Buzz Knight 00:00:05
Spencer Proffer: How a man’s passion for music and storytelling fueled an iconic career. Welcome to this episode of the Taking a Walk podcast. I’m Buzz Knight, and I have a guest I’m so excited to speak with. With Spencer Profferr. He’s an iconic figure in the record industry and in the American media landscape. He’s the CEO of Meteor 17, a convergence media company based in La. And we have a ton to talk about. He produced Quiet Riots, Metal Health, the first heavy metal record to reach the top of the pop charts. He’s collaborated with Australian rocker Billy Thorpe on Children of the sun. He’s produced and arranged hundreds of albums. He’s produced concert events. His focus lately has been around documentaries, including the amazing Chasing Train, the John Coltrane documentary and his latest project, which is brilliant, the Day The Music Died, about the unbelievable song American Pie and Don McLean. Spencer Proffer. It’s so great to have you on. Taking a walk.
Spencer Proffer 00:01:14
Well, you took a walk all the way from wherever to Massachusetts and I’ll be there tomorrow. Concord. Nice to meet you again, but I think I met you 40 years ago. But, yeah, thank you for inviting me on.
Buzz Knight 00:01:28
It’s so great to have you. So how have you cultivated such a love of music in your career?
Spencer Proffer 00:01:36
By being a musician, by being a failed songwriter, by being a dreamer and getting next to people who are the real deal and getting a little halo from that. How did I do it? I did it because I got lucky and I cared.
Buzz Knight 00:01:53
Now, what was the first music experience that really shaped you, that you created?
Spencer Proffer 00:01:59
Wow. The first demo I made when I was 18 years old, I wrote a song that Gary Lewis and that Playboy’s cut and they copied my demo and I realized, if somebody’s going to copy my demo after his number one rhythm, the Rain song. Shit, man. Then what I got to do is I got to get behind the curtain and make sure that my songs that I wrote sounded like how I heard them in my head. I’ve now done that for other people, but I used to try for myself. But I never had a hit as an artist.
Buzz Knight 00:02:32
But you were stuck and you were fixated on it from that moment on, right? I mean, there was no turning back.
Spencer Proffer 00:02:40
Well, it got into my blood. I went to school. I’m an immigrant dreamer and my parents wanted me to have an education. So I got my BA at 20, went to law school, passed the bar 23. But I was writing songs and in a band, paying people to take notes while I was on the road with a band. Yes. It got in my blood then and it never left. And I’m older than 18. Now.
Buzz Knight 00:03:06
You spent time early in your career working with Clive Davis. What did you learn from him that shaped you particularly about leadership.
Spencer Proffer 00:03:15
To not take no from people when they said, you can’t do it, it doesn’t get on the air. A lot of times when he was blowing out things like Santana and Simon and Garfunkel and Chicago and some really good music during the days that I worked for him in 1972, when the promotion guys and the local marketing guy said, well, we have a problem here. There. Clive was relentless in him knowing that it was great and he should just keep the pressure on. And I learned that taking no is not a word that we can accept.
Buzz Knight 00:03:50
And what did you learn about his classic ear?
Spencer Proffer 00:03:55
That he believed in what he believed in, and he was right more than he was wrong. And he is an iconic figure, whether you like him or not. You got to respect him because he really knows his stuff. And I learned a lot from watching him. I was 23 years old, man, like when Taylor Swift wrote a song a little longer than Don McLean’s and she said she was standing on the shoulder of giants because McLean is a poet and he is a giant artist. I felt I stood on the shoulder of a giant Clive Davis and I learned what it was like to be in charge. And subsequently, as I got older, I became in charge.
Buzz Knight 00:04:39
But you’re a keen observer too, and you listen very well, and I think that’s something that’s missing nowadays, people listening in the midst of conversation to what’s going on. Is that something that you always felt as part of your character?
Spencer Proffer 00:04:57
Yeah, because there’s always somebody who’s smarter in the huddle. I’m an ex ball player. I love the idea of team sports. My kids will raise collaborative leaders. I’m a big believer. If you’re a parent, encourage whether it be baseball, football, basketball, soccer, rugby, whatever it is. Sports is great because you learned collaborative, team sportsmanship, and I believe you can run a business like that, too.
