Jay Graydon is the master of melodic pop - those meticulous songs like "Turn Your Love Around" and "After The Love Has Gone." He took Al Jarreau and The Manhattan Transfer up the charts, and played the guitar solo on Steely Dan's "Peg." Jay gives a rare look at exactly how these songs are made and what makes them appealing. He speaks in specifics, which is very refreshing.
His latest project is JaR, which is his collaboration with ace songwriter Randy Goodrum, writer of "Oh Sherrie," "You Needed Me" and "Bluer Than Blue."
His latest project is JaR, which is his collaboration with ace songwriter Randy Goodrum, writer of "Oh Sherrie," "You Needed Me" and "Bluer Than Blue."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When you're a producer, and you want to make a song that is going to have a lot of appeal, what are some of the techniques that you use?
Jay Graydon: Try to look for memorable little secondary melodies, whether it be in horn parts, even a string line or a synth line or a guitar line. Little secondary memorable things help, like the frosting on the cake. But, if you don't start with a great song, obviously nothing's happening. You've got to have a very memorable melody to begin with and a good lyric, or nothing else much matters. Just try to pay attention to having the whole package as memorable as possible.
Songfacts: Give me an example of a song with a secondary melody.
Jay: "Turn Your Love Around."
Jay: (singing) "Turn your love around," horn line and guitar line. Ba da bum dum dum dum dum… "I can show you how." Horn line and guitar line, da da dum dum dum da dum dum dum.
Songfacts: What are some of the other songs that have those really great secondary melodies that you can come up with?
Jay: There'll be little things other than melodies - there's just parts. Like the guitar part in "Mornin'," which is very memorable. And there was a Dionne Warwick record I produced years ago, a song "For You" that had a similar guitar part. If it's not an overdub situation, I'll play a single line muted thing or something like that. That's always memorable because it's simple. My new album with Randy Goodrum with JaR, there's a few tunes where I have that going on.
Songfacts: It's interesting that you were talking about the simple guitar parts, whereas you're known for playing the "Peg" solo, which is anything but simple. Could you elaborate on the difference between one of these popular songs with the simple melody, and what you might look for in something like that?
Jay: I humbly state that I play what's needed. It's not just about the Jay Graydon show at all times - I'm playing for what the song needs. So if it's a song that needs a little single note muted part, or chords as far as a rhythm part, or a sustained line, I've gotta play for what the song is asking for. A simple music guitar part, like in "Mornin'," versus a solo like in "Peg" are totally different things. When it's time to solo, it's the Jay Graydon Show, but still fittin' with the song. But be creative now, and play over the chord changes and try to come up with something interesting.
Songfacts: Sounds like there are times that you have to restrain yourself as a session guitarist.
Jay: It's automatic, because that's what I do. It's like, OK, put this hat on now. Put your music guitar part hat on now, find a little part that fits nicely within the chord structure, doesn't step on the melody, is memorable, works with the melody, works within the chord changes, and it's like putting a little piece in a puzzle. But it's second nature to me, and it's second nature to anybody that does this, or we wouldn't be doing what we do.
Songfacts: What are some other examples of the single-note muted technique you used?
Jay: I've used it on so many songs over the years it's unbelievable. If I was hired to play rhythm, and I didn't play chords, it would be a single note thing. The best example is "Mornin'." That's also a harmonized part. And it's actually four parts. Well, it's two parts, but they're doubled. Meaning I play the top part, and then I played it again on another track, put it in stereo, and then played the lower part, and then played it again on another track, and split it in stereo. On the JaR album, there's a song called "Make Somebody," that will give the example of how the muted guitar part thing works.
Songfacts: You were talking about "Mornin'." How did the lyrics to that song come about?
Jay: The lyrics are totally lame. It's typical Al Jarreau. David Foster and I basically wrote the track, the melody and all the chord changes, and David released it on an instrumental album that he did in Japan. I took the song to Al and I said, "Man, this is perfect for you, we gotta record this." Al Jarreau is a terrible lyricist. He's awful. When it's time for the big payoff everything turns into candy. It's like in "Breakin' Away": "show me some climbing boots, show me some parachutes," what are you talking about, man?
