Born Michael Walden, April 23, 1952, in Plainwell, MI; married Lisa Coles (later named Anukampa; a health food store owner), 1979. Education: Attended Western Michigan University, 1970-72. Addresses: Office--Perfection Light Productions, 1925-G Francisco Blvd., San Rafael, CA 94801.
Drummer-turned-songwriter-turned-producer Narada Michael Walden is something of a pop music Midas--the singles and albums he touches often turn to gold, or even platinum. A Walden song--whether performed by Lionel Ritchie, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, or Barbra Streisand--is characterized by a memorable tune and lavish production values. The man described by San Francisco magazine as "vivacious, impish [and] vastly affable" has reached the top, both commercially and artistically, since the early 1980s.
In interviews, Walden (born Michael Walden; the moniker Narada-- meaning "supreme musician"--was bestowed on the artist by his spiritual mentor) likes to point out that he grew up near Kalamazoo, Michigan--halfway between Detroit and Chicago, affording Walden the influences of both Motown soul and Windy City rhythm and blues. But the musical influences reached even farther: "God planted me in Michigan for a reason--to hear everything. And I did, from classical to country," Walden told San Francisco magazine writer John Mendelssohn. "I always knew music was my thing," Walden continued. "I'm blessed in that way--I never had to search for what I wanted to do. As a kid, I'd put records on a turntable and just watch them spin, or study the album covers. I'd take my little Gretsch catalogue with me to Mass every morning, pick out a drum set I wanted, and pray for it."
Walden was born in 1952 and grew up in Plainwell, Michigan, where he was voted the most popular, best-dressed, and most creative graduate of his rural high school. Publicity materials from Walden's production company noted that Walden started performing as a young teen. Walden recalled, "There was a lounge on the north side of Kalamazoo where all the blues musicians hung out, called the Ambassador Lounge. And the guy I was working with--an unbelievable piano player, who seemed to come out of his mother's womb playing the blues--his uncle owned this lounge, so we became the opening act." Walden went on to attend Western Michigan University, where he studied music and joined a soul ensemble that eventually was based out of Fresno, California. Youthful experimentation with mind-expanding drugs led Walden to believe that a higher consciousness could be obtained without the use of pharmaceuticals. He took up meditation, then found his niche under the tutelage of Indian guru Sri Chimoy--"When [he] smiled at me, I felt I'd found a home for myself," Walden declared in the San Francisco profile.
At the same time, Walden was making a name for himself as the drummer with the pop-soul-fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, fronted by guitar legend John McLaughlin. Walden joined the group in time to record Mahavishnu's best-known work, the Apocalypse LP, which was produced by ex-Beatles producer George Martin and went on to gain cult status. Walden later wrote songs and played on ex-Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck's 1976 release Wired, and also performed as a sideman with the likes of musicians Jaco Pastorius and Alphonso Johnson. From there it was on to his own albums--at least nine that bear his name, including the Atlantic releases Garden of Love Light, I Cry--I Smile, Victory, Confidence, The Dance of Life, and Awakening.
While some of Walden's singles--most notably his Number One rhythm and blues hit "I Don't Want Nobody Else to Dance With You"--were well received by listeners. The "crossover" success that eluded him as a performer arrived later when he became a top mainstream producer. Walden's solo albums, though, do have their fans among critics. For example, Mendelssohn declared Walden's late 1980s album Divine Emotions "very agreeable indeed--not only soulfully sung, but drolly too, tuneful and nearly impossible not to dance to."
Through his production company, Perfection Light Productions, of San Rafael, California, Walden embarked on his main career as independent producer. The singles Walden supervised became better known than any song he performed himself: Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," George Michael's "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me" (both back-to-back Number One hits from 1987), and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." Walden also wrote and produced Aretha Franklin's Grammy-winning hit "Freeway of Love," and can be seen at the drum kit in the video. Who's Zoomin' Who, the album containing the single, was Franklin's first Number One LP in her long career and earned Walden producer of the year honors from Billboard.
