Chris Gero On The Record About Nathan East

The director of “Nathan East: For The Record,” Chris Gero, talks with Pollstar about the documentary and gives you a glimpse into the public and private sides of the incredible bassist.

Photo: Kharen Hill

“Nathan East is the most famous person you don’t know you already know,” Gero, founder/VP of the Yamaha Entertainment Group, proclaims at the beginning of the documentary – a statement that’s proved time and time again as the film sketches out the musician’s life.  There are clips of East performing with many of the musicians who have shaped the music world during the past five decades.  You see him playing with Eric Clapton, Lionel Richie and Kenny Loggins, you hear him describing his experience co-writing “Easy Lover” with Phil Collins and Philip Bailey and you get a first-hand account of when he joined forces with Bob James, Harvey Mason and Lee Ritenour to form the jazz group Fourplay.

Although East has had a life that many musicians can only dream of, the bassist never got around to recording his own album until 2014.  But East didn’t go it alone. Instead, he was joined by many of the musicians he had played with through the years, including Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Ray Parker, Jr., David Paich and others as well as his Fourplay partners James and Chuck Loeb, who joined in group in 2010.  Sara Bareilles provided the vocal for “I Can Let Go Now.”

Not only did Gero direct the documentary but he was involved with the making of the album and shares a producer’s credit with East.  The record received a Grammy nomination for “best contemporary instrumental album.”

“Nathan East: For The Record” includes footage of the sessions that resulted in the album as well as archival footage of the artist’s life, from growing up in San Diego to working with Daft Punk.  Gero’s commentary about the project is a perfect prelude to actually seeing the documentary, available now on Hulu.

Photo: David Bean

As the founder/VP of the Yamaha Entertainment Group, what does your job entail?

I run the global artist branding unit.  The artists that play our instruments – those relationships are managed by a gang that all report to me.  We manage the expectations and the services that we do on a global level to keep talent playing the products that we make.  Subsequently, the return is that our brand is very successful out in the world. 

The second element is really kind of an offshoot of the first element, although they are all tied together.  That is, I manage the film and label group of our artists. … Some of our artists, we go a step further as we try to partner in a manner that is much deeper than just playing an instrument and earning a living.  It’s an exact extension of our brand and who we are.  We are very, very committed to the talent that we engage with in this area and it’s very little about money. … It has to be even a more exact marriage in the brand and the messaging that we do.  That’s my job.

Do all artist endorsements fall under your umbrella?

Yes. … How we market and manage that is really where most of my gang spend quite a bit of time.  We’re the most successful musical brand name on the planet, most seen and most recognized – all these attributes.  But it wasn’t always that way. … What we do and how it’s done is not very easy and no money is ever exchanged.  It’s all done [by] being exceptional in service.

What led you to where you are now?

I started as a singer/songwriter, very young.  Kind of went from deal to deal and met a lot of people along the way. When I was just coming off of a contract, I was endorsed by Yamaha and they came to me and asked if I would make introductions for them.  In the heady days of the DX7, Yamaha had this unbelievable success with those FM [digital] synthesis products that really kind of changed a decade of music, and they were not properly prepared in how to manage the artist branding.  As a result, when the money stopped, the program stopped altogether and there was a five-to-six year window where it very quickly fell apart.  It was a much different era; things were much looser. They asked me to come in and help them establish more relationship connections, not just, “Here’s a piece of gear.  Have a nice day.  We hope we see you some place.”  It became much more of a business.

So they asked me to come in, make introductions and help them produce opportunities, shows and what have you.  I’ve been there ever since.  We started with four artists and now we have about 3,000 or so, depending on who’s coming off or renewing contracts.

What’s the first step to making a film such as “Nathan East: For The Record?”

