Jack Douglas was a pivotal rock producer in the 1970s, working and partying with everyone from John Lennon to Patti Smith to the New York Dolls, from Aerosmith to Cheap Trick, from Miles Davis to The Who. Previously, he told us about meeting Lennon and becoming friends with him during the making of Imagine. He also spoke with us about being summoned by Yoko Ono to work on what would turn out to be Lennon's final two records, and being with him the night he was killed.
Today, Douglas shares his stories about his time with the Who, Miles Davis, the New York Dolls, the Isley Brothers, and more. Many more.
How did you first get your start in the music industry? I started as an artist.
Solo or with bands? Well, both. First I started as a folk singer, in the hootenanny days.
In New York City? Yeah. Oh yeah. Although my parents had already moved to the suburbs out of a really bad part of the East Bronx, where I grew up as a little kid. But I always considered New York City to be my home base. So yeah, I did the whole folk thing around the Village.
Then I graduated to playing with rock bands after the Beatles, and was signed by a bunch of major labels. I think at one point, because I was so young, I would sign with anybody. I think I was maybe signed with two or three labels at the same time.
You were allowed to do that? No, you weren’t, but I figured I was 16 or 17, and what were they going to do to me? It was like, take a shot with this label. Sometimes I would sign as Johnny Douglas, sometimes I would say my name was John or Jack, a nickname.
Sometimes I’d sign as Jack, sometimes I’d sign as a band, it just didn’t matter. But I think I was with Bell Records and Columbia and Epic at the same time. It was nice to be with Columbia and Epic at the same time, because they were in the same building, so you could find out how your record was doing. But my last producers were the Isley Brothers. I signed a contract with them to do one record, called Privilege, and that was in 1969. Before that I had played with a lot of different bands. I was with the Angles, I was a bass player with Chuck Berry who, for a while, really did the circuit.
Were you with Chuck Berry when Hendrix was opening and everything? No, no. We’re talking like mid-'60s ('65, '66, '67). I played in Paul Shaffer's favorite band. I used to go by the Letterman show every once and a while, I just went to rehearsal. But Paul lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and at one point I was playing with a band that was signed to Columbia Records but was Canadian and Toronto based. And we used to go up to Thunder Bay—not many people did. And to those kids up there, we were like the Beatles, we had hit records up there. I was at a rehearsal one time and Paul came down off the bandstand and he said, “Johnny, Johnny, how long have we known each other?” And I said, “I don’t know, thirty years, ever since you came to New York and started doing sets.” And he said, “No, we’ve known each other longer. I just realized that you played in this band, it was my favorite band and you used to come and play in the curling rink in Thunder Bay, Ontario.”
This was Privilege, or…? No, this was a group called The Liverpool Set. They were Canadian, there were a couple English guys in the band. In all actuality, I was the only guy who had ever been to Liverpool.
Well, only one of the Beach Boys had ever actually surfed. Yeah, that’s true! Who was it, Denis?
Denis, yeah. Yeah, of course.
Denis was the only one who was real. So I played with a lot of bands. When I ended up with the Isley Brothers, we just had just had a huge hit with “It’s Your Thing.” They had their own label, T-Neck Records—they lived in Teaneck, New Jersey. This band, Privilege, we were playing across the street from the Palisades Amusement Park, if anybody remembers that. That was the music park over in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. And we figured we’d go play there, go get some attention, get labels, get signed, but they wandered in one day and offered us a contract immediately. So we went into the studio with them and we had some conflicts about how it was mixed but at that point we didn’t know much about that process. But I did fall in love with it. I fell in love with the process. I learned from the engineer who was doing it, just by watching.
And so after the album was finished, I quit the band. I gave them enough notice to do any promotional stuff that they had to do. That record is still available, by the way. And it’s still around because it’s been reissued by a number of English groups because for some reason the Isley Brothers put on the back, "with Jimi Hendrix"—Jimi played with them, but he never was at these sessions. Privilege! None of it made sense.
That’s pretty good marketing. Yeah, and the record is still out there. Anyway, I asked the engineer at A&R, Phil Ramone's label, if I could have a job. And he directed me to Record Plant, which was in the process of being rebuilt and expanded. And I got a job there as a janitor, and I worked my way up in that position quite quickly.
Well I’m sure, with your knowledge of music— Yeah, well I also was so obsessed with the gig that I would beg engineers to let me sneak in, sit in a corner, and be a fly on the wall. I’d do anything. And a guy named Roy Cicala who was the chief engineer, he took me under his wing. And he took Jimmy Iovine under his wing as well.
So first me, then Jimmy, and he just started teaching us. And at the same time, I was living in the East Village and I read an ad in the newspaper that said, “Become a recording engineer.” The Institute of Audio Research. So I said, I’ll take a course too, that’ll really help things out. It was held in a hotel room in Times Square. It’s now a big school down here by NYU. As a matter of fact, [I recently] gave the commencement speech at the Apollo Theater for a few hundred graduates. And Alec Baldwin, my friend, gave the final speech. It was very inspiring. And of course it took the piss out of me. But the institute was great, we went around to the studios because the classroom was the hotel room. So we would go to different studios and learn about it all.
