Yves Beauvais Page 2

"After a year of me doing A&R, [Ahmet] called me in and said, 'I know you have very good taste, but I have this sense that so far you are only signing artists that you like or that you love. That's not your job. Your job is to sign artists that the American public wants to buy. Who cares if you love them or not? My favorite singer of all time is Fred Astaire, but I don't make Fred Astaire records at Atlantic. I make AC/DC records, and with AC/DC money I buy Fred Astaire records.'

"I completely freaked out upon hearing this. I cannot cynically guess . . . I do not have that sense, and I'm not really that interested in developing it, either. It was somewhat humiliating. So when I came back from Ahmet's office I called Jerry Wexler and told him, 'I just had a conversation with Ahmet and he says I shouldn't sign what I love, I should sign what sells.' And he said, 'That's the second-taste story, right? I've been having this fight with him for 50 years. Don't listen to him, he's totally wrong. Only sign what you love. Only sign what you believe in, deeply, deeply, deeply. Because if what you sign cynically doesn't work—it's a stiff—then you go down as the guy with bad taste. If the shit that you love doesn't do well, at least you're not embarrassed.'

"The same thing applies in any creative enterprise. There are different schools of making money with other people's creativity, and how do you choose? Ahmet felt you should pick with your second taste, the taste that says 'I hear cash registers singing,' and Jerry Wexler was like, 'I want to make records with Willie Nelson or Aretha Franklin because they are bad-asses and I don't care if they are going to sell or not.' There is a self-indulgence to [Wexler's] approach, and that's what Ahmet was objecting to, very rightly. Why is what I like more important that what's going to sell? Obviously, it's not. My interest should be to make the Time Warner shareholder richer, not to make records to have on my shelf and tell my few elitist New York friends how cool am I."

One wrinkle then new to Beauvais, who'd been knee-deep in reissues for much of his time at Atlantic, was the process of making a record with a contemporary artist. "I wanted to sign Cyrus Chestnut. So I played a tune of his for Ahmet, and after four bars he said, 'Sign him. He's great!' I said, 'You haven't even heard the solo!' He said, 'I don't need to, I can tell from the intro he's a great player, go for it, how much is it going to cost?' So we discussed money, and I said, 'Who's going to produce this?' He said, 'What do you mean? You are!' I was like, 'I've never done this.' 'So what?' he said, 'It's not that difficult. You go, you book a studio, you bring in the musicians, they play, you press Record, and you're done, you know? It's easy. Nothing to it. You're a smart guy, you can figure it out. Good luck.'"

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For Atlantic's newly revived jazz slash what-Yves-liked department, Beauvais licensed records by Moondog and by Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora. He signed Chestnut, tenor saxophonist James Carter, guitarist Marc Ribot, and trumpeter Olu Dara, all of whom he describes as "very serious, straight-ahead, very promising young jazz musicians." He produced the successful Django Reinhardt tribute record Chasin' the Gypsy featuring Carter, as well as the Billie Holiday tribute Gardenias for Lady Day, released three years later on Columbia. He convinced Olu Dara, who'd played in New York City for years but had never made a record, let alone signed with a label, to sign with Atlantic and record In the World: From Natchez to New York, on which, for the first time, he sang as well as played. Beauvais produced that album, and also had a hand in Marc Ribot's now-classic pair of albums with Los Cubanos Postizos, and a solo guitar record, Saints.

"I was very happy that Yves did the work he did. He was very good at it," Ribot says from his home in Brooklyn. "To whatever extent Yves leaving the biz was a question of his personal choice, more power to him. But it's bad news for all of us that that there isn't space now for people who are good at doing the work that record companies once did. It's not only a loss for the people involved, it's a loss for the culture in general. And I'm not saying this because I'm naïve about questions of exploitation. Yves was great to work with. And he is a really cultured and intelligent person. He got out before the piracy thing shut the whole thing down, before the industry collapsed. Maybe he had a crystal ball."

In shifting gears between old and new artists at Atlantic, Beauvais quickly discovered that making new records was something very different from supervising remastering sessions. "What I liked the most—there is nothing more satisfying than playing midwife. You take them by the hand and say, 'Come with me, your work is important.' They are usually very insecure people, especially when they are young and have a tremendous need to be loved. Somehow I was able to convey to them that I genuinely loved their work and loved them as creators. 'Come with me, take my hand, you can do better than what you've done so far. Look, let's go—let's aim high.'

"What happens during a week or two in the studio with a community of musicians, this small circle of people, the very restricted environment, is absolutely magical. It's going on a cruise on a very small ship. For two weeks you eat the same food, you share all your meals, you listen to music together. There's an intimacy to the process; you don't even need to talk after a while. After a few days, you all think the same thing at the same time. That is what I miss the most.

"I think I was the last A&R person at a major label to produce the record by the acts that he or she signed, which was the norm in the 1960s. There were no staff producers left, and A&R people would just sign acts and hire producers. Basically, I was the eclectic music guy, the luxury-music guy. It's been a good life."

