MIZELL BROTHERS (redbull academy interview pt. 1 )

RBMA: »So without further ado, the Mizell brothers.«
»We should introduce each of you individually first.«

Larry Mizell: »Ok, I’m Larry. This is my brother Fonce, this is my other brother Rod. This is my lovely wife Yvonne.«

RBMA: »With the camera.«

Larry Mizell: »As Jeff said, when we were first approached by Red Bull to do this in Australia, we’ve done some interviews before and in the heat of doing an interview there are some things you always miss. We wanted to present a complete picture – or as complete as we could make it – of our beginnings and what we’ve done along the way.

So we went out and bought a copy of PowerPoint and attempted to learn it in two or three days. PowerPoint is not as reliable as you might think, being a Microsoft programme with a PC, so it has a tendency to crash, so if that does happen we’ll have a little break while I kick it in the butt. So the presentation is basically a series of slides to trace our chronology. So we’re ready to go anytime.«
(music: LTD ‘Love To The World’)

»This is ‘Love To The World’ from our LTD album.«
(music: LTD ‘Love To The World’ continues)

»(next slide) That’s mum and dad there, Al and Ruby who we named our publishing company after, Al Ruby Music, and the next slide is a video taken many years ago on an old Sony three quarter inch tape machine. Mum had just written some lyrics and she was showing it to pop, and she sang it to dad, she sang it down.«
(video: Ruby Mizell) »This is just something I did tonight. (sings) ‘Give me a word/ give me a sign/ Do something to let me know you’re mine/ I’ve waited so long/ Can’t get along without you’.«

»This is a little history of some of the family members over the years; Jane Bolin Mizell who was the first black woman judge; Ralph Mizell who was appointed department head by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is a great-uncle, he goes way back to the 40’s, by the name of Andy Razaf, and he was Fats Waller’s writing partner. Fats Waller had many hits, one you may know is ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’. Our great-uncle wrote a lot of the lyrics for Fats and for other people, like Glenn Miller, some of the Swing bands out of the 40’s. So this next slide is Fats Waller performing in 1941 the song that he and my great-uncle wrote, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’.«
(video/music: Fats Waller ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’)

»Next we have some shots of our other cousins who’ve been in the industry.«
(music: Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’)
(music: Cindy Mizell ‘unknown’)

»That’s Ron, Fonce and I on the end and second from the left is Don Mizell who won a Grammy last year as co-producer on the Ray Charles ‘Genius Loves Company’. We’re just out in the woods hiking in California.«
(music: unknown child rapper produced by Jam Master Jay )

»(next slide) Here’s where we grew up, Harlem in New York City. Fonce and I grew up between there and what was also known as the top of Sugarhill, Edgecombe Avenue. Then we moved to the suburbs of New York, in New Jersey. That was a picture of our high school, Dwight Morrow High School. It was really a nice experience for us. That’s where we learned to play trumpet in the high school band, a little bit of keyboard, my grandmother had a piano and we’d tickle it a little bit. (next slide) That’s where we went to college in Washington DC, Howard University.

We went with a partner of ours by the name of Freddie Perren who was from Englewood, New Jersey as well. Freddie, after the Motown era, which I’ll get into in a second, he went on to produce a lot of records that have become anthems. He passed away last year. He wrote ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor, ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’ by Peaches and Herb, ‘Reunited’. A number of records.«

RBMA: »Actually, we should get into the significance of Howard University because most of the folks here are not from the US.«

Larry Mizell: »It’s an historically black university, one of the largest in the United States, and it has a huge campus and it offers degrees right up to PhD level in several disciplines. It has a med school and dance school.«

RBMA: »And it always had the reputation for being the cultural and intellectual centre for black communities all across the country.«

Larry Mizell: »It’s one of the oldest and it’s kind of a Mecca; a lot of black students were able to go there and interact and grow up in an interactive culture that they wouldn’t have had if they’d stayed at home in their own city.«

RBMA: »You were there in a period during a lot of activism on the campus. Who were some of the folks that were coming through on the campus at that time?«

Larry Mizell: »Stokely Carmichael, who headed up SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee that was doing voter registration in the South at that time, his partner H Rap Brown was there. The mayor, who later kind of self-destructed, Marion Barry was a student there at the time. There was a lot of activism, there were students who’d leave in the middle of the semester and pursue voter registration in the South. All in all it was a good experience.

