My first times as a First Engineer
“Living for the Weekend” / “I Lied” / Life on Mars
One of the first sessions I got to record a part of was a string and horn date for Gamble and Huff with Bobby Martin doing the arrangement. The song was “Living for the Weekend”. I was assisting Joe Tarsia and for reasons I never learned Joe was very late. I had done everything required for the session to start on time. I set up all the microphones just as he did, set up the tape recorders, as it was my job and I had run down the song for the musicians. I also had set the levels and equalized the microphones as he always had done. We waited and still no Joe. I said to Kenny and Bobby that I had this and that I was ready to record and waste no more time. So finally, Kenny said “Alright” but double-checked me that I was not erasing anything and only recording the strings. I convinced him that I was on top of it and said, “Let’s do it.” I recorded the strings on that song and doubled them as we always did. They listened back and said, “Sounds alright” But Kenny was not about to go another step forward until Joe arrived and gave his blessing to my recording. A bit later Joe did show up and was immediately made to scrutinize my string tracks. He listened to the doubled tracks then listened to the first recording. He then again checked the final doubled tracks and said that they were fine. So, on we went with recording the strings on more songs from that LP. But every time I hear those strings on the slow intro to “Living for the Weekend” I smile.
My first real “all by myself” session was for Bunny Sigler. One day after recording all day he ran upstairs to beg Vivian Abbott to get him in the studio even though he had not booked it. For some reason, a studio was available, but no First Engineer was. I had just finished up my day session and Bunny, with whom I had worked a lot, saw me standing there and said that he would do it with me. He was only overdubbing a vocal and he trusted me to be able to do it. She agreed. I do not recall if I was paid differently (I should have been and maybe I was) but I remember that the song was “I Lied” and although Bunny later re-recorded most of the performance, the out-chorus that I recorded that night was used on the final mix.
I worked a lot with Bunny. I did a few of his albums and a lot of songs for other artists for whom he wrote and produced. Most notably a bunch of songs for the O’Jays, Lou Rawls and in the early 90s a Patti LaBelle album from which came Bunny’s song “Somebody Loves You” which won Patti a Grammy. I love Bunny as a friend and respect him as one of the most talented people in Philly, let alone the world. Not many people are aware of the fact that a few years ago he sang on a new opera based on Othello and won a Grammy for it! Bunny gave me a CD at a Grammy Christmas party a few years ago. It contained 2 songs, an original song he had recently written and produced. It also had on it a version of my favorite Christmas carol “O Holy Night”. Up until that day my favorite version of that song was the classic recording by Nat King Cole. Bunny blew it away! It is fantastic! Bunny deserves to be on the Walk of Fame on Broad Street. Shocking that he is not.
Bunny has, at a number of funerals for The Sound Of Philadelphia musicians and writers, sung the Lord’s Prayer like no one I have ever heard before. When my sister Janie died, I asked Bunny to come and sing it for my family at her service. He was there without a question or a hesitation. I love Bunny for being a friend and tremendous talent and having let me be part of the history he has made. Thanks Bunny!
Bunny introduced a really great band to the Philly scene when he brought in Instant Funk. Instant Funk was Raymond Earl, Scott Miller, Kim Miller, Johnny McCants and (sometimes) T. Life. They were a tremendous rhythm section and there was a vocal group as well called TNJs (short for Trenton New Jersey). They are featured on Bunny Sigler’s version of “Love Train” which I recorded (mostly live BTW) and mixed.
It appears on one of PIR’s compilation reissues. Instant Funk was the rhythm section for a number of Bunny’s solo albums as well as Bunny’s productions for many artists on and off the PIR label. The rhythm section however was extremely funky. They were used by a number of the PIR house production teams. I think the first time I actually recorded them was on Dexter Wansel’s first solo album Life on Mars. They backed Dexter on the title track. I later recorded maybe two albums of Instant Funk tunes produced by Bunny Sigler. These were early in my time as a first engineer and were very challenging at times. Not because I had trouble engineering it, but because Bunny and Instant Funk loved being in the studio and were almost always “partying” as we worked! At times it went like this: there would be so many people in the control room as I was trying to mix that the volume of all of them talking and laughing was so loud that I had trouble hearing the mix without turning it way up! That is not a wise thing to do when working with clients whose sessions are sometimes marathons, not sprints. So, I would finally stand up and scream at all of them to take it out in the hall or the lobby. They would comply, but of course Bunny as the producer stayed and over the next half hour to an hour, one by one the band and their friends would slip back in to hear how the mix was progressing. Sure enough, almost every hour or so I was screaming again to have a chance at hearing my mix! They were really great guys and I enjoyed working all the very many sessions I did with them. Man, they really were and still are a tremendously funky band!