When he produced recordings by new artists, Beauvais was an all-analog believer. "Ninety percent of a record's sound is the tone of the instrument. It's not the gear, it's not the mike. If the instrument has a great tone, that's what comes across. James Carter, for example, has one of the greatest tones, it's just bewilderingly beautiful.

"I made all my records analog to sound as good as possible. We'd record on multitrack tape, sometimes analog quarter-inch or analog half-inch. A lot of the jazz records I made were straight to two tracks—there was no mixing to be done. It was the old-fashioned way: you mix as you play, you can't fix mistakes, there's no net, you pick the best takes. It was only at mastering that stuff would get transferred to digital."

In 1996 Beauvais, who by then was going out to hear live music five nights a week in New York, and was acutely aware of new artists and new music, signed Madeleine Peyroux, then a relatively unknown singer with a colorful history of being a street musician.

"Yves was a real Stereophile guy, and Larry Klein [who produced several of her records] is a Stereophile guy, so the two major people I've worked with know sound," Peyroux said recently. "I enjoy the luxury of close miking and people who know how to mix the voice. Dreamland was my first record ever, so I didn't have anything to compare it to. I hadn't even considered that this would be a career. He made suggestions, and he's polite, and he really respects that creative aspect, the fact that it doesn't just come, but when it comes down to getting something done, he's incredibly quick. Over the years, I've come to realize that he's just a really, really smart guy. And he's generous—never a single thought of 'You owe me,' and to this day it's been that way."

While working on the last two records made by Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, Evolution I and II, Beauvais decided—on a whim, he says, and spurred by the rapidly multiplying ills of the record business—to apply to Columbia University's Business School. "I could see the writing on the wall. This was 1998. Napster was starting. We were starting to lose market share. People were starting to be able to make copies of CDs. You could buy CD-Rs in stores. You'd see a stack of [blank] CD-Rs for 20 bucks. Then you'd go to the record stores and you could buy one [pre-recorded] CD for 20 bucks. The perceived value of the record became somewhat dicey in the consumer's mind, you know?"

Beauvais was 39 when he applied to Columbia U. That week, he got a call from an attorney who said that Columbia Records needed someone to run their jazz department and wanted to talk with him. He was offered both the job and a spot in the Business School. "The next thing, I have two months to decide: Columbia or Columbia?" He chose the record business, which he now says was "not the best decision I ever made, I think. I never quite found my place there."

Soon after taking the job at Columbia, Beauvais moved to Los Angeles,. After signing the Bad Plus and Derek Trucks, and making Blue Country Heart, a record with former Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen that he calls "beautiful," Beauvais began to plot a way out.

"It was a really sad time in the record business, and Columbia has always been, I think, a company run by fear, which was a very different environment than what I was used to at Atlantic. Sales were down every year by 10%. It felt like a sinking ship—not Sony so much, but the entire business. Less creative freedom. Reluctant to take chances. Everyone afraid. I should have stuck to my instincts that this was toast and reinvented myself."

Although delayed by his three years at Columbia Records, Beauvais began a new chapter in his life, one 180° from the fidelity found on Daniel Johnston's records, in Los Angeles—a city whose "silence," he says, seduces him. It's also where this bullfighting fan became a yoga fanatic.

"While I'm in L.A., I have a big Conrad-Johnson amp. It weighed 120 pounds. One day, it goes bust on me. Shipping it somewhere for repair was no fun at all. I called [jazz and world-music DJ [Tom Schnabel] at KCRW, who is a major audiophile, and said I need someone to come to my house, tell me what's wrong with the C-J and fix it on-site. He said, 'I've got the guy for you. And in the meantime, my assistant at KCRW has a McIntosh amp she'd like to sell.'

"Now, I really like McIntosh amps. I used to run MC30s in New York, and loved those very, very much. And so while my C-J is out of order, I'm calling her to buy her McIntosh amp. She actually had a storage unit full of gear, and she faxed me a two-page list of nothing but classic tube gear, tons of speakers, tons of turntables. A good friend of hers had just had a stroke, and he'd been a collector, one of those hoarders of vintage tube gear. I bought the whole thing.

"Suddenly, my house became Stereo Exchange. I had a long hallway that was just turntables, 25 turntables. Tube amps, tube tuners, speakers. What they call the WAF, the Wife Approval Factor, would have been very, very, very low. And it continues to be.

"So I buy this stash, and I go through each one, and a lot of them work and sound beautiful. Some I keep, some I sell, some don't work. So I start reading and researching, and I buy my very first tube tester and I start this crazy self-education. I had been to this engineering school for a little bit and I was a bit of a dweeb—I always opened my gear, I always owned a soldering iron. So I self-educated myself with that first stash: a lot of Scott, Eico, some Fisher stuff—this man had good taste—and a lot old English speakers. I've always been very fond of old KEF and old Rogers, old Celestions. I've never met an English speaker made in the 1970s that I didn't like. I have a pair of Spendor BC2s which I will never sell."

