LA LA Land
“We Are the World” / Don’t leave without me. / “Gypsy Boy”
La La Land, as Stevie loved to call it, was for me a place for lots of work and lots of play. Yes, I attended my fair share of parties while living there. Twice I went to the Grammys, I was invited to CD release parties, a book release party and others but the party that stands out above all the others is Halloween the first fall I lived out there. Living with me then was Debbie Knetz the ex-Sigma studio manager who like me had come West to make a new start. We were seeing each other at that time as we had started a relationship just as I was about to move west. Then she followed a few months later. So, Michael and Cruz Sembello, who were riding high on the success of “Maniac”, had been invited to a few “industry” parties on Halloween. They were enjoying our company often that fall and insisted that we join them. We of course said yes but as the date drew near, we thought what in God’s name would we dress as? Halloween in Hollywood… Come on! This is a major event! People go all out. Costumes are both major and outrageous to say the least. We kept asking each other, “What can we do that would even cause a blip on anyone’s radar in Hollywood at Halloween?” Well, I finally a day or two before hand, I had an idea. We were new in Los Angeles and what better way to appear than as tourists. That’s right; straight up, just off the bus, loud, drunken, tasteless tourists. So, we went to a Salvation Army used clothing store and bought the loudest ugliest Hawaiian shirts and ugly Bermuda shorts and stupid hats. We wore those clothes; sandals and I wore at least three cameras around my neck. Well, as we pulled up to Michael and Cruz’ house to join them to go out I said to Debbie “Well here we go. If we are going to do this let’s do it right!” So, from that moment on I was “in character” as a loud, obnoxious tourist who had a camera in one hand and a beer in the other hand at all times and was at first pretending but as the night wore on, I was no longer pretending but getting more and more drunk. Debbie was in character as well and we were apparently a lot of fun to be around. Michael and Cruz thought it was the best thing that they had seen. In looking back, I think it was the scene Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn had done which was a similar bit in his film High Anxiety. In fact, as the night went on and I became more and more drunk, I apparently became more and more like Mel in that my “character” became more and more Jewish. Michael thought it was fantastic and kept taking us to more and more parties. At one point, I remember being on Sunset Boulevard taking to someone who was trying to sell us drugs, I think. Needless to say, that was not happening, and a very bad idea, and we got away from there ASAP. The night wound down when we went to Canter’s Deli in Hollywood (perhaps the best deli in Los Angeles and definitely the biggest, at least at the time) and my raving drunken Jewish tourist was now in the full manic foolishness. We had a nosh, did not get kicked out or apparently offend anyone enough to end up in a brawl. The last memory I had of the night was Debbie dumping me in bed barely undressed and quite drunk.
The next day we got a few calls from Michael and Cruz about all the people in the industry who saw me that night and were calling them and asking who the actors were that they had hired and how great a job they had done and how funny they were. I was so hung over I did not appreciate how great that was that day but in looking back I must say we gave Hollywood a run for its money that Halloween indeed. The story did not end there however in that when we got the pictures back from being developed (remember when you had to wait to see them?) there were shots of a whole lot of people and places I didn’t remember. And in fact, there were a few that no one else could identify as well. Wow what a night!
Another thing that happened while I lived and worked in Los Angeles which led to a great party and an interesting encounter was when my dear friend Michael Hutchinson came to Los Angeles to do a “Dance Re-mix” of “We Are the World”. There were a number of remarkable aspects to what he told me about the mix that took three days. First of all, it had been recorded on a relatively new format of tape recorder: a digital 32-track Mitsubishi machine of which there were only a limited number in Los Angeles. Disney studios had some, Stevie had one, and there were two others owned by two different studios. I don’t recall which two, but I imagine one might have been the Record Plant and the other may have been Sunset Sound. I really don’t recall. However, the problem was that Quincy Jones had used that format to record the entire production. It had to be produced on that format in stages. The first step was programming and recording the basic music tracks: drums, bass, keyboards and synths, etc. This step nearly filled the first tape using over twenty tracks. That meant that “Q” had to work on separate tapes to record the whole project. To do that we used to “stripe the tapes” with SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) time code and a computer would control the speed of a second machine to have it run in time with the first tape. This was often done with two 24-track analog tapes and most studios were set up to handle that. However, in order to do that with this project one 32-track machine would have to be rented and moved into the other studio to “sync” the two tapes. That meant renting out both rooms to do that. Now a second tape with a sub-mix of the music existed and could be used to add the big sing-along by all the big stars who participated in the project.
