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!

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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

Soul Men Comin’ To You With Good Lovin’

Sam & Dave were Stax top act along with Otis Redding

With the country teetering from one crisis to the other, the news isn’t great these days, but not all is bleak. When I spotted this recent story from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it put a smile on my face. Sam & Dave will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on February 10, 2019. While I don’t ever need a reason to cover great music, this well-deserved honor provides a great angle to celebrate “The Dynamic Duo” that became Stax Records’ top performers in the ’60s, together with Otis Redding.

Sam Moore, born on October 12, 1935 in Miami, and Dave Prater, born on May 9, 1937 in Sycamore, Ga., met at the King of Hearts Club in Miami in 1961 while working on the gospel music circuit. At the time, they had already individually established themselves in the gospel groups The Melionaires and the Sensational Hummingbirds, respectively. They decided to team up but success didn’t come right away.

Sam & Dave In Concert
Sam Moore & Dave Prater

Shortly after meeting at the above Miami club, Moore and Prater got a contract with Roulette Records. They released a series of six singles that went unnoticed. In late 1964, Billboard journalist turned record company partner Jerry Wexler signed them to Atlantic Records. Moore and Prater were excited about the prospect to record at the label’s headquarters in New York or perhaps at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. But, as the above Commercial Appeal story notes, “instead they were given two bus tickets to Memphis, home of Stax Records.”

To further quote from the article, “When Moore and Prater got off the bus, they were shocked at what they found: an integrated collection of musicians working out of a funky old studio on the city’s south side.” And I might add all of that during a time and in a place where racial segregation was still very much a reality despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act on June 2, 1964.

Sam & Dave at Stax
Sam & Dave at Stax Records ca. 1970 (from left): Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper

Initially, Sam & Dave worked with Stax producer and engineer Jim Stewart and songwriter Steve Cropper, guitarist of Stax dynamite house band Booker T. & The M.G.s. Then they moved to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who at the time were still relative newcomers to writing and producing music. Sam & Dave’s first two singles didn’t make the charts. But success came with the third release You Don’t Know Like I Know, a no. 7 on the R&B chart.

In April 1966, Sam & Dave released their debut album Hold On, I’m Comin’. And comin’ they did. Both the record and the title track became hugely successful. Over the next three years, Sam & Dave scored eight additional consecutive top 20 R&B chart hits. Then their luck ran out. After a series of unsuccessful singles in 1969 and early 1970, they broke up in June that year.

Sam & Dave_Back at 'Cha

Each went on to record some solo singles that didn’t make an impact, and in August 1971, Sam & Dave decided to reunite, just before their contract with Atlantic expired. While they didn’t have a label, they continued to be a sought after live act. In 1975, they released a new studio album, Back At ‘Cha via United Artists. Produced by Steve Cropper and featuring the M.G.s and The Memphis Horns, the record yielded a top 100 single appropriately titled A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad).

The emergence of The Blues Brothers in the late ’70s and their cover of Soul Man brought Sam & Dave back into the limelight. A series of concert appearances and two compilation albums (Soul Study Vol. 1 and Soul Study Vol. 2) followed, before The Dynamic Duo gave their last concert as a pair on new year’s eve in 1981.

Sam Moore at the White House
Sam Moore performing at The White House in July 2013

Following the second and final break-up, Prater hired singer Sam Daniels to perform the Sam part and started touring under the “Sam & Dave” name or as “The New Sam & Dave Revue.” This didn’t go over well with Moore, who tried to block Prater from using the name. On April 9, 1988, Prater was killed in a car accident in Sycamore, Ga.

Since 1981, Moore has continued to tour with other famous soul artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & The M.G.s and Carla Thomas. He has also done some recording, for example, You Must Not Be Drinkin’ Enough, together with Don Henley for his 1984 album Building The Perfect Beast. In 1986, he also re-recorded Soul Man with Lou Reed for a motion picture with the same name. In October, Moore turned 83 and still appears to be active. Let’s get to some music!

What better tune to start off this playlist than with Hold On, I’m Comin’, the title track of Sam & Dave’s debut studio album released in April 1966. The song was co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Initially, I was going to include a clip of the studio recording. Then I came again across this killer live footage. Damn’, if this doesn’t make you get up and dance or at least groove along by snipping your fingers, you’ve probably had too much eggnog or too many Christmas cookies!

In addition to Hayes and Porter, other Stax musicians were involved in writing music for Sam & Dave. One such example is If You Got The Loving, another tune from the debut album, for which Steve Cropper received a co-writing credit, along with Hayes and Porter.

Here’s Soul Man from Sam & Dave’s third studio album Soul Men, which appeared in October 1967. Another Hayes-Porter composition, Soul Man became a no. 1 single on what was then the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, nowadays known as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It also peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like for many other Stax recordings at the time, the label’s killer house band Booker T. & The M.G.s  provided the instrumentation. It’s acknowledged in the second chorus with the line, I‘m a soul man, play it Steve, a reference to guitarist Steve Cropper.

Next up: Broke Down Piece Of Man, another great tune from the Soul Men album. This song was written by Cropper and Joe Shamwell, a frequent co-writer of Stax music.

In 1968, Sam & Dave released I Thank You, their fourth and final studio album prior their first official breakup. Here’s the title track

I Thank You was the title track from Sam & Dave’s fourth studio album from 1968, the final record prior to their first official breakup. Another great Hayes-Porter co-write, the tune became Sam & Dave’s last top 10 single.

Here’s another hot tune from the record: Wrap It Up, yet another co-write by Hayes and Porter. If the song sounds familiar, yet you haven’t heard this version, you may know it from The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who included a great cover on their January 1986 studio album Tuff Enuff.

I’d like to close this post with two tunes from Sam & Dave’s final studio album released in May 1974. First is the above mentioned A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad). The song was co-written by Gary Dalton and Kent Dubarri, who also performed as Dalton & Dubarri and released four records in the ’70s.

Last but not least, here’s Shoo Rah, Shoo Rah, a nice cover of a tune written by Allen Toussaint and first recorded by American soul and R&B singer Betty Wright.

In addition to the upcoming Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sam & Dave have received various other accolades. In 1992, they were induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to Wikipedia, they are also members of the Grammy Hall of Fame, Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame – gee, frankly, I didn’t know there were so many different halls of fame. Apart from Soul Man, their songs have been covered by many other top music artists, such as Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton & B.B. King.

Sources: Wikipedia, Memphis Commercial Appeal, YouTube