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Don Was celebrates his past and present at this year's Concert of Colors
When he was a teenager growing up in Oak Park, Don Was worked at Crazy Jack's Michigan Mobile Radio, selling 8-track tapes. Among his customers were Motown luminaries such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations' David Ruffin.
"I was blown away that these guys would come in," Was recalls.
Fifty years later, Was himself is among their iconic ranks.
During this week's Concert of Colors in Detroit, Was (nee Fagenson) will explore both his musical roots and his current role in the music industry. His annual Detroit All-Star Revue on Saturday, July 13, will celebrate Motown Records' 60th anniversary with some of the label's alumni (Martha Reeves, the Marvelettes, Carolyn Crawford, Dennis Coffey) and others. Two nights later, Was will host a screening of "Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes," an acclaimed documentary celebrating the 80th anniversary of the esteemed, mostly jazz, label that Was has run since 2012.
He's also serving as the Music Director for Martha Reeves' 78th birthday celebration, which closes the festival on July 18.
Those are bookends, and there's so much in between. The co-founder of the band Was (Not Was) (with childhood friend David Was (nee Weiss), Was' primary fame came as a producer of Grammy Award-winning albums for Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, with whom he still actively works. Was' résumé also includes releases by Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ringo Starr, Bob Seger, the B-52's, Iggy Pop, Barenaked Ladies, Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson, Gregg Allman's posthumous 2017 album "Southern Blood" and scores of others. Was also isa go-to music director for a variety of tribute concerts and special events and has voluminous TV and film credits he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Direction for the 2014 CBS special "The Beatles: The Night That Changed America," a British BAFTA for the film "Backbeat" and directed and produced the Brian Wilson documentary "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times."
The Blue Note gig exists alongside all that, and while Was (Not Was) has been on ice for more than a decade, Was now keeps his performing chops sharp as part of the Wolf Brothers with the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir.
It's been a big and varied career one that kid selling 8-track tapes likely couldn't imagine.
"I think it would blow his mind," Was, 66, says with a laugh by phone from his Blue Note offices in Los Angeles, where the father of three resides with his wife, Gemma, when he's not traveling the world on business. "It's far beyond my wildest dreams. I try to grapple with it every day, and I try not to think about it too much because I think it would cripple my ability to do my job.
"I get choked up thinking about it, to tell the truth. I mean, sitting in the studio with the Stones I never get inured to that sight. There are a couple points in the day, every day, when I just can't believe this happened. How did I end up in this room? It's ... cool."
The key to Was' success has been versatility. Weiss, who's also produced both artists and TV soundtracks and co-produced Dylan's "Under the Red Sky" in 1990 with Was, explained some years ago that, "In a world where you have heavy metal producers and country producers and funk producers and all these specialists ... Don can wear any of those hats without stretching. He really loves all that music. There are no boundary lines between Middle Eastern belly dance music and Merle Haggard and John Coltrane and the Beatles."
Was also has a gift for helping artists lock into their musical core, according to longtime recording engineer Ed Cherney. "If you listen to the records we've made ... not one sounds alike, but they were approached the same way, the same philosophy. He brings what the artist has to say across in the clearest way possible."
"He just has a way of making people sound like themselves," adds Was (Not Was) saxophonist David McMurray, whose latest album, "Music Is Life," came out last year on Blue Note.
And Raitt whose Grammy Award-winning 1989 comeback album "Nick of Time" was produced by Was notes that, "He's got a really great vibe about him. He's got this really serene hipness to him and I don't mean hip in a corny sense. he's got a great awareness without being intrusive with his opinion. He's just really sympathetic."
For his part, Was boils it all down to a simple philosophy: "You have to be respectful and tell the truth," he explains. "You have to clear your mind of all your fears and self-consciousness and just be present and do the thing you're supposed to do."
He's happy to be digging back into his roots at the Concert of Colors, though, and paying tribute to Motown and the impact it had on him as a youth.
"It was hometown music," recalls Was, who attended MotorTown Revue concerts at the Fox and remembers seeing the Supremes at the Michigan State Fair. "It was like the Tigers winning the pennant. It was a big deal that this music that was impacting the world came from our back yard and it was great music. It all really resonated for me, and still does."
Was also sees parallels between Motown and Blue Note, which was founded during 1939 and has been home to many of the most important jazz artists and recordings of all time. "I think both constitute black American music," he says. "It's further testimony to the incredible impact of African-American artists on the entire culture not just the culture of this country, but of the world."
During his tenure at Blue Note was has both modernized and expanded the label, both on the jazz side with artists such as Robert Glasper, McMurray and fellow Detroit saxophonist James Carter (whose new Organ Trio live album comes out in August) and by adding singer-songwriters such as Rosanne Cash and Jose James.
"Everything we do stems from a manifesto that was written in 1939 by our founders, where they dedicated themselves to the pursuit of authentic music and to providing uncompromising artistic freedom for the artists," Was says. "They didn't say, 'You've only got to play jazz in the Lydian mode. They said 'authentic music,' and to me Rosanne Cash is someone who steps up to the microphone and opens her mouth and some poetic truth comes out, which is the same thing as Wayne Shorter. In the end they're great storytellers, and that's the common link.
"We take that very seriously, so it's really important that every one of the artists on the roster comes from a generous place, that they are experiencing some deep emotional life that conversational language fails to convey and they can tap into music and put it out there so that the listener can share that experience and maybe find some comfort and understanding of their own situation through that."
That charge, amidst all his other work, keeps Was going. In addition to guiding the Blue Note anniversary celebration including the documentary and a vinyl reissue series he has more dates coming up and continues work on the next Rolling Stones album, the follow-up to 2016's "Blue and Lonesome," which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album. "We probably have 40 (songs), and depending on the 10 we choose to finish, the character of the album will be determined," Was reports. "Right now it can go any way. There's some really good stuff in there, and there's a sense that making a good album is not good enough. it's got to be great."
More notable things are undoubtedly on the horizon, and like the musicians he admires, and has worked with, Was is a lifer. He doesn't foresee stopping, or slowing down, any time soon if ever.
"It still has the feeling of a kid let loose in a candy store for me," he says. "It's like playing blackjack in Vegas. If you're winning, you don't get up from the table. I think I'm tapping into something here, going deeper each time I do a record. It's an amazing way to go through life."
The 27th Annual Concert of Colors runs July 10-18 in Detroit's Midtown Cultural Center, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Fisher Music Center and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue takes the stage at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 13, in the DIA's Detroit Film Theatre Auditorium. All events are free except for the Martha Reeves 78th birthday celebration on July 18 at the Wright Museum. Tickets are $50 and $100. For a full schedule and other details, visit concertofcolors.com.
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