The very first step is having a reason to make it. … Nathan and I produced his record.  One of the beautiful things working for Yamaha is that most people don’t know that my entire background is doing this stuff.  You learn as you go that this is the best method in which to tell the story.  Especially in this day and age when everything is media-driven. … In Nathan’s case we went at it from a standpoint of wanting to capture the realness of who this guy is while we were recording the record.  I’m quoted at the very top of the movie [saying] “Nathan East is the most famous person you don’t know you already know.”  When you’re trying to position him as why this man is important, why this man is remarkable, a book isn’t going to do it and the record will get you there but it’s going to [reach] a limited audience. The first and foremost desire was having the goal in mind to tell the story that supports the record. … What makes the record unique is his story. … From the second the camera started rolling, that was the intention.

Some people say there’s no tension, there’s no conflict, but that’s just who this man is.  On his worst day he’s a remarkable man. He makes [someone] like me want to be a better person because a lot just bounces off of him.  That’s the spirit in which we wanted it to be captured.  That’s how we approached it.

Is Nathan as easy going in real life as he appears in the film?

Yeah.  People say it.  Truthfully, I have artists, musicians who are friends who are like, “Nathan?  Oh, yeah, he’ll steal the job right from underneath of you.”  There’s that caliber of folks who resent him at certain levels. But the overall majority of people absolutely love him.  The truth is that what wins Nathan is Nathan.  He’s genuine. We’ve been friends for many years and I’ve seen the worse of things that have happened, that people like myself would really struggle getting through.  And Nathan‘s one of these guys, he has this child-like ability where the hard stuff bounces off of him because he knows the next day is going to be an opportunity to change what has just happened.  There’s just not enough of that type of person in the world.

He’s got this million-dollar smile, this million-dollar attitude [where] he loves everybody around him. … He’s just a good human being.

Yet he hardly looks old enough to have done everything he has accomplished.

He loves what he does. … Being out on the road for all those years, working all those years, obviously a lot has slowed down because the industry has slowed down.  But the truth is he just gets up and goes at it, like a kid, every single day.  He’s a remarkable human.  He’s got that fire within himself. He decides his life, life doesn’t decide for him, so to speak.

There is a lot of archival footage in the film.  How massive a job was it to assemble all those clips?

We didn’t go into it first thinking [that] we had all these elements, therefore we’re going to work them in.  The story was continuously massaged as we went.  How do you cleverly attack such a large project?  Who do you talk to and who do you call?  People would come out of the woodwork and say, “I know I really want to be a part of this” and that changed elements of the storyline as to how to present it. Sara Bachler, the person who wrote most of the story, was writing it in real time.  She’s a remarkable writer and she parked herself in my office and pretty much rewrote it almost every day.

The archival footage, we had to go searching for.  This machine had to crank it out right to the end. It’s a very lengthy, very complicated process.  You see in movies and television a lot of fake music beds or a singular image or there’s no imaging at all.  The importance in which this story had to be told had to be the real deal. Along with the humor, because there is a lot of humor in the movie, the setup has to come across as entirely genuine. … We spent a year in rights and clearances.  It’s kind of a value thing.  A lot of people just skip over that because it’s too difficult.  But that part of it [shows] who Nathan really is and without it, it’s hard to have the same impact.

Photo: Yamaha
(Left to right) Chris Gero, Don Was and Nathan East.

Along with obtaining clearances for film clips, did you have to obtain separate clearances for the music on the archival footage?

It’s all over the place.  Although we’ve done films before, [it wasn’t at] this level.  I had just directed and produced Elton John’s “Million Dollar Piano,” which came out in March, and it was kind of a one-stop-shop because almost everything was through Universal and he’s still on Universal so he pulls a lot of weight.

Here, there was about 75 rights and clearances for pieces that had to be cleared.  On one side you’d have one singular 15-second clip and the publishing could be owned over in one spot, the master would have to be paid over on another spot and whoever owned the film would have to be paid on another spot. All would have to agree. … In that industry there is no sense of urgency in getting back to you as to how much they are going to charge … if they are going to respond at all. It’s a very, very frustrating business.  You’d think, especially in this day and age, that would be something a lot more dialed in.  [But] everybody waits to see who is going to make the highest payment.  Then the game gets reshuffled entirely if it’s a favorite-nation agreement. … If you’ve been spending seven months and you’ve got each clearance right at $2,000 and the next guy comes along and it’s $5,000, you’ve just gone up 100 percent over budget on the entire film.

