Tom Dowd, Spirit in the Light


I bet you anything if you tried hard enough, you could find someone who didn’t like Tom Dowd. It wouldn’t be anybody I ever met, but there must be somebody out there.

As a young scientist at Columbia University, Tommy Dowd worked on the Manhattan Project. Later, he co-produced Dusty in Memphis. In between, he engineered some of the greatest records of all time–listen especially to the Ray Charles albums and the jazz records by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane on Atlantic to see how early he understood the possibilities of multi-track recording and the use of space in mixes. In the ’60s, when he began producing as well as engineering, he and Arif Mardin made to my ear the greatest Aretha Franklin records, such as Spirit in the Dark and Young Gifted and Black, and all the best records by the Rascals and the Allman Brothers ever did. As an independent producer beginning in the ’70s, he made most of Eric Clapton’s hits, several of Rod Stewart’s biggest, and worked with Lynyrd Skynyrd, among many many other bands–he seemed to have a special feeling for Southern rock or maybe it was just his engineer’s approach that let those bands rev up and play.

Although he died a couple of weeks ago, age 77, his inimitably New York Irish accent shall remain a favorite aural memory, because except in the most grievous circumstances, it always overflowed with enthusiasm. Three or four years ago, Lee Ballinger interviewed him for his Lynyrd Skynyrd: an oral history. It could have been a difficult interview, since Dowd’s records didn’t do well, commercially, and the band chose not to work with him again. “If necessary, I’m sure he’d have been willing to talk to me for 5, 10, 24 more hours on the phone,” Lee told me recently. “From my limited experience with him, I would say he was that rare artist who neither plays up nor plays down what he actually did. Unusual since most people need to play it up in order to keep working.”

Ballinger added, “When he was telling me about getting ready to go in the studio for the next Allmans, he sounded as if he were going in there to do Eat A Peach or Live at Fillmore East. Fired up, couldn’t wait.” That’s how he always was.

Young Tom Dowd impressed Ahmet Ertegun and his confederates so much that they offered him a job as Atlantic’s house engineer as soon as they could afford to. Dowd had a gift for grabbing great performances on the fly. But he wasn’t a rustic–he convinced Atlantic to buy one of the first eight-track recorders, so there is a lot more of the label’s greatest R&B and jazz in stereo than anywhere else. His collaboration with Arif Mardin on the Rascals and Aretha records represents a rare blending of pure feel with maximum technical skill-and though Arif is the most musical of men, Dowd brought plenty of the feel. As Sue Martinez wrote in response to his passing: “If I were to write a memoir in the form of a discography, Tom Dowd’s hands would appear at nearly every turning point.” To the best of my knoweldge, Tommy bragged about nothing, although he did tell great stories. He was sure of his work (and knew its limits), a humble gentleman in a world that has damned few of either, a great listener, an honest man from beginning to end, and in his quiet way, a real champion of artists. In some ways, he got treated like an artist-it was years before he got production royalties, for instance.

I genuinely loved every minute I got to spend with him. So if ever I should encounter that person who didn’t love Tom Dowd, it would be easy to know what to do. Embrace them and tell them how great it was going to be when they found out when they what they’d been missing.

Who knows what such an embrace would do for the poor soul? But it would offer me a chance to feel more like Tom, and that would be a great thing.

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick


(what’s playing in my office)

1. No Stranger to Shame, Uncle Kracker (Lava)-Kid Rock’s blue-eyed soul prot?g? does a devastating “Drift Away” duet with Dobie Gray, and pours his sweet, nasty heart out on “Letter to My Daughter.” Mainly this reminds me of a vintage Southern rock album. Hmm: Eminem, Kid Rock, this guy. Have the shores of Lake Huron become the new Redneck Riviera?

2. Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers: The Complete Specialty Recordings (Fantasy, 3 disc box)-The greatest music Cooke ever made.

3. Sucking the ’70s (Small Stone, www.smallstone.com ) — Two discs of contemporary Detroit bands remaking everything from the MC5, Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd to “Black Betty,” “Hymn 43,” and “Bron-Yr-Stomp.” Further evidence that you didn’t have to be there to understand that ’70s hard rock wins the award for Most Misunderstood.

4. God and Me, Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith (Collectables)-The redoubtable Williams’s best album plus 12 additional tracks.

5. None But the Righteous: The Masters of Sacred Steel (RopeADope)-Playing as smooth as shaving with a new blade and with similarly cleansing results. That the music world only recently opened itself to this remarkable and venerable gospel offshoot reflects a silly intellectual phobia-a plain prejudice against religious music. Now the great Calvin Cooke has a Warners-distributed album in the works. In the face of this, may the sound stay pure.

6. The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Charlie Christian (Columbia Legacy)-So great that a construction crew that only listens to country and metal heard it through a wall and asked what the great sounds were. It’ll make a believer out of you about Lionel Hampton too. Did me, anyhow.

7. “Sad & Dreamy (The Big 1-0),” Alejandro Escovedo from The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides (Bloodshot)-When Escovedo and Michael Fracasso did a songwriting workshop with Austin gradeschoolers a couple years ago, one informed them that since he was about to hit “the big 1-0,” “candy doesn’t taste as good anymore.” That rough rhyme and a variety of similar thoughts became this song. Its poignancy spells out some childhood facts of life that no other song I know gets to. Charming, beautiful, smart, true.

8. Nothing to Fear, A Rough Mix by Steinski (bootleg)

9. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)

10. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared)

11. Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues, Chris Thomas King (21st Century Blues) 12. Southern Hummingbird, Tweet (The Goldmind, Inc/Elektra)

13. Revolverution, Public Enemy (Koch)

14. The Naked Ride Home, Jackson Browne (Elektra)

15. Bluegrass and White Snow,, Patty Loveless (Columbia advance)-Best bluegrass Christmas album ever.

16. ‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! (Yep Roc)-First good surf instrumental Christmas album I can remember.

17. 8 Mile, Eminem (Shady/Interscope)

18. “The Talking Sounds Just Like Joe McCarthy Blues,” Chris Buhalis (chrisbuhalis.com)

19. Still Wanna Be Black, Jimmy Lewis (Kent UK)-Raw soul rumbles out of the Mississippi Delta from ’62 to ’74. Lewis’s sexual frankness (“There Ain’t No Man That Can’t Be Caught,” “Message to the Ladies”) is both sit-up-straight adult and just this side of hilarious.

20. “Shout,” Lilian Garcia (Universal)-First ever evidence that the professional wrestling isn’t just a bad influence.

DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net

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