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Nat Tarnopol at Bell Sound Studio in 1960
|Born||January 26, 1931
|Died||December 25, 1987 (aged 56)|
|Occupation||American record producer|
Nat Tarnopol (January 26, 1931 – December 25, 1987) was an American record producer. He played a vital role in producing and shaping R&B music throughout the 1960s and 1970s as the president of Brunswick Records, a subsidiary label of Decca Records. Responsible for launching the careers of The Chi-Lites, Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis, Barbara Acklin and The Young-Holt Unlimited, Tarnopol scored 150 songs on the Billboard charted singles between 1957 and 1981.
Tarnopol was the younger of two sons born to first generation Americans from Eastern Europe on January 26, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan. As a young man, Tarnopol’s two passions were baseball and R&B music. His mother, Pearl Tarnopol, died shortly after his twelfth birthday, which forced Tarnopol to spend the remainder of his childhood in the home of his Aunt Lena. His parents originally wanted him to become a rabbi. As a star shortstop, Tarnopol was scouted by, and was offered deals to sign with, both the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox. After considering the low wages earned by ballplayers at that time, and the anti-Semitism that afflicted Jewish athletes such as Detroit’s Hank Greenberg, Tarnopol passed on both offers. Without money for college, Tarnopol took a job with Detroit’s Union Tire company and began spending his spare time at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit’s Black Bottom district.
It was at the Flame Show Bar in 1956 where Tarnopol met and began working with Al Green (not be confused with singer Al Green or Albert "Al" Green of the now defunct National Records), who owned the club and managed Atlantic Recording artist LaVern Baker, as well as singers Johnnie Ray and Little Willie John. At Tarnopol’s insistence, Green signed a management contract with a young Jackie Wilson, who had decided to leave Billy Ward and the Dominoes for a solo career. By the time Decca Records was ready to sign Wilson, Green died, leaving the entire job of management to Tarnopol, who was only 25.
Decca placed Wilson on their Brunswick label, which had become their depository for black recording artists as well as Buddy Holly’s Crickets, who Decca first thought were black until they actually met them in person. The breakout hit for Wilson was “Lonely Teardrops” in 1958, which was written by fledgling songwriters Berry Gordy Jr., Gwendolyn Gordy and Roquel "Billy" Davis. According to Jackie Wilson, “Lonely Teardrops” was originally written and recorded as a blues ballad. After playing it back in the recording in the studio, it was Tarnopol who instructed Decca’s staff producer Dick Jacobs to reconfigure the song as an up-tempo recording. “Lonely Teardrops” became a number one record which skyrocketed Jackie Wilson’s singing career and helped provide Berry Gordy the funds used to establish his Hitsville USA recording studio, the foundation for his Tamla and Motown record labels.
Decca’s ultra conservative approach to music and promotion was a continuous hurdle that Tarnopol struggled with for years to come. In March 1959, Decca refused to manufacture sufficient numbers of the single “That's Why (I Love You So)” until Tarnopol personally guaranteed the additional costs to cover the required pressing of 250,000 records. Producer Dick Jacobs recalls that, on several occasions, Tarnopol was forced to record music which was published by and/or selected by Decca’s A&R chief in order to get authorization for Wilson to gain access to the recording studio.
In 1960, Tarnopol persuaded Decca to guarantee Wilson an advance of a quarter of a million dollars to re-sign with the company. This was six times the money that Elvis and Sun Records received from RCA just four years earlier. In order to keep both Tarnopol and Wilson on board, Decca also agreed to make Brunswick an independent label shared by Decca and a production company owned by Tarnopol. In 1962 Decca Records became part of MCA Inc.
In 1966, displeased with the direction Jackie Wilson’s recording career had taken, Tarnopol contracted Chicago’s Carl Davis to produce one album for Wilson. Positive of Davis’s production ability, Tarnopol made Davis Vice President of A&R for Brunswick and built a recording studio on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Tarnopol then expanded the label by signing mostly Chicago based artists. Over the next four years, Tarnopol had fourteen top ten Billboard hits with The Chi-Lites, Barbara Acklin, Tyrone Davis, Young-Holt Unlimited, Gene Chandler, Jackie Wilson and The Artistics.
By 1970 relations between Decca’s executives and Tarnopol had continued to deteriorate and Tarnopol wanted out. To resolve the problem, a deal was struck for Tarnopol to purchase the remaining 50% of Brunswick from MCA. However, MCA insisted on maintaining their rights to manufacture and distribute all of Tarnopol’s recordings. After conducting an audit of MCA in 1972, which uncovered roughly a million dollars in unpaid record sales, Tarnopol was finally able to break free from all manufacturing and distribution ties to MCA. Between the years of 1970 and 1975, Tarnopol totaled nineteen Top Ten Billboard records and had rebuilt the Brunswick trademark.
