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Far from dumb

Russ TitelmanGerry Goffin, whose death was announced yesterday, didn’t just write songs with Carole King. Even during their most successful and prolific time together in the mid-’60s he was collaborating with other writers, as I point out here, in my tribute to his lyric-writing genius for the Guardian’s music blog. The one that comes most readily to my mind is Russ Titelman (pictured above), later a staff producer for Warner Brothers and now best known for his work in the studio with Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Winwood and others.

Goffin and Titelman wrote two wonderful songs together. First, in 1964, came “I Never Dreamed” for the Cookies, a fabulous girl-group record which they produced together, with King providing the arrangement. Goodness knows how it didn’t follow the group’s other songs into the charts. A year later they wrote “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby)“, recorded by the Chiffons, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore and finally, in 1967, by the Inspirations on the obscure Black Pearl label. Each of these versions has its fans, but mine is the last of them, in which the echo-heavy production and the lead singer’s delivery mirror the plaintive mood of Goffin’s lyric.

Titelman was born in Los Angeles in 1944. I’m indebted to an interview in Harvey Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! for the information that his older sister, Susan (later to marry Cooder), was the girlfriend of Marshall Lieb, a member of the Teddy Bears, who rehearsed in the Titelmans’ lounge on their way to stardom. Phil Spector, their leader, was going out with Susan’s best friend, and young Russ fell under his spell: “He was so smart, and so funny, and so charming, and so incredibly charismatic, and so you were sort of charmed by it all. Then there was the other side of him, which was this dark, murky, scary person, you know, who made shit up.”

He went to work as a songwriter for Lou Adler and Don Kirshner at Screen Gems-Columbia Music, in whose LA offices he met Brian Wilson. Together they wrote “Guess I’m Dumb”, which would have made a great track for Pet Sounds but was instead recorded by Glen Campbell, a future Beach Boy. Wilson is credited as the arranger, conductor and producer of what remains one of his very finest efforts.

Titelman’s early adventures in the LA pop business also included collaborations with the young David Gates (later the founder of Bread), who produced Margaret Mandolph’s utterly sublime version of a Titelman co-composition (with Cynthia Weil) called “I Wanna Make You Happy”. The Titelman/Gates partnership was also responsible for Suzy Wallis’s delightful “Little Things Like That”

On all these records, Titelman’s involvement seemed to guarantee that they would somehow capture the very essence of teenage pop music. They have great hooks and an understanding of how a simple chord change can sell a song. Eventually, of course, he had to grow up, as did his friends and accomplices, including Goffin and Gates. But the stuff they left us from that time continues to give undiminished pleasure decades after its supposed expiry date.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Another great post, Richard. Thanks, as ever.

    June 20, 2014
  2. geoffnoble #

    Fascinating, and all quite new to me. As you say, Russ Titelman is surely best known as a record producer, usually bracketed with the equally splendidly named Lenny Waronker.

    June 21, 2014
  3. David Leaf #

    So great to (belatedly) discover that Richard Williams is writing regularly about music and pop culture. He is, as this piece proves again, one of the all-time greats.

    June 21, 2014
  4. Russ Titelman #

    Thank you for the very kind words. I love those songs and productions including The Cinderellas single written with Cynthia Weil and co-produced with Barry Mann (really a Cookies record…also sung by Margaret Ross).
    The most successful Goffin-Titelman song from back then was “Yes I Will” which was recorded by the Hollies. It also wound up on the first Monkees album.
    Gerry was one of the all-time greats.

    June 23, 2014
    • Great to hear from you, Mr Titelman. How could I have omitted the Cinderellas? I’ve always adored “Baby Baby (I Still Love You)”. Maybe you can tell me who played the tenor solo? And the drums, and the piano, and the rhythm guitars? I’m very glad to hear you still feel affection for all those wonderful records.

      June 24, 2014
  5. Steve Eaton #

    Thank you for this. I must hear the cuts you recommended, but already felt Margaret’s
    “…Happy…” could be the best production I
    have heard in my 74 years.

    January 3, 2020

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