Katz Tapes

Katz Tapes Provide Valuable Resource on History of Music Industry

This blog post was written by Sean Plaistowe and edited by Molly Brown and Giordana Mecagni for clarity.

Larry Katz is a music journalist who spent a long career working at Boston-area newspapers and magazines. While collecting information for upcoming articles, it became his practice to record the interviews with musicians and artists and put them aside in case they proved useful in the future. Over time, he amassed a collection of over 1,000 of these interviews, with artists as diverse as Eartha Kitt, Carly Simon, D.J. Fontana (the drummer for Elvis), Aerosmith, David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, James Brown, Miles Davis, and Elmore Leonard, as well as actors including Ted Danson, Mel Brooks, and Loretta Devine.

In 2020, Larry donated his collection to the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections (NUASC).

A collage of various musicians and artists. At the center is a cassette tape that is labeled "The Katz Tapes"

These interviews create a fascinating resource that provides insight into the music and arts industry across a wide variety of genres and eras. In them, you can catch some novel and intimate moments of music history. On one tape, you’ll hear Weird Al Yankovic discussing the difficulties of obtaining permission to parody Eminem’s music. Other tapes with artists like Nina Simone or Aimee Mann discuss musical influences or even the challenges and biases of navigating the recording industry. These interviews contain countless quiet moments as well, such as Prince discussing his preference for his home in Minneapolis over either coast, as well as his favorite movies of the year. The quiet clicking of teacups connecting with saucers while Eartha Kitt discusses her career provides a welcome feeling of connection and belonging that can feel rare and precious in researching these figures or music journalism more generally.

Black and white image of a man with curly dark hair and a collared shirt.
Larry Katz. Photo courtesy of The Katz Tapes website.

After graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 1975, Larry Katz worked as a bass player before starting his journalism career at Boston’s Real Paper in 1980. In 1981, Larry worked as a freelance music writer at the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix before being hired at the Boston Herald as a features writer, where he covered a wide variety of arts and lifestyle beats before settling into a role as a music critic and columnist. In 2006, he became the Herald’s Arts Editor and in 2008, he took over the features department, a role he had until 2011.

In 2013, Larry revisited his tape collection. Re-listening to the interviews sparked memories of the circumstances and contexts that these recordings were made in, information he felt compelled to share. He started a blog, The Katz Tapes, where he began to write reflections on artists and their interviews, often taking into account events that had transpired since the original conversations. Along with these reflections, Larry provided a transcription of the recorded interviews which he often interspersed with links to notable performances or songs related to the artists. Larry also donated the contents of this blog to the NUASC.

Making this collection usable and accessible to the public has involved many hands and collaborations, both internal and external. First, the tapes were digitized by George Blood LP, with funding generously provided by the Library of the Commonwealth program run by the Boston Public Library. Once the digitized tapes were safely back in the hands of the NUASC collections staff, the files were then handed to the Digital Production Services department to do the painstaking work of processing and cataloging the collection. They split audio files that contained multiple interviews, combined interviews that were on multiple tapes edited out white space, and created catalog records.

Making the blog content available was another challenge. Despite already being digital, moving content from Larry’s independent site to Northeastern hosting proved difficult. Initially, I was hopeful that we could use a handy WordPress feature that would allow for the whole cloth export of his blog. No such luck. Instead, I found some scripts which allowed me to scrape the many unique images which Larry had included with each post. The blog also linked to a lot of songs and performances hosted on YouTube, but unfortunately, due to the vagaries of time and copyright law, many of these videos were removed. When possible, I attempted to restore links to sanctioned videos. As an added feature, I created a playlist that includes many of the songs referenced in these posts.

Now that the collection has been cataloged and the blog has been ingested, we welcome anyone to search for their favorite artist, listen to their interview, read some of the reminiscences and insights form Larry about the artist and the interview, and listen to a Spotify playlist of some of the artists Larry interviews at thekatztapes.library.northeastern.edu.

In addition to the Larry Katz collection, researchers and enthusiasts of the arts in Boston may be interested in the Real Paper records and the Boston Phoenix records, both available at the NUASC.

Staff Picks: Selections from the Larry Katz Interviews

By Emily Allen and Anna Ryerson

Cassette tapes lined up

There is nothing more fascinating than listening to musicians describe the process, passion, and dedication that goes into making music. This is something we learned first-hand while working with the Katz Tapes collection. The Katz Tapes were compiled by Larry Katz, a former music critic and columnist at the Boston Herald and a personable and thoughtful interviewer. Katz recorded hundreds of interviews he conducted with musicians, both internationally famous and local Boston-based artists. The majority of the collection focuses on music and musicians, but there are also interviews with authors, writers, comedians, and actors. Overall, the scope and variety within the collection is impressive. From Liza Minelli to Willie Nelson to Miles Davis: classical, jazz, rock, R&B, and pop artists are all represented.

When the Northeastern University Library received the Katz Tapes’ digitized files, we identified a subset with known description and file questions. Incomplete description made it hard to determine who was being interviewed. File issues to solve involved trimming content like white noise, silence, or music. Our job was to listen to the tapes in this subset to resolve these issues, and to confirm who was being interviewed so that researchers and members of the Northeastern community can better access these rich sources of music history.