In the end, it helps everybody.  It helps guys like Lionel Richie, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.  All those guys who are still out there working, it helps them all … and it keeps music being purchased and keeps music in the forefront and limelight.  But there is a lot that is missed there because [of] the disconnects between publishers and rights owners. … In many instances we had to go to the artists directly, to their agents and lawyers, to get an answer.  And sometimes the answer took three or four months just to get a yes or no.  That was the toughest thing but that’s not uncommon in that part of filmmaking.

Was there any footage that you really loved and wanted to have in the movie but you couldn’t obtain the rights for?

We still, truthfully, right down to the wire, had still been getting clearances on everything.  We just got finished this week.  We private-screened what it would look like but there’s a vignette we had to take out of his son playing with him the Beatles song, “Yesterday.”  We couldn’t get clearance rights for it.  No response and by the time we did get a response it was so remarkably high we couldn’t do it.

Was this just a snippet rather than a performance of the entire song?

Oh, yeah. It’s, literally, like 15 seconds of it.  That happens.  That was the biggest one because it’s a special moment in the movie. It’s kind of a full-circle moment in which Nate, who is absolutely adored by Paul [McCartney] and I’m sure if Paul knew he would probably be going, “That’s ridiculous,” but Paul doesn’t own the rights to it.  The pushback was just too high for us. … So we had to pull that out.  And there were a few smaller things that had to be pulled out as we went but it didn’t have the same kind of impact. 

It was my idea to have his son play on the record.  He’s not the greatest piano player in the world but that’s not the point.  He’s good enough … and it’s a bit of a time capsule.  We both have children, we’re very close to our children and we share that bond.  It was an amazing moment that we filmed.  The morning that he was going to go and do the recording, there was a picture of Nate and Paul McCartney on the piano at Nathan’s house.  His son said, “There’s the composer who wrote this song.  Dad, do you think he would like this?” And Nathan said that couldn’t have ever made him prouder.  As he says, “One day you’re changing diapers and the next day you’re recording on a record with him.”

You and Nathan have been friends for years.  Was there anything you learned about him while making this film?

There was a lot of stuff.  Nathan, he’s always struck me as very approachable and very kind.  But when you’re digging through the history of somebody, you learn things you didn’t have any idea of.  For example, I knew he was on the same bill as Stevie Ray Vaughn with Clapton on the day when a helicopter crash took Stevie and five of Eric Clapton’s guys’ lives.  But I never really knew the entire story. … I had no idea just how closely he came to losing his life.

He was on the helicopter.  When you talk to him … he kind of brushes it off.  But him and Greg Phillinganes were both on the helicopter and this guy came in said, “This guy who is a fan of yours, he’s here with his daughter and he wants to fly you back.”  They had this argument in the helicopter about whether or not they should give up their seats.  Nathan said, “Come on, let’s go.”  They got up at the last second and gave up their seats and Stevie Ray got one of the last seats.  That would have been the end of the story and we would be remembering him, obviously, in a whole different way.

That was a pretty big moment just because we are such good friends. … He really doesn’t talk about it very much but he looks at it as a way of being told, “You’ve got a lot more to do here.” He embraced that amd.  I think, that moment has set his course, completely, in a much different way.

Ialready knew how deep of an individual he is.  Nathan has been with Yamaha as an endorsed artist for about 32 years or so.  I never actually worked with Nathan until I produced a large-format concert at The Shrine Auditorium in February 2000 which became a pretty successful PBS special for Michael McDonald.  Nate came on to play with Kenny Loggins and Patti LaBelle.  I had met him previously … and after that we started to hang out.  We started to become friends.  Over the years we’d talk about stuff in the world, sometimes politics, sometimes religion.

I live in Franklin, Tenn., which is very much so is the heart of the Southern ideal.  Nate has been there several times, we recorded a lot of the record there.  He loves American history and we’d often have these dialogues about the true intentions of why people kill each other, some deep and meaningful conversations.

