The Producer’s Chair: Ron Haffkine

Ron Haffkine

Ron Haffkine

By James Rea 

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MusicRow.)

Best known for his work with Dr. Hook, record producer, manager, A&R/songman Ron Haffkine is in a class all his own. He shies away from talking about his Grammy and his record deal with PolyGram in 1971. His 67 gold and platinum albums (worldwide) are in closets and boxes in his home. And if you ask Ron about the 10 Top 10s he produced on Dr. Hook, he gives you the unedited hilarious stories of how much fun it was.

Dr. Hook’s 12 albums (10 studio and two live) produced by Ron featured numerous hits: “On The Cover of The Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “Sharing The Night Together,” “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman,” “Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk,” “Sexy Eyes” (written by Keith Stegall) and Dr. Hook’s smash, “A Little Bit More,” which Ron found at a flea market for 35 cents.

At 21, Ron was a self-professed “average” musician, and his love of music drew him to Greenwich Village, in his home town of New York. There, he became life-long buddies with famed author/playwright/songwriter Shel Silverstein, who wrote many of Dr. Hook’s songs, including “The Cover of The Rolling Stone,” “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball” and “Sylvia’s Mother.” The late writer also penned songs including Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” which won a Grammy in 1970, “The Unicorn” for The Irish Rovers, and Loretta Lynn’s “One’s On The Way.” Today Ron calls Shel, Clive Davis and Kyle Lehning the three most important people in his career.

Ron’s career began to take shape in the early ‘70s when he formed and managed a band called The Gurus. He boldly walked into Regent Sound Studios and convinced then unknown engineer Bill Szymczyk (who later produced The Eagles) to co-produce his band. It was Ron’s first project.

Ron played the album for Shel, who was so impressed he recruited Ron to produce the music for some films he was working on: Who is Harry Kellerman (Dustin Hoffman) and Ned Kelly (Mick Jagger). The soundtrack of the 1970 Jagger film features Silverstein songs produced by Ron, and performed by Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Although he was broke, Ron recognized the opportunity and took the gig for free.

One scene in the Hoffman film required a band on stage, so he recommended Dr. Hook, who he’d heard in The Sands bar in Union City, New Jersey. He convinced the producers, Shel and Hoffman, to use them by hosting a showcase.

Ron knew he had to get a record deal for the band before the movie came out, so he used Hoffman’s name to get a meeting with Clive Davis at CBS. Ron says that in preparation for the meeting he told the drummer to turn over Clive’s wastebasket and use it as a drum. He told the keyboard player to jump up on Clive’s desk, and he told Ray to sing about two feet from Clive’s face. He prepped the band with liquor. Clive called his business affairs man, Elliot Goldman, and signed them on the spot. It was 1969.

Ron recalls, “Clive Davis had signed Dr. Hook and flown us to the CBS convention in LA. He had just finished telling everyone in his company that he was going to introduce his next huge act. Then the group gets on stage and completely blows it. It was terrible and I’m hiding in the bathroom. Fred Foster comes in and sees me ready to pass out. He says, ‘Don’t worry. I heard that kid’s voice. Stay with it. Fred was a very important factor in my life and I don’t know if he knows it.”

Silverstein was then living in Sausalito and when Ron went to visit him, he fell in love with San Francisco and moved there.

They recorded Dr. Hook’s first album on the west coast at Roy Halee’s studio. Ron and the band were broke and living in a flop house but they managed to record 20 sides. One day Shel and Ron were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and Shel pulled out his guitar and played “Sylvia’s Mother.” Clive liked the song, but his head of national promotions, Steve Popovich, loved it.

From hanging out with Shel Silverstein, Ron had learned the difference between good songs and great songs and was quickly becoming Dr. Hook’s go-to A&R man, as well as their producer and manager. Later, after “Sylvia’s Mother,” Ron locked horns with Clive Davis over Silverstein’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” because of the lyrics “We take all kinds of pills to give us all kinds of thrills” and “I got a freaky old lady named Cocaine Katy.”

Ron recalled, “I went up to see Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone magazine and told him, ‘I’ve just given you guys the best commercial for that rag you’ll ever get.’ And the rest became music history. They sent Cameron Crowe, their 16-year-old wiz-kid reporter to do the interview.” And in March 1973, issue 131, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Dr. Hook on the cover of "Rolling Stone."

Dr. Hook on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1973.

The Producer’s Chair: In 1971 you got signed as an artist on PolyGram. How did that come about?
Ron Haffkine: Shel had written a song called “Do You Wanna Boogie or Do You Don’t, Cause If You Do, I Will with You and If You Don’t I Won’t.” So Dennis and the guys said they wanted to produce me. And in the middle of Dr. Hook being hot I got a deal on PolyGram. The record came out and did absolutely nothing, but it took off in San Jose, Calif. and went Top 10. The PolyGram president wanted to do another record but I can’t sing a f…ing note and I was having too much fun with Dr. Hook so I refused.

