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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: RON HAFFKINE

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: RON HAFFKINE

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

Ron Haffkine
Ron Haffkine

Like the band he discovered and put On The Cover of The Rolling Stone, "Legendary" record producer, manager, A&R/song-man Ron Haffkine is in a class of his own

He shies away from talking about his Grammy and his record deal with PolyGram in 1971, his 67 gold and platinum albums (worldwide) are in closets and boxes in his home and if you ask Ron about the 10 top 10s he produced on Dr. Hook, he doesn't puff up his chest with pride, he gives you the un-edited hilarious stories of how much fun he had getting' there and who his mentors were, like Shel Silverstein, Clive Davis and Kyle Lehning, who according to Ron were; "The 3 most important people in his career."

Dr. Hook's 12 albums (10 studio and 2 live) produced by Ron featured songs which have become classics like On The Cover of The Rolling Stone, Sylvia's Mother, Sharing The Night Together, When You're In Love With A Beautiful Woman, Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk, Sexy Eyes written by Keith Stegall and Dr. Hook's smash A Little Bit More, which Ron found at a flea market for 35 cents.

To music historians, it's no secret that at least two of the albums that Ron produced are ranked and archived, with the best music produced in the Seventies. And it's probably no secret around Nashville that at least 10 of Ron's stories should be ranked and archived as some of the funniest stories ever told.

At 21, Ron was a self-professed "average" musician, but his love for music drew him to Greenwich Village, in his home town of New York. There, he became life-long buddies with famed author/playwright/songwriter Shel Silverstein, who amidst his cartoons, children's books, theatrical productions and his own albums penned the lyrics and music for many of the Dr. Hook songs, including "The Cover of The Rolling Stone, Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball and Sylvia's Mother, just to name a few. Shel wrote songs for numerous artists including Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue, which won a Grammy in 1970, The Unicorn for The Irish Rovers and Loretta Lynn's, One's On The Way. Sadly, Ron's best friend passed away in 1999 at age 68, but not before he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his song I'm Checkin' Out in the film Postcards From The Edge. Mr. Silverstein was posthumously inducted into the NSAI Hall of Fame in 2002.

Ron's place in ROCK N' ROLL history started to take shape, in the early 70's when he formed and managed a band called The Gurus. At the time Haffkine wanted them to record, so he walked into Regent Sound and explained to a not yet famous engineer named Bill Szymczyk, who later produced The Eagles, that he wanted to make a record, but knew nothing about the process and Bill said he'd like to help. During the sessions, Ron would tell Bill: "I'd like to hear this or I'd like to hear that, or…there's not enough of this or there's too much of that" and Ron produced his first project.

When finished, Ron played it for his buddy Shel and he was so impressed that he told Ron about a couple of films that he was writing the music for and he needed someone on the inside to produce the music for both films and protect his creative interests. The two films were Who is Harry Kellerman, which initially wasn't a hit, but later became a cult film, in which Dustin Hoffman, who had already done The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Little Big Man, played a songwriter and Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger. The soundtrack of the 1970 film features Silverstein songs produced by Ron and performed by Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.

Although he was broke at the time, Ron recognized the opportunity and took "the gig" for free. One scene in the Hoffman film required a band on stage, but Ron didn't like the band, so he recommended a band called Dr. Hook, that he'd heard in a bar called The Sands, in Union City, New Jersey, where they were playing for $ 40 bucks a week. But The Producers, Shell and Dustin all said "No". Relentless, Ron said he would pay for a showcase on the condition that they all attend. They all attended and they all agreed to use Dr. Hook in the film. Ron was instinctively astute enough to know that he had to get a record deal for the band before the movie came out, so he called and got in to see Clive Davis at CBS, on the clout of Hoffman's name. Once in, Ron tried to talk Clive into letting Dr. Hook do a live showcase in his office but Clive wasn't interested, so Ron bluffed Davis into believing that Ahmet Ertegun, President of Atlantic Records, would. Clive agreed...so Haffkine, in preparation for the meeting told the drummer to turn over Clive's wastepaper basket and use it as a drum. He told the keyboard player to jump up on Clive's desk and kick off whatever is in the way and he told Ray to never sing anymore than 2 ft away from Clive's face. To get the guys up for the task, he had them drink "half a bottle of booze" before they went in. Clive was immediately knocked out and called his business affairs guy Elliot Goldman, (who later became president of RCA) and told him to take Ron into his office and "don't come out until they were signed." (1969)

Once signed, Clive sent them to San Francisco for a convention.

"Clive Davis had signed Dr. Hook and flown us out to the CBS convention in LA. He had just finished telling 2000 people in his company all over the world that he was going to introduce his next huge act. The group gets on stage and proceeds to completely blow it. It was terrible and I'm hiding in the bathroom. Fred Foster comes walking into the bathroom and sees me ready to pass out. Fred says to me, don't worry. Clive asked me what I thought and I said; I heard that kids voice...stay with it. Fred was a very important factor in my life and I don't know if he knows it."

