At 75, Don Randi, successful session musician and founder of famed jazz club The Baked Potato, Keeps making music
Randi, in his Agoura Hills home, still works as musical director for Nancy Sinatra. Photos by David Miller
When Don Randi sits down for an interview at Agoura’s Famous Delicatessen to discuss a musical career that has spanned more than 60 years, the first thing you notice is the gold, custom-made Jewish star with a chai in the center, proudly hanging from his neck; the jewelry is an acquisition from his Las Vegas winnings more than three decades ago.
Randi’s strawberry blond hair brushes the top of his collar, and the aviator sunglasses hide his eyes. His liberal mustache frames his upper lip.
He opens the conversation in Yiddish, laughing that no one speaks the language anymore. But don’t get the mistaken impression that this 75-year-old pianist is stuck in the past. He’s actually fresh from a studio session, still amazed that he can record something and within minutes it’s a digital file.
“Technology has changed so much of what we are doing today,” Randi said, with the hint of a New York accent. “They sent me a track from Iceland, we played the track, I put my piano part on, and I get home and it’s on my computer — that was it.”
Still, he misses the fun of recording music live, when even a mistake might be immortalized on a hit record.
Randi’s soon-to-be released book, “You’ve Heard These Hands,” is aptly named. The Agoura Hills resident has performed on countless recordings with the biggest names in the business as a session musician and is the owner of The Baked Potato, a jazz club in Studio City on the Cahuenga Boulevard curve.
“I have been so fortunate, you have no idea,” Randi said. “The list of names of who I have recorded with — the hundreds of people — it would be easier to give you a list of names of who I didn’t record with.”
Let’s try anyway: In the 1960s and ’70s, he was a contributor, arranger and musician for the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Herb Alpert, Sonny and Cher, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Lou Rawls, he said. He even arranged a religious album for Pat Boone.
“I worked with the top producers — Columbia, Warner Bros., Reprise, all the labels — I was a part of that band that everybody wanted to use,” he said.
Born in Manhattan as Don Schwartz in 1937, Randi grew up in the Catskill Mountains with a show-business family. His father initially ran local projects under the Works Progress Administration, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s initiative that, in part, employed musicians, artists, writers and actors in public works projects during the Depression. Later he opened a restaurant, The Actors Inn.
“Being raised in the Catskills was an incredible life. It was a very small community, and mostly Jewish people lived there,” Randi said. “My father made me learn how to read Yiddish. I could read the Jewish newspapers, and I could read the Hebrew for my bar mitzvah.”
In the back of the restaurant there was a piano where Randi learned his craft. Beginning lessons at 5 1/2 years old, he received formal training in classical music. By the time he was 13, Randi was accompanying performers, including the late actor and comedian Buddy Hackett, at various hotels, social halls and theaters throughout the area.
“Here I am a pisher kid from New York, making $25 to $45 a show,” he said. “This is 1952. I’d be coming home with $300 to $400 from the weekend — I was making a living and picking up a lot of tabs.”
After his father’s death, Randi moved to California in 1954 and worked as a stock boy at a record distribution company that circulated all the East Coast and West Coast jazz.
“I was studying classical music at the [former] Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, on my way to becoming a teacher, and I got to listen to jazz all day long, and the music just captured me,” Randi said.
“I always had a problem with classical music,” he continued. “I always wanted to interpret it, [but] you can’t interpret it — there’s very little leeway performance-wise — so I got into playing jazz.”
Randi’s name change from Schwartz was primarily a logistical switch that stayed with him after he was performing at a jazz club in Los Angeles that advertised performers on the marquee.
“Well, they didn’t have a W or a Z, and my girlfriend at the time was Randi, so I switched it and it stuck,” he said.
For more than a dozen years, Randi performed six nights a week at Sherry’s Restaurant, a favorite Hollywood hangout.
“You never knew who you would look up at. The place was packed,” Randi said. “[Gangster] Mickey Cohen would come in several nights a week with girls on both arms.”
As he worked as a professional pianist, he was introduced to record producer Phil Spector and became a part of Spector’s “Wall of Sound” — a music production technique — and The Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians who played anonymously on records.
“Once you make a hit record, you are hot stuff,” Randi said. “You get hired to work on a lot of records. …There were so many hit records that Phil produced, that I played on 21 hit records in a row.”
Today, he still works as musical director for Nancy Sinatra — they speak several times a week — and performs with his own group, Don Randi and Quest, at The Baked Potato, which in 2010 was named best jazz club by Los Angeles magazine.
Don Randi’s fingers still know how to tickle the ivories.
“Don is one of the few musicians I know who is proficient in jazz … and also blues and rock,” Sinatra said. “His work is eclectic and well-known by people who care about music and music history. He has played on almost every hit record from the ’60s to present day.”
As for his club, Sinatra called it “iconic.”
“People come from all over the world to enjoy the great music and food,” she said.
Producer and director Denny Tedesco, who made the 2008 film “The Wrecking Crew” about the studio musicians, said Randi made two major contributions to the music business: recordings that will be listened to for generations and The Baked Potato.
“This is not any jazz club — we have some of the greatest players in the world that live here,” he said. “Los Angeles doesn’t realize how lucky we are to have a club like that. We’re spoiled and don’t even know it. You won’t see anything like it.”
Randi credits his wife, Norma, for helping him through the early years of the restaurant and club when it opened in 1970.
“She was one of the most incredible lead dancers in Las Vegas and then became the cook at the club,” Randi said. “We’d get stuck for cooks, and she was the one who saw us through those times.”
Open seven days a week, the eclectic, bohemian-style family restaurant boasts nightly entertainment that includes top jazz performers and studio musicians. The Baked Potato helped start many famous jazz artists and singers, including Al Jarreau, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Joe Sample and Brian Auger, according to Randi.
When Tedesco attended The Baked Potato’s 40th anniversary a few years ago at the Ford Theatres, all of the acts that were there had either started or became fixtures at The Baked Potato.
“Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, [the Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Chad Smith, [Toto’s] Steve Lukather and so many more,” he said. “I felt I was at the Woodstock of the jazz fusion era.”
With six grown children and five grandchildren, Randi is proud of his musical family. His son Justin runs the restaurant and plays in his own band, and daughter Leah sings and plays bass, along with his son David, and wife, Norma, who sings.
“Sometimes the whole family plays together. It’s a lot of fun,” Randi said.
There are other projects, too. Randi just finished an album: an-all acoustic mix of original compositions of piano and guitar.
“This is something that I have always wanted to do. We worked on it for a year with my guitar player, John DePatie,” said Randi. “It’s one of the best albums I’ve recorded.”
And four years in the making, his book, “You’ve Heard These Hands,” will be out by the end of the year.
“It’s about the intimate relationships with me and all the artists that I got to play with, all the relationships that I made because of the recording industry,” Randi said.
It’s an industry that continues to change, especially with the introduction of digital recording.
“When you are used to doing something for 40 years, when you are set in your ways, and you have been making it this way for 40 years, and now all of a sudden this is the new way, it’s all digital, it’s impersonal,” he said. “There’s still great music coming out of it, but I just prefer to have everyone in the same room. It’s just a different approach.”
But embracing change has been a part of his industry — and a part of his life.
“Being adaptable has been my whole life — you have to be adaptable to be successful,” Randi said. “I am the luckiest Jew in the world.”