[JPL] In a World of Singers, an Unsung Hero

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Aug 13 15:22:20 EDT 2004

In a World of Singers, an Unsung Hero

August 13, 2004

The real history of pop music over the last half-century is
as much a story of technological innovation as it is a
star-driven genealogy that connects the usual legends in an
elaborate family tree of styles and influences. To hear the
producer and recording engineer Tom Dowd describe his
pioneering role in the evolution of studio recording, from
monaural to stereo to multitracking to digital, is to begin
to understand the degree to which machines, as much as
performers, have shaped the changing sound of pop. 

Machines, of course, are useless without human engineers to
operate them. And Mr. Dowd, who is profiled in Mark
Moormann's admiring documentary "Tom Dowd & the Language of
Music," comes across as a musically sophisticated sound
technician whose respect for musicians always took
precedence over his fascination with gadgetry. Interweaving
archival snippets of performances and interviews with
musicians and record executives, most notably Ahmet
Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, the film includes
many fascinating anecdotes about the creation of some of
the most famous modern rock and soul recordings. 

Mr. Dowd, who died in 2002, began his career in the music
business when he recorded Eileen Barton's perky No. 1 hit,
"If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd Have Baked a Cake" for
National Records in 1949. In the 1950's, he became a house
engineer and producer for Atlantic and engineered
recordings by jazz greats, including John Coltrane, Ornette
Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy, as well as
rhythm-and-blues classics by Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and
the Drifters, and pop hits by Bobby Darin and Sonny and

In the mid-1960's, with Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, Mr.
Dowd was one-third of the creative triumvirate that
conceived, arranged and recorded Aretha Franklin's
pop-gospel hits, including "Respect," which Mr. Dowd had
previously recorded with Otis Redding. He traveled to
England, where he recorded Cream, and Eric Clapton recalls
how a suggestion from Mr. Dowd led to the skidding guitar
line that defined "Sunshine of Your Love." 

He went on to produce the seminal albums by the Allman
Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, which defined Southern
rock as a genre. His goal, he says, was always to record
the most balanced, close-to-live concert sound possible by
precisely mixing all the ingredients with a special
attention to the bass line. 

Thirty years after Derek and the Dominos' classic album
"Layla" was recorded, Mr. Dowd sits at a mixing board and
plays back individual instrumental tracks of the title song
to show how the parts, including the dual guitar lines of
Mr. Clapton and Duane Allman, were integrated into a
cohesive whole. One musician after another attests to the
sophistication of Mr. Dowd's ear and his easy rapport with

The man who emerges is a likable, unpretentious musical
enthusiast and roll-up-your-sleeves problem-solver who
apparently led a charmed life. The son of a concertmaster
and an opera singer, he was born and brought up in
Manhattan and studied math and science at Stuyvesant High
School. At Columbia University he did classified research
on the development of the atomic bomb. But after World War
II, he was so frustrated because the secret nature of his
research disqualified him from receiving college credit for
it that he switched careers. 

In one of the film's last moments, he sits at a piano and
picks out a version of an Irving Berlin song, "I Love a
Piano." Reciting the lyric, he displays a gusto and a love
of music that suggest a young man who has just discovered
the key to happiness and is not about to lose it. 

"Tom Dowd & the Language of Music" opens today in New York,
Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco,
Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Washington and Nashville, and on
Monday in Detroit. 


Directed by Mark Moormann; director of photography, Patrick
Longman; edited by Tino Wohlwend and Mr. Moormann; produced
by Mr. Moorman, Scott L. Gordon and Mark Hunt; released by
Palm Pictures. Running time: 82 minutes. This film is not

WITH: Tom Dowd, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, the Allman
Brothers Band, Les Paul, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aretha Franklin,
Joe Bonamassa, Tito Puente Jr., Ahmet Ertegun, Arif Mardin,
Phil Ramone, Mike Stoller and Al Schmitt. 



Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
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