Tommy LiPuma, Warner Brothers Records
Gordon Edward's face was six inches away (and six inches above) my face. His eyes were blazing with a black and fierce intensity, and out of his open mouth spread warm clouds of moist breath that smelled like vodka. My back was pressed tightly against the red clapboards of the Long View barn, disallowing any retreat on my part. Nor could I move to the right or to the left, since Gordon had shoved his large hands just beneath the armpits of my black dinner jacket, thumbs up, pinning me like an insect against the building. I was the owner of this building, and of the adjacent white farmhouse. Inside each of these structures were recording studios. Gordon Edwards was my guest and client.
"Gordon," I said, trembling. "What the hell are you doing? Lemmee go!" More warm clouds of vodka breath blew across my face, like wind.
"I'll tell you what I'm doing," Gordon Edwards spat in my face. "I'm tellin' you sumpin'. Either you're up, or you're out!" And with that remark, Gordon made his strong arms into cantilevers, hoisting me up off the ground by my armpits, and slamming me back against the red barn boards for emphasis. We were now roughly eye to eye, with my dress leather cowboy boots wiggling in the air, six inches above the ground.
"You guys. You think you're so fucking smart." (This was a racist remark. Gordon Edwards was a black man; I was not.) "The hard things..." he continued, "the hard things you can do. But when it comes to the easy things, you know what?"
"What, Gordon?" I stammered.
"When it comes to the easy things, you suck!"
With that assertion, Gordon Edwards yanked his hands out from under my armpits, restoring me to the tug of gravity, and I crumpled to his feet in a heap of leather boots, black jacket, and white shirt & tie, staring at the toes of his Adidas track shoes. The Adidas track shoes did not kick me in the face, as I was fully expecting them to do, but retreated instead, rotating ninety degrees counter-clockwise, and stomped off away from the barn and back in the direction of the white farmhouse, where the remainder of the band was assembled — temporarily without its leader — in our Studio "A".
This was the band Stuff, four days into its recording sessions at Long View Farm, Tuesday, June 15, 1976.
The Piano Tuner
I can remember now what this was all about. It was about Van McCoy, the legendary R&B producer from New York City, who was idolized by Gordon Edwards. Gordon Edwards thought that Van McCoy was the best thing walking on two feet, and his voice had come almost to the point of trembling several nights earlier when he announced that Van McCoy was going to be sharing the recording studio with Stuff, this for the purpose of recording some basic tracks for none other than the fabulous diva, Gladys Knight. Gladys would not be in attendance herself, but Van McCoy and ten other hand-picked musicians from New York City would be coming. Gordon was ecstatic at this prospect, and had been talking about little else for two days. And this was the big day. Van McCoy was on his way — somewhere on the highway in one of four black automobiles — accompanied by ten of the most carefully coiffed, immaculately turned-out, exceedingly polite pickers that the New York City musical community had to offer.
But Gordon Edwards was not happy on this, the big day. And that was because of an episode that had just transpired a few moments earlier in the recording studio, leading Gordon to believe that the all-important studio piano — the Baldwin — was not in tune. If true, this could be devastating for the Van McCoy recording session which was just about to occur, and for him personally. To have Richard Tee playing out of tune would be unthinkable, and would tarnish Gordon's reputation as a first-call session leader for years to come. It was all on the line for him today. Van McCoy was only minutes away, the piano sounded like shit, he thought, and the piano tuner had just run down the road, trying to get away. Things were falling apart for Gordon Edwards.
