Working some classic hits!
“Ten Percent” / “Bad Luck” / “Wake Up Everybody”
“Close the Door” / “Then Came You”
Changes to the team: Resurrection Rhythm Section
One night soon after being promoted to a First Engineer I was booked in Studio 2 with Norman Harris for a mix session. He showed up with Ron Tyson (who co-wrote the song and is now one of the Temptations) and as I was getting the first tracks up Norman sat down next to me and said, “Jim, we need a hit! Come on and mix us one, alright?” Of course, I said, “Of course I will!” We proceeded to mix a song called “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure. And it was a hit! It was strange for me to be booked with Norman as he almost always worked with Carl and Dirk. I was so lucky.
Only a year or two ago I heard from Joe Harris (no relation to Norman) the lead singer from Double Exposure, and I did some transfers from tape to CD for him of TV tracks that they are still using to perform to when a live band is not in the budget. It was a Sigma policy to create an additional mix with the lead vocal muted after each tune was done, so it would be the full track with the background singers included. These tapes were used on TV shows like Soul Train for the groups to sing to on air. Sometimes groups only lip synced to the actual record itself. But many used our TV tracks so the lead vocalist could sing live. I once had to mix a TV track for Kenny Gamble of “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul in 1991. Joe made that record in 1972. I was challenged to get the 16-track to sound like Joe’s mix. The echo was a real acoustic chamber that existed between the studio and the hallway that led to the back rooms where the rest rooms and storage areas were. That room was removed to make more room in Studio 1 when it was renovated around 1980. It was hard to use that acoustic chamber in a mix because if someone walked down the hall as you recorded the mix, you might hear their footsteps in the final record! If we were using it we had to post signs or have an Assistant Engineer wait in the hall and not allow anyone to walk down the hall as we printed the final version of the mix to tape.
Some classic TSOP tunes I got to work on include Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass’ “Bad Luck”. Joe had been asked by Gamble to open the old Cameo Parkway Studio B in his 309 South Broad Street building as yet another Sigma studio. They came to an agreement and Sigma’s third studio in Philly opened in late 1975 inside the PIR offices, literally right next to Kenny’s office on the third floor. Across the hall were small writing rooms where teams of writers worked penning tunes for the PIR stable of artists. PIR did not exclusively book 309. It was a Sigma room and when PIR did not book it others did. This was sometimes very interesting as artists, producers and record executives from outside PIR and the PIR establishments were sometimes a bit uncomfortable working in this way.
Back to “Bad Luck”, with every new studio there has to be a first session. Gamble and Joe were ready to give 309 its first shot and the MFSB rhythm section was booked at 309 at night I think, which was also unusual for Gamble for cutting rhythm tracks. Well, the guys came in and we set up in our new space with its drum booth, which did not sit well with Ronnie Baker and Earl Young. Ronnie always sat next to Earl’s drums and could look at Earl’s left foot as they played allowing him to lock his bass with Earl’s bass drum. Now Earl was in a booth on the far end of the room. Nonetheless, the band stepped up to try jamming to a tune that McFadden, Whitehead and Carstarphen had just written. Baker started playing that bass line which is an E scale running backwards I am told but really funky whatever it is. Interestingly, Joe had a bit of a problem with the drums as it was the first-time recording drums in that booth and the hard wood walls of the drum booth bounced a lot of high-hat cymbals back into the other microphones. This turned out to be hard to change in the final mix, but it worked nonetheless and in fact influenced the entire world of Disco in terms of how much high hat was in the mix from that record on, as well as the pattern that Earl played as groundbreaking and was much copied! I enjoyed assisting Joe on that track, as the band was remarkable as always!
