By James Rea
Legendary producer Fred Mollin appeared on The Producer’s Chair, Thursday, September 24, 2015 at Douglas Corner at 6 PM.
Fred Mollin‘s story may even make Fred himself take a step back and think, I can’t believe how blessed I’ve been. Considering his 40-year production discography, one would think that Mollin is one of the highest profile producers in the biz but that is not the case. “Under the radar” is an understatement when describing his remarkable career, which started with a record deal and a Grammy nomination for the very first artist he co-produced.
Mollin has won three Juno Awards in Canada, a Gemini Award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, and five SOCAN Awards for film and television music. A portion of his body of production work includes duets & solo productions for Jimmy Webb, Johnny Mathis, Dan Hill, Billy Joel, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, Barbra Streisand, JD Souther, America, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Art Garfunkel, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley Cyrus, BB King, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Carly Simon, Barry Mann, Glen Campbell, Alison Krauss, Frank Stallone, Michael McDonald, Shawn Colvin, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hall, Collin Raye, Carole King, and Willie Nelson. In the last decade Mollin produced two albums for Johnny Mathis, both of which were nominated for Grammys. He has also had cuts by Cher and Eric Clapton.
Mollin recalls, “Most of my career was born out of Toronto. I had my singer/songwriter career that started around ’71-’72, and then my producer life which happened by accident. In 1974 I was 21 with no thoughts about being a producer, I was doing a lot of gigs with Dan Hill. I’d open for him and he would open for me. One day he asked me to produce his demo. He thought I’d be a good producer, because I studied records. I knew which musicians played on it, and who engineered it. I was a musicologist without knowing it.”
In 1978, three Dan Hill albums later, his song “Sometimes When We Touch” written by Hill (lyrics) and Barry Mann (music), flew to the top of the Billboard charts and received a Grammy nomination.
Afterwards Mollin found himself working as a composer for TV and film for over 15 years, after which he continued to work as producer for critically acclaimed albums by Jimmy Webb, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Mathis.
Fred grew up on Long Island behind his first love, a drum kit, until The Beatles came along, at which point he picked up a guitar and joined the ranks as a singer/songwriter to impress the ladies. Fred’s older brother Larry, who became an actor and sort-of mentor to Fred, moved to Toronto and eventually Fred joined him there.
Mollin says, “I was also affected by James Taylor and Neil Young. I quit school when I was 16 which was a freaky thing, because back in those days in my neighborhood, a nice Jewish boy didn’t quit school. And my mother, who is now 97 and still sharp as a tack, was my protector and my support system.”
Then as fate would have it, one of the most-pivotal moments in Fred Mollin’s career took place…
Mollin recalls, “In ’78, Matthew and I had a classic ‘Hollywood moment.’ I was so inspired by Jimmy Webb, I wanted to produce him and Matt did too. After we had ‘Sometimes When We Touch,’ the guy at 20th Century Fox Records invited us to his office. He was smoking a cigar and he said, ‘Who do you want to produce next? Whoever it is, I’ll get them for you.’ Just like that. Like a moron I said, ‘Jimmy Webb.’ In reality I should have said James Taylor or Elton John. And the guy said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because he’s the greatest songwriter in the history of song. He has a unique voice, and he’s never been produced right. I think we could do an incredible record with him.’ The next day we were meeting with Jimmy’s manager, and then the next night we were at Jimmy’s house, and I’ve been with him ever since. That created a 40-year collaboration with Jimmy Webb as his musical director and producer. I was never driven by the money. I am a musician first and a music lover. I wanted to work with the people who inspired me.”
As a composer for television, Fred has run the gamut including Liar Liar, Little Criminals, ≈ Tekwar, Beyond Reality, Friday The 13th, The Outer Limits, Forever Knight, Beverly Hills 90210 and Hard Copy. Mollin’s most recent songwriting for TV has been as one of the main composers and lyricists for songs on the Disney Channel’s Handy Manny.
In the feature film realm his orchestral score for The Fall and Borderline Normal. One project dear to Mollin was the VH-1 television movie Daydream Believers—The Monkees Story, where he composed the underscore, and served as musical director.