My first legitimate session on which I was booked as a first engineer was a rare Saturday date with an artist from Cape May, NJ named Michael Garrett. My dear friend Michael Hutchinson was assigned as my assistant. There was a bit of an uncomfortable feeling about that as Michael had started months before me and like Dirk Devlin and Art Stoppe who also all started before me did not yet get the promotion to First Engineer. In fact, I was the most rapidly promoted assistant in the history of Sigma Sound Studios.
The Michael Garret sessions were “spec” sessions that I was paid for but were part of a deal Harry Chipetz had made to get a demo for this artist. The songs were great. I recently archived them from the ¼ inch tape copies I had made after finishing all five songs that I did during that first session and another one more within the next six months or so. I believe he never got a deal because he sounded a lot like George Harrison. He could sing great, he wrote his own material and also played excellent guitar! I still love listening to those tunes.
After that first session Michael and I went out to eat dinner because in our excitement to record some Rock and Roll and my first session, we never ate … all day. So, we went to a restaurant called “The Rusty Scupper” near the river off of South Street. My treat! We were so hungry it wasn’t funny. We ordered this great soup they served in a bowl made of bread. I was so hungry as I was wolfing down my salad and the waiter was about to take my soup away and my mouth was so full of food, I couldn’t speak so I reached out and struck the waiter in the back of his hand with my fork, so he wouldn’t take the soup away. Michael laughed so hard I think his soup went up his nose! Needless to say, when my main course came the waiter tossed it in front of me from maybe a foot away! We all laughed so much. Michael so supported me in that session that day that I split the commission on the session with him. I didn’t have to, and he tried to stop me, but I did it anyway.
The first album I got to finish most of was an album for Carl Carlton. I remember being very nervous because I was promoted so quickly that I was a bit unsure about being completely ready. I stepped up and did the best that I could and like any venture in your life you learn as you go along and learn from your mistakes. Other First Engineers stepped up to see to it that my mixes worked in the album by equalizing my mixes a bit more to get them to match the work of the experienced engineers that also worked on the album. Thanks guys!
The first album I recorded at least half or more of and mixed and oversaw the mastering was Dexter Wansel’s Life on Mars. Jay did record some of the album, but I did a great deal of it and I was the mixer and engineer who oversaw the mastering. Once again, the team that made up “The Sound Of Philadelphia” that Sigma was known for stepped up for me. This time it was the great mastering engineer Nimitar Sirakanda. Wow was he great! He mastered all of PIR’s work for Joe and just about everyone else’s too. I remember after he got the tapes of my mixes, he sent me the first acetate record of the album and a note to call him. I did, and he told me what was lacking and what I needed to do on all future mixes. Essentially, he told me to mix brighter as we needed to put more highs on the tape and not to have to boost them later. He did bail me out on that one for sure. One thing I remember doing with Dexter in the final session was as we spliced each song to one another with a one second and a half white paper leader between songs (these are where the “blank” lines between the songs appear on the disc) Dexter wanted 2 songs to not have a gap of silence between them. So, I cut the tail end of the fade of one song and the first second or so of the fade–in of the next song directly out of the master 2 track tape. Now in those days it was Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to keep everything that was edited out like that by splicing it back into the reel after the album ended. However, Dexter and I were so sure that we loved how it sounded now that we never did return that two and half seconds of tape and leader to the reel. I draped it around my neck and ended up wearing it home. When I got home, I noticed it was still on me and I hung it over the rack where I had my home recording and stereo gear mounted. I have moved two or three times since then and I am crazy enough to tell you that I still have it hanging in my home studio, which I call The Vinyl Room and in which I recorded every note of my last CD. I loved that record that I made with Dexter! A lot of people still do. I got an email just last year from a fan of that record asking me a question about it!