“I like to work with artists who know what they’re about and just really bringing the best out of them. Putting them in an environment where they feel they can create and be productive… [and] help them make the record they’d like to make. Because at the end they’ve got to front it. They’ve got to go out and say: ‘This is me.‘ I’ve not got to do that.” – Mike Pela
Mike Pela, who has died suddenly at the age of 72, was an award-wining record producer and engineer who put the artist first. He was an astutely observational music industry veteran who understood the pressures musicians faced – but also the practical realities of having a hit.
“I always say that in order to be successful, you don’t actually have to reach [everyone] – the whole of the public doesn’t have to buy into you,” he said in a filmed 2013 interview conducted by George Shilling at Real World Studios in Bath, one of his favourite residential spaces. “Even the most successful artists, you’re really only talking about a few million, say, in the UK. More people watch Coronation Street every week, or go to football at the weekend, so you haven’t got to convince everybody. You’ve just got to convince a section of the population.
“So if you look at it like that, if you’ve got talent, something that is going to connect with a body of people, you can get through.”
Across an illustrious, near 50-year career, the Londoner worked with a huge array of musicians, from The Who to Boz Scaggs, Electric Light Orchestra to Everything But The Girl, Was (Not Was) to Boy George. Albums he worked on have amassed in excess of 150 million sales. As an introduction to that video – available on YouTube – correctly surmised: “If you need to watch just one video to learn about how to be a producer and learn how to record music, this is it.”
But it was for his long association with Sade, beginning in 1983, for which Mike is best known. He won three Grammys for his work with the band: in Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for ‘No Ordinary Love’ (1993); Best Pop Vocal Album for Lovers Rock (2001); and Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals for Soldier Of Love (2010). He also won two Grammys with Maxwell: Best R&B Album for BLACKsummers’night (2009), and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for ‘Pretty Wings’ (2009).
As the band Sade said in a joint statement after Mike’s passing whilst travelling in Italy: “It’s hard to imagine a world without Mike, but he’s a vital force within everything we’ve done, and everything to come, and remains really, truly, in our hearts. There’s no other like him, not if we were to look forever. We shared absolute trust. He gave us a safe place so we could be fearless. He came with no ego; soulful, constant, funny, resilient, kind and brilliant. We’ll try our best to make him proud.”
Mike Pela – pronounced “Peela”, a name that was Polish in origin, albeit originally spelt differently – was born and raised in Pimlico, central London. Growing up in the Sixties, he was into music and bands from an early age – but not simply as a “passive” fan. From the age of 11, Mike would “mess around” with a tape recorder, recording songs from Radio Luxembourg, experimenting with fading tracks in and out.
After leaving school he “did the rounds” of the studios, he explained to Shilling, looking for work, eventually landing a job at CTS/De Lane Lea in Wembley. A purpose-built studio with an orchestral room it was, he said, a “great training ground” – the young studio newcomer worked on advertising jingles, film sessions, orchestral sessions and bands.
Engineers he learnt from included John Richards, who worked on the studio’s film and classical projects. “I was just impressed because he always kept his cool. He dealt with some tricky personalities and he was always unruffled, and diplomatic. I thought that was pretty cool.” A template was set for Mike’s own demeanour in the studio.
Dick Plant was another mentor, and Mike was a keen student. “He was the guy I did a lot of assisting with – we worked on ELO and Roy Wood… With Roy we used to do these baroque pastiches almost of The Andrews Sisters [and] The Beach Boys. [He] was a multi-instrumentalist and we’d be doing multi-harmony brass parts, harmony parts, vari-speeding the tapes [in] all-night sessions. It was a great training ground [where] we’d just try out anything… When you’re younger and you haven’t really got any responsibilities, and you’ve got that drive, you could just work all the hours in the day – and did. So I learned a lot from those experiences.”
Mike went on to work on the soundtrack to the film of The Who’s Tommy (1975). As he reflected to Shilling: “You definitely sensed that this was a very big project going on… Very dynamic music.” That would lead to a long-running professional relationship with Pete Townsend, working out of Broadwick Street studio in Soho, central London. Mike recalled how “we had a series of sessions where we went through all his old demo tapes, they started off in mono and ended up in 16-track. That was like trawling through an artist’s loft… There was a lot of stuff to go through… different formats [that we] re-recorded onto multi-track, just sifting through and deciding what we wanted to use. Then bringing it all into line, sonically.