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Convinced at first that this was more a hobby than a new profession, Beauvais haunted vintage-audio websites. He eventually sold most of the gear from the storage unit, but finally decided that he liked working on Eico gear. "It started as a business with Eico. Low-budget stuff made in Long Island City, New York, in the 1950s. First they sold test equipment, then mono amps, then they got into the stereo. The first amp I thought I could make a little money on was the HS81. I built one for myself here. I taught myself to restore it. Then I bought a second one and gave it to my girlfriend. Then I bought a third one, and I sold it and made a profit. Oh look—I worked two weeks and I made a hundred bucks! What a great business. I was making seven dollars an hour!

"But it has snowballed, and over the years it's turned into a full-time business," Beauvais says from Memphis, where he moved in 2010. "It's still a one-man operation. A lot of the old McIntosh amps are in terrible electrical condition, and they've been stored in basements and warehouses. They're in shitty cosmetic condition, a lot of pitting on the chrome. If you store them for 20 years, all the capacitors dry up, they hum like crazy, they'll short—smoke comes out when you plug them in.

"So I started restoring these magnificent McIntosh monoblocks as obsessively as folks restore vintage cars or vintage motorcycles. It's probably not the best business model, because you have a finite quantity of them, and it's an enormous amount of work. I take them apart entirely, rechrome the chassis, re–silk-screen, repaint the transformers, and I do all the electronic work inside. When I'm done, I want the McIntosh in question to look and sound like we assume it would have when it came out of the plant in 1952, '53, '54.

"A lot of people take a McIntosh and want it to sound like a Fisher, or they take a Marantz and want it to sound like a Scott. I never change the value of any part. I stick to what the schematic says. I respect and admire the engineers who designed these things. My goal is to do no harm, and hopefully bring them back to the original intentions of the engineers."

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Vintage Vacuum Audio has continued to grow. To whet appetites for his amps, Beauvais has also added to his website free downloads of scans of complete issues of vintage audio magazines from 1952–1962: Audio and High Fidelity. He buys and sells on Audiogon.com. and in addition he does repairs for hire on vintage tube amps. He says the most active markets for his restorations are Italy, Germany, and Asia—Taiwan, Hong Kong, China. He admits that the learning curve has been steep, particularly in repairing other people's gear, but that he feels confident enough these days to issue warranties for his restorations. He's proud that, so far, not one of them has been returned.

Beauvais is as zealous about tubes as he is about Daniel Johnston. "My interest in tubes is linked to my CD remastering. When I was remastering the CSN boxed set with engineer Joe Gastwirt, I noticed there was a certain brittleness, a certain hardness to the sound. To make the tapes more musical, he used a lot of tubes in his chain, tube EQs and tube compressors, to kind of warm things up. He lent me a pair of McIntosh MC30s. I had never heard sound like that before. It doesn't completely compensate for the brittleness of 16-bit/44.1kHz CDs, but it certainly helps the midrange, the soundstage is substantially larger, [and] there's a little bit of harmonic distortion that is very pleasant to the ear. There's a warmth and musicality that, for my money, is not equaled with solid-state. There is a little spark on top that I find with tube gear that I have never heard with solid-state.

"The amps I have chosen to specialize in, I narrowed it down to the models that sound best to my ears. So I'm not following the 'second taste.' I work on McIntosh monoblocks, the Eico HS series, and the Quad 2 amps, because they're the best-sounding amps I've heard and they give you pleasure.

Now that Beauvais's livelihood no longer hinges on the success of a Led Zeppelin boxed set but on his ability to resurrect vintage amps, has his personal equation between sound quality and musical content—the statement on his website—shifted at all?

"Hal Willner, the producer, I heard him say something once that was so profound. This engineer he was working with was tinkering with the bass sound of a recording for hours and hours and hours, and Hal was running out of patience. The engineer turned to him and said, 'So how about now? How does this mix sound? Do you like this better or that better? This mike or that mike?' And Hal turned to him and said, 'Sound is good enough.' Not this sound is good enough. Sound is good enough.

"I had a suitcase record player when I was a kid and it was just as exciting, just as beautiful, just as compelling to my 11-year-old ears as my McIntosh MC75s, my Eico HF81, and my fine English speakers are in my listening room today. I can hear more, there is more detail, I can actually hear a snare drum and a bass drum at the same time—but the excitement is exactly the same. There's great joy to coming home to great sound. It's a great luxury. The gear is one of the great luxuries of my life, but it is very insignificant compared to having beautiful music played through it. The beauty of the music so outweighs how it's heard. Remember: The Beatles took over the world on transistor radios."

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COMMENTS
midfiguy's picture

I really enjoy the stories that focus on the people in music and hi-fi. Yves has certainly had an interesting journey.

Maki-e's picture

Brilliant - great philosophy.

The most interesting article in Stereophile for some time.

Bravo!

 

Paul Luscusk's picture

I'm listening to his  Booker T & The MG's reissues right now. Thanks for going back to the Mono masters for the Green Onions album.

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