However, that was not enough. As a co-writer of the song and close friend of “Q”, Michael Jackson wanted the first chorus of the song to be all his voice. That meant a third 32-track tape was created just for Michael to stack his voice some twenty to twenty-four times to sound like a choir. That having been done they recorded the famous “check your ego at the door” night with all the stars singing the rest of the choruses. That wasn’t all that was done that day. “Q” also recorded a long harmonica solo track by Stevie, a piano solo by Ray Charles, and full lead vocal performances by Stevie, “The Boss”, Ray Charles and MJ. Now he had a lot to work with besides the vocal performances by the host of Pop music greatness that were there. All that with a sub mix of the basic music was on a third 32-track tape. This created a bit of a problem in that only two 32-track machines were ever available and in order to mix you needed a console large enough to handle all those tracks. The largest one available in Los Angeles at the time was a 64-input Neve (I believe) that could handle two 32-track machines and still have auxiliary inputs for echo returns and such. That meant that all of MJ’s tracks had to first be sub-mixed to the “Big night” reel by erasing its music sub mix which would no longer be needed. So, Michael’s twenty to twenty-four vocal tracks ended up on eight or ten. Now the entire recording could be played back on two machines in the only room with the 64-input board. After which “Q” and Bruce Swedien mixed it and released the version we all came to hear and buy to support the great cause. But this was the era of the “Dance Re-mix” and there were a number of renowned DJs who did this for a living, such as Tom Moulton, Shep Pettybone and John “Jellybean” Benitez. Now my dear friend Michael Hutchinson was the frequently hired engineer for the latter two. It was determined by the label to allow “Jellybean” to do a re-mix. That meant that he and Michael had to come to Los Angeles to do it, hire both studios again and move one machine to the big board and mix it again. We all know that “We Are the World” was not a fast dance track. But Michael and “Jellybean” did what they did so well, spending three days mixing it again. They created an alternate longer version in which you heard the Stevie Wonder harmonica solo and the Ray Charles piano solo.
There were different sections featuring the amazing ad-libs by the different singers who had done complete vocal performances. It was a very cool version. Unfortunately, it never saw the light of day. But before that decision was made, after the third day of mixing the label threw a party to celebrate and have “Jellybean” and Michael reveal to guests of the label the “new” version. Michael Hutchinson took me to the party to thank me for letting him stay in my house during that trip since this was all being done to raise money not spend more. Enough was being spent on the two studios time and paying all the pros involved; Michael Jackson and “Jellybean”, the studios and the assistants who worked with Michael Hutchinson.
So, I come to this party which was an afternoon affair the day after they finished and am schmoosing around meeting people and generally enjoying myself but none of the key people who made the record were there. I had hoped to meet “Q” or “MJ” or even the other writer of the song Lionel Ritchie but alas none of them were there it was more of a label thing which gets slow real fast. I stepped out into the back yard of this big house that had been rented somewhere in the Hollywood hills to sit and look down on Los Angeles and enjoy the sunshine. As I stepped out near the end of the yard a lovely woman was sitting there having a cigarette and taking in the view as well. I stepped up to her and struck up a conversation asking how she came to be there, who she knew or came with and she told me she was a friend of someone I had not met and didn’t know. I told her how I had come to be there and that I too was a recording engineer. I asked what she did for a living and she said, “I’m a Psychic.” I thought she was kidding me, so I said, “Oh yea, part time or full time?” Well, she looked at me with no sign whatsoever of humor in her face and said very icily, “Full time.” She then went on to prove it to me. She told me things about myself that she could not have gathered from anything that we had said up to that point. She blew my mind! She told me about my father’s alcoholism, my recent divorce and my suicide attempt. Maybe she noticed the scars on my wrists, but they were usually covered by long sleeves which I always wore for sun protection and my watch. Most people never noticed them.
She was amazing to say the least and I was most respectful and apologetic, and she soon warmed up to me and we became friends. I used to visit her at her home, and we would often go out to eat together but there was never a romantic nature to our friendship despite us both being single at the time. She used to blow my mind occasionally by telling me about her powers or “gift” as it is often referred. Once as I was leaving, I mentioned that I was heading to the Red Cross office to give blood as I used to do quite regularly for years. She became concerned and looked me in the eyes like it was very important and said, “Don’t do that.” I asked why… she never said why but insisted that I didn’t do it, made me promise I wouldn’t and then I left. I have never given blood since. She may have only meant that day, but I’ll never know. I even asked her about it years later when I last spoke with her. She said she couldn’t remember why she cautioned me. Once she lamented that police were not consulting with her regarding a series of murders that were taking place somewhere in California at that time. I asked her why she didn’t just call them, and she explained that there was an odd relationship with the police. They only ask you: you don’t volunteer information to them, and many police departments don’t ever seek help from such sources. Many people are very skeptical of people with such gifts. She had a tremendously large and obviously (by virtue of the very nice apartment she had) rich clientele. She was one of the most interesting people I met in Los Angeles.