“It was fascinating,” he continued, “just hearing a lot of [these songs already] quite fully formed at that demo stage… things like ‘Magic Bus’.”
Leaving CTS, Mike went freelance, and stayed freelance for the rest of his career. There were sessions at Rockfield in Wales, his first experience of a residential studio. Then he based himself out of Broadwick Street, “which was a very happening place – you had The Face magazine downstairs, Eel Pie Publishing upstairs, and you were right in town.”
While at Broadwick Street, Mike’s roster was as diverse as it was busy. He worked with Stephen Stills, John Cougar Mellencamp, Generation X, “just when Billy Idol was going from that to being ‘Billy Idol’”, Kate Bush and her brother Paddy Bush. “Stuff used to come in all the time. it was a great situation. There were people there taking the bookings but I was opening up and locking up, had the run of the place.”
In the early 1980s, Mike began working at Robin Millar’s Power Plant Studios in Willesden, northwest London. It was there that he began his association with Sade. Their debut album Diamond Life (1984), produced by Millar and with Pela as engineer and mix engineer, was an international, multi-platinum hit, winning the 1985 Brit Award for Best British album and a Grammy for Best New Artist.
As Sade recalls: “Simon Emerson of Working Week introduced Robin Millar to our music. After listening to our four-track demos and an initial meeting, he decided he wanted to commit some studio time to us and improve our demos.
“We were novice and unsigned and maybe we could have been daunted or overwhelmed if Mike – who on first sighting looked like a kind of hippie, distinguished gangster – wasn’t there. But right from the start he made us feel, ‘this is no big deal we can do this!’”
“We didn’t have a deal at the time and we were all very inexperienced,” says bass player Paul Spencer Denman. “We were raw material. I think we spent around 10 days at the studio initially, so it was pretty intensive. We ended up with finished mixes of our first single ‘Your Love Is King’, with ‘Smooth Operator’ as the b-side, and also two other tracks.”
“He didn’t make us feel we were the little new people who weren’t fledged and didn’t know what they were doing,” continues Sade. “He was gentle and nurturing so we could grow in that environment and be who we would become. We thrived with Mike’s gentle touch. He is, he always was, a true gentleman.”
Pela and the band clicked, with the partnership going on to create a string of classic albums. As Paul puts it: “Mike co-produced pretty much everything we did after Promise, our second album. Robin Millar left towards the end of the recording of that. So Mike, along with the four of us, took the reins, so to speak, and that’s how we carried on. He was a massive part of everything we did. Rock-solid. Reliable. The fifth Sade.”
They learned together, too. With every subsequent album the team made together, each became a “technological snapshot” of the tools available at the time, from having rough mixes on cassettes to DATs to CDs to memory sticks.
Talking about his learning how to use Pro-Tools, he recalled being at Hook End in 2000 with Sade, “and we were installed for a few weeks… and it was just a question of diving in. The great thing about Pro-Tools is that it is very intuitive, at least on the face of it…. there’s something familiar about it.”
In terms of what made Mike a great producer, Andrew Hale (keyboards) cites his temperament.
“Some producers make their imprint by imposing a particular view or style. But Mike was always in support of the artist – letting their vision speak as clearly as possible and facilitating the environment in which that could happen… And he didn’t force an opinion. You knew he had the technical expertise covered. Allowing an artist to create in a way that takes pressure out of the equation is hugely respectful to that artist. The encouragement was there but suggestions were invitations not prescriptions.”
Stuart Matthewman, guitarist and saxophonist, agrees. “Mike was always attentive to our ideas, however left of field. Often strange sonic mistakes were left in our songs which many other producers would have pressurised us to redo or remove.”
That openness, and willingness to take sonic risks was particularly important to Sade, she says. “Mike didn’t take up space or impose himself in the music or in the studio. Rather he gave space and understood the dimensional nature of sound and the dynamic of working with people. He was quiet but really funny, so he could always take off a load in heavy times rather than to add to it.
“We’ve always tended to be late, and work insanely to the wire, pushing forward deadlines. And in the midst of mayhem Mike remained calm, never made himself part of the agenda. Never fed into the frenzy. He was a balm and made things feel better than they were.
“His palette was vast, I suppose because he adapted to sound,” the singer and songwriter continues. “He didn’t come in with one big brush and paint it all the same. He adapted to the music, to the person he worked with, to make it meaningful.”