So you’d be sitting there with bands who were recording? Yeah, or they’d just show us the miking techniques there when there was nothing going on. Some maintenance. The basics of recording. We had textbooks. That was a sixth month course, two or three times a week. But the real school was of course coming up through the studio. At one point I was engineering the New York Dolls album, the first one.
Did you have a project before that one? Before that I came up, I was a general worker after I was a janitor, I was a tape librarian, I was in the W Room, I became a really good editor, great at cutting tape. I cut demos. This was all under a very short period. I would practically live in the studio. I would try to get every date I could as an assistant engineer.
Jack popping by the set of "The Late Show with David Letterman"
I read you worked a little bit on Who’s Next? I did, because that was what, ’71? That was the first time I cut tracks for anything.
That’s a pretty humongous project. Yeah. It was because I had worked my way up to almost-engineer. I mean, I could hold my own, I cut four-track demos and Billy Joel’s demo.
Was that when Billy Joel was still with Attila? No, he was just trying to get his solo deal for CBS. In fact, in a box set I saw up at Sony Battery, they said, “Look at this, Jack” and there were these demos in there. They had the sheets on the box, and there was my name. I think [producer/music executive] Artie Ripp brought him in to do those demos, as I recall.
At that point did you know who he was? He was known. He was a kid.
Did the songs hit you? Yeah. I can’t remember the specific titles but I can tell you it was really good stuff.
You immediately knew that there was something more. And so did Artie, who brought him in. I think he made a deal for 5% of his publishing. To do that deal…of course, Artie was already living in the Hollywood Hills, just based on that deal he made. Artie Ripp was quite a character. Music business was very different in those days. It was run by the mob and mob-types. A few straight guys. And [Ahmet] Ertegun, and the Wexlers.
The big names. Did you interact much with The Who? Oh yeah, yeah— what happened was, when they came in to do their record they just asked for the chief engineer. And the chief engineer at that time was a guy named Jack Adams. Jack’s specialty was R&B, it wasn’t rock, he didn’t even really like rock. But he did a lot of Todd Rundgren stuff, I think only because they were friends, they were both from Philly or something. He didn’t particularly like rock, he didn’t like bands that played loud. But he was put on the date and I was put on as the assistant, because at that point, if it was a rock date, I was a rock player and I knew quite a bit about miking rock and I was really doing that bit. I got put on as assistant, and Jack really wanted out of that. I set up the whole date and started recording the jam they were doing when they came in, and when he came in he put his hands in his ears. He was like, “Oh my god,” but he was an R&B guy. And he went on about it, and pulled a fast one, and left me with doing the track. So actually, I became very good friends with The Who, I would go out with them every night. It was insanity.
Were there many moments where you were like, “Wow, I’m with this humongous rock band that I love?” Oh sure, it was a huge thrill. But at that point, I’d already assisted on quite a few big-name dates. I see [former Eagles guitarist/vocalist] Joe Walsh on a regular basis in LA, and I reminded him a few months ago that I was assisting on James Gang. And he was like, “Oh my God, that was you?”
Were any of the tracks you worked on used for Who’s Next? There’s some question about that. That’s always been a controversy. They said oh well, we didn’t use those tracks but everyone knows those guys were pretty fucked up. But fun! And I still think I did, although my name’s not on the record and I never laid claim to doing anything on it until, in a Blender article, Pete Townshend mentioned I cut some of the tracks. There was a picture of me in the article. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll talk about this now.” It was a big break, and Pete was great. He used to write me letters, send me demos.
At this point was he still trying to complete Lighthouse? I don’t know. I knew very little about that. All those songs for Who’s Next were already written and we recorded every track. We recorded every single track that’s on that record. And then they dragged me out to Forest Hills. I’m telling you, every night they’d just pack me in the limo. I was like entertainment, the kid. And they had the whole ninth floor of the Navarro Hotel, over on Central Park South, long gone. I think they had the whole floor because they used to do so much damage to hotels.
Was it the whole cliché of partying, knocking lamps over, destroying TVs? Partying. I don’t know about knocking lamps over. But it was always loud on that floor. And the other thing I remember that I thought was very strange was that Pete had a front suite facing the park and Keith Moon had the other front suite. And I would be sitting in Pete’s suite, it’d be 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and... and Keith would come in through the window. He wouldn’t come in through the door. He’d go out through his window and walk along the ledge and then open Pete’s window and come in. And I always thought that was strange of him, no one else did. When he came in through that window it’d be like—
—just Keith being Keith. Just Keith being Keith. But that was pretty typical. We would go to clubs I didn’t know existed. Then they dragged me out to Forest Hills and asked me to do sound for them, and the only thing I knew about live sound was the bands I’d been in. And they’d be like, “No, the sound you get for us in the studio, just do it.” It was like being thrown to the wolves, it was really frightening and horrendous. And of course their front house guys were like, “You’re out of your element here.” And I was like, “You’re right, I don’t know why they dragged me out here.” But it was great to see the show. And that was like when Forest Hills Stadium was a big venue. It was quite amazing.
