“Take Me I’m Yours” / In the Night-Time / Wide Receiver
Many great artists came and went through the halls of Sigma in the 10 years that I was there. One of the finest spirits I was lucky enough to know was Grover Washington Jr. Grover was enjoying the success of all the great things his hard work had earned him but in particular the big hit “Just the Two of Us”. Although that recording was done in NYC, I think, its payoff allowed Grover the freedom to work on his next productions closer to his Germantown home here in Philly by recording at Sigma. When he first started there my scheduling did not permit me to be able to work with him. By this time Peter Humphreys had very well learned the ropes and was doing First Engineering. Peter was lucky enough to get the project of recording a Philly based jazz trio called Pieces of a Dream. They were friends who had met at Temple University and had been discovered by Grover.
I would, on breaks from sessions downstairs in Studio 2, pop upstairs into Studio 1 to see Grover and the three guys making their debut recording. I was as happy for them as I was jealous of Peter that he got to do it! I remember many times Grover similarly taking time to stop down to Studio 2 just to say hello. I was always impressed that he was there to say hi to the Sigma staff without knowing with whom they might be working. I also remember having at some point being invited to his Germantown home where I met his family. This was rare for me.
As much as I liked and enjoyed the company of all the clients, I had over the years at Sigma I can count the times that I was invited to personal gatherings by any of them maybe on one hand. As much as it was, one world was work and the other was family… and the two did not often overlap. I think it was that I spend eight to twelve (or more) hours a day in the studio with these people, when we went home, we wanted to be with our family and our friends from outside the music world. I believe that was the way it was with a lot of the clients and the staff.
I already related the story of the song I wrote and produced as a tribute to this great man, “Angel with A Broken Wing”. The best part of it always for me was the fact of how freely everyone involved gave of themselves for their love of Grover. Anyone who ever had the great fortune to know him, I am sure felt that way.
At some point, just as I became a First Engineer Michael Henderson came to Philly to record. He had had a big hit with “Starship” which he sang and wrote and may have even really produced but the record appeared on a Norman Conners album. Michael was able to follow that song up with two solo albums that he had done in Detroit and/or Chicago, I think. But as he started In the Night-Time in Detroit, he was dissatisfied with the sound he was getting on the basic tracks he cut there. I am not sure if he had come to Philly before that for a mix or not, but he may have mixed something with Jay Mark and was now coming to do all the rest of this next album in Philly. He worked with almost everyone on the staff except Joe, as Joe was too busy with Kenny and Leon. After a session or two with me he informed Vivian that he wanted to work with me for the rest of the record.
That left me the difficult task of polishing the tracks that were so badly recorded in other studios. It wasn’t like all the rhythm tracks were cut in the same studio by the same engineer badly, they were cut badly in different studios badly in different ways in the three or more studios he tried while trying to find a good one. Now it was up to me to mix that album as well as I could, using my best tricks and mixing skills to improve each track so that they sounded as best they could and sounded as if they all belonged together on the same record. Trust me… that was not easy. I would have to constantly reference the last song I had mixed to try as best I could to get them sounding somewhat alike. After a week or more of mixing with Rocky Schnarrs assisting me through it (also contributing a cool idea here and there) we finished it and were very proud. One of Rocky’s ideas was to use a previously discarded track that popped in at the end of different song that was recorded over it. We, not realizing just how that had happened, thought that he had meant to do it. When we were about to mix it we asked him why he never went past the point where the old song popped in. He said that he wasn’t going to use it and Rocky and I insisted that he did. He said, “Really? Ok but I have to change the bass line, so it works better.” He did, and the song went on the album with the weird second half of the song as Rocky and I heard it. The song was “Happy” and just before four minutes into the song, the change happens. The drums do not miss a beat but suddenly there are two keyboards that were not in the song up until then. And of course, Michael added a vocal near the end exclaiming that this was indeed, “…some freaky sh*t!” This is Rocky and I, photo by Arthur Stoppe.
As is the practice, we assembled the album and made a safety copy before Michael took all the tapes, except the safety copy, and went back to New York and delivered the masters to the label. Now that was not the usual procedure in Philly as we almost always got to oversee the mastering of our project through Frankford/Wayne, later called Masterworks. This was not the case for In the Night-Time. I went on to my next project and Michael went out on the road as most artists do to promote the next record and make their living. Then the record came out a month or two later. As I was not in the loop with the mastering and was not in touch with Michael I had to go out and buy it in order to see how it sounded. So, I did. I took it to the control room in which I mixed it, opened it dropped the needle on the disc and proceeded to be depressed for about two weeks or so. I was so disappointed because the album that I had so meticulously worked on making sound great had no real high frequency on it! It was dull. It was as if someone had intentionally turned down the highs and put it out on the market with my name on it as the Chief Engineer. I was devastated. I picked myself up and moved on. The good news was that despite the lack of highs the title track and the first single from the album “Take Me I’m Yours” were both hits! Thank God that the delivery medium at that time was AM radio and even without high highs the mix sounded all right and the record sold.
Well, when I finished mixing the album before Michael left Philly, I asked him for one favor. I said, “If we are going to do more work together, (and I was pretty sure we would as we were very compatible, had a lot of fun and enjoyed working together) please come here and record all the tracks from the beginning so I can show you how great a sound we can get here.” With the success of that album, he had the permission of the label to do just that. A year or so later he was back with some of the guys from his band to cut tracks and do his next album. That was Do It All.