The piano tuner had been an elderly, somewhat frail gentleman of French-Canadian descent named Alexis Bridgeot. He had arrived as usual wearing his beret and tunic, and carrying his little black leather doctor's bag full of tuning forks, chrome wrenches and felt strips, and had set about to check the tune of our very reliable, sparkling Baldwin piano. But the piano was triple-miked, as it had been left the night before, and the mikes had been brought up on the recording console in the control room, over which there stood, hunkered down and angry looking, the members of the band, including its large leader Gordon Edwards. The volume of the control monitors had been cranked to the max', with the result that even the tiniest scraping of the piano strings, and any adjustments made to the lugs to which they were fastened, would be heard in the control room, in the farmhouse, and even on the surrounding acreage, with ear-shattering intensity. The men in the control room did not like what they were hearing even when middle-C on the piano matched middle-C on the tuning fork. The reason being, of course, that they were hearing the odd-numbered harmonics created by the solid state electronic circuitry of the recording console, which harmonics sound unpleasant at high volume levels. (Pre-CBS Fender guitar amplifiers, which featured even-numbered harmonics delivered by vacuum tubes, are still highly sought after for this reason.)
Gordon Edwards, thinking that he was the one to take the situation in hand, took himself out of the control room and into the recording studio where the frail Monsieur Bridgeot was bent over the Baldwin piano, now apparently finished with his work, and poking his utensils back into his little black leather doctor's bag. Monsieur Bridgeot was shaking, by all reports, and his hands now unsteady. Gordon Edwards put himself in front of the old man, drew himself up to his towering full height, and placed his arms akimbo.
"You're telling me this fucking piano is tuned, mother fucker?" Gordon bellowed.
Monsieur Bridgeot apparently suffered a minor seizure at this point in time, collapsing over his beret, tunic, and bag of utensils. Recovering, he grabbed up what he could off the floor, and dashed under Gordon's upraised right arm, out of the recording studio, then out of the kitchen through the door onto the gravel drive. Not stopping, he was seen running full tilt down the gravel drive and down Stoddard Road to the pond, where he had parked his car. He had trouble getting the car started, reports continue, but once it did, he slammed it first into reverse, impacting one of the white fence posts, and then spun his wheels on the wet grass until the vehicle got screeching traction on the road, carrying him away from Long View Farm forever, never to return.
For his part, Gordon Edwards, having followed Bridgeot out of the farmhouse in hot pursuit, and now reconciled to the man's escape, saw Markle smoking a cigarette in his leather boots over by the barn, and decided this would be the time to have his say about the hard things, and the easy things (like tuning pianos), and how Markle was inept when it came to the latter. As it turned out, McCoy and his people arrived and had a fine time, Richard Tee saying at the end of the night that the Baldwin was the finest piano he had ever played. It had always been in tune. The Gladys Knight basic tracks were overdubbed with her vocals in New York City a few weeks later and successfully released. They can be heard on the Studiowner.com "Media Library."
Editor's Note: Markle and his studio manager, Kent Huff, had long been in charge of giving humorous nicknames to clients, and applying generic appellations to events that deserved remembering. They called the escape of the piano tuner "a bridgeot," and this title was to be used many times thereafter to designate the sudden withdrawal of services by a studio employee overcome by the intensity of the Long View experience.
I should have known that the Stuff project was going to be an unusual one, since I was on the spot when it got off to a most unusual start. This was a bit earlier, in May of 1976, and things were slow at the recording studio. Not much business. Yes, Cat Stevens had just been there, recording his last long-playing record, and the gig had gone OK, I guess. No, not really OK. There had been some equipment problems, and the recording artist had been in a bad temperament, in the midst of a religious conversion, and unhappy in his own skin, as we were to decide later. In the meanwhile, we took it personally. And in this same meanwhile, there were no other high level recording dates in sight. Things were slow, and the bankers were calling. It was at times like this that I would pack some clean, freshly pressed jeans, make some telephone calls, and take an airplane to New York City. We had just published a spanking, new color brochure touting the benefits of countryside recording, and I was ready to hand them out in the middle of Times Square, if necessary.
In any case, I got myself a ride down to New York in the twin engine airplane, got myself my de rigueur suite in the Mayflower Hotel, and the next morning found myself in the elevator of that big, tall skyscraper on Columbus Circle in New York City, having just pressed the white button for the 16th floor. In the elevator with me was just one other person a man of about my height, age, and build. As is the custom in elevators, we were both looking at our shoes, in my case, leather boots. Then, contrary to custom, the other guy spoke to me.
