The Allman Brothers Band

Life, work of recording pioneer Tom Dowd in new DVD

By ADRIAN SAINZ, Associated Press Writer
23 October 2004, Associated Press Newswires

MIAMI (AP) – Ray Charles, Eric Clapton and Gregg Allman called him a friend. Many others in the music industry called him a pioneer of modern recording techniques.

Regardless, few music fans know the vast influence of Tom Dowd.

From his work engineering jazz and R&B songs for Atlantic and Stax Records, to his collaboration with Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band, to the long legacy of Criteria Studios in Miami, Dowd was a fixture in the background scenery of American music history for more than half a century.

Dowd was 77 when he died of natural causes in Miami on Oct. 27, 2002, but his story has risen from obscurity in a documentary called “Tom Dowd & the Language of Music.” The film covers a career that spanned the eras of direct-to-vinyl to digital recording.

The film, available on DVD, won praise at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and features rare clips of John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Thelonius Monk and others who benefited from the work of Dowd.

“The idea was to get Tom the recognition he deserved,” said Mark Moormann, the film’s director.

Dowd’s story wasn’t fully told when he was alive, but Moormann certainly tried, taking about seven years to complete the project as he struggled to find financial backing.

The slim, energetic Dowd is featured throughout the documentary, telling stories behind his salt-and pepper beard. One of the interviews shows Dowd struggling with his breathing.

The film winds its way through old photographs, vintage video and revealing interviews with artists such as Clapton and Charles. In a magical scene, the blind Charles talks about Dowd before the engineer informed the star that Dowd was in the room the entire time.

Dowd was so important to Charles’ music, his character is portrayed in the biopic “Ray,” which hits theaters Oct. 29. Dowd’s character is played by actor Rick Gomez, who studied the documentary.

“Everybody was telling me he’s this Forrest Gump … of music, and in Mark’s documentary you see it,” Gomez said. “His journey is so interesting.”

The documentary details how a Dowd, at age 16, began working on the top-secret Manhattan Project. For several years, Dowd conducted work on the U.S. nuclear program, and went to the South Pacific to study bomb tests and mushroom clouds.

He returned to New York City and, relying on his musical education as a youth, left nuclear physics and started working as a sound engineer. A fresh-faced Dowd freelanced in music studios, learning that recording rules were made to be broken when common sense was involved.

The film discusses how, in 1947, Dowd put a microphone in front of each instrument in the recording studio. He’s credited with that recording innovation — before then, musicians played around a single mike.

He mastered the art of mixing, which back then was done instantly, as the song was being recorded directly onto a record. Dowd also persuaded his bosses that recording on 1/4-inch magnetic tape was better than direct-to-disc, one-shot recording.

Dowd kept breaking ground throughout the 1950s, using his knowledge of science and music. He built a library of stereo recordings before anyone else, allowing Atlantic Records to be ahead of the curve when stereo technology developed.

With Atlantic, he helped develop the first multitrack recording system, which allowed engineers, for the first time, to have several tries to make the perfect recording.

Then, in a visit to guitar legend Les Paul’s house, he saw the first-known eight-track recording machine and was fascinated. Paul was using the machine to record and mix separate guitar and voice tracks into songs.

“A whole new art form opened up,” Dowd says in the film.

He built his own eight-track system and started using it in the late 1950s, years before it became used on the West Coast, the South and in Europe. The revolutionary design is the precursor of the modern sound board — he even invented the sliding faders that replaced unwieldy knobs.

“If you put out an album — it could be any album — that was made after 1940, you owe him and Les Paul a bit of gratitude,” said blues guitarist Joe Bonnamasa, whose 2000 album “A New Day Yesterday” was the last full-album Dowd produced and engineered. “The invention of multitrack and the move from four to eight tracks opened up doors.”

Dowd then took his knowledge to the capitals of recording. He stopped in Memphis, Tenn., where he hooked up with Stax Records and Redding. Dowd also went to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he recorded Franklin’s “Respect.”

After moving to Miami, he teamed up with The Allman Brothers Band — and it was Dowd who helped unite Clapton and Duane Allman for the laydown of “Layla.” The guitar greats played together on the cut, credited to Derek and the Dominos.

In the film, photos show Dowd clean-shaven at times, shaggy-haired with a goatee and a short cigar in others.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Dowd helped establish Criteria Studios as a recording Mecca. Artists from the Bee Gees and Brandy to the Eagles and Britney Spears have cut albums — or CDs — in association with the North Miami studios.

In 1992, Dowd was among seven recipients of a Grammy award for album notes, having co-written the liner for Franklin’s “Queen of Soul — The Atlantic Recordings” album. Ten years later, Dowd received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Throughout his travels, Dowd made friends wherever he went, and some artists used the word “love” in the documentary.

“Put it to you this way, he’s probably the most positive human being you’ll ever meet,” producer Phil Ramone says in the film. “He was kind of a role model for me.”

Dowd wasn’t filthy rich when he died, living in a Miami-area apartment. He left behind his wife, Cheryl, a daughter, Dana, and sons Todd and Steven.

Standing among rows of platinum and gold albums that line the walls of Criteria, Dana Dowd, 26, says her father’s warmth, generosity and love of music attracted people to him.

“I want everyone to be able to see what a spectacular person he was,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for more.”


NOW SHOWING: “Tom Dowd and the Language of Music,” is available for purchase at retail outlets and on Internet sites. It will also be shown on the Sundance Film Channel beginning in early November.


On the Net:

Language of Music:

(c) 2004. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.


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