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Lou Adler

Grammy winning music producer Lou Adler is known for founding the Monterey International Pop Festival—an event that's been called a defining moment in rock and roll history and made icons of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and others. He also founded Dunhill Records and Ode Records and launched the careers of such California acts as Jan & Dean and Carole King. Adler's screen credits include producing the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show and directing the Cheech & Chong movie series.


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Lou Adler

Lou Adler

Tavis: Pleased to welcome legendary music producer and songwriter Lou Adler to this program. During his outstanding career, he's produced some of the most enduring songs in music history - classic records like Carole King's "Tapestry" and "California Dreaming" for the Mamas and the Papas. Forty years ago this summer - the Summer of Love, they called it - he started the Monterey International Pop Festival which helped launch the careers of artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Lou Adler is responsible for so many great songs, but perhaps none more indelible than Sam Cooke's "What a Wonderful World," which he co-wrote with his dear friend, Herb Alpert. In conjunction with this year's Monterey Festival Starbucks is releasing a two-CD collection called "Monterey International Pop Festival." Lou Adler, I'm honored to have you on this program.

Lou Adler: Thanks, Tavis, it's a pleasure.

Tavis: I was saying to you before you walked out, or when you walked out, that this is the first time that I have ever seen you away from the Los Angeles Lakers courtside at a game.

Adler: Well, unfortunately, we're here early this year, so.

Tavis: Yeah, (laughs) you can see -

Adler: Cut a little short.

Tavis: - it was cut a little short. But I had to say that 'cause I know a lot of people watching right now saw that look right away and said, "Where do I recognize this guy from?" That's it.

Adler: Yeah, I get that a lot.

Tavis: Sitting next to Jack at all the games.

Adler: Yeah, I get that a lot.

Tavis: You've been a Laker fan for how many years? A season ticket holder on the courtside.

Adler: We started - Jack and I started going in 1972, at the Forum. And we were sitting way up in the rafters, and then we had a few hit records, a couple of hit movies, we kept moving down. (Laughter) Pretty soon we ended up at half-court.

Tavis: Not a bad place to be.

Adler: No.

Tavis: Not a bad place.

Adler: Some good years.

Tavis: So as a Laker fan all those years, what are your personal favorite years?

Adler: Well, the Magic years.

Tavis: The Magic years, of course.

Adler: And also the Magic years when Norm Nixon was there. I liked that team a lot. But that was not only the best athletes, but the smartest teams. They were real intelligent players and good friends. James Worthy and Magic, Norm.

Tavis: We agree on that. We both - not that my opinion matters, but I think those are the best years, as well.

Adler: Absolutely.

Tavis: I love the Magic years. That said, you've got a lot of good years. The Lakers go up and down, but Adler's had a few good years - a string of them. Take me back 40 years ago and tell me how you came up with the idea and why it was important. What was going on in the world that made the Monterey Festival such a wonderful opportunity to kick off?

Adler: Well, a lot of things, there's a lot of parallels, actually, between what was going on there and what was going on now, what is going on now. From a music standpoint, at that point FM radio came in, so there was a different way to listen to your music. And now we have Internet and iTunes. People were reading about - in the United States, pop music wasn't covered by the mainstream media until Rolling Stone came along in November of 1967.

And now we have blogs and the Internet. And the other parallel which is interesting is a Republican governor that's an actor, then and now. But the impetus for putting the festival on, about a couple of weeks prior to the festival, maybe a couple of months, Paul McCartney, myself, John Phillips, I think Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips and we were sitting around discussing the fact that pop music wasn't considered an art form in the way that jazz was considered, and even folk.

So when the opportunity came to purchase these dates in Monterey and do something, we thought well, here's a chance to validate it. Monterey is known for a jazz festival, it's known for a folk festival. Let's just get in and do it. It was the first pop festival.

Tavis: But you know how weird that sounds now to a guy sitting here in 2007 that there was ever a time in America that pop music was not all that.

Adler: Yeah, exactly. In England, if Mick Jagger got a ticket he was on the front page of eight tabloids. Here, nothing. No coverage whatsoever.

Tavis: It's amazing. So take me back, again, 40 years ago, and tell me what that first festival was like. What do you recall about the first year?

Adler: Well, it was chaotic in the sense that we had seven weeks to put it together. John Phillips and myself were the producers and what really made it work was the fact that we established the first charitable rock foundation so that all of the acts performed gratis. No one got paid except Ravi Shankar, who was left over from the former promoter.

And what that did, it got rid of billing; it got rid of when they would perform. Everyone just came to perform. And with the Mamas and Papas and Simon & Garfunkel signing on right away, it helped us to get all the other acts. As a community, these acts had heard about each other. They may have seen each other, but in most cases they hadn't.

They hadn't sat across from a table and just discussed music or pulled out a guitar and start playing. And we set up a 24-hour, what's now called a green room. We didn't know what it was called at the time. (Laughter)

Tavis: We have you to thank for the green room.

