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

A Southern Peach Turns 50 And Remains As Tasty As Ever

“Generally, conditioned peaches will last for 3-4 days on the counter, slightly longer in the fridge, and they can be frozen for an extended time,” according to The Peach Truck. Yep, that’s a thing, and it came up when I typed, ‘what is the average shelf life of a Georgia peach?’ into my search engine. Of course, the peach I’m talking about here isn’t edible, though it certainly remains just as sweet as a fully ripe peach as it was when it first appeared today 50 years ago.

Eat a Peach, a double LP part-studio, part-live album, was the fourth record by The Allman Brothers Band, released on February 12, 1972. It came on the heels of At Fillmore East, the group’s commercial breakthrough, and perhaps the best live album ever recorded, at least when it comes to southern rock and blues rock. But while the Fillmore album had turned the Allmans into a commercially viable act, the group faced enormous challenges.

By the time they started work on the new album at Criteria Studios in Miami, much of the band was in the throes of heroin addiction. Their newly found wealth from the commercial success of Fillmore probably was a double-edged sword. In October 1971, band leader Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley, along with two of the group’s roadies, checked themselves into a drug rehab clinic in Buffalo, N.Y.

If I interpret the background I read correctly, following the above drug rehab, the Allmans went on a short tour. The day after Duane Allman had returned to Macon, Ga., he was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 24. “We thought about quitting because how could we go on without Duane?” said drummer Butch Trucks, according to Wikipedia citing a 2014 Allmans bio by Alan Paul. “But then we realized: how could we stop?”

In the wake of Duane’s death lead guitarist Dickey Betts essentially stepped into his shoes and took over the group’s leadership. In December 1971, the Allmans returned to Miami’s Criteria Studios to finish the album. Like At Fillmore East, Eat a Peach was produced by music genius Tom Dowd who had also served in that capacity for part of their sophomore album Idlewild South.

Among Dowd’s many prior accomplishments was the production of rock gem Layla that had brought together Eric Clapton and Duane Allman for one of the most memorable collaborations in rock. You can read more about Dowd and an amazing documentary titled Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music here.

Eat a Peach gatefold: The elaborate mural was drawn by W. David Powell and J. F. Holmes

BTW, the record’s title came from a quote by Duane who had said, “You can’t help the revolution, because there’s just evolution … Every time I’m in Georgia I eat a peach for peace.” I’d say the time is ripe for some music.

Let’s start with Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, which opens Side one. The tune was written by Gregg Allman shortly after the death of his brother Duane and was Gregg’s attempt to come to terms with the tragic event. The song also became the album’s lead single in April 1972, backed by Melissa. Betts does a great job on slide guitar. He had big shoes to fill!

Closing out Side one is Melissa, another tune penned by Gregg Allman. In fact, he wrote it in 1967 prior to the formation of the Allmans. “By that time I got so sick of playing other people’s material that I just sat down and said, ‘OK, here we go,” Allman said during a 2006 interview, as captured by Songfacts. “And about 200 songs later – much garbage to take out – I wrote this song called ‘Melissa.’ And I had everything but the title.” The title would come to Gregg one night in a grocery store when he watched a Spanish woman telling her active little girl, Melissa, to stop running away. Melissa was a favorite of Duane’s. It also became the A-side of the record’s second single in August 1972.

I’m skipping all of Side two, which is the first part of Mountain Jam, a track that more appropriately should have been titled marathon jam. I realize this may not exactly endear me to die-hard fans of the Allmans or Grateful Dead, for that matter. While I recognize Mountain Jam features great musicianship, which among others includes an amazing bass solo by Berry Oakley I have to acknowledge as a retired hobby bassist, 19:37 minutes followed by 15:06 minutes on Side four simply is too much of a jam for me.

Instead, I’d like to highlight Trouble No More, the second track on Side three. Like Mountain Jam, it was leftover material from the group’s 1971 Fillmore East performances. Credited to Muddy Waters, he first recorded the upbeat blues in 1955. Wikipedia notes it’s a variation on Someday Baby Blues, a tune Sleepy John Estes had recorded in 1935.