Another great party I got to attend in Los Angeles was because Michael Sembello was a bit of a workaholic and preferred to stay home and write and program. I think he was never comfortable in social situations unless the people there were people he had invited. He told me about a book release party that he had been invited to, to celebrate the release of a book about the studio scene that had been written by a man who wrote a column in the pro music trades who went by the name of Mr. Bonsai. He asked me to go instead of him in that I could meet and schmooze up a number of Los Angeles pros. Michael had previewed the book as he and Cruz knew him from years before when Mr. Bonsai had managed a studio. Michael had written a review of the book that appeared on the cover. Next to his were reviews from other Los Angeles pros. One was by Ray Manzarek. He of course was the keyboard player from The Doors. So, honoring Michael’s request to represent him at the party I go and who is there besides Mr. Bonsai, none other than living legend, Ray Manzarek. I can’t recall whoever else was there to be honest because I spent most of my time there talking with Ray. Normally I think he would have cut a conversation off rather quickly if it drifted to questions like “What was Jim really like?” but he and I talked about the new 4-track recorders that had recently been released. I had gotten mine as a gift from Phil Ramone for having recorded Michael Sembello’s solo album Bossa Nova Hotel with him, Dick Rudolph and Michael. I loved that silly simple little cassette-based recorder which could literally operate on a battery pack and be portable. It was part of our conversation how remarkable that four-track technology was, which was all that the Beatles had to record Sargent Pepper and all that The Doors had to record their self-titled debut album, could now literally be carried around on a strap with batteries and be used to produce music. We only talked shop.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I had left my second wife (which entailed giving her the house, a car and a quick divorce), left my job at Sigma and my new girlfriend, but the hardest thing of all to leave behind was my son, Rustin. When he was just barely three his mother left me, and I was delegated the role of the “Weekend Dad”. More specifically, the “every other weekend Dad” and the last two weeks of every summer. However, during my last seven years at Sigma I was fundamentally on night shift. Now that played in one way to my advantage in that after returning home to my apartment at somewhere between 3AM and 7AM, I could sleep until after lunch time get up and drive from West Philly to South Jersey where my son lived with his Mom and stepdad. I could see Rustin after school, and that I did all school year four or five days a week and afternoons all summer if he was not away on vacation or at the Jersey shore. That meant I got to see him often from after school until around his dinner time. Then I would head back to Philly and my next session at Sigma. So, I was around more than most “Weekend Dads” but when I had to move to Los Angeles, that was a different story. It was very difficult on both of us. I missed him terribly and I am sure he felt the same as well as some degree of abandonment. But the work in Philly was grinding to a stop and the offers in Los Angeles were too good not to take a chance on. So off I went, saddened by the loss of all those afternoons I would be losing with him, but off I had to go.
So now I was less than a “Weekend Dad” and had to negotiate with his Mom about when and how often he would be able to fly out and visit me. Rustin was only ten or eleven the first summer I was gone, and Linda agreed to put him on a plane that I would meet and have him visit for the two weeks he normally vacationed with me each summer and some time as well. I can’t recall how often he got out there but every summer we had our usual vacation in the car with the camping gear and saw a lot of California. We drove north and saw Yosemite, the Redwoods and Big Sur, we drove south and saw the San Diego Zoo, we spent some time just staying in Los Angeles doing Universal and Disneyland and sometimes just hanging out at my home because I occasionally had some sessions too. Recently my son and his family and my wife and I vacationed together in Los Angeles. He reminisced about some of the sessions I brought him to, which I had forgotten he attended. One was a guitar overdub session at Michael Sembello’s Bossa Nova Hotel Studio (remember that it was a converted garage in his backyard next to his pool and trampoline). This was no hardship for Rustin even though I was working for obvious reasons. He recalls what we were doing one of those days. Michael was playing a blazing guitar solo over a track we had cut for Rocky IV. He had met Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank somewhere (probably Gold’s Gym) and was involved with the music for the next Rocky movie. No surprise there, all Italian Philly area guys etc. Rustin said he remembers that we were getting this huge guitar sound not through a cranked-up amp in the studio but through this new piece of gear called a Rockman. It was the size of a Walkman, a portable music player popular at the time but made to simulate different amplifier sounds and it was sitting in the control room going directly into the board with Michael’s guitar plugged into it. That piece of music made it in small part somewhere near the end of the film he said. It was just another session that was the seventeen-plus year blur of my professional recording career.
Rustin also mentioned going with me to EFX Systems recording studios and watching a post-production session there where music was being played in the large room by an orchestra while being conducted and watching the rushes of a film. This is what that studio was best known for. George who owned it and was a friend of Michael’s offered me work there and I do recall doing some. But I don’t recall the sweetening session Rustin described. I may have taken him there to see the place while he was visiting but I don’t recall doing a big session like that while he was there. In fact, I don’t recall doing any “big” sessions there. George offered me small sweetening sessions for music videos which were no more than adding stereo sound effects to finished music tracks. That is essentially a 4-track session. I was used to doing 24-track music sessions for Michael Sembello and Michael Henderson and 32-track digital session for Stevie. George said, “Be patient, work your way up with clients here at EFX Systems and it will pay off”. I was not that patient. I ended up taking a different path, but a very few years later major motion pictures were being scored and mixed there. I might have mixed one of the early Star Trek films if I had gone that path.