This next slide shows the beginnings of our singing seriously. We’d perform in many Howard University talent shows. We were lucky enough to win some of them. It shows us on stage and you can actually hear us singing. It was kind of a jazzy Four Freshman thing, a lot of people thought it was corny but we won the first prize. And Donny Hathaway was our piano player from time to time.«
(music: The Vanlords ‘unknown’)

»This was a record company we started back in college called Hog Records. Our group was The Moment.«
(music: The Moments ‘unknown’)

»Interesting story. We put together what we called the record company, paid for it, rented a studio, found some students at another college called Morgan State, named them The Moments and took them into a studio, hired some strings from the air force, $25 the lot. We put together this record and we didn’t know what to do with it after that. We had an apartment full of records and we couldn’t give them away, we passed them onto the DJ’s and kind of forgot about it.

The record surfaced a few years ago on eBay and sold for almost $5,000. There’s not too many copies around now, so needless to say we went through the basement looking for them to find them, but it was a fruitless search. (next slide / plays music, quickly stops) My degree was in engineering, as undergrad, then I went on to get a graduate degree in engineering. I worked on the space programme and gave some technical talks at Uni, but all the time playing in bands at weekends, a singing group locally. I was into ham radio, things like that. Next. (next slide) I’d moved to New York, Fonce moved to Los Angeles and after different trials and tribulations signed to Motown Records.

This chart you see here is called ‘I Wanna Be Free’ and if you notice right under it it says Gladys Knight. Well, up on the upper right it says Gladys Knight, but underneath you’ll see a subtitle saying ‘I Want You Back’. This song was supposed to be cut on Gladys Knight, but the night before Fonce and Freddie were due to do it, Berry Gordy phoned up and said: “Forget that, I’ve got this bunch of kids I want you to cut on and change the lyrics.” They were bummed out because they had Gladys Knight and who are these kids? The kids turned out to be Jackson 5 and they changed the title to ‘I Want You Back’, so that (points to slide) is the original music that shows it. I don’t think Gladys Knight knows that story to this day (laughs).«

Benji B: »So there isn’t a version with Gladys Knight singing somewhere?«

Larry Mizell: »No, she never put a vocal down on the track, she really didn’t know.«

Fonce Mizell: »(via video) Two good things happened to the Mizell family in the same era. My brother Larry worked on the Apollo programme which put the first man on the moon and I had the chance to write, produce and arrange the Jackson 5’s first three records, ‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’ and ‘The Love You Save’. All three went on to become platinum records.«
(music: Jackson 5 ‘I Want you Back’)

Larry Mizell: »The next slide shows Fonce, Freddie and the rest of The Corporation, Deke Richards and Berry Gordy receiving an ASCAP award. There’s also a picture of – we used to play basketball with the J5 – that shows Michael and Marlon, and Randy’s just kind of watching (next slide).«
(music: Jackson 5 ‘ABC’)

Larry Mizell: »This is a video of after we moved to LA. Fonce and I had a house up in the Hollywood hills with a studio and we would create our tracks, the two of us would just jam, switch off with bass, guitar and piano. We’d just switch off and create stuff we liked. This is a video of the two of us jamming. It’s not good quality, just us working out by ourselves.«

RBMA: »I was just wondering what kind of stuff you guys were listening to back then. You guys were writing all these hits but what kind of stuff was inspiring you, making you say, “I’ve got to top that”?«

Larry Mizell: »We loved what Motown was doing at the time. The difference they brought to R&B music, they took away the Blues feeling and they were playing – especially Holland-Dozier-Holland – minor sixth chords and writing really unpredictable chord changes. We loved the originality and they had different innovative studio techniques with two drummers.

The Funk Brothers were actually Jazz players in the local clubs, so they had chops and they could stretch out. So our inspiration was definitely Motown big time. We had a lot of influences from our parents’ records which at the time were 78’s, I don’t know if you even know what that is, they were smaller than LP’s. We listened to some of the Swing bands and we liked Dionne Warwick’s records, what Bacharach and David were doing, and a trumpeter called Clifford Brown. We loved Tony Williams, a drummer, his polyrhythmic approach, as with Elvin Jones and a host of other different 45’s that would come out that would catch our ears. There were a lot of them.«

(music: Marvin Gaye ‘Woman Of The World’ in background)

»This is a cut on Marvin Gaye. We produced a Marvin Gaye record that never came out. This record’s never been heard before, it’s never been released. It was supposed to be the follow up to ‘What’s Going On’, but it got shelved when Marvin did ‘Trouble Man’. It was buried in Motown’s vaults. About two years ago Universal, who bought Motown, released the other one we cut called ‘Where Are We Going’.