Next up is Blue Sky, written by Dickey Betts about his then-native Canadian girlfriend, Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig. Notably, this was the first Allmans song that featured Betts on lead vocals. He also sang lead on Ramblin’ Man, the group’s biggest hit from 1973, a no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Blue Sky also was Duane Allman’s final recording with the band. The country-flavored tune features beautiful harmony guitar action and alternating solos by Allman and Betts.

The last song I’d like to call out is the final track of Side three: Little Martha. The lovely acoustic instrumental is the only tune on the record solely credited to Duane Allman (Duane received a co-credit for the aforementioned Mountain Jam). Songfacts notes, Duane wrote it for Dixie Lee Meadows, a girl with whom he was having an affair. “Little Martha” was a nickname Duane called her. According to Scott Freeman’s Midnight Riders: The Story of The Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman claimed this came to him in a dream in which Jimi Hendrix showed him how to play the song using a sink faucet in a hotel room. Duane woke up and started playing it.

Eat a Peach was both a chart and a commercial success for The Allman Brothers Band. It reached no. 4 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200, becoming their second-highest charting record. Successor Brothers and Sisters, which featured Ramblin’ Man, made it all the way to no. 1. Eat a Peach also did well in Canada where it reached no. 12. In Australia, the album peaked at no. 35.

In December 1995, Eat a Peach reached Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Together with At Fillmore East and Brothers and Sisters, this makes it one of the group’s three albums with certified sales of at least one million units.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Peach Truck; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

On This Day In Rock History: February 18

1959: Ray Charles recorded What’d I Say at Atlantic Records in New York City. Written by Charles, the R&B classic evolved from an improvisation during a concert in December 1958. At the end of that show, Charles found himself with some time to fill and reportedly told his female backing vocalists The Raelettes, “Listen, I’m going to fool around and y’all just follow me.” Fooling around paid off nicely. Following its release in July that year, the tune became Charles’ first gold record. One of the challenges with the song was its original length of more than seven and a half minutes, far longer than the usual two-and-a-half-minute format for radio play. Recording engineer Tom Dowd came up with the idea to remove some parts and split up the song in two three-and-a-half-minute chunks: What’d I Say Part I and What’d I Say Part II. The division relied on a false ending after the orchestra had paused the music.

1965: Tired Of Waiting For You by The Kinks hit no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart. Written by Ray Davies, the tune was a single from the band’s second studio LP Kinda Kinks, which appeared in March that year. Notably, The Kinks only had two other chart-topping singles in the UK during their long career: You Really Got Me (1964) and Sunny Afternoon (1966). According to Songfacts, Davies wrote the tune while studying at Hornsey School of Art in London. Since by the time The Kinks went into the studio he couldn’t remember the lyrics, the band initially only recorded the backing track. Davies ended up writing the words on the train the following day while heading back to the studio.

1967: The Buckinghams topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Kind Of A Drag, the Chicago sunshine pop band’s only no. 1 hit. The tune was written by Jim Holway, who is  also best known for this accomplishment. The band, which had formed the previous year, became one of the top-selling acts in 1967, according to Wikipedia. But their chart success was short-lived and they disbanded in 1970, which I suppose is, well, kind of a drag! On a more cheerful note, they re-emerged in 1980 and apparently remain active to this day. Here’s a clip of the lovely tune.

1972: Neil Young’s fourth studio album Harvest was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), only less than three weeks after its release on February 1. It features some of Young’s best known songs, including Heart Of Gold, Old Man and The Needle And The Damage Done. James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash were among the impressive array of guest musicians. Harvest topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks and became the best-selling record of the year in the U.S. As of June 27, 1994, the album has 4x Multi-Platinum certification. Here’s a clip of The Needle And The Damage Done.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day in Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, YouTube

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, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the list goes on and on. During that period, Dowd also advanced studio techniques that would revolutionize recording.

Tom Dowd and Ray Charles
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 and Jerry Wexler
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 they did all 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 and Duane Allman
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 visionsaries like Tom Dowd these days!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music (Documentary, Mark Moorman, 2003), YouTube