Jimmy Iovine: The Man With the Magic Ears

Legendary producer looks back on a life chasing the perfect sound

American recording engineer and producer (and later founding executive of Interscope Records) Jimmy Iovine, circa 1980.
Oliver Morris/Getty images
April 12, 2012 12:00 AM ET

In 1975, 21-year-old Jimmy Iovine had the most exciting and grueling job in rock: engineering the sessions for Bruce Springsteen's third album, Born to Run. Each day, before he caught the subway to the Record Plant in Manhattan, Iovine – a Brooklyn native of Italian descent – walked by his father's social club. Once, he overheard his dad, a longshoreman, talking to a friend outside. "The guy asks my dad, 'What is it with your son, with the music and the headphones? What is this shit he does?'" Iovine recalls, laughing. "My dad goes, 'He's got magic ears. He can hear what you're thinking.'"

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That may be the best description ever of the ideal record producer. It is also the perfect summation of Iovine's extraordinary life and ascent in music: In the Seventies and Eighties, he helped create dozens of classic rock albums, as an engineer for Springsteen and John Lennon, then as a producer for Patti Smith (Easter), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Damn the Torpedoes), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna) and U2 (Rattle and Hum). "I was trying to do something," Iovine says now, "that I'd never heard before: singer-songwriters with a power sound."

In 1990, after quitting production, Iovine co-founded Interscope Records, reinventing himself as an unlikely rap-music mogul. The label's chairman, he has built and astutely guided a multiplatinum stable of hip-hop stars and producers, including Dr. Dre, Eminem and Will.i.am, while working intimately with pop and rock acts such as U2, No Doubt, Lady Gaga and, lately, Lana Del Rey. Iovine, who turned 59 on March 11th, has also expanded into music hardware. In 2008, the very week Lehman Brothers collapsed, he and Dre launched a line of headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre, that now accounts for more than 20 percent of the national market. Last year, the company grossed $500 million in the U.S. "Beats is just us knowing sound and what a good product is," Dre claims. But, he adds, "Jimmy has this term: 'I smell blood.' When he says that, I know he's on to something."

Iovine is on television, too. He just began his second season on American Idol, mentoring contestants with the same candor with which he'll tell U2 when they have just written a surefire hit – or haven't. "He's a heat-seeking missile," Bono says of his close friend, who produced U2's 1983 EP Under a Blood Red Sky. "Jimmy wants everything cut like a diamond that can be seen from a long distance. And he's not subtle about how he tells you." "There's this thing: 'Jimmy Jail,' we call it," says No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani. "You're writing a record, and it's always 'You're not done. One more song.' It's intimidating. But you want to be part of his history. He brings that out of you."

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The younger of two children, Iovine was a dropout from New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice when he got his first studio job at 19, sweeping floors. His only musical experience was a few teenage years playing bass in a local band. Iovine defines his principal gifts this way: "I hear impact and emotion." And, he notes, "I'm good at snap decisions. But if you let me, I will chew something to death. I make my world chaotic. It's like a whirlpool."

He described that chaos in detail – particularly his crucial adventures with Lennon, Springsteen and Smith – over two long interviews, firing anecdotes at machine-gun speed in a raspy Brooklyn accent salted with wisecracks and expletives. He analyzed the current uncertain state of rock and his industry the same way, and he led me on a guided tour of his daily grind at Interscope's offices, including a conference with the company's R&B promotion and marketing staff; a quick chat with Gaga's manager Troy Carter on the way to another appointment; and a long meeting with young hip-hop artist Azealia Banks, whom Iovine was trying to sign. (He did.) Yet at every stop, whether assessing club-play prospects for a Timbaland track or dissecting U2's last album over lunch, Iovine talked like he was still cutting tracks himself – about hooks, feel and songwriting; raving about the best, demanding more.

Iovine, who is divorced with four children, doesn't miss making records. "Producing is too small a hole," he claims, compared to his Interscope, Beats and television action. "But Jimmy set a standard in commitment I still look for," Petty says. "He would throw himself on a grenade to get the track. He also had this saying, when we finished a take and asked how it was. He'd go, 'You're a million miles away.'" Petty laughs. "Jimmy wouldn't give you anything until you really gave him something."

* * * * *

What is the state of your hearing after four decades in the record business?
Really good. It's shocking. I've lost top end and volume, like if you're mumbling. That gives me a problem. My kids know it drives me nuts, so they do it even more. But I test all of the Beats headphones. I can tell you from two blocks away if they sound right. It's a great thing to be good at. I made a fortune off it.

Has your hearing survived because you got out of the studio?
Yeah. I stopped producing at 38. What I felt in my twenties, I stopped hearing in my thirties. I didn't feel a thing. I felt it again when I started working with Dre and Trent Reznor. But they wouldn't have asked me to produce their albums. They didn't need to sound like Tom Petty.

Are you a better label boss because you were a producer?
I use my producer chops, but I run the company like an assistant engineer. I make sure everything is going cool. The people at my company are all assistant engineers. That's how I want people to behave. I'm in the service business.

My only regret about Interscope is I can't fix the image of a record company. No matter what I do, if somebody's record stiffs, they are trained to blame the building. Even your greatest friends, when they want more money, their lawyer wants more money – they point at the building. And you're the building. I'm not saying I did everything right or wrong. But I could never fix that. It's too ingrained – the idea that the industry steals from people.

But two of the greatest albums you worked on – Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town and Petty's Damn the Torpedoes – were made while the artists were in the middle of life-and-death legal battles. Was the industry your enemy then?
One hundred percent. I wouldn't let the label into the studio. I didn't want to hear the record through them. If I play you a record and you don't say a word, don't smile, nothin', I'm fucked. The musician is fucked. There's a balance now when I work with people like Gwen and No Doubt or U2.

How do you make their records better without producing them?
Very simple. It was U2's first year on Interscope. Bono came to me and said, "We fucked up with [1997's] Pop. The band has lost its relevance in America, and we have to regain that. I'll make a deal with you: We're not putting an album out until you tell us we have a single." I went back six times to Europe, to see them while they were making All That You Can't Leave Behind. One day, they played me "Beautiful Day." And I said, "That's it."

I use my producing skills in an A&R capacity. Look at Gwen's career. I put her with Dre as a solo act for "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" [a 2001 duet with the rapper Eve]. I convinced No Doubt to work with Pharrell Williams. Then I put Gwen with Akon as a producer on [2006's] The Sweet Escape. Those are my skills. I know who can work together. If I hear a writer and a producer, or a producer and a track, I go, "Do it like that." I just have the knack.

Where did you get it? You had no technical experience or formal music education when you started working in studios.
My parents were Italian people. I was spoiled. I have a sister, seven years older than me. She spoiled me too. I learned how to do absolutely nothing – I didn't learn one thing in high school. If I had to get a job at the A&P, they had to teach me how to sweep.

I got my first studio job through [songwriter] Ellie Greenwich. A cousin of mine was a friend of a friend of hers. I went to her house with this guy, and she thought I was funny. She got me a job at Groove Sound. I was the guy who cleaned up. They wouldn't let me touch anything. Then she got me a job at A&R Studios. They gave me a chance. One day I got to be the second engineer for James Brown. After every take, he would come into the control room and a guy would do his hair.

I had a 90-day trial period. On the 90th day, they said, "You're not a natural for this." Ellie said, "Go see Roy Cicala and Eddie Germano at the Record Plant." They liked me. I never thought I knew how to do anything. But I did: I knew how to make people like me. It's like walking to me. My father used to say, "There's no room better than before you got there."

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