Michael Omartian has contributed his talents to over 350,000,000 albums and CD’s sold worldwide as a producer, composer, arranger, artist or musician. This impressive number shows the importance of this musician in the history of American pop music. He has been kind enough to answer to my questions about his career and to talk about his work with Steely Dan, Christopher Cross and Donna Summer.
What were your earliest musical memories?
I guess that my earliest musical memories were hearing big band recordings and some early, early rock and roll, mostly the doo-wop stuff of the 1950s. I wasn’t a real fan of that particular genre at the time, so I seemed to take to swing and jazz records. Remember that this was at a time when a single played at 33 1/3.
To most of your readers that would be considered the “Stone Age.” There wasn’t a lot of music played around our house, so what I heard was on the radio and at record stores in the Chicago, Ill. area.
Do you remember when and why you started playing music? Did you follow a classical or a jazz training?
I remember my mom telling me that I would constantly be singing and tapping out rhythms with my hands and any sticks that I could get a hold of, so my parents started me on piano and accordion lessons when I was four years old. My early memories were that I would get scolded by my instructors for improvising and not sticking with the music that was on the page. Being from a very unmusical family, it was hard for my parents to recognize that this might be a good thing. Anyway, I also got into playing drums at around 6 years old, so music was becoming a real joy for me at an early age. I liked classical music, and that was the early training that I had at the piano, but I really gravitated towards jazz, mainly because it was so improvisational. That changed when the Beatles came out with their first album. Something about the “English Invasion” really appealed to me and pulled me toward pop music.
Los Angeles was the place to be for a musician in the ’70s and ’80s. How was life when you arrived there? Was it as wild and exciting as it is often said?
I moved to Los Angeles in 1967, mainly because it seemed that every time I bought an album by an artist or group that I liked, the credit for where the music was recorded seemed to be at least 75% of the time in Los Angeles. This was a big move for me, since I came from a rather ethnic neighborhood and the thought of anyone moving away from their family or “the neighborhood” was viewed as absolutely unacceptable. My parents were rather heartbroken that I would do such a thing, but they accepted that a few years later when their “son” represented the family and neighborhood in a positive way.
When I arrived, I was both excited and overwhelmed with the task of trying to break into the music business. I basically starved and did anything I could just to be included in some project that might get a little attention. This went on for 3 years. I got as a break in 1971 at a recording session that included, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn and a few other musicians that were the “first call” players of the day. The producer of the project really didn’t want me there, but the artist insisted I play on the song I co-wrote with them and the producer gave in. Needless to say, I was petrified and I was somehow convinced that I would screw up. Anyway, I evidently did all right and after the session, Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn took my phone number and I was booked on 7 sessions the following week. It took a long time and a lot of perseverance, but I was fortunate and blessed to have that opportunity.
You have worked closely with Steely Dan on several albums. Was it a good training to your arranger and producer career? I have often read that it was awfully difficult for musicians to work with Steely Dan. Can you confirm that?
Working with Steely Dan could hardly be considered “fun”. But it was rewarding. When you functioned as a studio musician, you had the opportunity to observe various producers and artists and how they arrived at their decisions and the degree of perfection they required. I worked for people all over that spectrum.
When you worked with Gary Katz, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, you planned on long hours and not a lot of affirming moments. When they were happy, you would pretty much hear the words, “we got the take” and that was it. You would realize you did a good job when you got a call to do the next song.
I enjoyed their dry sense of humor and there was a lot of good hang time with great musicians. I know that they appreciated what the players did, but it was not something that you would feel secure about at the time of recording.
I would, on occasion, be asked to go to Donald’s house to work on putting together some charts on a few of the tunes, so I functioned as a co-arranger on some of the tracks. This, along with my time at ABC Dunhill, working as an A&R guy and staff producer and arranger, honed my skills at arranging and eventually helped me evolve into a producer. This would not have been possible without the mentoring of a gentleman named Steve Barri, who I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude for his belief in me and allowing me to be part of the company. Steve was head of A&R and has had a tremendous career as a producer himself. We had a great time working on many projects and I credit him for giving me the opportunity to grow as a musician, arranger and producer.
(Excerpted from the Yuzu-Melodies site. To read the entire interview, go to http://www.yuzu-melodies.fr/Michael-Omartian-Working-with-Steely-Dan-could-hardly-be-considered-fun_a1240.html)