Trust In Love – James Gallagher

From the blog

Chapter 1 Part 2

Logo created by Arthur Stoppe

The day arrived for my interview at 212 N.12th Street (the
address of Sigma Sound Studios) and I interviewed with Harry. I definitely
felt a bit of an edge to my attitude and approach to the interview because
I was asking questions like “Is this a position with a future in it?” and
“Is this a job with which I can pursue a career?” I always thought that
this helped set me apart from the pack. I am sure Harry had an enormous
pile of resumes on his desk. I must have made some kind of impression as I
received a call a few days later and was told to report to work the next
week.

The morning I arrived Arthur Stoppe greeted me at the front door. He was an
assistant engineer who had been hired a few months before. Arthur went on
to be one of the finest engineers I’ve ever known. Today by chance, Arthur
is my neighbor and still remains a dear friend. Often, I have said that had
I ever been hired to produce a project and had the budget to hire an
engineer instead of recording it myself, the first person I would have
called was Arthur Stoppe. He opened the door and sent me in to see Harry
who proceeded to send me down the hall to Studio B where I was told to ask
for Carl. Dutifully, excited and a bit nervous, I walked into the control
room looked around and saw Carl Paruolo seated in front of a very large
tape recorder and he was aligning it. I introduced myself
and said I was here for my first day when I looked into the corner of the
room and there, larger than life, was B.B. King. I
imagine Carl saw that my mouth was hanging open and told me to sit next to
him to see what he was doing after casually introducing me to B. B.

The session was a vocal date with Dave Crawford producing. Dave produced
the first J. Giles Band album. He also made a subsequent B. B. King album
at Sigma called Friends as well as “Mighty High” by the Mighty
Clouds of Joy and the rest of that album entitled Kickin’ which
was started in May of 1974. I was lucky enough to work on all of those
records with Dave Crawford in the next few years. That first day B. B. sang
“Ode to Me” and “Who Are You?” (and maybe one other song) from the album To Know You is to Love You. After the session ended and Dave and
B.B. left I turned to Carl and said, “Oh my God, my first day on the job
and I get to work with B. B. King!” Carl said, “You should have been here a
few weeks ago when we cut the tracks; Stevie Wonder was here and played on
one.” I said to myself “Wow, have I lucked up!” Not a bad beginning.

Left to right: BB, Norman Harris, Roland Chambers and Bobby Eli.

There is a great story that relates to that first album of B. B. King’s
that was recorded at Sigma. Carl had mentioned on my first day how a few
weeks earlier they were cutting the tracks for that album and Stevie Wonder
was playing on one of them. Well, the track in question was the title track
of the album, “To Know You Is to Love You”. Ray Henderson, Stevie Wonder
and Street Wright wrote the song. I am not sure how or who put Dave
Crawford, Stevie and B. B. together on this, but I am sure glad that they
did. It was my favorite song on the album and has an interesting little
twist that you can hear right in the final version.

That session may have been the first time Stevie ever played in a
Philadelphia studio. It certainly was the first time he played with the
house band. Earl Young was the drummer and even though he,
Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker and the rest of the house band had been making
their own hits since the mid to late sixties, they were obviously impressed
that they were recording with two such giants.

Earl in fact, as the story goes, was playing along on the “good” take of
the song which was the one that was used on the album, and as it was a
rather long track for those days (8:37), he was, somewhere late in the
take, struck by the fact that there he was, playing with Stevie and B.B.
King.

He was so caught up in that realization that he forgot what was happening
in the room. It was deep into the song and they had chosen to do a
breakdown (when most of the band stops playing on a predetermined or called
out down beat and the drummer continues with the groove and plays for
usually 16 bars or such, depending on the feel of it). Then at a certain
point the drummer does a fill, a buildup or pick up occurs and it brings
the rest of the band back in. In the middle of the breakdown Earl was
struck with the “Oh My God! Is this really happening to me?” moment. He sat
there continuing to simply play on and on without giving a signal for
everyone to come back in. Stevie, although he could not see what was
happening, knew that Earl had spaced out somehow and began to wonder what
was happening. After a few more bars he realized Earl was not bringing the
band back in so he hit some staccato chords on his piano to tease Earl back
in. Earl did not pick up on it so Stevie did it again. After a third even
longer electric piano fill, Earl snapped back in and did his pick up and
the whole band came back in and finished the song.

