot of that was the arrangements of John Phillips. If it was an out of the ordinary bass line, then it was coming from John Phillips.
CM : Do you ever feel, “Don’t play me ‘California Dreaming’ one more time” ?
LA : Not for me. I think that happens when an artist who has to sing it every time they go on the stage, but from a producer’s standpoint, no. I’ll turn it up when I hear it on the radio, turn it up, listen to certain things, recall certain things.
CM : I always admired that part in the song when it goes into the solo : the bass player just sticks on the roots and the chord progression falls away. Then just when it goes into that major chord, the chord progression kicks in again. That was a brilliant idea.
LA : A lot of that’s John. It was naive in a sense. We didn’t have any rules and we weren’t constricted, much like the rap artists aren’t today. They’ll do whatever ; they sample whatever they want to do.
CM : And the flute solo.
LA : The flute solos on that, it just happened that Bud Shank was walking down the hall. We weren’t sure if we wanted him to be an octave up or an octave low, so we took it both ways and then in the middle of the solo, it jumps an octave, ’cause we used another take.
CM : So he played the same line both times.
LA : In a different octave.
CM : How many tracks were you using at that time ?
LA : I think that was eight. That might have been two fours tied together.
CM : Were you as involved in the tech side of it or did you stay in the production ?
LA : The tech side was simple, so you could get involved in it. It was a matter of, “give me two more dBs on the top.” You were dealing with pull techs with big knobs. It wasn’t real technical. I was involved because, [with] not a lot of tracks, you could mix it ; you weren’t digital so you didn’t have to recall this, recall [that].
CM : I know that you were involved in putting on the Monterey Pop Festival. Everyone talks about what an amazing weekend it was and how it was the culmination of some things and the beginning of other things. For you, being a participant and an organizer of the whole weekend, what were your own personal feelings about the event and its ramifications ?
LA : Well, the ramifications are probably still being felt. What it did, it brought the so-called underground over ground, as far as the San Francisco groups were concerned. I mean, it made them very visible to the executives that hadn’t chose to view that music yet, or to think about the possibilities.
CM : Were you aware of the San Francisco bands at that point ?
LA : Well, we were learning about them. I had been to the Fillmore a couple of times and seen Janis Joplin once with Big Brother [and the Holding Company], and the [Jefferson] Airplane once. We—I say we, that’s John Phillips and myself—we knew that that was a segment of music that we wanted represented. As to how big that music was going to become, I can’t say one way or another if I knew it was going to be big or not. We just knew that it should be represented, that it was definitely a force coming out of San Francisco. And the fact that the Festival was halfway between here and San Francisco.
CM : Did you feel a competition with that sound or was it a kind of a threat ?
LA : It wasn’t a competition. They were difficult. They looked on LA as being a very slick city, and the music coming out of it they considered slick. They considered John and I slick. We had a lot of difficulties.
CM : What was it that made you want to do the Monterey Pop Festival ? Was it just that there was a lot of music that needed exposure or did you wanted to mix the two cities ?
LA : No, it was just [getting] caught up in the idea of doing the festival. We had been asked to do the festival as an artist, the Mamas and Papas. They wanted to pay some money and we said, “Well, why don’t we just do this as a charitable thing, see if we can get some artists [from] all over the world.” It was sort of like that Mickey Rooney, “Let’s get in, this could be our job,” so we just started doing it. Weeks before, we had had a conversation with Paul McCartney in Cass Elliott’s house where we had all discussed how rock and roll was the armpit of every industry. We thought that it should be an art form and be recognized as an art form. I guess this was in the back of our head, that idea that we were doing a festival in Monterey that always had done jazz festivals. That was part of the motivation.
CM : Did it turn out the way you wanted ? It was considered a big success.
LA : Far beyond anything. If you’re doing something that’s the first time, you don’t know what you want it to be, you’re just doing it. Then you see what it became. We didn’t have any expectations at all. It was put together in a very short amount of time, so it was 20 hours of work a day, not really knowing, not having expectations. We were certainly satisfied with what we ended up with.
CM : Following the Mamas and Papas success, which direction did you go in ?
LA : I recorded a group called Spirit, which was closer to a jazz influence. A couple of members of the group, especially the keyboard player, were very jazz [influenced].
CM : John Locke.
LA : Yeah. That was like 1968. That’s the direction I went in.
CM : How many albums did you do with Spirit ?
LA : I did four.
CM : This summer  I saw Randy California and Ed Cassidy and a couple of other people, as Spirit, at a festival in Pennsylvania. Did Spirit stay with you ? Or, I mean, did you stay with Spirit ?
LA : I left Spirit. I had to make a decision. I wanted to get out of my CBS contract. I wasn’t happy ; for a lot of reasons : I wasn’t able to follow through [with artist development]. So, I wanted out of that contract. The deal that I made is, I left Spirit and Scott McKenzie there, and I took Carole King, Peggy Lipton, and Merry Clayton.
