Music News & Reviews

The hits just keep on coming for Arroyo Grande music producer

Keith Olsen and Ozzy Osbourne mix it up in the studio in this undated photo.
Keith Olsen and Ozzy Osbourne mix it up in the studio in this undated photo. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KEITH OLSEN

Producer Keith Olsen was working on a new Pat Benatar record in the early 1980s when a music manager offered him a deal.

“He said, ‘If you do two songs with my artist, I’ll build you a room,’ ” Olsen said. “ ‘You’ll have your own studio.’ ”

It seemed like a big gamble for the manager, Joe Gottfried, because he actually owned a music studio — and relied on Olsen to provide much of his business.

“I was his No. 1 client,” Olsen said. “I booked one of his two rooms 365 days a year.”

Thinking he’d gotten the better end of a lopsided bargain, Olsen took the offer. And Gottfried’s client eventually arrived with a collection of demos.

One of the songs made Olsen’s eyes light up. But while Olsen was the hottest producer around, the songwriter, Rick Springfield, wasn’t so sure about that one.

“I never really thought of it as a single,” Springfield said. “I thought there were better songs on the album, actually. But — I was wrong.”

With Olsen as the producer, “Jessie’s Girl” would become a No. 1 hit, and after years of trying, Springfield was finally a rock star.

“As it turns out, I guess he was right about the song because it has taken on a life of its own,” Springfield said. “I certainly credit him with picking it out from the batch of songs as something special. He always had a great ear for a song.”

While last weekend’s Grammy Awards honored some of the year’s best artists, Olsen, whose Arroyo Grande home is overflowing with gold and platinum records, has won six Grammys in past years.

Meanwhile, his name appears on the labels of several blockbuster songs, including Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and Whitesnake’s “Is This Love.” His most significant achievement, though, is his work with Fleetwood Mac — not only as a producer, but also as the guy who helped assemble the lineup that rose to superstardom in the 1970s.

“My life is divided into two halves,” Olsen said. “Before Fleetwood Mac and after Fleetwood Mac.”

Before Fleetwood Mac

After growing up in South Dakota and Minnesota, Olsen studied music at the University of Minnesota. In the 1960s, the classically trained musician played bass for several acts and was in the band Music Machine, which had a top 20 hit with “Talk Talk.”

But too many scary incidents on the road made him reconsider his career as a musician.

“It was rough back in the ’60s,” he said. “Planes were safe — private planes were not.”

While still with Music Machine, he met with an old college friend, Curt Boettcher, and started producing. The duo was later hired by Clive Davis, president of CBS Records, and they worked on projects by artists such as The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel. The two eventually went their separate ways, though, and Olsen was on his own as a producer and engineer.

He began his own production company — Pogologo — and one of his first clients was a duo named Buckingham Nicks. Originally with a Bay Area band named Fritz, Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks — a romantic and musical couple — recorded a self-titled album that Olsen produced in 1973.

Buckingham Nicks didn’t make a lot of money — which explains why Nicks cleaned Olsen’s house for cash — but that record was the first step toward the creation of a rock superband.

When Mick Fleetwood, the drummer for Fleetwood Mac, approached Olsen about producing the band’s next album, Olsen offered Fleetwood a demonstration of some work he’d done.

“He just wanted to hear what the studio could sound like,” Olsen said. “So I played him ‘Buckingham Nicks.’ ”

Fleetwood agreed to work with Olsen. But before the project could begin, the band’s singer, Bob Welch, quit. Remembering that Buckingham Nicks album, Fleetwood called Olsen and asked, “Could you see if Lindsay would join my band?”

“I said, ‘You have to take two,’ ” Olsen remembered. “They’re inseparable. The only way that you’ll get Lindsay is by taking Stevie.”

Fleetwood agreed, but that left it up to Olsen to convince Buckingham and Nicks to join a new band — even though Fleetwood Mac was a British blues band and Buckingham Nicks was a pop-rock duo.

“They were ready to start recording a second Buckingham Nicks record,” he said. “They were just starting to write it, and they were sure that Buckingham Nicks as a duo could make it.”

While the duo had talent, Olsen knew they needed help.

“I needed a good drummer, bass player and keyboard player to fill out Buckingham Nicks,” Olsen said.

So on a New Year’s Eve, he cajoled the couple until 3 a.m., finally convincing them that joining Fleetwood Mac was a good idea.

“I just thought it was a really great opportunity for Stevie and Lindsay to be a part of the Fleetwood Mac name,” he said. “Because that name had 220,000 fans. And now there were going to be 220,000 people listening to Buckingham Nicks.”

Of course, it turned out to be much bigger than that. The newly aligned band’s first album, produced by Olsen, became a No. 1 hit, selling 5 million copies.

After Fleetwood Mac

After the success of Fleetwood Mac, work began pouring in, and Olsen produced numerous top 10 singles and albums.

“He had a track record that was so impressive,” said Jason Scheff, the lead singer of the band Chicago, who first worked with Olsen in the early 1990s.

As producer, Olsen might pick out what songs an artist should focus on, suggest cutting out guitar solos, or hire musicians to contribute to songs. But he was always careful not to stifle artist creativity, Scheff said.

“He’s that classic style of finding the right ingredients, putting them together and letting them make it happen,” said Scheff, whose father was hired by Olsen to play bass on the Buckingham Nicks album. “He’s capable of saying, ‘How about this note, how about that note,’ but he’s one of those personalities — it almost sounds cliché — but it’s old-school record production of just encouraging and nurturing to get the best out of the artist that’s being put to tape.”

Of course, Olsen does more than encourage. On Springfield’s song “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” Olsen made the singer rethink the falsetto vocals he’d performed on the demo.

“He kept looking at it and looking at me, going, ‘Mmmmm, I don’t think this is the right one,’ ” Springfield recalled. “So I went home and re-demoed it in a lower key — so I could sing it in my full voice — and played it for him again. And he heard it and went, ‘Yeah, I like this now — let’s do it.’ ”

That song went to No. 2 on the charts.

Boxes of awards

Olsen has so many gold and platinum albums, some of them hang on bathroom walls. Others are stored in boxes.

Look closely on those albums — be it by Fleetwood Mac, the Scorpions or the “Footloose” soundtrack — and you’ll see Olsen’s name on the label.

“I feel like I’m responsible for the creation of a little bit of every song that I ever worked on,” he said. “A little bit.”

While he produced some of the biggest albums made in the ’70s and ’80s, he doesn’t have the ego that many of the artists he’s worked with do. And he still has a passion for music.

As he sat behind his mixing board and listened to a band named Logan — Olsen mostly works with newer acts these days — he played air guitar along to a solo. Then, as the song progressed, he slowly leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and nodded in approval.

“Rock and roll, man,” he said, gently pounding a fist over his heart. “It gets me here.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.