As an artist, Mollin’s projects include several Disney lullaby albums which have sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Then in 2007-08, Mollin took a hiatus from his freelance career and became Vice President of A&R for Walt Disney Records in California. He was also Executive Producer of such Disney successes as High School Musical The Concert. He produced Billy Ray Cyrus‘ Home At Last, which included the Gold single “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” a duet with daughter Miley Cyrus.
In 2008 he went freelance again and returned to the studio full time in Nashville. His most recent album productions include a Johnny Mathis Christmas album, and Still Within The Sound of My Voice by Jimmy Webb. Fred is currently producing another album on Mathis, as well as finishing a new Christmas project with teen phenomenon Lexi Walker. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
The Producer’s Chair: How did you and Matthew McCauley wind up co-producing Dan Hill?
Mollin: Dan and I went to a little 4-track place on Hazelton Lanes in Toronto called Captain Audio I walked into the basement and saw a young guy. It wasn’t the engineer. He had a big, black beard and long, long hair and a white flowing shirt. It was Matt McCauley.
Matt was one of Dan’s friends from school, whose father William Alexander McCauley, was one of the great musical directors of Canada. Matt was a genius and had learned arranging and conducting from his father. At age 20 (I was 21) he was an absolute phenomenon. In his wisdom, Dan decided to create a creative blind date for us and not tell either one of us that we were going to produce this little demo.
It was like two roosters in a cage for the first couple of hours. And then by the end of these little demo sessions we really connected. Matt to this day is my best friend. He’s been my creative partner on many records early on, and then he stopped producing. He had other things that he wanted to do. Matthew is still the person I will go to for string arrangements.
Dan was so smart to know that we would be the perfect team. We worked together from about ‘74-’79. From that first meeting and the demos came a record deal for Dan.
How did you get Dan Hill that record deal?
No, not at all. Matthew’s parents decided they would invest. So, they actually financed a record and an album which Matt and I produced for Dan. Then, GRT Records in Canada signed the McCauley’s production deal and signed Dan. So, here we were. This wonderful situation occurs and boom, the next thing you know, within a year we have two Top-3 records in Canada. Dan became a Canadian star, and we became producers.
What’s the story behind “Sometimes When We Touch”?
The first album was called Dan Hill. The second album was called Hold On. Then, on the third album we had a U.S. deal with 20th Century Fox Records. It was sort of interesting, because at that point we had a lot of pressure because they had to break Dan in the U.S. Otherwise, we would lose that deal. I think Dan’s publisher at that point was the McCauleys, co-published by ATV.
People in L.A. set up Dan to co-write with Barry Mann—one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Barry and Cynthia Weil have been in my life ever since. But Dan was so intimidated by the co-write that he didn’t do very well. As he was leaving Barry said, “Well, do you have any lyrics that you want me to put music later?” Dan pulled “Sometimes When We Touch” out of his guitar case, which he had already written music to, but the music was weak. Barry took it home, and I still have the cassette that Barry gave me of him just singing into a little cassette machine—just whipping off this Elton John-esque song. It was like hearing the sound of your entire career ahead of you. Because Barry is just singing and playing away and it’s like—this is a hit. “Sometimes When We Touch” became a smash hit all around the world, and to this day it is an iconic record. Of course, we didn’t know it would be. We were just thrilled to be making music. We were very precocious kids, but we were blown away at how successful that was.
What was the significance of producing Jimmy Webb’s Ten Easy Pieces album?
I was missed producing. Jimmy Webb was having a rough time. He was in a terrible divorce with a wife of many years and six children. He had addiction issues and problems with the IRS. He had to sell his publishing off. He was literally on the edge. I said, “Buddy, I’ve got to think of something that we can do together.” So I called Jay Landers, an old friend of mine who was at EMI. I said, “What do you think if I do an album with Jimmy of his most famous songs, just literally piano, vocals, and a couple extra things? It will really be a historic record. I can do it mostly in my house.” And he said, “Well, I’ll give you 25 grand if you can do it.” It was a low budget, and it meant that I wouldn’t get paid. I was getting used to being pretty well paid in TV and film, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he had said $1,000. I would have done it because it was a means to an end of great importance.