CM : When you split from Spirit under those circumstances, did you feel that there were more things that you could have done but it just went like that ?
LA : No, my relationship with Spirit was the least compassionate of all the artists that I’ve worked with. I never really got to all of them on a person-to-person basis. The chemistry was really never there on a personal basis. With a couple of them there was, but not as a group. So, that was partly my decision, being able to walk away from that.
CM : The emotional content is really vital because that makes the whole thing work.
LA : Oh, I think it is. I think you spend that much time in the studio with someone, you gotta have that kind of feeling, and also, as an A&R man with the group, you gotta be able to talk to them on a personal basis, always.
CM : Your career goes back to the ’50s, and you’re still active now of course. How do you feel about that mid-‘60s period ? Was it just one of a number of things you passed through or did it have a particular flavor ?
LA : I look back on my career by the artists, the talent that I worked with, so the years don’t seem to matter much, but the fact that I was able to work with Sam Cooke and Carole King and John Phillips, those are impacts upon me. They were all study periods or learning periods as well, because each one took me to another place. I stayed involved with my artists from the very first time they sang me the song until I finished the cover [art], and decided on the promotion, because most of them were my record companies.
CM : Right, Dunhill and Ode. Were there others ?
LA : We started out real early. Herbie [Alpert] and I started a record company called Shar-Dee [four 45s released 1959-’60 : two by pop/ r&b singer Lou Rawls, one each of instrumental rock by the Roosters and doo wop by the Valiants]. We experimented. I wanted a label from the first time that we became producers. That was the ultimate. Ode, well, there was Ode 70 - I started Ode about three different times, with three different distributors.
CM : So you had the joy of seeing a project go from the connection to an artist into development of the song, the recording...
LA : And the marketing. That’s what I got the kick out of, taking it all the way. I had a lot of those instincts ; it didn’t stop in the studio. I cared about where the cover came from and I cared about how it was marketed.
CM : Each one of those steps is important because you can have a great record that has a lousy cover or something.
LA : I don’t know that you can do that today. There are a lot more people involved. My record companies, we had four people.
CM : So, you’d have an engineer and yourself...
LA : Not even engineer in the company ; we’d hire an engineer. But it would be myself, a promotion man, somebody in graphics, and a couple secretaries. That was the extent of those record companies. Even Dunhill, and Ode, which was in ’71, ’72, and ’73, even ’74 probably, the most successful independent there was, with Carole King, Cheech and Chong, [guitarist] David T. Walker—sold a lot of r&b records—Tom Scott and the LA Express. I had Tommy on that label, with the Who and the Philharmonic [London Symphony Orchestra] on it.
CM : Could you tell me a little what you’re up to now ?
LA : I just do various things. I work all the catalogues, the Carole King catalogue, Mamas and Papas. All those catalogues are still active. I do that and that’s not much work but it’s part of the time. The Rocky Horror [Picture Show] stuff is very active and I work that. I have a children’s label. I don’t do anything really on a day-to-day basis, just a bunch of different things ; hard to really pinpoint it.
CM : What do you find the most exciting thing to do ? Is it working in the studio ?
LA : I still enjoy working in the studio. I recently went in and did some things for my son, who’s a producer-manager ; he’s 23. He had an artist that he felt that he wanted me to cut some things with her, and that was exciting. I like being in the studio. I had stopped because I no longer liked being in the studio, like ’78. I stopped recording for years. But the juices flow when I get back in there ; I enjoy it.
CM : What was it that made you want to get out of it for a while ?
LA : I just got tired of saying “more bass,” and just the whole thing got to be a clich ?. I guess there wasn’t an artist that came along that got those juices going. I didn’t have anything to do, really. There was no artist that I was working with, and then I stopped looking. I never really looked for artists ; I sort of happened upon an artist. It dried up. I took the ’80’s off.
CM : From rhythm and blues into the surf style and folk rock, and then jazz rock with Spirit—all these hyphenated rock-something or something-rock styles—you’ve successfully passed through a lot of them and brought them along quite a ways. Do you see a Lou Adler touch that passes through all of those ?
LA : There’s definitely a touch but I think it’s more of a catalystic. It’s bringing the elements together and not overpowering them, so it’s not really like Phil Spector. Everything he did had a Phil Spector sound to it. I really brought the sound of the artist out. A lot of the touch would be in the rhythm sections that I brought to it, and whatever my musical sense was to what they already had, their talent. But I never overpowered it, so it was always the artist’s sound as opposed to a Lou Adler sound.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, 2013.
CM : Listening back to it all, how do you feel about it ?
LA : There’s nothing that I did that was successful that I’d go back and say, “Oh, that could have been done better.” I’m very satisfied with the way that the artists I worked with were recorded. I don’t say, “Oh, maybe I should have done that or....” There are a couple of instances where I didn’t need strings or I put everything on that, but most cases I can very easily live with it.
I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.