In a career that ran from the 1960s to the present, Tommy LiPuma, who has died aged 80, worked in music publishing as a record company executive and producer. He collaborated with many of the best-known artists in the industry, including Barbra Streisand, George Benson, Miles Davis, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Al Jarreau and Diana Krall (whose album Turn Up the Quiet, due out next month, LiPuma produced). One of his most significant achievements was Natalie Cole’s album Unforgettable … With Love (1991), a multiple Grammy-winner that topped the US charts and sold more than 14m copies worldwide.
LiPuma earned 33 Grammy nominations and won the award five times. His first was in 1977, for Benson’s song This Masquerade, judged record of the year. Unforgettable was voted album of the year, then in 2003 he won again for Krall’s Live in Paris, named best jazz vocal album. McCartney’s album Kisses on the Bottom and subsequent concert album Live Kisses brought LiPuma his final pair of Grammys, for best traditional pop vocal album (2013) and best surround sound album (2014) respectively.
A stellar career in the record industry seemed a distant prospect in the early 50s, when LiPuma, one of five siblings born to Italian immigrant parents, dropped out of high school in Cleveland, Ohio. When bedridden with a childhood bone infection, he had listened to the local R&B radio station WJMO-AM and developed a taste for the music of Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan and Ruth Brown, and in his teens he began to play the saxophone.
However, he was prodded to follow in the footsteps of his father, uncle and one of his brothers, all of whom were barbers. After he had finished training, his father lent him money to set up his own salon, but he knew it was not what he wanted to do. “I hated it with a passion,” he recalled. “The only thing that saved me was that I worked three to five nights as a musician, playing saxophone. That gave me an outlet, and I just dealt with the day to day.”
It was one of his barbershop customers who alerted him to a job packing records at a local company. He leapt at the chance, even though “my father thought I’d gone off my rocker. I was going from $125 a week as a barber to $50.”
LiPuma quickly moved upwards. In 1961, Liberty Records, based in Los Angeles, hired him as a promotion man. He developed an interest in producing, and moved into working on the company’s publishing catalogue, recording demos for aspiring songwriters including Newman and Jackie DeShannon. The session musicians he employed, who included Leon Russell, David Gates, Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon, would later become familiar names. LiPuma’s first full production job was on the single Lipstick Traces, a Top 40 hit in 1965 for the O’Jays, who were also from Cleveland.
He had become friendly with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and in 1965 they hired LiPuma as the first staff producer at their A&M label. There he produced the Sandpipers’ Top 10 hit Guantanamera and Chris Montez’s The More I See You, and successful albums for the French singer Claudine Longet. In 1968, he formed the Blue Thumb label with Bob Krasnow, which became home to a broad range of acts including Gerry Rafferty, Ike & Tina Turner, Hugh Masekela and the Pointer Sisters.
Columbia Records recruited LiPuma to oversee Streisand’s 1974 album The Way We Were, a batch of songs hastily pulled together to go with the title track, the hit theme song from the eponymous movie. Later that year he was appointed staff producer at Warner Bros records, which led to great success with Benson and work with Davis, Newman and Dr John, and the UK acts Aztec Camera and Everything But the Girl. By the time he produced Unforgettable, LiPuma had ascended to the role of senior vice-president at Elektra Records. Subsequently, he moved to GPR Records (part of the Verve group), where he met Krall and was pivotal in shaping her burgeoning career, scoring multimillion sales with the albums When I Look In Your Eyes (1999) and The Look of Love (2001).
In 2004, he was made Verve’s chairman emeritus, a role that allowed him to freelance as producer for big-name performers including Michael Bublé, Willie Nelson, McCartney and Streisand. In 2014 he was appointed creative consultant at Universal Music Publishing Group.
LiPuma was a keen art collector with a particular enthusiasm for the works of Arnold Friedman. He also stuck close to his Cleveland roots; he made a $3m donation to the Center for Creative Arts at the city’s Cuyahoga Community College.
He is survived by his wife, Gill, and daughters, Danielle and Jen.
• Thomas LiPuma, producer and music executive, born 5 July 1936; died 13 March 2017