We would love to share some of our favorite interviews with you:

Emily Allen’s Picks:

  • Hal Blaine—If you only listen to one Katz interview in the whole collection, this is the one I would recommend! Hal Blaine was a drummer and a session musician in the 1960s and ’70s. Sessions musicians are artists who are hired to play for specific recording sessions or live performances, and often end up playing with a lot of different artists and bands. Blaine was a prolific session musician in his own right and a member of The Wrecking Crew, a famous session musician group. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Blaine played drums for 40 songs that reached number one. Blaine discussed several performers he worked with, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, and The Carpenters. His personal anecdotes and the way he speaks about these legendary artists is what makes this interview stand out from the rest. Talk about name dropping!
A black and white photo of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg looking at a book
American beat writers Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969) (left) and Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) read a book together, 1959. Kerouac holds a cigarette in one hand. (Photo by John Cohen/Getty Images)
  • Allen Ginsberg—Allen Ginsberg, an American poet and writer who was famous for being a part of the Beat Generation, is someone I knew very little about. I never studied this period in American history, and while I have heard of Ginsberg, I did not know anything about him or his work. The way Ginsberg answers questions is insightful and his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky was present and interjects at various points during the interview. If you’re a fan of Ginsberg or interested in learning more about the Beat Generation or Jack Kerouac, give this interview a listen!
  • Henry Kaiser—I had never heard of Henry Kaiser prior to this project, but he is an American guitarist and composer. During this interview, Kaiser discusses the album The Sweet Sunny North, which he made in collaboration with David Lindley and a host of Norwegian musicians and instrumentalists. This album is meant to highlight various Norwegian musical traditions and styles. Previously, Kaiser and Lindley recorded a similar album, but with musicians from Madagascar. I think it is such an ingenious idea and album concept to immerse yourself in the music of a completely foreign country, promote new styles of music to American audiences, and introduce lesser-known and unknown musicians to a wider audience.
  • Yoko Ono—Everyone knows Yoko Ono as the woman who broke up The Beatles, but besides that dubious claim, I don’t think I’ve ever learned about or heard Ono speak. This was a group interview with several Boston-area reporters, including Katz, asking Ono questions. The interview was conducted because a touring exhibition of artwork created by John Lennon and Ono was making a stop in Boston. Highlights of the interview include her in-depth discussion of Lennon and the surprising admission that Boston has a special place in her heart.
  • George Winston—George Winston is also a musician I had never heard of, but he is an American pianist with a massive discography. The interview was unexpected because Winston discusses his dislike of the piano, a surprising admission for a professional pianist! When Katz asks if he ever practices or plays piano just to play, Winston states that he only practices or plays (outside of scheduled performances) when he’s touring! He never listens to piano music at home and easily tires of listening to classical piano music. Instead, Winston prefers the guitar and enjoys listening to guitar and harp music in his spare time.

Anna Ryerson’s Picks:

Lindsey Buckingham plays guitar on a stage
Lindsey Buckingham
  • Lindsey Buckingham—Lindsey Buckingham talks to Katz shortly after the release of Fleetwood Mac’s album Tango in the Night, which Buckingham compares favorably to their previous album Mirage, calling it a more experimental album. He shares how he came to work more on the production side of the group’s records. Interestingly, Buckingham took a decade-long hiatus from Fleetwood Mac within a year of this interview. Although he shares his desire to work on more solo material, he does not hint that he might be leaving the group any time soon.
  • Jerry Butler—Jerry Butler was originally a musician and singer-songwriter, but Katz interviews him later in his career when serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, so this interview gives more insight into the practical side of the music industry. Butler talks about his organization’s decision to move their annual event from Los Angeles (where it took place at the same time as the Grammys) to New York, in order to make more money to help pay the medical bills and other necessities of older musicians without a safety net. Butler also talks about the importance of proper recognition in situations where newer musicians are borrowing from and taking inspiration from older ones, and how excited he is to be able to honor songwriter Clyde Otis, who contributed to the songs of so many other artists.
  • Jim Carroll—An author and poet as well as a musician, Jim Carroll was best known for writing the memoir Basketball Diaries, which became a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. When Katz interviews him, he does talk about the music industry and his career as a punk musician but focuses more on his experiences in the poetry scene and on his own writing. Carroll, who played basketball at a high level in high school, mentions his love of the sport in both Basketball Diaries and his second memoir Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973. However, he tells Katz that he does not regret focusing more on poetry than on basketball as a young adult, particularly considering the longevity of his work in poetry and in writing in general. Thirty-seven years old at the time of this interview, he considers himself “still a young writer” but feels he would “be a very old basketball player.”
  • James Carter—Katz interviewed James Carter shortly after the filming of the 1996 movie Kansas City, where he worked with actor and musician Harry Belafonte to pay tribute to great Kansas City jazz musicians of the 1930s. Carter played the famous saxophonist Ben Webster. Carter also talks about his desire to pay tribute to other jazz artists, including some who had never been recorded before, and talks about his recent album, Conversin’ with the Elders, which showcases a long continuum of great jazz musicians.
  • Ornette Coleman—A saxophonist, violinist, and trumpeter, Ornette Coleman was best known for his jazz compositions and performances, but when interviewed by Katz, alongside his friend Randy Harrison, he shares a fascinating story about an experience with classical music. When Coleman hoped to perform in England, he was told by the British government that he first needed to write a piece of classical music and qualify as a concert artist. He ended up writing a piece of music called “Forms and Sounds” for himself and a woodwind quintet. He also talks to Katz about how he taught himself how to play the violin!

We hope that these remarkable examples give you some idea of the value of recorded interviews in the music world. It’s particularly interesting to hear the voices and intonations of these musicians, people whose lives were built on sound, and sometimes the interface between sound and the spoken (or sung) word. In addition, through these interviews, you can learn a great deal about the history and the making of music—because they are contemporaneous recordings, they capture the creative process as it occurs.

The best part of working with any kind of archival material is that opportunity for discovery, and the surprises that you will encounter!