Two at once…
Thom and the “C” bus
WMMR Radio Concerts
Don Murray and I were assigned to record a project with Thom Bell. It was to be the next Spinners album but at that time we were recording two albums at the same time. We did a double amount of everything. When we started cutting tracks instead of doing it for a week and a half, we did it for two to three weeks and this went on with the whole process. We continued by doing all the lead vocals and instead of taking a week, we took about two weeks. We did the background singers the same way taking twice as much time, doing twice the normal number of songs. When it came to the orchestra sessions, those sessions went on again for twice the amount of time because we were recording the New and Improved album and the Pick of the Litter album at the same time.
During those sessions, there were a number of songs that stuck out in my mind. We almost always had a sense of what songs would end up as the very successful singles. Oddly there was one song in this bunch that as we worked on it, I thought “Oh well, this one is another album filler, not a single”. However, as is sometimes the case, it is hard to “see the forest for the trees”. The first single of course was obvious, it was “Then Came You” which was the very first song we did for the album and it was totally done before we started all the rest. The song that I failed to recognize was “Games People Play”. I did not think of it as a single but was happy when it was the big seller that it was. I remember Jack Faith working very closely with Thom on the woodwind arrangement particularly in the introduction. I also thought the solo lines sung by Pervis Jackson and Evette Benton made the song unique… but never the single… boy was I off on that one!
One particular song in the project was called “Sadie” and after the vocals were done (which is another story unto itself coming up next), we all were so moved by the great lyrics that Don Murray and I thought “Oh my God, this is such a great song. I cannot wait to hear the kind of string arrangement that Thom Bell will write for this particular song.” We thought it would be a particularly wonderful one. So as the string sessions moved along “Sadie” never came up. When we eventually got to record horns on the last session, he finally asked us to put up “Sadie”, but it was only to add some trombones and maybe some French horns, but horns were the only thing he added. We were astonished that there were no strings for this. Instead, he talked to Don Murray about a pedal steel guitar. Don knew a pedal steel player, contacted him, and connected him to Thom and the next thing we knew one evening this young man named Tom Kennery came in with his pedal steel. Thom was fascinated with the instrument that he talked a long time with the man as to how it was played and the ways in which it functioned. It was very interesting however what was really fascinating about the session was that Thom had the pedal steel player play the parts that probably normally would have been performed by the strings. So, no violins, no violas, no cellos. Only a pedal steel, which of course added a country flavor to the track, and this worked very well with the song. When we mixed the song, we added echo to the pedal steel just like it was the string section and layered it in more in the back. It is beautiful. It worked extremely well, and I think it’s another fine example of the genius of Tom Bell. I never would’ve thought of such a way to approach that song. I would’ve imagined he was going to use strings, which of course he wrote as well as anyone on earth!
The vocal session for “Sadie” was very special. Present were the lead singer, the late great Philippe Wynne, Thom Bell the producer, Don Murray First Engineer, me as Assistant Engineer, Linda Creed, cowriter with Thom Bell on many songs and the writers of the song Joseph B Jefferson and Charles “CBS” Simmons. After doing one or two other songs, Thom said, “Put up ‘Sadie’”. We put up “Sadie” and Philippe said, “Oh boy”. He knew he was going to become very emotional. The song is about the matriarch who often holds together the family and how after she is gone, she is greatly missed and greatly beloved. The song wonderfully reflects that. Philippe’s mother had passed away and I always thought that Charlie Simmons, who probably primarily wrote the song, had also lost his mother too. It turns out I was wrong about that, but I found out years later, so there I was, sitting and thinking that these two men were collaborating in that regard: Charlie’s writing and Philippe’s singing about the lost beloved mothers.
Philippe sang the song from beginning to end with no stopping him. No punching in is rare. In recording studios, usually the producers are starting and stopping and starting and stopping again and again. Doing a line or two over and over again until the producer is satisfied. In this case he sang the song from beginning to end, non-stop. Emotions ran so extremely high that after the first performance Philippe came into the control room from the studio and many of us were choked up. Tears ran from Philippe’s eyes and Thom said, “Let’s listen”. We listened to that performance from beginning to end. Tom said, “That was great now go out there and do it again”. Philippe took a deep breath and said okay and went out and performed the second take from beginning to end all the way out to past where the final version fades. After that performance when he returned to the control room everyone who was there was in tears. Everyone: Philippe, Linda, Don everyone. Even Thom (even though Thom would most likely not admit to it if you asked him) and of course Charlie. Everyone in the room was weeping and then Tom Bell said, “That was great but now go out there and give me another one”. Before he went out to sing the third performance, he said something to Thom to the effect of, “I don’t know why I come here to Philly to have you break my heart”. After the third time, we were all crying again.