So I called Jimmy and told him I got the green light from EMI. And he said, “Freddy, I’ll never do that record. Those songs killed me.” And I’m like, “Oh, boy.” His frame of mind was so bad, but also his belief was that he never got his due as a great songwriter or especially as a great singer/songwriter. I said, “Come up here to Toronto. Physically, I’d like to get you out of ground zero. I’ll put you up in a hotel near my house, and we will work and do this beautiful stripped down album of you.”
I finally convinced him. I said, “Do it for your children so they have an archival recording of you singing your most famous songs.” So, we did this record called Ten Easy Pieces which became an ironic title by Jimmy, because it was really ten tortured pieces but it saved his life and it changed his life.
Jimmy got through the divorce and his sobriety a couple years later and he’s been traveling and performing all over the world ever since—just piano and vocal. I felt very good about the fact that I was able to help him. And it is a lightning-strikes sort of album.
How did you wind up producing Kris Kristofferson: The Austin Sessions?
It was a beautiful project. In 1996 I was still doing a lot of film and TV in Toronto, and we had already had this incredible response to Jimmy’s album critically. And then Jay Landers said, “Well, let’s make a series now with these kinds of records with the great songwriters. Why don’t we do Kris Kristofferson?” And I said, “Well, I couldn’t do Kris like I did Jimmy, because Jimmy is such a brilliant piano player that it’s so captivating in that record to hear him play. He’s orchestrating as he plays, and it’s wonderful. With Kris I’d like to do it with, maybe, four players in the studio.” Kris’s biggest inspiration was that he became a janitor at the CBS Studios here in Nashville just to hear Bob Dylan, possibly, in the studio. That was when Bob was doing Blonde On Blonde. So I said, “Let’s cut Kris doing his most famous stuff, but in a Blonde On Blonde vibe because, Kris really can’t solo guitar very well.” He couldn’t do just a voice and guitar thing on the record. It would sound sort of one-dimensional. I thought if I surrounded him with four great players from Nashville, we’d have a magical situation. The problem was, he was doing a movie in Louisiana so we had to go to the closest city with a studio, which was Austin. The four musicians and I converged to make that record over the course of a week. Kris considers it his greatest album. It’s the way he always wanted his songs to sound. The album is called The Austin Sessions. It’s very precious to me. I love Kris. We had such a terrific time.
Speaking of iconic songwriters, I understand that you knew Gordie Sampson before he moved to Nashville.
Gordie is one of the great writers out of Nashville now—I moved Gordie down here from Canada. I feel like I discovered Gordie for the U.S. This guy is a monster—brilliant as an engineer, musician, arranger, performer, singer, and producer. I felt like I could find him a publishing deal. And that was no problem when they heard Gordie. He signed with Ken Levitan and Chris Farren at Combustion. And the rest is history.
Are you also an engineer/mixer?
No. Here in Nashville I have a team. I’ve worked with Dave Salley for 10 years. That’s my house engineer. He’s just so fantastic. I also work with Kyle Lehning, who I’ve known since my first visit to Nashville in 1972. He will mix for me whenever I need, and he’s a very important person in my life.
Do you have an A-team of musicians?
Actually, I have a bunch of A-teams. I have guys who would be the perfect guys for Americana. I have guys who are perfect for a little more of a rock thing. I have guys who are perfect for the country stuff. I have guys who would be better for a little jazzier thing. So, I probably have four or five A-teams. Isn’t it wonderful to have that? Nashville is amazing.
How well did you get to know Linda Ronstadt?
I remember Linda telling me that when Jimmy would open for her, she would just stand by the side of the stage to watch his opening act. And someone asked her, “Why are you always watching Jimmy’s set?” And she goes, “Because he frightens me.” Just to see that genius on stage. And at that point he wasn’t a good performer. So, every night it could be different. She was in awe of his genius. They are very connected still. I became friends with Linda and we are great pen-pals. She’s really a special person and I had the honor of producing her last recording.
What do you enjoy doing the most today?
I love performing. I always have. I’ll wind up performing three or four times a year backing up for someone or musical directing for someone. I always love producing the basic tracks, because I’m out on the floor either playing or conducting. I find it the most exciting part of my life.