Somewhere in the middle of cutting the vocals we were visited one night by a bevy of “suits”. These were important people from the label. They were in very fancy clothes and had ridden down from NYC in a limo, etc. Michael was using part of the time we had booked for his vocals that night for a playback session for the “suits.” Once I realized that these were the record company executives responsible for that last record, I asked Rocky to pull the safety copy and I had a copy of the disc there that night. After listening to songs from the new record I cued up “Take Me I’m Yours” on the tape and then switched over to the record player. Before I played it, I said I had something else I wanted them to hear. They said OK and I played the vinyl and the safety at the same time. They all smiled and said yeah and that they were very happy about how well it had done. Then I said, “Listen to this” and switched back and forth between the record and the master tape. Their faces dropped. They were shocked. They wanted to know what had happened. At that point, I exploded and unleashed a flood of heated remarks filled with ever so slightly veiled accusations of their incompetence. I went through the steps of what a team at that level should do. Have discs cut and sent to the producer(s), artist AND the Chief Engineer whose business it is to make sure it is right and the record executives maybe once the audio pros have determined that all is as it should be. Now I freaked Michael out completely. These men were in a sense his bosses, but they weren’t mine. I schooled them on how one properly masters a record. If nothing else, they, most likely, never dropped the ball again.
I always thought that an accident occurred in the mastering process and a novice perhaps accidentally while handling the soft acetates just before they were to be duplicated in the many step process got some dust or dirt spilled on them. The novice, not being aware that it would wipe away all the highs took a cloth and wiped off the discs. The proper way to clean them would have been with compressed air. I’ll never really know what happened.
Where the “suits” really messed up is once the first test pressing from the factory came across his desk, he should have listened to it from beginning to end, to make sure it did not skip, and that the disc was made properly in that an automatic turntable dropped the needle onto the disc in the proper place, and that IT SOUNDED RIGHT!!!! Instead, I can imagine it coming back to that desk with no copy for the engineers, no copy to the artist, and no copy to the producer(s) who in this case was the artist. So, there was no safety net. I am sure the “suit” simply tossed it to the side without ever hearing it and approved it to be mass-produced. It was never really heard as the tape was supposed to sound until it was re-released on CD.
I must say I did enjoy my moment reading them the riot act. However, no good deed goes unpunished, as we all know. So, when we finished Do It All, and it was time to master it, the label was very interested and allowed us to have a disc cut in Philly and sent to the label and they, of course, now knowing all that they did about mastering, had it mastered in NYC too. They were to compare the two and of course they went with the mastering they oversaw in NY. Yes, that was a direct shot back at me but at least all the highs were there!
I was happy to work on two more albums with Michael at Sigma over the next few years: Wide Receiver and Slingshot. Wide Receiver was to bring about a “first time ever” moment for me. As we set up to cut the title track Michael brought out a small cheap Casio keyboard. He turned it on and played back a programmed beat that was part of the features of this instrument. It had a few pre-programmed beats; Waltz, Bossa Nova, Salsa and Rock and Roll. He hit the button that issued the Rock and Roll 4/4 time and asked me, “Can you record that?” I said, “Of course, but why would I? You come here just so I can get you a great drum sound on REAL drums!” He said to just do it, so I recorded the cheesy sounding drumbeat on one track of our 24-track recorder for eight or nine minutes (it was still disco after all). I rewound the tape and he said, “Now crank that up into our earphones as we cut this track.” It was the first time I ever saw anyone use a “click track!” Later as MIDI programming became a much-used tool in music production click tracks were commonplace. In fact, all music that was produced using MIDI typically starts with a click.
The cheesy drum track was still there on the 24-track recorder when we mixed it, so I processed it heavily and mixed it in from time to time in the seven minute or so long version of the song. It worked with the crazy song that it was.
I worked years later in Los Angeles with Michael Henderson again on Toy Soldiers and another project. He had a strange habit. At that time, when I was a freelancer, I did my own bills. So, after a week of sessions, I would mail a bill. As we went on, the checks would eventually come but the last session was not included. So, he owed me maybe $1000 or so and months went by despite messages, etc. No check. Then he would call to book me again and I would say when I get that last check. It would come, and we would work again. But after the last set of sessions we ever did, I was again short one session. Michael, you still owe me one! Hmmm… let’s see, $1000 with compounded interest since 1985… Hmmm. Just kidding Michael!
Really, I had a great time making records with Michael. In fact, I want to mention a few other things we did in the studio of which I am very proud. On Do It All I recorded an acoustic guitar on “Wait Until the Rain” that I got to record in stereo. This was rare, first that there was an acoustic on an R&B track, and that it was allotted two tracks and survived as a stereo recording on the 24-track even though we added strings, horns, background vocal tracks besides the usual five tracks for drums, Michael’s bass and some keyboards and percussion.
On Wide Receiver, I was proud to record one of the best covers of the Motown hit “Ask the Lonely”. It is my favorite version… Period. The two singles from our first project stand up so well today (now that they are transferred and mastered to CD from the master mixes). I love some of the cool stuff he let me do in mixes. Like all the stereo panning keyboards and guitars and even drum and percussion tracks on records like, “I Don’t Need Anybody Else” and one of my other favorites of Michael’s compositions, “Prove It!”