After they finished, a lot of kidding at Earl’s expense took place. Dave
must have thought that it worked as it was and left it in exactly that way.
He of course had had the option to fade out before the breakdown (as was
done on the single version somewhere after three minutes) or edit a number
of bars out of the breakdown so that the “coaching” of Stevie’s piano would
not be in the record, but he chose to leave it all in. Most listeners I
imagine thought that that was how they wanted it and had planned it that
way. I can never listen to it now without thinking of Earl’s embarrassed
laughing about it when he told me the story.

About a year later I assisted on the next B. B. King album, Friends. But this time I was there for the basic tracks. Although
there was no Stevie Wonder, there was a moment I remember with great
pleasure. At some moment while the band was taking a break I sat down in a
chair next to B. B. King’s amp and looked down into his guitar case and
simply smiled at “Lucille”. Other guitarists put their instruments on
stands and some leaned them on chairs and amps etc. but “Lucille” was
always gently returned to her case. I would never dare to touch her, but I
sat and stared and oh, was she beautiful!

But the best memory I have of the great man was about 11 years later as I
walked into the Grammy’s Award show in Los Angeles and B.B. saw me from the
side of the lobby and called out to me and waved me over. This great man
remembered me, a mere assistant engineer that he had worked with over a
decade earlier, and he made a fuss over me. He made me feel
special. I introduced him to my date Debby Knetz (who had been a studio
manager at Sigma before I left) and he was remarkably gracious and kind to
us. That’s how wonderful a human being the late great B.B. King was. He
will always have a very warm spot in my heart.

Also, on my first day at Sigma, I was introduced to another Assistant
Engineer there at that time who would go on to be a very important person
in my life and my best friend, Michael Hutchinson. Michael and I shared a
lot of adventures in the time we were both in Philly, both on and off the
clock. He too went on to an outstanding career in the music business,
especially after he left Philly to be one of the first on the staff at
Sigma New York. In the 80’s Michael became one of, if not the,
most sought-after dance remix engineers in New York. There is a list so
long and impressive of artists whose work Michael remixed that it almost
deserves its own book. Madonna, Whitney Houston, the Village People, Huey
Lewis and the News and many, many more were remixed by Michael. He once
said to me that he was so often booked to mix that he feared that he was
forgetting how to record. I told him, “Don’t worry about
it. It’s like riding a bike, you never forget how…” Madonna helped him out
with that when she asked him to record, not just remix, “Crazy for You .” Of all the Platinum records, he had on his office walls
the one for that single was the most prominent. In his basement, he had
boxes and boxes of Gold records he never even hung. The office walls were
entirely covered only in Platinum.

Carl Paruolo taught me the ropes at Sigma on day one and beyond. He was a
kind and gentle man who had a remarkable career at Sigma. He was one of the
very first people that Joe Tarsia, the owner and chief engineer , had hired after he started the company. Carl trained all
the assistants who preceded me but not too long after I was established as
a competent assistant, I was relegated to the training role. For the
record, some of Carl’s clients/artists were Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker,
Ron Kersey and others who produced songs for Blue Magic, the Trammps, Eddie
Kendricks, The First Choice, Double Exposure and many, many more. My
favorite Carl story I will save for later when Sigma gets to rock!

Perhaps one of the most beloved and most respected people in the Sigma
scene was the studio manager Vivian Abbot. She was our mother hen, our
Earth Mother, and the almighty keeper of the book. The book was how she
staffed the sessions. I was hired at Sigma to bring the staff up to a level
where our new second room Studio 2 and the original upstairs room Studio 1
could have two sessions a day. For example, a typical day might have been
booked as follows: in Studio 1 from 10 AM to 6 PM, would be Joe Tarsia with
Michael Hutchinson assisting on recording tracks for Gamble and Huff,
followed by a 7 PM until 3 AM (or later) session with Carl Paruolo and Dirk
Devlin recording vocals for Norman Harris (maybe for the Trammps). In
Studio 2 in the morning slot would be Jay Mark and Arthur Stoppe recording
Strings and Horns for one of the staff producers from PIR (Philadelphia
International Records) like Bunny Sigler on his solo album or maybe an
O’Jays album and at night it might be Don Murray and I recording vocals on
the Stylistics album for Thom Bell.

