The album that wasn’t and the some that were
“What You Gonna Do ‘bout My Lovin’” / “Put Your Body in It”
Stevie and MYX
As a First Engineer I got to do a lot of cool projects in the many years at Sigma but one that I recently dug out while archiving old tapes was an album produced and arranged by Bobby Eli and Ritchie Rome for an artist named Alan Waldman. Alan was a very talented singer songwriter from Northeast Philly who made his living as a hairdresser. He had a gift and came to somehow be connected to Bobby and Ritchie and a deal was made and production went forward. In the fall of 1976, we cut the tracks added the vocals, Ritchie and Bobby wrote arrangements and we recorded the strings and horns. Next, I got to mix it with all of them and we were all the way through the production process to where I was getting acetates from Frankford/Wayne the mastering company we used and they were approved. The artwork was done, and we were at the very last step of ordering masters to be manufactured when the people who were funding the project came to Bobby, Ritchie and Alan and said,” Sorry guys this project is done.” It seems the money was coming from certain people in South Philly whose names I would never mention or whose organization goes without saying as well. Essentially, the entire cost of the project was to be taken as a tax write-off. So, releasing the album and possibly having financial success was off the table altogether. Alan supposedly has the cover of the album framed and hanging on the wall of his shop in Northeast Philly. I thought the songs were great and still love the way they sound today. One song in particular stood out as a favorite of mine, “Old Fashioned”. Richie’s arrangement was fantastic, and I still love hearing it and other songs from the “Album that wasn’t!” I believe with the right promotion that record could have kicked off a successful career for Alan.
Another project I had near the end of my time at Sigma was an album for a country act called the Wyatt Brothers. Very early in my time at Sigma I assisted on sessions produced by a Pal Rakes. He dressed like all the black guys we worked with at the time and was involved with R&B projects. Maybe nine years later Pal shows up and Harry Chipetz has worked out a deal with him to record an album. I am called into a meeting with Pal and Harry and there is Pal dressed completely differently. He is wearing jeans, a fringe jacket and cowboy boots. That’s right… Pal had been working in Nashville and was all county now. Now I have never been a huge fan of country music, but this is what is going to be paying the mortgage for the next few weeks. So, YEE HA! On my way home, that night I set one of the buttons on my car radio to the country station and I started doing my homework. A few weeks later, in April of 1982, we were in the studio with the two young brothers cutting an entire album of their songs. I asked them where they came from and they said that they lived in the mountains of West Virginia so far from any town that there was no town they “came from”. We finished the album and Pal took the tapes down to Nashville to try to get a deal. I am not aware of any deal he landed but he came back and told me that every record executive and A&R person he played the tapes for commented on how good it sounded and asked in which studio in Nashville he recorded it. He wanted me to know that despite the fact that I was an “R&B” engineer I had made a country album sounding as good if not better than anything in Nashville at the time. I tell this story to my classes as a lesson in professionalism. You may not get to pick the work, but a pro is a pro and always gives his/her best for every project.
In 1977, I was lucky enough to be assigned to a project with Bobby Eli for an album for Rory Block. She was signed to RCA at the time and had always wanted to do a “real” R&B album. RCA told her that what was hot in that field at that time was the music that was being made in Philly and that she should work with Bobby and do her next album with him at Sigma. She did. However, it did not quite work out the way she had hoped. The straight up old school R&B that she had in mind was not what was going on in Philly in 1977.
It was the middle of the Disco phenomenon and Bobby was a dance music producer and that was what they did. Bobby did what he did well, and Rory went along with it as her label wished. Years later she told me she used to sit some nights in the bathroom and cry because it was so far afield of what she had imagined. Of all the amazing records that Rory has made in her long and successful career that one is the one record she ignores today and wishes it had been different. It wasn’t anyone’s fault as much as it was just the way the wind was blowing in the industry at the time and how it carried us along. I am grateful as it was the vehicle that linked Rory and I from that day to this. Vince Warsavage also worked on that Rory Block album at Sigma. Rory wanted the sound of a whip crack in the track, but Carl, who also worked on the album, didn’t have the right sound effect … so Vince asked, “How about I play my belt?” which he did. Do you know how hard it is to “play your belt” in time with a snare? Even though it was not perfectly in time (and we didn’t have digital technology to move the belt sounds directly in time with the snare) she and Bobby left the belt sound on the track and also gave him credit on the album for playing “Leather Belt!” When and if you read this Rory, Vince thanks you for being generous and giving him that credit… but more importantly… he apologizes for his inaccurate belt playing! I say it couldn’t have been that bad or it wouldn’t have survived the mix.
