Herbie Mann - New Orleans (Atlantic 2621)
Two Cool New Yorkers with Goatees
Let's continue on with another part of the Atlantic Records story.
Tom Dowd came up on the West Side of Manhattan. A bright and inquisitive kid, his classical piano training soon gave way to tuba and then upright bass in his high school band. He graduated early, and by 16 was enrolled as a student in the Physics Department at Columbia University. Too young to be drafted, he became a member of a Government sponsored team that was developing a rudimentary understanding of particle theory. He was inducted into the Army when he turned 18, and they sent him right back to Columbia.
He didn't know it at the time, but Dowd was a part of what became known as the Manhattan Project, the effort that created the Atomic Bomb. When the war ended (due in large part to the work they had done), he was sent to the South Pacific to witness the earliest Bikini Atoll nuclear explosions. (Can you imagine?) Upon his discharge from the service, Tom learned that the education he had received at Columbia had all been 'top-secret', and he wouldn't be geting a degree unless he started from scratch. That was the end of that!
He got a summer job helping out at a recording studio in 1947, and tackled the then primitive process of sound recording as his own peronal science project. It wasn't long before he became known as a 'whiz-kid', and his services were in demand. Herb Abramson, impressed by his skills, began using him at Atlantic's sessions around town. It was Tommy Dowd that delivered the clean and punchy sound that came to be associated with the label. The trouble was that he was delivering it to their competitors as well, and it wasn't long before Herb and Ahmet Ertegun offered him an exclusive deal as the Atlantic engineer.
Tired of paying for studio time, they asked Dowd to figure out a way to record right in their office on the top floor of 234 W 56th Street. "The floor sagged and creaked," Tom remembered, "and the sloped ceiling had a skylight in the middle of it. The whole office wasn't more than nineteen feet by twenty eight. The walls were treated with plywood.... there was no studio. The office was the studio, and I had to make do." Make do he did, recording some of the hardest hitting and influential R&B records ever made... songs like Shake, Rattle and Roll, Money Honey, and Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean were cut straight to disk in that room with the desks piled up on top of each other. Limited to one live mono mix 'on the fly', Tommy Dowd made it happen... "He turned microphone placement into an art," said Jerry Wexler. Ahmet Ertegun called him "the best in the business," and he was.
Much to the trepidation of his employers, he was among the first to record using magnetic tape, eliminating the bulky acetate disk. Dowd became a master of the 'slice and dice', combining different takes of a song by actualy cutiing and splicing the tape itself. He also began experimenting with the concept of 'binaural' sound, a precursor to stereo that was played back using a separate needle for each channel. Literally on the cutting edge, Tom heard the incredible things that Les Paul was doing with the prototype Ampex 8 track recorder, and convinced Wexler and Ertegun to buy the next one they made.
When Atlantic moved around the corner to 157 W 57th, Tom was able to design their studio from the ground up, and built his own console around the 8 track machine. He was the first to incorporate 'sliders' rather than knobs into the board, and innovations like this made the company's records truly 'state of the art'. Dowd insisted on cutting each session in stereo, in addition to the mono master, even though there was no market for it at the time. When audiophiles began buying stereo LPs in the late fifties, Atlantic was ready, and was able to release much of their back catalogue in 'true stereo'.
Ahmet's older brother, Nesuhi, came aboard in 1955, and was given the task of building up the label's Jazz roster, and handling their expansion into the 12" LP format. Like his brother, Nesuhi had great taste, and those early Atlantic LPs were just dripping with 'class'. He would sign legends like Mingus and Coltrane, and was a champion of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was Nesuhi's idea to tap in to the Jazz chops of Ray Charles and pair him with MJQ vibe man Milt Jackson for great albums like Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting. Dowd recorded it all. In 1959, Ertegun signed a flute player named Herbie Mann.
Mann rose up out of Brooklyn to become one of the first to play the flute in a Jazz setting. His early fifties quartet recordings for the Bethlehem label (which had been engineered by Dowd) didn't do much, but it was his groundbreaking Verve excursions into Cuban and African rhythms that put him on the map. He continued that groove at Atlantic, recording albums with folks like Baba Olatunji, and Ray Barretto. In 1961, Tom Dowd recorded Herbie and his band live At the Village Gate, and when a single from the record, Comin' Home Baby broke into the top 30 on the pop charts, he became a household name.