Why did you leave the west coast and come to Nashville?
RF: Shel says to me, “There’s a young fellow in Nashville, Kyle Lehning, who engineers for Waylon Jennings. He wants to meet Roy Halee. If I send Kyle out to San Francisco, will you introduce him to Roy?” So Kyle comes out, I introduce him to Roy and they hit it off. During his time out there Kyle says to me, “Why don’t you come to Nashville and cut a record?” I had never worked with studio players before, but we came to Nashville and Kyle set up a session and he’s got Kenny Malone, Steve Gibson and Shane Keister and we recorded “A Little Bit More.” Dr. Hook wasn’t happy because they always recorded everything themselves but I stood there with my jaw open and my eyes spinning. I could not believe what happened.

The session goes great and Kyle laughed and says to me, “Hey Ronnie, how’s that ever going to be a hit?” The line in the song “When your body’s had enough of me” …is a pretty strong sexual connotation. I said, “If I can get this thing on the radio, there’s no way it’s not a hit.”

Ron moved to Nashville in 1975 and later when the band signed with Capitol, the first single “Only 16” got some attention, but when they released “A Little Bit More” things exploded for Dr. Hook…and Ron.

What surprises you about the industry today?
RF: There were certain songs throughout my life that could not miss. I say that because once an artist gets their first hit, they can be sure that the public is going to hear their second record. So if you miss and you’re already on a greased track, you can’t blame it on promotion or marketing or the record company. That’s what surprises me today. I don’t understand someone having an enormous hit and not being able to follow it up.

I’d listen to 1,000 songs and I’d hear a song with a magnificent first verse and chorus and I’d think to myself, “Thank God I found one.” And then the second and third verses were weak. And I’d get frustrated with the songwriter and I’d say, “You expect me to spend thousands of dollars, energy, time, fight with the record company and fight with radio? You have a genius first verse and chorus and you did not spend the time and effort to finish the song as brilliantly. You got lazy.” That’s the only thing that ever upset me with a songwriter.

How did you wind up producing Lou Rawls?
RF: A girl who worked for me was friends with Lou’s girlfriend, and then I became friends with Lou. He asked me if I wanted to make a record with him. As it turned out, I did not make a really good record with him. I wasn’t doing the kind of stuff that Gamble and Huff were doing, which had more of a Motown feel. I figured, “they know how to do that stuff, what do they need me for?” So I took the record in a different direction. There were some great songs on that album, one of them being “Wind Beneath My Wings.” I was the first one to cut it and in 1985 an astronaut took the song to space and played it back to earth. That was a first.
You’re the first producer I’ve interviewed who also managed their act. Why?
RF: Jerry Weintraub wanted to take over managing Dr. Hook from me, but the band was funny and wild and I was having the time of my life. So I told him no. He came back, during the success of “Sylvia’s Mother,” and said he would get me the biggest acts in the world to produce, if he could be management. I said, “Jerry, you’re from the Bronx and I’m from Brooklyn. There is not enough money in the world to make me want to talk to you three times a week.”

Jerry would have made me a lot richer but I didn’t care at the time. I was offered lots of jobs as head of A&R but I was having such a great time and I didn’t want a job that put me in the position of telling people “no” on a daily basis. We’re in a business that is so tough and artists and songwriters are sensitive by nature. There are all these sensitive people who put their hearts out there for someone else to stomp on every friggin’ day. I didn’t want to be that stomper.

You had an opportunity to sign Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Why didn’t you?
RF: Dr. Hook was out in San Francisco recording their first album. Our road manager had some friends and he asked if I would meet with them. A couple of days later, they’re over at my house Lindsey starts to play his guitar and I hear Stevie Nicks’ voice and I almost passed out. They’d play a song and then argue, they’d play another song and they’d argue again. This went on for a while. I thought they wouldn’t last together because they’d argue after every song. If I had signed them, no doubt I would have ruined their career and they never would have become Fleetwood Mac as the world knows them.

What do you love the most about the music industry?
RF: As a producer, you fall in love with the artists that you produce and you fall in love with the songs. It’s the joy of doing it. This business is not a business that you go into saying, “I’m going to make a million dollars.” I have to walk in with something that someone either hates or loves. I can’t walk in with something ordinary or I’m dead.

When did the industry really change?
RF: We were born at a wonderful point in time but once everybody started sampling everything and there were all kinds of loops and beats, some became so overused that they became dull and boring. The way great music was made, and will be made again, is when you make your own sounds.
Tell me about the Grammy you received in 1984.
RF: Shel wrote a children’s book called Where The Sidewalk Ends which was on the best sellers list longer than any other book in history at the time. The president of CBS, Al Teller (later president of MCA), asked me to do some albums on Shel’s children’s books. At first Shel said no, but I convinced him. He refused to go on a book tour or do any TV appearances to promote it, but we won the Grammy anyway.

Who are your current projects and what are your biggest challenges today?
RF: I’m currently working with Bryan James and Tawny River. Many of the Country records that are being made today are basically similar to the kind of records that were being made back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The challenge is what the challenge has always been: the songs.

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