Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Unsung Heroes

John Taylor McClure (1929-2014; bottom left) with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971; bottom right”) in the recording studio on July 20, 1964
John Taylor McClure (1929-2014; bottom left) with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971; bottom right”) in the recording studio on July 20, 1964

We mark the death on June 17, 2014 – an even 10 years ago today – of the Grammy Award winning American record producer and Director of Columbia Masterworks Recordings John Taylor McClure.  McClure was born in Rahway, New Jersey on June 28, 1929, and died in Belmont Vermont at the age of 84, 11 days short of his 85th birthday.

Record Producers

The title of this post says it all: “Unsung Heroes.” It is my experience that unless someone has personally been involved in creating a recording, it’s pretty much impossible to appreciate the amount of work a producer puts into the process and the degree to which the producers’ own musical taste, musical proclivities, and musicality influence the final product.  The front of a record jacket or CD case might bear the image of a composer or performer, and the producer’s name might appear in the tiniest of print on the lower left-hand corner of the back of the jacket, but in fact – in terms of their singular impact on a recording – the producer should, by all rights, be pictured on the front of the album side-by-side with whomever else the producer deems worthy of joining them.  

Over the years, I’ve featured a few of the most important record producers of the post-World War Two era.  Thus far, I’ve written about the opera record producer John Royds Culshaw (1924-1980; Dr. Bob Prescribes, March 24, 2020); the Beatles’ record producer and so-called “Fifth Beatle” George Martin (1926-2016; Music History Monday January 3, 2022, and Dr. Bob Prescribes January 4, 2022); and the jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews (1923-2015; Music History Monday, March 21, 2021).

Today we add John McClure to this august list.  

The Job of a Record Producer

Here’s how The Recording Academy (formally the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, or NARAS) defines a record producer:

“The person who has overall creative and technical control of the entire recording project, and the individual recording sessions that are part of that project. He or she is present in the recording studio or at the location recording and works directly with the artist and engineer. The producer makes creative and aesthetic decisions that realize both the artist’s and label’s goals in the creation of musical content. Other duties include but are not limited to keeping budgets and schedules, adhering to deadlines, hiring musicians, singers, studios and engineers, overseeing other staffing needs and editing.”

(And editing.  I trust we all realize that expert editing will make [and bad editing break] almost every musical and literary enterprise.  From book editors and newspaper editors; to television and film editors; to radio producers and record producers, it is the editors/producers that are, in the end, responsible for shaping and delivering the final product that goes out to the public.)

When it comes to making a recording, then, the producer is the chief, the chef, the Jefe, the top dog, the Geeter-with-the-Heater, the Big-Boss-with-the-Hot-Sauce: that single person responsible for every aspect of a recording, from hiring the players to running the recording sessions to supervising the editing to choosing the cover art!

Having said all that, we should also be aware that the exact job of a record producer will vary depending upon the genre of music involved (meaning operas, concert music, rock/pop/country/hip-hop, or jazz) and whether the recording is made in a studio or live, in front of an audience.

John McClure (right) and Georg Solti (1912-1997)
John McClure (right) and Georg Solti (1912-1997)

A concert music record producer (like today’s featured producer, John McClure) is working from a script: a composer’s score.  Whether a producer is partnered up with a conductor and an orchestra, or a string quartet, or a solo pianist, or whatever, said producer’s job is to present that conductor’s, that quartet’s, or that pianist’s interpretation of the score in as flattering a sonic environment as possible.  In a studio, such a recording will typically be done in multiple takes.  In the case of a live performance, multiple performances will typically contribute bits and pieces to the final – edited – recorded product.  

A producer of opera recordings is also dealing with a script: again, with a composer’s score.  But they must also cope with a vastly greater number of moving parts than a concert music record producer: not just instrumentalists but solo singers and, not unusually, choruses as well. But even more than all of the moving parts, an opera recording producer must deal with the egos of the singers, meaning that such a producer must have the calm, steady nerves of a brain surgeon and the diplomatic skills of Kofi Annan.…

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