Tom Dowd & The Language of Music

by Bob Putignano

One day prior to the official release of the documentary "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music," I had the opportunity to assemble and record the documentary's producer/director Mark Moorman and legendary record producer Joel Dorn to talk about the life and significance of music producer/recording engineer Tom Dowd.

For those not familiar with Tom Dowd, Tom's credits include recording sessions with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, The Allman Brothers, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Cream, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ruth Brown, Booker T. & the MG's, and countless other musical luminaries.

With simple introductions out of the way, Dorn immediately stated his recollections of time spent with Dowd at the many Atlantic recording sessions in which he attended during the 60s & 70s. "You know how significant Dowd was? One night at the Blue Note here in NY, Brother Ray made Tommy stand up and take a bow, stunning the crowd saying, 'if I am worth a dime, Tom Dowd is nine cents of it.' Did you know that Ray hired Dowd to build his recording studios in LA? So you know the respect was there and it was deep!"

Joel goes on: "You know when I listen to those recordings from the 50s that Tommy did, they just don't sound like old records, they have the fist........ filled with right jabs and left hooks, so full and far away advanced by other records of that era. Tommy was a near genius. Did you know he invented the slide fader we are all familiar with on sound boards? When I first got to know Tommy, someone told me that Dowd worked on the Manhattan Project and was involved with the atomic bomb. I said, Yeah right, you got to be kidding me. But he did."

Dorn, now 62 years young and very youthful in mind and body, met Dowd when he was just 19, around 1961. "Tommy never received the appropriate recognition for all the sessions he did, nor did he get the bread. He was just a hired gun and received no royalties, but was responsible for helping to mold every artist's recording session he touched. You know, working with the likes of 'Trane, Mingus, The MJQ and Ornette, there were some heavy vibes and egos involved, but Tommy knew how to disarm them-most of the time without the artists knowing. He always made everyone comfortable by letting the artists think Dowd's ideas were their own-hah-and Tommy always got the results he wanted, which were always in the best interests of the performers."

When Dowd first heard the Allman Brothers, he told Atlantic records to "bring them to me now, they are ready to be recorded!" Dickie Betts tells Moorman, "recording with Dowd was not like a recording session, it was more like a rehearsal for a gig. We were so comfortable with Dowd." Dorn speaks of the time Dowd asked Joel to fill in for a couple of recording sessions with the Allmans: "Tommy was a very straight guy-no drugs, no alcohol-and warned me that working with them might be dangerous, as they may try to dose me with something. But I said to myself, Hey no problem for me, hah! Man, hanging with Duane was a trip. We were always high as kites, the music was always very special, and we became good buddies". Dowd enthusiastically recalls in the movie: "When the Allmans would start to play, they were rock, they were blues, but when they jammed it really was like jazz. Yes, it's jazz improvisation!"

One of the many highlights in the movie is set to the time Tom Dowd explains how Duane Allman became part of the Derek and the Dominos "Layla" sessions: "Duane had heard that the recording sessions were starting with Eric here in Florida and called me to see if he could stop by to watch and meet Eric as they had never met. It was just one of those things that the Allman Brothers just happened to be playing in the same town that very eve. I told Duane it's fine by me for him to stop by, but let me run it by Eric first. So I called Clapton who said, 'that's the guitar player who played on those sessions with Aretha and King Curtis. I have a better idea, lets go watch the Allman's perform first and take them back to the studio afterwards and jam.' We all know the results of those sessions, and now we know how recording history was made!"

Dorn recalls hanging with Lamont Dozier and George Harrison in the 80s, and they were recalling their heydays. Lamont at Motown, Harrison with the Beatles/Apple, and Dorn with Atlantic: "We all thought those days would never end. At 11 W. 60th Street, at Atlantic studios during any given day you could see Bobby Darin walking by, and hey-there's the Rascals, isn't that Aretha, look there's Clapton, but those days came to pass; unfortunately everything does. Just ask the LA Lakers. But those days were magnificent!"

We are near to wrapping up, and Joel tells producer/director Moorman, "this movie will touch people and will make an impression! When I was a kid bugging Atlantic to do recording sessions, that was all I could think about. I was touched by Ray Charles, Laverne Baker, and Clyde McPhatter. Most kids thought about sports, marrying a rich girl, or becoming a lawyer. It was nuts, but it made sense to me. And this movie will do something similar to some kid out there, and the music world will be a better place for it."

Moorman said he felt bad that Tom Dowd could not witness all the warm emails and responses from everyone who had seen the film, as Tom Dowd passed on almost two years ago. "But it was great to have the time with Tom and have him as the central character for the movie. It was an honor to tell the Tom Dowd story, and I look forward to get Tom's story out to the world."

Dorn replies similarly: "I am glad I knew Tom Dowd and got to learn from him. I just wish that he could have lived longer to get more cookies. I hope this film touches somebody somewhere-the way it touched everyone who knew Tommy."

With that said, if you don't get a chance to see the movie "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music" the DVD (with extended segments and interviews) will be available in September this year. This is highly recommended viewing.

Happy listening,

Bob Putignano, President of NY Blues and Jazz Society & Bob Putignano

Bob Putignano
Radio Host WFDU's "Sounds of Blue"
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society