FIFTY-FIVE, JANUARY 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
ADVENTURES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE MUSIC TRADE
[More writing by Josh Alan Friedman can be found by clicking on http://www.joshalan.com.]
Sound Studios, at 24 West 57th Street, was my alma mater.
began as a lucky summer job, fresh out of high school, became a two-year hitch.
I dropped out of NYU that fall to maintain the job.
It was my entree into the music business at age 18---which never did
really open up, shark that I'm not.
Many of the recording industry's
major studios were in midtown Manhattan, within walking distance of the Brill
Building on Broadway. They were
secretive inner sanctums, their names familiar only from the backs of records:
the Record Plant, the Hit Factory, Columbia Studios, Atlantic, RCA, Bell
Sound, Media Sound. If you worked
at one, you were privy to all, when you had to go beyond the reception areas to
transfer tapes or equipment.
I lay claim to the vague title of
"assistant engineer," but was never granted one album credit as such.
Maybe I never asked. My job
did entail being assistant floor waxer, handyman, gofer and mike setup man.
They all took me under their apprenticeship---janitors, elevator men and
engineers. I was never certain
whether the future they were grooming me for was musical or janitorial.
Many of my afternoons were spent
in an isolated fifth floor, where 50,000 musty tapes were stored in disarray.
This wasteland of forgotten reels, dating back to the 1950s, was put
under my stewardship. As tape librarian, I was instructed to organize them over
I arrived each morning at the
crack of dawn to open Studio A. I followed a daily chart, positioning mikes,
chairs, music stands and ashtrays for that morning's big band or orchestra
session. I'd break down at the end
of the session. But before I lifted
a finger, I always began a ritual---having a fried egg on a roll from a greasy
take-out on 56th Street, followed by an exquisite hot coffee and cigarette.
For just a few minutes as I kicked up my heels on the console, reclining
in the plush black leather producer's chair, I indulged in dreams of recording
my own albums. To me, the most
romantic lighting in New York was the glow of a studio console at midnight.
It was a soundproofed, windowless sanctum, dark but for the red VU meters
and faders---like the inside of a musical jet cockpit.
streamed in at 9 a.m. like factory workers.
I never heard these hardened Local 802 musicians discuss the aesthetics
of music. They only talked money.
How much they'd logged at other sessions, overtime, residuals.
But the elite double-scale guys---like Fathead Newman, Ron Carter, Steve
Gadd, Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey---they seemed above the battle, smoking
pipes, dressed like squires, flying in from Newport and Montreux jazz festivals.
jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk entered the studio followed by his tribe of
"Black Classical Musicians." They shuffled down the halls like a
fighter's entourage entering the ring. Kirk
swung a mojo cane, scattering all in his path.
The novelty aspect of Kirk was that he played three horns at once in his mouth, sometimes including an African
nose flute. I wasn't sure where to
place the microphone for this arrangement, and called him by his first name,
entire tribe froze: "Don't ever call him that," one sideman
name is Rahsaan," came another.
you can call him Ra for short," said a third.
recorded three pretentious double albums for Atlantic while I was at Regent.
Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle was one, for
example. Black Classical Music is
how he termed his jazz, espousing a jazzvictim philosophy, while hating rock
and the music. But the tribe let
down their guard in the wee hours of the nightglow of that studio console. Their
bravado diminished and you could see they were just poor musicians. Ra's
valet-percussionist confided the following pastime:
thin' I prefer more than buyin' gallon of chocolate ice cream, then sit top the
toilet, eatin' and shittin' all night. Ain't
no better party in town. Diarrhea
is the po' man’s pleasure." He then admitted a soft spot for
Tony Orlando & Dawn, curling an eyebrow when I mentioned the songwriter's
demo for Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree was on the fifth
Joel Dorn was Kirk's producer, as well as being the producer for dozens of other singular jazz and pop musicians. His offices were entwined with Regent's on the third floor. Dorn
Dorn colored his productions by using certain musicians who provided 'brush strokes'
a brilliant con man/raconteur, a switchblade-toting hipster, whose career
began on Philadelphia jazz radio as "The Masked Announcer." His
forceful radio voice entranced dozens of artists who put their recording careers
in his hands.