After finishing that album Rory withdrew back to her home up in the mountains of New York State, regrouped, and signed with Rounder records and proceeded to make her next five or more records on that label. The very next album she made was the most under produced record she ever made, by contrast to the one we did at Sigma. She went back to the basics, her real roots: her guitar, her voice, a great mix of traditional tunes (always at least one Robert Johnson song per disc from that point on) and her strong originals adding only one or two added touches like harmonica solos by great guest artists. Slowly but surely, she produced more and more elaborate productions as time passed, but they were produced by her for the most part and reflected a reticence to over production. I am proud to say that a few years later we worked together again several times, that we remain friends and had some fantastic moments in the studio together that I will relate later.
In my later years at Sigma, I worked with the very successful production team of James Mtume and Reggie Lucas. Philly was jumping! Sigma even had t-shirts that said “7-24”. Meaning that if it were possible, we could have booked every room 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. James and Reggie were just finishing up a big album for Stephanie Mills and wanted to do two dance remixes for the two best songs on the album. They booked time in good old Studio 2 with me at night and drove down from New York. The first night we mixed “What You Gonna Do with My Lovin’” and I did all the things that good dance remixes got at that time: a bigger hotter drum and bass sound, an edited long intro and extended version with recreated break-down, etc. When we finished it, they took a copy and drove home very late at night. I showed up the next night and started in on the second song, “Put Your Body In It” while waiting for them to show up. About a half hour into the session the phone rang, and it was James and Reggie. They raved about the mix! They said they were even going to edit a copy of my long version back down to the single length and reissue the single with my mix. I’m not sure if the label really did that but that’s what they wanted to do. Then James said, “Look Jim, I’m still sick with this cold (he had been miserable the night before) and with this snowstorm we are not coming down tonight, so I can get better. We loved everything you did last night so much that we want you to take on this next tune and do the same stuff again. We trust you that you will give us a great dance remix so just do it as you hear it and send us up the tapes tomorrow.” Well, I was flattered and thrilled so I went about doing just that. The 12” dance remixes of those songs were mine. “Put Your Body In It” in particular was all mine, they were in NYC while Vince and I mixed it. I have mentioned that to some DJs over the years and they flipped out! They said how much they loved the remix and used it in the clubs a lot. Unfortunately, the label on the 12” never mentioned me or Vince (strike two!). And since I hadn’t worked on the album recording in NYC, my name was never associated with those mixes at all. I imagine if it had, it might have had a different effect on my career. I say this because of what happened in NYC to my dear friend and fellow engineer Michael Hutchinson. Michael moved up to Sigma New York when it opened, and he almost immediately was promoted to First Engineer. An early project he got was a dance remix of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy”. Now Michael’s name was on that 12” single, and in no time, everyone in NYC wanted him to engineer their dance remixes, including all the great remix producers I mentioned earlier in regard to Michael’s incredible success, like “Jellybean” Benitez, Shep Pettibone and Madonna.
