Versatile music man revives the greats

Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 2:31am

Jon Tiven is at home with old school soul and state-of-the-art modern rock, though he acknowledges that working with great R&B and blues performers provide him his greatest musical thrills.

He may also be among the most prolific and versatile types in the business, a singer/songwriter/producer who can play a host of instruments, has been a high profile music journalist and now teams with his wife Sally (a topflight bassist whom Tiven calls “my rock, my partner and someone with exceptional taste and talent”) on numerous superb dates.

“If you ask me about my favorite type of music and what I enjoy the most from a production standpoint it’s working with the greats of soul, R&B and the blues,” Tiven said. “But on the other hand, doing a session with someone like Frank Black is also a very enjoyable exercise, and gives me a chance to work with someone who I may not otherwise get to meet, and whose music and perspective is different from my own. So I really enjoy doing all kinds of music, but the blues and soul would be my favorite.”

Tiven’s latest foray into the R&B field is the explosive new CD Intuition, which marks the return to recording of soul legend Betty Harris.

Harris had a string of singles in the ‘60s, but then grew tired of the road and the politics of the industry and stepped away from the scene in the ‘70s. However her voice remained potent and flexible, and her vocals on such songs as “Is It Hot in Here?,” “Still Amazed,” “Who’s Takin’ Care of My Baby” and “A Fool Can Always Break Your Heart” reflect solid professionalism and a searing, radiant energy and exuberance that’s authentic and appealing (no Pro Tools sweetening necessary).

“She couldn’t have been easier to work with,” Tiven said. “There were a couple of songs that she wasn’t quite as crazy about as some others, but overall she was just a joy in the studio. It’s funny because I wound up working with Betty from going to a show at the Basement that featured Howard Tate (another longtime star Tiven is producing). I ended up in a discussion with his attorney and he mentioned that there was a possibility of doing something with Betty, because she was interested in coming back and making some new songs. That’s how we ended up cutting the songs with her in Nashville.”

The Tivens have been Nashville residents since 2002, but Jon Tiven’s immersion in the music business came as a teenager growing up on the East Coast.

He started his own fanzine, but proved himself such an able writer that he was contributing to Rolling Stone, Fusion and Melody Maker. At 20, he was hired by the famed Chess Records New York office, where he discovered that “I loved music, but didn’t want to work for a record label.”

The hideous events of 9/11 affected the Tivens, and led to their decision to relocate to Nashville a few months later.

“New York had already started to kind of lose its luster as a place to live, and after 9/11 we really decided it was time to look elsewhere,” Tiven said. “I’d done some sessions in Nashville before, and we came down, looked around, found a nice place to live and just decided to stay.”

Tiven left New York, moved to Memphis, and began a writing, singing, playing and production career that’s seen him do everything from perform in a group called the Tom Davis Experience with Al Franken and appear in the film One More Night produced by Dan Aykroyd to pen songs covered by Rick Derringer, Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, Don Covay (one of his heroes), B.B. King, Huey Lewis & The News, the Jeff Healey Band, Syl Johnson, Sir Mack Rice, Robert Cray, Irma Thomas and others.

His achievements have been impressive and extensive.

He won four W.C. Handy awards in 2006 for Think of Me, the final session recorded by Little Milton, among them Song of the Year and Album of the Year in blues circles. He also produced Sailover, a Hightone disc that marked the return of P.F. Sloan, someone famous in rock circles.

But perhaps among all the sessions he’s done in recent years, none earned Jon and Sally Tiven more notoriety than the 1998 release It’s Harder Now, another multiple Handy award winner and Wilson Pickett’s first release in 17 years.

“I heard about Wilson Pickett’s reputation and I can truthfully say that he was never anything other than great gentleman with us and thoroughly professional,” Tiven said. “I’ve seen some other occasions with other people where you could see how he got that reputation, but there was absolutely none of that when he was recording with us.”

Tiven’s next project will be a new spiritual album from Garnet Mimms, better known for hard-edged soul projects in the ‘60s. He’s also done several discs with contemporary soul/blues performer Ellis Hooks, plus the forthcoming Tate CD and a CD from onetime Grass Roots member Creed Bratton (known for his work on television as part of the cast on the NBC comedy The Office.)

“He came to me and wanted to do some recording and was really serious about it,” Tiven said. “I think people who don’t know about him are going to be quite surprised at just how strong his music sounds.”

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