When we went to record “America The Beautiful,” before we recorded his solo I really wanted to [capture] the emotion that everybody has the right to feel, the right to be free.  No matter if they’re dead right or dead wrong, it doesn’t matter. … I decided right before we were going to record his solo part on “America The Beautiful,” I took him to the Battle Of Franklin grounds.  Franklin was one of the last great battles of the Civil War, about 7,000 people died.  I took him to the largest privately owned Confederate cemetery in the United States, which is a mile up the road from where the studio is.  It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and there are a lot of buildings that still have battle scars.  As we walked around I [described] that these two forces came together for an idea of what their own individual freedoms represented.  The South felt they had the right to bear arms because the North was an industrial might and the South’s economy was largely based on slavery.

And here’s Nathan standing in the middle of this Confederate cemetery.  This is something that’s a very, very rare thing to see.  Even [rarer] was that Nathan got down on one knee and went to that place he goes to and said, “I am grateful to have this experience.  I’m so grateful to be standing here where people gave their lives for what they believe in.”

And I said to him, “You’re here because of what they did.  We’re all here.  I get to experience this with you, you get to experience it with me.” It was hugely emotional moment.  Some of it is captured on film.  I didn’t want to go into it really, really deep, but the point is that that is what makes him better than me. … I could probably line up 10 guys who would have never have done that.

As the result of that, he went back into the studio and he was completely awestruck.  We recorded this remarkable composition, most of it right on the fly, within 10 minutes of that experience.  It completely gave me the concrete understanding of why he’s so special. … Everything is from his heart.  Everything he believes in is all spiritual.  Music for him is so spiritual. … I can name a hundred people who are not like that, off of the top of my hat.  Eric Clapton said, “Most other bass players that I’ve ever played with, they played but they just play loud.  Nathan plays everything with feeling.”  That’s really the truth. … He decides who he is.  Nobody else gets [to do that].  That’s truly one of the unique gifts I was given, that I came to realize about him in the year and a half process that we went through.

What are the outlets for a film such as this?

Right now we’re in the middle of shopping for a long-term home for it. … In the meantime, to get it out now so the public can be talking about it, Hulu is going to be where it’s going to live. 

What about cable?

Hard to say.  Right now we’re just looking at what the best look and option is going to be for us.  I want the world to know who he is.  The record is Grammy nominated.  You can sit and listen and appreciate the music but it’s like adding on a two-hour biography of a remarkable person on top of it and it makes you go back to the music.  It’s a powerful way to tell that story.

What’s next for you?

Right now we’re just getting underway [on] a Bob James record, with Nathan.  So it’s kind of a duet project that we started to record about a month ago.  Right after the winter NAMM show we’ll go back into the studio.  There’s also a film component with that. And I’m producing a fairly large concert event at NAMM coming up in January then it’s right back into the studio.  There are a couple of records I have underway.  Nathan and Bob and then a Bob James retrospect record.  I’m producing and directing a five-minute film that globally represents what our brand is.  It’s a little movie called “The Gift.”  Although it’s pretty tiny in length, it’s one of the biggest projects we’ve ever undertaken.  It’s a complicated little film.

Is this the best job anyone could ever have?

This is the best job ever.  I’m in the Virgin Islands right now. My wife surprised me with a week away.  We’re here with a couple of friends of ours.  We were talking about this last night.  He’s a pediatrician.  He’s like, “My work is work. It’s just work. Even being a pediatrician, I get up and I’m exhausted by the end of the day.”

I’m so amazingly fortunate. It’s not that there hasn’t been hard work.  The standard being exceptionally high, what we represent has to be equal to the brand and what it represents.  It’s very, very stressful, but it’s the greatest job there’s ever been because my job and my life are one and the same.

Photo: David Bean
“The story was continuously massaged as we went.  How do you cleverly attack such a large project?  Who do you talk to and who do you call? “

For more information, please click here to view “Nathan East: For The Record” on Hulu and here for Nathan East’s website.