Producer, director and writer Judd Apatow is best known for making people laugh, but he and his sister, Mia, have been working on something more tuneful over the past couple years: the rerelease of jazz and blues recordings from a label that featured the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Sarah Vaughan, and was built by legendary jazz, blues and early R&B producer Bob Shad — who also happened to be the Apatows’ grandfather.
On Oct. 6, the relaunched Mainstream Records label will reissue catalog albums from sax men Harold Land (“A New Shade of Blue”) and Buddy Terry (“Awareness”). That follows two spiritually minded compilations dropped to test the waters: last year’s “Feeling Good” and this year’s “Innerpeace.”
“We always knew our grandfather’s music was loved by hard-core jazz and blues heads, but wouldn’t it be great if more people could hear it and love it in the streaming age,” Apatow says. “His music always sounds like everyone is having a ball.”
Apatow, still high from his first stand-up comedy tour in more than 20 years (a Netflix special debuts in December), is also leaning on a music theme for his current theatrical release, “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” a documentary he produced on the alternative-country sensations that also will air on HBO in January.
“I have a soft spot for underappreciated artists,” Apatow muses, “something that stems from my grandfather’s love of jazz and blues, and having a label that, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, didn’t quite jibe with the times.”
Shad held the keys to several labels, such as Mainstream, founded in 1964. Besides dropping new and reissued jazz albums, it released comedy platters from Dickie Goodman (“the filthiest jokes I heard until that point,” laughs Apatow) as well as debut recordings from Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. “Everyone thinks Clive Davis is responsible for Janis, but my grandfather signed her first. My father was Nugent’s first manager.” Joke with the famously liberal Apatow about having anything to do with the staunchly Republican Nugent, and the director says, “I couldn’t agree less with him, but that doesn’t mean his albums don’t rock hard.”
Apatow describes Shad as a funny guy from the Bronx with a lot of attitude. “He gave people a hard time,” he says. “Example: the Blues Brothers. He hated them because he loved and even knew the guys who originated the original blues stuff. Why would people buy Belushi and Aykroyd? Why wouldn’t they just buy the real artists those guys were referencing? He could be irrational: He also hated Jimi Hendrix because he knew where the guitarist stole his riffs. The ‘Jaws’ soundtrack too — he knew the classical pieces that came from. Bob liked to show off that way.”
Young Apatow was only beginning to “get” jazz at age 17, when he was a DJ at his high school radio station, WKWZ in Syosset, N.Y. “I was their jazz DJ, and I started to understand that music on my own. I was excited and was going to visit [my grandfather] to aggressively discuss this music, but he died from a heart attack [in 1985] before I made that trip.”
Apatow has honored Shad in his films and television shows. In music comedy “Walk Hard,” Craig Robinson’s character is named Bob Shad. The producer-director also used Nugent’s “Journey to the Center of the Mind” in “Freaks and Geeks.” In “The Cable Guy,” Jim Carrey sings a twisted take on “Salt Peanuts” by Charlie Parker, one of Shad’s productions.
“My grandfather got Parker his union card. He paid for Alan Freed’s funeral. He was a poor kid with attitude who invented himself and therefore helped invent the record business.” The music that Mia and Judd Apatow will rerelease as part of the rediscovery of the Mainstream catalog is proof of that claim.
“A lot of Mainstream music — like Jack Wilkins’ funky ‘Red Clay’ — gets sampled by hip-hop artists all the time,” says Apatow, pointing out that Chance the Rapper’s “NaNa” track with Action Bronson does so (“with the dirtiest language,” he says).
“Shad’s Mainstream label was eclectic stuff at a time when that sort of music wasn’t necessarily the hottest thing happening,” Apatow notes. “My grandfather kept many musical styles alive by supporting jazz and blues right when they were losing favor. Now seems about the right time to reinvestigate those sounds.”
(Pictured: Freddie Robinson, Joe Sample, Blue Mitchell, Bob Shad and Herman Riley in 1973.)