Songfacts: So you did not have a part in writing those lyrics, I guess.
Jay: No. We'd write a song, a love song or whatever. Now comes the big payoff, where the guy or the girl should be telling the other guy "Get out. It's over. Go away." Instead he starts talking about flowers and things. He doesn't pay off anything. These songs would have been a lot better if he didn't write the lyrics. But the ironic thing is it didn't hurt the sales. I humbly say I did a good job on the production of this stuff, and with the writing and the guys I brought in to write.
Songfacts: Have you written lyrics before?
Jay: No, I'm not a lyricist. When I'm writing a song, I'll sing whatever sounds good. Like, for JaR, Randy's the lyricist. Randy and I both write the music, but when it comes to the lyric, it's Randy. He's brilliant. Very intelligent, like Steely Dan lyrics, there's some great stories. Every once in a while some of the dummy stuff I sing will end up in the song, but I just don't have the gift of lyrics. And Randy sure does.
Songfacts: You're talking about how when you're in the studio producing a song you need something to work with. Can you elaborate?
Jay: A memorable melody and a good lyric that's going to grab people's attention. You've got to have a melody that people can remember. It's gotta be sing-song-y. Because you've got to understand, half the population's probably tone deaf. I mean, everybody has gifts, I have the gift of music. I didn't know it was a gift 'til I realized others couldn't do it. So I have to understand that most people could be tone deaf. My girlfriend's tone deaf. When she sings I just laugh my ass off, because she's got no pitch center. She laughs her ass off, because she knows it. So I'm assuming half the population is like her. So with that in mind, I've got to make sure it's memorable, simple, and to the point. You start getting too crazy with the melody, you're going to lose people.
Songfacts: What are some of the songs that worked out really well for you?
Jay: "Turn Your Love Around" was a gift, and it's the gift that keeps giving. I have an interesting story about "Turn Your Love Around." I was in the bathroom when I came up with the melody, and I was sitting down, if you get my drift. Well, I got off the can as fast as I could and got to a cassette machine so I wouldn't forget it. George Benson was coming in town Tuesday, so I had four days to come up with a song for the George Benson Collection. And I was gettin' nothing. And then Bang, I just came up with this melody for the chorus when I was in the bathroom. Then (Steve) Lukather came over and I said, "Luke, I gotta come up with the song in two days. I've got a great chorus here, come up with a verse." And I jump in the shower, I get out of the shower and I come down and he had the verse. The next day we called Champlin, and I said, "Bill, get over here. We need a lyric, and we need a bridge. Let's get this thing done." And that's how "Turn Your Love Around" came about. We demoed it that night, George came over the next day, the record company got a copy, everybody loved the song, we recorded it, and that was it. But the melody's memorable, like, so simple. You could play it with your nose on a piano. Any melody that you could play with your nose on piano will be memorable. Because you surely don't have any kind of fast technique to play melodies with your nose on piano. (laughing) If you can play it with one finger on your piano, it's gonna be a simple melody, because you can't do crazy things and do things too fast.
Songfacts: You're able to take these songs and polish them so they're unbelievably listenable. Can you elaborate on what you actually do?
Jay: Yeah, bring David Foster in, and I'd say, "Hey, man, play piano for me, please. And now play some string parts for me, please." David's a genius. Same with Michael Omartian. These guys are just incredible musicians. I'm pretty good at doing string stuff and synth overdubs, and of course guitar overdubs and stuff, but you bring good guys in, then it gets really masterful.
Songfacts: Hey, I know you said Champlin wrote the lyrics to that song. Do you know what he means by "charging by the hour"?
Jay: Yeah, he means like a hooker.
Songfacts: I knew it was either that or a therapist.
