Stacks of wax

Adventures at the bottom of the music trade

Dorn had been a staff producer at Atlantic jazz. He scored in the pop world with Roberta Flack hits like "Killing Me Softly."

"When you have million-sellers and Grammys together, that buys you years of people takin' a shot with you. I must have bought myself five or six years beyond when I was actually making hits."

Dorn did surreal records, avoided big stars, and began to drift further from the center of the record business. Among a hundred albums he did at Regent were the debuts of Leon Redbone, Bette Midler, and Peter Allen, as well as albums by Steve Goodman, Dory Previn, Yusef Lateef, and Don McLean.

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.

I remember watching Peter Allen during a break between takes from his first album, Continental American. He sat before the TV impassively as news that his divorce from Liza Minnelli came through on screen.

Don McLean's fourth album, Homeless Brother, was done at Regent. The Dorn-produced LP only furthered McLean's descent, but it did contain two overlooked gems: "Wonderful Baby," a ditty on par with anything Irving Berlin wrote (Fred Astaire later recorded it), and "Sail Away, Raymond," a sea chantey by George Harrison, who sent it to McLean.

McLean was a bit schlubby and melancholy, and did not fit the romantic image suggested by "Vincent" and "American Pie" just a few years earlier. He recorded in Studio A every day, breaking to watch Nixon's resignation. "The critics don't understand me," he would say with genuine angst. I purchased some of his brilliant earlier LPs at Woolworth's, where they were already in the remainder bin. I showed them, Woolworth's remainder stickers still affixed, to McLean.

"Oh, God," he said, recoiling. The stickers depressed him.

Dorn had lost all hearing in his left ear overnight during a childhood case of mumps. Because he couldn't hear stereo, many of his records were done mono. One of Dorn's artistic trademarks included adding aimless sound montages to albums, the noodling of a pothead. Another brainstorm involved his dream to record a duet between John Lennon and Kate Smith. This never happened.

Kenny Vance, originally of Jay and the Americans, was one of Dorn's right-hand men. They would sit stoned long into the night, doing dozens of mixes on some deep track from, say, a Lucy Simon (sister of Carly) record. They'd imagine they heard some tiny noise or imperfection deep in the mix, crack open expensive virgin reels of Ampex tape, and do endless remixes, one indistinguishable from the other.

"I wanted to puke," recalls legendary Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler. "Dorn wasted tons of our money."

Wexler himself was a master of the rollback: "If there's 20 bad takes, roll back to the best one and fix it. I've made a few records, and my heavy hand as producer is on them. I could change a record. Dorn would stop a take and tell them to 'just try something different.'

"My ultimate definition of a producer," Wexler concludes, "is someone who can change the music, the tempo, syncopation, hum out a bass line. You don't have to be a musician."

Dorn worked almost exclusively with engineer Robert Lifton, Regent Sound's owner. Shortly after I arrived, Lifton took me up to a fifth-floor warehouse. He left me alone with the key, instructing me to organize the whole junkyard and someday present him with an inventory. Regent would eventually return tapes to any rightful surviving companies.

I was left alone with over 50,000 musty reels of tape. A wasteland of forgotten master reels dating back to the '50s, from record companies, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and music-industry publishers with dozens of subsidiary labels and shell companies that seemed like so much gibberish at the time: Coral Rock, Aeolian, Shapiro-Bernstein, Screen Gems-Columbia Music, the Wes Farrell Organization, ATV-Kirshner.

Publishers were the secret financial barons of the music industry. No one could explain exactly what they did other than collect money. The office of Aaron Schroeder International, for instance, was the penthouse of our building. Schroeder owned publishing rights on Elvis and even some Beatles stuff. A bona fide crook, he always had lawsuits leveled against him for stealing money. I never saw the shadowy Schroeder, only his hot blonde receptionist. She got locked out one Friday evening when I was working late. She was the first, maybe the only, girl ever to step into my fifth-floor enclave. Her pocketbook and keys were stuck inside the top floor, and we spent hours trying to break through windows and fire escapes. Wilbur, the crusty old black night super, caught us. He took me aside and, shaking his head, said, "If you got dat broad naked, boy, you wouldn't know what to do with it."

After spending two years dusting them off, I still see faded box labels in my sleep. Amid chaos I would slowly reunite scattered tape reels with labels like Limon Dance and Beacon Hill or Phillips Productions. Shapiro-Bernstein had some 200 dusty reels, each plucked from mountains of disorder to be filed chronologically from 1961 to 1968. There were endless quarter-inch reels of Search for Tomorrow soap opera cues, produced by Elliot Lawrence downstairs in Studio B. If you ever wondered what the 16 1/2 speed was on your old record player, it was for these huge, tire-round acetate records, once used on military radio. Hundreds lay moldering, used on long-obsolete industrial-sized record machines. The machines themselves lay in ruin in this audio junkyard.

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