Mama Mia, Mama Mia…happy birthday to the man on the other side of the glass for the creation of rock’s greatest hits. Roy Thomas Baker turns 76 today. Not exactly a household name, but responsible in large part for bringing us some of the music that has made other artists household names…like Queen, the Cars, Cheap Trick, T Rex…
Baker grew up in London, obsessed with music. “The thing that I loved was the way American blues went over to England and got bastardized with artists like Clapton and the Stones, then went back to America. It was this continual bouncing back and forth between the two places,” he says. Unlike so many like him that picked up a guitar or tried to write some tunes, Baker headed into the studio to work with other artists, getting hired on at Trident Studios as a recording engineer not long after finishing school. He was often teamed up with producer Gus Dudgeon, Elton John’s famous producer of the early-’70s. While there, he worked on records from the likes of T Rex, the Rolling Stones and Santana, before being given the opportunity to produce records on his own.
His first production credit was on a Free album, followed by a Nazareth one, but things really clicked when he ran into a new and audacious band called Queen. He produced their first record, then their second…in the end he produced most of their great 1970s records including A Night At the Opera, and of course the wild hit from it, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“I remember Freddie playing me ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the first time at his place in London. He played me he beginning part and said, ‘right, now this is where the opera section comes in.’ He left a gap and I’d have to imagine the dramatic opera-style segment. Then we went out to dinner,” he told the New York Times recently. “It took us three weeks to record on a 16-track machine and we used 180 overdubs, which was very, very unusual for back then…I thought it was going to be a hit (but) I didn’t realize it was still going to be talked about 30 years later.”
Around the end of the decade he moved to L.A., soon got hired on by Columbia Records as a staff producer, but not before doing some work for a band that was from the other coast…and from the other end of the spectrum from Queen. He says songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” were “kitchen sink over-production, which I loved…when I did the first Cars record, we purposefully did it very sparse.” He ended up producing four albums for the Cars, then helped make Journey a mega-selling act. From there, he went on to do the soundtrack for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and work on records from artists ranging from Chris DeBurgh to the Stranglers. As journalist Rick Clark puts it, “instead of simply giving rock fans more of the same, Roy Thomas Baker has managed throughout his long and distinguished career to produce audacious and distinctive projects while successfully reading the pulse of mainstream audiences.”
Presently Baker has homes in Europe, but has L.A. as his home base, where he has a 40-track recording studio by his house he shares with wife Tere, the actress who portrayed Theresa in the Godfather movies.