Stacks of wax
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.
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.
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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."
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.
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.
Robert Lifton was one of a handful of pioneer recording engineers, behind the scenes of rock-and-roll records in the '50s and '60s. He was a man of tape, of studios, who rarely saw the light of day and had an alabaster studio suntan. A workaholic devoid of personality, he was nevertheless a decent man and a fair boss. He always wore rumpled jeans and boots, and he smoked four packs of Marlboros a day.
More important is the fact that Lifton kept personal musical opinions to himself during his round-the-clock sessions. He could handle some bubble-gum idol in the morning, then be the consummate engineer for a jazz record by night. He only once revealed a personal music taste. Lifton once sent me out to Colony Records for a new Rev. James Cleveland gospel album, which he cracked out of the cellophane like a teenybopper.
"He wasn't one of those engineers who had the kind of sound that producers chased after, like Phil Ramone or Rudy Van Gelder," says Dorn. "But he was such a basic engineer. He could get a very black-and-white, very mono sound, but a cinemascopic black-and-white sound. He understood what I said. A lot of other engineers didn't wanna hear my bullshit, would look at me like I was nuts. But Lifton would listen, and pull it off."
Lifton was the first ever to achieve a 32-track setup, synchronizing two 16-track Ampex MM-1000 machines. Other engineers could never do it. Lifton was a science club member in high school, one of those guys who could make a tape recorder out of a Dixie cup and a string and two pieces of iron, a wizard of sound. He sank all his profits into installing newfangled video equipment in 1974, foreseeing video as the boom of the future. Regent was the first recording studio in New York to do such. Lifton did live sound for Aretha at Radio City. He sent me and Jesus the custodian over to Rockefeller Center with loads of equipment one afternoon. It was for the first season of some new show called Saturday Night Live. He became SNL's, and TV's, best live-music sound engineer.
Lifton was revered for his technical prowess by other engineers. He was trained as a physicist, as were the other engineers he hired. Because he was an awkward guy in social situations when he wasn't behind the controls, it was odd to see his smiling face turn up in trade magazine ads for Ampex tape, which he vigorously endorsed, leading the industry away from the mighty 3M Scotch company.
Scientists of sound, the three Regent engineers under Lifton could reconfigure the electronics of Ampex MM-1000 16-track machines. They could draft by hand perfect electronic diagrams. They could operate the Nuemann lathe cutting machine in Studio D for acetate masters used to press the albums they engineered. They could troubleshoot any mechanical or electronic repair at 3 a.m. during a high-dollar, all-night session.
Engineers were the true wizards of production. Their trade was unsung and more complicated than that of highly paid record producers -- whom they felt honor-bound to serve as psychologist and technician. They often worked 80-hour weeks and carried their burdens silently, so as never to worry the celebrated musicians, stars, and producers. Engineers Vince McGarry and Joe Ferla could read music charts. They had uncanny timing on tricky overdub punches. They often did the producer's job, but never saw the glory.
Before the days of computer editing, engineers performed daredevil tape splices, more delicate than circumcisions, where one hair off on a razor-blade tape splice could ruin the results of a $10,000 session. Before the days of automated consoles, they performed master mixes with their own hands, memorizing dozens of knob tweaks and fader levels for a final mix of a song. As assistant engineer, I might be required to push one or two faders up and down at the far end of the console, while the engineer did dozens. We might rehearse the moves an hour before going for a final mix. They were akin to seasoned fighter pilots who could break down and rebuild their own planes from top to bottom. (I've never seen this level of professionalism at any recording studio today.) Though they took me under their wing as a raw engineering prospect, I gradually learned I didn't have the Right Stuff.
And so one of my closest co-workers became Regent's custodial mascot, Jesus Rojas. The jolly, rotund custodian was cherished by rich music producers, who borrowed him on weekends to work in their homes. He'd come in with a team of fellow Colombian floor waxers.
Jesus was the first to introduce me to 42nd Street's live peeps. He had no time for men's magazines, which didn't yet deliver the full-out goods. On lunch break he led me to a second-floor peep with curtained booths, where you could "see dee-licious poo-sey" on a revolving platform.
Another beloved Regent mainstay was "the most polite man in the world," Sam Vandivert. He was a portly, white-haired fellow in his 50s. Sam ran tape dupes and made cassettes, for which he typed out pressure-sensitive labels. He could do a miracle save on a damaged cassette. Sam was so organized in the "dupe room," we joked that his tombstone would have an arrow pointing downward. He remained jolly no matter how viciously he was berated by Bess the bookkeeper. Sam never raised his voice to defend himself, but would meekly walk off, bemused. "She's a rough ol' bird," he said, and choked when I suggested his presence threatened her virginity.
When I was new on the job, Sam introduced me to Jack Shaw. "He's a great guy," he kept telling me. "Wait till you meet him."
One day the elevator door opened, and Sam wheeled Jack Shaw out. He was a crippled midget in a wheelchair, a human pretzel with a Svengali goatee. "Isn't he great?" asked Sam, with utmost sincerity. And thereafter, Sam and Jesus were forever relieved of the task of wheeling Jack Shaw home from Dorn's sessions, where he was a frequent personage.
Dorn and Lifton helped support him and remained loyal as Shaw's health deteriorated. Shaw had once co-produced Fathead Newman albums with Dorn, and wrote under pseudonyms for Tiger Beat.
