The Legendary Producer Dies on October 27, 2002
By Derek Halsey
Last May I was invited to be backstage at the Grand Ole Opry as the guest of the excellent country and western singer, Joni Harms, whom I had interviewed earlier here at GRITZ. Joni plays country music like it should be, like it used to be, and it was a pleasure to watch her perform at the Opry.
I drove to Nashville from Cincinnati, and I wanted to get as much out of the trip as I could. As luck would have it I found out that Dobro great Jerry Douglas was playing at Tower Records the next afternoon to promote Lookout For Hope, his latest CD. I had met Jerry a month earlier at an Earl Scruggs tribute concert in Dayton, Ohio so it was good to see him again, only this time playing with his own band. Before the gig I spoke to Jerry and one of the things we talked about that day was the great Duane Allman.
As I am a major Duane Allman fan I complimented Jerry D on playing Duane's tune "Little Martha" on his new CD. He told me that he thought twice about putting it on the CD because it was played so well the first time around by Duane.
I said, 'bull you-know-what'. Not many musicians of his caliber have paid tribute to Duane like Jerry does on "Little Martha." I was glad he did it. Great stuff and much appreciated. There is no doubt that if Jerry has listened to and was influenced by "Little Martha," from the album Eat A Peach, then he surely has also listened to Live At Fillmore East. Both of those amazing albums have influenced many musicians over the years, and they sound like they do because of the man who produced them.
That man was the amazing legend of the boards, Tom Dowd. Live At Fillmore East is thought by many to be the best live rock album ever recorded. From all accounts, Tom Dowd had as much to do with the great sound of that record as anyone else. The Allman Brothers said in a statement after his death that Tom was a "friend, confidante, father figure, and most importantly, Brother of the Allman Brothers Band."
The Fillmore East album was but one of the many important albums that Tom Dowd worked on before his death on October 27th, 2002. Tom had been ill for some time, yet he stayed productive until the end. As history would have it, in our first ever print edition of SWAMPLAND.COM, there is part one of an interview with none other than Tom Dowd. The second issue comes out in November and it has part two of the interview with Tom. In other words, this is not good news to us. It stinks. The point I want to make here is that Tom was good to us when few knew who we were, or what we were about, or would give us the time of day. The SWAMPLAND.COM family is greatly saddened by his passing.
Oddly enough Tom Dowd started off as a physicist and worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940's at Columbia University. But, as he was born into a show business family, music was his real love. By 1948 he was working at Atlantic Records. He used his knowledge of physics to eventually come up with the first 8-track recording consoles used at Atlantic Records, and this put the company ahead of the competition as far as recording ability and sound were concerned. Soon Tom moved to engineering records and then on to actually producing some of the best music ever recorded.
As a recording engineer he worked on albums by artists as diverse as; Nat Adderly, Mose Allison, LaVern Baker, The Bar-Kays, Ray Charles' great records of the late 1950's, John Coltrane including the landmark albums Giant Steps and My Favorite Things, Bobby Darin, over 30 albums by the Drifters, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Mingus, Modern Jazz Quartet, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and many others including the best albums by Cream like Disreali Gears, Wheels of Fire, and both live albums.
But it was his work as a producer where the true genius of Tom Dowd came to the fore. He produced such works as Aretha Franklin's hit song "Respect," and her Young, Gifted , and Black and Live At The Fillmore albums. He produced many albums for Lynyrd Skynyrd including Street Survivor and the concert album, One More From The Road. Herbie Mann's Memphis Underground, Jerry Jeff Walker's Mister Bojangles, and original soundtracks for movies like Pulp Fiction, Color of Money, and Goodfellas are all examples of his work. But the two albums that he will possibly be most remembered for are Live At Fillmore East, by the Allman Brothers Band, and Layla and Other Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.
In an article written for Grammy Magazine, Eric Clapton said that Tom is the one that really pulled together the Layla album. Says Clapton; "I had no finished songs, no real concept or idea of where I was going, nothing but an abstract burning passion for live, spontaneous music. On top of everything else, I refused to make the record under my own name, and was developing a powerful drink and drug problem – not a great position for any record producer to be placed in, but Tom pulled it off". Clapton goes on to say that Tom became a father figure to him with the help and advice he gave him over the years. " Tom gave so much time to me," says Eric, "teaching me to recognize my individuality, to value myself, yet at the same time pushing me forward, encouraging me to try new methods and techniques. I owe him more than I can ever repay."
Butch Trucks, the original drummer and one of the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, put it this way after learning of Dowd's death; "I could go on forever about Tom. I will simply say that he was the best producer, bar none, that rock and roll has ever seen or will see. He did things that very few people even know about that changed forever the way we listen to music. Most importantly he forced the people he worked with to find the very best that they had in them."
