Time for another installment of Musings of the Past, a recently introduced feature in which I repost select older content from the blog. These posts may be slightly edited and/or enhanced. The following was based on one of the best music documentaries I’ve watched to date: Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music. Thanks again to Jim at Music Enthusiast who recommended the film to me in early 2018. Now that I’m reposting this, I feel like watching it again!
Tom Dowd, Humble Music Genius Behind The Scenes
Recording engineer and producer shaped sound of some of greatest music recorded during second half of 20th century
This post was inspired by Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music, one of the most fascinating music documentaries I recently watched. Before getting to it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Music Enthusiast who recommended the film to me.
Created by Mark Moormann, the documentary, which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was a 2005 Grammy Award nominee, tells the fascinating story of Tom Dowd, a recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records. Over a 50-plus-year career that started in the 1940s, this man worked with an amazing array of artists, including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The M.G.s, Eric Clapton, Cream, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the list goes on and on. During that period, Dowd also advanced studio techniques that would revolutionize recording.
Dowd was born on October 20, 1925 in New York City. From the beginning of his life, he was exposed to music. His mother was an opera singer, while his dad worked as a concertmaster. While growing up, Dowd learned various instruments, including the piano, tuba, violin and string bass. After high school, he continued his musical education at City College of New York. During that time, Dowd also played in a band at Columbia University and became a conductor. Undoubtedly, all of this contributed to his great ear for music, which would come in handy for his later professional work in music.
Interestingly, Dowd’s path could have been very different. At 18, he was drafted into the military and through his work at the physics laboratory at Columbia University became involved in the Manhattan Project – yep that project, which developed the atomic bomb! Dowd planned to become a nuclear physicist after finishing his assignment. There was only one problem: His secret research for the military had been much more advanced than the university’s curriculum. So he decided against pursuing studies in nuclear physics and instead got a job at a classical recording studio in New York, before starting his longtime career with Atlantic Records.
In addition to helping shape the sound of some of the most amazing music recorded during the second half of the 20th century, Dowd was instrumental to drive innovation in the studio. He convinced Jerry Wexler, a partner in Atlantic Records, to install an Ampex eight-track recorder, putting the company on the cutting edge in recording technology. Dowd also popularized stereophonic sound and pioneered the use of linear channel faders on audio mixers as opposed to rotary controls. He then became a master in operating the linear channel faders, almost as if he was playing a keyboard!
Initially, various of the musicians were skeptical or even hostile when they saw Dowd. During the documentary, Eric Clapton said, “To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t interested in people like that.” Pretty much along the same lines, Gregg Allman noted, “Suddenly, you get to the studio, and there is a new guy there critiquing all this stuff, and you think, ‘where did he come from?'”
But when they realized what kind of artists Dowd had recorded in the past, how much he knew about music (likely, more than all of them combined!), and what he could do at the mixer, they listened. Heck, Dowd even managed to suggest to Ginger Baker, who undoubtedly is one of the best rock drummers but not exactly a warm fellow, the drum groove for Sunshine Of Your Love! The fact that all these musicians put their big egos aside and listened to this gentle recording engineer is truly remarkable.
Dowd passed away from emphysema at the age of 77 on October 27, 2007 in Florida, shortly after the above documentary had been finished. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – better late than never, I suppose! One can only speculate what would have happened to Layla by Derek and The Dominos, Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream and so many other great recordings Dowd impacted!
Following are two video clips. First up is the trailer to the documentary, which in addition to Dowd includes commentary from Ray Charles, Clapton, Allman and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Listening to the beginning of the clip when Charles is taking about the importance of sound is priceless in and of itself. I also recommend watching the remainder and hear all the other people talk about Dowd. It becomes obvious how much they revered him!
Here is how Dowd summarizes his amazing experience with artists from the ’50’s to the ’80s and the evolution of recording technology. I just find it fascinating and could listen to the man for hours!
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dowd was his modesty. In the documentary, there is a scene where he notes that while he had worked with all these artists, he wasn’t a millionaire – far from it! Obviously, many albums these artists released became big-time sellers. But apparently, money didn’t matter to Dowd. Instead, it was all about the music. I think his following statement sums it up perfectly: “Music has been very kind to me over the years.” Boy, the music industry could need visionaries like Tom Dowd these days!
Below is a playlist that captures some of Tom Dowd’s impressive work both as a recording engineer and a producer.
This post was originally published on February 13, 2018. It has been slightly edited. The Spotify list is an addition.
Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music (Documentary, Mark Moorman, 2003), YouTube
11 thoughts on “Musings of the Past”
My favorite thing he did was..the Allmans Eat a Peach. It sounded great and still does. That is not discounting Cream and Derek and the Dominos though. He had so much work to like.
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Have you watched the film, Max? I really found it fascinating. This man truly was a genius. And also had a guts to advise Ginger Baker on his drums part for “Sunshine of Your Love,” after Baker apparently got stuck.
No I haven’t but I want to…. have you seen Beware Mr Baker?
Yes, I have – fascinating and a bit scary!
Thanks for the shoutout. Interestingly, I am currently re-watching the Muscle Shoals documentary (Duane again) since it popped up on YouTube after I watched ‘Sound City.’ I actually went to the local art-house theater to see the Dowd movie when it came out. It was shown in a small screening room that could hold maybe 30 people. There was more and one other guy there. We both watched it, said not one word to each other, then left. Anyway, I’ll have to got back to this one.
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Perhaps, it’s a bit inside baseball for non-musicians. And I certainly don’t mean this in any arrogant way.
I just find it fascinating listening to Dowd and “seeing him play” with a mixing console, isolating guitar tracks for Layla. I could see why some folks may consider this a bit geeky.
Totally geeky! That’s how we roll. If you take the number of people who are musicians or serious music listeners, subtract those who don’t care to read about it or watch documentaries, you get a relatively small number. As you know, Dave Grohl did a whole doc about a studio. And a sound console that three people have ever heard of! The ultimate geek!
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Grohl strikes me as somebody who’s really into this kind of stuff – which reminds me I need to watch that documentary!
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BTW, I watched “Sound City” over the weekend and loved it. One of my favorite scenes is where Rupert Neve talks to Grohl about the nitty-gritty of the Neve 8028 mixing console, and it’s clear Grohl is completely lost, yet seems to love it anyway!
Yeah, that was freaking hilarious. Didn’t he say (or think) something like, “Doesn’t he realize I’m a high school dropout?” Heh. Not every musician is Les Paul.
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I think you’re right, Grohl said he’s a high school dropout. I guess he did pretty well for himself!