One other memory we both have from Los Angeles was the CD release party for Eddie Murphy’s album. It was quite memorable. As I have said before Eddie was a sober person, no drugs and not even any alcohol. But at his party there was much celebrating by the extremely interesting people there. It happened that Rustin was in town when the party was given. So as always wherever I went when he was in town, he went. I had no idea how much of a freak show this party was going to be. Apparently, there were guests of the label, and friends of invited guests and others that perhaps Eddie had invited but the crowd was strange indeed. Even for Hollywood. One of the first things I remember was that it was given in a house on Malibu Beach in a house owned by a music producer who did all the big records for Eric Burdon and War. Gold records adorned the walls for some of the biggest hits like “Low Rider”, “Spill the Wine”, etc. However, I don’t remember whose house it was as I was distracted by a few other aspects of the house and the party itself. Besides the Gold and Platinum records, the walls were adorned in different rooms of the house by paintings by a favorite artist of mine Rene Magritte. I kept moving from room to room to see more of them and sometimes to move my ten or eleven-year-old son somewhere in the house where he would not see things that he was far too young to see. At first, I thought, “How cool that he has these big Magritte prints”. But after seeing the third or fourth one I realized that they were not prints but originals. It was an eye-opening moment for me about how rich some people I knew were and how much money flies around in the entertainment business. Remember I usually only interacted with artists and record producers in the studio, almost never in their private lives.
Besides the wealth displayed on the walls there was a different kind of displaying going on at this party. It was a bit of a freak show indeed. Rustin and I both very vividly recalling one young woman in particular who was wearing a boa. Now you may think what’s the big deal, boas at parties are not that big a deal, but this boa was a real live boa constrictor, maybe eight or ten feet long. In addition, to the boa she was wearing very, very little else, and what was there, was flesh colored and form fitting to what Rustin referred to as “silicon enhancement” that would make any teenage boy never forget.
If that weren’t enough, practices in different rooms were not something I wanted my very young son seeing. Eddie was a sober person, but a lot of the people at this party were not. Then a couple of gay guys came up to us, as I would not let Rustin out of my sight let alone my reach and started looking as us and raising their eyebrows and winking at me and implying that I was there at this party with a twelve or thirteen-year-old boy as my date. “Oh my God”, I started stammering, “No, no, this my son, really. This is my son!” They were smiling and looking at us and saying, “Ok, Sure, Ok.” And winking and smiling at each other and laughing at my reactions. Needless to say, Rustin and I were not long at that party, but it certainly was memorable. I can’t recall if Rustin even saw or met Eddie that night…
Other Rustin moments in Los Angeles were going to Wonderland and meeting Stevie of course. I have a snapshot of that somewhere. I hope I can find it. I didn’t work a lot while he was there, usually it was our annual vacation together, but sometimes I had to and that was the nature of the freelance business for me at that time in Los Angeles.
Speaking of my business in Los Angeles, I have to recount one project that I did at Wonderland (there were a few that were not Stevie but people who knew him and used me as a freelance engineer in his room like Eddie Murphy). One particular project was with an artist named Edwin Birdsong. He knew Stevie in some capacity and asked me to mix a project for him at Wonderland on “spec” as in speculation. Now that meant in this case that he showed me a signed contract that promised him production money upon completion of the project. So, in good faith, I mixed the whole album without seeing a dollar, with his vehement promises of a full payoff after he presented the masters to the label and was payed. I was a fool to agree to this of course. After the album was finished weeks went by and soon, he was not returning my calls. Eventually I sued him in small claims court and of course won as he never showed up. I was only able to tap a claim on any money through a production company of his that was no longer viable. In the end, I lost all that income and my lawyer’s fees at a time when my money situation was not best as I will describe later. Other than a much smaller amount discussed earlier, it was the only time in my entire professional career that I was burned.
Two other great nights in Los Angeles were the two Grammy events I attended while I lived there. The first was when I was invited for free because I was nominated. The next year you are invited back again which I believe was the practice then. By then Debby was living in Los Angeles and of course wanted very much to go. We did and the most memorable thing about that night was of course the reaction of BB King when we saw him in the lobby before the show as I described earlier. I also remember how excited Debby was to get all dressed up and do the big night out in Hollywood. Unfortunately, she was sick as a dog with a cold and had to pump herself full of over-the-counter cold relief medications just to be able to attend and therefore couldn’t drink and party as we might have. We probably had to cut short the usual after parties too. Nonetheless we had a really great night I that still remember with great affection.
