During a career spanning four decades, Rick DePofi has seen the recording business from various angles. He has worked with top musicians as a saxophonist, arranger, composer, record producer, and engineer, and has netted Grammy awards for his work with both Rosanne Cash and William Bell. His list of collaborators includes Paul McCartney, Michelle Branch, Kelly Clarkson, Elvis Costello, Janet Jackson, and Diana Ross, to name a few. He established his own production facility, New York Noise, where he created jingles for major clients including American Express, Xerox, Duracell, Kodak, and Dr Pepper, and TV and documentary soundtracks for The Prince & Me, Silver City, Grey’s Anatomy, and Tony Cragg: In Celebration of Sculpture.
About a year ago, DePofi put his work on hold to contend with a serious health issue, a glioblastoma brain tumor. In October, he graciously invited me to his Manhattan apartment where he lives with is wife Kristin, to look back at his career. He also invited his longtime friend and collaborator, Grammy-winning producer-guitarist John Leventhal to the interview to share insights about their projects.
Recalling his childhood, DePofi said that music became a draw for him during his early life in upstate New York. “My father played saxophone, he was a really strong tenor player,” DePofi says. “He worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Slam Stewart, and I spent a lot of time at Slam’s house. I remember going there on Christmas Day and Slam would get out his bass and ask me to play my dad’s horn with him.”
DePofi took up tenor saxophone in earnest after a brief run-in with the trumpet. “The bandleader at my school tried to get me to play trumpet,” he says. “But I knew right away the trumpet wasn’t going to be my instrument.” He embraced the tenor, and later picked up other woodwind instruments as well as various percussion instruments.
At just 15 years old, DePofi was playing in nightclubs with pop and jazz groups. After high school, he hit the road traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard playing in the horn sections of r&b dance groups. At 22, he decided to enroll at Berklee. “I got there in 1977 and was older than many of the other students,” DePofi remembers. “There were a lot of good players there, but I’d had more work experience than most. I had two of the greatest teachers at Berklee, John LaPorta and Herb Pomeroy. I don’t know why, but John liked something about my playing.” In addition to his studies in arranging and composition, DePofi played in the Berklee Recording Band under Pomeroy’s direction and with Phil Wilson’s Rainbow Band.
Connecting in New York
After earning his degree in 1981, DePofi headed to New York City to launch his career. While searching for an apartment, he had the good fortune to encounter Jack Bashkow, a musician who also worked in real estate. Bashkow helped him find housing and musical work. DePofi’s first gig in the city was a duo appearance with the late ukulele-playing crooner Tiny Tim. Among the many musicians he later encountered was John Leventhal, who was beginning to establish his career as a studio guitarist and producer.
“We met on a gig with [late guitarist] Jeff Golub [’78],” Leventhal recalls. “It was a fluke that Jeff hired a second guitar player for this gig at a bar in the East Village called Nightingales. Rick was on the gig too and we were playing r&b-fusion stuff. I recognized right away that he had a slightly different take on the tenor. I think he felt I had a different take on the guitar, and we became friends.” The two come from different stylistic backgrounds. DePofi’s roots are in jazz and r&b, Leventhal’s are in Americana-oriented blues, folk, country, r&b, and rock. In improvisation they found common ground. They formed a group that worked weekly at Preachers on Bleecker Street playing “original tunes that were a little outside the fusion realm” as Leventhal describes them.
Leventhal’s career as a songwriter and record producer lifted off after he worked as a producer and songwriter with Shawn Colvin on her 1989 album Steady On. DePofi was also gaining traction writing, playing, and arranging for jingle sessions. DePofi opened New York Noise, a production studio with a business partner, Craig Bishop around 1988 at about the same time Leventhal was building his home studio.
“We were both a little ahead of the curve in setting up our own recording studios,” Leventhal recalls. “Each of us was interested in engineering and music technology. Rick was more technologically inclined than I was. He helped me set up my studio.”
DePofi and Bishop began producing music and sound design for ads, television, and documentary films, and recordings for musical artists at New York Noise. “We had a beautiful room to record in,” says DePofi. “For my jingles with orchestra, I’d work at the Power Station [later known as Avatar]” he says. “I had some sessions with as many as 60 players. I did a lot of work in jingles. It was nice to start making some money after starving for several years.”
