The session that wasn’t…
“Seed’s a Star” / The Secret Life of Plants / “Turn Out the Lights” / “Lady Love”
Sometime in 1978 Evan Solot approached me with an interesting proposition. Evan played trumpet often in the horn section. I once suggested Evan to play a solo trumpet part on a Michael Henderson track “We Can Go On” that turned out fantastic by the way. Evan was also an educator. He taught and was at the time chairing the relatively new Jazz and Commercial Music department at what today is called the University of the Arts (U Arts). The department wanted to add a recording class to their curriculum, and they needed a place to teach it and faculty to deliver it. Evan asked Joe if University of the Arts could use 309 on Monday mornings before sessions began and if he and the staff might teach it. Joe agreed if the staff was willing. Evan approached me and suggested that the class of fifteen weeks could be split between the five First Engineers at the time. That would mean that each of us only had to teach three classes each and we could split the money five ways. I pitched it to the other four guys, and they all said yes, if I wrote the syllabus and offered them suggestions about what their section of the class would entail. I said yes, and it was scheduled, and I guess it was that Fall semester that we booked out 309 for the next fifteen weeks in the morning on Mondays.
I was to start it since I wrote the class which Evan and Marc Dicciani, the then Dean of the Department, approved. I showed up on day one in a cap and gown I got in a thrift shop and wore it through the whole class announcing at the beginning that I had not (as of that time) graduated from college, so this was my commencement! The students and Marc who came to observe were blown away! They couldn’t believe me! Well, I taught the first three classes and loved it. I called whoever was next up and he said, “Hey, man I am too scared to get up in front of people. You take my cut and teach my three weeks. Okay?” Well of course all of them did the same thing and I had started my career as an educator. I was, apparently, a natural. The students and the administration loved me. Marc even sat in my entire class the next semester essentially taking the class without credit or writing a paper but learning everything I was putting out. It made him a better producer simply because the more you understood of the total process the more you were able to control the sessions and the ultimate product.
I am so proud of my career in education. Not only have I won two teaching awards (see my bio at the end of this book) but I spent seventeen years as an educational administrator during which time I helped create multiple departments and helped literally thousands of students find their way into careers in the various media fields I managed.
But I must mention a few highlights of the beginnings at University of the Arts and Temple a few years later. In the very first class I ever taught were some amazing musicians who went on to great careers in the music industry. First was Angela Falco. She was a composition and flute/piano major. She was such a great composer (she worked years later on a film my wife was doing) that I began working with her on her CD Unforgotten Toys. As she brought me melodies, she would play on piano I would say, yes, this one is great for the new age kind of project I imagined doing with her and no, that one is more like a pop tune. We separated the tunes for Unforgotten Toys, and we proceeded to record it and made a beautiful product. The other melodies she brought to me I said needed lyrics and should be pop songs. She said she didn’t write words and I said that I was a published poet but had never tried lyrics and would she mind if I tried to write some words to her beautiful music. She agreed and the rest as they say is history. I wrote and produced a number of songs with her. On my three CDs, there are six collaborations, three on the first CD, two on the second and one on the last. I think they are some of the best songs I have ever done. Simply because she is such a fantastic composer!
Also, in that very first class I met a man who played drums on one of the in-class tracks we cut. He was Ted Greenberg. He asked to sit in on every class left that semester. He took the entire class the very next semester and after the first class ended, he went out and bought his first board. He has been a gear junkie ever since. He is a gifted musician, producer, and engineer. Ted has owned his own studios here in the Philly area and out in LA where he moved after his involvement in the film “Standing in Shadow of Motown” which he mixed and won two Grammys. He also married Angela and she blamed me for his audio gear addiction! He owned enough gear at one time for three entire studios not to mention all the incredible collections of instruments (especially vintage stuff like a Coral Electric Sitar for example which he played on an Angela Falco fusion track from her CD Adelante). Ted has also, at my prompting, become a college level teacher of audio too. He has won awards for that too.
In that very same first class was Donald Robinson a Philly based writer/producer/keyboardist who has worked here in Philly ever since graduating.
In the next semester or two I had the tremendous pleasure to teach many other very successful musicians. Sumi Toonoka was in one of those first classes. I said to the class, “Today we will do a simple stereo recording of just the grand piano, who would like to play something?” Every eye in the class instantly turned to Sumi and smiled. She, after we set up the microphones teaching about stereo placement, proceeded to play a piece called “5 & 1/2” which so blew me away that years later I played it in Los Angles for Stevie Wonder, and it blew him away too.
Matt Cappy, another University of the Arts student of mine, has gone on to do and is still doing great things. Not only in his own music career (look him and almost anyone I mention in this book up in Allmusic.com and see how they have succeeded) but as a valued and repeat member of the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Chapter of NARAS (the Grammy organization).
