It was a true pleasure for me to have the joy of interviewing Bob Esty again. I love hearing his "backstage" stories because they're always full of good humor and he's so vivid and forthcoming. The legendary producer has talked with me before http://blabittobeaverhausen.blogspot.com/2013/09/links-to-parts-1-through-4-of-my.html, but that four-part interview went on quite long and we had to postpone focusing on his work with Barbra Streisand and Cher because that would require further, serious Q&A. Can we talk? Well, now, several months later we can, and it was worth the wait! The original interview took place before the holiday season settled in on us. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed conducting the interview with this iconic dance-music producer. Bob lives in L.A. and is still very active as a songwriter/producer/arranger. His birthday is on Easter Sunday this year and we wish him a happy one!
|Artwork courtesy of Dj Jandry|
Bob Esty: Thank you. To you, too!
DBB: Let's start with a hypothetical question. Barbra and Cher each call you to produce their next album. Due to conflicting time constraints, you can only do one and both are offering the same money. Whom would you work with?
BE: I think Barbra. I know her better because I worked with her at least three or four other times after "Main Event." And I really haven't seen Cher in years. You know, she's autographed things for me. [We both laugh.] If she wants to do the type of music she does, I could be a producer, though Barbra is doing the types of things I'm producing now. I've been doing non-disco music for many years. But I love both of them.
DBB: Have you heard Cher's new album?
BE: I haven't yet. I saw her on BBC America's Graham Norton Show. She did a ballad and, of course, brought the house down. And I've heard her new dance single, "It's a Woman's World" and I thought it was great. And I never saw the Barbra Brooklyn concert. Even though people say she doesn't have the same kind of energy, obviously....
DBB: Who does?
BE: Right. And not the same kind of attitude. I loved Motown growing up, and I loved Bette Midler more than Barbra at the time. I mean, I liked [Barbra's] singing but I wasn't that into it.
DBB: From my point of view, I think Barbra has the better voice by a traditional standard but Bette's gritty; Bette's real.
BE: I almost produced her.
DBB: Aww, Bob! Aww!
BE: Yeah. Ah, well...!
DBB: Have you heard the Donna Summer remix album they recently released?
BE: I didn't like what I heard of it. "Last Dance" did not have the energy of the original production I did for Paul [Jabara]. It was sort of a Donna Summer watered-down energy. And Universal didn't have the tapes. They couldn't do anything else! Universal LOST the tapes; they can't find the tapes!
DBB: That is really amazing.
DBB: Let me ask you what brought you to produce Barbra Streisand's "The Main Event" and do you recall your first encounter with her and what it was like?
BE: Yes! Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts wrote this song, though Barbra initially was against it because she didn't want to sing a song in this movie. But Jason [Gould, Barbra's son] liked "Last Dance" and "Take Me Home" and talked her into doing the song with me and Paul.
DBB: How old was Jason at the time?
BE: Fourteen, I think. But, basically, at first, I didn't want to do this because I just finished producing disco songs for Andy Williams and the Beach Boys and I didn't feel "Main Event" lent itself to a disco arrangement. But I worked with Paul in his apartment and came up with ideas and the format of the song. I worked on it on piano and did the chord changes and everything else. And Paul really wanted to work with Barbra because that was his goal in life! He wrote a Broadway musical about her: Rachael Lily Rosenblum. That's when Paul and I met because of Ellen Green, who starred after Bette Midler turned the part down. I went to the audition with Ellen because we had the same manager in New York. Robert Stigwood produced the show and ~ oh, God! ~ it was overblown to the nth degree. I felt it would have done better off-Broadway....
DBB: You're right! Your instincts were right. I think if it was produced off-Broadway, it could have been a smash.
BE: So that's where I met Paul who moved to California, where I was living since January 1975. Anyhow, "The Main Event"! We met Barbra on the hottest day of August at her Malibu ranch, dripping wet with sweat. Paul, Bruce Roberts and I in a convertible. So, I was the Baltimore boy with sunburn while the other guys were tanned. I really didn't want to go. For another thing, I had worked with Lesley Ann Warren, who had been married to Jon Peters, and he was going to be there with Barbra. I was arranging a song for Lesley on The Tonight Show where I saw her shaking, crying and just not being her usual self. Later, in the parking lot, she was scolded by Jon Peters for not wearing the right dress. And now I was meeting him with Barbra.
The first thing I saw when we got to the ranch was Barbra in a schmatta and no make-up. But looking great and so friendly and gracious! And Jon Peters was there, standing off to the side and not saying anything. Anyhow, Barbra wanted to show me the art deco house she had built with art deco motifs. So she took me through this and it was quite, you know, a display. I loved it but I didn't know she was so into this. The other thing: I noticed the garden and it was full of corn. And she said: "I planted that!" And I thought, "With those nails?!"
DBB: Maybe she dug the holes for the seeds with her fingers.
BE: [laughs] Well, she served corn later! And I remember the house was painted yellow. It had a grand piano inside. And Jason was there, so I met him. And Bruce Roberts sat behind me when I was asked to play the piano. Paul Jabara was drinking, slouching and leaning on the piano. Barbra was also standing at the piano as I played the arrangement [for "Main Event"]. She loved it, except, she said to me, "There's nothing about 'fight'." "Uh-oh-oh," I thought and Paul looked at me like "Ooo!" But he reminded me of a song we wrote for The Village People with sort of a corny hook:"Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! For what you want!"
DBB: Did that ever get released?
BE: No. I figured out the bass line of that unreleased song and I played and sang it to Barbra. "That's it!" she cried out. But then she said, "But I'm not doing 'The Main Event.'" I thought Bruce Roberts would be mad and I talked her into doing it as a medley of "The Main Event/Fight." Barbra said "I don't like "Main Event' and I don't like that 'Extra! Extra!' It sounds like a newspaper song." I said, "No, no, you have to sing it like this [demonstrates what Barbra was later to record], then she said, "Oh. I'll try that." I sang the guide vocal for her later and I sang the whole fucking song and she was flabbergasted, sitting on a couch there, looking at me cross-eyed.
At the recording session, Bruce played piano of my arrangement and I conducted the strings. Barbra sang it live and when it came through the headphones, it just sounded brilliant and thrilling. But Paul Jabara hated it because the arrangement was too simple for him. When we eventually did the vocal session, Barbra really appreciated being directed. She appreciated whatever I did for her, really.
DBB: Well, that's a producer's job, right?
BE: Yeah, of course. But, Cher, on the other hand, when we did "Take Me Home," didn't want me at the first vocal session.
[Stay tuned for Part 2 coming in May]