Stacks of wax

Adventures at the bottom of the music trade

Regent Sound Studios, at 24 W. 57th St. in Manhattan, was my alma mater. What began as a lucky summer job when I was fresh out of high school became a two-year hitch. I dropped out of NYU that fall to maintain the job. It was my entrée into the music business at age 18 -- which never did really open up, shark that I'm not.

Many of the recording industry's major studios were in midtown Manhattan, within walking distance of the Brill Building on Broadway. They were secretive inner sanctums, their names familiar only from the backs of records: the Record Plant, the Hit Factory, Columbia Studios, Atlantic, RCA, Bell Sound, Media Sound. If you worked at one, you were privy to all, going beyond the reception areas when transferring tapes or equipment.

I laid claim to the vague title of "assistant engineer," but was never granted one album credit as such. Maybe I never asked. My job did entail being assistant floor waxer, handyman, gofer, mike set-up man, and tape librarian. Everyone took me under his apprenticeship -- janitors, elevator men, and engineers. I was never certain whether the future they were grooming me for was musical or janitorial.

Which one of these people has a penchant for Tony Orlando & Dawn and diarrhea? It's not Rahsaan Roland Kirk, third from left.
Atlantic Records
Which one of these people has a penchant for Tony Orlando & Dawn and diarrhea? It's not Rahsaan Roland Kirk, third from left.

Many of my afternoons were spent in an isolated fifth-floor warehouse where 50,000 musty tapes were stored in disarray. This wasteland of forgotten reels, dating back to the 1950s, was put under my stewardship. As tape librarian, I was instructed to organize them over time.

I arrived each morning at the crack of dawn to open Studio A. I followed a daily chart, positioning mikes, chairs, music stands, and ashtrays for that morning's big band or orchestra session. I'd break down at the end of the session. But before I lifted a finger, I always began a ritual -- having a fried egg on a roll from a greasy takeout on 56th Street, followed by an exquisite hot coffee and cigarette. For just a few minutes -- as I kicked up my heels on the console, reclining in the plush black leather producer's chair -- I indulged in dreams of recording my own albums. To me, the most romantic lighting in New York was the glow of a studio console at midnight. It was a soundproofed, windowless sanctum, dark but for the red VU meters and faders -- like the inside of a musical jet cockpit.

Musicians streamed in at 9 a.m. like factory workers. I never heard these hardened Local 802 musicians discuss the aesthetics of music. They only talked money: how much they'd logged at other sessions, overtime, residuals. But the elite double-scale guys -- like Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, Chuck Rainey, and Dallas boys Fathead Newman and Cornell Dupree -- they seemed above the battle, smoking pipes, dressed like squires, flying in from Newport and Montreux jazz festivals.

Blind jazz man Rahsaan Roland Kirk entered the studio followed by his tribe of "Black Classical Musicians." They shuffled down the halls like a fighter's entourage entering the ring. Kirk swung a mojo cane, scattering all in his path. The novelty aspect of Kirk was that he played three horns at once, sometimes including an African nose flute. I wasn't sure where to place the microphone for this arrangement, and called him by his first name, Roland.

The entire tribe froze: "Don't ever call him that," one sideman threatened.

"His name is Rahsaan," came another.

"Or you can call him Ra for short," said a third.

Kirk recorded three pretentious double albums for Atlantic while I was at Regent. Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle was one, for example. Black Classical Music is how he termed his jazz, espousing a jazz-victim philosophy while hating rock and the white man's music. But the tribe let down their guard in the wee hours of the night in the warm glow of that studio console. Their bravado diminished, and you could see they were just poor musicians. Ra's valet-percussionist confided the following pastime:

"Ain't nothin' I prefer more than buyin' a gallon of chocolate ice cream, then sit top the toilet, eatin' and shittin' all night. Ain't no better party in town. Diarrhea is the po' man's pleasure." He then admitted a soft spot for Tony Orlando & Dawn, curling an eyebrow when I mentioned that the songwriter's demo for "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" was on the fifth floor.

Joel Dorn served as producer for Kirk as well as dozens of other singular jazz and pop musicians. His offices were entwined with Regent's on the third floor. Dorn was a brilliant con man and raconteur, a switchblade-toting hipster who began his career on Philadelphia jazz radio as "The Masked Announcer." His forceful radio voice entranced dozens of artists who put their recording careers in his hands.

"If I need a little blue palette," he might say, "I'll call Fathead Newman. If I need to add a little red to the canvas, I call in Hank Crawford." In each musician he saw a unique "coloring," a different "brush stroke."

"You remember the fuckin' group of people that came through that place?" says Dorn today. "It was like a 24-hour aural circus, chock-full of unicorns. I had the wheel. If you tied yourself to the front of a ship and just went headlong into the wind -- and just screamed and yelled -- that's what it was like."

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