Shel Silverstein was now living in Sausalito and when Ron went to visit him, he fell in love with San Francisco and moved out there immediately.

They recorded Dr. Hook's first album on west coast at Roy Halee's studio. Ron and the band were broke and living in a flop house but they managed to record 20 sides and Clive was going nuts because he wanted the album. One day Shel and Ron were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and Shel pulls out his guitar and plays SILVIA'S MOTHER. Clive liked Silvia's Mother but his head of national promotions Steve Popovich loved it. Ron said: Clive doesn't like it. Popovich says: "So, I'm head of promotions, don't worry, I'll take care of it"

From hanging out with Shel Silverstein, Ron had learned the difference between good songs and great songs and was also quickly becoming Dr. Hook's #1 A&R man, as well as their producer and manager. Later, after Sylvia's Mother Ron locked horns with Clive Davis over Silverstein's Cover of the Rolling Stone because of the lyrics "We take all kinds of pills to give us all kinds of thrills" and "I got a freaky old lady named Cocaine Katy". Ron said: "If you put out another Sylvia's Mother...Dr. Hook is done! Clive finally exhausted, went back and told the label to release it. Ron, against all opinions, now interjects on the record all the fun talking "Hey Ray...etc" and now Clive wanted drums on it but Ron said: "Don't **** with it...it's perfect just the way it is". Cover of the Rolling Stone was not their biggest hit, but it turned out to be the most significant song of Dr. Hook's career.

Ron recalled: "I went up to see, Jann Wenner, one of the founders of Rolling Stone Magazine, I walked in and said; You guys are a bunch of piss-ants. Jann said WHAT? Ron said: I've just given you guys the best commercial for that rag you'll ever get." And the rest became music history. They sent Cameron Crowe who later wrote and directed Jerry McGuire to do the interview, who at the time was their 16 yr. old wiz-kid reporter and in March, 1973, issue 131, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone thanks to the very savvy Ron Haffkine.

I (James Rea) was 25 and living in Toronto and remember thinking at the time; "They did it...They got The Cover...Perfect" To me...that was HUGE...and it still is.

The Producer's Chair: I must ask … In 1971 you got signed as an artist on PolyGram. How did that come about?
Ron Haffkine: Shel had written a song called Do You Wanna Boogie or Do You Don't, Cause If You Do, I Will with You and If You Don't I Won't. So Dennis and the guys said we wanted to produce me. And in the middle of Dr. Hook being "Hot" I got a deal on PolyGram. The record comes out and it does absolutely nothing but it took off in San Jose California and it goes top ten. So PolyGram president wants to do another record but I can't sing a F...ing note and I'm having too much fun with Dr. Hook so I refused.

Why did you leave the west coast and come to Nashville?
Shel says to me; "There's a young fellow in Nashville, Kyle Lehning, who engineers for Waylon Jennings. He wants to meet Roy Halee. If I send Kyle out to San Francisco, will you introduce him to Roy? I said: Sure, so Kyle comes out, I introduce him to Roy and they obviously hit it off. During his time out there Kyle says to me; Why don't you come to Nashville and cut a record? I said; I don't know how to do that, I've never worked with studio players before. I had no idea what is was all about. Kyle said; Don't worry about it, I'll get you the best players. So we come to Nashville. Kyle sets up a session and he's got Kenny Malone, Steve Gibson and Shane Keister and we recorded A Little Bit More. The band (Dr. Hook) weren't happy because they always recorded everything themselves but I stood there will my jaw open my eyes spinning. I could not believe what happened.
The session goes great and Kyle laughed and says to me, hey Ronnie, how's that ever going to be a hit. The line in the song "When your body's had enough of me..." is pretty strong sexual connotation. I looked at Kyle and said; I'm gonna tell you something, my problem isn't whether that song is a hit or not, my problem is getting it on the radio. If I can get this thing on the radio, there's no way it's not a hit."
Ron moved to Nashville in 1975 and later when the band signed with Capitol, the first single "Only 16" got some attention, but when they released "A Little Bit More" things exploded for Dr. Hook...and Ron. Offers started pouring in for Ron to not only run a couple of labels but also, to produce a plethora of artists, but he loved what he's doing and he didn't want to chance ruining his relationships with anyone, so he turned them all down. You could always see Ron in the wings, singing along with every song

What surprises you about the industry today?
There were certain songs throughout my life that could not miss. I say that because, once an artist gets their first hit, they can be sure that the public is going to hear their second record. So if you miss and you're already on a greased track, you can't blame it on promotion or marketing or the record company. That's what surprises me today. I don't understand someone having an enormous hit and not being able to follow it up. It's got a lot to do with shear laziness.
I'd listen to 1000 songs and I'd hear a song with a magnificent first verse and chorus and I'd think to myself "Thank God" I found one. And then the second and third verses were weak. And I'd get frustrated with a songwriter and say; You expect me to spend thousands of dollars, energy, time, fight with the record company and fight with radio? You have a genius first verse and chorus and you did not spend the time and effort to finish the song as brilliantly. You got lazy. That's the only thing that ever upset me with a songwriter.

