Joel DornPhoto Credit: Adam Dorn


In the realm of popular music, it is very likely we will not see a producer like Joel Dorn again. Dorn died of a heart attack on Monday in New York City. He was 65. At the time of his death he was working on a box set for Rhino called Homage A Nesuhi, in tribute to his mentor, the late Nesuhi Ertegun, who gave him his first job in 1964, producing the debut album by flutist Hubert Laws, entitled The Laws of Jazz ().

Dorn, who began corresponding with Ertegun when he was 14, didn’t formally become a staff producer at the label until 1967. Before he became a producer full-time (and eventually Nesuhi’s right-hand man as Vice President of the division), he’d logged some real experience with records by Laws, Mose Allison, and others, but his full-time gig was as a very successful DJ in his native Philadelphia, at WHAT-FM. He started at the station in 1961 at the age of 19. Dorn made his connections with labels and artists during his tenure in Philly, but his eyes were on production all along. Ertegun knew that be brought something else to the table at Atlantic as well: that Dorn sought from the very beginning to marry together the popular sounds of R&B, soul, blues, and rock & roll, to his jazz productions. Throughout his long career, Dorn cited his biggest influences as the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and the early productions of Phil Spector.


Dorn worked at Atlantic with Ertegun until 1974, where he produced an astonishing array of artists that included Herbie Mann, David “Fathead” Newman, Yusef Lateef, Les McCann, and Eddie Harris. He also signed Bette Midler and produced her now-legendary debut album, The Divine Miss M, and scored two consecutive Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, for Roberta Flack's “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” in 1972, and for “Killing Me Softly,” in 1973. In addition, he produced the only track on the Allman Brothers Band's Idlewild South album NOT done by Tom Dowd, a beautiful ballad with one of Gregg Allman’s greatest vocal performances entitled “Please Call Home” (). The range of Dorn’s work is staggering: He worked with Charles Mingus (including the Changes One and Two albums) and Max Roach as well as Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, and Peter Allen. He produced offerings by the Black Heat, and Carlos Garnett; he steered albums by Chick Corea, Mongo Santamaria, Don McLean, and Sonny Stitt. He also steered the enduring classic duet album by Flack and Donnie Hathaway and its smash single, "Where Is the Love" ().

All of this aside, what may yet prove to be Dorn’s greatest contribution to jazz was his work with the late Rashaan Roland Kirk. Dorn not only brought great exposure to Kirk -- who had been recording on his own for Verve before he came to the label -- but he championed him tirelessly -- and produced what are now regarded as "new thing" classics by Kirk (who would not work with anyone else): Bright Moments, The Inflated Tear (1967), Volunteered Slavery (1968), Blacknuss (1971) and Bright Moments (1973), just to name a few. Dorn understood something about Rahsaan that Kirk needed to be understood: that jazz was popular music and descended from the blues even in the vanguard. Here is Kirk adding some heavy soul to Burt Bacharach from Bright Moments: .

Dorn turned out to be a great mentor as well: One of his protégés is the current musical director of Saturday Night Live and a celebrated record producer in his own right: Hal Wilner; he apprenticed under Dorn at Atlantic.

After Dorn left the label, he went freelance and worked with Cindy Blackman, Lou Rawls, Leon Redbone, the Neville Brothers (who scored their first bona fide nationwide hit with Dorn for Fiyo on the Bayou), Asleep at the Wheel (who he won another Grammy with for their version of “One O’Clock Jump”): .

Later, he founded a series of record labels like Night Records, 32 Jazz, Label M, and most recently Hyena, that released audience and radio recordings from artist Cannonball Adderley’s wonderful Radio Nights, and a three-disc set by Kirk called Dog Years in the Fourth Ring. Dorn also reissued the recordings by defunct labels like Muse Records and oversaw reissues by everyone from Blackman to Sonny Criss to Kenny Barron, as well as underground acid soul classics such as Gene McDaniels' Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. For better or worse, 32 Jazz also set the standard for big selling, mood-based jazz compilations with the multi-platinum Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon and released work by established and new artist like veteran jazz-funk guitarist James Blood Ulmer () and songwriter Grayson Capps.

Dorn also became a compilation producer for Rhino. He was nominated for another Grammy for the John Coltrane boxed set of Atlantic Recordings called The Heavyweight Champion, and assembled the tremendous 13-CD set called The Atlantic Jazz Years. Dorn was a part of the generation of men who were not only record producers, they were music fans who were as eclectic in their tastes as any record buyer and sought to stretch an artist to realize her or his full potential. Many of us have no idea how much men like Dorn will be missed, but the truth is that popular music has been suffering for a long time from the loss of producers who worked alongside artists as collaborators and guides, rather than as auteurs who sought to become artists in and of themselves.

Noted critic and radio host Dave Marsh, who interviewed Dorn last year said: “I don’t know anybody who loved music as much as Joel Dorn. You could tell who he was by who he worked with. He came a long way for a DJ. Dorn was the last in a line of music business intellectuals -- not snobs, but guys who knew where to look, and how to work with artists; the last in a line of men that come from John Hammond and George Avakian. How many people are there who could work with Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway and Rahsaan Roland Kirk? The Gospel Music compilation he produced last year was very good, pretty solid -- look at how many women were on that set; he had it, always had it, and he went out with it” ().