Also, while assigned to Joe, I was privileged to be there for every note of “Wake Up Everybody”. McFadden, Whitehead and Carstarphen again had written the song and were in the studio the day we cut the track. On this day Gamble, Tarsia and I sat behind the board as Teddy, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead sang the lyrics in the corner of the control room. Huff played grand piano and Vic Carstarphen played that great Fender Rhodes part that starts the song. The band was learning it and playing with Huff arranging the track, as he always did, while we in the control room listening to Teddy, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead singing the song. As we looked back and forth at each other we all knew but no one would say out loud that not only were we making a hit record, but we were making history even though not one note had yet to be recorded. There was often a fear of jinxing records so sometimes people would not even say the words “That’s a hit!” out loud. This was one of those times. I was lucky enough to be on every session for that song, that tracking session, the vocal dates and the strings and horns. The last session was the mix, but before we started it, Kenny said I think I want a tambourine, so I set it up and Kenny played it himself. After that Joe, Kenny and I mixed it. I was honored to have been a part of one of the best TSOP masterpieces ever.
It is interesting to note that the band that played on “Bad Luck” and the band that played on “Close the Door” were not entirely the same band. It just so happened that about the time Baker, Harris and Young were finishing cutting the tracks for Family Reunion they had decided to confront Gamble and Huff about money. BHY were making successful records of their own by now and they felt comfortable to challenge Gamble and Huff in demanding some kind of cut of the pie. I never knew of any of the details of what they had asked for, but I was there as it was happening. In short, the answer was “No!” BHY made the mistake of saying something like that they were The Sound of Philadelphia and that without them Gamble and Huff (G&H) would never get another hit. Of course, as time has shown with both the Motown scene and the Memphis scene, that was not the case. Thom Bell had decided to make a change with the rhythm section just at the same time because BHY were becoming less dependable in terms of showing up and even being available. In fact, the very next track that Thom Bell cut without them was “Then Came You”, and of course Gamble and Huff cut every record they made after Family Reunion without them as well.
As is often told in similar stories the big guys like Barry Gordy etc. are depicted as the greedy, opportunistic persons who ripped everyone off. I have to state that even though I was not involved in any financial aspects of TSOP, I am aware that in the late sixties and early seventies, Gamble could have exclusively signed each and every one of the entire MFSB music machine. From Earl Young on drums right down to Walter Phiel on concert harp, Don Renaldo and every single string and horn player. And I am sure that if at that time such an offer had been put in front of them, each and every one of them would have signed. But Gamble didn’t do that. In fact, instead, around 1974 or 1975, he signed them all as artists non-exclusively. That meant they could still be paid for work as the Salsoul Orchestra, the Monster Orchestra and all the individual sessions that came to them through Sigma. That also meant that from all the MFSB records that PIR made from that point on, a small (albeit most likely very small as it was split between all of them) royalty payment came to all those individuals as members of MFSB. That never happened with anyone else, not Salsoul Orchestra, the Monster Orchestra nor any of the individual sessions that came to them through Sigma for which they were paid as session sidemen per hour or per song I presume depending on the individual project.
It was interesting to me how it evolved from that day on. BHY had Golden Fleece records and Vince Montana Jr. did the Salsoul Orchestra stuff. Other members of the original band like Bobby Eli continued to write and produce hits on his own on the side with other labels but still played guitar for Gamble and Huff and for Thom Bell. Larry Washington played for everyone! There were other keyboard players who graced a lot of records recorded at Sigma. Sometimes it was a co-writer of the song like Vic Carstarphen on “Wake Up Everybody!” But others are noteworthy as well. Lenny Pakula was an organ player that often played on PIR tracks while Huff played piano. I remember him doing arrangements too. But my favorite project with Lenny Pakula was the Bobby Rush album I recorded that Huff produced. Wow was that funky! Ron Kersey was a great keyboard player as well. He worked a lot with BHY but sometimes with G&H too. He co-wrote “Disco Inferno.” That made him enough money that he moved to Los Angeles and bought a house and put a small studio in it. Out there he worked a lot with Jeffery Osborne and Stevie Wonder.
