Van Halen, Doobie Brothers producer Ted Templeman reflects on Platinum life
The legendary record producer, who also worked with Van Morrison and Carly Simon, looks back on his multiplatinum career in Greg Renoff's Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer's Life in Music.
You may not know Ted Templeman's name, but you have definitely heard his handiwork. From hard rock to yacht rock, on songs as disparate as "Hot For Teacher" and "What a Fool Believes," the Southern California native has been a monster hitmaker since the early '70s. A revered sonic architect as a producer and a trusted set of ears as a label executive at Warner Bros. Records, Templeman has worked with everyone from Van Halen to Van Morrison.
While he may be best known for his work with the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen, over the course of his 50-plus-year career, Templeman has proven that he doesn't have a type. He has roamed up and down the radio dial working with female adult contemporary favorites (Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Nicolette Larson), purveyors of blunt force power chords (Aerosmith, Joan Jett and, sure, BulletBoys), pastoral singer-songwriters like Morrison and the eclectic Americana stew chefs in Little Feat.
EW recently chatted with Templeman, 78, about his illustrious career, chronicled earlier this year in his entertaining as-told-to memoir Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer's Life in Music and the book's author Greg Renoff, who also penned the raucous rock tome Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal in 2015.
(If you haven't watched this year's just premiered Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction on HBO, which you should, Templeman figures prominently, receiving kudos from 2020 inductees the Doobie Brothers.)
Renoff initially met Templeman while working on his first book on Van Halen and realized that his tale of rising from scrappy jazzbo to Grammy-winning mogul is as compelling as that of any rock star. "I thought it made for a really interesting life story: The musician-turned-pop-star-turned producer-turned-record executive," says Renoff. "And it would allow people who were fans of the Doobies or Van Halen to hear about how those records were made."
Whether Templeman was collaborating with Morrison on a tune like "Wild Night," goofing around with VH mouthpiece David Lee Roth ("One break, coming up!" in "Unchained" is infamously a Diamond Dave retort to Templeman), or playing timbales on Eric Clapton's "Forever Man," his mission was to serve the vision, not create a "signature" sound like a Phil Spector or Rick Rubin. "I don't know how to explain it," he says. "I just figured that you've got to do what's right for the artist. Because, really, it's all about the artists. I mean, it's like a coach having really good players. You've got to tell them what you think's best. With Van Halen and the Doobie Brothers, the way I see it, there's a reason why I did a lot of different records with those guys because they trusted what I would say. I know what I'm doing with the arrangements and the sounds, but without the artist, I'm just a lighting man."
On his early career as a performer
Templeman got his first big break in the business in the late '60s as the leader of a band called Harper's Bizarre, who had a hit with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's breezy ditty "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." (And this 1969 clip from The Mike Douglas Show is fully groovy.) Although the band had a whirlwind period of success, touring with the Beach Boys and playing on network TV specials with the likes of Raquel Welch and Muhammad Ali, it was short-lived. That was fine with Templeman, who began as a jazz player. Fronting a sunshine pop band wasn't really his scene. "I hate my voice anyway," he says with a laugh. "I thought that was a dumbass song." But two crucial things came out of his brief life as a pop star that would change the trajectory of his life: He worked with producer Lenny Waronker (James Taylor, Randy Newman), and he made enough money to buy a house in Pasadena, future birthplace of Van Halen. Waronker was pivotal not only as a mentor in the studio — "I would learn from him and hang around and watch the engineers and get to see all the sessions," says Templeman — but also as a soon-to-be colleague at Warner Bros. Records.
On working with Van Morrison
The Irish legend's 1971 album Tupelo Honey, which found success on the strength of hit singles "Wild Night" and the title track, was Templeman's next leap forward. "That was a great experience, a real game-changer for me," he says. "Everybody else would tell him what he wanted to hear, and I wouldn't. He would respect that. And I learned a lot working with him over in London doing those live shows. I saw another side of the guy. It was amazing." Templeman would go on to produce two more albums with Morrison, Saint Dominic's Preview — which included the jubilant "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" — and the live classic It's Too Late to Stop Now.
On working with the Doobie Brothers
His professional and personal association with the Doobie Brothers began with their first album and spans multiple decades, band members, Grammy awards, and hits like "Takin' It to the Streets," "Listen to the Music," "Black Water," and "What a Fool Believes." He produced 11 of the band's 13 studio albums. He saw early on that the group — all gifted players, vocalists, and songwriters — had potential, even when they were playing biker bars.
"I had worked on Van Morrison's album, and they sent a tape, and I loved [singer-songwriter-guitarist] Tommy Johnston's stuff," Templeman recalls. "That was my first success really, and my first No. 1 record, 'Black Water.'"
Returning to his lighting-man analogy, Templeman called it a "real honor" to work with the band. "Because I was in a band myself and I was also vice president at Warner Bros., I had all these responsibilities, but I got to work with real talent with [Van Halen] and the Doobies and Mike McDonald." And, as he points out proudly, "I had two bands that changed lead singers, and we kept going without dropping the ball and kept having hits."
To this day, Templeman is tickled that the smoky-voiced singer-songwriter doesn't think he has anything special. "He's such a funny guy," he says. "He doesn't think he's that good. He just doesn't get it."
On working with Van Halen
Templeman produced seven albums for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-ensconced band, both with the classic line-up of frontman Roth, bassist Michael Anthony, and namesake brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen on guitar and drums, respectively, as well as with second singer Sammy Hagar. (He also worked with Roth and Hagar in their solo careers, as well as Hagar's pre-VH band Montrose.)
From the early days, he has a particular fondness for Van Halen track "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," specifically its buoyant riff and testosterrific lyrics. "I love that more than other [songs]," Templeman admits. "It's my favorite for a lot of reasons, because it came together so quickly, and also I thought Dave's lyrics are just so great. They're so real. I mean, he's right to the point. That's how males think, as a rule. Ed came up with a riff, and Dave came up with those lyrics, bang, just like that. And he performed it really well and really quickly. I mean, without Dave, they wouldn't have been Van Halen."
On the passing of Eddie Van Halen
Templeman was, understandably, hit hard by the death of his friend. He spoke fondly of Van Halen's kindness, even in seemingly small matters, even when the guitar god was battling cancer himself. "He was such a sweetheart," Templeman says. "Before he got sick, he came over to show me his new car like he was a little kid. And I still have his voice messages. 'Hey, Ted, is it okay if I come at 3:20 instead of 3:30?' And he called back after and said, 'Are you okay? We went down those steps. I thought maybe you were a little shaky. And then when he went in, he would send me these texts every day from the hospital." Templeman recalls very few studio dust-ups with his longtime collaborator, who used to come to his house in the early days in Pasadena and fiddle with Templeman's guitars, disassembling and reassembling them. "I mean, in the studio, he didn't ever want to do something I didn't like. He always wanted to please me."
Except when Van Halen and his compatriots wanted to razz their producer. "I did a song with Nicolette Larson called 'Lotta Love.' It went, [singing] 'It's gonna take a lotta love.' Neil Young gave me the song. When I wasn't at the studio, Van Halen got the engineer to pull the master track out and put their own thing in the machine. It's just funny [with them singing]. 'It's gonna take a lotta drugs...' And I would sip from this little bottle of Emerald Dry during the sessions, and they sang 'My nose needs affection like Emerald Dry.' It's very funny. We weren't just like producer and artist— we were buddies."