Mike and Sade also shared a love of residential studios. To Mike, a record man to his soul, they offered a “creative crucible… With Sade, she was always a fan of that idea of removing yourself and concentrating. We worked a couple of months in Compass Point [in the Bahamas] back in the Eighties. That was wonderful, I don’t think anybody wanted to leave!”
Mike’s work ethic and engaging personality remained constant, no matter the pressure of the studio environment. As one commenter under the YouTube video of his 2013 Real World interview put it: “I assisted Mike on many a session at Whitfield Street in the 90’s. Lovely Guy. Good to see he is still at it!”
As for the music and artists Mike enjoyed away from work, he was a fan of Little Feat and what he broadly described as “roots music”, music “with some depth” – less so “the tightly constructed pop stuff”. Stuart always loved “hearing his stories of all the amazing artists and bands Mike saw in the ’60s and ’70s”. And that passion remained undimmed to the very end. Yet Mike himself was an unassuming man. As Andrew puts it: “It was his sense of quiet application to the job in hand, and his respect for the artist, that were his strengths – the understanding that being in the background was not a sign of weakness, but hugely powerful.”
“Mike, like Sade, only made music to please themselves and music lovers,” echoes Stuart. “There’s never been an interest in notoriety or fame. It seemed that Mike waited for the right artists to approach him during the big in-between of our albums.”
Indeed, that Real World interview was a rare instance of Mike speaking up. But even then, he was modesty incarnate about his undeniable, deep-seated skills, his myriad achievements and the multiple classic albums on his CV. As another commenter on the video, speaking after his passing, noted: “So fascinating! I’ve been a longtime fan of Mike’s work and it really is a treasure to [have] this interview available. He was a truly brilliant talent!”
Away from music, Paul remembers the “banter” he enjoyed with this ardent Arsenal fan. “I’m a Hull City supporter, so you can imagine the stick I gave him when we beat them 2-1 at the Emirates in 2008 – and the stick he gave me back when we lost every other game we played against them!”
Andrew, meanwhile, remembers a man who, out of the studio, “gravitated to hot places, which gave him the opportunity to sport his unique style, questionable in a fashion sense but unarguably Mike.”
“First time I met Mike though I thought he was a brother,” adds Sade. “It wasn’t until later he told me it was the Jewfro! And I didn’t realise he had the ‘George Hamil-tan’, a sun-seeker wherever we went – if there was only a strip of light, he’d seek it out like a cat! I think Mike was like that in every aspect of his life: he’d quietly hunt out the good bits, and that’s what he was doing to his very last day.”
All of the band also highlight Mike’s deep commitment to his family, wife Suzy and daughters Natalie and Emily.
“Mike was always available for his family, however caught up we were in a project,” says Stuart.
“Mike and his family had a collective love of music, it was always around them,” says Andrew. “Suzy taught piano, plays cello and sings, so they would collaborate… And when we worked together, Mike would always call Suzy after dinner, and they would speak several times during the day. That ritual over so many years was a constant reminder of their undying love. To this day when we go off to call our respective partners, we often say: ‘I’m just going to call Suzy…’”
In the end, for Mike Pela, the music did all the talking. And in his hands, artists could feel safe in the knowledge that he had their best interests – and their music – at heart.
Summing up about her old friend and career-long collaborator, Sade says: “Mike came to us like a gift. We needed someone like him, especially in those early days, probably much more than he needed us. I found someone as particular as me who would go the long route to the destination.
“He lived and breathed with us, but somehow never got dragged under by the drama. He was constant, attentive, quietly opinionated. If he said something was good, you knew he was telling the truth. He had the opposing mix of being determined and sure of his opinion but seemingly being without ego. I suppose he was truly an eccentric. Loud clothes, quiet man – an odd mix of opposites!”
Mike Pela, she concludes, was “gentle but with the strength and endurance of a cage fighter. This is a man who would stay up for three days without sleep but still call his mum.”
And, it turns out, Mike and Sade were working till the very end. Hinting at new music, she reveals that “we got lucky and just recently spent a few days in the studio with Mike.”
“For me, music’s a lot about emotion,” he told George Shilling. “And if you’ve got music that is conveying some kind of emotion, then you’re bound to connect with some people – as long as you get heard above everybody else. That’s the thing these days – you’ve got a lot of competition.”
With Mike Pela at the controls, artists had an infinitely better chance of beating that competition. He leaves wife Suzy, daughters Natalie and Emily, and many, many wonderful records.
Craig McLean, July 2022