James Cravero, a student of mine from the Art Institute of Philadelphia, has gone on to be a studio owner (East Coast Recording) and the winner of a Grammy with his partner Kevin Mackie who co-produced and James engineered. I was asked by them once to produce a song (which is on my website link) to raise funds for local environmental groups called Envio Aid. I also produced some of my songs at James’ studio soon after he opened it. That first studio of his was called Mad Ferret Studios and James insisted that I work there for free as he said, “Just watching you work is like a real-world lesson no matter what you are doing.” I am grateful for the compliment and loved the songs that I got to record and mix there which included, “Days Go By” and a wild Rock instrumental that I named after a never realized film that had been planned by Harpo Marx and Salvador Dali (that I learned about at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida), called “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.” That track was big fun and almost as crazy as the title suggests. It is also on my website.
My first session with Stevie Wonder was a night session in Studio 2, which was the room on the first floor where I worked more often than any other room. It was a rhythm date with the second manifestation of the MFSB rhythm section. Jimmy Williams on bass, Keith Benson on drums, Dennis Harris on guitar, and a couple of the original guys: Larry Washington on congas, Bobby Eli on guitar who seemed to always be there for tracks. We set up and waited. And we waited and waited… Sometimes Stevie would call many hours later and cancel. He was often late and frequently a no show. When he showed up for this night it was to record a song called “Power Flower” for a project that Stevie had become very caught up in. I imagine that it was that being a sightless person and having been invited to do music for a documentary film was really big to him. As a result, he had thrown a huge effort into it even though I am sure the filmmakers had very little budget and Stevie spent what I imagine was a great deal of money on the only album he ever made without a hit record on it. It was called The Secret Lives of Plants and Stevie did what ended up being a double record set of music that was used in the film.
When he showed up that night in Studio 2, we were all very excited to be working with Stevie. The song was musically very complex, and we had trouble getting the sheets of music in front of everyone in that it barely fit on three music stands. Stevie came in, talked to the band about the track and began playing it for them and then along with them. I had already gotten levels and sounds on everyone but as they rehearsed the song again and again, I was able to get everything perfect. It was definitely sounding good! A few hours went by and it began to become obvious to me that Stevie was not getting what he was looking for. In another hour or two he finally stopped playing and announced that they were done.
Everyone was shocked and extremely disappointed to say the least. Stevie had to take a long time with each one of them explaining again and again that it wasn’t the band’s short comings, but that Stevie’s expectations were too high. It seemed that the band could play it accurately but without the feeling he wanted, or they could play it with the feeling but not accurately enough. Everyone’s ego needed to be and was smoothed out by Stevie. Especially when he told them that he had tried cutting this track with his own band Wonderlove, the NYC guys STUFF, the second-string guys from NYC, and session players in Los Angele too! No one was able to play the song the way he heard it in his head.
When the last of the session players had left and it was my turn I said, “You never even heard a thing I did. We never recorded a note!” He said, “I could hear it in the phones, I know how good you are, believe me.” At some point, he said not to worry that there would be another time that we would get together in the future. I felt better but doubted that it would ever be a reality that would come together. So, the session “that never was” for me, came and went without me getting a credit on that record. Ironically, my dear friend and fellow engineers Jay Mark and Jim Dougherty did get a credit for other sessions that Stevie did at Sigma on that album. Also given a thank you on that cover were:Joe Tarsia, Arthur Stoppe, Rocky Schnaars, Jimmy Williams, Keith Benson and Charles Collins but alas, I was not mentioned.
The credits of the “Plants” album tell us that Stevie eventually played all the instruments on that song himself, as with five or more other songs. As I will relate later Stevie was good on his word. The next time he came to Sigma to record I got the call.
When I arrived at Sigma there were already three other Assistant Engineers working there. They were Michael Hutchinson, Dirk Devlin and Arthur Stoppe. I have already commented on Michael and Arthur and the work they went on to do as first engineers as well. Dirk Devlin fits this category as well. Dirk spent a great deal of his time in Studio 1 working with Carl Paruolo. They worked with Norman Harris on all the Golden Fleece productions, all the Trammps LPs, all the Blue Magic sessions, The Double Exposure LPs, and so much more. Dirk was lucky enough to work on almost all the Duke Williams sessions too. He eventually got to become a First Engineer and soon was recording for all the above and even more including working with various staff producers from PIR. I recorded two LPs with Gene McFadden & John Whitehead but the album with the giant anthem-like hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” was recorded by Dirk! It may have been the biggest of his career. It certainly was the biggest for Gene and John. Dirk was always very generous to me especially as I was starting out, helping me learn the ropes. I think I started doing sessions as a First before Dirk, even though I was hired later than he was, but it was not for lack of talent. I believe it was about scheduling and the very successful team he and Carl made. It was similar to my assisting Don Murray occasionally even after I became a First on the latter Spinners LPs and the Elton John string and horn sessions for Thom Bell.