When he finished, we listened to all three performances in reverse order. At the end of listening to the three performances, Thom said, “Number two is it, that’s the one!” Then he said to me, “You can erase the others.” I said I could never erase any of them and then he looked at me kind of angrily and said something like, “Who’s producing here?” Every time we recorded one of these performances, we put it on a separate track, and we muted the previous one. So, there were now in existence on the multi-track tape all three performances, but Thom said to use number two and you can erase the rest now. Because there were not any of string tracks recorded later, we didn’t need to erase them. Because I was afraid that later with strings and horns, they might get erased, that night after everyone lef,t I made a copy for myself of all three of his performances. That tape still exists in my archives. Number two is the one that’s on the record and number two is probably the best but my God, and sorry Thom, I just couldn’t bring myself to actually erase them. They each were a fantastic performance. I’ll never forget us all sitting here with tears running down our faces knowing what a wonderful song we had created, what a great song Charlie and Joe had written, what a great performance Philippe had given us and that we had made something that was going to be remembered for a long, long time. The song is so great that even James Taylor has covered it! Recently too.
One other note about “Sadie” was when the background singers Carla, Barbara and Evette sang on it they were blown away! I remember them having trouble not crying as they did their parts and going out of their way to tell Thom how special a song it was.
Linda Creed was a very special person. She was as beautiful as she was talented. Her talent as a lyricist is unparalleled. Look at the short list: “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “I’m Stone in Love with You,” “Ghetto Child,” “I’m Coming Home,” “Living a Little, Laughing a Little,” and “The Rubberband Man.” Not to mention “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” her first ever collaboration with Thom. But my personal favorite is “You Make Me Feel Brand New” which I helped mix. I was lucky enough to record an album she produced for Eloise Laws. She and her best friend Diane Bernstein and I would hang out in the control room as we worked, and I must say it was a real treat to be surrounded by so many very beautiful women while at work. It was almost always all men in the studio, and I can remember even sending my assistant out to get stuff to remove the only other male from the room.
Linda Creed’s beauty was perhaps only exceeded by her abilities as a lyricist. My God, her words have lived on in a number of songs and will live on for decades to come, perhaps even as long as people sing in the English language. After parting ways with Thom Bell, she went off to write with other composers and her words always stood out regardless of the melody to which she wrote them. One of the most remarkable ones that she wrote post Thom Bell was a song called “The Greatest Love of All” that she wrote with Michael Masser which was recorded for the film The Bodyguard by Whitney Houston. It is particularly poignant because she was in the last years of her life struggling with breast cancer that occurred in her at a very young age. Linda had lost her breasts to a double mastectomy and one of the lyrics in the verse of that song is, “No matter what they take from me they cannot take my dignity because the greatest love of all…” She just was a remarkable lyricist and a beautiful, wonderful person. She died when I was living in California and I unfortunately was not able to return for her funeral, which I regret. However, working with both she and Thom on all the many Spinners’ songs that we did work on together was an education for both Linda and me in terms of production. Linda went on to produce the Eloise Laws project mentioned earlier and I tucked away in my memory many of the tricks and techniques that Thom used and kept them to use and teach about in the years to come.
While living in Philly and producing the first string of five to ten hits, Thom Bell did not own a car, in fact he didn’t even know how to drive a car because he had been raised in Philadelphia and got around on public transportation most of his life. After some five to ten number one hit records and probably millions of dollars in the bank, plus the early successes of the Philadelphia International Records of which Thom was a partial investor (probably one third owner) I would presume that he could adopt any lifestyle he wished. Despite that he very un-presumptuously did not adopt the trappings that many of the very successful people in the music had. For example, no big fancy car, in fact no car at all, no limos, no entourage, no followings of hangers-on and no flashy clothes. That was just not Thom Bell. In fact, after one session with Thom at 309 Studios he asked for a tape copy and for me to and bring it to his office. After making the copy I walked over to his office gave it to him and went back to finishing up the session. I left the studio a short time later and was leaving for the day. I went down the elevator and stepped out onto Broad Street at Spruce Street where the building was located. I happened to see standing at the corner Thom Bell… standing and waiting for the “C” bus. The route “C” bus ran from downtown Broad Street through Philadelphia out towards Belmont Avenue where Thom lived. This is how Thom Bell went home from work most days. Surely a millionaire by then if not a multi-millionaire and Thom never had a car, didn’t use a limo and didn’t pay for a taxi. I saw with my own eyes Tom Bell, board the “C” bus and ride away. I found that to be very, very surprising. A few years later Thom Bell moved to the Seattle/Tacoma area in Washington State. Once he moved out to an almost rural setting he did have to learn to drive. He got himself a four-wheel drive vehicle and told me he loved it. Thom always talked a lot about travel however even during the time that Thom did not drive, Thom apparently did a lot of flying because he was in the “million-mile club.” So, he apparently flew out to the West Coast and around the country and the world a lot. Thom is a very different kind of person and I am happy to still know him, to occasionally talk to him and am proud to call him my friend.