Working with young talent is also a Walden trademark. He was involved in the early success of teenage popsters Stacy Lattisaw, Tevin Campbell, and Shanice, and in 1994 announced a project with "a 13-year-old vocalist named Princess K," according to a Billboard report. Walden told the magazine's J. R. Reynolds that he enjoys working with growing artists: "Kids are so innocent and are less set in their ways."
While in the 1980s Walden was an A-list producer whose stream of hits never seemed to stem, his Midas touch "cooled" a bit in the 1990s, as Reynolds noted. In 1993 he produced only one Top Five rhythm-and-blues hit, Houston's "I'm Every Woman." But that single came off Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack, which won the Grammy Award for best album that year. Still, continued Reynolds, "In the pressure-packed world of R&B, Walden must score big in '94 if he wants to continue being regarded as among the producer-elite."
Walden took steps to that end by contributing to the reemergence of former teen idols New Kids on the Block. Now older and renamed NKOTB, their comeback album, Face the Music, was coproduced by Walden and was subsequently hailed by Time magazine's Guy Garcia as "the most polished album the Kids have ever made." Walden also produced music for filmmaker Spike Lee's movie Crooklyn, supervising a remake of "People Make the World Go Round."
Walden's spirituality guides his career; it also guides his personal life. His wife, Anukampa (born Lisa Coles), owns the San Francisco-based Perfect Health Joy Songs health food store, according to Ebony. The same article quoted Narada as saying: "You learn what team effort means, that it is something to work at. And we do work at our marriage. It takes a conscious effort on both our parts. Marriage has to be a priority." Regular trips to a retreat in Hawaii also serve to uplift him. Walden keeps in good physical shape by weightlifting and running--in 1987 he was a spokesperson for "The Peace Run," a worldwide relay on behalf of peace.
"I'm an artist," Walden told San Francisco's Mendelssohn, "but I'm a producer too. I'm a dreamer, but also very real. My head's in the sky, and my feet are firmly planted on the ground. When someone pays me X amount of dollars to produce their album, the reason they're coming to me is to guarantee them a hit record. That's my job." Walden is not shaken by working with the big names. "The human might be a little intimidated at first by Lionel [Ritchie] or Aretha [Franklin] or Whitney [Houston], because they've done so much more than I could dream of doing. But when the music comes on, the divine, Narada side, the one that knows art is greater than the artist, takes over. And from there I feel completely comfortable."
by Susan Salter
Narada Michael Walden's Career
Began career as musician (sideman for various artists) and songwriter, c. 1975; worked as a Warner Bros. recording artist; founder and president, Perfection Light Productions, beginning in 1976. Independent producer/songwriter for artists including Lionel Ritchie, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston.
Narada Michael Walden's Awards
Named outstanding black contemporary artist, Bay Area Music Awards, 1982; Grammy awards for best rhythm and blues song, 1985, for "Freeway of Love"; for producer of the year, 1987; and for best album, 1993, for The Bodyguard; named producer of the year, 1986, Billboard. Produced numerous gold records.
- Selective Works
- As performer (With Mahavishnu Orchestra) Apocalypse, 1974.
- Jeff Beck, Wired, 1976.
- Garden of Love Light, Atlantic.
- I Cry--I Smile, Atlantic.
- Victory, Atlantic.
- The Dance of Life, Atlantic.
- Awakening, Atlantic.
- Divine Emotions.
- Also producer/songwriter for numerous artists, including Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Lionel Ritchie, Angela Bofill, Stacy Lattisaw, Mariah Carey, New Kids on the Block (NKOTB), and Tevin Campbell.
- Billboard, April 16, 1994.
- Ebony, December 1987; February 1991.
- San Francisco, June 1988.
- Time, February 7, 1994.
- USA Today, April 29, 1988.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Perfection Light Productions publicity materials.