I need a little blue palette," he might say, "I'll call Fathead
Newman. If I need to add a little
red to the canvas, I call in Hank Crawford." In each musician he saw a
unique “coloring," a different "brush stroke."
remember the fuckin' group of people that came through that
place?" says Joel Dorn today. "It
was like a 24-hour aural circus, chockfull of unicorns.
I had the wheel. If you tied
yourself to the front of a ship and just went headlong into the wind---and
just screamed and yelled---that's what it was like."
had been a staff producer at Atlantic jazz.
He scored in the pop world with Roberta Flack hits like Killing Me
you have million sellers and Grammies together, that buys you years of people
takin' a shot with you. I must have
bought myself five or six years beyond when I was actually making hits."
did surreal records, avoided big stars, and began to drift farther from the
of the record business. Among a
hundred albums he did at Regent were the debuts of Leon Redbone, Bette Midler,
and Peter Allen, as well as albums by Steve Goodman, Dory Previn, Yusef Lateef,
and Don McLean.
remember watching Peter Allen during a break between takes from his first album,
Continental American. He sat
before the TV impassively as news of his divorce from Liza Minnelli came through
McLean's fourth album, Homeless Brother, was done at Regent.
The Dorn-produced LP only furthered McLean's descent, but it did contain
two overlooked gems: Wonderful Baby, a ditty on par with anything Irving
Berlin wrote (Fred Astaire later recorded it), and Sail Away, Raymond, a
sea chantey by George Harrison, which he sent to McLean.
was a bit schlubby and melancholy, and did not fit the romantic image
suggested by Vincent and American Pie just a few years earlier.
He recorded in Studio A every day, breaking to watch Nixon's resignation.
critics don't understand me," he would say, with genuine angst.
I purchased a few of his brilliant earlier LPs at Woolworth’s, which
were already in the remainder bin. I
showed them to McLean with the Woolworth's
remainder stickers still affixed.
God," said McLean, recoiling. The
stickers depressed him.
Dorn lost all hearing in his left
ear overnight during a childhood case of mumps.
Because he couldn't hear stereo, many of his records were done mono.
One of Dorn's artistic trademarks included adding aimless sound
montages to albums, the noodling of a pothead.
Another brainstorm involved his dream to record a duet between John
Lennon and Kate Smith. This never
Kenny Vance, originally of Jay and
the Americans, was one of Dorn's right hand men.
They would sit stoned long into the night, doing dozens of mixes on some
deep track from say, a Lucy Simon (sister of Carly) record.
They'd imagine they heard some tiny noise or imperfection deep in the
mix, crack open expensive virgin reels of Ampex tape, and do endless remixes,
one indistinguishable from the other.
"I wanted to puke,"
recalled legendary Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler afterwards. "Dorn wasted tons of our money."
Wexler himself was a master of the
rollback: "If there's 20 bad takes, roll back to the best one and fix it.
I've made a few records and my heavy hand as producer is on them---I
could change a record. Dorn would
stop a take, and tell them to 'just try something different.'
"My ultimate definition of a
producer," Wexler concluded, "is someone who can change the music,
the tempo, syncopation, hum out a bass line.
You don't have to be a musician."
Dorn worked almost exclusively
with engineer Robert Lifton, Regent Sound's owner.
Shortly after I arrived, Lifton took me up to a fifth floor warehouse.
He left me alone with the key, instructing me to organize a whole
junkyard, and someday present him with an inventory.
Regent would eventually return tapes to any rightful surviving
I was surrounded by piles of musty
old tapes containing jingles, demos, and soundtracks dating back to the '50s.
They were from record companies, tin pan alley songwriters and music
industry publishers with dozens of subsidiary labels and shell companies that
seemed like so much gibberish at the time: Coral Rock, Aeolian,
Shapiro-Bernstein, Screen Gems-Columbia Music, the Wes Farrell Organization,
were the secret financial barons of the music industry.
No one could explain exactly what they did other than collect money.
The office of Aaron Schroeder International, for instance, encompassed
the penthouse of our building, 24 West 57th Street.