James and Reggie confirmed a story that I had heard from Michael Henderson about Miles Davis. The story is remarkable, and I heard it from both sources. At the time when Miles recorded an album called On the Corner all three of those musicians were in Miles’ band. The album came out in October of 1972. The next album that Miles released in May of 1973 was a live performance and it also featured all three of them. So, they were all in his band at that time and they were all on the next studio album as well: Big Fun released in 1974. In October of 1973 the third Arab Israeli war broke out. It is referred to as the Yom Kippur War and sometimes the Seven Day War even though hostilities went on from October 6th to the 25th. Miles and the band were on tour during the summer and fall of that year. I found a listing of what may have been the show they talked about. It was July 6, 1973 in Lebanon. The story goes that as the band landed, they could hear artillery shells exploding in the very nearby hills. There was a shooting war going on. The members of the band were freaked out and in fear for their lives. They asked Miles to cancel so they could get away to the next city on the tour, where there was no shooting going on. He said no. They did the sound check and the band checked into the accommodations and worried and waited. The concert was set for that night. At sundown, the sound of hostilities stopped. An unofficial cease-fire went into effect and people from both sides showed up at the outdoor theater (the Theater of Jupiter in Baalbek, Lebanon). Men with automatic weapons strapped over their backs from both sides of the fighting sat side by side to listen to the music. The show went on and after the show the soldiers all returned to their positions in the nearby hills but kept the cease-fire in effect until dawn the next day. Miles and the band headed out to the next gig that day as hostilities broke out again just after dawn. This story always amazed me. It reminds me of a lyric in Gamble and Huff’s song “I Love Music” which goes: “…Music is the healing force in the world…”
An oldie but a goodie. In 1979 or early 1980 I was requested by Marc DiCianni (who was the department head at The University of the Arts where I taught) to record an album at 309 for a South Philly, Cameo/Parkway era super star: Bobby Rydell. I was thrilled to do it. I was very competent at my job and had been for years now so the tracks I cut were exemplary. It also was a thrill to meet Bobby Rydell and watch how professionally he handled the vocals. As we finished the recording and were ready to mix, I asked Marc when we would be starting those sessions and he replied that he had been owed a favor up in NYC and that he was going to cash it in and mix there. So, he paid the bill and went to The Hit Factory with the tapes. After he finished mixing it and I saw him again he told me an interesting story. The studio next door to the one he was mixing in was being used by Jack Douglas. His engineer Lee DeCarlo and some of the assistants at the Hit Factory heard the first track of Bobby’s being mixed as they were waiting around for their client to arrive. They all came into the control room with Marc and whatever engineer with whom he was mixing and raved! They were blown away by how well recorded and how great the tracks sounded. After they found out that it was an album of oldies and covers for an “oldie but a goodie”, Bobby Rydell, they lost interest, but I was thrilled to know that the engineers and producer who loved my work were at the time also recording Double Fantasy for John Lennon and Yoko Ono. That was very satisfying for me indeed.
The last big project I was booked on at Sigma was in the summer and fall of 1983. After my “test session” with Bowie and not getting booked on anything with him again, I think, as Vivian promised, that it was my turn for a big break. Especially since the proverbial writing was on the wall that Sigma was sliding down from the glory days of the late sixties and the entire decade of the 70’s, demonstrated by some recent staff layoffs from reduced workload. I knew that my days were probably numbered, and that number was small. But there was a big project that kept me going almost to Christmas that year. It was an album for executive producer Stevie Wonder for a band named MYX. Stevie’s idea for this group was to be a project created by and performed by a diverse collection of producers and songwriters reflecting the diversity of the make-up of the group itself. It was going to be recorded at Sigma because a few of the members of the band and production and writing teams were from Philly. In particular it was the brothers Sembello (John and Michael the two older brothers as writers and producers and Danny the youngest brother, a member of the band and a writer as well), Bruce Hawes of the PIR/Thom Bell writing and production scene and some of the management personnel involved with signing and managing the group. Bruce was a member of the band and one of its lead singers and a writer and one of the many who were capable of producing for this project. Here I am with John Sembello and John Smith (Steve’s cousin) at one of those sessions.
One of the reasons this record never saw the light of day, I think, was that there were too many “chiefs and not enough Indians” as the old non-PC adage goes. At one-point Stevie asked me to be involved with the production of the project. I think he asked me to be an Associate Producer, which ordinarily would have been a huge deal and a first for me in my career to offically be any kind of a producer, however I responded by saying, perhaps too honestly, that if I was not given some kind of power over all these different producers doing all these different songs that I would be just another voice in the cacophony that was what he as executive producer was dealing with.