Jay: I never thought about that. I gotta tell him that. He'll like that. I'm guessing, I never analyze lyrics with him. Let me tell you how I go with lyrics. Of course the story's important. I care about the story. But here's what I care about more than anything: How does it sing? Does that line sing good? Sometimes you get a bunch of consonants in a row where you can't blab them out, and the writer's trying to get a line across but it just doesn't sing good. The syllables don't come out of the mouth right. That's what I care about mostly. When I hear a line that's just bumpy in the road to sing, I tell the lyricist, "Fix this, this is not working."
One of Jay's hits is "Who's Holding Donna Now" which he wrote with his JaR partner Randy Goodrum. El Debarge recorded the song in 1985.
Songfacts: What about "Who's Holding Donna Now?"? That sounds like a mouthful.
Jay: That's a Randy Goodrum lyric. It's me and Foster. David and I were writing songs for a movie called "The Woman In Red" for Gene Wilder. We demoed three songs, but they were demoed almost like a Muzak style, with just the drum machine and piano and synth bass, because we had to quickly get them to Wilder. Now, we weren't locked into anything, we were just demoing these up. We wrote 'em quick and demoed 'em up. And one of them was "Who's Holding Donna Now?" without it being that song yet. Wilder passed on all of it, and Stevie Wonder got the gig (with "I Just Called To Say I Love You"). I was playing the "Who's Holding Donna Now?" track for two guys that were producing Jack Wagner, and El Debarge walked in, who I was producing at the time. He listened to that melody, and he said, "I want to record that song." I dropped off the tape for Randy, and he came up with a great lyric.
Songfacts: Tell me about "After The Love Has Gone."
Jay: David Foster produced an album for Jaye P. Morgan in 1976. It's a great record. It's available in Japan, and never did anything here, really. Then he was at Motown playing some songs with Jaye to try to get a deal over there. He was in the middle of playing a song and he forgot the chorus, and he ad-libbed the chorus to "After The Love Has Gone." He comes over to my house, and we went into my little dinky studio at the time. He sits down at the piano, and he says, "Listen to this chorus." He plays it, and I said, "Hey, here's an idea for a verse." And I went, "da da dom, A major 7, da-D-minor-6, da da A major 7, bom ba da da da F-sharp minor." And he just immediately continued on with that, and we had the whole song written in about half an hour/45 minutes. We called Champlin. We said, "Bill, get over here, we need a lyric." David was producing Champlin at the time. David recorded it with Champlin, I think maybe three different versions. He got one that he really liked, but then David was also writing with Maurice White for Earth, Wind & Fire for the I Am album. He played the song for Maurice, and Maurice loved it. David called me and says, "Hey, man, Earth, Wind & Fire wants to record it, but I don't want to tell Champlin that it's gonna have to get pulled off his record. Will you do it?" I said, "I sure will." (laughs) I called Bill and I said, "Bill, here's the story." And I told him what I just told you. And he says, "I'm not an idiot, man." (laughing) I said, "I'm glad you say you're not an idiot. Because they say this thing's gonna be a single for sure. And this could be big." Needless to say, that song still generates good money. It's unbelievable.
Songfacts: Yeah. It's the only one on that album that Maurice White didn't have a part in.
Jay: Right. But we had to give him part of the publishing, because we were young and stupid. But we won a Grammy for R&B Song of The Year. I've been nominated twelve times.
Songfacts: Manhattan Transfer stuff.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about doing "Twilight Zone"?
Jay: Channel 5 in L.A. would play Twilight Zones every night. I loved it when I was a kid, and watching the stuff, I was thinking, what would it be like to take the Twilight Zone theme and turn it into another song? So I told Alan (Paul) and the Transfer. There were three different intros to The Twilight Zone over the years. There was an original, and then they changed it twice. Well, it was right in the beginning of VHS video home recorders, so I recorded the show every night until we got all of the three themes. Then I gave the stuff to Alan and he worked with the intro, which speech to use from which version. He probably combined a couple. And in the meantime I wrote the chord changes and the melody… Allen wrote a little bit of the melody, I wrote most of it. I basically wrote the arrangement as I was going. This was a very difficult piece, there was a lot happening. It was 6-plus minutes. It was not an easy thing. And pretty much I had to write everything out. I remember the chart being pretty long, because there was a lot of sections. And of course Janis (Siegel) had to sing it, because it had to have that R&B edge. I was proud of that. That was a lot of work, and I humbly state I did a good job.