Schroeder owned publishing rights on Elvis and even some Beatles stuff.
A bonafide crook, he always had lawsuits leveled against him for stealing
money. I never saw the shadowy Schroeder in his office, only his
hot blonde receptionist. She got
locked out one Friday evening when I was working late.
She was the first, maybe the only, girl to ever step into my fifth floor
enclave. Her pocketbook and keys
were stuck inside the top floor, and we spent hours trying to break through windows
and fire escapes. Wilbur, the
crusty old black night super, caught us. He
took me aside and shook his head.
you got dat broad naked, boy, you wouldn't know what to do with it."
After two years spent dusting them off, I still see faded box labels in my sleep. Amid chaos I would slowly reunite scattered tape reels with labels like Limon Dance and Beacon Hill or Phillips Productions. Shapiro-Bernstein had some 200 dusty reels, each plucked from mountains of disorder to be filed numerically from 1961 to 1968. Endless
As a recording engineer, Robert Lifton was a pioneer, a workaholic devoid of personality
reels of Search for Tomorrow soap opera cues, produced by Elliot Lawrence
downstairs in Studio B. If you ever wondered what the 16 1/2 speed was on your
old record player, it was for these huge, bicycle tire-sized acetate records,
once played on military radio. Hundreds lay moldering, used on long obsolete
industrial-sized record machines. The
machines themselves lay in ruin in this audio junkyard.
Lifton was one of a handful of pioneer recording engineers, behind the scenes of
rock 'n' roll records in the '50s and '60s.
He was a man of tape, of studios, who rarely saw the light of day and had
an alabaster studio suntan. A
workaholic, devoid of personality, he was nevertheless a decent man and a fair
boss. He always wore rumpled jeans
and boots, and smoked four packs of Marlboros a day.
importantly, Lifton kept personal musical opinions to himself during his
round-the-clock sessions. He could
handle some bubble gum idol in the morning, then be the consummate engineer for
a jazz record by night. He only
once revealed a personal music taste. Lifton
once sent me out to Colony Records for a new Reverend James Cleveland gospel
album, which he cracked out of the cellophane like a teenybopper.
wasn't one of those engineers who had the kind of sound that producers chased
after, like Phil Ramone or Rudy Van Gelder," says Dorn.
"But he was such a basic engineer.
He could get a very black and white, very mono sound, but a cinemascopic
black and white sound. He understood what I said.
A lot of other engineers didn't wanna hear my bullshit, would look at me
like I was nuts. But Lifton would
listen, and pull it off."
was the first to ever achieve a 32-track setup, synchronizing two 16-track Ampex
MM-1000 machines. Other engineers
could never do it. Lifton was a
science club member in high school, one of those guys who could make a tape
recorder out of a Dixie cup and a string and two pieces of iron, a wizard of
sound. He sank all his profits into
installing newfangled video equipment in 1974, foreseeing video as the upcoming
boom of the future. Regent was the
first recording studio in New York to do such.
Lifton did live sound for Aretha at Radio City.
He sent me and Jesus, the custodian, over to Rockefeller Center with
loads of equipment one afternoon. It
was for the first season of some new show called Saturday Night Live.
He became SNL’s, and television's, best live-music sound
was revered for his technical prowess by other engineers.
He was trained as a physicist, as were the other engineers he hired.
An awkward guy in social situations when he wasn't behind the controls,
it was odd to see his smiling face turn up in trade magazine ads for Ampex tape,
which he vigorously endorsed, leading the industry away from the mighty 3M
Scientists of sound, the three
Regent engineers under Lifton could reconfigure the electronics of Ampex MM-1000
16-track machines. They could draft
by hand perfect electronic diagrams. They
could operate the Nuemann lathe-cutting machine in Studio D for acetate masters
used to press the albums they engineered. They
could troubleshoot any mechanical or electronic repair at 3 a.m. during a
high-dollar, all-night session.
Engineers were the true wizards of
production. Their trade was unsung,
and more complicated than that of highly paid record producers---whom they felt
honor-bound to serve as psychologist and technician.
