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

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another installment of The Sunday Six, my weekly zig-zag excursions exploring different styles of music over the past 70 years, six tunes at a time. This installment kicks off with jazz from 1956, followed by new jazzy pop-rock from 2021, country rock from 1976, new wave from 1984 and soft rock from 2013, before finishing up with some rock from 1967.

Charles Mingus/Profile of Jackie

I’d like to embark on this little journey with beautiful music by Charles Mingus, who is considered to be one of the greatest jazz musicians. Over a 30-year career, the double bassist, pianist, composer and bandleader played with many other greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and released about 50 albums as a bandleader. Initially, Mingus started on the trombone and later studied the cello before picking up the double bass. As a teenager, he felt excluded from the classical music world since he couldn’t join a youth orchestra because of his inability to read musical notation quickly enough due to a poor education. These experiences, along with lifelong racism Mingus encountered influenced his music that oftentimes focused on themes like racial discrimination and injustice. By the mid-70s, sadly, Mingus had ALS. Eventually, this heinous disease made it impossible for him to play bass. Mingus continued to compose music until his untimely death in January 1979 at the age of 56. Here’s Profile of Jackie, a composition from a 1956 album titled Pithecanthropus Erectus. Mingus’ backing musicians included Jackie McLean (alto saxophone), J.R. Monterose (tenor saxophone), Mal Waldron (piano) and Willie Jones (drums).

ShwizZ/Overboard

For this next tune, I’d like to jump to the present and a cool band I first featured on the blog back in April as part of another Sunday Six installment: ShwizZ. Their website describes them as a one of a kind powerhouse from Nyack, New York. Drawing a substantial influence from classic progressive rock and funk, they consistently put their musical abilities to the test to deliver a high intensity and musically immersive show. ShwizZ note Frank ZappaYesP-Funk and King Crimson as their influences. The band, which has been around for about 10 years, features Ryan Liatsis (guitar), Will Burgaletta (keyboards), Scott Hogan (bass) and Andrew Boxer (drums). Here’s their latest single Overboard. Not only do I love the cool Steely Dan vibe, but I also find the clip pretty hilarious.

Hoodoo Rhythm Devils/Safecracker

Any band that calls itself the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils gets my attention. Until a week ago or so, I had never heard of this ’70s American group until I came across their tune Safecracker. According to Apple Music, Hoodoo Rhythm Devils blended blues boogie with country-rock, rock & roll and some soul. Initially, they were formed in San Francisco in 1970 by guitar teacher John Rewind (guitar), his student Lee Humphries (guitar) and Humphries’ friend Joe Crane (vocals). They were later joined by Glenn Walter (drums) and Richard Greene (bass). Between 1971 and 1978, Hoodoo Rhythm Devils released five studio albums. The group’s line-up changed various times over the years until they disbanded in 1980 following Crane’s death from leukemia. Here’s the above-mentioned Safecracker, an awesome tune from the band’s fourth studio album Safe In Their Homes from 1976. The song also appeared separately as a single that year. I can hear some Doobies in here.

The Cars/You Might Think

The Cars are a band I always realize know much better than I think I do once I start listening to their music. While I’m not very familiar with their background and can only name a few of their songs off the top of my head, I recognize a good deal of their songs when I hear them. It’s not really surprising since the American new wave and pop-rock band had hits throughout much of their career. The Cars were formed in Boston in 1976 and included Elliot Easton (lead guitar), Ric Ocasek (rhythm guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards), Benjamin Orr (bass) and David Robinson (drums). During their initial run until 1988, six studio albums appeared. After reuniting in 2010, The Cars released one more album before going on another hiatus in 2011. A second reunion followed in 2018 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In September 2019, Ocasek was found dead in his apartment in New York at the age of 75. You Might Think, written by Ocasek, is from the band’s fifth studio album Heartbeat City that appeared in March 1984. It also became the record’s lead single that same month, and one of the band’s biggest U.S. hits, reaching no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Mainstream Rock chart. Quite a catchy tune!

Lenny Kravitz/I May Not Be A Star (Light Piece For Vanessa)

For this next track, let’s go to January 2013 and the 20th-anniversary edition of Are You Gonna Go My Way, which initially appeared in March 1993 as the third studio album by Lenny Kravitz. Kravitz entered my radar screen in late 1991 when I first heard his excellent sophomore album Mama Said that had been released in March of the same year. Since he started his recording career in 1989, Kravitz has released 11 studio albums, one greatest hits collection and various box set compilations, among others. I May Not Be A Star (Light Piece For Vanessa) is a bonus track on the aforementioned 20th-anniversary reissue of the Are You Gonna Go My Way album. I came across the tune coincidentally the other day. With the only lyrics being baby, I may not be a star, it sounds like an unfinished song – still, I dig it! I assume Vanessa refers to French singer and model Vanessa Paradis who Kravitz was dating at the time the original record came out.

The Doors/Break On Through (To The Other Side)

And once again, it’s time to wrap up things. For my final pick, I’d like to jump back to January 1967 when The Doors released their eponymous debut album. It was the first of six albums recorded by all four members of the great L.A. rock group, Jim Morrison (lead vocals, harmonica, percussion), Robby Krieger (guitar, vocals), Ray Manzarek (keyboards, keyboard bass, vocals) and John Densmore (drums, percussion, backing vocals). After Morrison’s death in July 1971 in Paris, France, The Doors released two more albums, Other Voices (October 1971) and Full Circle (1972), before they disbanded in 1973. A third Morrison post-mortem album, An American Prayer, appeared in 1978. Krieger and Densmore are still alive and remain active. Manzarek passed away in May 2013. Here’s one of my favorite tunes from the band’s first album, Break On Through (To The Other Side), credited to all four members.

Sources: Wikipedia; ShwizZ website; YouTube