Offering Unvarnished Opinions
DePofi and Leventhal had been friends for a few years before they began professional collaborations in the studio. “We eventually began working on productions together,” Leventhal says. “I’d hire Rick to play on the records I was producing whenever I needed horns. When I was doing the How Sweet It Is album with Joan Osborne in 2002, I decided that I wanted to record it at Rick’s studio and we coproduced it. That was the start of our working together in a more visceral, creative way.”
Leventhal says he could always rely on DePofi for an honest appraisal of the project’s progress. “He wasn’t as invested in the details as I was,” Leventhal shares.” On various album projects, the two found that their different approaches to record making complemented each other. Leventhal typically played many of the instruments himself. While DePofi usually hired whatever studio musicians he needed for his jingle work.
“The productions started to have something that was different than what you might get from a person that plays on a lot of sessions,” Leventhal adds. “I was looking for something with a slight eccentricity to it.” “The more we worked together the better I liked this approach,” adds DePofi. “For me, it seemed more organic than working with the cats.”
The two worked on many recordings, frequently changing roles. One would engineer while the other laid down a track. Through the years, DePofi and Leventhal have undertaken a number of high-profile projects together and separately. On recordings Leventhal produced for Marc Cohn,
such as The Rainy Season, Burning the Daze, Playlist 1970, and Listening Booth, he brought DePofi in to arrange and play horn tracks as well as to engineer. For Michelle Branch’s Hotel Paper and Everything Comes and Goes albums, and the records Branch made with Jessica Harp as the Wreckers, both Leventhal and DePofi received producer credits and played various instruments. The two also collaborated on the production of the song “April 5th,” sung by Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, and Rosanne Cash (Leventhal’s wife). In 2015, Leventhal and DePofi each received a Grammy Award for their work with Cash on The River and the Thread album.
Paul Needed Horn Charts
When asked for a high point among the many entries on his résumé, DePofi cites his work with Paul McCartney. “I used to have a studio with three rooms, and Paul McCartney rented one of the rooms to work with producer David Kahne,” DePofi says. “Paul was in my studio for about two weeks and I got to know him. He was very funny. Later, Paul called me to write horn charts for some recordings he was producing for his son James at Avatar Studios.” Many would agree that working in the studio with a Beatle is pretty good work—if you can get it.
Another project for DePofi at Avatar/Power Station had ripple effects back to his alma mater. While producing an album for singer, songwriter, and Berklee trustee Pete Muller at the famed studio where countless iconic records have been made, DePofi mentioned to Muller that the Power Station was going to be sold. DePofi said he wanted to find a way to save the studio he’d worked in for more than two decades and a way for Berklee to establish a presence in Manhattan. Muller liked what DePofi termed his “crazy idea,” and after discussions with Berklee administrators and trustees, purchased the studio. Stephen Webber, Berklee’s executive director of Berklee NYC and dean of strategic initiatives, brought together the New York’s Mayor’s Office and Berklee in a joint public, private, nonprofit effort that will enable the recording facility to continue to operate and expand its mission.
At a September 22, 2017 event at the Midtown studio where the plans were announced, Berklee President Roger Brown took the occasion to honor DePofi for his numerous musical accomplishments and for sharing his vision for the studio. Presenting DePofi with Berklee’s American Master Award that night, Brown said, “Rick, you’ve done so much for the Berklee community. If you hadn’t recorded here and tossed around your ‘crazy idea’ with Pete Muller, we might not be celebrating Power Station BerkleeNYC today.”
The event illustrates another of Leventhal’s observations, that DePofi is a problem solver. “If you have a technological, musical, or personal problem, he can solve it,” Leventhal says. “Rick had a tough, hardscrabble childhood. He had to support himself at all levels—spiritually, financially, and emotionally from an early age—and he helped his brothers and sisters too. That’s when he learned to become a problem solver. After he got sick recently, he looked back at his life and told me, ‘I’ve come a long way.’ He’s overcome a lot of things. He’s been involved in a lot of cool creative projects, and had a really successful company. He looks back with a certain degree of satisfaction thinking of where he came from and where he’s gotten to. What more could you want than to look back at your life and say, ‘Not a bad arc.’” DePofi chimes in, “That’s how I feel. Whatever happens, I can say I am really grateful.”