Dick LaPalm, The Jazz Lobbyist, 1928-2013
Like many of my colleagues in radio and records, I’m saddened this week by the death of one of the most esteemed and trusted figures in our business. Dick LaPalm died in California on Monday at the age of 85. I’d known Dick for over 25 years, and we talked a couple of times a month. I hadn’t seen him since the demise of the annual Jazz Educators conference several years ago, but we stayed in touch. He was a devoted reader of this blog. When he phoned with a farewell message a couple of weeks ago, he expressed gratitude for the amazingly rich and varied life he’d lived, and asked that any feelings of loss or grief over his imminent passing be tempered and brief.
(Chess Records management; Leonard Chess, seated; Dick LaPalm, right)
LaPalm loved good music, and he worked on its behalf for well over 60 years. His clients included Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Count Basie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan, Woody Herman, Jeri Southern, and Sonny Rollins. He was an executive at Chess Records under its original owners, Leonard and Phil Chess, and he and Willie Dixon co-wrote “Blues Heaven,” which was the B-side of Koko Taylor’s great single, “Wang Dang Doodle.” He was instrumental in helping Dixon launch the Blues Heaven Foundation in 1984.
After relocating to Los Angeles in the 70’s, LaPalm operated Village Recorders, the famed studio in West L.A. where sessions by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, and countless others were recorded. It was LaPalm who recruited Wayne Shorter to solo on Steely Dan's, "Aja," and he related the story to Marc Myers on this JazzWax blog in 2011.
By all accounts, LaPalm was unfailingly loyal whether he was representing a star or an unknown. If he believed in an artist and was certain that listeners would “applaud their speakers” once they heard their music, he became a tireless advocate. LaPalm had a wild sense of humor (I’ve got a computer file loaded with his jokes, almost every one of which merited forwarding), but whenever I chuckled over what seemed like an absurd claim he was making on behalf of someone I’d never heard of, he’d steadfastly say, “TR, wait till you hear her.”
Dick covered a lot of bases, and was the most well-connected man I’ve ever known. But he’ll best be remembered as an aide-de-camp to Nat King Cole between 1950 and ’65, the year of Nat’s death, and as a devoted custodian of his legacy. LaPalm said he went “absolutely crazy” as a 16-year-old when he heard Cole’s recording, “I’m an Errand Boy for Rhythm,” in 1944. Six years later, following his discharge from the U.S Army, he cajoled his way into Nat’s dressing room at the Regal Theater in Chicago and told him that he wanted to help him become as big as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Eckstine.
(Dick LaPalm and Nat King Cole on Michigan Ave., Chicago)
LaPalm’s goal was to get his records played “all over the world,” and in pursuit of that he’d conspired with a few Chicago deejays to give Cole a boost in airplay that week. When he began spinning the dial of a Zenith radio he carried with him and Nat suddenly heard himself on station after station, LaPalm was in, initially as a promo man in the Midwest, soon thereafter, according to Cole’s biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, as his “advance man, publicist, factotum, and trusted friend.” Over the next 15 years, Cole sold more records than anyone besides Crosby and in 1956 became the first African American to host his own television show. LaPalm always spoke of Cole as a living presence, not least because in his estimation, “Nat’s music is being played somewhere in the world at every minute of the day.”
Earlier today, the superb San Francisco-based singer Jackie Ryan wrote a note of love and appreciation for Lapalm. She said, "He had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in the universe. And he worked for you like you were. And the phone calls I would get, and the fun conversations we had, that always ended with, "I love you honey, don't you ever forget it." And it wasn't just during the time that he'd be promoting CD's either. It was all the time. Dick became my family and I his. I just adored him. He was my friend, my mentor, my confidant, and my pal. He did a lot for me over the years. Always trying to help me. Because he so much believed. Bless you for that, Dick."
Last night, subscribers to a jazz radio listserv were startled to see an e-mail from The Jazz Lobbyist. It turned out to be a touching note from Dick's son Todd expressing thanks for our notes of condolence, but to many of us it seemed like a perfectly timed practical joke from the main man himself. It brought to mind one that LaPalm sent a decade ago.
When you're in your casket, and family, friends, and congregates are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say?
The Episcopal Priest said: "I would like to hear them say that I was a fine spiritual leader, a good husband, and a great family man."
The Catholic Priest said: "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of God who made a huge difference in people's lives."
The Rabbi said: "I would like to hear them say, 'Look, he's moving'."
Ricardo LaPalombara, 1928-2013, R.I.P.