On July 27, 1983, the world would be introduced to a budding superstar from the streets of New York City (by way of Bay City, Michigan) named Madonna. On that date 30 years ago, Sire Records released her debut, Madonna. The record would go on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide and spawn five singles, including the hits "Holiday," "Lucky Star," and "Borderline."
Behind the boards during recording was producer Reggie Lucas, who had seen success working with Lou Rawls, Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman, and Roberta Flack, among other artists. Later in the process, Madonna brought in DJ John "Jellybean" Benitez to assist.
In the years since the album's release, Madonna's become a household name, one of music's most influential artists ever, and a source of controversy--including among her collaborators. I spoke with Lucas about recording Madonna, about what made its singer so novel, and about who he think really deserves credit for the album that served as a launchpad for one of the greatest pop acts in history.
Your background was primarily as an R&B and jazz artist. How did that influence you creating the songs for Madonna? Because she was a different kind of artist.
Well, she was a white artist wasn't she? [laughs] It was the main thing that made her different. When I came to the Madonna record, I came with two things. The first thing was I brought a lot of success and a solid background as a hit producer and songwriter within the R&B world, but it was also with the skill as a composer and rock and roll guitarist. Madonna was simply the first opportunity that I had to play around with other musical interests that I had. You couldn't make the first Madonna record for Phyllis Hyman. I couldn't make Miles Davis music for Roberta Flack. Miles was the one place where I got it all out of my system, and that was the beauty of Miles.
As a producer, you understood that your first job was to support people to achieve that end. You challenged the artist just enough to bring out the best in them and introduce them to audiences that they normally wouldn't be introduced to. When I did "Physical Attraction," that was just it. She was a little different. Madonna was wilder in terms of her look and image; I don't know if her music was that much wilder than anyone else back then. I think her music was sexually freer and it predicted what was going to happen in the future. She was definitely an innovator when it became to being more suggestive, which was pretty cool. I thought it was great.
So--mixing that with my musical background, Madonna's first album was really a hybrid of her interests and mine. "Physical Attraction" was our starting point with that style. It did pretty well and she began to move forward with her career and sound.
How did that dynamic work in the studio?
She had a lot of material that she had written and collaborated with other people on in the course of being signed to a record label. When she met me, "Everybody" was about to come out and she had written "Lucky Star." My role had been as a creative songwriting record producer. [Musician James] Mtume and I typically wrote a good percentage of the material we produced for Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman, and those artists. So that's what I ended up doing for Madonna. I would write songs and ask her, "What do you think of this?" "Physical Attraction" and "Borderline" were done specifically during the production process and for her. They weren't demo songs that I was shopping around.
Madonna and I had an enormous amount of freedom. They would tell us to make the record and we went and made the record. I think, in retrospect, we were happy to come up in an era where the record company played a very small role in creative supervision. Our creative process was very independent.
Did you guys have a set routine that you followed every day coming into the studio?
She was diligent, it was a pretty good experience. She wasn't the type of artist that you had to go and look for. She wanted to be successful. She was always there when she needed to be. I was used to being in charge of things so I was always there at the studio ready. I made sure everything moved smoothly for her so that the process surrounding being in the studio was fairly transparent to her. She had to come in focused on her music and performing as an artist and it helped my focus as well. The musicians I worked with were guys I had worked with for years. We worked out of Sigma Sound Studios, a studio I worked out of for years as well. She brought some very good people into the situation. It was very comfortable making the record.
We made usage of synthesizers and drum machines. That was the first record that I ever recorded where I used a drum machine. It was one of the big transitions for me. We used Moog and Arp synthesizers, and that was relatively new technology back then. It gave the music a new sound. Madonna was an artist that knew what she wanted, but she wasn't a record producer. So it was my responsibility to create a sound for her. She would be there interactively. If she didn't like something she heard, she would say so and I would change it. The funny thing that happened on this record is when we got into the studio together we established this mini-Moog bass sound for her as her key sound. And she stuck with it for a long time.
Were there any challenges in working with a low budget and trying to break a new artist on a new label, Sire Records?
It wasn't really difficult at all. Sire wasn't a new label. It was an independent record label that was acquired by Warner Brothers. It had an enormous amount of success with the English punk sound and dance music. Sometimes things just have a flow to them. Madonna's record had a flow to it. Michael Rosenblatt was always there and I worked with him from the label. He was great, he was a real pro. He knew how to be an A&R person for a record. He didn't interfere, but he wasn't so distanced from it that he didn't have an idea of what was going on.
Michael is probably an unsung hero of launching Madonna's career. If you can believe it, Warner Brothers had very limited interest in Madonna when she was first signed. You know what they thought? They said that Madonna is this new white artist that wants to sing black--so what they did was send her to the black radio stations when her first record came out, and that's how they promoted her at first. They just treated her as a black artist. I guess they kind of envisioned her as Teena Marie. Madonna had an intense interest in black music, but she wasn't Teena Marie. She was something different. But she did it and she went to the black radio stations and held her own. Frankie Crocker was playing her records in New York.