Buzz Knight 00:05:24
So when you first ran into Quiet Riot, did you expect they were going to become as big as they would become?
Spencer Proffer 00:05:31
No way. We made some demos. It’s a long story, but the punchline was we got lucky. But it connected to the kids. All the people I dealt with in the industry initially hated it. They didn’t sound like it was on the radio. If you have Soft Cell, you have Duran Duran, you have the Police. Epic was blowing up Cindy lauper or Girl just want to have fun. Thriller was skyrocket rocketing. When you heard Banging your head, it didn’t sound like any of them. So the fact that it became an anthem for a generation, that’s pretty cool, that I think it would blow up and go to number one in Billboard. No, but you know what? I’ll take the ride any day. I believed in the music. I believe that it could make a statement and it connected with the kids.
Buzz Knight 00:06:18
And it said a trend, it began a trend that lasted, you might say, still to this day.
Spencer Proffer 00:06:26
Well, what it did is it invited the listener buzz to participate. And when you participate, the interactivity of what’s happening in the digital age, what’s happening with all the viral stuff, whether it be TikTok now, the streamers in particular, Paramount. Plus, they’re brilliant at finding ways for fan engagement. Well, music can engage fans, too. If you hear something, you can sing along. American Pie, man, it’s like a campfire song, although it’s much deeper. But you sing that chorus, you sing bang your head. You want to participate. So that trend is not a trend. It’s actually part of the DNA of any great art. You get involved.
Buzz Knight 00:07:09
But you’ve also really innovated before your time when it comes to what you did around Billy Thorpe’s Children of the Sun as well, which is when I first ran into you out in San Diego. And I know we’re going to talk about Lee Abrams a little bit later on, but at the Lee Abrams Burkhart Douglas Abrams Superstars event out in San Diego, I’ll never forget it because I was with a couple of my coworkers who were out there. I’ll leave them nameless, but let’s just say as we were walking around Balboa Park, we found some of that earthly weed, and then we went into the Billy Thorpe event, which clearly blew our minds, but really was a precursor to great multi platform dynamic events for the future. It was an amazing event and I’ll never forget it. Did you know you were so ahead of your time with regards to what you were creating with that event?
Spencer Proffer 00:08:26
I didn’t think about it as being ahead of my time. I thought that integrating music with visual, which was this was, I think. And when we made the record and Billy and I wrote the song, we actually saw the song, we saw the lyrics visually, just like when you hear Stairway to Heaven, just like the Beatles when they wrote stuff, although we didn’t think we were that good. But, yeah, the fact that we made an interactive laser, an animated choreography of our album, we premiered It Planetariums. I was 28 years old. You were smoking some good weed. So were Billy and I.
Buzz Knight 00:09:10
Where’s Billy now, by the way?
Spencer Proffer 00:09:12
Unfortunately passed away. Billy was the equivalent in Australia of Bruce Springsteen, and he was just a wonderful human. I made four albums with Billy and wrote with him and arranged and produced, became friends with his wife, his kids. But unfortunately, he did pass away about a decade ago now, although he could still at the time, prior to his death, he could sell out 10,000 seaters then. He was a very big deal there. And we sold a million records in 1979. That’s pretty good. But I love Billy as a human being first. We keep friends. We played guitar together, we hung out. And that’s what I like to do. I like to become friends with the people I work with, and I like to jam with them. The thing is, they’re always better than I am.
Buzz Knight 00:10:07
It’s beautiful. Wow. But your diversity of styles is amazing to me. So then here we go to Chasing Train, which is a brilliant documentary about the unbelievable John Coltrane. Just beautifully done. And tell me about that process, and then tell me about that famous train ride as well that you took.
