"I would like to think we’ll be able to name someone by September, but if it takes longer, it takes longer."
——Garth Fundis


An exclusive HITS dialogue with NARAS CEO/President Garth Fundis by Todd Everett

When Michael Greene stepped down from the presidency of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences last April 27, the Recording Academy was left in a state of turmoil. There was negative publicity surrounding Greene’s resignation to deal with, plus the demands of NARAS—a nonprofit organization whose highest profile is as home of the Grammy Awards for artistic merit in the recording industry, but which also is home for charitable and educational arms.

In 1988, Greene moved from the Academy’s Atlanta Chapter to its L.A. headquarters, beginning as President on March 8. The organization had a reported 3,500 members, and $4.9 million in assets. Under Greene’s leadership, the organization had grown to more than 20,000 members (about three-quarters of them meeting the professional qualification that entitles them to participate in the Grammy voting process), and assets had multiplied tenfold.

Upon Greene’s resignation, the Academy spotlight shined on the organization’s self-effacing Chairman of the board of trustees, Garth Fundis. Operating out of Nashville (as past President of the local chapter), Fundis has a 30-year background in the record business, as an engineer, producer and sometime background singer. His production credits alone include Alabama, Emmylou Harris, John Michael Montgomery, New Grass Revival, Collin Raye, Russell Smith, Keith Whitley, Don Williams and Trisha Yearwood.

Anxious to get the inside track on the search for a new Academy President, HITS’ fellow traveler "Big Head" Todd Everett tracked down the elusive and press-shy Fundis, a search that reached from Nashville to Florida to Academy headquarters in Santa Monica, over a two-week period. Fundis, not surprisingly, was clearly more at ease discussing the music he’s helped make than the Academy’s current executive search.

Would you describe the status of the Recording Academy’s vacant presidency at the moment?
The trustees transferred the powers of CEO and President to me, until we name a permanent President. Mike [Greene] is a consultant on an exclusive basis until the end of September, and on a part-time basis until February—the month of the Grammy awards telecast.

What are you looking for in a presidential candidate?
There’s probably a myriad of people that come from different experiences who might make a good fit. Our organization represents the creators of music—songwriters, producers and artists, not sales and promotion people. We’re looking for someone who can represent those people. It seems obvious that someone who has familiarity with music would be helpful. There are obviously certain profiles and attributes, but you might meet a person who does not fill all points in the wish list, but whose strengths might make up for it.

How is the search proceeding? The rumor mill is throwing any number of names around.
Everybody likes to think they have the crystal ball; it’s like predicting who will win the Grammys. There are eight people on a search committee; mostly NARAS trustees and former trustees. The committee has had one meeting—in late May—sort of an organizational meeting about how we’ll go forward. We’ve brought on executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International as consultants to help us out in an administrative process, sorting through all the applications. We’re anxious to get through it, but we’ll take as much time as we need to find the right person. Hopefully, by the end of July, we can come up with a short list. I would like to think we’ll be able to name someone by September, but if it takes longer, it takes longer. The most important thing is that we have the right person. Mike was there for 14 years; hopefully, the next person will want to make it his life’s work. We want our President to have a good sense of the organization and to be able to build forward into the future.

Is it necessary that the new President live in the Los Angeles area?
We have a nice, beautiful building in Santa Monica. That’s where they’ll work.

Where should prospective candidates send their resumes? To you or Korn/Ferry?
That’s sort of like saying, "I’m doing a record on so-and-so… Anybody with great songs send them to me." I don’t want the multitudes to send me their applications. We have had a great many referrals at this point. Most people don’t want to make the approach themselves, so they have others suggest names on their behalf.

How about someone from outside the industry?
It’s hard to imagine that the presidency would go to someone who’s never heard of us before. But never say "Never."

How did you become a record producer?
I was a music education major in college and played in a number of local groups. One of them—Smoke Ring—had done some recording in Memphis. Knox Phillips and Dickey Lee flew me to Memphis to put vocals on some songs. From there, I went to work with "Cowboy" Jack Clement and Allen Reynolds. I had been a voice major for a while—as a music educator, you have to understand everybody’s role in the orchestra. Anybody who takes piano lessons as a child, like I did, gets an idea of the structure of music, and college taught me the ensemble of a recording session. Being a second engineer for several years around Allen and Jack and Don Williams, I was in the studio watching records being made.

What did you learn from your years with Clement and Reynolds?
They were good teachers, and I became better at paying attention. I was 22 when I started, and thought I knew it all. I learned a lot from Don and Allen about songs; the importance of economy of notes and lyric. Cowboy’s mantra was to set the stage at a session, turn the "recording" light on, and let the musicians be themselves. Much of what happens in the studio is trying to decipher what people are trying to tell you. Artists aren’t always certain of what they want, though they know what they don’t like. The best producers take the artists beyond their expectations, but make them feel like it was their direction all along.

One of your most successful collaborations was with Keith Whitley.
RCA’s Mary Martin called me about Keith Whitley. We made two very successful, landmark records. In the two years we were together, he taught me more about country music than I could have learned from anybody. He wanted to record Lefty Frizzell’s "I Never Go Around Mirrors," but felt that it needed another verse. He asked Whitey Shafer, who’d written the song with Lefty, to write one, and Whitey had enough respect for Keith to do it. On his way to the studio, Keith went by the cemetery, stood over Lefty’s grave, and read Lefty the second verse before recording it.

Keith died young, of alcohol poisoning. Did you see anything like that coming?
He was a real gentleman and totally professional in the studio. He was trying to walk the straight and narrow, but it wasn’t easy for him. One night we were having a conversation, and I asked him if it was a struggle to give up alcohol. He said, "Drinking was never a struggle for me; it was a struggle for the people around me," and that’s when I knew for sure that he still had problems. Later, we had just finished the overdubs on the second album, and were going to mix the next week. It was a Tuesday, and [RCA chief] Joe Galante called, asked if I was sitting down, and told me that Keith had died. After the funeral, I went from the cemetery to the recording studio—I was so anxious to start before I forgot anything we’d been talking about.

What are you working on, musically, these days?
This is my real job—advancing this organization and making sure of its future on behalf of the trustees. I’m talking to people about major projects for the fall, and I’m working with Kelly Hunt, a singer from Kansas City that has sparked interest on various levels. But I’m committed to seeing the Recording Academy presidential search through. We’re a nonprofit organization; the stakeholders are the music community itself. The Grammy is such a strong brand and logo that it creates instant integrity for people. We’ve become a large and well-financed organization with our CBS-TV contract. It’s an important time for the Academy. People are counting on us to move forward by keeping the integrity and maintaining the Grammy’s bright shine.

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