In 1976 when Joe opened Studio 309 (it officially was Studio 4) at Kenny Gamble’s 309 South Broad Street building at Broad and Spruce Street (in the space that was Cameo Parkway’s B room where Joe had worked for Cameo). We now had another room with two more sessions a day to offer. That meant that we needed two more engineers and two more assistants. We had hired Kenny Present just before that so Joe didn’t have to work every day and could spend more time with his family and dedicate more time to being Chief Engineer and the owner. Now we needed at least two more assistants for the 309 sessions and then one to replace me or Dirk or Art or whichever one was doing First sessions. Another change that happened at almost the exact same time was that Joe’s success with the studios in Philly prompted him to expand to a new market: The Big Apple.
Opening Sigma New York meant that two major players from Philly moved to New York to work in our new rooms there to make sure our standards and expertise were established there. The two who left were Jay Mark and Michael Hutchinson who was stepping up to be a First Engineer just then.
The new assistants were Peter Humphreys, whom I have already mentioned, and a few new guys and one gal who we soon lost to Sigma New York: Carla Bandini. Carla was a quick study and after only a few months training in Philly she was out the door and up to NYC not to return.
The new guys who came over the next few years were Jeff Stewart, Rocky Schnarrs, Frank Lauria, Bill “The King” Dorman and Vince Warsavage. I cannot recall in what order they appeared, but Joe’s son Mike Tarsia was one of them.
Bill was always a great guy with whom to work. We got each other’s sense of humor and enjoyed the very many hours we worked, often until dawn and beyond. Remember, of the ten years that I worked at Sigma, I was on night shift for at least seven years, if not more. Those night sessions could literally run until 1 hour before the session in that same room the next morning, which was typically scheduled for 10 AM. The night sessions usually started at 7 PM. That was fourteen hours sometimes! Some clients loved that because the day sessions had to start at 10 AM but always had to stop by 6 PM, only eight hours. So, at night they could get more done, but they spent more of their budgets.
Bill was present at a session that brought the value of our efforts into extreme focus. We were mixing a track for a Reggae act and the Jamaican producer at maybe 4 AM as we were finishing was handed the session sheet. It showed his balance for the previous sessions and we added the cost of that last session to it, and it added up to a substantial amount, maybe around $50,000. Well, he pulled out an aluminum brief case and plopped it down on the producer’s desk, opened it and there was more cash money than Bill or I had ever seen in our combined lives! He counted it out and we had to somehow make some change, which we did from our wallets and pockets and the bill and the session was settled. They took the tapes and left. Bill and I sat there feeling more than uneasy about so much cash in our possession. We didn’t even know what to do with it.
Usually, people simply signed the bill and the label paid it or they wrote a check. Seeing how much money was actually changing hands was a real eye opener! We took it up stairs and locked it up in a closet in Vivian’s office. I’m sure she had it deposited the next morning but was I nervous about all that cash! I was never into the money. I was about the music and the professional nature of the services we provided. I took a great deal of pride in my work. I almost never thought about the money except to make sure the bill was right, and that the client’s budget was not wasted. That was good business practice in that if a client came in on-budget or even under-budget, the likelihood of them returning was improved. That often proved to be sound practice, as many of my clients returned again and again.
Once Bill and I were mixing for a client from France and I was recently divorced, and Bill was youthfully single. He kept lobbying this client to introduce us to some beautiful French women. I kept saying that he should stop but he wouldn’t let it go. “Do you have any daughters?” and “Aren’t any young ladies with you on this trip?” were questions he kept asking and I kept freaking out. Thank goodness that the client had a great sense of humor and no daughters or ladies with him.
Bill was present at the rhythm track for “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and was somewhat shocked by the extra-curricular event accompanying the session. Let’s just say that the saying “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” applied and then some! Bill described it as “Bacchanal.” I was never aware of any sex during my sessions, at least not that I could see. However, I am sure that on many dates it was going on around me, out of my sight. I may have been naïve, but I was all about the work. I paid my mortgage and supported my son and such with the money I got from my sessions, I never got high or fooled around while I was working. Never.
