Holdin’ My Own
“Help Me, Somebody Please” / “Cry Together”
Stevie keeps his word / Jermaine Jackson
“Silly” My Melody
After maybe seven or more years at Sigma, I had never received a single comment from my boss Joe Tarsia about my work. Maybe once in a while I might get a call if there was a small problem with something I had recorded (and he got to mix) as a tip to make sure I realized I was missing something or could improve on something. But never in all that time did I ever get a compliment on a job well done. It was not his style. And besides, that I or any of us, were there and doing what we as a staff of engineers were doing was, as the world had been saying in the professional audio world’s press, as well as we were was compliment enough. If we weren’t doing a good job, we would not have been there after all. Clients would not want to work with us and we would have been out the door. So, Joe telling us how good we were (or weren’t for that matter if it had been the case) was for him I’m sure, not necessary.
However, one day the phone in the control room at 309 rang and it was Joe. He had been managing the mastering of the latest O’Jays album, So Full of Love. He asked me if I had done the song “Help Me Somebody Please” which was produced by the O’Jays and their musical director and keyboard player Dennis Williams. I said, “Yes, I recorded it and mixed it. Is everything Ok with it?” He said, “Oh yea, it’s Ok, alright. In fact, it’s a little like the apprentice showing the master how it’s done.” It was apparently so good that it seemed to jump out of the album for him and prompted him to call me and give me the one and only, albeit a great one, compliment that he ever gave me. I felt fantastic! I am still proud today. I even make my Temple students edit songs down from album length to single length, as an assignment of the class, and that song is one of the songs they get to choose from among four. That compliment was particularly gratifying to me when the album came out and on it was a Joe Tarsia/Gamble and Huff masterpiece called “Cry Together”. That song was the hit single that I heard on the radio a lot, my song was not.
Things were not always feeling on top of the world like that, however. There was one project I engineered for PIR that was fraught with stress and almost peril. After writing many hits for the Spinners and others Jefferson, Simmons and Hawes wanted to get the same opportunity that McFadden and Whitehead had recently gotten: to produce a project. So, G/H/B acquiesced and let them produce an act that came in with the name, Anglo Saxon Brown, but was renamed upon completion Silk. They were a fine group and could sing well enough. Well, they were signed to PIR and Joe, Charlie and Bruce (who had already produced and been aided in that direction earlier by Jack Faith and Leon Huff) were to produce the album. I remember when we began the first day cutting the tracks how different Charlie and Joe were behaving. I wrote it off to the excitement of being offered (or finally getting) the opportunity to produce. As we went through the process, which I was extremely familiar with and was most likely assigned to them to keep them on point a bit, I began to have to manage the three of them as they would obviously (to me anyway) were jockeying for the most artistic control. All three brought different strengths to the sessions but they all could not get their way at once… So, we had our fair share of tense and stressful confrontations, both among themselves and with me. But none was as bad as when all of the recording was over, and we came in for the first mixing date. Charlie said to me, “Ok Gals, now I want you to make it sound like Earth, Wind and Fire.” I laughed thinking he was joking and then soon realized he was not. I nearly lost it right there in that he was so clueless about the process of production that he could tell me to alter the way it sounded to be entirely different through the magic of the mixing console. This so brought home for me the problem we had been having all along so far that I went off on a bit of a tirade about how if you wanted a record that sounded like Earth, Wind and Fire you should first of all say that BEFORE you begin recording. That way the engineer could suggest different arrangements (especially for the horn overdubs) and use different micing techniques and in fact, if you wanted that sound why not record where they recorded with those players and studios and engineers etc. This of course was not met with approval. In fact, both Joe and Charlie became somewhat incensed and proceeded to accuse me of “not hitting the ‘hit’ button” and “holding out on them” and “not giving them the best sound and holding it back from them so only Kenny and Leon would have it”. Well as you might imagine this was not met with approval either. I was so insulted that they would accuse me of such behavior calling into question my professional integrity which I held VERY dear, that I began, after weeks of tension and stress on this project, to lose my temper. I found my voice to very loud and that I was on my feet and that Charlie and I were about to collide. Thank God that my dear friend and assistant that day, big (6’ 5”) Bill Dorman was able to step in between Charlie and I, preventing physical contact between us that most likely would have escalated to violence. Trust me… that was extreme. I am not a violent man. The times I have been in physical altercations since junior high are nonexistent. Bruce had run away to the office across the hall and Joe was backing off, seeing how mad I was, but Charlie was not. Bill prevented violence in the control room, thank God but the tension and anger only subsided enough for me to gather my composure again and tell them that I would now begin to mix the Sound of Philly produced and recorded songs as much like Earth, Wind and Fire as I could and that I would press every “hit” button on the board that existed and returned to beginning the first mix of the project. Charlie was not finished however and soon was standing behind me with a pencil in each hand pretending he was going to pierce both my eardrums from behind without my knowing when… My, what a fun day that was. I later actually did mention it to Joe Tarsia and said I expected “hazardous duty pay” as compensation. Another engineer recently told me that one of the reasons he moved to Sigma New York was to dodge that bullet or pencils if you will. I, of course, regained my professionalism and worked through it all, managing to still get the best mixes I could and retaining my relationships with all three of them. To this day Charlie and I still goof around like we want to kill each other but of course it is only kidding around now. We all have grown a lot since then. But once again, thank you Bill, it might have been a very different story if you had not stepped in between Charlie and me when you did. Don’t get me wrong, I love Charlie. Here he is between Bruce Hawes and Joe Jefferson many years later.
