Sultan of Sound
updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Making those in his orbit feel better as well as sound better has made Was, 41, pop music's hottest producer. In the past five years, Was, a former bassist with the group Was (Mot Was), has produced albums for a remarkably diverse range of artists, from Willie Nelson and Elton John to Bob Dylan, the B-52s and Iggy Pop. "He's my buddy and soul mate," says Bonnie Raitt, whose career was resurrected in 1989 by the Was-produced Nick of Time. "He's totally laid back and unstressed. He's a Zen master in a world of lunatics."
Was himself takes a less mystical view of his profession. "Producing is a Ben Franklin thing," he says. "The artist is this person out there on a kite looking to get hit by lightning, and the producer is the one on the ground holding the string, making sure they don't end up on the moon."
But some sparks are unavoidable. David Weiss, his childhood buddy and former partner in Was (Not Was), blames the band's demise in 1990 after four albums on Was's moonlighting as a producer. "Being an artist is a full-time job," says Weiss, "and Don was a part-timer." In Weiss's view, Was has the ideal temperament for producing. "Ninety per cent of the job is bedside manner," he says, "and Don has the smoothest manner since Dr. Jeffery MacDonald. The guy-could come in, kill your family, and you'd give him a piece of cake on the way out."
Indeed, even Was hints that his killer instinct may have undermined his relationship with Weiss. "I think there is something biological that forces collaborators into mortal combat," says Was. "It's a survival-of-the-fittest concept."
Was, whose given name is Fagenson, attributes his range as a producer to the "fantastic blend" of R&B, rock and country music he heard growing up in Detroit. The son of a pair of public-school teachers, Harriet and Bill Fagenson, he attended the University of Michigan in 1972 but soon dropped out to play in rock bands. After developing his chops in local bars, he played in various groups with Weiss, and in 1980 they formed Was (Not Was), taking the stage names Don and David Was. (The group's name stems from a word game of Fagenson's then-young son Anthony.) Shortly afterward, Geffen Records signed Was (Not Was) to a contract, but the band's quirky mix of rock, jazz and funk never quite caught on. To supplement his income, Don began producing obscure bands in 1982. In 1989, the same year Was (Not Was) scored its first hit single, "Walk the Dinosaur," Was was offered the job of producing Nick of Time, which won three Grammys, sold 3 million copies and gave him a reputation as a producer with a Midas touch. Soon his appointment book was brimming with lucrative assignments.
Was now lives comfortably in a Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills with his second wife, Gemma Corfield, a vice president at Virgin Records, the Stones' label. Married 10 years, they have a 9-month-old son, Hank. Anthony, the product of a previous marriage, is now 16 and lives with them.
Back at the mixing room, Was is putting the final touches on the new Stones single, "Love Is Strong." He is expecting to work until 5 a.m. or so. But the pressures of his job become tolerable when he thinks about the perks. "When I was 15, all I really wanted to do was play bass with Bob Dylan," he says. "And then one day, when I was producing him, I got to do it. I played on the record, and that was an amazing day. I got my dream 25 years after the fact. A day doesn't go by when I can't believe I get to do all this stuff. In fact, it's usually several times a day."