Songfacts: Yeah, you did a great job on that. What about the song "Kafka"?
Jay: There was a guy named Bernard Kafka that was a friend of the Transfer's. He had this little piece of music they played me, and they wanted to record it. I said, "This is not complete. It needs another section or two." And I remember sitting down and writing another section. I can't remember if Kafka was around or not, but I said, "Man, we need this. This has got to be part of it." And everything worked out.
Songfacts: Really interesting tune, in context with you, is "The Boy From New York City," because that was an old '60s song.
Jay: Here's how this went down. When we were picking songs for the album, we used to go to Tim's (Hauser) apartment. Tim played some old 45s, and we'd all come up with ideas and kick things around and listen to the tunes and go, "Hey, put that in the 'hold' pile." And we'd play another one, and we'd go, "Okay, that's in, that's a great song." So I'm leaving. I'm walking out the door, I'm going to my car, and Tim plays "The Boy From New York City." I run back to the door and I go, "Why haven't you played that before? Why didn't you play that during the meeting? We've got to do this song. This is perfect." We did it, and it was a big hit.
Songfacts: But you're taking an existing arrangement, and you're putting your touch on it.
Jay: Yeah, I did the horn charts on that record. Foster played piano on it, and it's genius, as always. Came up with a little counter melody, ba da bum, in the left hand. There's an example of a counter melody that's an attention getter. Simple little part, but it worked perfectly. And then I tried to come up with some little horn parts. The guitar part was a very memorable sound. It was a delay set to triplets. I got the inspiration for that little muted guitar part on there from the current version on "Knock On Wood." There was a re-release of "Knock On Wood" that was fantastic. And some guy played a triplet guitar part in it. I decided to borrow the idea because professionals borrow where amateurs steal. (laughs) So I was borrowing the concept… with different notes that I played, of course, And that was the secondary hook of the song. That was a good record.
Songfacts: Who's your favorite artist to work with as a singer?
Jay: You're not going to believe this. Donny Osmond.
Jay: He's one of the best singers I've ever heard in my life. He just got thrown into this milquetoast image. We did an album somewhere in the '80s that never got released. Long story what happened, a bunch of business shit screwed it up. But it was right around the era when Michael Sembello had the hit with "Maniac" and I had the synth drum machine set-up of that era. We wrote some pretty good stuff. Another great singer is Richard Page of Mr. Mister. Both these guys sing so in tune. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of other singers I'd love to work with. Bill Champlin's great. Sherwood Ball, great singer. The singers that I don't like to sing with are ones with attitudes that don't want to make it great. I'm going to work a singer hard, even in this era with auto tune, I'd rather get it without using auto tune. I'm not looking for it to be immaculately in tune, I'm just looking for a good pitch center, and I'm looking for a good feel. Is this too much to ask? I know the potential of the artists I'm working with before I take the gig. But when artists have a short fuse, they want to sing it a couple of times and split, I'm the wrong guy.
Songfacts: I was reading how you had to kind of coax George Benson a bit.
Jay: Benson was never really a problem. I told George, "Just let me work you, man. You hired me as a producer. Let me get you sounding as good as you can sound. Because in 25 years I want you to listen to this stuff and realize how good it sounds." A line that I told George that he quotes back to me, I said, You know, people don't necessarily know when something's in tune that aren't musicians. But it's gotta sound better to them, it's gotta click something in their brain that it's more precise, if they have any musicality at all, the better pitch center has gotta trigger something in their brain that releases some chemical that's more satisfying to them. Something that's gotta happen chemically that makes them feel better when the pitch center's good. I can't prove this, but I think so. Every artist tells me the same thing, "This stuff we did 25-30 years ago still holds up." And I go, "Thank you. Remember what I told you?" Hey, I busted my ass on this. This stuff's permanent.
