Douglas enjoys his charmed life in music industry
By ROD HARMON
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Dec. 3, 1965: Jack Douglas, a young guitarist from New York, and a friend travel to Liverpool aboard a tramp steamer with dreams of making it big. The pair are held captive on the ship by immigration officials because they lack visas and work permits. Douglas sneaks off to buy a copy of the Beatles' Rubber Soul, and alerts the Liverpool Weekly News of their plight before returning to the boat. The next day, the Fab Four's homecoming concert shares equal billing on the front page with "Two Yanks Held on Ship."
Flash-forward to 1971. Douglas is now a musical engineer working on John Lennon's Imagine album. As he edits the song Jealous Guy, Lennon ducks into the editing room to rest. Douglas takes the opportunity to tell him of his Liverpool adventure.
Lennon is amazed.
"I'm feeling like I'm meeting a celebrity!" he tells Douglas. "We saw those newspapers, and we laughed so hard at the two stupid Yank (expletives) who would come to Liverpool from New York!
"I can't believe that was you!"
Thus began a lifelong friendship between Douglas and Lennon, which would last until the Beatle's death in 1980. For Douglas, the event also marked an early chapter in his career as one of the most successful engineer/producers in the history of rock 'n' roll.
The Grammy winner has manned the boards for some of the most influential albums in rock history. His list of clients reads like a list of "Who's Who in Rock:" The Who, John Lennon, the New York Dolls, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, and Alice Cooper, to name a few. He recently received a career achievement award from the Sarasota Film Festival in Sarasota, Fla., where he screened a short film promoting his new CD, Mob Story: A Hip Hopera.
Douglas jokingly refers to the honor as the "Blood, Sweat and Tears Award."
Born in the Big Apple, Douglas started his music career as a folkie playing the coffeehouse circuit in Greenwich Village. After his ill-fated Liverpool trip, he played bass in Chuck Berry's band, wrote campaign songs for Robert Kennedy and had a couple of minor hits produced by the Isley Brothers. It was the Isleys who gave him his first engineering job, albeit unintentionally.
"They totally screwed up a record I was making," Douglas said. "I had a band that sounded like Led Zeppelin, and they couldn't help themselves. They brought in girl background singers and horns and conga players. And I said, 'Let me mix the record.'"
Douglas loved the experience so much that he quit his band and enrolled in the Studio of Audio Engineering in New York. He gradually worked his way up the ladder by working on jingles and jazz tapes, until he was enlisted for big projects like Who's Next by the Who, Imagine by Lennon and the New York Dolls' self-titled debut.
"Jack essentially did the grunt work," said David Johansen, former lead vocalist for the Dolls. "(Producer Todd) Rundgren would just throw up his hands and say 'call me,' and Jack would take over. He has this natural, psychological knack of bringing things together out of chaos into a cohesive form."
"I'd like to think that we single-handedly ruined the music industry," Johansen added with a laugh.
Douglas got his big break in 1973, when Bob Ezrin invited him to help produce Alice Cooper's Muscle of Love. From there, his career skyrocketed. His work with Aerosmith in the mid-'70's, including Toys in the Attic and Rocks, made them one of the biggest bands in the world. He discovered Cheap Trick in a Wisconsin bowling alley, and produced their first record and the classic Cheap Trick at Budokan.
Lennon remained one of his closest friends. While working on one of Yoko Ono's solo albums, he unwittingly affected how the couple would work together from then on.
"John is producing, I'm engineering, and Yoko goes out and does a yodel from hell," Douglas said. "I mean, even John was beside himself. I looked over at him, and he looked up at me, and that was it -- he died, he started laughing. There was a meter panel at the board that was high, so you could duck down, and they couldn't see you in the studio. So she couldn't see us, and we were laughing our (butts) off.
"Anyway, when I lifted my head up, she wasn't there, so that meant she was in the air lock connecting the control room to the studio. So I was trying to tell John to straighten up. And John kind of shut up, but continued laying there, like he was resting. Yoko came in, put her hands on her hips, and said, 'What's going on?!' I looked at John, and John went into another big laugh. She threw him out, and he was banned from all Yoko recordings."
When Douglas produced Double Fantasy in 1980, the same rule still applied -- he worked with Yoko during the day, and John during the night. Sadly, Lennon was murdered two months after the album's release.
After Lennon's death, Douglas kept a low profile for a few years before rejoining the fray with albums by Aerosmith, Zebra and Slash's Snakepit. Recent credits include music for The Sopranos and the film score for Danny Provenzano's directorial debut, This Thing of Ours. The movie had an art-imitating-life twist: Provenzano, the nephew of mob boss Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, had been indicted on racketeering charges. He recently pleaded guilty, and is scheduled to serve jail time this summer.
Whatever the circumstances, the film garnered critical acclaim and resulted in a strong friendship between the producer and the director. So when he needed someone to shoot a commercial for his new, self-produced CD, Mob Story, Douglas didn't have to look far.
"I wanted to do an opera, and I wanted to do a classic Italian opera with all the drama and tragedy, and the only thing that could relate is hip-hop," Douglas said. "I didn't want to go to a major label with it, because major labels don't think outside the box -- ever. It's not something a label would get. So I wanted to go directly to the public."
Mob Story combines the Italian gangster theme of The Godfather with hip hop, and utilizes the voices of Sopranos star Vincent Pastore, rapper Chuck D and Kamal from the Jerky Boys. Douglas is selling the CD via television, hence the commercial directed by Provenzano and starring Douglas, Pastore and Frank Vincent. During the shoot, Provenzano kept the cameras rolling for longer than usual to make a five-minute short film. There are plans to make Mob Stories into an off-Broadway play, and possibly a feature film.
At the Sarasota Film Festival, Douglas was honored by many of the same names who owe their careers to his vision: Johansen, Provenzano, Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and Aerosmith, which provided an impromptu four-song concert for the occasion.
When asked how it felt to have so many big names pay homage to him, Douglas was silent. He furrowed his brow, stared at the ground and appeared to be a little choked up.
Finally, he looked up and answered. "Like an old man," he said.
And with that, Jack Douglas laughed.