The original room at Sigma was Studio 1 which was upstairs from where the
original studio in the 212 North 12th Street building existed.
That original studio was called RecoArts which had been owned by Amil
Corson. That downstairs space did not become a studio again until just
before I was hired. That was Studio 2. There was a third studio with a
small control room and very small studio space just behind the control room
of Studio 2 which was officially Studio 3. This small control room was
typically used to make reel-to-reel or cassette tape copies for clients
working in Studio 1 or Studio 2. Other than making tape copies it was very
seldom used for recording anyone except for the occasional voice over
called a Public Service Announcement (PSA). Many years later Dave Ivory
moved his business in there doing various styles of productions. The Sigma
studio located at 309 South Broad Street (home of the old Cameo/Parkway
studios) officially became Studio 4 but everyone at Sigma and the TSOP
family referred to it as 309 (i.e. Three-O-Nine).

Vivian booked the studio time with us, the musicians with the rhythm
section (through Norman Harris I believe), and the strings and horns
(through Don Renaldo) and juggled all that with booking Joe (when he was
available and for whom) and Harry (asking the very important question: “Who
was really paying for the session?”) and all of the rest of the staff.
Sometimes it was quite a task indeed. Most outside clients wanted Joe. As
did Kenny Gamble… and Gamble and Huff’s PIR was our primary client. The
rhythm section guys used to joke, “Who are we playing for today, Rubber
Check Records?” hence the filter of Harry Chipetz trying to make sure that
the client legitimately had the revenue behind it. PIR was contracted to
CBS/Columbia and they all knew those sessions were a sure-fire payday. But
sometimes the clients were associated with small independent labels or they
were funding it themselves and one never knew how “real” the pay day might
be.

Like everything in life there is a cycle. The ten years I spent at Sigma
were perhaps from the point at which the music scene in Philly was almost
at its peak until the work was drying up and it was time for changes in
Philly for the studio to survive. More on that later…

These early days for me were amazing times in Philadelphia for Sigma and
R&B music. People all over the world knew that Sigma was the place
where all these fantastic sounding and very successful records were being
made. We were lauded in all the professional trade magazines. People from
all over the world came to record and mix their music or to even just visit.


Sometimes the control room phone would ring, and it would be Vivian
calling. “We have some tourists from Japan out here. Can you give them the
‘Nickel’ tour?” “Sure”, I would say and come out and be gracious and take
them around the building and give them a quick peak. Sometimes clients
wanted no interruptions at all, and that studio was off limits. I would
call ahead and ask what was going on in the other studio and then usually
be able to bring them into the studio if the client was simply mixing. We
would peak through the window and sometimes the client would just keep
working and the tourists would hear a snatch of a song that was not yet
finished that they might hear some months later on the radio. Some clients
invited visitors in, and some would always stop the tapes from rolling when
a stranger arrived. The “Nickel” tour was the quick, once around, peak in
here, peak in there, now here’s the door, and “See ya, I got to go back to
work”. If the tour was for a potential client that was the “Dollar” tour
and of course we tried to get them into every room that we could and give
them considerably more time. I was often asked to give the tours whenever I
worked day shift.

Vivian once told me about one of the earliest sessions at Sigma. It was for
the album, Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia. She said that “Wicked
Pickett” was as crazy as his reputation advertised. After Gamble, Huff and
the MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) rhythm section (with the horns
playing live) finished cutting one of the songs (probably “Engine, Engine
Number Nine”) Pickett was so happy and cranked up by the playback that he
jumped up on the top of the console (there was a shelf above the meter
bridge on the original board in Studio 1 that could hold one) and danced to
the record, screaming and wailing like a madman. Almost every time I worked
in there before we changed that board, I pictured that image of him up
there and MFSB standing around under him digging it too. Vivian said it
might have been the loudest she ever experienced it. Her office was not far
outside the control room and she said her desk was rocking… Wow! That had
to be jumpin’!