Here’s an idea of how many different chiefs I was dealing with: Stevie himself was producing and leaving some of the lyric writing open to band members on two songs, Bruce was co-producing what I thought might be the single which he at least co-wrote if not wrote entirely, John Sembello was producing at least one of two or three songs he had co-written with his brothers or some band members, Michael Sembello was producing two great songs which he wrote and/or co-wrote with his brothers, and in fact I can’t even remember who else and how convoluted it all was this many years later… What was important was that I said no to Stevie because I knew that only he really had the power to “ride herd” over the intricate mix of collaborations that were the MYX project.
So, I sat back and engineered it. It was going to be a double record set if we used everything that we started at Sigma. Before we stopped at Christmas, I had mixed a good half if not more of it and was looking forward to finishing it in the New Year. However, that was not to be. Two important things happened. First, Michael Sembello and his incredibly talented wife and business partner Cruz sat me down after mixing the two songs Michael had written, produced, played blazing lead guitar on, and sang for the group (he only had to have Danny or Bruce or another singer learn the songs and sing them and then remix) and they said to me, “Jim you should come out to Los Angles and work there with us. We have our own studio in the garage of our home, and we will give you a lot of work. You are really good, and we love working with you.” I told them I would think about it, got their numbers and went back to work on the project. Next some of Stevie’s people came to me and essentially said the exact same thing. It was odd to me that Stevie himself did not make me the offer, but I verified it later with him (and he did say that he really thought I was good and that he liked working with me) and I told him the same thing: that I would think about it over the holidays and let him know.
While working on the MYX project I was the only constant. The group was not at every session, neither were any of the producers including Stevie. I was the only one there every night. One night I had a very disturbing incident occur. One of the people involved with the group, one of the management or business side of the project who came to many of the sessions was in the control room while I was overdubbing vocals or something and he entered into a “street” like riff with one of the other people involved with the project and they were acting with a lot of “street” bravado, acting like they were going to “kick some a**” and “mess you up” etc. Such behavior and language in the studio were not uncommon and did not disturb me when it happened. In fact, most of the time when this sort of thing went on I thought it amusing and would kid them and diffuse it before it became anything really contentious. However, this time I looked up from the console to see something very disturbing. One of the men doing this had said, “I’ll show you what’s up!” and had reached into his bag and pulled out a 38-caliber pistol. He was waving the gun in the air and very casually holding it off to his side but was inadvertently pointing it right at me. I happened to look up and was able to see the actual points of the bullets it was so close to me. Well, I lost it. I leapt from my seat and started screaming at him! I was right in his face and I was very angry, so much so that it freaked him out and he immediately put the gun away. I however had simply lost my temper and started yelling at everyone in the studio and the control room to get out! I did not stop until they all were literally outside the building. My assistant was also freaked-out as he and every other person anywhere on earth had never seen me act like that before. I signed out the bill and went home. The next day I came into the next session on time and waiting for me was Stevie and the guilty parties. They apologized profusely, and I kept trying to stop them after a while and then Stevie asked everyone to leave the room but me, they did, and he apologized again himself and promised that no such event would happen again with anything with which he was involved. I was a little freaked out as I feared I would lose the client and my job, etc., but it turned out that was not the case. In fact, I think it made them all respect me more than before. Even my assistant said to me after that session that he thought I “had some kinda balls” to jump up into the face of man with a loaded pistol in his hand and shout him right out of the building. I guess I had some “street cred” after that which amuses most people who know me as the old Hippie, pacifist type.
One other night during those sessions was quite noteworthy as well. Stevie, whom I later used to call “Captain Digits”, Wonder had brought onto Sigma the first ever A-D converter that initiated for me the age of Digital Audio. Present in Sigma Studio 1 that night was Stevie, his tech guy who went by the name of “Rock ‘n Roll” (I never, ever knew of any other name he used until In Square Circle came out, his name is Jimmy Sandweiss), Joe Tarsia, one of our tech guys (maybe it was Chris Bishop), Kenny Gamble, my assistant (maybe Bill Dorman), and myself. Stevie had in a travel case the A-D converter and in another case a professional Sony Beta Video deck. The Beta deck was used to record the digital output of the converter and we stored that information on the picture track because it was a large reliable head. After all, what it was recording was just the 1s and 0s of digital code, but they needed to be as well reproduced as possible in order to be decoded accurately. I had just done a mix on one of the songs by MYX and we had recorded it to tape as usual but also recorded the digital version of the mix on to the Beta deck. As we played the two recordings back switching between the tape and the digital, we could hear the differences.
