Jack Douglas: Talent, Egos, and Rock’s Holy Grail

“You’re facilitating a dream."
As a music producer and musician, Jack Douglas has worked with the Isley Brothers, John Lennon, Aerosmith, the Who, Patti Smith, the Yardbirds, and the New York Dolls, among others.

Sitting at Gosman’s Topside restaurant, overlooking Montauk Harbor on a perfect September afternoon, the stories flowed from Jack Douglas like the tide, epic tales of musical genius, and sometimes madness. Between a plate of clams on the half shell, the music producer best known for long and close associations with John Lennon and Aerosmith recalled a lifetime of creation, onstage and, especially, in the studio.

“You’re facilitating a dream,” Mr. Douglas said of his work. “You may have to write, you may have to rewrite, you have to arrange most of the time. You’re dealing with tremendous egos, some problem children, some people that are just blessed with talent, and a lot of other things.”

A Bronx native and veteran of New York City’s legendary Record Plant Studios, Mr. Douglas, who lives in Nyack and Los Angeles, has vacationed in Montauk for more than 40 years. “In fact, I played in a band early in the ’60s, and the organ player’s family had a fish market in New Jersey,” he said. “They used to come out here to buy their fish. I accompanied them on a trip — this was a quite different place.”

“I used to come earlier in the season,” he said, “but this place has gotten a little crazy, so for the last few years I come in September, when it’s over.”

“A little crazy” could define Mr. Douglas’s career. In November 1965, he and Edward Leonetti, a fellow musician, obsessed with the Beatles’ inimitable sound, set out for its source: Liverpool, England. “The cheapest way was by tramp steamer,” he said. “People would say to me, ‘You’re crossing the North Atlantic in late November?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, so what? I’ve been on the Staten Island ferry.’ ”

 The “rusty old tin can” pulled into ports like Boston, St. John’s, Halifax, Iceland, Norway, Aberdeen, “wherever there was something for it to take from one place to another.” He and Mr. Leonetti were the sole passengers. “The rest was a crew of pirates that were drunk most of the time. It was like, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ It was a harrowing trip.”

Three weeks later in Liverpool, armed with guitars and amplifiers but no return tickets, visas, or work permits, the would-be pop stars were detained on the vessel by immigration officials. “I told my friend, ‘I got you into this mess, I’ll get you out of it,’ ” he said. “I think that’s been the story of my life.” Donning a sort of disguise, Mr. Douglas snuck off the ship, found a record shop, and bought the Beatles’ just-released “Rubber Soul” album.

“I saw the Liverpool Echo, the biggest newspaper in Liverpool, and thought, these English journalists like sensational stuff,” he recalled. “I’ll tell them this story about being held captive on a ship.” His tale piqued the interest of an editor, who arranged media coverage that ultimately reached London, the center of the pop-music universe.

Embarrassed immigration officials relented, granting them student visas, and the Echo editor put them in a band. “It was going to be his continuing coverage of the Yanks in Liverpool,” he said. “It was amazing. We saw lots of incredible bands, bought records, sent press back to New York.” Until Her Majesty had had enough, that is. Without warning, the now-famous “crazy Yanks” were handcuffed, thrown into a car, onto a train, and then a ship bound for the United States. “Because we had been to Liverpool and sent back all this stuff about what stars we were, we got into really good bands,” he said.

Some years later, Mr. Douglas, now a junior engineer at the Record Plant, told this tale to Lennon, who was recording his “Imagine” album there and had wandered into the studio where Mr. Douglas was editing tapes. Finally, the star-struck engineer told Lennon that he had been to Liverpool. “I said, ‘I was a musician, I wanted to know everything there was about how that music was being made.’ ” How did that work out? Lennon asked. “ ‘Good and bad. Bad, I got deported, but good, I made a lot of noise before I did.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Crazy Yanks! It’s  you, isn’t it?’ ”

Thus began a relationship that would continue until Lennon’s death. “Soon I was getting a ride home every day, talking with him, hanging out. He asked for my phone number, and he called one day and asked if I wanted to go to a party. He said, ‘Just watch my back, because I’m not sure about these people.’ It was Abbie Hoffman, the whole crew, looking to take advantage of him.”

