When producer Don Was refers to the Rolling Stones as “the Stones,” it sounds way cooler than when anyone says anything else ever.
And when he tells you stories about his life pre-Stones (you know, before he became friends with Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie and produced/played on all of the band's records since 1994's Voodoo Lounge) that consist of Willy Loman-esque characters, a Radio Shack cassette player duct-taped to the seat of a door-less Ford Maverick, playing bowling alleys in Ypsilanti, and the jazz record that changed everything (Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil) it is so impossibly cool that, instead of asking what it was like working with Bob Dylan or Bonnie Raitt, you offer to water Was' plants should he ever decide to set down roots in his hometown. We are so not cool. At least not Don Was cool.
“I think we're onto something,” he jokes. “That was the last thing that was the missing piece. I didn't know what to do about the plants.”
The 68-year-old Detroit-area native (Oak Park), Blue Note Records president, and Grammy award-winning producer — whose list of producer and player credits could easily aggravate your carpal tunnel or tendonitis should you attempt to scroll through them — will soon add “story-teller” and “radio show host” to his eclectic resume.
“My wildest dreams have come true,” Was tells Metro Times. “I got to work with a whole bunch of my heroes and have become friends with them, the Stones are a great example, Bonnie, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson. It's just been beyond my wildest dreams. I don't even know what to make of it and it keeps happening,” he says. “Now I get to do this radio show.”
Was, who happens to be digging on Nigerian music from the '70s and '80s at the moment (See? Very cool.) is bringing his mental vault of musical tales to the airwaves by way of WDET and the incomparable and painfully cool Ann Delisi.
“Ann is one of my best friends,” he says. “She's so good and it's hard. There's an art form to be in a DJ you don't just play records and bullshit. And I just love the way she organizes her shows and how articulate she is. I complimented her and told her what a great job I thought she had, and how it always seemed so romantic to me.”
While at dinner with Delisi a few years back, where they were also laying the groundwork for that year's annual Detroit Concert of Colors, he had mentioned his affection for Bud Spangler, a jazz head and musician who had his own late-night show on WDET in the '60s and later became radio station's jazz program director. Was says Spangler would play everything from Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, to Sun Ra.
“I told her I'd like Bud Spangler's old gig and she talked to the people at WDET and here we are,” he says. “You know, it's new territory. But with Ann, it's not gonna go off the rails.”
“The Don Was Motor City Playlist,” a weekly program, debuts at 10 p.m. EST on Friday, April 16 and will feature a theme and a playlist that will connect to Detroit, and will find Was and Delisi conversing about collaborating with Iggy Pop, the B-52s, Brian Wilson, Dylan, the Stones, his band Was (Not Was), and his longstanding gig alongside the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir.
A young Was, who desperately wanted to be in a “cool” band like the MC5 or the Stooges, went to the University of Michigan in search of the unsearchable. He recalls playing a bowling alley in Ypsilanti, calling it “a pretty square gig” while dating a girlfriend that he describes as being “more than he could handle,” especially when coupled with the existential restlessness that comes with pursuing a formal education in music but with no desire to perform in a symphony orchestra. It wasn't until he closed the bedroom door on his Ann Arbor apartment and played Speak No Evil (which just so happens to be the theme song to “The Don Was Motor City Playlist,” by the way) that his soul realigned.
“It would take too long for me to tell the whole story of how what about the music changed things for me, but somehow I wasn't hearing Wayne Shorter playing the saxophone, it was conversational,” Was says. “And he was really talking to me about overcoming adversity. By the time side two of that album was done, I remember why I moved to Ann Arbor, I remembered what my dreams were, and I felt like myself again. And I was acutely aware that that was something major that Wayne Shorter was able to do with that record. And it made me want to do that and spend my life doing it.”
Cut to any given night performing Dead tunes with Weir, and Was says he remains acutely aware of now being the vessel to providing that same feeling that was shown to him through that day holed up in his Ann Arbor room with Shorter on vinyl.
“When I play with Weir and we do 'Ripple,' we do it as the encore like once every four or five nights and it's obviously profound, obviously meaningful,” he says. “It's obviously a heartfelt statement for a singer to make and obviously transformative and meaningful to the audience. But it's broad enough that everybody can find their own line in that song that tells the story of their life and brings some comfort, and, at the very least, takes the mind off imminent mortality for three minutes.”
He continues, “Whether it's people in a crowd or making records, I was aware of the transformative power of music early on, that's why I wanted to do it. It was about doing something that would really be meaningful to people that will improve their lives.”
He recalls a song he recorded with Raitt in 1991 called “I Can't Make You Love Me,” which he says people still come up to him to express how much that song has meant to them, mostly men in airports who say their wives play it on repeat and cry willingly because, yeah, it's one of those songs.
“That song, I know meant a lot to people,” Was says. “If can do that a few times, it's a decent way to spend your life.”
"The Don Was Motor City Playlist with Ann Delisi" debuts on 101.9 WDET-FM at 10 p.m. EST on Friday, April 16 and can be streamed via wdet.org.
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