Rock and Roll!
Duke, James and Good God!
Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall
Don Murray is a wonderful man. He was a very close friend and the engineer I spent a lot of time with while having been requested by Thom Bell. Don has been nominated for more Best Engineered LP Grammys than perhaps anyone who had ever worked at Sigma. Ironically that happened because he was the first of the “original” staff of First Engineers to ever leave the very successful Sigma stable. At the time I understood, because Thom Bell had moved to the West Coast. Now Thom moved to a town outside of Seattle, Washington, but Don moved to Los Angeles. Don picked up clients in Los Angeles, like Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin (GRP All-Star Band), Larry Carlton, Hiroshima and a list of others that is just amazing! He mixed “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” by the Jacksons just to name one as an example of all the varied success he has enjoyed. I am sure I voted for him to win a Grammy for Best Engineered Album maybe 10 times! He did win at least one, but his body of work is truly remarkable.
He and I worked on four or five Spinners albums, Dionne Warwick’s Track of the Cat album and much more while he was still on staff at Sigma. The first time he returned as a freelance engineer was a note-worthy project. The band was a local Philly rock group called Johnny’s Dance Band. He and MFSB cellist Larry Gold were co-producing the band’s first record. He had recorded the basic tracks elsewhere but had come back to Sigma to overdub Larry Gold on a track or two. I was so surprised to find that he had thrown out the conservative “correct” Sigma approach to recording! I was astonished to see him re-align the multi-track tape recorder himself to a different operating level than we usually used. He then proceeded to very unorthodoxly record Larry’s cello as if it were an electric guitar! He ran the microphone’s audio signal through a compressor and then ran a microphone cable out of the outboard gear (i.e. the compressor) to the back of the tape recorder directly into the machine’s input! This was so radical compared to the “Sigma standards” that it simply blew my mind! He refused to use the board for anything but as a way to listen to playback! Everything we recorded on that session was not through the board (the control room console)!
This is remarkable as he went on in Los Angeles to become one of the most in demand engineers for jazz! He was remarkable in his ability to adjust to whatever client or style of music he was faced with as a freelance engineer. Years later I moved to Los Angeles myself and took some more lessons from his bag of tricks. I could never thank him enough for all that I learned about every aspect of the business at his side. I am proud to have assisted him on all those Spinners’ records in particular. Wow, what a string of hits we did with Thom Bell! Don and I did everything from “Mighty Love” to “Rubberband Man”.
I even assisted Don on the Elton John EP that Thom Bell produced when they came back to Philly, as Thom almost always did, to record the strings and horns with Don Renaldo and the MFSB orchestra.
In the ten years that I was at Sigma, we could count on one hand the number of real Rock and Roll records we made there. Yes, we were the premiere studio for R&B and dance records perhaps in the world, but almost every engineer on the staff were young white guys who loved our Rock and Roll. Of course, there was the David Bowie Young Americans album, but the others were not as well known, but equally enjoyed by our staff who got to work on them.
There was a night I recall that I came into the control room of Studio 1 late after both sessions were finished in Studios 1 and 2. Carl Paruolo was sitting at the board playing a record over and over. It was Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way”. I asked Carl what was up and he said that he knew in a week or two he would be recording Duke Williams and the Extremes’ first album called A Monkey in A Silk Suit is Still a… for Capricorn Records which was the label to which the Allman Brothers Band were signed. That title is written on the cover in a circle which is kind of clever… He was concerned that he could get the kind of sounds that he heard on the Joe Walsh record or the Allman Brothers Band stuff. We knew all about getting great sounds on the R&B stuff we did week after week, year after year but he said, “Listen to those guitars! Hell, even the acoustic guitars sound huge! I hope I can do it that well!” Carl, like Don Murray, Kenny Present and Jay Mark, was as good as anyone but it was about Rock vs. R&B.
The sessions came in 1973 and Carl was more than ready, and the final product was fantastic! Duke got signed for a second record and that album, Fantastic Fedora, was recorded at Sigma as well in early 1974. However, they tried having Joe mix some of it and I assisted on some of that. I also assisted on one track of the first album (“Ain’t No Ladies on the Street Tonight”) but I never got a credit on either record. These things happened… a lot. And sometimes it was the other way around. I am sure that PIR credited me on a few records that I never worked on… C’est La Vie!
