I love music and music history. As I was listening to a DVD documentary I own, “Tom Dowd and the Language of Music,” I learned a few things about music history I hadn’t noticed. Let me share some of them with you.
Like all modern DVDs, this one had “Extras” which included Deleted Scenes and interviews. Tom Dowd was the famous recording engineer who recorded Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, the Coasters, and later Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and Lynard Skinner, among many others.
Jerry Wexler and the Rise of Rock'n'Roll
One of the interviews was with Jerry Wexler, an executive record producer at Atlantic Records. He was the person who invented the term “Rhythm and Blues” used by the recording industry. Before then they were called “Race Records." It was from this genre that Rock'n'Roll first originated. Wexler said the reason for the rise in popularity of Rock'n'Roll was the economy. I had never realized that. I knew rural electrification and the popularity of radio shows had an impact. Black kids like Ray Charles and Chuck Berry listened to white country music. White kids like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Louis listened to black blues music. This mix is where Rock'n'Roll came from. But how did it become so popular so quickly?
Wexler said in the old days kids weren’t called “teens.” All ages were just called “kids” and it was hard to find one with a quarter in his pocket. Then came the 1950s and the rise of the American teenager. Following WWII there was worldwide economic growth from then until the 1970s. Suddenly kids might have $15 or $20. They could buy records!
Call for Les Paul on Oct-1, uh, I mean Line-1
One of the other interviews was with Les Paul. He was influential on recording industry as well as on the guitar manufacturing industry. Les mentioned that his first instrument though was a harmonica which a sewer maintenance man was playing on his lunch break. The guy gave the instrument to Les when Les became so interested in it. Les went on to become a guitar great as well as an inventer. When Les invented the first modern multi-track recorder, W.C. Fields told him it looked like an Octopus so Les gave it that name. He then labeled each input “Oct 1”, “Oct 2”, and so forth.
The First Tape Recorder
Magnetic recording has been around since the late 1890s according to Wikipedia. The Germans developed an excellent recorder using paper tape during WWII. After the war, one of the German engineers helped Ampex develop the first commercial magnetic tape recorder using acetate tape produced by 3M company.
Ampex shipped the first recorder to the Bing Crosby show in 1948 where Les Paul saw it. When he flipped over it, Bing bought him one as a surprise. Les Paul immediately recognized the multi-track potential of tape.
Wax Records and Tape Decks
Tom Dowd went to work for Atlantic Records when he was only 22 years old. He had been recording since he was 15 and played several band instruments in high school as well as piano. The studio wanted him because he wasn't old enough to be draft age. He went to Columbia University to study physics and during WWII worked on the Manhattan project for the U.S. Army. He would have finished his degree when the war was over but by then his military work in physics had become far more advanced than what they were teaching in college. He never got that degree.
Dowd introduced the first tape deck at Atlantic Records soon after Ampex began marketing it in 1949. The recording industry had used only shellac disks since 1910. The record platters required that song length was only 2-1/2 to 3 minutes cut at 88 grooves per inch. This was back in the day when playback was mechanical, not electrical, and grooves closer than 88 per inch would skip tracks if the recording was loud.
Dowd said 4 minute songs had to be cut at 120 grooves per inch. The closer grooves meant the recorded volume was lower to keep the needle from jumping out of the groove and skipping.
The First Stereo Recordings
Dowd recorded in stereo (2-track) for years although records were cut in mono. When stereo records were first introduced, Atlantic Records was among the first to market them because of Dowd’s stereo tape recordings.
After Les Paul invented 8-track recording he taught Tom Dowd how to use his new invention. Atlantic Records bought the 2nd 8-track recorder ever produced by Ampex and Tom Dowd created the first 8-track recording console. It was new to the industry so there was no recording gear available.
He had to purchase gear made for radio broadcasting that had large, 3-inch knobs making tracks hard to adjust dynamically during recording. Dowd looked around and found a manufacturer that made sliders. He was first in the recording industry to introduce a board with sliders.