It’s pretty fun to think about galavanting around New York with The Who. Yeah, I mean, it was.
Were there other rock people who got taken in as well? I had [Mountain founding member] Leslie West and…the thing at Record Plant was, there was a lot of jamming going on. The jam we did of, “Don’t do it! Don’t break my heart, don’t do it!” which I think both Leslie and the Who have put out—I can tell you for 100% sure, I cut that track.
I think there were other songs from that session that were on that expanded tracklist. Yeah, they were all jams that we did. There’s a famous picture of John Lennon and Mick Jagger sitting at a piano, each playing one part of it and singing with some mics, and that was a jam session. But if you moved that picture this much further over, you’d see me there. So those kinds of jams, and those kinds of people…Elton John coming in, and John doing a jam with him. David Bowie, I was doing his rough mixes for some live album he was doing. He was in a very James Dean period in how he dressed then.
What was he like? He was much more grounded than you would think.
The drugs were not like a huge thing? No, no, it was like, “Let’s go to sushi.” There was one great sushi place in town.
So you’d go to sushi with David Bowie. Yeah.
What did David Bowie small talk about? American film, American music. There was that point where he absolutely loved Iggy.
Right, cause he’d helped produce Raw Power in ’73. Yeah. And Iggy was up at the studio quite a bit. But getting back to the New York Dolls, that was what got me into production.
That was really when you graduated to the next level. Yeah, that first New York Dolls album.
Did you discover them? No, no, no, no. They were making that record for Mercury, I was put on as the engineer because I lived in the East Village, I went to the Mercer Arts Center, I was put on as a regular at Max’s [Kansas City] in the back room, I knew Lou [Reed] and Patti [Smith] and all those people. Todd Rundgren was producing the record and Todd was not a really downtown guy. So they put me in there to relate to those guys, and I knew them.
My favorite story is how those guys came together: David [Johansen, lead singer of the Dolls] lived in the same building [as the other members], he looked like Mick Jagger, and he was an actor and a screenwriter. They knocked on his door to borrow milk, to see if he had pot, I don’t know. He answered the door and they said, “Can you sing?” And he said, “Well, I like the blues.” And they said, “Well, we’re forming a band. “ And that’s how he ended up in the Dolls, it was never pre-planned. But they came in, and we started tracking that record, and some of those guys, they were pretty fucked up.
They seem like they were hard partiers. They were very hard partiers. But it was very unique, they couldn’t play that well.
But it’s a great, great album. The first album, they had David, who was an incredibly intelligent guy. I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed him, he’s a bit of a recluse. But David was incredible, he was very well read. He was very clever, very witty. And those lyrics are what makes that thing, that record. And Johnny Thunders would just play. You had just the right combination.
It’s funny because now that you say this about his background, the theatricality makes so much sense. That little extra flair that made them stand out. Yeah, absolutely. He took up his acting career later. And then his alter-ego [Buster Poindexter], you know, all the stuff that he does.
Was that one of your favorite records you've worked on? It was. I mean, it was a tough record. I’ll tell you why I did it: it was a bad combination. Todd made great records, but they were productions and this was not going to be a production. This was going to be raw and nasty, you know, and Todd was sitting next to me the first day or so and was like, “Oh my God these guys can’t play.”
Is Todd a perfectionist? Yeah, he is, and he’s brilliant. And so they came in after doing a track and David, he's not the greatest singer but he’s got character. So David comes in and Todd doesn't know what to say because to Todd’s ears there wasn’t much going on. Todd said “It’s going to sound real great when you add a little harmony.” And David said, “Harmony? Are you accusing me of having melody?” And from then on it was not going to be good. I don’t know whether or not he was kidding, he probably was, but it was clever and funny. And then Todd started calling it in. “How’s it going?” “Good, it’s going good.” And he’d come by maybe a couple times a week. So we got this record done. He came in and we mixed it in a few days.
Yeah, I can’t imagine there were a huge amount of tracks on it. No, it was done 16-track. So it was done and we never told the record company, Mercury, that the producer didn’t show up the whole time. We just went at it. I would get in there and be really hands on with them. And Bob Ezrin, who I was working with on the Alice Cooper records at the time, he said to me, “You know, you’re producing that record. You’re doing everything. You’re producing that record.” And he said, you should really think about doing that.
And also, the management of the New York Dolls, Leber and Krebs, they were their big act and they were worried it wasn’t going to come off. And they were very happy with the album. So, two things happened at that point. Bob Ezrin said, “I want you to produce the next Alice Cooper record” and Leber and Krebs said, “We have a baby band and we think you should produce our baby band,” which was Aerosmith.