Blues for Joel

This column is dedicated to the memory of Joel Dorn, a multiple Grammy Award-winning music producer, founder of Hyena Records, a friend to musicians and the one who taught me the most about music.

I guess it was about 1957 when I first ran into Joel Dornblum. He was wearing a tweedy suit with contrasting vest. He stood out among the rest of us Temple University students like George Clooney at an AARP convention. We were wearing khakis. He was wearing natty suits.

Joel was a couple of years younger than I, a freshman when I was a junior, both of us majoring in communications at Temple in the days when radio was beginning to fade as the bright star of television ascended. Joel might have been younger, but he was already very much a man of the world, a guy with a smooth voice and movie-star looks. The rest of us seemed trivial and silly in the company of all that urbane and suave sophistication. If we were comedians, he was Lenny Bruce and we were Henny Youngman.

We became unlikely friends and that’s when he taught me about the blues and real jazz. Until I met Joel, I thought music began and ended with Sinatra and big bands. Joel knew about Ray Charles before white audiences discovered him. His obsession with Charles became my obsession. Joel had attended every Ray Charles concert on the East Coast, so I began going to everyone in the area.

The first time I saw Charles live, I knew what Joel meant when he talked about soul. I was hooked. The audience was almost devoid of white faces. I took a date to his concert at old Convention Hall. If girls were bread, my date was Wonder Bread, white Wonder Bread. She got scared when the crowd went into a frenzy and it ticked me off she wanted to leave in the middle of Ray wailing "What’d I Say." She never got asked to go again.

Joel loved the rich heritage of African-American music. He knew the most obscure rhythm-and-blues artists, the purveyors of Delta blues and the very best jazz performers. Joel knew all the names of the musicians in the Modren Jazz Quartet like most of us knew the Phillies lineup. He latched on to a talented vocalist by the name of Betty Carter, who was not mass appeal. But Betty had earned her stripes by recording with Charles. Soon Joel was having Ray and Betty to his parents’ home for dinner.

When Joel graduated Temple, he naturally gravitated toward the music he loved. He became a disc jockey on WHAT-FM here in Philly, the nation’s first all-jazz station. The "blum" had dropped off the end of his name and he became known as Joel Dorn. He grew a beard and lost the suits.

Joel did not know musical boundaries. To him, there was only bad music and good music. He pushed the envelope at the station, playing a lot of gospel-influenced jazz and soul mixed with rhythm-and-blues. He played Charles, who was not strictly speaking a jazz artist. He introduced audiences to a great sax man who had played with Charles, particularly on the live at Newport album. Soon the sound of David "Fathead" Newman became his theme song. Joel was a drop-dead great DJ in the tradition of the greats of that era, but it wasn’t enough to hold his talents.

It was as a music producer he became known to the wider world, especially when he won multiple Grammys. Ironicly, this great booster of pure blues and soul won his first Grammy for "Killing Me Softly With His Song" with great crossover artist Roberta Flack. He began to introduce audiences to unappreciated talent.

I lost track of Joel for awhile and then a few years ago, I picked up a CD by Zoot Sims and his quintet, a live session in Philadelphia. The CD was a re-issue of a ’50s recording, but it was brightly packaged and the sound was digitally re-recorded. It was a great buy at $7.99. And that’s when I discovered Hyena Records, a company Joel owned and ran with his sons. The man was still boosting great music. A year or so later, I came across a compilation of great Bobby Darin recordings on Joel’s label. The CD came with a DVD, also narrated by Joel, complete with rare concert footage. This was just about when the public was rediscovering the late pop singer.

In my excitement, I tried to reconnect with Joel. I wanted to tell him what a great record of Darin’s work he had produced. I wanted to thank him for teaching me so much about music. We swapped phone messages, but never got to talk.

When I think of Joel Dorn, I think of a night in March of ’61. I was leaving for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas the next day. He and a friend had stopped by to say their farewells. In my gratitude, I gave Joel my album of prisoners in a Mississippi State penitentiary. Backed only by a harmonica, they sang some really mournful blues.

Sing the blues for the passing of Joel Dorn at too early an age. His life was a celebration of music.