The Spinners Live / “Love Don’t Love Nobody”
“Kiss and Say Goodbye” / “K-Jee” / “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” / “Love Epidemic”
I once, as an assistant, was requested to work a live recording in the now non-existent nightclub The Latin Casino. It was Thom Bell who wanted to record The Spinners there. Thom wanted to make sure that the music was as good as it was on the records, so he insisted on hiring a lot of orchestra players (mostly stings) and he conducted. It was a treat to hear him introduced to the fans as the man who was responsible for the fantastic sounds of the recent string of hits that the Spinners had enjoyed. What a round of applause he got! I don’t think that he left that in the final record, however. We also set up some clear plastic barriers to isolate the strings and horns as best we could from the drums and amps.
A remote truck was rented from the Record Plant in NYC I believe, and Don Murray and I were assigned by Sigma to do the recording. Don said that the assistant from the Record Plant could work in the truck with him and that I should oversee the Front of House (FOH) sound to make sure that was handled well. We had just finished doing two whole albums of songs with Thom and the Spinners the first of which New and Improved was out, but the other Pick of the Litter was not yet released. I loved one song “I’ve Got to Make It on My Own” from the first one. It was the show opener and the Spinners really burst out and ripped it up.
Well, I had never done any real FOH in my life and of course the sound guy from the Latin was feeling like everyone was stepping on his toes by putting me in over him. I was pressured greatly by him and others in the room at the time that it was not going out to the audience loudly enough and a number of people were all almost yelling that we had to pump it up. Now the only real reason I was there was to prevent the house sound from getting too loud and feeding back and hence, ruining the recording. Of course, the pressure on me made me push it up just a little too much and sure enough in the second minute or so of the first song (my favorite of the new stuff that I worked on in the studio of course) there was feedback ruining the best performance of that song. I was mortified. I still almost never listen to that album because of that bad memory.
Afterwards Thom and Don were very forgiving of me and we did record well everything else they did for two different nights to create the live album that we later mixed, was released and was very successful. It includes maybe the greatest version of a Jefferson/Simmons/Hawes tune “Love Don’t Love Nobody”. Live there were very few who could come close to the energy and performance excellence of the late great Philippe Wynne. I will relate some other great moments I shared with Philippe and the Spinners in later chapters but what a treat to see and record them live!
I was there with Sigma staff to record other Philly artists in the year or so that followed. We made albums with Major Harris and Blue Magic.
Other memorable moments from the first years that I was an assistant were sessions with Kenny Present on the Manhattan’s album produced by Bobby Martin. The single “Kiss and Say Goodbye” was a monster. Kenny recorded it and mixed it. As I recall that the Manhattans loved Kenny and Sigma and loved recording with him. Kenny was always very nervous and almost always asked his assistants to do any editing that was required. It wasn’t that he could not hear it to do it, that he had down pat; it was just that his hands were a little jittery. That made editing little bits of ¼ inch tape difficult. So, we always had to cut tape for Kenny. I was never sure if it was that he was so nervous or if it was from all the cigarettes and coffee he consumed. Carl smoked and drank a lot of coffee too but he always cut his own tape. Kenny was a great guy and always delivered the goods for his clients. His clients included Bobby Martin, John “The Monster” Davis and others from the PIR stable as well. As a team member, he worked all kinds of projects with Jay and Carl and Don as well. It was not always exclusivity in the early days. I believe that those decisions about scheduling were managed by Vivian Abbot with some input from Harry Chipetz. But in the end, if a client was even getting any studio time at Sigma, they were getting a great engineering team. Kenny at the board with Vince.
He and I always got along great and worked well together. When he arrived at Sigma after I started, he started right in as a first engineer. He never was “trained” in the procedures that we had established in Philly. I think that he worked as a first in Pittsburgh for a while before he was hired to be the next first engineer by Harry and Joe. There was some grumbling among the second engineers at the time especially the ones there long before me since they were passed over for a promotion in lieu bringing in Kenny. It was not helped by the fact that he never really learned the ropes at Sigma and depended entirely on the second engineers to make sure all things technical and procedural were correct.
K-Jee was a song performed by MFSB and was a great memory for me. I always thought that K-Jee was really K. G. or Kenny Gamble… after all Dexter Wansel once did a song called “A Prophet named K. G.” which was the first track on the first solo album he did. Anyway, it was a night session with Kenny Present engineering and me assisting. It was a rhythm date which I set up for and we had all the usual suspects, and we were to have two keyboard players: Ron Kersey or Cotton Kent (I can’t recall which) on electric piano and Leon Huff was to play on piano or organ or something… Well as we started the session Huff was not there, so we got levels on everything while the band learned the song. Bobby Martin and an old friend of Huff’s “Broadway” Eddie produced the record.
Now “Broadway” Eddie was one of the many Runyonesque characters who graced the hallowed halls of Sigma Sound from time to time. He was an entrepreneur who ran a business of some sort (a clothing or record store I believe) on Broadway in Camden New Jersey, Huff’s hometown. He was a pleasant enough fellow but with a great deal of “street” bravado. One got the sense that he was not a character with whom one should mess. I don’t think I would ever have crossed him, and neither should anyone else.