Sigma was very busy for many years and during those years we had the great pleasure of being the home of “live” radio broadcasts of many popular bands and artists. These shows were recorded as live concerts in front of a small audience which got access from WMMR via call-ins, etc. Billy Joel’s was one that he often has referred to as a real big help in kicking off his career. He only ever performs “Captain Jack” here in Philly as it was played a lot here and picked up around the country leading to the trajectory of his career from a lull after the release of his first album to the buzz that then proceeded his second album which skyrocketed him to eventual super stardom. Some other notable ones were Bonnie Raitt, John Cougar (Melloncamp), New Orleans, America, Leo Kottke, April Wine (who ended their show with a fabulous version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”) and many more.
One night after a string and horn date at 309, Don Murray and I came back to 12th Street to turn in the paperwork and see what the schedule was for the upcoming week and there was a concert in progress, so we slipped into the control room of Studio 2 by the back door to find ourselves in the midst of a nightmare for Jay Mark. When David Bowie booked Sigma for the Young Americans album, he blocked out nights in Studio 1 for a month or more. Apparently, no one noticed or thought that he would use it all and did not notice that the upcoming WMMR concert was double booked in there. As we got there the concert was moved downstairs to the considerably smaller Studio 2. This was a multi phased problem. First of all, the lucky winners of the “seats” at the live show were going to have to sit on the floor right in front of the band squished in so much that I don’t think they all could fit and a good number were turned away and never got in. Next, the band booked for the concert was Robin Trower of Procol Harum fame. Fellow Englishmen who were not at all happy to have been pushed out to a smaller, less prestigious space so Robin and his road manager and his producer were all pissed off, big time. Robin proceeded to proclaim and enact the policy that “…this is just another gig on the tour, and I will just do my usual show.” That meant that he and the bass player were cranking their amps up as if they were in a stadium not a smallish recording studio. Hence, the drums were saturated sonically by the over amplification and the vocal could barely be controlled at all. Feedback and the inability for Robin to hear himself sing was virtually impossible to remedy and the producer kept making Jay change microphones throughout sound check. When we got there, while the show was live on air and being recorded, the mic was an RCA-77DX, which is a great mic for a lot of uses (I loved it on trumpets for its warmth) but it was a mic designed and first brought into service back in the early days of sound (in 1954), so it was not helping things out. It was a multi-directional mic but in its unidirectional setting it was nowhere as narrow as a half dozen other mics that one could pick for the job. Screaming into one of Jay’s ears was the road manager complaining and shouting things for Jay to do that were almost impossible to change or deal with at that time as we were literally live on air! And screaming into Jay’s other ear was Matthew Fisher the producer of Robin Trower’s album Bridge of Sighs that they were touring to promote, also demanding that Jay fix or change things that were virtually impossible to do while they were live. Well, we stood there for a minute or two taking this all in and being overwhelmed by the very high level of tension and anxiety and then it got worse. Joe Tarsia and Harry Chipetz were down the hall listening on a radio to the live broadcast which travelled across town from Sigma to the radio station via two Bell telephone lines rented just for these live concert occasions, one for stereo-left and one for stereo-right. Joe listening in the office realized one of those lines was “out of phase” with the other. This meant that a lot of the information being heard over the air was being cancelled out, especially the bass. Since it was a rock trio (with bass, drums, one guitar and a vocal) that was really bad. That just would not do. So, as we were standing there, Joe suddenly walked into the control room stepped up to the patch bay on the right-side of the console, bent over, identified the cables that were connecting the final output of the board to the Bell lines out of the building, grabbed two cables, yanked them out disconnecting one side of the mix for a second and then re-plugged them into a phase reversal multiple that was always wired there in the patch bay. This of course fixed the problem at the station end of the broadcast now putting the broadcast back into phase. Then without ever having said a word, Joe simply left and walked back to Harry’s office. From the moment he had walked in the door to the moment he walked out, I think no one spoke, screamed or even breathed. But when Joe walked out of the Control Room the screaming into both of Jay’s ears was instantly doubled! Don and I looked at each other and without a word turned to the back door of the control room and walked out and stopped halfway down the stairs to where the Technical Services Department was housed. We could hear the broadcast coming over a radio down there, so we stayed there, sat on the steps and did something we almost never did at Sigma (unless it was very late and no one but employees were in the building), we got stoned. He happened to have a joint with him. I think it was the only time he and I ever did it at work … and remember I did maybe five Spinners albums with him over four or more years. I paid my mortgage and put food on the table with my job ay Sigma, I did not get high on the job or any such behavior by me (which I cut out altogether in the mid-80s). Any “fun-time” was always off the clock and only in my home life. Maybe after work occasionally … but never at work while working.