I do recall being at one of those after parties (probably the previous year) and going to Stevie’s after party and seeing him with Eddie Murphy. Eddie was completely sober, but I think Stevie who almost never imbibes had had some bubbly and had a bit of a buzz on, with their arms over each other’s shoulders laughing and talking almost nose to nose. They were so close and talking so much I had to literally lean in and interrupt them just to say hello and let them know I had even been there. Those two were funny together and always seemed to have a really great time.
As with all things, it goes up and then it goes down. My time in Los Angeles was like that as well. In the first year and a half, maybe two, I used to say that I wish that I had a clone of myself as I could have been working twice as much with Stevie and Michael. Neither of them got me as much as they wanted. Stevie at one time asked me to join his staff. I thought about it for a few days and told him that I wanted to stay a freelance engineer as I had never done that before, and I wanted to see what other opportunities I might find in Los Angeles as well as not cut Michael out altogether. The real reason I said no was because I had worked enough with Stevie and the many people in his world that were on his staff to know what that life would be like. They referred to it as “Stevie Wonder Time” which meant that your days were twenty-four to thirty-six hours long and your ability therefore to plan and or have a “normal” life was nil. You would be on salary fifty-two weeks a year (decent money I presume, we never discussed it) and on call 24/7 for fifty-two weeks a year. That did not mean I wouldn’t have time off or time to myself or even the opportunity to sometimes work with others or on my own stuff but the moment the phone rang, and he wanted you, you would have to drop everything and get to the studio ASAP. I saw how that was a problem for some of his people, especially people with ties and family back on the East Coast. That would have been me too. In fact, a year or two after the offer another Halloween was approaching and I had not been back to see my family on the East Coast for some time and even though Rustin had just been there in August, I missed him so much that I told both Michael and Stevie that I simply had to go back for a week. Just a week I was gone. I told them both that I would be back in one week but when I returned, they had hired someone else and suddenly my client pool had gone from two competing for my time to none calling at all. A year or so later I asked Stevie if the offer still stood, and he said that I had missed the chance. It is one “Road Not Taken” that I do sometimes think about but am very happy about today. My life would have been very different if I had stayed in Los Angeles and I am sure that all that I have done since is what has taken me to the happy life I now enjoy. I am not so sure I would have been as happy or as successful in Los Angeles.
Around that time, I got a call from Michael Henderson who was recording his next album in Los Angeles and that picked up some of the loss from the big change in my workload at that time. I looked around for more work but soon found myself sitting home with no sessions and the phone just not ringing. So, I did what a lot of Los Angelinos do in such a situation, I took to the golf course. Yes, I am ashamed to say that I had some money in the bank from my Sigma severance and am somewhat sorry (in that I played so poorly) but somewhat obsessive love of the game at the time. I often got up looked at the calendar and said no session today ok where’s my clubs and off I would go to the nearby course I played most often. I once saw a man literally take his bag of clubs, lift it above his head and throw it into the water hazard and walked off the course. No joke.
It turns out that most of the biggest deals in Hollywood are made on the golf courses, but I was never playing with the right crowd indeed. In fact, I was almost always alone. Once I got put in a foursome with Harvey Korman but all we ever talked about was improving our slices. I gave him one of the many “fixes” I was trying, and it helped him. In fact, immediately after my corrective suggestion he dropped an approach shot right next to the pin and thanked me. I got Ben Bridges, Stevie’s guitarist from his band Wonderlove, into golf. At that time, his wife Nancy was cursing my name I’m sure but having seen them recently I found out that I am forgiven. Back then however, Ben was enjoying the enthusiasm of a beginner and calling me to play often. One time he wanted me to go along with another friend of his that Ben want to get interested in golf. I agreed and the three of us went to a Par three chip and putt course so that the beginner would not be intimidated with long par fives and it wouldn’t take all afternoon. Well, I was in the latter stages of my time with the game as I was getting worse all the time not better, but I went to try again to straighten out my shots and see if I could ever hit a ball again that went straight and not ended up rolling a ninety-degree angle from where I had aimed it. Yes, my slice was that bad. So, we played the first nine and asked the newcomer if he still want to play the second nine and he said yes so, we continued. Now I was not having a good day, even with my short game which was usually better than my long game, but we got to the eleventh or twelfth hole and I just said to myself, “Just forget everything and don’t think about it at all and just swing the club.” I did just that. Lo and behold the ball went straight… in fact it went straight to the pin and dropped in. A hole in one! An ace! An eagle! A shot some golfers never hit, and I had just done it! Now I know you are supposed to take everyone out and buy them a round of drinks if and when you ever do this. I offered but both of them had to leave immediately after we finished. I still owe Ben that drink. My last golf story: After I returned to Philly I was still playing somewhat obsessively as you will hear. It was a horribly hot and humid August afternoon: ninety-five degrees and ninety-eight percent humidity at least. Where was I? Out on the Walnut Lane course in Germantown, alone, playing in the insane heat. I come to a par three hole that you hit down a hill onto the green maybe one hundred and twenty yards away. I tee off and the ball lands just in front of and to the left of the pin and rolls right in. Another hole in one! I am alone. In the oppressive heat. Like with the expression “Mad dogs and Englishmen in the noonday sun.” There is no one in sight. Not another golfer, not an Englishman, not a mad dog, not anyone. I start yelling, “Did anyone see that!” “Anyone? Anyone there?” All to no avail. Nothing but my own voice echoing back at me, mocking me in my luck. Good luck that I had hit another hole in one, bad luck in that it was not witnessed. Ask any golfer and they will tell you, “If no one saw it… it didn’t happen”. Oy vey! It wasn’t long after that, that I hung up my clubs for good. Injuries to my right elbow and shoulder are one reason I give for quitting but the worst slice in the history of the game is more like the real reason…