That was part of a collection and it went gold, so we had a gold record 30 years later, but the other cut we cut was this one, ‘Woman Of The World’, and that was really our favourite. Another bit of trivia for you, Fonce, Freddie Perren and I are singing background behind Marvin, bringing our college crooning to the scene. It was just an honour to be singing with Marvin. We’re still talking to Universal, trying to get them to release this one because we really like it. I’ll just let it play for a second. ( music cuts).«

RBMA: »I don’t want to spoil the moment because that was a big moment, actually. But you said you guys recorded with Marvin Gaye and this was going to be the big follow up to ‘What’s Going On’. A whole album’s worth of material?«

Larry Mizell: »Now we made three cuts. (turns to Fonce) It was three, right? Marvin only opened up two of them with vocals. What happened was, Marvin was in a sophomore slump after ‘What’s Going On’. Berry Gordy thought it was too political, but when he put it out it influenced everybody, it just knocked everybody out. So Marvin had to come up with something else and he was tripping, he was in a creative slump. So Motown had meetings to bring in other producers to write tunes with Marvin, and Marvin’s perfectly capable of writing smash hits off the ying yang. But this time the procedure got started, Marvin agreeably went in and did the overdubs.

And then we came to our senses; there were other politics happening too, the records got shelved. It ended up, this particular song and the other one, the one that got released on Marvin, ‘Where Are We Going’, since we knew they weren’t coming out we cut those songs on Donald Byrd. If you notice on the Donald Byrd album the publishing is listed as Jobete, which is Motown’s publishing company. We were anticipating they would never come out but after Motown was sold to Universal ‘Where Are We Going’ came out. Yeah, it was supposed to be the follow-up. After working at Motown we moved forward to start our own production company, Skyhigh Productions. (next slide) This is the first song on Skyhigh, we’ve got a sample of a jet plane taking off.«

(music: Donald Byrd ‘Flight Time’)

(music: Donald Byrd ‘Black Byrd’)

»This is the title song from ‘Black Byrd’ and we were using the new Arp synthesizers and we were playing the synthesizer line and dubbing it with a Fender bass and with a double octave grand piano, which gave us a different sounding bottom. We didn’t want to mess with the 2600, the Arp with the cables just like the big mode, but these were pre-set synthesizers that came out: the Arp Soloist, Arp Pro-Soloist and we got the Arp Odyssey later, which had the slide.

We had to go to the studio and work them, this is one of the first uses in Jazz of synthesisers. This next video is Fonce and I recording in Montreux, Switzerland. Right after it looked as if the record was making some noise, Blue Note flew the whole label over to Switzerland to the Montreux Jazz Festival and we performed ‘Black Byrd’ on stage with the newly-formed Blackbyrds.«
(video/music: Donald Byrd & Blackbyrds ‘Black Byrd’)

»That’s Kevin Tony playing piano, that’s Byrd in the denim shirt obviously, Fonce in the blue shirt, I’m in the red shirt playing synthesizer. That’s the Arp I was playing.«

(video/music: Donald Byrd & Blackbyrds ‘Black Byrd’)

»The next project we did for Blue Note after the ‘Black Byrd’ success was with Bobbi Humphrey, a female flute player who could play and looked like a little girl, which gave her a certain uniqueness. Our second album was on her. Let’s see the next slide. I want to point out, on the right there was Chuck Davis who was one of our staff engineers and producers and writers.

He was also an electronics nut. He produced a device we used on our records called a Sound Enhancer. Basically what it did was, in a straight stereo it caused different space relationships at different frequencies in the audio spectrum, 20 or 20K, and it allowed the sound to appear to come out of the speakers. You never knew when an instrument was going to do that. Today the devices that do that are the BBE Sonic Maximiser, the Aural Exciter, they use a similar technique. We had a lot of trouble in the studio – well, not trouble, but the engineers were reluctant because we brought it in on a bread box circuit board and we wanted to plug it into the board. But we prevailed. So that’s Chuck right there.«

(music: Bobbi Humphrey ‘Harlem River Drive’)

(music: Bobbi Humphrey ‘Street Lady’)

»Just wanted to say that ‘Street Lady’ might not be too evident if you look at the songs on the album, but it was a concept album dealing with women. All the titles reflected that, different lifestyles. ‘Woman Of The World’, which Marvin cut is on there, ‘Lansana’s Priestess’, who was a priestess of a tribe that Lansana was a member of, ‘Street Lady’ of course, ‘Witch Hunt’, ‘Miss Kane’. That was little known.«

(music: Bobbi Humphrey ‘Uno Esta’)

RBMA: »That’s really interesting, what you’re just saying, because that Arp string sound is something I really associate with all your productions. But you say one of the reasons for using it was because they replaced all those session players who were costing you money, right?«

Larry Mizell: »(laughs) Exactly. Particularly as a lot of session studio work was the playing of sustained notes and the string players would be yawning through their session, making all this money. They all had chops, but the kind of arrangements that were called for in Pop records weren’t supposed to take away from the artists, the main vocal. When this came out, I think Stevie Wonder got the first one.

