A legendary figure in the California music industry during the 1960s and 1970s, Lou Adler produced some of the most successful acts of the period, including the Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, Cheech and Chong, and Jan and Dean. Initially a songwriter for Sam Cooke, among others, he discovered the Mamas and the Papas through his own label, Dunhill Records. Their string of hits allowed him to co-produce the groundbreaking Monterey International Pop Festival, which introduced American audiences to the likes of the Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. Adler formed Ode Records in the late '60s, and scored a giant hit with Tapestry (1972) by former songwriter Carole King, as well as a cult phenomenon with "The Rocky Horror Show," a gender-bending British musical he later adapted as the seminal cult film "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975). After directing Cheech and Chong's debut film, "Up in Smoke," he moved away from the entertainment business, focusing on charitable organizations while serving as one of the industry's most knowledgeable sounding boards. His vast collection of Top 10 hits and million-selling albums made Lou Adler one of the most accomplished figures in modern pop music.
Born on Dec. 13, 1933, Lou Adler was raised by his Jewish-Mexican family in the tough, largely Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. He received his earliest tutelage in the music business from producer-songwriter Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, who managed soul singer Sam Cooke. Through Blackwell, Adler learned how to construct a memorable pop song, and with fellow up-and-comer Herb Alpert, penned material for such artists as Cooke ("Wonderful World") and Jan and Dean, whom Adler also managed. In the early 1960s, he split with Alpert and joined the publishing company Aldon Music, where he became familiar with the songs of husband-and-wife writing team Carole King and Gerry Goffin. After stints with the Colpix and Dimension record labels, he struck out on his own, forming Dunhill Records in 1964.
The label's earliest recordings featured actress Shelley Fabares, who was also Adler's first wife, as well as singer-guitarist Johnny Rivers' At the Whiskey a Go Go. But in 1965, Dunhill scored a huge hit with Barry McGuire's apocalyptic folk tune "Eve of Destruction," penned by two of its staff songwriters, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, who also wrote several substantial hits for the label's resident folk-rockers, the Grass Roots. The song's success convinced Adler to turn his attention away from the safe pop of Jan and Dean and towards the growing counterculture movement. Through McGuire, he was introduced to a vocal pop quartet called the Mamas and the Papas, whose gorgeous four-part harmonies gilded the thoughtful, emotional complex songs of its leader, John Phillips. The Mamas and the Papas became one of Dunhill's biggest acts, scoring six Top 10 singles, all produced by Adler, between 1966 and 1967.
After separating from Fabares in 1966, Adler sold Dunhill at the height of its hit-making potential, earning a considerable profit from its buyer, ABC Records. He then went on to form Ode Records, and produced its first pop hit with "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" by Scott McKenzie, an associate of John Phillips. The song became the unofficial theme for the hippie movement on the West Coast, and helped to give Adler the clout to launch a massive three-day pop and rock festival in Monterey, CA in 1967. With Phillips, he brought together a stellar lineup of new performers to the Monterey International Pop Festival who would go on to help define the music of the 1960s, including Jefferson Airplane, the Who, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, sitar master Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix, whose onstage guitar immolation provided a jaw-dropping conclusion to the festival and its accompanying documentary, D.A. Pennebaker's "Monterey Pop" (1968), which he also produced.
The following year, Carole King left New York for Los Angeles, where she attempted to establish herself as an artist. Adler produced her three initial efforts, including a brief stay in a rock group called The City, before generating one of the biggest albums of the 1970s, Tapestry. Its blend of confessional songwriting and soulful singing not only earned Adler two Grammys for Record of the Year ("It's Too Late") and Album of the Year, but was also instrumental in launching the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s, as epitomized by such performers as James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.
Adler would continue to produce King for Ode until she left the label at the end of the 1970s. During that period, he also began experimenting with other types of recordings and media, including comedy records by an underground duo named Cheech and Chong. The multi-racial pair's drug-related humor made them heroes of the early '70s counterculture, and Adler would oversee their best work of the decade. He also opened his own nightclub, the Roxy, on the Sunset Strip, which hosted legendary performances by the likes of Neil Young, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and the Ramones. In 1974, it served as the American home base for an odd British rock musical called The Rocky Horror Show, which Adler had seen with his then-girlfriend Britt Ekland in London and impulsively bought the Stateside theatrical rights. The following year, Adler co-produced the film version, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), which defined the midnight movie phenomenon of the 1970s while becoming a rite of passage for young people for decades.
Flush with the success of his initial ventures into film, Adler made his directorial debut with "Up in Smoke" (1978), a ramshackle comedy built loosely around Cheech and Chong's stage material. It became the 12th highest grossing film of the year, and established the duo as movie stars. However, his second turn in the director's chair, "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains" (1981), failed to secure a widespread release, despite its punk rock storyline and constellation of punk stars in its cast, including members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The film would go on to enjoy a healthy second life as a cult favorite on video.
The 1980s saw Adler shutter Ode Records after it underwent several closures and rebirths, including a short stint with old writer partner Herb Alpert's A&M Records. Sony Music absorbed its catalog, but Adler wisely retained the rights to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" soundtrack, which remained an evergreen popular item. In 1993, he teamed with actress Shelley Duvall for the children's music label Ode 2 Kids, which released the surprise hit My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver (1992), an album of kids' songs penned and performed by Richard "Cheech" Marin during his career as a solo talent.
In 1992, he married actress Paige Hannah, sister of actress Daryl Hannah. They would later co-found the Painted Turtle, a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses that became part of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camps. Though no longer entirely active in the music business, save for a studio he shared with his son, musician and producer Cisco Adler, he remained a legendary figure in the industry and a frequent source for interviews about the music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. He was also frequently seen court-side at Los Angeles Lakers games with diehard Lakers fan and his longtime friend Jack Nicholson. In 1999, he served as the inspiration for Peter Fonda's character, a record producer and drug dealer, in Steven Soderbergh's meta-thriller "The Limey."
By Paul Gaita