Vince Warsavage, the editor for this book, sent me this story regarding one of the WMMR concerts that he supported as an Assistant Engineer:
A memorable moment for me and Frank Lauria (also an Assistant Engineer) was when Robert Fripp (of King Crimson fame) performed. He had just played a live one-man performance of his “Frippertronics” show at Plastic Fantastic Records in Bryn Mawr maybe a night or two before he showed up at Sigma, where he was going to perform the same show. But each show can be totally different since Fripp would typically improvise
almost everything that he played when performing it. This Sigma performance was at the time that his “Exposure” album was out, which has “Frippertronics” sprinkled all over it. (In my humble opinion, the entire album is fantastic! Some of my favorite songs (and titles) from the album are: “You Burn Me Up I’m a Cigarette” and “I May Not Have Had Enough of Me but I’ve Had Enough of You!” Check out Wikipedia for more info on Robert Fripp’s “Exposure” album and listen to it if you can (on YouTube?). Both Daryl Hall and Peter Gabriel sing on that album and those songs are also fabulous!)
Anyway, Peter Humphries’ younger brother, Dave (who had his own power trio rock band in which I played bass guitar) recently told me that he was there for the show (but since I didn’t look at the audience much, I never saw him there) and he said that he received a free copy of the “Exposure” album. I don’t remember the free album probably because I already owned a copy of it before that WMMR concert, so I probably didn’t take the free one.) But when Fripp walked into Sigma and found out that the audience had won their seats in a lottery he didn’t even want to play. He thought that if anyone wanted to come to see him perform then they should have been allowed to come. Unfortunately, Studio 1 was only so big so you couldn’t fit more than 100 people in there comfortably and more importantly, safely. Someone from WMMR (and/or Sigma) convinced him to play the concert. (Maybe there were legal consequences if he didn’t play? I wouldn’t know…) Eventually, after setting up his amp and his two Revox Tape Decks on a table to his right, Fripp came into the Control Room and told us that he only wanted the second 45-minute set recorded. He played his first set, then he gave a little speech about “If this isn’t your cup of tea, he would not be offended if you left now!” He must have realized by doing these Frippertronics shows that his audiences were probably expecting King Crimson material. Let’s just say that Frippertronics is nothing like King Crimson!
Then we recorded his second set. When he came into the Control Room of Studio 1 and heard the playback of his second set, it sounded perfectly fine but, he wanted to give us a copy of the gig that he had just played at Plastic Fantastic because he did NOT like his second set performance that we just recorded. The Sigma engineer left the Control Room to call WMMR to find out if swapping his Plastic Fantastic performance in place of the Sigma performance was acceptable to WMMR. Once the Sigma engineer was out of the room, Fripp started discussing his artistic right to NOT let anyone hear ANY of his performances including that Sigma performance but he was willing to substitute his Plastic Fantastic performance for it, which he considered to be much better, and he wanted to take the Sigma performance with him. I was standing near the door that led into Vivian’s office area. Frank Lauria, who was standing near the street window side of the Control Room, started pushing the “Shouldn’t you let the audience hear the performance and let them make up their own minds if they like it or not?” button. After a minute or two of this “artistic control / artistic rights” philosophical discussion (with Fripp and Frank both not budging an inch) Fripp finally said, “I know how to settle this!” He stood up and took the top flange off the quarter inch master stereo tape that was still sitting on the ATR-100 machine, picked up the exposed (i.e. unprotected) quarter inch tape reel itself, picked up a razor blade that was sitting near the edit block and proceeded to slice the master tape from the outer edge all the way to the hub at the inner edge. He let all that tape fall to the floor and then walked out. I opened the office door where the engineer was still talking with WMMR and I said, “Problem solved. Fripp cut the 2-track into a million pieces!” Needless to say… all that tape went straight into the trash can! Here are some shots of Sigma staff by Vince Warsavage the editor of this book and a great assistant at Sigma.
Pictured above L to R: Two shots of the new Studio 1 during the construction phase (Studio / Control Room); Jack Dyke (on right) working with a Sphere technician on the new Sphere console for Studio 1. Second row: Dirk Devlin at the console in Studio 2 during a SMPTE-synced 48-track mix date with Gene McFadden (standing on right, leaning in over the console) and a friend or relative of Gene’s sitting next to Dirk; me in black and white at the console in the new Studio 1, which was taken by Vince during the MYX Project that we both worked on; Kenny Present after he left Sigma Sound and was working at another studio (Vince visited him there).