Just liked the Motown scene, when the demand got too great on the house band to be the road band for all the acts and even the recording schedule became too demanding because of the increasing stable of artists, there were more musicians added. In effect, then came the next generation so to speak. For G&H the new drummers were Charles Collins from Duke Williams and the Extremes and also depending on availability Keith “Lead Foot” Benson. Another drummer and programming wiz that G&H used for years was Quinton Joseph. His nickname was “Zob”. He started years ago in Chicago and worked on sessions for the Chi-lites and many others. In the mid 70’s he was invited to play in Philly for G&H and played on some very big hits. He and Huff worked for many years with MIDI systems and programmed a lot of records in the later years at PIR. Jimmy Williams was used on bass. Jimmy has been in the road band for the O’Jays forever and still is! Dennis Harris on guitar is the nephew of Norman Harris and holds his own as a great professional. I love the work I did with him as a writer on a track or two he wrote and produced. I really loved working with him on “Redwood Beach” and “Old San Juan” by MFSB.
Thom Bell used Bob Babbitt of Motown fame on bass. He used Andrew Smith on drums and sometimes Charles Collins. Tony Bell, Thom’s brother was on guitar. Thom also used Ed Shea on vibes. He used Bill Neale on Guitar as well.
I came in one morning to work on a Thom Bell session and Vivian said to me, “Jim, this is Peter Humphreys, he’s our new assistant and he will be training with you until further notice. Show him the ropes”. So, Peter and I went in and began setting up for a string and horn overdub session on a song called “Then Came You” by Dionne Warwick and the Spinners. After we finished setting up all the microphones, we went into the control room and began setting up the multi-track recorder. Thom Bell arrived after Don Murray, the First Engineer, and we proceeded to work on just that song. This was unique in that normally on a string date we would do three or four songs in a single day. But this day Tom was just trying to finish this one song: the single. So, Thom went in with the string players and worked on the arrangement while we proceeded to get levels and record the strings while Thom conducted. After the strings were recorded those musicians left, very surprised there were no other songs to record. Peter and I went out and reset the microphone set up for the horns. Thom then worked on the arrangement with the horn players, Don again got the levels and we recorded the horns. The players were again surprised to only be working on one song and then they left. Thom then returned to the control room and said, “Ok, let’s mix it.” As Don and I began setting up the control room for the mix Peter was very observant, watching every move we made. Once we got deep into the mix, we began to realize that we were going to need more than six hands on the board to do all the things we wanted to do. In the intro and throughout the song there is a guitar part played by Bobby Eli, which usually had plenty of effects on it but in this case, we added even more effects. We had a manual phasing effect device that Peter operated and I panned it stereophonically from left to right as it played. Peter Humphreys phased this guitar while I panned it and Don and Tom were riding the strings, horns and vocals. We manually mixed the hit single “Then Came You” in “real-time” that afternoon. That record was a Gold selling single and helped promote the Gold selling sales of the album New and Improved by the Spinners. Peter had worked his first day on the job and had hands on contributed to making a hit record. Not a bad first day on the job! Not bad at all!
Peter went on to become a First Engineer at Sigma and worked a great deal with Grover Washington Jr. as well as many others. Years later he and Nimitar bought the mastering company Frankford/Wayne Mastering Labs, which was just down the street form Sigma, and renamed it Masterwork Recording. Peter and Nim were the greatest! They were the “go to” company in Philly and many came from all over the world to master their records at Masterworks. Peter and Joe Kraus who worked for Joe later, have mastered every one of my albums and will do the next. Sadly, at a very young age, Nimitar went to bed one night and had a heart attack in his sleep and never woke up. He was a fantastic person and was loved and terribly missed by the entire Philly music community. Nim bailed me out on the first album I ever mixed. I’ll never forget how years later he would call me up complaining about how I was mixing some Disco records in which I was doing crazy stuff like panning the hi hat radically full left and right in tempo to the music. This would require the cutting stylus of the record to move more radically too. In fact, treble information like that required the cutting stylus to move up and down a lot more than usual. This prompted Nim with his Thai accent to holler at me, “Jim, too much wertical! Too much Wertical!” I loved Nim for the positive and giving person that he was. He was loved by and is missed by many.