Some of the earliest sessions that I worked were with a variety of acts. I
remember working 2 or 3 mix sessions on a record called “Be Thankful for
What You Got”. It had a very catchy hook: “Diamond in the back, sunroof
top, diggin’ the scene with a gangster lean woo oo oo”. It was for an
artist named William DeVaughn, whom I do not remember meeting, because the
vocals were already done when I was assigned to the mixing dates. I think
Carl was mixing it with the song’s producer John “The Monster” Davis. They
mixed it for hours and I remember thinking “Oh my God this is taking
forever at these rates! How can they afford to spend so much time on each
tiny little thing?” For example, I recall someone, Carl or Kenny maybe,
once sitting with the producer and listening to the song over and over and
switching between +2 dB and +4 dB at 10 kHz on the lead vocal track. To my
new and untrained ears there was almost no difference at all! But we sat
switching the EQ back and forth between those two settings for what seemed
forever to me. Of course, once I had been there long enough, I came to
understand just what they were listening to and how very important it
really was. Ironically John Davis mixed it again another day and then again
yet another day. He may have tried it with as many as four different
engineers before he got what he wanted. That was a hit that I did not spot.
As we worked on it, I did not think that it was going to be successful. But
a hit it was. In fact, I still hear it being played from time to time
today. I believe I worked on two or three mixes of that song until John
Davis and the record company were happy. But of course, I was new and
remember thinking how much money was being spent (our hourly rate was
significant) on what I thought was never going to be a hit. I was
professional enough not to voice such an opinion, but I was shocked when in
a month or two it was, yet another Sigma recorded song that was topping
charts in the USA, Great Britain and Japan! I want to say that it was never
well known in Philly just how big TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) was in
Great Britain and Japan. I was sometimes very off on calling the hits. I
worked with Thom Bell and Don Murray on two Spinner’s albums at once. As we
went through all those songs Don and I would talk about which ones we
thought were, as Joni Mitchel put it, “…which one was the next gold one in
the nest?” In fact, one song from the album Pick of the Litter was
to me just another album filler but never the single, yet it turned out to
be “Games People Play.” Shocked again!

“Be Thankful for What You Got” was an interesting track in that it was a
“Sound of Philadelphia” sounding record with and without some of the key
ingredients. It was recorded with the original TSOP rhythm section
consisting of Earl Young on drums, Ronnie Baker on Fender electric bass,
Norman Harris on a hollow body electric guitar, Bobby Eli on a solid body
electric guitar, Larry Washington on congas, Vince Montana Jr. on electric
vibraphone and John Davis, being the producer, played the Hammond B-3
organ. Interestingly it was shy of the almost ever-present strings and
horns!

Often there would be another guitar player, Roland Chambers who had been in
Kenny Gamble’s first band the Romeos. On some songs Gamble and Huff would
book T.J. Tindal to play electric guitar if they wanted a hard-edged rock
sound. For example, he played on “I Love Music” by the O’Jays. Other
“regulars” who were hired by different producers from time to time were
Lenny Pakula on organ, Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey on keyboards and a number of
different percussionists including “Doc” Gibbs and others.

What was not “normal” to a TSOP song was the fact that John Davis did not
use the strings and horns on “Be Thankful for What You Got”. I think that I
can count on one hand the few songs that were done in that time period that
did not use Don Renaldo’s strings and Sam Reed’s horns.
John Davis also had Norman Harris and Vince Montana both open up and solo
on the long out-chorus, something that anyone in the house band was more
than capable of doing but seldom were asked to do. The formula for a TSOP
hit was not about long guitar solos or jazzy vibe solos although
occasionally a producer would ask it of them. Horn and flute solos would
often come from members of the sections that were regularly hired to play
on all the records done there in those years. The formula was about a very
cohesive, well-arranged and wonderfully well-performed ensemble of great
musicians. Not since the Motown “Funk Brothers” had there been such a
well-oiled machine for cranking out hits as the musicians who would come to
be called MFSB.