"Whatcha' doing here in the big city, trying to sell something?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact," I said. "Trying to sell some time in a recording studio up in Massachusetts. Here's where I come when the going gets tough." The elevator is grinding its way upwards all this time. I notice that there's only one white button illuminated — the one for the 16th floor.
"Tough?" he asks. What's tough?"
"Tough is when the place is empty. Costs a bundle to keep the doors open. It's one of those countryside recording studios, up in the boondocks. Stevie Wonder is supposed to come there two months from now, but that might not happen. He's been supposed to come there two months from now for the last two years."
"So who's the pigeon you're going to work over on the 16th floor?"
"Just Sunshine Records," I respond. "You know, that guy Michael Lang of Woodstock fame? He's got a record company now. Figure if I tell them about the place, and offer them a loss-leader deal I can't afford, maybe we'll see some action." With those last words out of my mouth, I see my friend's eyes widen. All this as the white light goes out on the panel, and gravity is suspended for an instant, and the elevator door slides open.
"Come on," he says. "I'll show you where you're going."
So down the hall we go, this other guy in the lead — past the scuffed-up door for a tax accountant, past the mahogany-trimmed door for a law firm — until we get to a door that reads Just Sunshine Records. But he doesn't just point at the door, he opens it instead, motioning me inside — past an empty receptionist's desk, past an empty secretary's cubicle, and into an office where there's a chair and a big desk, brimming over with paper and empty audio cassette boxes. He points to the chair, and then makes his way around the desk and sits down. He extends an index finger upwards towards the ceiling, and clears his throat.
"Paret," he says. "Ray Paret. I manage a band called Stuff. So what's this loss-leader deal you're talking about?"
A large measure of the drama and uncertainty which plagued the eventual release of the Stuffalbum by Warner Brothers was made inevitable by the decision of a well-known visiting engineer from Criteria Recording Studios in Florida to run the two-inch recording tape at 15 inches per second, with no noise reduction. The alternative would have been to run the tape at 30 inches per second, or to use one of the then-available noise reduction technologies — this to avoid the distraction of "tape hiss" in the finished product. Neither alternative was chosen. The first was thought to have been too expensive (you use twice as much tape at 30 ips than you use at 15 ips), and so this solution was rejected by the management of the band at Just Sunshine Records. The second solution, which would have been to use the brand new DBX noise reduction gear installed at Long View, was rejected citing the relatively untested nature of this new product. Dolbies (the gold standard of noise reduction) would have been expensive to rent. And so the 3M two-inch tape machine at the Farm was ordered to be re-calibrated at the slower tape speed, and the DBX units were switched into bypass mode, the result being recorded music which sounded fine when the band was playing loudly, with all the instruments being played, but which sounded less than fine in the quiet musical passages, when only one or two instruments were being heard, and with all of the other tracks on the two-inch tape contributing their share of annoying tape hiss.
"Listen, Ray, you gotta do something." This was me in the little phone booth just outside of Control Room "A," talking to Ray Paret in New York City. "It doesn't sound that great. You can hear the tape hiss. And once we mix it and add EQ on the high end to make it sound brighter, you're going to hear more tape hiss still. Just sayin..."
"Do something? We don't gotta do anything. You're already going to burn through ten reels of tape as it is, at $100 per reel. Twice that would be almost $2,000 for tape alone. And they weigh almost five pounds, each of them. How am I gonna ship weight like to LA? And don't use any of that Blackmer DBX shit on the tape, either. I don't care if his son does work for you. DBX makes the tape sound too quiet. This isn't a symphony orchestra we're recording. What's more..."
Ray didn't get a chance to say anything more. There was a loud crash, as two of the larger band members, horsing around, collided not just with one another, but with fragile glass door of the little phone booth, erupting (the two of them) into a mother fucker chorus and spilling their vodka drinks everywhere in sight. The door was taken off its hinges, the overhead light started blinking inside, and the telephone connection went silent. This was Stuff, at Long View Farm.
