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Doo wop producer T.J. Lubinsky plays it by ear

| Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

His car had broken down in Beckley, W.Va., on his way from Florida, where he'd left behind his girlfriend and a job at a PBS station. He was headed to Pittsburgh, where he was starting a new career as a fundraiser at WQED. He wasn't sure what his prospects were in a city that he assumed was filled with belching smokestacks, the enduring image of a town forged by the steel industry.

Lubinsky was only 25 years old, unsure what he'd gotten into as he came through the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

Then came a Hollywood moment too cliched to be true: As Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle unfolded before him, from his car radio came The Vogues' "Magic Town."

"That song is about a guy who starts up in a new town, doesn't know anybody, doesn't know anything, has to leave his girlfriend behind and start a new life," Lubinsky says. "And if it works here in this 'concrete and clay town' -- and Pittsburgh is very steel and concrete and it was a gray day and raining -- then it could do something that would change life as he knew it. That song became a special thing for me. It was a foretelling of everything that was to follow."

Lubinsky's career will come full circle on Saturday when "My Music: '60s Pop Rock and Soul" will premiere at 8 p.m. on PBS stations across the country, including WQED-TV in Pittsburgh. After that broadcast, a special feature, "TJ Lubinsky Presents Made In Pittsburgh" will air on WQED with performances by The Vogues, featuring Bill Burkette and Hugh Geyer, and Lou Christie.

Fourteen years after that serendipitous introduction to Pittsburgh in 1997, Lubinsky is the head of TJL Productions, a company he started in 2003 that produces music programming for public-television stations across the United States. Paul Brownstein, who serves as a producer for the company, estimates Lubinsky's shows -- which include the "My Music" series and "Ed Sullivan's Rock & Roll Classics" -- have raised more than $300 million for public television.

Deborah Acklin, president and chief executive officer of WQED Multimedia, remembers when Lubinsky broached his original concept. Here was this kid, fresh-faced, eager and passionate, begging for funding to put on a doo-wop concert.

"I said 'Do what?' " Acklin says. "I had never heard the expression doo wop. I'm from Pittsburgh; we call this 'oldies.'"

But Acklin's gut reaction was that Lubinsky's passion meshed with the local market. She approved $5,000 -- "a modest number, but not really a number that falls from trees" -- for the first show.

"In a single night, in just a couple of hours, we were blown away by the response from the audience," Acklin says, estimating the show raised more than $60,000 in pledges. "A phenomenon was born, re-born really, in Pittsburgh, after what he did in Florida. What he and I were able to do, with a lot of help from other smart people, was take it to scale and take it to PBS and make it the phenomenon it is."

Lovin' the oldies

Many people Lubinsky's age would point to Pearl Jam or Wilco as their musical heroes. But the New Jersey-born entrepreneur has always gravitated to music that had its heyday long before he was born.

"T.J. is not quite 40 yet, but that's only his chronological age," says Henry DeLuca, promoter of the legendary Roots Rock 'n' Roll concert series in Pittsburgh who is also in charge of assembling talent for Lubinsky's productions. "He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music from the '50s, '60s and '70s."

To make "records as close to the originals as possible," Lubinsky has assembled a small army of contract workers who help him reach his goals.

• DeLuca, his "right-hand man," is charged with making sure the concerts run smoothly.

• Brownstein, his "left-hand man," works on acquiring performance rights and licensing deals, using past connections as executive producer of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and CBS Home Entertainment.

• Ralph Guzzi is the musical director of between 14 and 18 musicians, all from Pittsburgh, who perform at the live shows and on recordings.

• Sean McDonald of Sofa King Music Services in Swissvale is the producer who pulls everything together to replicate, as close as possible, the original recordings.

• Mike Frazer, a disc jockey at 3WS (94.5 FM), emcees the shows at the Benedum Center and entertains the crowd between acts.

"Just like Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak to help making everything he envisioned come true, T.J. has his brain trust," Frazer says. "T.J. will see something and say, 'Go make it for me.' And they go out and craft something that didn't exist before."