How did you wind up producing Lou Rawls?
A girl who worked for me and Lou's girlfriend were friends and I had become personal friends with Lou. He asked me if I wanted to make a record with him. As it turned out, I did not make a really good record with him. I wasn't doing the kind of stuff that Gamble & Huff were doing, which was more of a Motown feel. So I figured "hey" they know how to do that stuff, what do they need me for? So I took the record in a different direction. There were some great songs on that album, one of them being Wind Beneath My Wings. I was the first one to cut it and in 1985 an astronaut took the song up into space and played it back to earth. That was a first.

You're the first producer I've interviewed who also managed their act. Why?
Bill Graham, who was the biggest promoter in the world told Jerry Weintraub that Clive had signed Dr. Hook and they were going to become world famous. Gerry came to me and said Ronnie, why don't you let me manage this group. But I was having a great time managing these guys. They were funny, they were wild and I was having the time of my life. He said you're not a manager. I said; You know, you may be right, let me talk to the guys and I'll talk to you tomorrow, I talked to them and we all decided we were having too much fun and didn't want a third party tellin' us what to do. So I told Gerry "No". He came back again, this is while Sylvia's Mother was happening, and he said look, you must let me manage this group. I will get you the biggest acts in the world to produce, but let me be management. I said Jerry, you're from the Bronx and I'm from Brooklyn. There is not enough money in the world to make me want to talk to you 3 times a week.
Jerry would have made me a lot richer but I didn't care. I was offered lots of jobs as head of A&R but I was having such a great time and I didn't want a job that put me in the position of telling people "NO" on a daily basis. I knew what that felt like and that did not interest me. We're in a business that is so tough and artists and songwriters are sensitive by nature. So here's all these sensitive people who have to put their heart out there for someone else to stomp on, every friggin' day. I didn't want to be that guy.

You had an opportunity to sign Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Why didn't you?
Dr. Hook was out in San Fransisco recording their first album. Our road manager had some friends and he asked if I would meet with them. A couple of days later, they're over at my house, Lindsey starts to play his guitar and I hear Stevie Nicks' voice and I almost passed out. They'd play a song and then argue, they'd play another song and they'd argue again. This went on for a while. I thought they wouldn't last together because they'd argue after every song. If I had signed them, no doubt I would have ruined their entire career and there never would have been a Fleetwood Mac as the world knows them today. Therefore I take great pride in being responsible for Fleetwood Mac.

What do you love the most about the music industry?
As a producer, you fall in love with the artists that you produce and you fall in love with the songs. It's the joy of doing it. This business is not a business that you go into saying; I'm going to make a million dollars. I have to walk in with something that someone either hates or loves. I can't walk in with something ordinary or I'm dead.

When did the industry really change?
We were born at a wonderful point in time but once everybody started sampling everything and there were all kinds of loops and beats you could find, some became so overused that they became dull and boring. The way great music was made and will be made again is when you make your own sounds.

Tell me about the Grammy you received in 1984.
Shel wrote a children's book called Where The Sidewalk Ends which was on the best sellers list longer than any other book in history at the time. The president of CBS, Al Teller (later president of MCA) came to me and said; would you do some albums on Shel's children's books. I said I'll talk to him but Shel ain't going to do it. So Shel and I are in Key West and I approached him and he said no, I don't want to do it but I convinced him and he agreed to do it but he refused to go on a book tour or do any TV appearances to promote it because of a bad experience he had previously with Johnny Carson. So we did it and it won the Grammy anyway.

Who are your current projects and what are your biggest challenges today?
I'm currently working with Bryan James & Tawny River. Many of the country records that are being made today are basically similar to the kind of records that were being made back in the '70s and '80s. The challenge is what the challenge has always been...the songs.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tom Hambridge

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tony Brown

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Forest Glen Whitehead

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Scott Hendricks

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Fanjoy

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Chad Carlson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jay DeMarcus

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Shane McAnally

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Doug Johnson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jeff and Jody Stevens

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jamie O'Neal

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Fred Mollin

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dann Huff

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Noah Gordon

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Carl Jackson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Paul Worley

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Cactus Moser

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dave Brainard

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Gretchen Peters

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Frank Liddell

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Victoria Shaw

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jed Hilly

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Marshall Altman

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Julian King

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Brent Maher

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tom Hambridge

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jim Catano

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Keith Thomas

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jimmie Lee Sloas

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Ron Haffkine

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Bruce

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Doug Johnson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mickey Jack Cones

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Keith Stegall

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Ted Hewitt

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Carl Jackson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Brett James

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jeff Stevens

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dann Huff

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