Bill had a funny thing happen on the Secret Life of Plants session that he did with Jay. Stevie often brought with him a lot of gear. Companies would give him the latest stuff to try out in hopes of an endorsement, and he owns a lot of his own stuff he preferred to use. So, for this session, a big U-Haul truck pulled up fully loaded with a ton of gear, mostly keyboards and synths. Bill referred to Stevie as “hovering”, meaning god-like in his presence. At the end of the long night Bill was helping with loading up their truck and without realizing it, in the awe of Stevie “hovering,” Bill loaded some of Sigma’s gear on the U-Haul, including a Clavinet keyboard and an amp. This was not noticed at the time and a day or two later Bill found himself in Harry’s office sweating over the missing gear. Of course, when Stevie’s crew was called and informed of the mix up the gear was returned, and Bill was off the hook. It really is sometimes off putting to work with some of the people we enjoyed working with while they were “hovering” right in front of us.
Another assistant I worked with was Vince Warsavage. He was always a quieter, reserved personality but dead serious about the quality and consistency of his work.
Then there was Rocky Schnarrs. He was great fun too. I already mentioned the strange track we got Michael Henderson to expand into a freaky unexpected piece of music. Rocky eventually left Philly and moved to Nashville and has had a few careers there since. I saw him recently and enjoyed his company as much now as I did then.
Frank Lauria is a very funny guy to work with and still is to this day. Everyone should follow him on Facebook, just for the laughs! I can remember my astonishment when both Frank and all the other assistants were angered about Michael Tarsia becoming an assistant at Sigma. I can remember saying to Frank and others often, “Get real, who do you think will be here ten years from now? You? Me? …or the boss’ son? Get real dude!” I was amazed at how much they underestimated the nepotistic nature of the real world. As a result, I was cool with Michael even when I shouldn’t have. To this day Michael still says that I was one of only two people who ever gave him a chance, or in my case, taught him the ropes as I did all the others. I knew he’d be there years after even I was gone, and I figured he might as well be able to deliver good work. I did it out of respect to his father too. Without Joe, none of us would have had the careers that we enjoyed.
But that brings us to Mike Tarsia as an assistant. Now there was ample reason for the other assistants to complain. I will relate one tale of a session at 309 that I did during the day that Mike was supposed to assist me on. Knowing that Mike was assigned to me and it was a string and horn date for Gamble (it might have been when Joe was in the hospital with appendicitis) and that Mike was often unreliable to say the least, I showed up early (when he should have) and he was not there so I set up the room for the session and did everything until he finally showed up over an hour late. He told me he had been up all night and was in no shape to work at all. So, I told him to go back into the tape room take some of the packing blankets we used to use to baffle off the piano and other things and make a bed on the floor and sleep it off. He did. As we finished the strings and I started setting up the room for the horns, Gamble asked me, “Didn’t I have an assistant to help me?” I covered with some BS and Michael dodged another bullet. You’re welcome, Michael. He did eventually grow up enough to realize what a sweet job it was, and he applied himself and is still engineering today. His clients love his work, and no one can argue that.
Another aspect of the Sigma scene was the fantastic staff that worked behind the scenes to keep the ship sailing in every room all the time. That team was called the T.S.D. or Technical Service Department. Over the ten years that I was at Sigma I worked with many great technicians. Often, they quietly worked in the background “keeping us flying.” Sometimes they had large personalities that kept them in our daily lives in that they went out of their way to interact with the engineering staff and the clients. One TSD man was Gene Kane. He was soft spoken and methodical and, like almost everyone who ever worked in that department, very good at his job.
Another was Mike Spitz. As I was about to leave Sigma in my last weeks, Mike took the time to teach me everything I needed to fully align a tape recorder beyond the minor adjustments that we did before each session. I needed to know it all in order to survive out in Los Angeles. as an independent freelance engineer. Mike stayed with analog technology long after the establishment of digital. In fact, he was in the company to be with for that temporarily limited technology. I used to run into him at every AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention I ever attended after Sigma. Sadly, he died of cancer a few years ago.
One of the first TSD managers in my early years was Mike Flood. Mike loved to fly and owned his own two-seat Piper Cub type airplane. One Friday afternoon I was finishing up for the week and mentioned in front of him that I was headed out to Allentown to visit my family members that lived up there. He asked how I was getting there, and I said by bus. He instantly offered to fly me there. Apparently, he loved to fly anytime and was always looking for an excuse to do it. I said Ok and off we went in his car to the North Philly airport. We jumped in his plane and off we went. I was astonished by how small the plane was. I thought it was like a VW bug with wings. Also, I couldn’t believe how loud it was! After all, you were sitting right behind the engine and just like a VW, they are not that soundproof. I loved the flight and we landed at the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton airport and I told him thanks and offered him some cash for gas, and he refused. He said it was his hobby and he loved it so he did not want any money. I thanked him and headed for my sister’s house that ironically was in a development right next to the airport. I walked to her house in time for dinner with her and her family, my parents and my wife who had driven up earlier. I have only once ever been up in a small aircraft since. Interestingly, it was with my sister’s son Greg who was at that dinner, only it was decades later in northern California when Greg and I rented a ride on a WWI vintage biplane. It had two seats, one for the pilot and one behind him that both Greg and I had to squeeze our over six-foot frames into for the ride from the southern end of the Napa Valley back down to San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back again. We loved it!