In Ahmet Ertegun's words, "Although there are certain limitations to the flute, Herbie Mann is a master of the instrument. He went through many incarnations and he crossed over. He did some R&B sides, some Bossa Nova... I think we made over fifty albums with Herbie, more than with any other artist. One reason being that he kept getting different kinds of groups around him and was very clever at being able to increase the range of what he could do. He brought the music, therefore, to a wider audience without commercializing it. See, there's no such thing as popularizing Jazz, because the minute any Jazz becomes popular, all the Jazz musicians say it's not Jazz."
As Mann himself said, "I was the Kenny G of the sixties" (ouch!).
As Atlantic made their move into soul music, Tom Dowd was an integral part of the sound, upgrading the equipment at every major southern studio they worked with. He was the man that brought both Stax and Fame out of the stone age, and was the first to record in stereo at both locations. When Jerry Wexler helped set up Chips Moman at American and Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound, he sent Dowd down there to make sure it was done right. He worked closely with everyone from Otis to Aretha, and became a much loved figure in the studio. It was no accident that Dowd's recordings made you feel like you were 'in the room', and it was that transparency that helped reveal the best in each artist, without adding any of himself to the mix. On most of the records from this era, he was still only credited as 'engineer', but towards the end of the decade Wexler apparently felt guilty and began billing him as a 'co-producer'. He delivered the goods.
Mann was paying attention, and in Dowd's words, he "came busting in on me and said 'What do you think of me going down to Memphis with you and making a record?' I said, 'Okay, that's cool.' He said, 'Okay let's go.' So we went down there and cut the album Memphis Underground. When it became a big hit, Herbie said 'You know what, once every five years you and I make a record that's kind of wild!" Today's wild B side is the flip of the title track from that album, which bubbled just under the top 40 on both the R&B and the pop charts in the summer of 1969. Dowd, finally credited as the producer he was, was able to bring seasoned Jazz musicians like Roy Ayers and Larry Coryell together with Memphis mainstays like Tommy Cogbill and Reggie Young and still find the pocket. I just love the whole 'flute groove' bag here, man... tres late sixties car commercial!
Dowd made the move to Miami around this time, joining Wexler in upgrading yet another southern studio, Criteria. Known as 'Atlantic South', Tom (although now back working freelance) remained behind the board. On a trip to Macon to help out with Phil Walden's new Capricorn Studio, he heard The Allman Brothers Band, and was just knocked out. He talked Walden into sending them down to Miami, where he produced the stunning Idlewild South. Setting a new standard for live recording, he then wired the Fillmore East and captured the band at the absolute peak of their powers in 1971. It was Dowd who got 'Skydog' Allman together with Clapton in the studio and captured the magic that would become Layla and other assorted Love Songs in 1972. "When I walked out of the studio after having done that album, I said, 'That's the best album I have made since The Genius of Ray Charles'," Dowd recalls. "When it didn't sell I was talking to myself saying 'I'm wrong. There's something missing somewhere.' But Atlantic stuck to their guns and a year later the thing was the rock 'n' roll national anthem of the world." There ya go.
Once again, Herbie Mann had been watching his old friend and imported Duane Allman, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr. to Atlantic's New York studios to create another classic groove record, Push Push (produced by Dowd's cohort Arif Mardin). Released on Mann's own Embryo label, the album made it's way into the collection of many a high school kid (like yours truly) through the presence of Allman and the groovy orange velvet soft porn image on the inside cover which left no doubt as to the meaning of the title.
During this period, Dowd referred to himself as the '5 M Man' saying that you were guaranteed to find him in one of five places; Manhattan, Miami, Macon, Memphis, or Muscle Shoals. When Duane Allman died on his motorcycle during Tom's production of Eat A Peach, he was truly devastated, and has described it as a 'great loss'. Dowd soldiered on, however, producing number one hits on everyone from Rod Stewart to Lynyrd Skynyrd over the course of the next thirty years. The positively fantastic documentary Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music chronicles Dowd's unique and inspiring life, and gives a sense of how wonderful a man he was.
Tom Dowd passed on due to complications from emphysema in 2002.
Herbie Mann went on to chart a few more times during the disco era with dance records like Hijack and Superman, but would return to his pure Jazz roots with albums like Deep Pocket and Beyond Brooklyn later on. An excellent retrospective of Mann and his intrepid groove quest appeared in waxpoetics in April of last year.
Herbie Mann lost his fight with prostate cancer in 2003.
The legacy of great music these men left behind is ours forever.