- Music Archivist Gives New Life to Lost Recordings
by Bill Holland
Reuters/Billboard, June 26, 2004[/font]
WASHINGTON -- Michael Brooks is a living encyclopedia of pre-1950 pop and jazz recordings.
For 30 years, the music archivist has been the go-to guy at CBS Records and, later, Sony Music. He tracks down dusty acetates and metal parts, then turns them into award-winning heritage releases and boxed sets that are the hallmark of Sony's Legacy division.
Among the historical reissues he has produced are boxed sets of the works of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Lester Young and Bing Crosby.
Brooks can toss off the histories of musicians whose legacies have been clouded by time -- and the matrix numbers of their 78 rpm recordings -- like a sportscaster reeling off the batting averages of long-dead baseball giants.
Jeff Jones, senior VP of Columbia Jazz and Legacy, says of Brooks, "We reap the benefits every day from his work on historic collections to finding us lost 78s from his own collection that help fill the holes in our vaults or provide source material for movie soundtracks TV spots. He is one of a kind."
Steve Berkowitz, Legacy VP of A&R, adds, "He's like Merlin the wizard. To try and find an obscure master or acetate, you sometimes go to the vault or try the Internet -- or you can just go to Michael. Because he knows this huge network of collectors, he'll say, 'Oh, we don't have it. It got tossed during the war. But I think there's a chap in Manchester who may have one.'"
Q: It's been well-documented how Columbia Records producer John Hammond discovered Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Bob Dylan, among others. How did he discover you?
A: I used to buy records from Bob Altschuler, who was then VP of publicity at Columbia. One day he said John Hammond was looking for someone to do a Count Basie retrospective, would I like to do it? I gasped and said yes. This was 1971.
John took me to lunch at the Automat on 57th Street. You know, food in slots? You push a button and out it shoots? I still remember the bill for the two of us was $3.77. With a lordly gesture, Hammond said, "Don't worry. This is on me."
Q: Were you familiar with the workings of a recording studio?
A: Oh, no. Didn't have a clue. Hammond asked me, and I lied and said yes, of course. Luckily, the recording engineer I worked with was extremely supportive. And Chris Albertson, whom I'd replaced on the Basie project, called me up and offered advice and helped me tremendously.
It was a double album called "Super Chief," and I also wrote the liner notes, and it got nominated for a Grammy. So I was John's boy after that. I worked for him until he retired in 1976.
Q: What's it like listening to and trying to identify mystery recordings?
A: We're sitting on probably 100,000 metal masters. There used to be more. We have paperwork on a lot of it, but some of the discs are just numbers.
So in 1995, I asked if I could bring some of that in, and got the OK. We began getting in about 10 or 12 boxes a day -- about 100 sides in each daily shipment. A lot of them were negatives, so we had to play them backwards with a special stylus that rides atop the groove. I was familiar with certain things, but some of it, especially ethnic music, we'd just say, "possibly Hungarian."
We also found old demos of artists' unreleased material, like the Earl Hines Band from 1932 doing a song they never recorded. The demo simply said "33 1/3 Test." Things like that make the project worthwhile.
Q: You recently handled an ambitious Cuban music project. What special challenges did that present?
A: In 2000, I was allowed to do a reissue called "Cuban Music: 1909-1951."
I didn't know much about the idiom, but I really like getting a project in which I am a novice. I played through literally several hundred Cuban titles we have in our vault and selected 25 that I thought were good. We asked a gentleman who's an expert on Cuban music to do the liner notes. He told me he thought it was a wonderful collection and there was only one title on the set he wouldn't have selected. I was delighted.
Some of the music didn't sound Cuban as we know it. In 1928, Columbia went to Cuba with portable equipment and recorded about 300 sides. We still have most of them. Absolute treasures.
There was one that began with bagpipes and went into a beautiful a cappella choral thing. Someone who heard it told us it was the music of a tribe from Galicia in Spain that somehow got to Cuba and went into the hills... and never came down again. They might still be there!
We also did a double-CD of Yiddish music called "From Avenue A to the Great White Way." Again, I knew little about the music, but we worked with a Yiddish scholar -- we got along famously -- and I found him some things he didn't think existed. So he was jumping up and down. It also showed how Yiddish music influenced jazz.
Q: What kind of opportunities do you see for the Internet to bring attention to undiscovered material?
A: My own philosophy is, we should try to expand the catalog rather than shrink it like what's happened on radio.
Certain record companies seem to reissue the same old thing over and over again. Now, there's nothing wrong with putting out greatest-hits packages, but there should also be reissues with material the public hasn't heard yet might pique their interest.
We're sitting on a vast store of material we own. Most of it was never going to come out on CD form; it wasn't economically viable. But if it's available online -- people are exploring, people are curious. We can not only generate revenue but educate people in the best way to this music. So much of it is good.[/indent]
Michael Brooks: Career Highlights
- 1987-present: Producer/archivist for CBS Records and Sony Music. Winner of six Grammy Awards as producer, co-producer or liner-note author.
- 1981: Became chief producer for Time-Life's mail-order record division.
- 1977: Returned to CBS as reissue producer for its Columbia special products
- 1976: Left CBS to work for Hammond at his short-lived music company, SNUM.
- 1972: First Grammy Award nomination, for liner notes on Count Basie reissue
"Super Chief" (CBS).
- 1971: Legendary producer John Hammond hired Brooks to work on jazz reissues at CBS Records.
- 1960: Began career as book trade editor and advertising executive.
A well deserved tribute to Michael Brooks
Posted 27 June 2004 - 03:52 PM
Posted 27 June 2004 - 07:08 PM
Posted 27 June 2004 - 08:02 PM
Don't have the Purvis set, but if MB had anything to do with it, that must be supplying dubs from the Columbia vaults - not an entirely "clean" operation.
Brooks did a lot of work on the recent 3-CD Jack Purvis set, which is just a treasure trove for those of us with a yen for the mystery man from Kokomo.
Posted 27 June 2004 - 08:23 PM
Frank Driggs was guilty of deception when he put together the Henderson A Study in Frustration album--as I recall he presented as an alternate take one that in actuality had been altered.
George Avakian eventually corrected the Armstrong issue and I think (hope) Michael learned from that mistake.
As for Orrin, I think one of the worst thing he did was to cut out Duke's piano intro on "Take the 'A Train."
I am still not sure that I did the right thing when I came across acetates containing several takes of "Breakfast Feud" and spliced together all the Christian solos, in order of performance. It was interesting to hear how he developed the solo, but the average record buyer might not have seen it that way. I have since come to the conclusion that reissues ought not be produced with the collector in mind, unless it is for a dedicated collector's label.
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