Musings of the Past

Tom Dowd, Humble Music Genius Behind The Scenes

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.sEric 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.

Tom Dowd with Ray Charles

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.

Tom Dowd (left) with Jerry Wexler

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.

Tom Dowd (second from left) and Duane Allman working on final master mix-down of Layla

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!

– End-

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

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Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio Deliver Seductive Grooves on New Album

While I’ve started to feature more instrumental music on the blog – a big step for a guy who can keep raving about vocals and harmony singing for hours – the picture is very different when it comes to album reviews. In fact, Cold As Weiss by Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio is my first review of a new all-instrumental album, and I couldn’t be happier with my pick!

If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog, you may have seen a few previous posts that included this cool trio from Seattle, most recently here earlier this month. In fact, that Sunday Six installment included Don’t Worry ‘Bout What I Do, a track from the new album, which had been released as an upfront single. Cold As Weiss appeared in its entirety on Friday, February 11, and it’s a true beauty!

In case you didn’t catch any of the previous posts, let me start with some background on the group. Once again, I’m borrowing from their website, which has a great bio: Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio—or as it is sometimes referred to, DLO3—specialize in the lost art of “feel good music.” The ingredients of this intoxicating cocktail include a big helping of the 1960s organ jazz stylings of Jimmy Smith and Baby Face Willette; a pinch of the snappy soul strut of Booker T. & The M.G.’s and The Meters; and sprinkles Motown, Stax Records, blues, and cosmic Jimi Hendrix-style guitar. It’s a soul-jazz concoction that goes straight to your heart and head makes your body break out in a sweat…

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio (from left): Delvon Lamarr, Dan Weiss & Jimmy James

The band features organist Delvon Lamarr, a self-taught virtuosic musician, with perfect pitch who taught himself jazz and has effortlessly been able to play a multitude of instruments. On guitar is the dynamo Jimmy James who eases through Steve Cropper-style chanking guitar, volcanic acid-rock freak-out lead playing, and slinky Grant Green-style jazz. From Reno, Nevada is drummer Dan Weiss (also of the powerhouse soul and funk collective The Sextones). Dan’s smoldering pocket-groove drumming locks in the trio’s explosive chemistry.

DLO3 have been around since May 2015. Their initial line-up included Lamarr, Colin Higgins (guitar) and David McGraw (drums). By the time the trio’s debut album Close but No Cigar came out in March 2018, Higgins had been replaced by James on guitar. DLO3 had a few drummers over the years. The current one, Dan Weiss, joined last year after their sophomore studio album I Told You So had been recorded. Apparently, his arrival is reflected in the record’s title, as I’ve read in a few reviews. Let’s play some music!

Here’s the opener Pull Your Pants Up. The track pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the album. For the most part, Lamarr and James take turns in leading the melody and providing fill-ins, while Weiss is keeping the beat. Since DLO3 don’t have a bassist, Lamarr is covering that part as well, using his Hammond B-3’s bass pedals.

Since I previously covered Don’t Worry ‘Bout What I Do, I’m skipping it here and going right to Big TT’s Blues. Clocking in at 6:31 minutes, it’s the longest track on the album. It also trades some funkiness for more of a straight blues feel. While all of the music on the album is jam-based, fortunately, DLO3 never go overboard with egomaniacal solos.

With Get Da Steppin’ it’s back to a more funky groove. I love the Hammond bass pedals and the drum part in this one. Sure, there’s not a huge variety in these funky grooves. But given the awesome sound and feel, this doesn’t really bother me.

And check out this beauty titled Uncertainty! A little softer than some of the other tracks with some cool breaks. And, boy, that Hammond just sounds mighty sweet, especially when the tone starts vibrating. I just don’t get tired of it – jeez, I guess I’m starting to sound like I’m raving about multipart harmony singing!

Let’s do one more: This Is Who I Is, the excellent closer. I love the guitar wah-wah action on this track, which gives it a bit of a Hendrix flavor – very cool!

Like its predecessor I Told You So, Cold As Weiss was recorded at Blue Mallard Studio in Seattle and produced by Jason Gray.

Based on reviews I’ve seen, Cold As Weiss has been well received. “As good as last year’s I Told You So was, this is an even stronger response to their already highly raised bar,” wrote Glide Magazine. “It’s another home run for Lamarr’s trio who hasn’t made a misstep yet,” opined American Songwriter. And here’s some of what AllMusic had to say: “The choruses are delivered in joyously emphatic unison. If there is a complaint about Cold as Weiss, it’s that at 40 minutes, it’s a tad short, because no one wants this dance party to end. (If you do, please check your pulse, you may have expired.)”

Sources: Wikipedia; Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio website; Discogs; Glide Magazine; American Songwriter; AllMusic, YouTube; Spotify