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Tom Dowd

by Ted Drozdowski

Tom Dowd has one of the most revolutionary resumes in the history of American popular culture. As an engineer and producer, he cut albums and singles with an insanely diverse roster of artists, from Dizzy Gillespie to the Allman Brothers to Bette Midler to Eddie Money to Joe Bonamassa before his death in 2002. Among his studio innovations were the invention of the mixing console fader, which did away with rotary controls, and the popularizing of multi-track recording. And while in the military, he worked as a physicist on the Manhattan Project, where he assisted in developing the atomic bomb.

Paul BigsbyImagine Dowd in 1944 working on calculations in a locked-down, top-secret laboratory, helping to sow the seeds of the explosive device that would knock down Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. And just three years later he’s in a Manhattan recording studio cutting innovative bebop tunes with Charlie Parker.

In the studio, the same alert mind that made him an innovative, thorough physicist made him a ferociously omniscient engineer and producer. I was lucky enough to see Dowd in action on Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters’ masterful 1997 album, The Colour of Love, at Blue Jay Recording Studio in Carlisle, Massachusetts. At age 72, he was spry and witty, with a keen eye for the placement of microphones and musicians — who cut the disc performing live — and a keen ear for what went down on tape. As the band rolled on the first take of the title track, Dowd, in the control booth, ticked off a list to his engineer of where faders would need to be lifted, where a smidgeon of woody click sounded from the bass, where a potentially smudged note (off by a micron) might need to be replaced — all as the song unfolded.

Dowd was entirely in firm but fatherly command of the session’s great players: Earl on guitar, the Allmans’ Jaimo (Jai Johanny Johnson) on drums and the saxophone legend David “Fathead” Newman among them. And why not? He was also a virtuoso… of the control room, the recording console and the two-inch tape machine. That had been well established by his classic album credits: the Allman Brothers’ epics, At Fillmore East and Idlewild South, Derek and the Dominos’ Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Cream’s Wheels of Fire, Aretha Franklin’s Soul ’69, a pile of Eric Clapton solo albums including 469 Ocean Boulevard, Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors, Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah! and dozens more.

The history of American popular music might have been different if Dowd had not decided to turn his back on his physics. But he did not suffer fools or foolishness, and when he left the Army with intentions to expand his foundation in mathematics, he found that he could not get college credit for his work on the Manhattan Project, despite the fact that the complexity of his tasks and calculations were well beyond any curriculum of the day.

Instead, at age 22, the young math wiz turned to the studio industry. His first break came in 1949 when he cut four sides for a young singer named Eileen Barton. The first tune they recorded, “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake,” became a huge hit and raised Dowd’s stock.

That same year he cut Atlantic Records’ first R&B hit, Stick McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” beginning a long history with the label. His recordings with The Clovers, Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters all helped define the sound of rhythm and blues. In 1954, he became Atlantic’s first full-time house engineer.

Shortly afterwards, inspired by the inefficiency of the rotary faders on the soundboards of the day, Dowd devised the linear system that’s still in vogue. A few years later he began employing multi-track technology and followed in the footsteps of Les Paul, developing delay effects, phasing and other sound-altering techniques.

As a producer/engineer, Dowd used all 24 hours of each day. While the sun shone, he’d cut the pop stuff — R&B and rock tunes. And at night, the jazz legends nurtured by Atlantic co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun would make their albums. Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Lennie Tristano all make innovative recordings with the benefit of Dowd’s fine-tuned ears.

The artist who made the biggest impression on Dowd was John Coltrane. Dowd recounted that the sax giant would come to sessions an hour early to practice, running scales and making harmonic leaps in a corner of the room. “Stereo discs had not yet been introduced to the public,” Dowd recounted in the documentary film Tom Dowd & the Language of Music, which was released in 2003. But after Coltrane’s sessions “we would play the tape back that way to give ourselves a rush. ‘John is gone, the rush is still there.’”

In the ’60s, Dowd got a gig as a house soundman — at the White House, for the Kennedy Administration. But back home at Atlantic, his reputation as a jack-of-everything kept growing. One day in the early ’60s, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler dispatched Dowd to Stax Records in Memphis. Wexler was frustrated that the tape machine at Stax, which was feeding Atlantic’s distribution pipeline with giant soul hits, kept breaking down to the point where it was impeding their output of singles. Dowd single-handedly rebuilt Stax’s Ampex 350 recorder as Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Al Jackson and Booker T. Jones of house band Booker T. and the MG’s watched. When Dowd was done, they decided to road test the machine by recording a demo with singer Rufus Thomas, who’d just stopped by the studio from church with a new song in his pocket. The next morning Dowd returned to New York with the master tapes for “Walkin’ the Dog.”

In ’67, Dowd traveled to Europe with the Stax Soul Revue, enlightening The Beatles and others to eight-track recording and the sliders he’d developed for sound boards. And when he returned, he spent the rest of the decade cutting hits with a slew of artists including Aretha Franklin, the Rascals (“Good Lovin’) and Dusty Springfield (“Son of a Preacher Man”).

Dowd’s New York/Memphis axis tilted in early 1970 when Atlantic dispatched him to Miami to construct Criteria Recording Studio. After the space was built, he relocated the Dixie Flyers, a Memphis rhythm section, to the new outpost and “Atlantic Records South,” as Criteria became known, was born. The Allman Brothers’ Idlewild South and Layla soon followed, with Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing and other smashes coming out of the studio on their heels.

Dowd’s thoughtful production style was less in vogue during the ’80s, in the post-disco and post-punk era. He was equally unimpressed with most of the new artists of the day. Nonetheless, he continued his collaboration with Eric Clapton, producing Money and Cigarettes and August. He also cut hits with Tina Turner, Kenny Loggins, Pablo Cruise, Eddie Money and Meat Loaf.

Dowd’s relationship with Clapton began during the Cream era and continued throughout the rest of his career. He had a similar connection with the Allman Brothers. Dowd co-produced Shades of Two Worlds in 1991 with the band, a live album in 1992 and 1994’s Where It All Begins, which won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance.

By the year 2000, Dowd’s health was failing. Yet he stayed busy, driving himself to sessions with an oxygen tank in his car’s passenger seat. Despite emphysema, he continued to make albums, producing Joe Bonamassa’s A New Day Yesterday and part of Susan Tedeschi’s Wait for Me. In February 2002, he received a lifetime achievement Grammy, eight months before his death.

Along with peers like John Hammond, the Ertegun brothers, Jerry Wexler, Berry Gordy, Leonard Chess, Jack Holzman and a handful of other rock-era label and studio pioneers, Dowd was truly able to shape the backbone of popular music.