Another TSD worker and later manager was Chris Bishop. Chris was often in the studio, briefly greeting clients and engineers alike. At company parties and other social gatherings, he would often tip his hat to the engineers referring to our time in the sessions as “in the trenches” with the clients. After all they weren’t always fun and games and there were the brutal hours especially at night. Frustrating to him was the long running sessions at night which kept his staff from getting in the room to do often needed as well as expected normal maintenance. You can’t maintain them if you’re still using them! We lost Chris a few years ago too. He was always respectful of me and the grind “in the trenches.”
A very colorful TSD worker was Jack Dyke. Jack was a shorter man with a colorful wardrobe and a great wit. He, at a certain point after being there for a few years, came “out of the closet”. Jack not just came out but was a true advocate of the slogan, “We’re here, and we’re queer and get used to it!” In fact, he became quite vocal, not only about his sexual preference for his long-time lover, but he also became vocal about their boots and leather preferences as well. Jack left Philly and moved with his partner somewhere in upstate New York and started a whole new business that was totally unrelated to audio or electronics whatsoever. Jack was a trip. I loved how firmly he grabbed life by the throat and looked it right in the eye and lived it fully! Right on Jack!
I can’t mention “tech” guys without talking about Cal Davis who was the tech guy at AIPH and then later (and still is now) at Temple University. He is a true friend. He has played very cool parts on some great songs to be released on my next CD, has aided our efforts in keeping all the gear in both those institutions up to date and running but also is a big Phillies fan too. Cal often has called me and said, “Hey do you need a mixer of some other piece of gear? It’s about to end up in the dumpster.” I got my drums that way (I had to add hardware and fix a few things, but I now have a very nice kit without dumpster diving! Here’s Cal at a Phillies game.
Wayne Wilfong, who was around probably before Joe opened Sigma, because he was the Wayne of Frankford/Wayne the Mastering company that originally was directly behind the control room of Studio 1. Its windows faced 12th Street. He also worked for Joe in different capacities along the way, including TSD manager at one point albeit briefly. He, in 1976 when Sigma New York opened, moved North with a few others and worked there until he found himself working for ABC-TV. Later he moved to the Poconos not far from Carl and Vivian. He was listed as an engineer with me on that Michael Henderson LP, In the Night-Time. He was a versatile, friendly and capable member of our staff and was always fun at office parties and the like.
Bob Titus was another TSD department head at one time. A great guy and an efficient manager, he “kept us flying” through some of the busiest of times.
Dave Moyssiadis, was also a member of Joe’s staff from the very beginning. He helped with some of the wiring and construction before they opened the doors and then served on the engineering staff both as Assistant and I believe a First Engineer also. He later worked at Frankford/Wayne as a mastering engineer and lived in New Jersey a few blocks from me when I lived in Merchantville. He retired to Florida some years ago and is still in communication with Arthur Stoppe. Darrel Rogers was another of the assistants with whom I worked as a first. He also was a quiet guy and with whom it was very easy to get along.
Late in my time at Sigma an interesting change happened. Vivian and Carl left Sigma together and moved up into the Pocono Mountains. They bought a restaurant and called it “The Inn by the Edge of the Forest”. Viv had won a contest with the Dole Corporation for her pineapple upside down cake. It was extremely good. Carl decided that he had had enough of the music scene and became the chef and Viv managed, was hostess and made her prize-winning dessert. A few times I drove up there to enjoy the place. Once, just after they opened, there was a Sigma night on a Saturday and a dozen or more Sigma staff showed up to party. Carl said that cooking was a lot like mixing and that he loved it. They lived there in Milford PA until Vivian got cancer and died. Carl stayed on and eventually sold the place but stayed up there until he became quite ill as well and died a few years later. Strangely no one from Sigma had heard about his passing and no one from Sigma was there at his memorial because none of us knew about it. The last time I saw Carl was at Kenny Present’s funeral. A lesson to all readers, young and old: Carl, Kenny and Vivian all smoked cigarettes like fiends. All died much younger than they ever should have. There is a story Kenny told me that I must repeat. When Kenny had his first heart attack the ER doctor was listening to his chest and asked, “Do you smoke?” Kenny said yes and the young man said, “Not anymore.” Sadly, Kenny did not heed the advice and when only a year or two later he had his second heart attack it was fatal. There used to be an anti-smoking commercial featuring Yul Brenner appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer, recently lost one lung and did not live very much longer after the filming of that show and he looked directly into the camera and said, “Whatever you do, don’t smoke!” I had been addicted to tobacco twice myself. It is very difficult to quit but I did it a long time ago and am happy it did not kill me.