They demonstrated it in Hollywood at the West LA Musical Guitar Centre. Stevie Wonder got the first one, we got on the list, I think we got number five. Everybody went crazy, but you had to bear certain things in mind. You couldn’t play it like a keyboard, a lot of people played it like they played piano. You had to watch your octaves and keep it simple and look for overtones and harmonics. But in retrospect it sounded nothing like strings, it had its own sounds. That was the Arp Solina that you heard. But yeah, it did save money on the strings.«

(music: Donald Byrd ‘(Falling Like) Dominoes’)

»One of our next projects was a new artist, an organ player by the name of Johnny Hammond that we had heard earlier that year on an album he had out on the CTI label, Creed Taylor’s label, ‘Higher Ground’ was one of his albums. He was amazing, one of the fastest keyboard players we’d seen on organ. One thing that contributed to that was that he was a piano player who switched to organ.

His real name was Johnny Smith, but he changed it to Hammond because of the Hammond organ and he was looking for a uniqueness there. You see his name sometimes as Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith, but mostly just Johnny Hammond. We did a couple of albums there, one on Creed Taylor’s label called ‘Gamblers Life’ which really didn’t do that much. We enjoyed doing the album, one of our favourites, then we did an album on Fantasy called ‘Gears’ and we enjoyed that as well, very much.

The cut I’m going to play from that album is ‘Los Conquistadores Chocolates’, which means the black conquerors. It’s a story about the Moors being in Spain. One of our partners who grew up in New Jersey had gone to Spain and gotten a master’s degree in Spanish. We had him create an opening to the song in Spanish, we’d given him an encapsulated history of that event. It starts off with what sounds like a wind sound. That’s actually an Arp synthesizer with a White/Pink Noise Generator being swept by a filter.«

Larry Mizell: »One of our projects at the same time was a deal with A&M Records for a group called LTD. There were two brothers in the group, Jeff and Billy Osborne. Jeff played drums, actually both of them played drums, but Jeff was the drummer and Billy was the singer, a very talented R&B horn band. It was really different for us because we were working with nine or ten different personalities in the studio for the first time.

Where normally we controlled the vibe because we hired the cats we wanted to use and laid everything out for them and overdubbed the artists we wanted to use later; here we had a band that had already coalesced and had its own creative unity and their own ideas. A&M told us the group was basically six figures in the hole and they were about to get released, and if we wanted to do something with them the door was open. I don’t think they asked LTD if they were fine with it, they just told them this was the way it was going to be, so they were somewhat reluctant.

So we got with them and it was a… I won’t say trying experience, but one of the more different efforts we’ve done. We had to use a lot of diplomacy. But they got back on the positive cash flow side, A&M was happy, and we got a decent single out of it, which was this right here.«

(music: LTD ‘Love Ballad’)

»I said Jeff was the drummer. Along with the trying situations we had making this record, Billy was giving us a lot of flak about not wanting to do this, not wanting to do that, so he walked out of the studio one day and we had this tune, ‘Love Ballad’, that our partner Skip Scarborough had written. We had heard Jeff crooning in the background while he was playing drums, so we said: “Jeff, why don’t you try the lead?” Jeff came to the mic and did the overdub and blew everybody away, and that was the end of Billy’s lead singing career (laughter), and that’s how Jeff got going with his record deal.«
(music: LTD ‘Love Ballad’ continues )

»The next project we had, a friend of ours, who went to Howard University with us, had seen this group at a party, and it consisted of two ladies out front playing bass and guitar, and he said: “Man, you’ve got to see this group, they’ve got a thing, something different.” Finally we got to see them, they were playing at a local club across from A&M Records, and we said: “Yeah, they’re might be something there.” We got a video crew in to shoot them and went to shop them at different labels in Hollywood.

Nobody was biting, they couldn’t see the vision we had that there was commercial value here pop-wise. Finally, another old school mate was A&R director of R&B at Capitol. He was reluctant but we talked him into it and he gave us a development budget, and we said: “Okay, that’s cool, we’ll see.” So the group was A Taste Of Honey, and they were kind of one hit wonders, but it was unique to see two ladies playing rhythm instruments like that and they looked good.

