Joel Dorn, 65; Producer Of Jazz and Pop Hits

Joel Dorn helped make stars of Roberta Flack and Bette Midler.
Joel Dorn helped make stars of Roberta Flack and Bette Midler. (Adam Dorn - Adam Dorn)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Joel Dorn, 65, who produced hundreds of pop and jazz recordings for the Atlantic and A&M record labels, including two consecutive Grammy-winning records of the year for singer Roberta Flack, died Dec. 17 of a heart attack at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

Mr. Dorn, who began his career as a jazz disc jockey in Philadelphia, always considered himself a jazz aficionado at heart, but he learned to blur the lines of musical genres in creating records that captured huge audiences for Atlantic Records in the 1970s.

He propelled Flack, who grew up in Arlington County, went to Howard University and sang around the Washington area, to pop stardom with her recordings of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly With His Song," which won Grammies for record of the year in 1972 and 1973, respectively. In 1973, Mr. Dorn produced Bette Midler's album "The Divine Miss M," which cemented her career and gave her a lifelong nickname.

Mr. Dorn produced five Grammy-winning recordings and helped ignite the careers of the Neville Brothers, the Allman Brothers and Leon Redbone. But his restless, blunt-spoken manner often led to conflicts with record-company honchos as the industry came to be dominated by corporate bottom-liners rather than quirky music lovers such as Mr. Dorn.

He largely gave up producing new music in the 1980s to turn his attention to issuing archival recordings by such jazz masters as John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Cannonball Adderley. Mr. Dorn formed several labels to reissue jazz and blues, the most successful of which was 32 Records.

He was lured back to the studio six years ago to produce the first three albums by the young jazz singer Jane Monheit. The albums were critical and popular successes.

"Some of the best times I've ever had involved recording artists who were completely unknown at the time, like Roberta and Bette," Mr. Dorn once said, "and then watching them ascend to national prominence.

"It's a great feeling to put your faith in a young artist who you believe in and see them flourish."

Mr. Dorn was born in Philadelphia and began working as a DJ on that city's 24-hour jazz station, WHAT-FM, in his teens. By the time he was 14, Mr. Dorn was writing letters to Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, the brothers who owned Atlantic Records, to recommend artists and songs.

The Erteguns allowed Mr. Dorn to produce his first record, by jazz flutist Hubert Laws, in 1963.

By 1967, Mr. Dorn joined Atlantic's staff as assistant to Nesuhi Ertegun and became part of a legendary lineup of Atlantic producers that included Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin. Together, they produced many of the leading jazz and R&B albums of the era, including works by Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding.

Before his success with Flack and Midler, Mr. Dorn produced recordings by jazz artists Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Yusef Lateef, Charles Mingus and Herbie Mann. He left Atlantic in 1974 and moved to A&M Records, where he nurtured the careers of Aaron Neville and Redbone.

Mr. Dorn traveled the country and amassed a huge number of unreleased recordings by major artists. In an Atlantic warehouse, he discovered a cache of unknown reel-to-reel tapes by Coltrane, which Mr. Dorn released in 1995 as part of a monumental box set, "The Heavyweight Champion," which became a model for jazz reissues.

Mr. Dorn also issued rediscovered music by saxophonists Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Sonny Stitt. Mr. Dorn once said one of his proudest moments as a record producer was when he sent Stitt's widow a check for $18,000.

In the late 1990s, he released a series of moody jazz compilations, beginning with "Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon," that became immensely popular and helped reshape the way jazz was marketed.

Four years ago, Mr. Dorn founded Hyena Records. At the time of his death, he was working on a Rhino Records set honoring his Atlantic mentor, Nesuhi Ertegun. He had also returned to his roots as a DJ, providing the voice of Sirius Satellite Radio's Pure Jazz channel.

He followed a simple musical philosophy throughout his career: "If something's good, it has its time. . . . Whatever it is, good is good."

Survivors include three sons, Rhino Records executive David Dorn, musician Adam Dorn and businessman Michael Dorn; and his longtime companion, Faye Rosen.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company