The name was of course an acronym that Gamble cleaned up to be Mother
Father Sister Brother. However, it does not take much imagination to figure
out what MFSB really stood for. Often after cutting some fantastic piece of
music, that even they as individuals were impressed with as to how it came
out as a whole, they would exclaim, “What a M….. F…… S.. of a B…. of a
track that is!” Of this I can attest.

Some favorite memories of my earliest days were assisting at night on some
vocal and mixing sessions with Carl (and maybe Dirk) with the Trammps,
while I was still training. Jimmy Ellis (the lead vocalist) was most
memorable in that he was so vibrant and animated in front of the
microphone. Few were as fiery. He really brought it to life. I loved
working with Norman Harris and Ronnie Baker as the producers of those
dates. Both were very fun and very talented. I remember loving the tracks
and those songs that were on the first album recorded at Sigma, such as
“Love Epidemic”, “Zing…”, “Hold Back the Night” and “60 Minute Man”. An
album or two later, they went on to play on “Disco Inferno”, which Ron
“Have Mersey” Kersey co-produced. I worked one overdub session on that
track, but I do not think my name is in the credits for that album. Also,
it was fun to watch them produce the bass vocals with Earl Young who was
the drummer for MFSB and almost every record made at Sigma for the five or
more years of MFSB’s existence. Earl was more comfortable behind the drums
in the studio than in front of a microphone, but his enthusiasm and the
expert production skills of Norman and Ronnie made the vocals work. Earl
originally sang bass with the Volcanoes, but seldom got to sing except on
stage with the Trammps which he did from then until now! Earl, along with
Norman and Ronnie, were the core of the rhythm section that played on more
songs than it’s worth listing here. I suggest you look up any of the three
of them on a music database website like www.allmusic.com for instance and see
the unbelievable list.

Carl Paruolo and Dirk Devlin were the engineers that almost exclusively
recorded and mixed for Norman and the various other musicians and producers
with which he collaborated. That list is substantial as well; a few worth
mentioning are Al Felder, Ronnie Tyson (who later became and still is a
member of The Temptations), Tom Moulton the man who invented the dance
remix, T. G. Conway, Bruce Gray and many more. Carl and Dirk knew how great
a thing it was to have Norman and everyone else we worked with as clients
but also longed at a point to do some other kinds of work (like Rock and
Roll) and later they did.

Tom Moulton, Joe Tarsia and Darrell Hall.

I was originally hired by Harry to work the night shift and that I did for
the better part of my time at Sigma. We very seldom ever had to work
weekends but the first exception to that rule was a particularly exciting
day for me. Gamble had been asked to bring MFSB and a few of his acts
(Billy Paul, The Three Degrees and perhaps the O’Jays and Dee Dee Sharp
Gamble) to Washington DC to perform at the National Black Music Caucus (I
believe that was the name of the organization/event, I had trouble finding
a record of the concert) and he agreed to do it. Since the advent of the
16-track (maybe even the 8-track multi-track machine at Sigma) it was rare
for the entire house band, which included the rhythm section (drums, bass,
guitars, keyboards, vibes and percussion) and the strings and
horns, to perform together in the same room at the same time. We almost
always overdubbed the strings and horns at separate sessions after the
vocals were recorded also at a separate time. The occasional exception was
made for some Billy Paul tracks as Billy preferred it like the old days,
but that was the rare exception. That meant that the entire MFSB group had
never performed most of those songs together. So, a rehearsal was needed
before they could step in front of a live audience.