Here’s them performing ‘Boogie…’ live just a few years ago. (new slide) Yeah, that’s them. To the left is Janice the bass player, that’s Hazel, Janice Johnson and Hazel Payne, she plays guitar. There are two gentlemen there, the drummer and keyboard player Don and Perry, and through the politics of the record business they got exed out of the PR and people started to think of them as just two ladies. Actually the keyboard player was seminal in putting the group together. Needless to say they were very disappointed, but everybody was making money from that record. It was number one platinum album, platinum single and it won a Grammy for best new recording artist. This is them playing live.«

(video/music: A Taste Of Honey ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’)

»We did a single after that with a lady we were big fans of during her Motown days, Mary Wells. She had signed with CBS Records and they had done an album on her, but she didn’t have a single, so they talked to us and we produced just one record on her, called ‘Gigolo’, a Dance horn record, which was kind of out of Mary’s idiom. It wasn’t the ‘My Guy’, ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’, pretty Smokey type thing, it was more like what was happening then. So she struggled somewhat. It came across ok, she got a little bit of mileage out of it. On the rhythm track Fonce played drums, Rod played bass and I played piano. It was one of the few times we performed on our own production. A neighbour of ours played guitar. This is the cover and the record itself.«

(music: Mary Wells ‘Gigolo’)

»We did several other projects, singles and maybe two cuts on an album. These are some of them, just a listing. The tune you will hear playing is from a solo album called ‘Mizell’ that we did for Warner’s but was never released. There’s been talk of releasing it, but this tune is called ‘Spank’. It lists the other productions with different levels of success or non-success.«

(music: Jimmy Bo Horne ‘Spank’)

(music: Larry Mizell playing trumpet)

»We recorded the majority of our songs in a studio called the Sound Factory and we used the API console, the one pictured there. It has punch, but it also had clarity and was warm too, and of course we used a lot of 2” tape which added that saturation and distortion that was pleasing compared to the records that come out today. The owner was Dave Hassinger, who engineered for a number of people including the Rolling Stones and Sam Cooke and he was really into his craft.

The majority of records were done at his studio and that’s what you see on this slide (next slide). These are some of the electronic instruments we used at his studio which most of you guys are familiar with. The Fender [Rhodes], the D6 Clav, that’s the Echoplex and the lead, that’s the Maestro Phaser, which is really a swirling type of phaser, you can buy one on eBay today, that’s the Arp Solina, of course, and the Princeton amp, the old tube amp, and this of course is the Minimoog.

One other thing, the letters there at the bottom – A, B, C, D – relate to the way we used to produce rhythm tracks, we would make big signs up with A, B, C and D on them. We’d go in with the rhythm guys and we’d rehearse a rhythm chart with different musical parts; the bridge, the interludes, the hooks, whatever. And they’d be on these different signs, sometimes they’d go all the way up to F. We didn’t have set lengths for each section, that’s why on some of our productions the sections will change when you expect them not to.

We’d be listening to the rhythm tracks, the way the guys were playing, then we’d put up a certain sign, and they never knew what was coming. We rehearsed different sections before we started recording and we made sure they had that down. Most of them were good at taking chances, doing the fills, being able to do something hip to signify the fill. So we’d hold up different signs as we heard them grooving and peaking, we’d say let’s go back to C, whip that out, four bars later they’d hit the downbeat. This is to show how our players interacted with each other.

Typically we use two guitar players, a bass, Fonce and I played keyboards, a drummer and a percussion player. So I have the multi-track in Pro Tools format of ‘Think Twice’, so I’ll break it down and build it back up. So what you’re going to hear is Harvey Mason the drummer, then you’ll hear the snare and the hi-hat, Chuck Rainey, bass, will come in, King Errisson congas, and then you’ll hear either David T Walker, John Rowin or Wah Wah Watson playing guitar. It’s just a rhythm track and it builds up from there.«

(music: Donald Byrd ‘Think Twice’)

»We’re getting near the end right now. This next slide talks about how technology changed the game for our records as well as for music period. We found our records sampled quite a bit and we were honoured about that. We had some of the early samplers, when Akai and Emu you found you could do all kinds of tricks with the sound that weren’t possible before. We’ve had a lot of samples of our catalogue, but this one I thought would be of interest. It’s by a French group called Kids, they sampled ‘Wind Parade’ and they’re rapping in French.«

music: Kids ‘unknown’)

»This is Fonce and I jamming in our studio just a couple of weeks ago.«
(video/music: Fonce and Larry Mizell studio jam)

»Last year we put together a compilation for Blue Note of some of our favourite things that we did for Blue Note. We remixed some of them, put on a couple of tracks that hadn’t been released, overdubbed some of those. That’s the next slide here.«

click below to listen

DONALD BYRD – Lansanas Priestess


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