Between Liverpool and Lennon, Mr. Douglas, with Mr. Leonetti, the drummer Tommy Brannick, and Paul Venturini, the organist whose family owned  the New Jersey fish market, founded a band called Privilege. The group had a sound akin to Led Zeppelin’s in mind; the Isley Brothers, who wanted a rock ’n’ roll band on their new T-Neck label, had other ideas. 

“It sounded great,” Mr. Douglas said. “A lot of ambient sound, very heavy, a lot of space. I think that space is what got us in trouble.” The Isley Brothers, fresh from their R&B/funk hit “It’s Your Thing,” mixed the album and, unbeknownst to the band, added all manner of instrumentation and backing vocals. “What sounded big and huge in the rough mixes,” Mr. Douglas said, “was now a tiny little ball surrounded by all this other stuff.”

“ ‘This is neither hard rock nor R&B,  really,’ ” Mr. Douglas told the Isleys. “ ‘It’s somewhere in the middle, or nowhere. It’s in the middle of nowhere.’ I thought I was getting my point across, and O’Kelly Isley looked at me and said, ‘Well fuck you,’ and the three of them got up and walked out of the room. Then Rudolph, who was the oldest and smartest, came back and said, ‘You have a problem with it? You mix it.’ ”

Over the next two days, Mr. Douglas watched as Tony May, the recording engineer, mixed the tracks, minus the Isleys’ overdubs. “It was marvelous, incredible to watch the man work,” Mr. Douglas said. “I just thought, this is the most amazing thing. When it was done, I listened back and said, ‘I want to do this. I’ve never had so much control over anything in my life.’ ” Mr. May told him about a new studio, Record Plant.

Now entrenched at the Midtown studio, Mr. Douglas was recording the New York Dolls’ debut album, produced by Todd Rundgren. “Todd hated the band,” Mr. Douglas said. “They were hot, and they were doing something no one else was doing — proving that you could be a band that didn’t know how to play their instruments but still have a sound.”

When Mr. Rundgren stopped coming to sessions, Mr. Douglas and the Dolls continued without him. “Management, which was Leber-Krebs, said, ‘You should get a co-production credit. You’re not going to . . . but we manage a baby band. They’ve already done one record, it’s not really going anywhere. They’re in Boston, why don’t you go up and take a look?’ ” “I went to meet Aerosmith, and we got along immediately. The first thing we talked about was the Yardbirds,” the pioneering blues band that, along with the Beatles, launched the second wave of rock ’n’ roll, this time from across the Atlantic. “We had so much in common.” An association that yielded classic 1970s albums including “Toys in the Attic” and “Rocks” continues in the new century with “Honkin’ On Bobo” and 2012’s “Music From Another Dimension!” He also recorded Aerosmith’s 1978 cover of the Lennon-penned Beatles song, “Come Together.”

In 1980, Lennon called on Mr. Douglas to produce “Double Fantasy,” his first recording in five years. With the album completed and released, the two were working on new material on Dec. 8. “It was a short piece of music,” Mr. Douglas remembered of the track that became “Walking on Thin Ice,” sung by Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono. “I made a loop out of it, then we added some more instruments that John and I played. We were playing guitar solos, we were having a riot, then Yoko laid over that brilliant spoken-word.”

Once again, Mr. Douglas was Lennon’s neighbor, now on the Upper West Side. “I would go home with him every night and then walk four blocks to my house,” he said. But now he was simultaneously producing another artist, and had to remain at the studio. “We were going to meet in the morning to master the single.” A short time later, Lennon was shot and killed as he arrived home. “Then the tape started playing in my head, that if I had gone home with him, I would have seen the guy standing there. . . . That tape ran for years, and it didn’t do me any good at all.”

There is so much more: Recording the Who’s “Who’s Next” at Record Plant. Driving through a hurricane to record Patti Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia.” Discovering Cheap Trick, performing at a bowling alley in Waukesha, Wisc. And, next month, Mr. Douglas will produce the Yardbirds, who will record at Aerosmith’s private studio. 

“My quest,” he said, “is to get the three ex-guitar players, graduates of ‘Yardbirds School,’ to play a solo.” The presence of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page on a new Yardbirds recording would surely constitute a sort of Holy Grail, the vessel that, according to legend, was brought from the Last Supper to England and holds the power to bestow infinite happiness and eternal youth. This is how, more than 60 years on, rock ’n’ roll lives.