You know how when you're watching TV the commercials always seem louder than the show? That's because they're victims of audio techniques that boost their loudness levels at the expense of dynamic range. It gets your attention, but pounds on your brain like a jackhammer.
Songfacts: I have to believe that some of your production techniques make a huge difference. There's so much dynamic range in your stuff, as opposed to today where they just crunch the shit out of everything.
Jay: I still don't use a compressor across the stereo buss. When you hear the JaR album it's going to be like 15db lower than any album you're gonna play. Now, here's my statement to that. Do you want it louder? You've got a volume control, don'tcha? Did somebody think that people would no longer want to reach over to their volume control to turn it up? If you want it louder you turn it up. If you want it quieter you turn it down. If you buss compress everything, when the kick drum hits it's sucking back everything from the mix. I don't want to hear stuff pump. I want my dynamics intact that I recorded. I don't want everything to be one dynamic. I look at some stuff that I guess some people have recorded with just major compression, and I look at the meters, and it's already pinning up right up next to the red at the tag of the first note. Where does the song have to go building-wise? Nowhere. And the harder that compressor gets hit, the quieter the song gets. When you squash a song big time that has a quiet section, the quiet section becomes extremely loud. Then when the band kicks back in, the level drops. This is all bullshit to me. Why - who made this level war up? Is there like a contest for the loudest record? No buss compression, man. Turn up the volume control if it's not loud enough. That's all.
Songfacts: What's buss compression?
Jay: It's when you put a compressor across the stereo mix. It's what everybody does in this era to make their records louder. So what it does is it puts a brick wall into a certain level. A level can't get any louder. Then when you bring up the compression level underneath it, all it does is bring up the volume that's lower and make it louder. To the point of where you have one dynamic.
Songfacts: You're one of those producers that doesn't like to twiddle after the fact, right? You like to get the good sound going in?
Jay: Absolutely. I don't go, "I'll fix that later." I don't record something with a drum machine and go, "I'll put real drums on later." If I'm using real drums, they're going on first. You can never add them later and have it feel right. It never works. The bottom line is, every inch of the way this is right before we move on. I'm going in order. I'm not going backwards. Until it's right, we stay here. Let's not do it half-assed, move on, and then come back and fix it. I don't do that.
Songfacts: You started as a session guy, so I'm sure somebody did all this to you and you learned to appreciate that.
Jay: Right. And like when guys would work me hard, like the Steely Dan "Peg" song. I was there for six hours playing stuff until we found something they liked. And hey, I don't mind. I'm just as hard on myself. The "Twilight Zone" solo was an all-day thing, to find what I liked and record it in a few different sections. Look, I got two ways to do things. Totally Mickey Mouse, or as good as I can do it. I don't have a middle ground. If you need a demo right now, and you just want the melody and the piano, there's gonna be mistakes galore, I'm gonna sing the thing out of tune. Okay, you want it right now, here's what you get. If I start going towards the middle ground, I go towards perfection. So I'm either gonna do it right, or I'm not doing it.
Songfacts: Tell me about JaR.
Jay: It was Randy's idea, and a great one. For lack of a better term I've been retired for 20 years. I use that term very loosely. That means I don't have to work. I was one of those guys that saved his money. I grew up with nothing, I understood the value of money, and I never wanted to have nothing again. I like having something. So I paid off my house as fast as I could, I paid all my gear off. I'm not a spendo. If I couldn't afford it, I wouldn't buy it. I Got to the point where I didn't have to work in the late '80s, and I stopped working with major artists because record company A&R people, managers and artists, are all trouble at some point or another. Now, there's exceptions. Benson was great. Donny Osmond was great. Marc Jordan, great. Steve Kipner, great. Those last two records didn't do much but they were good records. You know, the Manhattan Transfer I got four people ganging up on me every day. And then I got the managers on my back, and then I get the record company people on my back. And all I'm doing is fighting them off all the time. I'd had enough. But I still needed to do something musically so I started making records for myself and taking time off in between. I got into card magic for a while, I studied that for two years, ten hours a day. Whenever I get into anything, I get into it. I just dig life for what it is. Instead of taking off the last 20 years of my life I decided to groove in the middle while I still had physical ability to do so. I've got a blessed life, but I've worked hard, too. So anyway, what was the question?