But speaking of Ben Bridges, I did take a very interesting trip with him across the county once in his car. He called one day and asked if I would accompany him in bringing a car of his across the country. I don’t recall all the details, but I agreed, and we were to take turns sleeping while the other drove and get to Philly (I think) ASAP swap that car with another and return in it. Well, he had a CB radio that he used when he took long distance drives and would talk to the truckers. That was very funny to me and he enjoyed it too. He had the “handle” (the nickname people talking over CB used) “Six String”. That worked since he was a guitarist after all. Most truckers thought he was a country music lover like most of them. Little did they know that he was black and played classical guitar and for Stevie wonder too! Ben had no accent to me or others as he was raised somewhere on the East coast, Philly area or Long Island or somewhere and did not sound “black”. So, he talked with the truckers all the way there and back and I was getting a big kick out of it the whole time. There was a point along the way where it got a bit scary, however. Our sleeping arrangement did not work out like we wanted on the way out and somewhere in Texas we were both exhausted and realized that the best thing to do was stop and sleep somewhere. Now there was no way we could sleep in the car as it was about one hundred degrees in Texas that day. We stopped at a motel somewhere in the middle of rural Texas and rented a room. We grabbed a bite somewhere and were seen by the locals. We then went into the same motel room together for the night. Now the locals must have had some strange thoughts about a black guy and a white guy sleeping in the same room with East coast license plates… Hmm, we thought lying in the bed trying to sleep, reminded us too much of the movie Easy Rider. Needless to say, we both “slept” with one eye half open, not getting the best night sleep. Thankfully, no one bothered us. And we made it on our way safely.
The last year or so in Los Angeles was strange; I was getting little work; my money was slowly melting away and my love life had taken a strange turn. My girlfriend Debbie had moved to Los Angeles with the understanding that I was just out of a bad marriage and not interested in settling down with her or anyone at that time. She came anyway and lived with me at first saying that her job at Sigma was not long for this world anyway and she would look for work in Los Angeles, but she would get her own place when she got a job. That’s what happened. We kept seeing each other for a while and then one day the phone rang, and it was Rory Block. She had gotten a sweet deal to make her next album and wanted to record it in Concord, Massachusetts at a very cool studio there that she knew, and would I come East to record it. I had made an album with her at Sigma some years earlier with Bobby Eli and had gotten to know her pretty well. We had had a “vibe” as people not just professionally. I was flattered and happy to have the work, so I firmed up dates and her company flew me to Boston where I was met by someone from the studio and driven to Concord. It was April. It was beautiful there. Rory and I spent all day every day together hanging out taking in the sites like Walden Pond etc. in the day and recording at night. By the end of the week or so I was infatuated with her and on the last day we had a very intimate farewell. That did it for me… the infatuation bloomed. I was in love. I knew better. She had a very different life on the East Coast which included a somewhat estranged husband and I had a girlfriend in Los Angeles. But the heart wants what the heart wants. I went home and struggled with it for a while but eventually had to be fair and honest with Debbie. When I told her how I was feeling she was broken hearted and soon packed up and moved back to New Jersey. I was very alone then in that anyone I saw in Los Angeles was not anyone I really wanted to be with and so it never went anywhere. I was fixated on Rory. I called her often and we would talk for hours. She was periodically on and off the road which was her life. The sweet deal with that label blew up by the way and she went back to Rounder Records and started again. Sometime later the phone rings one night and it was her and she tells me her road manager just left the tour and she needed someone to take over immediately and she didn’t know what to do. She was in Seattle and knew I was down in Los Angeles and asked if I might consider helping her out. All I said was, “Don’t leave without me.” I packed a bag and was on the next flight to Seattle and got to the theater she was playing that night just as she was hitting the stage. I sat and watched her show. She blew me away. I came backstage after and she hugged me and said how happy she was that I could help her out of this jam. I helped her out immediately learning part of her touring routine. There was another singer who was with her on this trip and the next morning we were on the road together. Within a week or so he was gone, having left the tour for other gigs or after a falling out with Rory, I can’t really remember which. But now I was alone on the road with Rory in a Dodge Caravan which sometime served as our room for the night sleeping in sleeping bags in the back. I was very happy to be with her. We toured across the country from Seattle across the northern states until we got back to New York State where she lived. Over the next few years, I toured with Rory driving through every one of the 48 contiguous United States, playing in most but only passing through a few. I loved that time on the road with her. In her book, there is a picture of her with a baseball glove on. I took that shot and it reflects the great time and relationship that had developed between us. It was not ideal, but it was what it was, and I was, for a while, happy to be with her.