They often worked 80-hour weeks, and carried their burdens silently, so
as never to worry the celebrated musicians, stars and producers.
Engineers Vince McGarry and Joe Ferla could read music charts.
They had uncanny timing on tricky overdub punches.
They often did the producer's job, but never saw the glory.
Before the days of computer
editing, engineers performed daredevil tape splices, more delicate than
circumcisions, where one hair off on a razor-blade tape splice could ruin the
results of a $10,000 session. Before
the days of automated consoles, they performed master mixes with their own
hands, memorizing dozens of knob tweaks, and fader levels for a final mix of a
song. As assistant engineer, I
might be required to push one or two faders up and down at the far end of the
console, while the engineer did dozens. We
might rehearse the moves an hour before going for a final mix.
They were akin to seasoned fighter pilots, who could break down and
rebuild their own planes from top to bottom. (I've never seen this level of
professionalism at any recording studio today.) Though they took me under
their wing as a raw engineering prospect, I gradually learned I didn't have the
so, one of my closest co-workers became Regent's custodial mascot, Jesus
Rojas. The jolly, rotund custodian
was cherished by rich music producers, who borrowed him on weekends to work in
their homes. He'd come in with his
team of fellow Colombian floor waxers.
was the first to introduce me to 42nd Street's live peeps.
He had no time for men's magazines, which didn't yet deliver the full-out
goods. On lunch break he led me to
a second floor peep with curtained booths, where you could "see dee-licious
poo-sey" on a revolving platform.
beloved Regent mainstay was "the most polite man in the world," Sam
Vandivert. He was a portly,
white-haired fellow in his fifties. Sam
ran tape dupes, and made cassettes, for which he typed out pressure-sensitive
labels. He could do a miracle save
on a damaged cassette. Sam was so
organized in the "dupe room," we joked that his tombstone would have
an arrow pointing downward. He
remained jolly no matter how viciously he was berated by Bess the bookkeeper Sam
never raised his voice to defend himself, but would meekly walk off bemused.
a rough ol' bird," he said, and choked when I suggested his presence
threatened her virginity.
I was new on the job, Sam introduced me to Jack Shaw.
a great guy," he kept telling me, “wait till you meet him."
day the elevator door opened and Sam wheeled Jack Shaw out.
He was a crippled midget in a wheelchair, a human pretzel with a Svengali
he great?" came Sam, with utmost sincerity. And thereafter, Sam and Jesus were forever relieved of the
task of wheeling Jack Shaw home from Dorn's sessions, where he was a frequent
and Lifton helped support him and remained loyal as Shaw's health deteriorated.
Shaw had once co-produced Fathead Newman albums with Dorn, and wrote
under pseudonyms for Tiger Beat.
often sent to fetch Jack Shaw from his reeking West 57th Street apartment.
And there, disassembled from his oxygen tank, his apartment overflowing
with garbage, was Jack, stranded in the middle of it, crawling over a trash heap
like a deformed baby, the bones of his ass hitched up, his scraggly bearded face
gasping for air. Soon I was
shopping for his groceries (imitation ”cheese food" his favorite).
The poor guy needed more help than he got. When it was time to urinate, even in a crowded studio, he
would fumble out his disarmingly large pecker and piss into a bottle, oblivious
A fellow Philadelphia jazz DJ with Dorn, he was then somehow able to drive. Shaw lured Lenny
Jack said he had a 'a crotch-eyed view of the world'
Bruce to gigs in Philly. Jack
described his wheelchair vantage point as "a crotch-eyed view of the
world." I waited for some nugget of wisdom as payoff for all the errands I
ran for Shaw on my own time. He'd
contemplate my questions about jazz, or how I might advance as a studio
He'd twist his face into a wizened grimace, stroke his beard, looking
heavenward, deep in thought as I waited for one kernel of crotch-eyed
wisdom---but never got it.
