Ben Sidran has been a major force in the modern day history of jazz and rock and roll, having played keyboards with or produced such artists as Van Morrison, Diana Ross, Michael Franks, Rickie Lee Jones, Mose Allison and Steve Miller.
It's been a long and varied journey for Sidran—from playing boogie-woogie piano as a six year old in Racine, Wisconsin, leaning into his jazz records, “literally like an Eskimo huddled around a fire,” to growing up to play boogie-woogie piano around the world. Despite the reality that he is better known in Europe and Japan than in America—a fact of life for most jazz musicians—Ben Sidran is an American success story.
A jazz pianist of international renown, lyricist of a rock classic, award-winning national broadcaster, record and video producer, scholar, author, journalist, and father to a second generation musical prodigy, Sidran makes your average Renaissance man look like a slacker.
Born in Chicago in 1943—his father was a friend of Saul Bellow's—Sidran was raised in the industrial lakeshore city of Racine, Wisconsin, going up to Madison to play keyboards at frat-house parties while still a teenager in 1960. The next year he was enrolled at the university, playing dates on campus and around town. He soon joined the Ardells, a Southern comfort party band led by frat boy singer Steve Miller and his friend Boz Scaggs. But when Miller and Scaggs went west to become stars, Sidran stayed to complete his degree in English lit.
After graduating from the UW in 1967 (with honors), Sidran moved to England to pursue a Master's Degree in American Studies at the University of Sussex. But when the Steve Miller Band came to England the following year to record with the legendary British engineer Glyn Johns, Sidran found himself back on the two-track life of academia and music.
It started with his haunting harpsichord break on Scaggs’ “Baby's Calling Me Home” for the Miller band's debut album, “Children of the Future.” A little later on, Ben would pen the lyrics for Miller's “Space Cowboy,” earning a place in rock history (and enough royalties to pay for his graduate degrees).
While still pursuing his studies, Sidran also developed a relationship with Johns, often doing session work at Olympic Studios with musicians like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. In 1969, Johns produced Sidran's demo tape, featuring Charlie Watts, Peter Frampton and others.
Upon receiving his doctorate in American Studies at the height of the war-induced grad school glut, Sidran faced bleak prospects in academia. Then he realized his time for studying the information was over; it was time to become the information. So in the fall of 1970, after dropping his dissertation with some publishers in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to go into the record business.
Things started to break in a hurry. First came competing bids to publish his thesis; Ben bypassed the low-key offer from Oxford University Press to take a lucrative (to him, at the time) offer from Holt, Rinehart & Winston to publish the dissertation as Black Talk, or How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to the Values of Western Literary Tradition.
Then, thanks to an introduction from Johns, Sidran soon had his own record deal on Capitol Records. Feel Your Groove, a jazz/rock hybrid, featured Blue Mitchell on trumpet (the first of five such engagements), guitarists Scaggs and Ed Davis and Jim Keltner on drums.
Recognizing Ben's skills on both sides of the studio, Capitol also offered him a job as staff producer. But because his wife Judy was unhappy in the isolated haze of the Hollywood hills, Sidran did the unthinkable and walked away from LA in the summer of ‘71, returning to Madison just as Feel Your Groove was released and Black Talk was published (a set of circumstances which did not provoke the label into excessive promotional activity). Taking up the Hammond B3 residency at a local club, Sidran soon found another life-long musical partner when James Brown played in town and his drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, stayed behind.
It wasn't long before another national label came calling - Blue Thumb Records, which released Ben's I Lead a Life in 1972, quickly followed by Puttin' In Time on Planet Earth(1973) and Don't Let Go, (1974).
Sidran showcased his many talents in varied fields the year he turned 30 - leading a national tour, producing Tony Williams and Paul Pena, creating and hosting a weekly television series, even returning to academia to teach “the social aesthetics of record production” at the UW.
After the demise of Blue Thumb, Sidran joined the Arista Records roster, releasing Free in America (1976), The Doctor is In (1977), A Little Kiss in the Night (1978), Live at Montreux, (1979) and The Cat in the Hat, (1980).
Although Ben developed a significant career in radio and television work during the eighties (see sidebar), he kept his hands on the keyboard, recording Get to the Point(PolyStar, 1981), Old Songs for the New Depression, (Antilles, 1982), Bop City, (Antilles, 1983), On the Cool Side, (Windham Hill, 1984), Have You Met … Barcelona (Orange Blue Productions, 1986), On the Live Side, (Windham Hill, 1986) and Too Hot to Touch, (Windham Hill 1987). His production credits that decade included Ever Since the World Ended and My Backyard for Mose Allison and Born 2B Blue for Steve Miller, with whom he and son Leo also toured.
Sidran continued to click on many levels throughout the 1990s, even expanded his efforts to include starting his own label, Go Jazz Records, with partners in Japan. Early Sidran-produced Go Jazz releases included Georgie Fame's Cool Cat Blues, and Phil Upchurch'sWhatever Happened to the Blues.
In 1993, Sidran combined his art with his soul on Life's a Lesson, a jazz-infused collection of Jewish liturgical and folk songs, featuring singer Carole King and a host of jazz luminaries. In a five-decade career (so far), this Go Jazz release is one of the crowning personal and artistic achievements.
The end of the century brought another emotional highlight - the release of Concert for Garcia Lorca, a tribute to the martyred Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. Recorded in the courtyard of Garcia Lorca's home, the album earned Ben another Grammy nomination (he lost to Madonna).
Ben has maintained his steady output of high-quality work, both on his own (Mr. P's Shuffle, and Live at the Celebrity Lounge,) and with such artists as Van Morrison and Diana Ross. In 2001 he produced two more Grammy-nominated albums, Mose Chronicles (Mose Allison) and It's Like This (Rickie Lee Jones).
Building on the Spanish influence that infused the Garcia Lorca release, in 2002 Ben wrote and produced (along with son Leo) the bi-lingual children's CD, El Elefante, winner of the Parents’ Choice Award. That year, Ben somehow found time to return to the UW as artist-in-residence, and release his critically acclaimed memoir, Ben Sidran: A Life in the Music(Taylor).
In 2003, Ben and Leo created Nardis Music, a full-service label featuring enhanced CD's of all original releases. Among its first releases was Ben’s own Nick's Bump (2004). This was followed by Bumpin’ at the Sunside, recorded live in Paris (2006) and Cien Noches, recorded live in Madrid (2008). In 2010, Sidran completed Dylan Different, a tribute to the music of Bob Dylan; in 2012, he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Wisconsin and published his long awaited text on the Jewish influence on American popular music, There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream. His most recent recording is Don’t Cry For No Hipster (April, 2013).
Ben and his wife Judy still reside in Madison, Wisconsin.