Grammy-winning Producer Leo Sacks

“I keep my heart open by listening” – Click here to read full article

You clasp a Grammy Award in your hands, for a few fleeting seconds imagining your name etched on the gold-plated gramophone trophy. For Cold Spring’s Leo Sacks, that’s no flight of fantasy. His name can be found on the Grammy he brought along to Haldane last Friday, when he taught a class called “Musical Trees.” A group of awe-struck fifth graders was able to hold the award individually, something Sacks allowed them to do, hoping that tactile, tangible moment would touch that “this can really happen” nerve. Sacks’ “Best Historical Album” Grammy was awarded to him in 2014 for producing the 9-CD “Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums.” He currently works as an A&R consultant and producer for Sony Music Masterworks.

Discovering new talent

In over two decades as a music producer, Sacks has produced boxed sets of such artists as The Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin, and other giants of soul and R&B. He’s done a lot of other things, too, spending much of the 1990s as an editor, writer and producer at NBC News. Earlier he wrote and reported for newspapers and music trade papers. Having helped some of America’s most influential artists “preserve their life’s work as a living language,” as he describes it, Sacks calls it “a privilege and also a tremendous responsibility” to discover new artists. Sony doesn’t need me to help them find the latest beats. Somewhere there’s a singular voice, or a boundary-busting band that’s utterly fearless, or a writer with a passionate point of view, and they’re not on TV. So I keep my heart open by listening and wondering whether anyone else will feel what I’m feeing. Scouting, signing and recording an artist may have satisfied the old business paradigm,” he adds, “but in today’s business of music, the real A&R job begins once the artist leaves the studio. It’s about formulating a plan that clearly communicates the story of any new project. And I love a good story.”

Newser turned producer

Those good stories harken back to the years Sacks spent as a newsman. “I always wanted to know how many slugs did the perp fire? Why did she lead a double life?” he exclaims. His news reporting slid into music business scribing. As he himself bylines, “I’ve wanted to make records ever since that magical, mysterious Sunday night in the winter of 1964 when the Beatles unleashed all those pent-up feelings on the Ed Sullivan Show. By that time I was tall enough to turn on the radio and was forever touched — and haunted by the voice of Levi Stubbs and the street lamp harmonies of the Four Tops singing Reach Out, I’ll Be There. I didn’t know he was singing to his buddies in the foxholes of Vietnam. But it made me want to become an artist’s advocate and write about the music that was touching me, and it kindled my appreciation for music journalism. In that respect, I was following in the tradition of music journalists who became record producers: John Hammond wrote jazz reviews before he discovered Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Jerry Wexler coined the term ‘rhythm and blues’ as a writer for Billboard before he joined Atlantic Records and produced Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.”