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Lou Adler, in the foreground

The onetime pop music trend-setter has long shunned the spotlight. Now he's parted the curtains on his past -- but only for a cause.

October 27, 2002|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

It's somehow fitting that if you stand on a bluff above Lou Adler's Malibu home office, you can look up and down the misty coastline and almost see forever. If there was one person who helped popularize what's known as Southern California cool, it's Adler, a 66-year-old music producer and record company entrepreneur who was involved -- Zelig-like -- with virtually every big youth culture explosion in the formative years of modern Los Angeles.

Adler restlessly devoured every new pop trend: early '60s surf and car culture (he produced many of Jan & Dean's hits), L.A. folkie romanticism (he produced and put out the Mamas & the Papas' hits), the Sunset Strip club scene (his discovery, Johnny Rivers, put the Whisky a Go-Go on the map), protest rock (he produced Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction"), rock festivals (Adler co-produced the Monterey Pop Festival) and '70s stoner culture (Adler launched Cheech & Chong and directed their first movie, "Up in Smoke").

That still leaves out plenty of other career highlights, like writing Sam Cooke's "(What a) Wonderful World" and producing Carole King's mellow-music classic "Tapestry" and bringing "The Rocky Horror Show" to America, but you get the idea. Pop historians still haven't made up their mind if Adler was a wily opportunist or a sage hipster with an uncanny nose for talent.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 494 words Type of Material: Correction
Lou Adler photograph -- A photo caption accompanying a story about Lou Adler in Sunday's Calendar misidentified recording engineer Henry Louie as Herb Alpert.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 03, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 104 words Type of Material: Correction
Lou Adler photograph -- A photo caption accompanying a story about Lou Adler in last Sunday's Calendar misidentified recording engineer Henry Louie as Herb Alpert.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 439 words Type of Material: Correction
Lou Adler photograph -- A correction on a photo caption accompanying a story about Lou Adler in the Oct. 27 Sunday Calendar section misspelled recording engineer Henry Lewy's name as Henry Louie.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 5 inches; 196 words Type of Material: Correction
Lou Adler photograph -- A correction on a photo caption accompanying an Oct. 27 story about Lou Adler misspelled recording engineer Henry Lewy's name as Henry Louie.

But from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, wherever the zeitgeist was, Adler wasn't far away, always part of the scene but safely behind the scenes. As the Mamas & the Papas singer Michelle Phillips once put it: "Lou was rich, wore interesting hats and didn't give a lot of clues to his innermost being."

To this day, Adler has remained offstage in the shadows. And that's the irony. Adler has been so media-shy that when he was on the dais at a music business dinner a few years ago, industry toastmaster Joe Smith introduced Adler by saying, "After all the gold records and the smash hits ... Lou is known as the guy with the hat and the beard who sits next to Jack Nicholson at the Lakers' games."

Adler sat down for a rare interview the other day at his Malibu office, which has a half-court basketball court in the driveway, a drum kit and amps in the living room (his son Cisco's band uses the office as a rehearsal studio) and a host of vintage photos, including one of Adler and John Phillips on the cover of an early issue of Rolling Stone. But Adler only parted the curtain to promote a cause, not himself. He and his wife, Page Adler, have helped organize a one-night celebrity benefit for the Painted Turtle Camp, a new spinoff of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camps for children with life-threatening illnesses. The new camp, on 173 acres near Lake Hughes, is expected to open in late 2003. The benefit, a theater reading based on Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams short stories, will be held Nov. 4 at the Kodak Theatre. The A-list talent includes Nicholson, Newman, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Warren Beatty, Bruce Willis, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Goldie Hawn and Edward James Olmos.

Days of serendipity

Adler has always been surrounded by talent. He grew up in Boyle Heights, then L.A.'s great melting-pot neighborhood. His Roosevelt High basketball team, he recalls, "had a Japanese kid, a Russian kid, a black kid and a Jew -- me." Adler went to Los Angeles City College in the '50s, where he befriended a trumpet player who had a trio that played weddings and bar mitzvahs.

The trumpet player was Herb Alpert, who started writing songs with Adler.

They shopped their material to Bumps Blackwell, a legendary R&B talent scout, who hired them as apprentice artists-and-repertoire men. When Blackwell needed a song for a Cooke session, Adler and Alpert wrote "Wonderful World" with Cooke, using the pseudonym of Barbara Campbell, Cooke's wife. "We cut it in an unfinished recording studio on 3rd Street," Adler recalls. "The walls still had fiberglass pack in them. We had a 16-year-old kid play the drums because the regular drummer wasn't there."

Adler's first discovery was a pair of volleyball players named Jan Berry and Dean Torrance. As Jan & Dean, they helped popularize California as an eternal playground, with hits like "Ride the Wild Surf," "Dead Man's Curve" and "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena." Adler recorded their early songs on a one-track mono machine with the duo singing at a piano in Berry's garage. "We often had to do 30 or 40 splices to get the vocals right," Adler says. "Then we'd go into the studio and have the musicians match the rhythm of the vocal track."

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