Hence for the Saturday “session”, Arthur Stoppe and I were scheduled to
come in, open the building and set up the main upstairs Studio 1 with
chairs and music stands and all the instruments for them to rehearse the
few songs that they were going to do. Now that was all we needed to do but
I, having been on staff for about maybe a month or two, wanted an
opportunity to fly the ship myself. Arthur was not as enthused but none the
less helped me set up all the microphones as well. We got out a piece of
tape and as they rehearsed, we were able to roll tape. Now the musicians
did not know we were recording and therefore did not always play directly
into the mics as they knew it was only to be a rehearsal session. Late in
the rehearsal with Bobby Martin conducting and Ron Kersey as one of the
keyboard players Leon Huff showed up and jumped in on the Hohner Clavinet
as the band was playing “TSOP”, which was the Soul Train TV theme song that
won a Grammy that year for Best Pop Instrumental. I happened to have
recorded that particular run down and was much excited to have captured
that moment when there they were all in the same room, at the same time,
playing what was at the time a #1 hit on the radio all over the USA (and
the world) and they were jamming with it as only they could! I actually
have a copy of it but it’s somewhere in a mountain of tapes that I have
from my time in the business. I will never forget how much fun they seemed
to be having even though they were only rehearsing. I played it back as the
band was leaving and guys from the horn section said, “We didn’t know you
were recording, or we would have played into the mics!” Hence it was far
from a perfect recording, also because the amps were a lot louder than they
would be normally and therefore they and the drums got into the string mics
more than they usually would on a real “live” session. These sessions did
happen on a few rare occasions. Besides Billy Paul, the Thad Jones/Mel
Lewis as well as the Monk Montgomery sessions were of course live jazz
sessions. This made them particularly difficult to do in the relatively
small spaces in all three studios and the low ceilings everywhere too.

But the story does not end there. After Huff, Gamble and Martin were
content that MFSB was ready for their show they let us all go home and
after Arthur and I put away all the gear and were essentially done for the
day, he and I signed off the clock and Arthur left. But I stayed. I was so
excited to have recorded this unique version of “TSOP” that I wanted to mix
it. I also had been on the job long enough to now know the drill, how to
set it all up and use all (if not at least most of) the gear. I told Arthur
I was going to stay and run off a rough mix for myself. He was fine with
that and did not wish to stay so off he went. I took the tape downstairs to
Studio 2 where I had done more sessions than upstairs, so it was kind of my
favorite room (or at least I was more comfortable in there anyway).

So, there I was at the board in Studio 2 mixing the version of “TSOP” that
I had only just recorded an hour or two before, enjoying myself immensely
but feeling a little like the kid with his hand in the cookie jar and what
happens … but the rear door of the control room opens and who walks in but
Jay Mark and my boss, whom I did not know well yet and in fact had not even
assisted yet, Joe Tarsia. Well, the thoughts that went through my mind
were: “Oh my God, I am so busted! I am about to be fired
from the coolest job in the world!” and of course the naturally occurring
thought that follows, “What am I gonna do now?
accompanied of course by, “My wife is gonna kill me!” and the ever popular
“How will I feed my family?” I reached out to hit stop on the tape recorder
and sat frozen in terror. Joe very quickly said, “No, let it play”. So, I
let it play and they stood there behind me and listened to a minute or so
of the track and kept looking back and forth between each other and back at
me. Then Joe reached over, turned down the monitors and said, “Try this”
and he leaned over the console and turned up some 1 kHz on my bass drum,
listened for a few seconds and looked back at me for a reaction and I said,
“Wow that is so much better” or something like that. He simply smiled at me
and then at Jay and they walked out the front of the control room and
headed for his office. I was in shock. I thought, “Oh my God, I am not
fired! I am working in the coolest place on earth!” My boss had just
encouraged me to learn and be more than I was at that time. I had been an
Assistant Engineer for maybe a month or two. I was practicing First
engineering. Not only had he not fired me, but also, he had encouraged me
to learn how to do it well.

Jay, at some point, also mentioned to me a roll of tape stored in a closet
in the building. It contained two songs that Jay Mark had
produced, and he did most of the playing on the tunes as well. They were
“Black Denim” a song he co-wrote with a friend who was in a band that was
later produced and recorded at Sigma and an acapella version (all tracks
performed by Jay including all drum parts mimicked by his mouth) of Paul
McCartney’s “Why Don’t We Do It in The Road?” Every assistant at Sigma
mixed Jay’s tracks and loved them and learned from them.

 

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