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Remembering Michael Viner, The Man Who Recorded "Apache"

August 14, 2009 1:35 PM ET

Michael Viner, the record producer whose 1973 recording of "Apache" by the Incredible Bongo Band is the cornerstone of hip-hop, died in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 8th, from cancer. He was 65.

Viner held a number of positions in the entertainment world. He was an executive for MGM Records in the 1970s, signing Debby Boone (whose "You Light Up My Life" was Number One for 10 weeks in 1977) and helping produce Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Candy Man," which topped the charts in 1972. He also produced the second Nixon inaugural ball in early 1973, a result of his association with Republican MGM head Mike Curb, lieutenant governor of California from 1979 to 1983. (Viner's politics were more liberal; he'd worked as an aide for Robert Kennedy in the '60s.) Later, Viner's Dove imprint pioneered books-on-tape, and he later made a name publishing books based on tabloid scandal. Still, it's the much-sampled Incredible Bongo Band recordings that stand as Viner's lasting achievement.

Viner was born in 1944 and grew up in Washington, D.C. In 1970, as a joke, Viner released the infamous Best of Marcel Marceau — a live LP of a mime, consisting of two sides of silence concluded by audience applause. "I think it cost $50 to make," Viner said in an unpublished 2006 interview. The record got Curb's attention; at a party, says Viner, "Someone kidded [Curb] that I had an album on the charts and he didn't." Viner was given a production deal; "The Candy Man" was one result.

So was the Incredible Bongo Band — an ad hoc studio group Viner supervised that was put together for the soundtrack of the 1972 exploitation cheapie The Thing with Two Heads. (The Thing was played by Ray Milland, white, and Rosey Grier, black; mayhem ensued.) For a chase sequence, Viner and arranger Perry Botkin Jr. covered Preston Epps' 1959 hit "Bongo Rock" with cheesy horn charts and driving percussion, played by Bahamian bongo player King Errisson and drummer Jim Gordon, who'd been in Derek & the Dominos and co-wrote "Layla" with Eric Clapton. The song became a minor hit, and Viner, Botkin, Errisson, Gordon, and company reconvened to produce an album, also titled Bongo Rock, following the same formula: '50s and '60s instrumental hits performed with a '70s funk feel.

The album's standout was "Apache," a U.S. Number One for Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann in 1961, though it was never released as a single. Nevertheless, it became the prize cut for Bronx DJ Kool Herc, who began using two copies of the album to isolate and string together the lengthy percussion breakdown of "Apache" to keep his dancers moving. "Apache," unwittingly, became the crucial record in hip-hop's birth, and its unstoppably funky beat has been sampled countless times by artists ranging from Nas to L.L. Cool J to the Roots to Moby.

Viner eventually gave up the music business for publishing. Dove's audiobooks employed actors to read books ranging from Sidney Sheldon (read by Roger Moore) to the Bible (Gregory Peck), a first. Later, Viner published tell-all books by a variety of notorious figures, including Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, scandalous ex-New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, and disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, whose memoir is scheduled for September.

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