Well life at Sigma kept rolling along just great and then one week I see myself booked at 309 with Black Bull Productions! Hot Damn! Stevie is keeping his word. So, I am there on time all set up to record his band, Wonderlove and we wait. And we wait. And we wait. This apparently was not uncommon for sessions with Stevie. I am not sure, but we may have even waited over four hours and finally a call came that he had to cancel and would be in the next night that he had also booked. We went home came back the next night and waited again. And we waited. And we waited. This time he finally showed up. Better late than never. In he comes with his cousin John and few other of his people who travel with him handling his gear and getting him from place to place whenever and wherever he is traveling. I am looking around for the band, and ask what’s up and he tells me, “It’s just me tonight.” I say ok and he asks if I have the drums ready to go and I did. I had had my assistant pounding them while we waited to get them sounding great. He said, “Take me to ‘em.” He stood up and grabbed John’s arm and they walked out of the control room through a very crowded studio. It was all set up for a full band, so mic stands, music stands and wires running all over the place made it a tricky walk all the way back to the drum booth. Once Stevie was settled in behind the kit, he played them a little getting comfortable with that kit, so he knew how many toms there were and where exactly the cymbals were etc. Once he was familiar with the kit, which did not take long at all, he said, “If you’re ready I am.” I said I was good to go and rolled tape. Stevie played the entire song of about six or seven minutes, hearing in his head the tune and played all the fills and everything just the way he wanted them. When he stopped, he said, “You get that?” I said I had, and he shot up to his feet and walked out of the booth through the entire studio zigzagging through the wires, mic stands, and music stands without tripping over or running into a single thing and came through the double doors and sat right down next to me in the producer’s chair. Now all night while waiting I had watched my assistant (I think it was Bill Dorman) stumble around and trip and bump into things a couple of times. It was not uncommon. But Stevie with no one helping him navigated the treacherous room flawlessly. I was blown away. I sat for a second just looking at him wondering exactly how he had pulled that off and as he sat waiting for a playback, I in astonishment, reached my hand out in front of his face and waved it back and forth as if to see if he could really see. His people started laughing. He asked them what was up and someone leaned over and whispered in his ear what I had done. He got a huge smile on his face and signaled for him to lean back in and they exchanged a few whispers. He had asked what I looked like, so he could say something that would make me think he could see me. Now in those days, and very much still today I wore a Phillies cap, red with a big white “P” on the front. They must have told him that as he started street riffing on me about how I looked and said I had a big “P-head”. Well of course everyone including Bill and I thought it was so funny and he and I were immediately off and running on what became a tirade of street riffs, to phony English accents (Cockney to stuffy upper class to Irish to Scottish) and all sorts of kidding around with language that we still do to this day. In fact, often when I get him on the phone, the first thing we say is something like, “Reginald my dear fellow!” answered with “Oh my good man, how so ever are you? It’s been absolutely forever since last we spoke” in the most outrageous fake accents we can pull. Stevie is brilliantly funny and quick-witted and simply amazing in more way than easily covered in any book. Here we are in what is one of only 3 pictures of us that I have despite of all the years we worked together.
So, he, after establishing this fun and self-mocking and silly tone for the night, proceeded to next record with one synth all the keyboard parts, the bass line and the horn parts. Then he said to get a vocal mic set up. We did in a matter of minutes and he went out and sang a reference vocal and then stacked all the harmony notes to all the background parts doubling them all. We blew through all that at an amazing pace. He listened to the mix I had of everything he had done and said to make a couple of copies and that we were done. I thanked him for coming back after that Secret Life of Plants session and he said, “This was fun, P-head.” He grabbed the tapes and took off. What a night! When the song finally came out on the Jermaine Jackson solo album that he did three songs for, my name did not appear. I am not sure if it was because he went back to Los Angles and rerecorded it with Wonderlove and simply used my session as the demo or what. Maybe it was just another credit mistake. I’ll never know. I ended up working a lot more with Stevie later on. Here is a shot of us with John Sembello, Stevie was showing me a Braille machine.