The band had run it down enough that they were killing it and we all knew it was time to record, but no Huff… So, Bobby had to say, “Let’s go” and Kenny signaled me to put the multi-track into record and Norman Harris counted it off and they began to play. No more than twenty seconds later Huff walked into the control room. He took off his coat and stood there while listening to them playing for a few minutes of the song and then suddenly, breaking all protocol of recording sessions, he opened the doors to the studio walked right in and headed for the organ. Kenny had quickly turned down the monitors as the door opened which prevented any feedback or any other problem with the recording. I turned to Kenny and said “Quick, get it turned on!” as I pointed to Huff sitting down at the organ. He saw what was happening and quickly turned on the faders that had the organ microphones plugged into them. Luckily, we had gotten the levels set earlier. So as the band was hitting the final out chorus of the song, Huff played a solo that can be heard on the last twenty or so seconds of the final record. I suggested after the take was finished that we re-record Huff from the top but as there was already a guitar solo (T.J. Tindell I think) and a sax solo by Zack Zackary, Huff and Martin declined the idea and Huff’s impromptu solo was one and done live with the band. What a night! Strings and horns arranged by Bobby Martin were ultimately added later and then it was mixed. I don’t recall if I worked either of those dates, but the record went on to be included as the second to last song in the dance contest segment of the film Saturday Night Fever and was of course included on that huge selling soundtrack album not to mention its release on the next MFSB album as well. Even though the Bee Gees were the huge blockbuster stars of that film’s soundtrack, six songs by them all of which charted very high if not all of them #1, but they also wrote two other songs in the soundtrack performed by Yvonne Elliman and another by Tavares which also were huge! But of course, the biggest and perhaps best song in the film was, “Disco Inferno” written by and produced by Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey for Baker, Harris and Young Productions and performed by the Earl Young’s Trammps! I seem to remember working on over-dub session on that track at one point as an assistant I think it was when we recorded Jimmy Ellis’ lead vocals, but I did not get to work on it again. Wow, what a monster hit!
Not every great story from my Sigma days was my story. I can’t recall who told me this one (maybe Joe Tarsia) but three or four years before I was hired Joe had recorded a big hit for Thom Bell on the Delphonics called “La La Means I Love You”. It was about the same time that Joe had opened Sigma and there were great relationships between local producers and local radio DJs. So much so that when Joe and Thom wanted to hear how the mix would sound over the air, it was arranged to have an acetate record played on air at a specific time so that they could hear it. Now it seems that just before this was to be done the station converted the station to new turntables. Joe and Thom had the test disc sent to the station and when it came on the air Joe freaked out saying, “What in God’s name is going on over there? That’s only half the mix!” Well, it seemed that when the station engineers bought and installed the new turntables that were stereo, they only plugged in one side of the stereo output so that his AM mono station was only broadcasting the left channel. Now that record was a 4-track master (which I saw once on the shelves) and had the music split on to the four tracks in the following manner: Track 1 was the rhythm track (bass, drums, all guitars, all keyboards and all percussion instruments), Track 2 was the Lead vocal, Track 3 was the orchestra track (French horns, all strings and horns), Track 4 was all the Background vocals. When Joe mixed it down to stereo the vocals were in center channel and the two music tracks were essentially panned to left and right. So, imagine how bad it was when the record went out on the air with only half the music. Joe got on the phone and talked to the station manager who had the problem fixed the next day. After all what would that song be without that signature French horn part or the rhythm track on an R&B record!
Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios had some impressive clients as I have already pointed out but another one was a guy who would occasionally come in to record orchestral tracks for his fledgling television show NFL Films. Yes, that’s right Steve Sobel would come in and record powerful music beds that helped springboard his show into the amazingly huge network that it is today. He was a great guy and he and Joe shared what seemed to be a nice friendship beyond the professional dealings. Many years later I was at a function honoring him in the capacity of the educator I became later. I got to remind him of those days, and we shared a nice moment of fond remembrances.
As the first year rolled on I had the distinct pleasure and opportunity to work with all the staff engineers. That is one of the contributing factors to the engineer I became. I learned from all of them, both in what and how we did what we did but also in how we handle clients. I could never thank them all enough.
During some dates, I saw some strange things. Once when Jacques Moreli & Henri Belolo first came to America to work at Sigma in 1974, Jay Mark was recording tracks with the house band, Baker, Harris & Young etc. Jacques, who could be a handful, said to Jay to bring up Norman Harris’ guitar. Jay did but apparently not enough and right in the middle of the take, while the tape was recording, he reached over in front of Jay and said, “I said turn it up!” He then pushed the fader all the way up which caused the recording to be distorted. Jay freaked out because after the take was complete, we had to go back and re-record that part of Norman’s guitar that was distorted. The problem came from producers not completely understanding how dual in-line consoles work. There are the faders to control the levels we record at and another section of the board, the monitor section through which we listen. Jacques should have turned up the monitor pot not the input fader, but it caused a lot of tension and wasted some time fixing it. Jacques Moreli & Henri Belolo were doing their first project in the states that came out as “The Ritchie Family”. Not long after that project Jacques went to Greenwich Village in New York and formed the Village People. They were one of the first clients at Joe’s NYC Sigma rooms where my dear friend Michael Hutchinson recorded and mixed all of their big hits; “Macho Man”, “In the Navy”, and the song that I feel still to this day has the biggest and best sounding bass drum ever, “Y.M.C.A.”! Michael in Sigma NYC Studio 5 with Jacques Moreli and the Ritchie Family.
During that first year and a half at Sigma I went through very difficult times with my first wife Linda. She left me and I held on to my job like a life raft. It was sometimes very hard to get through some nights. I remember in particular some nights working on tracks by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. One song on that album was called “I Miss You” and Teddy Pendergrass tears your heart out with his performance. I can’t tell you how hard it was to sit for hour after hour listening to it and other songs like “The Love I Lost” on that project. I was also feeling the same when we worked on other such songs on another Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes album called “To Be True”. It included all the following ‘broken heart’ songs: “I Miss You”, “Nobody Could Take Your Place”, “Somewhere Down the Line”, and of course, “It’s All Because of a Woman”. It seemed my heart broke over and over and over again.