Record producer to the stars and Hollywood film composer C.J. Vanston has more talents than seems humanly possible. Not only is he a go-to record producer and first-call film composer, he plays keys, drums, bass, accordion and more. He has worked with Prince, Jeff Beck, Celine Dion, Spinal Tap, Richard Marx, Steve Lukather, Tina Turner and Joseph Williams to name a few. In Part One of this interview I asked for insights into his career. Part Two will look at the C.J. Vanston approach on how to mix music – the right way.
Russ Welton: You have worked with some of the most talented musicians on the planet. Tell us about some memories where there has been extra special musical collaborative chemistry.
C.J. Vanston: Well, Joe Cocker comes to mind immediately. We had a link right from the beginning in the studio, and it transferred to [the] stage. We fed off of each other’s energy in a very big way. Another was working with Tina Turner on the movie What’s Love Got to Do with It. We recreated a bunch of her early hits, and one of them was “Proud Mary.” I’ll be honest and tell you I never liked that song, mostly because I had to play it [over and over again] in cover bands. Well, we started playing it and when she came in…WHAM…electricity. I turned to look at her – she was in the booth literally six feet from me – and she was gyrating and belting out the chorus…and I finally “got” the song.
As far as musicians, I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last 35 years working with the greatest players on planet Earth. Luke [Steve Lukather of Toto and noted session musician] and I have always had an almost Siamese Twins thing going on; I have the same thing with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter [Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and others], Jim Keltner and Lee Sklar [See our Copper article in Issue 114]. Too many great players to list, really. I’ve been thinking of writing them all down for my website.
RW: Could you tell us about your mentoring from singer/songwriter Richard Marx’s father, Dick Marx?
CJV: I moved to Chicago in the early ’80s with the goal of becoming a studio musician. Dick Marx was the undisputed king of jingle producers there and had his own studio. I made a keyboard demo tape and loaded my bike up with about a hundred cassettes.
Then, I sat in front of Universal Recording for many weeks and months and handed the tapes out. The manager, Foote Kirkpatrick, finally came out and said, “you can’t just sit here every day, you’re taking up space in the client waiting room.” So, I gathered up my stuff with a defeated look on my face…and she said, “OK, what are you handing out?” I told her I was a keyboardist and that my dream was to be a session player, and that this was my demo.
“Give me one.”
So, I gave her a tape. A few weeks later, my phone rang, and it was the head of one of the biggest jingle production companies in Chicago. They hired me for my first session because of Foote, and because of that tape. In about six months I was the first-call keyboard player in Chicago. I still have a couple of copies of that tape somewhere…
After that I started hanging out in the lobby of the studio that Dick worked out of, Garrett Sound. The engineer, Garry Elghammer, was nice enough to let me sit on the couch in the control room a few times, and I ended up running for sandwiches for the A-list players who worked for Dick. Sitting on the other side of the glass was torture. I wanted to be a session player. I [eventually] started chatting with some of the players and told them, “I’m gonna be playing with you someday.” I was 22 and looked 15, and they kind of said, “yeah kid…that’s cute.”
I finally got a tape into Dick Marx’s hands, and he actually listened to it and hired me for a session. I could [sight] read just about anything already at that age, but I was still super nervous. I played well – fear and panic are great motivators – and thought I had nailed the date. Afterwards, Dick walked up, put his arm around me and said, “kid, you sucked today. But you’re gonna be great and I’m gonna stick with you.” He did, and I ended up being his keyboard player for the next decade.
Dick could be super tough – he didn’t stand for any bullsh*t, like being late. And he was a stickler for the right notes and feel. Sometimes he’d stop a session and say, “keyboard player! Measure 29! One-two-three-four!” I’d have to play my part solo in front of the entire band or orchestra. You learn to get good from this kind of pressure or you’re out the door.
I remember pulling up to Capitol Records a few years ago for a really big session and feeling some butterflies in my stomach. As the gate opened up, I said to myself, “Hey…I worked for Dick Marx, this is nothin’!” I learned to crave the red light, to raise up another level when the “Record” light was on.
RW: How did your approach to the Toto albums you played on adapt to the different line-ups of musicians they had as their recording career progressed?
CJV: No different approach. The different players all have their personalities, yes, but the band and their sound are the top of the pyramid. Any player who is qualified enough to play with Toto is top, top shelf pro, and they get what this amazing band of virtuosos is all about. I have known a lot of great musicians in my life, but the studio cats are on another level.
RW: Luke enjoys having big production values on his albums. As a producer, do you get a brief on what to do? How do you accommodate the artist’s musical requirements and vocal personality, for example?
CJV: We come from the same school of what we grew up listening to and what we like. We both love a rich soundscape with layers and atmospheres. We never once discussed it [in particular]. The people who don’t like big productions are usually the ones who have to pay for them. I had a record company executive say to me once, “Hey mate, I just did a record with a band…five guys…they went out in a room and played live, did an album in two days.” Like that was supposed to impress me. I said, “You don’t think I can make five phone calls and have five of the best musicians in the world here in an hour? You don’t think we know how to do that? Name me a great pop or rock album in the last forty years that was done that way. It wasn’t Sgt. Pepper…or Thriller…or The Dark Side of the Moon…or Rumours…those records took months and years to make.”
Here’s a Toto video with C.J. on synthesizer:
There is an art to making a record that is way different than five guys jamming in the studio. And if having many layers makes it “overproduction,” then the worst offender in history was Beethoven. He needed 90 players to perform his “overproduced” music. Hogwash.
RW: Do you recall your first hi-fi system and what it was?
CJV: Yes, of course – it was a fold-down turntable with hinged speakers that you could detach. I would put the speakers at each end of my dresser. I then found a chair that I could back into the dresser, so I could lean back on a pillow so each speaker was playing into each ear. Super stereo image! I learned so much about production this way. Grew up with a lot of mono records, but later on, artists like Neil Diamond and Jim Croce started making really well-produced records with doubled acoustic guitars [and so on]. That really opened my ears up for what followed, all those great records by Elton John, the Who, the Doobie Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles…
Part Two will appear in Issue 138.