My favorite memory of the Duke stuff however happened one night when I was working downstairs in Studio 2 with Thom and Don probably and I went out in the hall for some reason and there was Duke walking up and down the hall with a cup in each hand seeming somewhat uneasy. I asked him what was up and if there was anything I could do for him. He said, “No I am overdubbing a scream on a track upstairs and I am trying to ease my throat with this tea and honey and this whiskey.” I stopped up at one point and there was Duke screaming his Rock and Roll pipes out on a track called “Chinese Chicken”. It is one of the funkiest Rock and Roll tracks you will ever hear. The drums and bass are Earl Young and Ronnie Baker from the house band. Larry Washington is playing congas too. The guitars are T. J. Tindall and Bobby Hartnagle of the Extremes. Also, there is a great percussion track from Earl Scooter also of the Extremes. Duke and Cotton Kent on keyboards and that one awesome Rock and Roll scream by Duke: one of the best ever. It would make Little Richard proud! Check it out on the first Duke album called A Monkey in a Silk Suit is Still a… For the second album, called Fantastic Fedora, the band went out and spent some serious cash on new suits and hats for the cover photo shoot. The funny thing was by the time the cover was done each member was barely over an inch high and you could not see the finery of the clothes they were sporting. The best laid plans…
Another rock record we made for Capricorn was an album for the James Montgomery Band in the summer of 1973. Don Murray engineered it and I sometimes assisted. I remember that the last track was the only song that James Montgomery had written, and it also featured his drum solo. Well, on a session I did not work on, a mistake occurred that caused one side of the stereo drums to be erased. Oh My God, that was horrible. Don of course did everything he could to “fix it in the mix”. I worked that session. He did what could be done.
Mistakes will happen in the most responsible studio environment. One of the worst I was ever aware of happened during an O’Jays session on a song titled “When the World’s at Peace”. This mistake happened before I started working at Sigma. Joe had been doing strings and horns, but he had to leave. Jay took over when they switched from one song to the next. Unfortunately, the last two tracks that had been recorded were left in the “record ready” state, meaning that those tracks were ready to be recorded. When the horn section was rehearsed, and the arranger was ready to record, Jay put those tracks in record and recorded the horns. Then Kenny Gamble said, “Let me hear it with the vocals”. Try as he could, he couldn’t play them back because he had presumed that the tracks left armed were the tracks that Joe had selected for the horns on that song. They were not! They were the tracks that the horns were recorded on for the previous song that Joe had been working on. The lead vocal tracks of Eddie Levert and Walter Williams had been erased when the horns were recorded. Worse, the O’Jays were on tour in Europe by then! There was much freaking out as one might imagine. Sigma had to pay to fly Walter and Eddie back from England and then back to England or wherever they were and pay for the session to re-record the lead vocals again. Of course, according to Kenny, those new vocals were never as good as the ones that had gone on to magnetic heaven, and Jay and Joe almost never heard the end of it! But I love the vocals that are on the record. Walt and Eddie never really ever gave a bad performance! I recently found out, as a result of the film being made about Joe Tarsia and Sigma Sound, that the O’Jays for decades had thought that I had erased those vocals! The irony is that the Backstabbers album on which that track appeared was finished some 6 months to a year before I was hired! So, Eddie and Walt, I could never have done it!
There was another album we did at Sigma that was out of the usual R&B mold. It was a self-titled record by Good God. Skip Drinkwater, Dennis Wilen and Jay Mark produced it and Jay and Carl recorded it. The music was Jazz Fusion and our staff loved it! The band consisted of some great Philly musicians; John Ransome on bass, his brother Hank on drums and vocals, Greg Scott on sax, Cotton Kent on keyboards, sax and vocals and Larry “Zeno Sparkles” Cardarelli on guitar and vocals.