Spencer Proffer 00:10:35
Okay, well, let me go let me back into your question. And it’s amazing that you knew about it. Coltrane, I’m a big fan of pop culture, and Cole seemed to me as the Beatles of jazz. And when I got the opportunity to tell his story, it wasn’t a linear story of just a guy birth to death. I wanted to show how he actually touched culture with his art. He’s an artist. He’s a spiritual artist who I really related to. His big album. The big song was Love Supreme. But Bluetrain.. I used to run Blue Note Records while I was running the creative division of United Artists way back in 1974, 75. So I became familiar with jazz. Although I’m a Rock guy. I mean, I’m a Zeppelin, Bowie, Beatles guy through and through. Love Pink Floyd. I love singer songwriters. You know, the songs of Cat Stevens and Carol King and Graham Nash and Elton and Bernie. That’s, like, my favorite stuff. James Taylor. But I appreciate Jazz. I appreciated Donald Byrd. I appreciated Benson. I appreciated Charlie Parker. And when I got the opportunity, because I was sought out by the estate, to actually tell the story, I really wanted to tell. It not linear fashion, but I really thought that if I could I have a deep relationship with South Africa. I got involved with the country through Sydney Poitier in 1997 when he played Nelson Mandela and Michael Caine played de Klerk. One story about how Mandela got out of prison, I quarterback the music recorded at in a Treehouse in Johannesburg. And I learned at the time that there was a blue train going from Pretoria, which is the capital of South Africa, to Cape Town. And it’s literally called the Blue Train. And it’s the Orient Express of South Africa. It’s very five star, very uptown. And I thought, what a crazy idea. What if I premiered my film on the train? Nobody’s ever done that. And the congruence was, it’s a blue Train did an album called Blue Train. So through a convergence of some relationships. One guy. Poppy Moore Santa. Who was in prison with Mandela. Used to be the chairman of Transnet. Which is like the well. Transnet was the biggest transportation company in South Africa. And he was also chairman of a company the equivalent of at and T. I met him through some mutual people that were connected to the Mandela family. And he helped me hook up this premiering with them. I brought over Ronnie Laws, who I had signed a blue note. I brought over Eloise Laws, who was a star on the Broadway show I produced called It Ain’t Nothing but the Blues. And we jammed with some South African musicians on the train at a vineyard. We did a concert in Cape Town, then the thing hit. Netflix. It’s on hulu now. But, yeah, I like to think of unique ways to bring media to the world. Laser shows with Billy Thorpe, Blue Train with John Coltrane and Paramount, plus being the best streamer I know in the industry now, withstanding all the competition for the Chasing Don McLean dock, which to me was very important to do with a music company. They’re a music company.
Buzz Knight 00:14:09
So the day the music died I love the story arc that you created about a song that to this day, obviously sparks tremendous emotion. Congratulations on it. And do you remember the first time you heard American Pie?
Spencer Proffer 00:14:26
Sure. I was writing songs and going to school, and I heard it on the radio after three minutes, it kept going, it kept going, it kept going, it kept going. I pulled over. I just needed to take the journey. Funny enough, Children of the Sun was a seven minute record that I had cowritten . American Pie was an eight minute version. Stairway to Heaven, one of my favorite rock songs, was also a big, long epic. But I heard it as a kid and I just knew that it was so special. I didn’t know what a lot of it meant. But 50 years later, when I got the opportunity to meet Don and to talk to his manager, Kurt Webster, who also had a vision that the song has a deeper life than just 50 years ago, my job was to bring it forward to the next gen, which is what we did.
Buzz Knight 00:15:21
And I love how you did this with regard to other folks approaching the song. It’s beautiful, the creation of the Spanish English version, the way you captured that Mafio, and I think it’s just a spectacular way to sort of, you know, bring the arc full circle. How did you discover them? Mafio?