As Sigma grew so did PIR, or perhaps it was the other way around. It didn’t really matter what the relationship was, both companies enjoyed tremendous growth and reputation simultaneously. The growth at PIR included a lot of personalities coming and going through the 309 studio and the offices that were literally across and down the hall from the studio doors. Perhaps one of the most important people besides Huff and Gamble (whose office door was next to the control room door, and had a cool, kind of secret door and hall to Huff’s office) was Elaine Johnson, A.K.A.: E. J. Now E. J. was the secretary for Gamble and Huff. She partnered Ms. Scott, the PIR equivalent of our Vivian Abbott, as Earth Mother, guardians and managers of the growing PIR staff. She was so nice and helpful to all that at one-point Jack Faith wrote and produced a beautiful and peaceful instrumental for a MFSB album called “Thank You, Ms. Scott”. I was thankful to have worked a lot on that track and I think I mixed it too.
The staff was mostly writers who eventually were given the option to produce their own songs. Often, they worked in teams like Jefferson, Simmons and Hawes who wrote a lot of songs for Thom Bell for the Spinners but sometimes contributed songs for PIR stable artists as well. Others were Sherman “Slim” Marshall who often wrote with Phillip Pugh and sometimes also with T. Conway and/or Ted Wortham. I recorded for Slim, as a producer (and co-writer) two great Teddy Pendergrass songs that I recorded and mixed exclusively. They were “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me” and “It Don’t Hurt Now”.
I worked on every album for Teddy until his accident. I am proud to mention a few more songs I was lucky enough to be involved with, I recorded various sessions on both “Close the Door” and “Turn Out the Lights” I remember doing a rhythm date for one and a string and horn date on the other. These were because sometimes Joe was just not always available for Kenny and Leon and Jay Mark, Arthur Stoppe or I would step in. After Jay moved to NYC, I got a lot more PIR work with the staff. That work included sessions with McFadden and Whitehead for Teddy and on other various projects and even one outside of PIR like the Melba Moore album I did with them. I got to work with Jack Faith on his production of Teddy’s “Life is a Song Worth Singing”. I had worked on the awesome version that Thom had produced for Johnny Mathis and Jack loved it so much that he got to re-do it for PIR and it became the title track for Teddy’s second album. I recorded every note and mixed that one.
Jack Faith was a dream to work with, easy going, mellow and so talented, yet modest. I recall complimenting him for his writing of the title track for the big Lou Rawls come-back album “All Things in Time”, which included Gamble and Huff’s smash hit “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and Jack dismissing the lyrics as being “light weight”. I couldn’t have disagreed more, and I let him know it! Jack was a gourmet cook and after the success that he enjoyed with a later Lou Rawls hit, “Lady Love” he threw a big New Year’s Eve party at his home for everyone at Sigma and PIR and cooked all the food himself, including a roasted pig and more amazing delicacies that I could not even name or describe but believe me a good time was had by all! Once he took me to dinner at a great French restaurant in West Philly called La Terrace and insisted that I eat the sweetbreads that were on the menu that night. Now normally I would no sooner eat brains than eat my own foot, but he insisted and told me it was maybe the best he had ever tasted regardless of where it was prepared, so who was I to say no. He was right they were so delicious! It goes to show you that the French can make a sauce for anything that will make it taste amazing! Jack pulled a funny one for me on “Lady Love”. Often, we staff engineers would get to record and do overdubs on songs, but the producers would book Joe Tarsia for the final mix and we wouldn’t get to finish it and sometimes that was frustrating to all of us. However, in the case of “Lady Love” Jack pulled the old switcheroo on Joe Tarsia. As I sat down one night to mix with Jack, I looked at the track sheet that always showed, via initials, precisely who recorded and assisted on every single instrument and vocal track on the multi-track tape. To my astonishment it had been entirely recorded by Joe. I turned and looked at Jack in disbelief and he just smiled very impishly and said, “Let’s finish this.” I think he was intentionally giving Joe a taste of the medicine so often given to the staff. I remember that while mixing it I kept asking him to bring up the flute track that Jack had played. He played flute and saxes in the horn section on everything but always refused to be the soloist on any sax always deferring to Zack or Ron Kerber or someone else, with the exception of the very long and quite lovely solo he played on the afore mentioned “Thank You, Ms. Scott.” But he wouldn’t bring up the flute track on “Lady Love.” I always thought that it was a bit too low. I used to think that “Lady Love” only went to #2 on the charts because every time I hear it even today on the oldies station I think, “Damn it, Jack, just two more dB on your flute and we would have had a #1!” I miss Jack, he is yet another great member of the Sigma/PIR/MFSB family that has left us too soon.