We had some great moments on the road. She played a benefit in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a folk club there called the Ark, where we had dinner with her old fiend and the headliner Arlo Guthrie. We stopped once in Chicago and stayed with another good friend of hers Dave Bromberg. He was at the point in his life where he played and toured much less and had taken up violin and guitar making. That was a fascinating stop. There were moments like crossing Montana in January when a giant pile of snow and slush fell off a passing semi and landed on our windshield. I froze. And I was driving at 65 MPH, at least, on an interstate and could not see a thing. Rory reached out and turned on the wipers and saved the day and our lives. I had actually panicked and momentarily froze and she had the simple solution.
One show in Butte, Montana was my most memorable. I had taken along with me a straight razor I owned. I had it with me in case I ever found myself in any serious trouble I did not use it to shave. We rolled into Butte and went to the venue and it was this giant Quonset hut building in which the public events took place. We saw that at one end of the giant room were all these pool tables many of which had been pulled together and covered with a plywood stage on which shows were performed the sound board was out in front at center as this had been done many times before. Rustic but utilitarian as often is in places where you need to be very smart when dealing with adverse conditions like Montana winters and large groups of diverse people like the locals and all the Cree Native Americans who both worked the mining and other industries of Butte in the wintertime. They were hard men who worked very hard and by the look of the place loved to play hard too. I did not think that these two groups of men would have a calm or peaceful Saturday night at all. I looked around and thought, “Oh my God, if ever I might need to fight my way out of a place on this tour, this might be the night.” We went back to our room after the sound check, and I kept those thoughts to myself but slipped my straight razor into the back pocket of my jeans. We went back in to do the show. It was completely the opposite of what I feared! She got four, yes, four standing ovations and I thought they were going to carry the two of us out on their shoulders. I was embarrassed that I had my razor with me. They were one of the best crowds I ever saw with her.
After a year or more of touring on and off, while keeping my home in Los Angeles, occasionally returning for a session or two here and there sometimes still at Wonderland, I decided I had had enough and wanted to return East. It was strange at times going from Wonderland doing thirty-two track digital recording sessions to a day or two later sitting somewhere in a folk club mixing Rory’s voice and her guitar. That was it. Three faders one for her voice one for a microphone on the guitar and one for its direct out (if we used it). Wow what a difference. Also, the huge difference of recording verses a live show. One will last, maybe a very long time on “Oldie stations”, and the other was only of the moment and then gone…
Rory and I worked together on her next album as well in Los Angeles. At some point, maybe after some time on the road we finished in Los Angeles and then went to work on her album. We programmed some drums (with my Rodger Lynn pre-MIDI drum machine which I still use to write with) for the title track of the album “I’ve Got a Rock in my Sock” and recorded it and some other tracks including “The River Is Wide” at Michael’s Bossa Nova Hotel studio. At some point, she had called me while doing the album in part back East and asked if I might ask Stevie if he would do a harmonica solo on one of her songs. I said it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I began hanging out at Wonderland looking for the right moment to ask him. He must have noticed that I was getting ready to ask for something. One of the reasons I became friends with (and not just business associates) a number of my multi-millionaire clients was that I, unlike many people in their circles, never bothered them with personal business or about money.
Once I was working with Kenny Gamble while I was assigned to Joe and Kenny was having a great day and we were rolling along with the session and into the studio came an old friend of his whom he had not seen in a very long time. Kenny’s voice and face lit up and the conversation was pleasant and full of reminiscences. However, in less than five minutes the old friend had brought the conversation around to money. He was asking Kenny for some large amount of money to invest in some project or idea the friend had in mind. I watched Kenny’s face change. It dropped to one of sadness and an underlying anger. I saw that that was obviously something that rich people have to deal with all the time. I learned that lesson simply by reading a face.
