The ghost of Xmas passes

Landmark local band packs it in

The rumor is that Bowen had much more dirty laundry--especially on Garth--to air, but decided not to. Indeed, while Garth and his people were trying to oust him from Liberty Records, Bowen says, he'd spent quite a lot of time gathering information to be used in his defense. As it is, he paints the pudgy singer as a quiet, soft-spoken, but unusually intense young man surrounded by sycophants. In Bowen's estimation, Brooks was emotionally immature, prone to megalomania, and made several critical errors early in his career that cost him much popular support. Brooks also was unrealistic about the business, refusing to accept sales of three or four million after the runaway 10-million-plus sales of huge successes like Ropin' the Wind or the effect his mega-bucks deal had on Liberty's cash flow, Bowen says.

If there's any part of the book that's common knowledge, it's this. But it's surprising to find out that Bowen--born in New Mexico in 1937, raised in West Texas--was a rocker, getting with some Dumas homeboys and forming the Rhythm Orchids. Essentially hapless, the Orchids did manage to have some commercial success (as Buddy Knox, the group's vocalist and guitarist) with "Party Doll," which reached No. 4 on the pop singles chart in April 1957. In October of the same year, "Hula Love" made it to 13. Buddy Knox and his band played on Alan Freed's legendary shows at Times Square's Paramount Theater and traveled the country with some of Freed's package tours, rubbing elbows with artists like Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Clyde McPhatter, and Buddy Holly. The boys even made it to the Grand Ole Opry, where they ran afoul of the Opry's "no drums" rule.

Represented by the predatory Morris Levy, the boys never saw much of the money they made, a fact that may have contributed to the maverick streak that Bowen was later to display--never again would he not be at the wheel. The band broke up, and Bowen married, drifting off to work first in radio, then as a songwriter for Glen Campbell in California. Connections he had made on the road helped him, and he wiggled his way deeper and deeper into the music business in L.A. His big break came when he engineered Frank Sinatra's mid-'60s revival, choosing songs for the Chairman like "Strangers in the Night."

"Strangers" was a study in Bowen's no-nonsense manner of kicking ass. Immediately before the song was to be recorded, Bowen found out that Jack Jones was planning on doing the same song and in fact was set to release it in a couple of days. Bowen hustled into the studio and cut the song, then spent the whole night lining up his strategy: Although there was no way the vinyl could beat Jones' version to the marketplace, Bowen had dozens of acetates cut, then dispatched runners to get the discs into the hands of important radio people across the nation. Acetates wear out after just a handful of plays, but the drama behind the distribution--Frank's new single is coming to you direct from the studio by special courier on the 5:30 p.m. flight from Los Angeles--caught everybody's eye; DJs taped the acetates and played the single nonstop. By the time the single hit the market on vinyl, the cut had heavy national play; Jack Jones never had a chance.

Good work for Sinatra led to Bowen's engineering similar revivals for Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Soon he was working with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Bing Crosby, and Nancy Sinatra, and moved up to running his own label, where he had J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey on his roster; he then picked up a band called Shiloh that featured a young man named Don Henley. Unfortunately, that was several years before these youngsters would develop into the SoCal music mafia that would include Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon.

The book contains many telling little nuances that are obviously coming from one who was there--Sinatra's terseness, Hank Jr.'s habit of firing a .38 loaded with blanks in the studio--but no real D-I-R-T. Bowen tells his tale with honest self-interest, emerging as a not-entirely likable guy who got the job done. A self-confessed workaholic--18-hour days were the norm for Bowen--other facts behind his four marriages go relatively unexplored. Bowen is, however, up-front about his hardball tactics (he once stole tubes from a competitor's recording equipment in order to beat his record to the public), and Rough Mix is an illuminating look into the Machiavellian world of making music.

By the time he got to Nashville, he was the label head as itinerant samurai, going from one company to the next, taking on challenges, trimming rosters, streamlining staffs, and generally turning things around. Always an outsider to Nashville, his no-nonsense approach earned him few extra friends, a fact that seems to bother him little. His diagnosis with cancer in 1994 and his ongoing battle with Brooks finally led to his retirement to Hawaii a year later, where he seems to have found a measure of peace.

Nashville now bears Bowen's mark--state-of-the-art facilities, big-time stage shows, fully realized and effectively marketed albums--but it'll be up to the individual reader to decide if that's altogether a good thing; it's hard, at times, to keep from blaming Mutt Lange and Shania Twain on Bowen. Nashville has caught up with the bicoastal pop centers--in fact, its music is often indistinguishable from theirs. Bowen is justifiably proud of his work in purifying the sound of recorded country music--his explanation of how and why the "honk" of many early country cuts kept people away is fascinating--but it's interesting to note that one of country's more interesting movements is dedicated to putting the "honk" back in.

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