Regent Sound went into some ridiculous high security mode, and Studio A was
declared off-limits. Once, for a
James Taylor-Carly Simon duet. Regent's
mild-mannered security man, Fred, sat quietly in the Studio A reception area
every night, unassuming, slightly built---but would pat the .38 under his jacket
whenever I inquired whether he could really fend off an attack.
a brief Raquel Welch visit, Joel Dorn ordered me, Jesus, and even Sam off the
third floor. I would often retreat
to the windowless fifth floor to be alone when my ego was wounded, and I would
commune with the tapes as I slowly ordered them.
the hell does he do up there?" Bess the bookkeeper would always complain to
whomever would listen.
very week, Raquel Welch, with Shep Gordon, who also managed Alice Cooper, were
in hot pursuit of my Dad [writer Bruce Jay Friedman] to write her authorized
biography---a high-paying project that my father considered during a time of
financial strain, though he wrestled with the humiliating subject
matter. He did tell Welch that his
boy worked at Regent, and to say hello. And
so I stayed on the fifth floor waiting for an intercom buzz summoning me down
at her request, so I could breach their pompous security.
She never called. My father turned down the book.
Carol, the gorgeous Haitian receptionist, punched out at night, studio musicians
and engineers would fight to sit upon her swivel chair while it was still warm.
Her flanks were awe-inspiring. She
transformed from prim librarian to bombshell by doffing her thick eyeglasses
and releasing her hair bun, haughtily ignoring wolf whistles from janitors and
elevator men. She never once
visited me on the fifth floor, a dump she wouldn't dream of entering.
She eventually married chief engineer, Vince McGarry.
would often complain about me or Sam to Carol, suspicious that my $60-per-week
salary was a waste, since they couldn't watch me upstairs.
In fact, after endless dusty afternoons spent separating crusty,
waterlogged tape boxes and deciphering their faded origins, I had whittled
down the fifth floor, with one short row left to go.
My two-year odyssey was nearly complete.
In a week or so, I could type up the master log and present a fully
ordered library to my boss, Robert Lifton.
then, suddenly, I was "laid off." Lifton mumbled something about
"unions cracking down," and regretted my departure, but ol' Bess, the
wicked business manager, had convinced him the budget had to be cut.
I was lowest man on the totem pole.
I learned a basic tenet of business: I had no clients, brought no
accounts into the business, and therefore was expendable.
the tapes!" I cried. My masterwork
of inventory organization was nearly complete.
those," said Lifton, "don't worry, we'll take care of 'em."
reign lasted but a few more years.
you're just a pure artist,” he said, “ when you do what you want when you
want---that doesn't lay well with business people. As long
as you make them money, they'll put up with your nonsense. I had a 15-year run, it was unbelievable.
happened at the end of the ‘70s, early '80s," Dorn continued, "is
when the corporate takeover of music in this country was completed.
Now lawyers and accountants and non-in-the-street, non-late-night
people were running the music business. They
observed it the way businessmen do. They
said: ‘Let's see, this kind of record that sounds this way goes on this kinda
radio, sells at this retail, and pulls this audience at this venue.’
They applied the laws of logic to art.
And you can't. They changed
the music business forever. The
wildcatters are gone. These are all
corporate folks. It finished it for
guys like us."
later, I saw Dorn, wild-eyed in his claustrophobic New York apartment,
by boxes of tapes and pot-headed mixes, cramping his life.
He'd summoned me to a meeting for some TV brainstorm.
I brought along my brother Drew, who was supposed to bring a friend who
was a scholar of old movie posters. At
35 years old, the friend was living at home with his parents, and didn't show. Reached by phone, he said he wasn't allowed to come, he was
being "punished." Then Dorn was summoned to a hospital by a friend
having a heart attack. Meeting and
TV show ended right there.
Dorn's visionary hoarding paid off in the '90s, as he "reinvented
myself." Rhino/Atlantic CD box sets revolutionized the biz, and Dorn
repackaged lots of his old productions.
moved Regent to the Brill Building. He
died of lung cancer around '86. Four
packs of Marlboros daily. Regent's
space is now part of a famous art gallery building.
still see those tapes in my dreams, just out of grasp, a week off from
completion. I ran into Regent's
beloved janitor, Jesus Rojas, many years later.
happened to all the tapes---my tapes?"
out, I theenk, said Jesus. "Years
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