Having never had asked for anything before, Stevie was a bit surprised when I got to sit in his office and finally ask him. I’m sure he was expecting me to ask for a quarter of a million dollars to produce some new artist or something like that which people like he and Kenny and Thom got all the time. So, he finally just asked what I wanted. I said, “You know Rory Block, right? The country blues artist. Well, I wanted to know if you would play a harmonica solo on one of her songs?” He sat there silently for a moment then blurted out “Is that all? Oh, of course.” Then he stopped me from thanking him and said “Wait, can I hear the song?” I played him the cassette I had gotten from her and he said, “Oh yeah, just set it up and I’ll be there.” That happened at four AM Los Angeles time, so I waited until the next day and called her and told her the good news. She was beside herself with joy. In her book, she talks about it as a very important point in her life and career. The song was “Gypsy Boy” one of my very favorites of hers (and I love her work not just for all the great old Country Blues covers but for her as a songwriter too) second only perhaps to “Lovin’ Whiskey” which went Gold.
Next, we had to make it happen. She came out West by train (she used to and probably still hates to fly) booked a studio outside of town somewhere that was owned and run by Dennis Weaver’s son. We booked three days and told Stevie that we wanted him to come on day two if he could at 6 PM. Stevie was notorious for being late and sometimes even showing up a whole day or even more late than that. This way we had a day in the studio to get familiar with the room and add drums to the track which we weren’t yet sure if we wanted. We used Donnell Spencer Jr. who was in MYX and he nailed it. Day two arrived and I repeatedly warned an already very nervous and excited Rory that he was almost never on time, especially with this studio being so far out of town away from Hollywood. We all kind of fooled around with whatever else we had planned to record in case he was very late. Then all of a sudden, a couple of cars pulled up and there he was only a half hour or so late, apologizing, blaming the traffic. We were so happy that he had made it and almost on time that we downplayed it immediately. However, some of his people (maybe John) asked me on the side later, “Just how did you do this? How did you get him to come all the way out here? And more importantly how did you get him to show up on time? We can’t seem to ever do that!” I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders as I had no idea why either. Stevie played two amazing solos on two separate tracks. We asked him which one he preferred, and he replied in a way that was most empowering to Rory, “That’s up to you. You’re the artist. You’re the producer” I had noticed that in the middle of each solo he had taken a breath at exactly the same beat. After listening to both solos a few times, I realized what I thought would work best. I said, “Listen to this.” And played it back switching from one to the other in the middle at that beat where he had rested and taken a breath on both. I had liked the first half of one more and the second half of the other more. That made the final version which everyone agreed was the best way it worked. Rory gave me associate production credits on that song and some other work we did in Los Angeles. It might have been the first time I was credited for “associate production” work. I was always contributing all kinds of ideas in the studio many of which the producers I worked with used. I often acted as the producer when Michael Henderson did his vocals for example. For all of those many things I had contributed to many producers I was never credited but Rory gave me credit where credit was due.
I asked his people how we could thank Stevie for doing this. He certainly was not impressed with any monetary thanks. They told us to get him a gift of something that he uses a lot like luggage. So that we did, a very nice set of leather bags and cases. They had said that he was often losing things like bags and keys etc. So, we bought him a fob that attaches to your bag or keys and is activated by two sharp claps. It then beeps until you pick it up and turn it off. We gave it to him, told him what it was, and he seemed more excited about it than the gorgeous luggage. Immediately he set it up and taught it two quick claps as his “code” to operate it then he asked us all individually to see if they could reproduce his claps. No one could make it turn on. We thought, “Oh dear, this sucks. It doesn’t work and now he’s disappointed.” That was not what we wanted to deliver to him. But then he clapped, and it instantly worked. We were all amazed. So, we all tried again to reproduce the timing of his two claps. Again, we all failed. Again, he did it immediately! The man’s just simply amazing. Period! Here he is with Rory checking out the luggage. I took this picture.
Oh yeah, you’re thinking… then try this one: one night in Wonderland we were trying to get a MIDI system to sync to time code. This today is a given. Code is something we all take completely for granted now as it is built in and computers and systems in general are all so much more sophisticated. But this was when this technology was in its infancy. Without getting very technical, we were trying to have a stand-alone system follow, in time, the code being played from the tape. The only way one could know if it “locked” was to listen to it from the tape and from the source simultaneously and hear if the two stayed in time. If they did not, then one would drift behind the other in time and eventually be noticeably out of time. Well, we tried and tried with different settings on a digital delay to make the two systems lock up together. Stevie would listen to the two sources play back and almost instantly hear that they were out of time. These were differentiations of milliseconds. No one in the room could hear the delay before Stevie did. No one. I mean every musician, every engineer and every member of the tech staff. We all sat in total amazement that he could hear it long, long before we could. He would say “Nope, not working.” and we would not stop the tape until we could hear it and it was always remarkably later than him. We all were quite frustrated that night in that we were never able to sync it that way, but everyone there was astonished at his ability to hear. The man truly is a wonder.