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A Calm Hand at the Controls

How did Glen Ballard get to be an in-demand record producer? By putting artists first.

August 05, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at

Ballard may have even chosen the location because of its old-Hollywood feel. He's a huge movie fan and is actively pursuing a career as a writer and producer. Ballard's first venture into movies--as screenwriter for the low-budget, critically drubbed "Clubland" in 1998--sank without a trace. Now, he's executive producer of "24 Hours," a thriller starring Charlize Theron, Kevin Bacon and Courtney Love.

It's Monday morning and the beginning of a hectic week in which Ballard will spend most of his time in the studio with Sheila Nicholls, a promising young singer-songwriter working on her second album for Hollywood Records.

Before leaving in four days on a Paris vacation, he'll also help close his Java Records office at the Capitol Tower (he is moving the joint-venture label to the Island/Def Jam family of labels) and he's scheduled to talk to Aguilera about working together. He also needs to check with Capitol Records about the status of the Lisa Marie Presley album, which will stay with Capitol.

After flirting with a singing career for years, Elvis' daughter hooked up with Ballard three years ago.

"I was impressed right off by her voice, but I wanted to know the old question--did she want to be an artist or just make a record?" Ballard says. "She said she wanted to be an artist and that meant she had to work on her writing. There were times when she got frustrated because she felt the process was taking too long. I'm sure she wanted the record out right away.

"But she had to find out just who she is and put that into the songs, and she did. This is a record about Lisa, not Elvis Presley's daughter, and I think people are going to be knocked out. She's fierce and uncompromising, and she has a real gift of expression."

Ballard was hoping the album would be released late this year. But a Capitol spokesman says the collection has been pushed back to next year, and that Presley is continuing to work on it, this time with producer Eric Rosse, whose credits include Tori Amos.

Born Basil Glen Ballard Jr. on May 1, 1953, Ballard had a comfortable childhood. His grandfather, John R. Junkin, was a speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and a successful businessman. Ballard's father worked for his grandfather and his mom was a homemaker.

Inspired by the Beatles, Ballard didn't feel confident enough about his voice to be a singer himself, but he honed his skills in just about every other facet of the music-making process, from songwriting to arranging. It all came in handy when he got to Los Angeles.

The name and phone number he got from the golf pro was Salvatore "Tutti" Camarata, owner of Sunset Sound recording studio. Camarata, also a noted musician and arranger, invited the 22-year-old Ballard to stop by to watch a classical recording session. While there, Camarata needed a male voice to sing a couple of lines and Ballard did it. A grateful Camarata gave the young man some free studio time, and he spent hours there, working on songs and exploring the recording process.

A studio employee happened to mention one day that Elton John had just launched Rocket Records and there might be something for Ballard to do there.

Hooking on as a gofer for John's band, Ballard quickly graduated to doing some musical arrangements and other fill-in roles with the band. His break came in 1978 when Rocket's Kiki Dee recorded one of Ballard's songs, "One Step."

An MCA Music Publishing executive liked the song and signed Ballard to a contract that opened other doors. None proved more important than the one that led in 1980 to Quincy Jones.

"Quincy has great musicality, but he also creates a comfortable atmosphere in the studio where people not only feel they can do their best, but want to do their best because he inspires them," Ballard says, echoing his own blueprint.

"It was eye-opening to me because I had seen other producers just blow up and cremate a second engineer or someone if something went wrong. When you do that, it makes everyone on edge. Working with Quincy, I could see there is no comparison between having a warm, positive environment and a tension-filled, mean-spirited one."

Suddenly, Ballard was on a roll.

Prolific and tireless, he quickly assembled a wide array of credits. He co-wrote "Man in the Mirror" for Michael Jackson, "The Places You Find Love" for Barbra Streisand, "Mercy" for Aretha Franklin and "State of Attraction" for Paula Abdul.

"I've known Glen for 25 years and the amazing thing is how consistent he is as a person," says Michael Gorfaine, who, with partner Sam Schwartz, manages Ballard, John Williams and Randy Newman, among other composers. "What has always impressed me is his quiet faith in himself

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