After five or six albums with Thom Bell on the Spinners and a few other projects as well, in which I participated as an Assistant Engineer, long after I was doing First Engineering on other projects with other clients, a chance finally came for me to step up to be the First Engineer on a Thom Bell production. The project was the My Melody album for Deniece Williams. I had the great privilege of recording a great deal of the album. Working with Thom was always a thrill and an honor but this time it was special because of Deniece. I have often told my classes that I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of artist that I had recorded that could step up to the microphone and deliver a final perfect performance in one complete take. Deniece Williams was one of them. In fact, she is right at the top of the list. The single was called “Silly”, and it topped the R&B charts, but it was on her next album that Joe Tarsia recorded at Sigma that she got her next Pop number 1, “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle”. What is interesting about that project was that the previous time the song was on the charts was back at the beginning of Sigma Sound. Recorded in 1971 the artist was Laura Nyro and the band were the full MFSB crew with (as was the deal in the earliest days) Thom Bell on organ and Leon Huff on piano or electric piano in this case as Laura played the grand piano on that project. I know that because someone (Don Murray I think, he would have been assisting Joe) once told me about a day when the entire crew (including, live in the big room, strings and horns) were all set up and ready to go and Laura walked in sat at the piano and played a few bars and stopped and said that the “vibe” just wasn’t right and walked out and wasted the whole day and all the production costs! Wow that blew all their minds. By the way, singing behind Laura on that album was a Philly based group called Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells. Wow indeed, what an amazing collection of talent at that time in Philly. No wonder Laura had come down from New York to Philly to record. There is a song on that album called “The Bells” which features a lot of Patti, augmenting Laura’s lead vocal. Check it out, in fact because Gamble and Huff produced, it made the cut for a PIR compilation package released in 1997.
Joe ran into a problem while recording “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle”. It was at the time Joe had just renovated Studio 1 and opened back up before it was 100% finished. In the newly renovated room, there was to be a vocal booth in one corner which would have a door and be somewhat sound proofed from the rest of the room, enough that a vocalist might stand in there and sing live with the band. This was the way Billy Paul loved to record when it could be arranged. Well as I said, the renovations were not 100% and the door of this vocal booth was not finished on time for the reopening of the room. Now I am not sure if it was the first project we cut in there after we re-opened, but it was before the door was completed (if it ever was… I worked more downstairs in 2 and over at 309).
Thom and Deniece saw the booth and went for it. Unfortunately, there was not enough of the proper communication between Joe and Thom and after all the tracks were cut, Thom said to Joe, “Well, Deniece will be flying home now” and Joe asked, “Why? We have to record her vocals.” Thom said that the live vocals with the tracks were the keepers and Joe just about lost it! As I said before, Deniece Williams is one of those artists who can walk up to the microphone and give you a finished vocal every take like she did on her previous album recorded at Sigma called My Melody! Well Joe had to explain that the lack of a door made the vocals in the new booth unusable. Thom and Deniece were not pleased to say the least. But the vocals were done over and as excellently as before and of course all was well that ended well as “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” was big hit! Funny how a big hit makes those little things less important. Here are some more photos provided by Vince Warsavage. He took these photos of Studio 1 in 1980 after he “normalized the studio” (cleaned up, organized and put everything back where it belonged) just after the My Melody basic rhythm tracks and overdubs were finished. He is in the lower right.
Above are some more photos provided by Vince Warsavage. He took these photos of Studio 1 in 1980 after he “normalized the studio” (cleaned up, organized and put everything back where it belonged) just after the My Melody basic rhythm tracks and overdubs were finished. Vince assisted Don Murray on the original recording dates, but Assistant Engineer’s credits were often overlooked on albums. Vince told me that he felt very fortunate to work with all the great Artists, Producers and Recording Engineers at Sigma Sound but for him, that album was one of the highlights of his Sigma career. Unfortunately, it was on that one which he was overlooked.
Vince took these photos because he knew that Studio 1 was destined to be torn down starting on that very next Monday morning. He also knew the world was losing an historic studio forever, so he wanted to capture Studio 1 on color film using only the studio’s ambient lighting (no flash photography). This is how it looked when musicians were cutting tracks in that studio. Vince is in the top left photo, sitting next to the Control Room window, where you can see the flight-case of the Oberheim Synthesizer on the floor that was used on the My Melody album. He is also in the lower right photo sitting at the console of Studio 1. Besides these photos, Vince has spent a great deal of time editing this book. Sandy, his wife, sums Vince up with this quote, ‘If you ask him what time it is, he’ll tell you how to build a watch.’ That in a way reflects his deep commitment and thoroughness that he applies to his endeavors. Let me thank you again here for all you have contributed. I am not sure I would have ever finished this book without your efforts.