When asked in his SWAMPLAND.COM interview about some of the more important music that he worked on Tom puts it like this; "Now, there is a master work that I hear all the time, and I want to cry because people do not know what it is. Charlie Parker's 'Yardbird Suite'. They do not know that "Hucklebuck" is from there, "Ragmop" is from there, and there are a dozen songs that come out of 'Yardbird Suite'. And they do not know what it is. I know what I heard and I thought, 'That is forever'."
You have to believe that Duane and Dickey and Clapton and all the rest picked Tom's brain about working on those sessions with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, both of which were big influences on the Allman Brothers and Eric.
As luck would have it, I hung out with Charlie Daniels on the night Tom died, October 27th. Charlie is as pleasant a musician as I ever met. Most musicians have a certain way of dealing with pre-show jitters and such, some want to save it for the stage, are nervous and so on, and that is fine. Charlie was relaxed and interesting and picked wonderfully as he did his pre-show tune up. I did not know at the time that Tom Dowd had died that day. If I had known that, then Charlie and Taz and I would have probably talked all night about him. But, we did not know. Yet, for some reason Charlie and I ended up talking about his Midnight Wind album. That album is smoking, and was recorded way back in 1977. On the back of the album Charlie talks of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in tribute. The liner notes say; "Dedication to Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Lest We Forget. Smoke and fire, thunder and lightning, nipped in the bud in full bloom leaving memories and magic ringing across the years." And when that history was made, Tom Dowd was there to make sure that it sounded great for all eternity.
Eric Clapton simply called him "The ideal recording man."
For the past six years Mark Moorman has been working on an independent documentary film on the life of Tom Dowd called "The Language of Music." In it Mark interviewed many artists with whom Tom worked with like Ray Charles, The Allman Brothers Band, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Eric Clapton. There seemed to be a common theme about Tom that came out of the interviews. Says Mark, " A lot of the people I interviewed, the Skynyrd band, Eric Clapton, said that he had the ability to pull it out of you without you even knowing it. And then, wow, there it is, it's on the record. It was a unique skill. Dickey Betts said that he had that certain genius of psychology. You would think it was your idea, but it was really his idea all along."
Towards the end of Tom's life Mark says that he was as cooperative as he could possibly be in helping to finish the film. I asked Mark what he learned from working with him for the last six years until his death. " Well, humility, number one," says Mark. "For someone who has been in the studio with all of these people and has such an amazing track record, he was like some guy you would meet anywhere. Humble, such a humble human being. He genuinely was out to help people." And, even though it didn't look good for Tom at the end, he never stopped working. Says Mark, "I called him to do a last interview with him and he put me off one time saying, 'I'm in intensive care, I almost died.' So, we had gone through that. So finally I called him one day and he was like, 'Mark, I'm glad you called. I want you to come in and do whatever you want to do because I'm dying. I don't have long to live.' I did the interview with him, just an audio interview a few days before he died, he was in the hospital, it was his birthday and I went in and his family was there, and his whole thing was is he wanted to help these artists make good music. It was very selfless…."
Mark says that the highlight of the film was having the cameras rolling as Tom remixed the original 24 track master tapes of the song Layla from 30 years ago. " I talked to Tom one day and said, 'Hey Tom, do you think we could get Layla to put up on the soundboard?'", says Mark. "He said, 'Oh yeah', and he picked up the phone and two minutes later he had the submasters flying into Miami. We got a camera on a crane over his head and the camera literally flies over the top of him. You see him from the front, and then over the top, and from behind as he is literally bringing up the mix that he had done 30 years before. He isolates Duane Allman's and Eric Clapton's guitar. It's just stunning, man."
Mark says that making things like that happen was not unusual when working with Tom. "That's what it was like making the film with Tom," says Mark. "All of these improbable things were made to happen because Tom would pick up the phone and people would have this unadulterated love for the guy. People just loved this man."
One of the last public appearances that I heard of concerning Tom Dowd was when the Allman Brothers Band got him out of the nursing home back in September of 2002 and put his wheelchair right onstage with them at a gig in Florida. This is how Thom Smith in the Palm Beach Post reported it;
"The family is spirit and blood, no better exemplified than by the solitary figure in the wheelchair clapping and tapping behind the bandstand. Tom Dowd, himself a rock 'n' roll legend, never sang, never played a guitar, never wrote a song. But his production work turned performers into stars and stars into legends: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Diana Ross, John Coltrane, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. He made the Allman's Live at Fillmore East, one of rock's best.
As band members took breaks during long jams, they visited Dowd, paying homage. Derek Trucks sat at his feet, asking advice. "How was that one?" Gregg implored after an intense organ solo.
"I just can't get over it," Dowd said, ignoring the oxygen tubes in his nostrils. "They've been off three weeks and they come in here with no rehearsal and sound this great. Everyone knows instinctively what the others are doing."
And so it goes.
Rest in Peace brother Tom, and thanks for being a part of history. Tell Duane, Berry, Otis, Ronnie, John and Bird howdy for us. Appreciate ya'.