Don DeVito, a GRAMMY Award winning record producer whose 40 year career was astonishingly spent at the same label, Columbia Records, died in New York City on November 25th at the age of 72 after a 16 year battle with prostate cancer.
Don DeVito was born September 6, 1939 in Brooklyn and was ushered into the music industry at an early age. He was spotted on the street with guitar in hand by legendary rock musician Al Kooper of The Royal Teens, who had earlier found pop music success with the song “Short Shorts”, a #3 hit single in 1958. Kooper asked a very simple question of young Don, “Can you play that thing?” Days later DeVito found himself on the road as a touring musician. After a year with The Royal Teens, DeVito returned to school, earned a degree in English from Brooklyn College, and formed his own band, The Sabres. While on a cross-country tour, the band broke up, leaving DeVito stranded in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The break up proved to be quite serendipitous, as DeVito would meet Johnny Cash at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage. The coincidental meeting with The Man in Black would lead to a lifelong friendship between the two. It was not long before Cash introduced DeVito to Bob Dylan.
In 1967, DeVito entered the CBS Executive Training Program. His initial placement was in the sports division, but was soon transferred to CBS Records. DeVito was named the Local Promotion and Artist Relations representative for Miami. By 1971, CBS Records had become Columbia Records, part of Sony Music, and DeVito was transferred to New York City to head a new marketing department at the Columbia label. As part of his transition to this new role, Columbia Records president Clive Davis encouraged DeVito to spend more time in the recording studio with artists and producers. DeVito took the advice to heart and spent countless hours in the studio studying such artists as Bob Johnston, James Guercio, Jimmy Ienner, and Phil Ramone. DeVito’s knowledge of music and his studio experience grew rapidly and led to his increasing involvement and eventual move to the Artist & Repertoire (A&R) department at Columbia.
While in the A&R department DeVito worked with scores of musicians, including Bob Dylan. Among his many achievements with Columbia, perhaps the most noteworthy was luring Dylan back to Columbia from Asylum Records. Shortly thereafter, DeVito produced the iconic Dylan albums Blood on the Tracks and Desire, both which reached #1 on the Billboard charts. 1975 did not stop there for DeVito and Dylan. DeVito joined Dylan on tour, produced the music for his TV special, and subsequently was the producer of the albums Hard Rain, Street Legal and At Budokan.
In addition to his work with Dylan, DeVito was instrumental to the careers and success of Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Aerosmith and Blue Öyster Cult. He was appointed Vice President of A&R for Columbia in 1976, and was named National Vice President of A&R in 1981. A five-time Grammy Award nominee, he won the award in 1989 in the category of Best Traditional Folk Recording for his work on the all-star tribute “Folkways – A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly.”
DeVito’s contribution to the music world extended far beyond the stage and the recording studio. He served on committees and was a board member of various organizations dedicated to the preservation and promotion of music including the New York Chapter of the Recording Academy, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee, and the Advisory Board of Folkways Music at the Smithsonian Institution.
One of DeVito’s proudest moments came in 2001 when, following the attacks of September 11, he played an integral part in organizing and producing The Concert for New York City, a globally televised concert event and a DVD and gold-certified CD release which raised over a million dollars for the Robin Hood Relief Fund. The concert featured performances by David Bowie, The Who, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Jay-Z and many more.
DeVito was known throughout the music business for his musical knowledge, generosity, and his skill in diplomacy, which may account for his longevity as an A&R man, a position not known for its job security. He retired from Sony Music in 2007. When asked what he would want to be remembered for, DeVito said without hesitation, “For devotion to the music.” Besides music, DeVito was an avid football and baseball fan, but above all was a devoted family man who enjoyed spending time with his family and friends on his boat, “Mama Tried.”
Although DeVito is no longer with us, his love of life and passion for music are carried on by his wife Carolyn and his two children, Marissa and James. DeVito has requested in lieu of flowers, that a donation be made in his honor to the Save The Music Foundation.
(Photo credit: Sony Music Archives)