I had a strange encounter involving Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in my years before my music career began. During the summer of 1968 I was living in Los Angelas. I was, and still am, a great fan of the art of Salvador Dali and the Surrealists and Dadaists. At the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art that summer there was a show featuring the Surrealists and Dadaists. As part of the show, outside on a balcony was an environmental construction by Dali called “Rainy Day Taxi”. It was an old (1938 or so) taxicab that Dali had placed in a large metal tray and had run copper pipes from the back up under the roof of the cab. The pipes had holes in them and were attached to a pump hidden in or under the trunk. This meant that it was always raining inside the taxi. Also, there were two mannequins inside: the one in the driver’s seat was dressed as a cabdriver from that time period and the other, a female, in the back seat as a passenger, wore nothing but a shark jaw around her neck like a necklace. Inside were some plants, snails and local insects thriving in the Los Angeles climate. It was an interesting work of art as it was alive in part and therefore always in a state of change. One day I went to see that show on a weekday afternoon and as I stood there taking it in, I could not help but notice something even more surreal! Standing around the taxi with me were some of the strangest people I had ever seen. Remember… this was the summer of 1968 and I was hanging out with some of the freakiest people in the world almost every night on Sunset Strip. But these people were so far beyond what I had seen up to that point that they distracted me from the taxi! I remembered them very well because about three years later I was living in Philly and had still not yet started my music career but was living in a trinity near South Street with two roommates. In the “trinity” across the courtyard from ours were living two artists, Danny Shepps and John Clark. One night they came over to our house to party with us and heard me listening to Frank Zappa and John said, “Have you heard Captain Beefheart?” Well, we had not but that night we sure did! His music absolutely blew my expanded mind! I went out and got some of his records. Beefheart’s most strange and highly praised album is Trout Mask Replica produced by Frank Zappa. It was recorded in Los Angeles in the summer of 1968. On the cover are pictures of the good Captain and his Magic Band standing on a bridge somewhere in Los Angeles. They are wearing the same clothes in that picture that they wore the day they visited the Los Angeles. Museum of Modern Art to see the Surrealism and Dada exhibit. I knew it for sure as I read the cover while listening to the album and seeing that here is a short instrumental at the end of one of the sides of the record called “Dali’s Car”! I never spoke with them that day but how I wish I had! Take a look at that cover sometime and imagine seeing all of them walking around in the middle of a weekday at a museum looking like that! Hey, even at a party on the strip on a Saturday night they would have turned a lot of heads!
One night after a session I came upstairs to turn in the paperwork, and I heard rock music coming from Studio A. I went in and saw Carl and Dirk and maybe Don or Kenny (I was most likely assisting one of them) sitting around the control room looking somewhat amazed. We had been rolling along for years now racking up hit after hit and constantly being lauded in all the trade magazines as one of, if not the best sounding studios in the business. So of course, we were proud and maybe even a bit cocky and full of ourselves. It is hard to argue with success. But there we were sitting and listening to a phonograph record, not a master tape mind you, because master pro–level tapes sounded way superior to pressed vinyl discs, and we were being shocked at how huge and tremendously clean and awesome it sounded! The record was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Now almost everyone knows that records coming out of Abbey Road Studios by the Beatles and Pink Floyd and others had almost always sounded great but somehow, we felt that this time they somehow had blown the lid off it all!
One of the reasons we were so impressed was because we had on virtually every TSOP record that we made, there was a huge rhythm section, an arrangement of orchestral components (which we now could record separately and make sound even better), professional women background singers, and the group itself, like the O’Jays for example, who had not one but two lead vocalists! In that same regard we were almost always doubling vocals or giving the lead singer, like Teddy Pendergrass on “Wake up Everybody!” two performance tracks so that they could sing along with themselves. Now part of our success was the great arranging that wove these many elements together and our ability as engineers to mix it all so that it best presented it all. That part of our contribution cannot be underestimated. I can remember mixing a number of records that the arrangers and the producers had put everything that I just mentioned together in one song … and it did not work. It only ever worked as the engineer muted and removed parts that were redundant and featured less of what was originally recorded.
Dark Side of the Moon however did not have all of the many TSOP components that we used to make our records sound big. Pink Floyd was at the time a four-piece rock and roll band: a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist and a keyboard player. It did have one saxophone overdub on one song and some professional background singers on a song or two, but it sounded immense! We all sat there astonished and many of us started thinking, “Oh well, back to the drawing board.”
About five years later this scene repeated itself when Pink Floyd released The Wall. On that record, they did use some orchestration and did record it in a number of other great studios but there was only one thing that they had on that record that we did not: the new (first ever) digital reverb unit from Lexicon. That, we realized, was not what was making the difference. It was how huge they were making the basics of the rhythm section sound. We wondered how they were getting acoustic guitars and the drums sounding so big. We almost never got to record acoustic guitars and even when we recorded electric guitars there were two or three of them in a seven to nine-piece rhythm section that did not receive the time or attention taken for Rock and Roll. Another issue with electric guitars was the size of the rooms that we had to record in verses the huge rooms they used and the layering of overdubbed guitar after guitar playing the same part. We never got to do that on anything but the very few rock records we got to record, and even then, no high ceilings (for that huge sounding ambient space) and no giant budget to do it over and over and over again to get it as immense sounding and as perfect as possible.
Here is a shot of a few of the staff at a party. L to R: Dirk Devlin, Joe Tarsia, myself and Arthur Stoppe.