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Saratogian Joel Moss: Oscar- and Grammy-Winning Producer to the Stars

Moss has produced music for a litany of legends, including Tony Bennett, Ray Charles and The Beach Boys.

Award-winning multimedia producer Joel Moss has taken home an Oscar and multiple Grammys for his work. (Terri-Lynn Pellegri)

Talking to Joel Moss, I can’t help but be reminded of the 1995 Joan Osborne hit, “One of Us,” in which God takes the form of an average-looking dude, one you might run into on the bus. Moss doesn’t wear particularly flashy clothes—no black leather pants or snake-skinned cowboy boots. He’s respectably bespectacled and has a single earring in his left ear, which might be the least gaudy one ever affixed to a lobe. In short, nothing about Moss screams “famous.” But his six-decade-plus-long producing career speaks otherwise. He’s recorded the likes of Little Richard, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys and Tony Bennett, among a laundry list of others; found success as a sonic producer not only in the pop music world, but also on the small and silver screens and Broadway; and won an Academy Award and seven Grammys and been nominated for two Emmys, to boot.

The 74-year-old Saratoga Springs transplant began his music career in his hometown of Detroit in the late 1950s as a 12-year-old folk prodigy, leading a Hebrew folk quintet called The Hi-Liters. The group became so successful that Moss was able to buy his parents a new house. As the band was winding down in the early ’60s, Moss and company made their first and only appearance at Caffè Lena. “I don’t know if you’ve seen many photos of what Phila Street looked like in 1963, but it was scary,” Moss says. “Coming down Phila, we took a quick vote to see if we were even going to stop. We went up and played a set. The place was packed, everybody knew our songs, and it was an amazing night.”

Moss wouldn’t return to Saratoga until 2001, but by that point, he had swapped the stage for the control room, having transformed himself into one of the foremost multimedia producers in the world. Here are some of his career’s greatest hits.

(1) Pre-Flyte (mid-1960s)
“I went to Yale for a year and became the assistant to an amazing professor, Buckminster Fuller, who transferred to the University of Minnesota. I followed him, finishing my architecture degree there. Bucky was a futurist, a very famous guy. Two years after I met him, he designed the pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, he invented the geodesic dome. He was the coolest human being I ever met.”

(2) Watching Led Zeppelin Take Flight (1969)
“I worked at this tiny little studio called Mystic Sound in the middle of Hollywood. I hung out there as much as I could, because all kinds of things were happening there. One day, a band that I’d never heard of called Led Zeppelin came in to cut a demo called ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ Up close, I’d never heard anything that sounded like that. I think that demo became the basic track for the tune.”

(3) Pre-ducer to the Stars (1969)
“My professional life has always been accidental. I showed up in L.A. [in 1969] and had an important relative in the music business, so I reached out to him just to see if he could give me some advice. He gave me a job instead, working at his publishing company, doing publishing demos for the writers that were signed. Those writers were Paul Williams, Joe Cocker, Graham Nash and people like that. I became friends with all of these guys and got pretty good at making demos that sounded better than most demos. They started passing me around to other people, and that’s how I got my first gigs.”

(4) Fun, Fun, Fun…With a Disco Ball (1971)
“One of my oldest friends in the folk years was a genius vocal arranger named Curt Boettcher. All of those vocals on the first Association record, which I engineered and he produced, are Curt. We spent a lot of time together in the ’60s, lost track and then reconnected in Los Angeles in 1971. He called me one night and he said, ‘You won’t believe the gig I just got. We’re going to have the most fun ever! The Beach Boys want me to do a disco record!’ Someone had this awful idea, which in retrospect is not awful at all. If you want to listen to [10 minutes and 52 seconds] of the most delightful disco music, it’s called ‘Here Comes the Night,’ and it’s on their L.A. (Light Album).”

(5) Mixing Adult Film Dracula Sucks (1978)
“I told the director that I didn’t want to use my real name. So I called myself the Earl of Sandwich [in the credits]. How anyone knows that I did [this movie] is astonishing to me, but I’m proud of it.”

(6) Making Perfect Sense (1984)
“I didn’t do the live recording [of the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense], but I was given the analog tapes that I transferred to 24-track digital, the first time that had ever been done. That film, to me, was such an important part of my life.”

(7) Tony Bennett Has a Cold (2001)
“I was working on a Tony Bennett album in the summer of 2001, and I was co-producing it with [music producer] Phil Ramone, and Tony got a cold during the week we were going to be doing vocals, and it was during the time that the New York City Ballet was in Saratoga. My best friend, Anne Parsons, was the managing director of the NYCB, and she had a house in Saratoga for the two or three weeks [the ballet was there], and every summer, she’d say, ‘You’ve got to come up to Saratoga.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to go up to Saratoga.’ Phil said, ‘I’ll go with you. My son, BJ, is going to start at Skidmore College in the fall, and I’ve never been up there. We’ll drive up together.’ We jumped in Phil’s car, played golf at Saratoga National and went to Hattie’s for dinner, and then Phil wanted a drink. So we walked up Broadway, and the first place we came that had a bar right in the window was Wheatfields, and [my future wife] Terri-Lynn Pellegri was the bartender. I sat at the bar drinking club soda and cranberry juice until they closed, chatting up Terri-Lynn, and that was in July of 2001. I started coming up on weekends to see her. I [eventually] moved to Saratoga.”

(8) The Great American Songbook Debacle (early 2000s)
“My first experience with Rod Stewart was I was goalkeeper on his soccer team. We played every Sunday morning on a music business league in L.A. He’s an amazing soccer player; he could’ve been a pro. A few years after that, I got hired to mix ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ That was painful on many levels; he was a very ill-behaved human and he trashed the studio we were working in. And then, I didn’t run into him until he did those [Great American Songbook] records. [Music producer] Phil Ramone hired me to do all the vocal [tracks], and that was the most bizarre time in my life. They put out all this publicity that Rod was doing these standards that his father used to play when he was a kid, but he didn’t know any of the songs. My favorite song in the world is ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.’ Except the way Rod did it. There’s a device Cole Porter wrote into his lyric, in the bridge, that goes “how strange the change from major to minor,” and he [literally] goes from a major to a minor key as he says it. Not only did Rod not get that that was a thing, he made up a melody that was not major to minor. I really wanted to go out and just punch him in the face. So, without telling him, I actually tuned [his part].”

(9) Producing A Saratoga Children’s Christmas Wish (2003)
“It never occurred to me that I would do any music work in Saratoga. I met [local musician] Peter Davis, and he introduced me to the guys at NYRA, and I said, ‘If I could produce a really high-quality CD of track-related songs by local artists, would you use it for one of your giveaways?’ They said, ‘We’ll buy 70,000 of them.’ I used to be on the board for the Make-A-Wish Foundation in California, so I found the local [chapter] and told them that I wanted to do the record for charity around Christmas. It was released the
day after Thanksgiving 2003, and we raised $70,000 for Make-A-Wish Northeast New York.” (Moss also produced a follow-up cd in 2005 called A Saratoga Christmas Wish.)

(10) Capturing Genius, One Last Time (2004)
Ray Charles’ duet with Elton John on the British piano man’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” was the last recording Charles made before he died (Moss won a pair of Grammys for his work on the resultant album, Genius Loves Company). “I was in LA for the birth of my granddaughter, and the phone rings, and it’s Phil Ramone saying, ‘Are you available?’” remembers Moss. “We did it at the Record Plant. Elton was working on his album across the hall. I had Ray, who was in a wheelchair, set up so that Elton would be right across from him. He acknowledged Elton was there, the music started up, we did two takes, and that was it.”

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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