Review: “Album Produced By: More Of My Roller Coaster Life” by Bruce Kimmel
At The Second Disc, we’re (literally) all about reissues! But none of the titles we cover daily would be possible without the efforts of the producers who select the bonus tracks, commission the liner notes, oversee the remastering and pull the packaging together. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! We have endeavored to spotlight the protean work of this select group of individuals, and have been grateful for the opportunity to conduct interviews with some of the finest in the business, including Harry Weinger, Steve Stanley and Mike Matessino. Among that esteemed group is the founder of the Kritzerland label, Bruce Kimmel. But Kritzerland is just one feather in the cap of a successful career at the helm of both new albums and reissues at Bay Cities, Varese Sarabande and Fynsworth Alley. Kritzerland has released over 100 albums to date, including reissues of many beloved film soundtracks and cast albums. Kimmel is also an author with more than ten books to his name, and the latest, Album Produced By…: More of My Roller Coaster Life (Author House, 2012), should be “required reading” for anybody who’s ever wondered about the ins and outs, the ups and downs of producing record albums.
Kimmel concluded his 2010 volume of memoirs, There’s Mel, There’s Woody and There’s You: My Life in the Slow Lane, with his decision to dive headfirst into the music business after dipping his toes into the water with his Bay Cities label: “I want to make a statement and within a year I want to be a well-known producer of show music recordings. I want people to know when they see the name Bruce Kimmel that it means a quality album with a point of view.” After a career largely spent as an actor, writer and director, he was afforded the opportunity to head up a new division at Varese Sarabande Records. Within his first year there, two of his albums had already scored Grammy nominations. Album Produced By… begins on Kimmel’s first day on the job in March 1993, and indeed, it’s not long in the book before the roller coaster begins its first climb. After each climb, of course, there’s a fall, and then another climb, and so on, until the book concludes in the present day, two record labels and many life lessons later.
Hit the jump for more on this essential new read!
Between 1993 and 1999, Kimmel’s productions at Varese included new cast albums of Hello, Dolly!, Merrily We Roll Along and The King and I as well as jazz recordings from Terry Trotter and Fred Hersch, solo discs from Twiggy and Petula Clark, tributes to Ennio Morricone, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon and Star Wars, and well-regarded, historically significant albums of rarely-heard theatrical material (Lost in Boston, Unsung Musicals). Kimmel produced over 120 albums during his time at Varese, and upon finishing Album Produced By…, you’ll feel as if you know a little something about each one. There’s plenty about the creation of each recording, but just as much about the business part of show business. The “And then I produced…” format could become tiring, but Kimmel tells his tales so entertainingly and most importantly, with so many unexpected details, that the book becomes a true page-turner. Though his professional life is at the book’s heart, he also touches on his personal life in an equally engaging manner.
The tone of the book is chatty, conversational and cordial. Yet the story being told is intensely personal, and if Kimmel has pulled any punches, I’d sure like to know which ones. Album Produced By… is liberally peppered with anecdotes about some of the famous names he encountered over the years, including a rather quirky Carol Channing, a “very randy” Helen Reddy and a delightful Petula Clark. Other famous names appear in the narrative, such as Lauren Bacall, Ann-Margret, Jane Krakowski, Elaine Stritch and Charles Nelson Reilly. A couple of his most amusing and choice stories center around Stephen Sondheim, with whom he collaborated on a number of releases including Unsung Sondheim, which premiered previously unrecorded material from the legendary composer and lyricist.
Not everything was coming up roses, though. Kimmel doesn’t shy away from the difficulties he had with artists like Channing or with colleagues like Varese Sarabande’s Chris Kuchler and orchestra contractor Bill Meade. These observations aren’t mean-spirited, but rather simple expressions of truth through the author’s eyes. For every lingering disappointment at a person who let him down, there’s another example of an artist for whom he’s fulsome with praise. There’s palpable pride in the discussion of numerous albums which were successful at the commercial and/or artistic levels, and unvarnished criticisms of those projects which didn’t quite turn out as expected. This “nuts and bolts” look at the making of a truly head-spinning number of albums should leave you reaching for the Kimmel-produced discs on your shelf and searching the ‘net for those you might have missed. (Many of these now-out-of-print recordings would be fine candidates for reissue, indeed.)
The book’s darkest passages revolve around the Fynsworth Alley label. When Varese Sarabande shut down the Spotlight Series (Kimmel’s show music division) to Kimmel’s chagrin to focus on its soundtracks and vintage pop releases, he rebounded by creating a new label with aid of investors. But promises were made, promises were broken, and in short, the fate of that label was ultimately decided in a courtroom setting. The author doesn’t gloss over the problems that befell the enterprise, but the Fynsworth days ultimately serve as a preface to the upbeat final chapters in which he founded the busy, still-thriving Kritzerland label, and began his long-running daily blog. Kimmel proves Mr. Berlin’s adage that “there’s no business like show business,” in all its guises.
Cleanly designed by Grant Geissman (also a distinguished recording artist and the composer of the theme to television’s Two and a Half Men), Album Produced By… includes a section of photographs including one with the aforementioned Ms. Channing that speaks a thousand words, at least. Too bad the book lacks an index, which would have made revisiting favorite anecdotes a bit easier. At 370+ pages, it’s a hefty tome, but one which you’ll devour. The appendix, a discography of Kimmel’s impressive body of work as a producer, is a most welcome inclusion.
If you’re the kind of reader who enjoys liner notes to a new reissue, you might like to think of Album Produced By… as a collection of long-overdue essays on each of the virtually unprecedented run of albums produced by Kimmel. A tenacious showbiz survivor, his memoirs are good, dishy fun. They’re also a reminder of the days when Tower Records, HMV and Virgin Megastore all still proliferated, as major and minor labels alike churned out release after release in every genre for a hungry, CD-buying public. I miss those days, when releases of soundtracks, show music and every other “specialized” genre proliferated, and the hours could be whiled away amidst the racks. If you, too, think of those as the good old days, you’ll relish the reminiscences of one of the era’s most prolific producing talents, and one who’s still looking forward today.