Atlantic had a good relationship with Stax Records in Memphis since 1961. Stax artists would record, send the tapes to Tom Dowd for their final mix, and Atlantic would release the records to the market. One day Stax stopped sending recordings. Jerry Wexler called Stax to ask why no more records were coming out of Memphis. They told him their only tape recorder broke a belt and there were no replacement parts in Memphis nor anyone who knew how to repair it. Dowd was on the next flight to Memphis.
He discovered it was an old, ¼-inch mono machine. He phoned Wexler to purchase a new band (belt drive) for it and ship it to him next-day-air. Dowd replaced the belt and all the old capacitors which improved the tone. Booker T and the MG’s were practicing as Dowd tested the machine. Rufus Thomas saw all the cars parked at the old theater building where Stax Records was located. He stopped in, saw they were recording, and told Dowd, “I’ve got this new song I want to try out.” Dowd returned to Atlantic Records the next day with a tape under his arm. Wexler heard it and told Dowd, “It’s a hit. Produce it.” The song was “Walkin’ The Dog.”
Because of their popularity in Europe, all of Stax artists went on tour at the same time. Stax Records Studios shut down for 2 months as their entire review went to England. The Beatles were big fans of Otis Reading and other Stax artists. They threw a party for them. At the party, Tom Dowd met George Martin who produced all the Beatle’s hits.
Dowd learned that Europe recording studios were still using old 3 and 4-track machines. All the Beatles’ hits had been recorded on machines like these and Martin had been bouncing down (combining) tracks to add more. This was in 1967. Dowd told Martin about 8-track recording which he had been using for nearly 10 years.
Aretha Franklin and the meaning of “record producer”
Dowd recorded Aretha Franklin for the first time in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I always wondered why, or how, famous artists bounced from one studio to another while under contract. It seems all these famous old recording studios had a relationship with Atlantic Records except for the studio at Sun Records in Memphis. Mercury purchased the Sun label in 1969.
Dowd was a recording engineer and record producer meaning he controlled the sound of the song. Wexler was a businessman, sales marketer, and executive record producer meaning he controlled the length of the recording and it’s marketability. Wexler knew what type records people bought. Dowd knew what kept them listening.
As a side note, they mentioned in another part of the documentary that Ray Charles became his own record producer within about 30 seconds after Tom Dowd introduced him to 8-track recording! Dowd said all he had to do was show Charles how the board worked and Ray took over from there.
The 5 M’s
Tom Dowd worked at 5 studios with which Atlantic Records had a relationship. They were located in: Manhattan, Miami, Memphis, Macon, and Muscle Shoals. Dowd referred to them as the “5 M’s.” He said he never knew where he would be next. He had to be available whenever and wherever the artists were ready to record.
It was difficult on him to finish a day recording blues artists at 5:00 PM only to be told he had to come in at midnight to record some Jazz artists who were just finishing at a night club. I once worked with a lady at the phone company whose husband had been a recording engineer at Muscle Shoals. He quit because the crazy schedule required engineers to be available at all hours. That affected their home life so much that the divorce rate among recording engineers was unusally high. Tom Dowd was married twice. Both marriages ended in divorce.
He finally settled at the studio in Miami and moved to spend the rest of his life there where he made some of his most popular records. It was there he recorded such famous blues artists as Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and Lynard Skynard.
Allman Brothers – Live
The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East was considered one of their best albums. As history indicates, it was recorded live in New York in 1970. That’s the way Dowd liked to record the brothers, like they were playing live, even when they were in a studio. Dowd would line them up as if on stage and put a microphone in front of each of them.
Dickey Betts said, “Most people start with a rhythm track and record everything separately. Of course you get a lot cleaner sound that way – but you don’t get a performance!”
It was because of Dowd’s close relationship with the Allman Brothers and with Eric Clapton that Duane Allman is heard playing the high range bottle-neck guitar notes on Clapton’s song “Layla”, which was recorded by Dowd.
Brit bands had a little difficulty adjusting to Dowd’s recording style. They came in with their Marshall stack amps and Dowd asked, “Why 2 of everything?” He immediately rearranged things, laying the combo amps and speaker cases flat on their backs as he told the band, “This way we can hear the guitars and still communicate with each other.”
Tom Dowd died in 2002 but his legacy lives on in the recordings he made and in the engineering standards he established still in use today.