PIR had a few characters who drifted in and from time to time who played differing roles. One such fellow was Cary Grant “Hippie” Gilbert. Known to us all as “Hippie”, he stood maybe only five foot tall and was, shall we say, rotund? He was a great dresser and had a personality the size of North Philly from where I believed he hailed. He had a great wit and was a close friend to both Gamble and Huff. I am not sure where he came from or how he got to be close to them, but he contributed as a writer on two fantastic Gamble and Huff songs. First and foremost, he is the third name listed as one of the writers of “Me and Mrs. Jones” one of Gamble and Huff’s biggest hits and first Grammy winner! He also co-wrote a fantastic song that the three of them wrote for Lou Rawls’ first PIR album, “This Song Is Gonna Last Forever”. It was one of Lou’s favorite on that huge album. I am proud to say I recorded and mixed three tracks that made it to that album; two written and produced by Bunny Sigler and one song produced by Dexter Wansel from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “Pure Imagination”.
Another great guy with a big personality was Weldon MacDougal the Third! Yes, Weldon MacDougal III first came into Sigma as a producer early in my years there. He had been involved with a big hit for Barbara Mason, “Yes, I’m Ready” I think as a manager back then but as a producer on later efforts a number of which I engineered. I know I worked on one song that he co-wrote with Barbara “I Am Your Woman, She’s Your Wife”. He at one time was an A&R man for Motown and later was a promotions man for PIR as well. Weldon was always very upbeat and a pleasure to be around, even though some of his sessions would be strained and pressure filled because he always worked like the clock would kill us (or his budget) if we didn’t move quickly through the process. He often asked to work with me because he thought I was quick behind the console and I also helped him (and his budget) out that way. When he passed away the Philly music scene really came out for him. I remember Earl Young in particular speaking to the crowd about how Weldon had been instrumental in helping Earl get started in the business. Many, many others had similar and very kind works for him as well.
I need to mention “Zob” Quinton Joseph again as he was so much a part of PIR in the background of so many sessions as a drummer, a programmer and all-around immense support to all the PIR team. In the later years when I was Gamble and Huff’s Chief Engineer, he was an ever-present fixture and especially as a right-hand man to Leon Huff.
Some other projects that I participated in with the PIR team that I loved were the come-back album we did for Gamble’s old friend and co-writer Jerry Butler. He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Everything I ever did at PIR with Jerry Butler was top notch! The story I told earlier about my first recording of an oboe was on the title track for the second PIR Jerry Butler album, “The Best Love”. My only regret regarding my working with him was that it did not involve working with Curtis Mayfield.
Another act I loved recording was Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston Texas. I did a couple of PIR albums with them. I did “The Soul City Walk” and “I Could Dance All Night”, “Let’s Go Disco” and “Strategy” to name a few from the four PIR albums we did with them. And Archie really could dance “…as good as he liked”.