But the conversation went from the discussion of “noise” in any medium to a larger perspective that Stevie envisioned. He said that in the future (I thought it would be as many as five or more years), that there would be microphones that would be digital (or would be designed especially for digital), digital consoles, digital multi-track machines (these were just coming on the market), a digital stereo machine (DATs (Digital Audio Tape) were only just around the corner) that would allow mastering to be all digital, and a consumer stereo digital playback system that we would have in our homes (cars and portable). He went on to say that since every step would be a one-to-one perfect digital transfer that the only thing that would make a difference between what we as pros heard in the control room and the mastering facility was the speaker on which the consumer listened to the product. He of course was right and within weeks it seemed I read in the trades that the Phillips Corporation was releasing a format that we refer to as the CD. So, the consumer digital play back system was in place. Here is a shot of John Sembello and Damian Smith another cousin of Stevie who has been a good friend to me in Studio 1 during those sessions.
Sadly we lost Damian at the end of 2022. I truly cared about him and he was always a good friend to me.
Within months I was recording the MYX project again in Stevie’s studio Wonderland and we were recording it all over again on to a Mitsubishi 32-track digital multi-track. This of course meant that the entire double record set worth of songs that had been recorded at Sigma on 24-track analog was essentially scrapped. We also were about to start over as the personnel of the group had changed (Danny Sembello was tired of waiting for the project to be finished and released so he left the band and had signed a songwriting deal with MCA). I don’t recall when the DAT appeared, but we had the Beta deck system at first. It was ironic to me that I had thought that night that an almost entirely digital record was years away, when it came to pass that within a year or so Stevie had recorded on his digital 32-track and mixed to digital and mastered for his first ever CD release, In Square Circle. I always loved the obvious reference to the format in that title.
Months later, one night while recording something at Wonderland with him, he had asked for a kind of echo repeat. We were trying to create one with the limited amount of digital gear available at that time. After spending more time than I thought worth it for the effect I suggested simply using an old analog device that could give it to us in a matter of a few minutes. He answered by saying; “I have been listening to tape hiss since I was eleven years old. I never want to ever hear it again.” From that night on I would call him “Captain Digits”.
It isn’t easy to say goodbye to anything that you have spent a decade totally immersed in and in love with. Hell, I was at Sigma three years longer than I was with Geri my second wife. I had lost my first wife and married my second one all while there. My son had grown from an infant to a savvy young boy who would sometimes come into the studio and hang out with me and spend time with everyone there. To this day Earl Young asks about Rustin every time I see him. But it was time to go. The work was running out for the large staff we had at Sigma, a couple of waves of layoffs had already happened and I knew that it was only a matter of time until I would be next. After the offers I had received from Stevie and Michael it was the obvious thing to do so I left Sigma after Christmas and started my plan to move West. But before I left, I wanted to say goodbye to everyone I could. I will only relate one of the goodbyes here, as they were not as interesting as they were personal. But one was noteworthy. I went to lunch with the man that hired me, Harry Chipetz. I always had wondered why from all the dozens and dozens of applicants he had hired me. I always had thought that it was because I had some “attitude” in regard to questioning the “legitimacy” of that job. I had asked if it was a “real” job (because the previous one I had had was so short and turned out to be nothing. I thought that was what made me stick out. But it turned out that main reason he gave me the shot was that very experience. In his extensive experience in the business, that studio, 919 Sound, was once quite prestigious. Even though it was not so much at that time, he recognized it as a legitimate professional studio where I would have had learned as least some of the ropes. I am forever grateful to him and Joe Tarsia for giving me that opportunity.
Sadly, Harry retired just before I left Sigma I believe because he knew he was sick. I had that lunch with him, and it was goodbye for sure. I left Sigma and Philly and not long after I was all set up in my new life in Los Angles, I got the news that Harry had passed away. He was a great man who had been involved with two significant times in Philadelphia music history. I would be so pleased if his name is added to The Philadelphia Walk of Fame on Broad Street someday.