According to Ron Blomberg, by the mid 70’s Tarnopol was more interested in purchasing the New York Yankees than anything else. Baseball had always been Tarnopol’s outlet from the turmoil of the music industry, and it was not uncommon for ball players like Thurman Munson or Reggie Jackson to be seen hanging out in Tarnopol’s Manhattan office. Reggie Jackson credited Tarnopol with orchestrating the deal that brought Jackson to the Yankees from the Baltimore Orioles.
In 1975, Tarnopol, along with Clive Davis of Arista Records, Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International and sixteen other independent record executives were charged on a variety of financial irregularities stemming from a government investigation of payola in the record industry. Also in the indictment was the charge that Tarnopol owed at least $1 million in royalties to Jackie Wilson. In 1976 Tarnopol and the others were found guilty. Tarnopol was ultimately cleared by an appellate court in 1977. Although the conviction was overturned, judges went into detail, outlining that Tarnopol and Brunswick Records did defraud their artists of royalties, and that they were satisfied that there was sufficient evidence for Wilson to file a lawsuit. However, a trial to sue Tarnopol for royalties never took place, as Wilson lay in a nursing home semi-comatose. Tarnopol never paid Wilson monies he had coming to him, and Wilson died riddled with debt to the IRS and Brunswick Records. The legal costs of the case drained the label’s resources and seriously handicapped Tarnopol’s ability to produce and promote records. Compounded by a growing conflict with the management of Brunswick’s key recording artists, Tarnopol was forced to sell off Brunswick’s publishing wing in order to keep the record label financially afloat. According to former Uni Records head Russ Regan, Tarnopol was emotionally devastated by this series of events and was never the same man afterwards.
One of the highlights of the federal tax fraud trial of Tarnopol and seven Brunswick executives came when Eugene Record testified that he had been assaulted during a contract negotiation at Brunswick's New York office. Record stated that he asked Tarnopol for advanced money on a recording in 1972 when an associate of Tarnopol's, whom Record identified as Johnny Roberts, asked Tarnopol "should I twist his nose off?" Before any answer came, Record said Roberts "suddenly began to twist my nose, and when I pushed his arm away he punched me in the face, knocking my glasses off." A similar story concerns Jackie Wilson, who reportedly was hung out of Tarnopol's office window by his feet when Wilson asked about money, according to Chuck Barksdale of The Dells. 
The last major hit for Tarnopol was the roller skating anthem "Bounce Rock Skate Roll" by Vaughan Mason & Crew, which reached the Number Five position on the Billboard R&B chart in the spring of 1980. However, by this time the landscape of the music industry was undergoing dramatic changes, while experiencing a slump in record sales. Without sufficient funding to ride it out, Tarnopol ceased producing records and closed his offices in 1982, just a few years shy of the CD sales boom.
After several years of financial hardship and poor health, Nat Tarnopol succumbed to congestive heart failure on December 25, 1987 at the age of 56. Tarnopol’s best known hit recordings were “Oh Girl” and “Have You Seen Her” by the Chi-Lites, the Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut” and “Wack Wack,” the Tyrone Davis classics “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” and “Can I Change My Mind” and Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops,” “Baby Workout” and “Higher & Higher.” Many of the songs that Tarnopol first recorded have been sampled by artists such as Jay-Z, Paul Wall, Fantasia, Jaheim, Joss Stone and Beyoncé.
Brunswick Records is still owned by the Tarnopol family and Nat's son Paul is president of the company.
Nat, his wife June and his son Paul, aged four was photographed in their backyard by Diane Arbus in 1968. The picture was published in a story "Two American Families" that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine (London), November 10, 1968. The picture was included in her portfolio, a Box of Ten Photographs. It has appeared in Arbus shows at the Met Museum in New York and elsewhere.
- Pruter (1992), p. 264
- Blomberg (2006), p. 119
- Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 26. ISSN 0006-2510. Retrieved 2014-11-23.
- United States of America v. Nat Tarnopol, Appellant, Peter Garris, Irving Wiegan, Leeshep, Carl Davis, Melvin Moore and Carmine De Noia.appeal of Peter Garris.appeal of Irving Wiegan.appeal of Lee Shep. United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit. - 561 F.2d 466.
- on YouTube
- Top Ten. St. Petersburg Times. March 15, 1980.
- The Story of Brunswick. Union Square Music.
- Simmonds (2008), p. 230
- Blomberg, Ron (2006). Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story. Sports Publishing LLC. ISBN 978-1-58261-987-3.
- Pruter, Robert (1992). Chicago Soul. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06259-9.
- Simmonds, Jeremy (2008). The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-55652-754-8.