Adler: Yeah, that's right. (Laughter) At least in rock music.

Tavis: And why did the color get to be green? Why can't it be called the blue or the red room?

Adler: Well, the first one must have been landlord green, I can imagine.

Tavis: I always wondered why it got to be called a green room, but I digress. Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Adler: So we set this up, we had 24 hours of the idea behind the festival from an artist's standpoint, the fact that they were doing it for nothing. Give them the best accommodations, feed them the best that they can be fed, give them the best transportation, and above all, give them the best sound system that they've ever had.

Because in those days you could be on the road, you might show up and have a couple of squeaky speakers and one microphone. There's a moment in the Pennebaker film where David Crosby steps to the mic and does a test and says, "At last, a good sound system."

Tavis: Let me throw some names at you of folk who've appeared, of course, over the years, and just get you to share some thoughts, whatever they might be. You mentioned earlier Simon & Garfunkel. To you these are just friends, but they're legends.

Adler: Well, they sing like angels, first of all. Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel have been friends for a long time. We toured with them, the Mamas and Papas toured with them before the festival. We became good friends. But Paul Simon is one of the great American songwriters of all time I would imagine. He's certainly, not only from a rock standpoint but just as an American songwriter, he's written great standard songs and Artie has one of the most beautiful voices that was in rock and roll.

Tavis: Connected to this festival specifically, tell me about Jimi Hendrix.

Adler: Hendrix. (Laughs) Hendrix was electric. That was one of the most amazing things that - not only what was happening on stage but from the effect that it had on the audience. They didn't know whether to be scared. Certainly they loved this guy immediately, his charisma was unbounded. He just came at you, and the height of that particular performance was brought on because The Who, which knew Hendrix from England, and they had both performed, they knew each other's acts.

And at that time, The Who were kicking over their drums and breaking their drums and smashing guitars, and neither one wanted to follow the other one. They wanted to go on first, do their act, (laughter), and because -

Tavis: We want to smash first.

Adler: Yeah, exactly. And Hendrix topped it off. After all the smashing he sat down, put his guitar down, and set it on fire. And it's one of the most famous rock and roll photos by Jim Marshall, him sitting there with that Ronson can.

Tavis: Died way too soon, but tell me about Janis Joplin.

Adler: I think they all died way too soon.

Tavis: Hendrix the same. Exactly, yeah.

Adler: Within two years, it changed so drastically. And by 1971, both of them were dead. I think they both died in the seventies. And Joplin's performance, no one to that point had seen a White girl sing the blues like she sang it. And she was a tough Texas girl, she lived really tough, she drank tough, she did drugs, too many and too tough. But as a vocalist, her performance at Monterey was also one of the great concert performances of all time.

Tavis: Do you think - this may be a strange question to ask a guy like you. I wonder whether or not you think pop music still has an enduring value or whether it's just - I don't know if it makes much sense, but is pop too pop these days? Is there enough substance there to make it sustainable?

Adler: Well, I think the pop music you're talking about is media-driven. And the Britney Spears and even Paris Hilton has an album, I don't think that's the real music that's happening within that genre. Arctic Monkeys, Ludacris, people like that that are substantial, and we won't know. Years from now we'll be able to say, "Yeah, that was good," and the other will fade away. And whatever has substance will be here, and I think there is good music being made.

Tavis: Given that you are such a prolific songwriter, what's your personal test of whether or not a piece of music - I don't want to call it a song; I use that deliberately: a piece of music - whether or not it's going to survive, whether or not it's going to pass the test of time?

Adler: Part of it is how many times it's covered, how many different artists in different genres cover it as a song and not only in the same way that it was originally recorded but in their interpretation of the song so that you know it's music and lyrics and it's not just the record. In '59 and '60 when I produced records, we used to write records.

We would write it just for the record. But there are a lot of tremendous songwriters; John Phillips is one. He wrote songs that Frank Sinatra did and every pop group has recorded and in every genre. And that's really the key to what is a standard, I think.

Tavis: How did you not just become prolific a writing songs but also in being an executive force in the industry?

Adler: How did I?

Tavis: Yeah.

Adler: Well, because when I started, you could be everything. It's much like radio now, where everything is compartmentized. It's adult contemporary, contemporary young, contemporary with a guitar, and then that's all the radio station plays. Similarly when I started in the music business, you didn't have to just be an executive.

You could start writing songs and produce those songs and then start a label. So I - and go out and promote your record. Go on the road. So you touched every phase of the record business, which was much better than just being in that one area.

Tavis: There's so much on this, it's a two-CD set. There is so much on here from the Association to Simon & Garfunkel to Hugh Masekela, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, of course Jimi Hendrix. A lot of good stuff on this - Otis Redding. We didn't get a chance to even talk about. But a lot of good stuff on this two-disc set. The Monterey International Pop Festival, 40 years ago this thing kicked off in large measure to a guy named Lou Adler, who I'm delighted to have on the program.

Adler: Yeah, thanks very much, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you.