Spencer Proffer 00:15:47
Well, I didn’t discover anybody. The whole Hispanic Latin community did. He’s one of the hottest artist, writer, producers in the world right now in the Latin lane. And I have a friend named Rudy Perez who is our age buzz, and I think he is a Cuban born a producer who I had met 25 years ago in Miami. And Rudy done the Latin versions for Beyonce and Christina Aguilera. And I called Rudy. He used to be chairman of the NARAS of the Grammys in Miami. And I knew that the American Pie song had a deep Grammy connection. So I called Rudy up and I could get him on the phone. I said, hey, Rudy, I’d like you to write and produce a Spanish language version of this song, if this song means anything. And he started effusing on how the song touched him way back when he was a young kid in Cuba, how it meant something to him, but he was booked up and busy. He said, I want to turn it on to Maffio and Jencarlos, who are two young, current hot talents in the Latin community, and maybe I’ll do an interview for you, which we did. If you take a look at the doc, you’ll see Rudy Perez speaking about how the song touched him and his language and community. But then he turned me on to Maffio and Jencarlos, who is 26 years old, Maffio is, I think, 35, little younger than I am. But the song really touched their soul, too. And I got permission from Don. I give all the props to Don for having the vision. He has never had a multi language cover of the song, but when I went to him and Kurt with it, they were all about it. They said, of course, let me hear it. And so Maffio and JenCarlo got together on spec. They sent me a demo. I used to hear demos all the time. I could hear through it. I said, Holy shit, this sounds like a hit. His manager is his partner as a lawyer named Leslie Siegel, and he and his partner, Javier Fato, said they have big plans for up to he’s a Sony Latino artist. Sony Latino controls 40% that controls but permeates 40% of the hits in the Latin market in 25 countries. We put it together. It took six months. We did it. They did it. I’m not going to take credit for their work. They did a great job. I get to play EP on it, remix it here, cross fade here. It turned out so well, they’ve even made a video on it, and it’s great. And hopefully MTV will hit it both domestically and internationally, cross promoting with their doc. It’s good for Don, good for the world.
Buzz Knight 00:18:35
How special is it that you got Garth Brooks to participate in this documentary?
Spencer Proffer 00:18:41
How special is it for him to be a fan of Don McLean? I didn’t get anybody. I just made sure that the paperwork was right and that the relationship with the manager and the lawyer were terrific to work with. But I give Don all the credit for that relationship that was between Don and Garth.
Buzz Knight 00:18:59
But obviously, you create the sense of confidence with people like Don and others that you work with in these projects that they know that they can trust you in a process. Reputation goes a long way, sir.
Spencer Proffer 00:19:15
Well, thank you, Buzz. I kind of had no way to go but up when I came to this country. I work hard, I care, and I befriend the artists on a human level. So once they trust me. I really do play a battering ram role because I won’t take no. If I believe in the vision, I believe in Don, I believe in the song, I believe in Vincent, which is the next thing I’m going to tackle. We’re going to do an illustrated children’s book on what the song, the words really meant, and it’s not literal. And Judy, my wife, is brilliant. She’s working on that now with Don. We’ll get tied in with the Van Gogh Museum on it, with the symphony orchestra, with the melody. I just like trying to do things that the guy down the walk doesn’t do. If I get the trust of the talent and it makes me feel good because I come to the party with a few gifts, I don’t just say, hey, what do you want to do? I kind of collaborate a little bit, but then it’s usually their vision. My job is to bring it forward.
Buzz Knight 00:20:17
And I know we’ve talked about how convergence and multi platform is important here for you with projects and how it’s important with this project with the Spanish English marketplace and then with the Vincent children’s book as well. Who has inspired you around convergence and multiplatform thinking?
Spencer Proffer 00:20:41
Well, Steve Jobs was a very big inspiration to me when he launched his Apple campaign. Think different. I’ve been thinking different since I had to. When I put Tina Turner to Tommy in 1975 and produced the Acid Queen album and played guitar on it, I thought that was different. Hendrix was really the pillar of being African American and rock and hard, and I thought it Tina one of the greatest singers in the history of music, and there’s no reason why she couldn’t rock. Ike and Tina opened for the Stones. I went to that concert. I said, Holy shit, when she got the roll in Ken Russell’s Tommy, we should make an Acid Queen album. We did, and it made a difference in her career. So who inspired me? I don’t know. Some spiritual power. I’ve just always been off the wall. The crazy guy.
Buzz Knight 00:21:35
I don’t know about off the wall, but boy, highly inspired. Creativity is, I think, a hallmark for you, as it is for a guy that we know that you’re also now involved with named Lee Abrams. Lee was on an earlier episode of Taking a Walk and is a longtime friend and someone, certainly, that I’ve collaborated with from his firm. You’ve got a project with Lee. Can you talk about that?