Songfacts: (laughing) The question was "tell me about JaR."
Songfacts: I just think it's interesting, though, because one thing songwriters sometimes take for granted is you keep getting paid. You're not the first guy I've talked to that said, "Yeah, I wrote some songs, and the checks keep coming, and it's a good life."
Jay: If I would have known that this was going to be the gift that keeps giving, I would have wrote a lot more. I was doing as much as I could at the time, but I would even have concentrated more on writing. But anyway, JaR. Randy and I started writing. I had a couple of song starts, Randy comes over, we start working on them. And he says, "You know, maybe we should do a band thing, these songs are pretty good." So we started writing more and more. It's like Steely Dan, because of the following: the lyrics are very intelligent with really cool ideas. The chord changes are very melodic, hinging on jazz sometimes. Melodies are memorable. It's intelligent West Coast pop music. I think it's the best record I've ever been involved with. We spent two years on this, and I didn't mind any minute of it. I couldn't wait to get in the studio every night.
Songfacts: Yeah, it sounds like the challenge for you guys is the fact that you two aren't household names. It almost sounds like a Toto kind of situation where nobody's gonna know who you guys are, but they've heard all your stuff before their whole life.
Jay: We're our own marketing, we don't have a record deal, we got turned down by every major, of course. Randy's 60 and I'm almost 60 - we're not kids. There's a market there, but nobody wants to try to get it. They're much more interested in a 20-year-old singer with a bigger demographic. There's an audience that's begging for us, but no record company wants to take a chance on working that audience, that Steely Dan audience. So we're on our own little dinky record label. In Europe we're on Zinc Records, and in Japan we're on Pony Canyon Records. But in the States, we're on our own. It's an uphill battle, and that's the way it goes.
Songfacts: You said there were some interesting lyric ideas that you had for the album. Can you elaborate a little?
Jay: The third cut's called "Esquire," it's about lawyers. It's going to crack you up. It's hysterical.
The last track on the album is called called "The Cabo Cad." For once I really baited Randy with ideas, in the past it's always a love song, and I am so sick of love songs. Records have to have 'em, chicks love love songs, but come on, we need something else. We need other input. So I told Randy this from the very beginning. And so I was watching the news, and Olivia Newton-John's boyfriend at the time had supposedly faked his own suicide. It was on Dateline. Then it came on Dateline about two months later. Dateline went to Mexico because they'd heard this guy had been spotted like five times. And they interviewed people right and left, and this guy was supposedly alive. He pulled a dummy to get insurance money for his kids. He was spotted in Cabo, Mexico.
I'm into film noir movies. I collect 'em. I'm glued to Turner Classic Movies and DVD Planet and a bunch of other places where you can buy the DVDs. The writing is so great. There's thousands of these movies - in the '40s, or the mid-'50s, they had to bang these things out. TV wasn't happening until the early '50s, you know. So hence the name of the album: Scene 29. I baited Randy with this. I gave him a bunch of movies to watch, and I gave him a bunch of great quotes from the movies. There's even some Laurel and Hardy kind of quotes. The whole thing is just fun. My nickname is Jake the Rake. And in the movie The Killers, there's a character named Jake the Rake. And you'll see how that lyric works when you hear it. But, it's a fun little song, it's a cool melody.
We spoke with Jay on October 3, 2008. Learn more about JaR, including where to get the album, at Jarzone.com.