I was often sent to fetch Shaw from his reeking West 57th Street apartment. And there, disassembled from his oxygen tank, his apartment overflowing with garbage, was Jack, stranded in the middle of it, crawling over a trash heap like a deformed baby, the bones of his ass hitched up, his scraggly, bearded face gasping for air. Soon I was shopping for his groceries (imitation "cheese food" was his favorite). The poor guy needed more help than he got. When it was time to urinate, even in the studio, he would fumble out his disarmingly large pecker and piss into a bottle, oblivious to strangers.
As a Philadelphia jazz DJ with Dorn, he had somehow been able to drive, and had chauffeured Lenny Bruce to gigs in Philly. Jack described his wheelchair vantage point as a "crotch-eyed view of the world." I waited for some nugget of wisdom as payoff for all the errands I ran for Shaw on my own time. He'd contemplate my questions about jazz or about how I might advance as a studio guitarist. He'd twist his face into a wizened grimace, stroke his beard, looking heavenward, deep in thought as I waited for one kernel of crotch-eyed wisdom -- but I never got it.
Occasionally, Regent Sound went into some ridiculous high-security mode, and Studio A was declared off-limits. Once, for a James Taylor-Carly Simon duet. Regent's mild-mannered security man, Fred, sat quietly in the Studio A reception area every night; he was unassuming and slightly built, but would pat the .38 under his jacket whenever I inquired whether he could really fend off an attack.
For a brief Raquel Welch visit, Joel Dorn ordered me, Jesus, and even Sam off the third floor. I would often retreat to the windowless fifth floor to be alone when my ego was wounded, and commune with the tapes as I slowly ordered them.
"What the hell does he do up there?" Bess the bookkeeper would always complain to whoever would listen.
That very week, Raquel Welch and Shep Gordon, who also managed Alice Cooper, were in hot pursuit of my dad to write her authorized biography -- a high-paying project that my father considered during a time of financial strain, though he wrestled with the humiliating subject matter. He did tell Welch that his boy worked at Regent, and to say hello. And so I stayed on the fifth floor, waiting for an intercom buzz summoning me down at her request so I could broach their pompous security. She never called. My father turned down the book the next day.
When Carol, the gorgeous Haitian receptionist, punched out at night, studio musicians and engineers would fight to sit upon her swivel chair while it was still warm. Her flanks were awe-inspiring. She transformed from prim librarian to bombshell by doffing her thick eyeglasses and releasing her hair bun, haughtily ignoring wolf whistles from janitors and elevator men. She never once visited me on the fifth floor, a dump she wouldn't dream of entering. She eventually married chief engineer Vince McGarry.
Bess would often complain about me or Sam to Carol, suspicious that my $60-a-week salary was a waste, since they couldn't watch me upstairs. In fact, after endless dusty afternoons spent separating crusty, waterlogged tape boxes and deciphering their faded origins, I had whittled down the fifth-floor heap to one row. My two-year odyssey was nearly complete. In a week or so, I could type up the master log and present a fully ordered library to my boss, Robert Lifton.
But then, suddenly, I was "laid off." Lifton mumbled something about "unions cracking down" and regretting my departure, but ol' Bess, the wicked business manager, had convinced him the budget had to be cut. I was lowest man on the totem pole. I learned a basic tenet of business: I had no clients, brought no accounts into the business.
"But the tapes!" I cried. My masterwork of inventory organization was nearly complete.
"Oh, those," said Lifton. "Don't worry, we'll take care of 'em."
Dorn's reign lasted but a few more years. "When you're just a pure artist, when you do what you want when you want -- that doesn't lay well with businesspeople. As long as you make them money, they'll put up with your nonsense. I had a 15-year run; it was unbelievable.
"What happened at the end of the '70s, early '80s, is when the corporate takeover of music in this country was completed. Now lawyers and accountants and non-in-the-street, non-late-night people were running the music business. They observed it the way businessmen do. They said, 'Let's see. This kind of record that sounds this way goes on this kinda radio, sells at this retail, and pulls this audience at this venue.' They applied the laws of logic to art. And you can't. They changed the music business forever. The wildcatters are gone. These are all corporate folks. It finished it for guys like us."
Years later, I saw Dorn, wild-eyed in his claustrophobic New York apartment, surrounded by boxes of tapes and pot-headed mixes cramping his life. He'd summoned me to a meeting for some TV brainstorm. I brought along my brother Drew, who was supposed to bring a friend who was a scholar of old movie posters. At 35 years old, the friend was living at home with his parents, and didn't show. Reached by phone, he said that he wasn't allowed to come, that he was being "punished." Then Dorn was summoned to a hospital by a friend having a heart attack. Meeting and TV show ended right there.
But Dorn's visionary hoarding paid off in the '90s, as he "reinvented" himself. Rhino/Atlantic CD boxed sets revolutionized the biz, and Dorn repackages lots of his old productions.
Lifton moved Regent to the Brill Building. He died of lung cancer around '86. Four packs of Marlboros daily. Regent's space is now part of a famous art gallery building.
I still see those tapes in my dreams, just out of grasp, a week off from completion. I ran into Regent's beloved janitor, Jesus Rojas, many years later. "What happened to all the tapes -- my tapes?"
"Thrown out, I theenk," said Jesus. "Years ago."
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