Dexter Wansel and I did a lot together. I already mentioned his solo albums (at least three), The Lou Rawls tune, and he was one of the first musicians to ever play a synthesizer on a TSOP record, the soaring Moog on Billy Paul’s title track of “War of the Gods”. I was also privileged to have recorded tracks that he produced for the two Jackson’s albums on PIR. I was not able to meet Michael or his brothers as they only recorded the vocal tracks with Joe. But Dexter did produce a Teddy song that was a big hit, “Love TKO”. That night was remarkable. We were booked at 309 to cut tracks and normally that would have been Dexter and the band playing three or four songs and going home and doing vocals another time altogether. However, that night was quite different. After we got the sounds on the band which I did relatively quickly that night, we cut the track and Dexter and a co-writer of the song Cecil Womack sent the band home. Teddy was there, and the band was hardly out of the room when Teddy and Dexter said to get a mic set up right away. My assistant did and almost immediately after getting a level on his vocal Teddy nailed it! In almost one complete take with little or any punching in at all Teddy finished the lead vocals. Cecil stepped out in the hall and banged on Kenny Gamble’s office door that was literally right next to the control room door. He dragged Kenny and Leon into the control room to listen and everyone was really excited. So much so that Kenny said, “Let’s do the backgrounds right now!” So, Teddy, Gamble, Dexter and Huff all went out on the mic and worked out the harmonies with Cecil inside with me checking the blend and we proceeded to roll the whole song out in no time. I don’t remember Huff doing vocals much at all, ever… but he did on that one. All this happened, from cutting the track, to adding Teddy’s vocals, to doing the final male background vocals in no more than four but most likely only three hours. This was almost unheard of in those days. Those three steps would have been on separate days with other songs being worked on during those sessions, but we nailed all that in one night and in just a few hours! Then everyone was really excited, and Gamble and Huff said, “Gallagher, give us copies, right now.” We did and in ten or so minutes that that took they were gone. Everyone was gone but Dexter, my assistant and me. Dexter just sat in the producer’s chair and said, “Play it again, Jim.” Then he would just sit there and listen to it from beginning to end and then say, “Play it again, Jim.” And then he did that again and again, and again. After maybe eight or more playbacks I started to ask, “Well Dexter, what are we going to do next?” He just turned and looked at me and said, “Play it again, Jim.” This went on so long I finally pleaded with him to let me make him a copy that we would play back over and over to save the wear and tear on the big 24 track tape. He wouldn’t. He simply kept saying, “Play it again, Jim.” After literally a few hours of that he finally said, “That’s it for tonight, give me a copy” and went home. He eventually did add horns but no strings I think, and he added the “Sweethearts”, but that was it except for the mix that was probably Joe or Peter Humphries, who worked a lot on this song as well. What a great song, what a great night, what a great memory for me.
Well, that was not the only work with Dexter I feel worth mentioning. Dexter got to produce and write for an artist with whom he was very excited to be working with, Jean Carn. On the first PIR album we did for her Dexter did three tracks, one of which was very meaningful for Dexter. It was a medley of “Revelation/Infant Eyes” each written respectively by Jean and Wayne Shorter. This song was originally on Jean’s album from early in her career and was inspirational to Dexter as a musician and a lover of Jazz. So, to get to do that song with Jean blew his mind. He also produced a song he did on his first album that he wrote with Vinnie Barrett (who often co-wrote hits with Bobby Eli) called “Together Once Again”. I’m proud to have recorded and mixed both versions of that song with Dexter. However maybe some of the greatest work Jean and Dexter did together was on her second PIR album which was simply called Jean Carn. On that album Dexter produced three songs, two of them are some of the most beautiful music I had the honor with which to be associated. Even though my name was not on this album (it is on the first and third albums on PIR), which I am almost sure was simply one of those administrative slips that sometimes happened, I seem to recall the overdub sessions for the strings for my two favorite songs by her, “Where Did You Ever Go?” and “You Are All I Need”. I remember because it was a rare event that the string players would tap their bows on the music stand as a signal of very high regard for the arrangement that they had just performed. I remember them doing that for Dexter a number of times. For those two songs and for one from one of his solo albums Voyager, “Time is the Teacher”.
I have to also mention the story behind “Where Did You Ever Go?” The three women who sang harmonies on almost every record ever made in Sigma, and in Philly in general, were called (even though they didn’t like the name) “The Sweethearts of Sigma”. They were Carla Benson, Evette Benton and Barbara Ingram. One of them, Barbara Ingram had a daughter named Denine. Tragically, Denine died at a very tender age of nine or less (I can’t recall). Bruce Hawes, who was very close to Barbara and Dexter and everyone in the families close to Barbara were devastated understandably. Dexter was moved to write the song “Where Did You Ever Go?” for Barbara. It is so beautiful and even more moving when aware of the back-story. Again, tragedy struck the family some years later when Barbara was struck down with a severe infection that was unable to be controlled and took her young life.
The “Sweethearts” were stone cold pros and every producer in Philly and beyond used them. We all loved them madly. They were remarkable on the microphone. They were on every Thom Bell hit including all the Spinners hits. They were on all of Kenny and Leon’s hits, all of Vince Montana’s Salsoul stuff. They were the Richie Family on the original record. Jacques had to go out and hire singers to be them on the road… They sang live behind Patti LaBelle for years not to mention most of her records. The list goes on and on. John Davis, Michael Henderson, even Duke Williams and the Extremes used them on one or two tracks. They even each had individual moments worth mentioning. Barbara was the woman who moaned so sensually on Major Harris’ “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”. Evette sings lead verses on Thom Bell’s Spinner’s hit “Games People Play”. Carla got to sing lead on the only MFSB song that wasn’t an instrumental; it was called “Tell Me Now” on the last MFSB album that Arthur Stoppe and I engineered Mysteries of the Universe. Carla also sang five songs for me on the three albums of songs I have written, co-written and produced. She will appear on my next album as well.