Mike Melvoin, 1937-2012


ON FEBRUARY 22 OF THIS YEAR, THE MUSIC WORLD LOST ONE OF ITS MOST accomplished, prolific, and recorded studio keyboardists, Mike Melvoin. He was 74. With credits on songs as diverse as Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and soundtrack work on film and TV projects from the original Mission: Impossible series to Fame, his reputation as a consummate musician always preceded him. He also served as president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Here, two storied colleagues pay their respects.

Image placeholder title

We met in the mid-’60s and the Coleman and Melvoin families grew up together. My daughter Lisa and Wendy Melvoin have been musical partners for most of their lives. [They’re the “Wendy and Lisa” of Prince fame. —Ed.] Both our sons died early deaths still making music. A story about Mike was the interview he did many years ago, I believe on radio. He was asked to define jazz. He said, “It’s a series of miraculous recoveries.” One can analyze that statement and find that it applies to the quick, almost unconscious decision processes that occur from beat to beat, and throughout the lives of many jazz musicians who at times find it difficult to make a living pursuing their art. Michael was one of the most intense human beings I’ve ever known. He was bright, well read, and had an endless supply of entertaining stories, trivia, and jokes. I doubt that anyone who met him was ever able to forget him both as a musician and a human being.” –Gary L. Coleman, Los Angeles studio, film, and TV percussionist.

I played on Mike’s very first record date when he got to town, around 1962 or ’63. I’d been doing films since ’63 and was on most of the TV shows and movie soundtracks at the time. You saw Mike everywhere then. He was such a nice guy—you just wanted to pinch him to see if he was real! He could play all styles with a smile. One thing Brian Wilson told me, and that a lot of people don’t know, is that Mike played organ on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

In the studios in the late ’50s and early ’60s, nobody had sheet music. The songwriter came in and sang the song, and we’d quickly write down chords and make our own parts. Producers at that time purposely went to jazz clubs to recruit jazz musicians to do the rock ’n’ roll sessions because nobody knew how to write for rock. Jazz is the language of speaking to each other at the same time. That kind of synergy is what’s needed to create a hit record, and Mike understood that process very well.

By the time we started to get burned out on rock ’n’ roll, Mike was smart enough to get into arranging. There was one movie score he was on—I think it was In Cold Blood. Shelley Mann was on drums, I was on bass, and Dennis Budimer was on guitar. We were recording a cue where Mike had about five seconds to run between the piano and organ—for miking purposes, they couldn’t put the two close together—and he tripped over a cable. The session went into overtime and the contractor slammed his book down and cursed. So on the next take, Shelley Mann drops his sticks, then on the next, Dennis drops his pick, and so on—all in sympathy for Mike.

I started to see Mike a lot again once I’d moved back [to L.A.] from Colorado. He had just beaten cancer around that time—of all people in the world to have that happen to! Mike really encouraged his kids in music. He was a great father and a great friend to musicians. He worked for everybody, he created in every style of music, and he never dissed the music. If there was a perfect man to do the musician’s job, it was Mike Melvoin. —Carol Kaye, legendary bassist, studio musician, and educator.