An ear for music

On Saturday, viewers will see and hear performances by the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up and Away"), the Jefferson Airplane ("Somebody to Love"), co-host Peter Noone ("I'm Henry the VIII, I Am") and co-host Davy Jones ("Daydream Believer"), all recorded this past May at the Benedum Center, Downtown. What they won't see are the stuff of typical concerts -- extended solos, improvisations or the occasional discordant note. Lubinsky's vision from the start has been to "transport the listener to the first time they heard the song," he says.

"Everything you see happen live is a big part of what's on television, but we add layers and layers of strings and horns and percussion, exactly the same as the records," Lubinsky says. "Or it's not added. It may just be a sax solo if it's doo-wop music. If it's '70s R&B it's going to be very, very layered and produced; whereas, if it's folk. it's going to be very acoustic and simple."

Lubinsky is not a trained musician. He doesn't play an instrument and can't sing very well, but he has a keen, almost supernatural ear for music. Once, when working on Phil Spector's "Be My Baby" and "Da Doo Ron Ron" at McDonald's studio, Lubinsky kept insisting that the castanets were not right. At 3 a.m., no less, after endless hours of recording.

He was right: The castanets Spector used were made from ebony and used by flamenco dancers.

"We found an instructor at Carnegie Mellon who had the real ones for teaching flamenco," Brownstein says. "To make the sound more authentic, T.J. then paid for another session with the musicians to record the song again with the right castanets. So, it's making it the best he can, as opposed to 'that's about it, we're moving on.' "

"The thing is, he has a passion for it, and that's kind of his compass," McDonald says. "It's not a school thing, it's not a musical thing. He has a feel for this stuff from his head to his gut. It took me a while to understand this, how he works and verbalizes this. But, in the past five or six years, I've developed a good rapport with him and know where he's coming from and know what he's looking for. He knows what he wants and how to get it."

Endless energy

Brownstein, whose past work includes creating programs celebrating the 50th anniversaries of "Gunsmoke" and "The Honeymooners," is often amazed at Lubinsky's energy and creativity. His phone will ring and Lubinsky will be on the other end with another proposition that seems too good to be true.

"A week later I find myself at Studio A in Motown, working with Mary Wilson, a Top, a Temp and Martha Reeves," Brownstein says, referring to the Four Tops and the Temptations. "It's pretty cool. How do you top that• Six months later, you go back to Detroit and tape Aretha Franklin. It's these amazing opportunities that come up because he had a creative thought and said 'Why don't we do some soul clips and get Aretha to do it.' And he did it."

Lubinsky is a tireless worker, but he also believes in fate. More than 10 years ag,o he was sitting in his home studio when a Jerry Butler CD fell from a shelf. He played the track "Let It Be Me" with Betty Everett and became "very emotional because this song is so beautiful and powerful," he says.

"The first thing I had to do at 3 in the morning was find Betty Everett," he says.

There was a problem. Every search Lubinsky did indicated Everett was dead. The Social Security Administration said she was dead, as did concert promoters and music industry figures.

Lubinsky, however, had an intuition, a feeling, that everyone was wrong

"I found her in a trailer park in Chicago," he says, after three weeks of all-night sleuthing via phone calls and Web searches.

Everett had not performed in about 38 years. When Lubinsky brought her to Pittsburgh, he had to buy her a new gown and a wig. In rehearsal, Lubinsky was moved to tears by her performance. But overcome by nerves -- and perhaps as a reaction to drugs or alcohol -- Everett collapsed and had to be hospitalized.

When she was released, Lubinsky assigned a couple of people to watch her. She made it through an unforgettable, emotional performance with Butler.

Two months later, Everett was dead. Lubinsky had given her one last moment in the spotlight after years of being forgotten, one last moment to feel loved.

Additional Information:

'My Music: '60s Pop Rock and Soul'

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: WQED-TV

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