Spencer Proffer 00:22:09
Not too much. Other than Lee and our partners, Lee was probably the leading music radio programmer in the history of American radio and a founder of XM Radio, which has turned into Sirius XM. Lee approached me about three years ago and said, I’d like to do a film about the evolution of radio in this country when it’s gone through its different phases from 50s Rock and Roll 60s with underground, 70s singersongwriter, 80s metal, 90s grunge all the way to current, and there’s nobody, I think, that could be a better partner for me, says Lee to me, than you. I said, are you kidding? What a great idea. He said, yeah. I want to call it Sonic Messengers. I said, Well, I don’t think there’s a four year movie in this, but I definitely think there’s a 90 minutes documentary that could spin into a miniseries. Just like Goetzman and Hanks did their 60 70 series on CNN. I think if we anchor it in radio, that could be really interesting, too. Yeah, I’m in. So Lee and I have spent the last nine months evolving the vision of it, and we talked about having an international point of view. We’re big fans of Monty Python, and John Cleese was the genius. That was he and Terry Gilliam were really behind that. So thanks to CAA, a terrific agent named Rob Norman, who I know, I mean, if I did, Diana Ross had rob Norman was the agent. So we talked to Rob, who’s Brenda Lee’s, he made it happen. We met with John Cleese when he came to America. John is now the executive producer of this. So we’ll get an English point of view on how American radio impacted the world, just like American Pie impacted young English. Jay Bird for her 24 to do a cover within our doc. So we’re doing that, and I would love to come back, Buzz on your show next year with Lee. And I think Lee is brilliant. I like him a lot. He’s not an artist, but he is he’s an artist as a radio programmer, and it’s an ear to the ground. And so for me to collaborate with him on the doc that anchors in music, but he’s not the artist. He’s the programmer for the artist. I think that’s pretty cool. So I’m really excited about doing that. It’s up on my site. We announced it internally. I haven’t made the distribution deal yet , I really want to crystallize on the vision a little more, and then we’ll see. Could it be Viacom? Could it be HBO? Could it be Apple? Could be Netflix. Who knows? I love the people at Viacom and Paramount. Plus I love Bruce Gillmer. He’s a real music guy. Bob Bakish, the chairman of Viacom, He’s guitar player. These are real people. And all the people working there for MTV, VH1 and CMT, they care about the music, so I kind of like them a lot, and I think they like me a little bit, too. So the Elvis project and Mcleanproject, and we’ll see what else coming down the pike. But yeah, Lee Abrams is very dear to me.
Buzz Knight 00:25:20
To me, that’s awesome. You’ve practiced invention and reinvention your entire career. What’s next?
Spencer Proffer 00:25:28
Continuing to do this with really great people. They don’t have to be famous. They just have to be good. They have to be pure. They have to have integrity. They can’t be liars and cheaters. They have to be true to their craft. So, yeah, if you go onto my website, you’ll see a couple of listings of future projects. The evolution of the songs behind the Everly Brothers from Felice and Boudleux partnered with Del Bryant. His parents were the pioneers of Nashville. Who wrote All I have to do is dream and Bye Bye love. That’s coming. Stephen Schwartz, who is my favorite American composer, who wrote Pippin, God pell, Wicked Prince of Egypt? Pocahontas. Steven and I teamed up to make his journey story. Not just the writing Wicked, but when he was in college. Steven Schwartz wrote Godspell. When he evolved. Later he wrote Pippin. He interfaced with Bob Fosse. When that didn’t work, he decided to write music for film. He won three Academy Awards for Pocahontas for Alan Menken. There’s an interesting story there, pre Wicked. Of course, we’re going to look at Wicked and I’m thrilled that he got Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo to play roles for the film, which is coming through Universal. But I think the dock around Steven will be very special because we’re going to not see it about him, we’re going to see it about his work. And I’m all about the work.
Buzz Knight 00:27:01
Spencer Proffer, it’s an honor to be with you. Thank you so much for your time. on taking a walk and thanks for the inspiration.
Spencer Proffer 00:27:09
You got it, Buzz. Thank you for inviting me. Taking a Walk with Buzz Knight is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.