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Joel Dorn, 1942-2007

Producing records was his 'art form'

Joel Dorn, the Grammy-winning record producer from Yeadon who got his start as a jazz DJ in Philadelphia and went on to work with Roberta Flack, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, died of a heart attack on Monday in New York City.

He was 65.

Mr. Dorn got his start in the music business in 1961 as a DJ for Philadelphia radio station WHAT-FM. "The DJ gig was a great way to get to know all record companies and get involved in the business, but I had my heart set on producing the entire time," Mr. Dorn said recently.

In 1967, he moved to Atlantic Records, where until 1974 he worked alongside the label's jazz head, Nesuhi Ertegun - with whom the young Mr. Dorn had begun corresponding when he was 14. Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Eddie Harris and David "Fathead" Newman all recorded for the label in that period.

In 1972 and 1973, Mr. Dorn won back-to-back record-of-the-year Grammys for Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly With His Song."

Throughout his career, Mr. Dorn said recently, his strategy was to "bring pop techniques and pop sensibilities to jazz and R & B records." He cited songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and producer Phil Spector as his biggest influences.

"He had a very good ear," Newman, who worked with Mr. Dorn on more than a dozen albums for Atlantic, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "And he also had very good ideas and concepts for the music, a lot of which he got from his experiences as a DJ."

Newman had good reason to pay attention to Mr. Dorn's radio show: the young DJ turned Newman's song "Hard Times" into a hit by opening his WHAT show with it every night.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the saxophonist famous for playing three instruments simultaneously, would only work with Mr. Dorn, recalled his widow, Dorthaan Kirk.

"Rahsaan wasn't easy to work with," she recalled with a laugh. "But he had come to trust Joel. He didn't want to work with anybody but him. And after he died [in 1977], Joel was the single person responsible for keeping interest in his music alive."

Mr. Dorn "was a giant in every way," said producer Hal Willner, the producer and Northeast Philadelphia native who is music director for

Saturday Night Live

. In an e-mail yesterday, Willner called Mr. Dorn "the funniest man I ever met."

"As a producer he understood record making as an art form like painting, film and literature. His influence is far deeper than the general public will ever realize. He was truly a magician, and the trick never showed."

In 1974, Mr. Dorn, who signed Bette Midler as well as Flack to Atlantic, left the label and went on to produce albums by Lou Rawls, Leon Redbone, Mink DeVille and the Neville Brothers.

Along with knob twiddlers like John Hammond and Joe Boyd, Mr. Dorn, who was celebrated by the Recording Academy in a tribute yesterday as "a true music lover," was was one of the greatest of a brand of producers who weren't musicians, but worked in a broad range of musical styles and shaped the careers of artists they worked with.

When Willner, who apprenticed under Mr. Dorn in the '70s, first went to work for his mentor, "he was mixing Jimmy Scott, doing overdubs on Peter Allen and recording Don McLean. Plus, I got to see two Roland Kirk records done. It was incredible to watch."

Mr. Dorn founded a series of independent record labels beginning in the 1980s, including the Hyena label, whose artists include his son Adam, recording under the name Mocean Worker.

In 1997, he released

Songs That Made the Phones Light Up

, on his 32 label, a collection of soul and jazz tracks that were favorites in the early days of his music career when he was spinning records for WHAT. He expressed his appreciation for his listeners with a credit line that read: "Produced by the audience of WHAT-FM 1961-67."

Mr. Dorn produced the 13-CD boxed-set history of the Atlantic Jazz years for Rhino and earned a Grammy nomination for a seven-CD John Coltrane set called

The Heavyweight Champion

. At the time of his death, he was working on a boxed set for the reissue label called

Homage a Nesuhi

, a tribute to the executive who handed him his first job as a record producer, with flutist Hubert Laws'

The Laws of Jazz

in 1963.

Mr. Dorn is also survived by his sons David and Michael, and longtime companion Faye Rosen.