It was only a day later that the same telephone booth, now repaired but still smelling a little like vodka, came to be re-occupied (not by me this time), but by the visiting engineer from Florida. He too was talking to Ray Paret in New York City, and by all outward signs, the conversation was not going well. There was lots of loud language, using short, four-letter words. The engineer had the telephone mouthpiece crimped between his jaw and a shoulder blade, and he was counting things off on his fingers. Then the fingers on his right hand would tighten into a fist, and the fist would pound several times into the wall. "Jesus, Christ!" one would hear through the glass door. "Jesus, fucking Christ!" one would hear again. Finally, the telephone was slammed down, and the glass door opened, and the engineer stumbled out into the living room by the fireplace, where I was sitting.
"Outta here," he said. "I'm the fuck outta here. You and Jesse can deal with these assholes. Jesse, he's great. You, you'll do. I'm the fuck outta here." And he was "the fuck outta here," packing his bags upstairs in what seemed to be a few minutes only. Down he came, into the kitchen, and out the front door he went, taking the same trajectory as was performed by the crazed piano tuner. As turned out to be the case with the piano tuner, I would never see him again.
This event left Jesse Henderson and me recording perhaps the most important band in New York City. Running tape at 15 inches per second. With no noise reduction.
A typical recording session
A typical recording session was twelve hours long, beginning during the early afternoon hours, and extending into the wee hours of the next calendar day. One song, and one song only, would be attempted during this period of time, involving usually a dozen or more "takes" on two-inch tape. These days were all similar, as far as the energy level of the musicians was concerned, and as concerns the excellence of the musicianship. The afternoon hours were all "hung over," if the truth be known. People had been up very late the night before, and could not remember in certain instances when they had finally been led off to their beds by their trusties or concerned studio employees. And so the afternoons began slowly, with the goal of simply identifying the song to be recorded, and playing bits and pieces of it. A "hair of the dog" might help, and usually did. There were ice cubes clinking into glasses in the kitchen well before the cows were led back into the barn, and the song would at this point take on some life. The band would play a complete version of it, albeit a shortened version of it, just before the official "cocktail hour" was neigh. They would listen to the playback in the control room, stirring their drinks with their fingers, and thinking to themselves, musically. They would each now know how they were going to do it better, after supper.
Suppers at Long View Farm were always preceded by, accompanied by, and terminated by the service of alcoholic beverages, either drawn out of iced kegs or poured out of glistening French wine bottles or, in the case of Stuff, unceremoniously emptied out of clear, half-gallon jugs saying Stolichnaya. And so spirits were high when the men filtered back into the recording studio, taking their places on their stools or at the keyboard or behind the glass walls of the isolation booth where the drums and the percussion instruments were recorded. These guys were now ready to go. It was now about 10 PM.
The first take of the tune after supper would generally be unremarkable. It would be listened to by the band, back in the control room, with general disapproval. Now, angry, the men would go out and play it again, with the red lights on the tape machine blinking. Only this time, they would not play just the body of the song — the intro, the three verses, the instrumental release and the fade — but they would extend the fade out many minutes longer, exploring the soul of the song in a repetitive and cyclical manner which is sometimes called a blow. It was always during the blow that the magic happened — that they found the groove.
Let me tell you about the blow, and the groove. With the band Stuff, it would begin at the top of the fade with a simple piano riff played by Richard Tee, this riff drawn somewhere from the body of the song. It could be as simple as
Dah-dah, di, dah-dah, dum, answered by Cornell DuPree and Eric Gale, playing their guitars. Richard Tee would then repeat the riff.
Dah-dah, di, dah-dah, dum, and it would answered again by the guitars, although now a bit differently. But this was only the beginning of the magic. Richard Tee would repeat that piano riff again and again — perhaps a hundred times — with the guitars answering each time a bit differently, and more insistently, exploring every possible variation and nuance of the tune. All this on top of a rock-hard drum and bass platform, with everyone playing just a bit harder, a bit more confidently, each time around. They would dig it deeper, and deeper, and more deeply still, until there would come a moment in time that the song, defying gravity, would seem to pick up and fly away. This was the moment that they found the groove. This was classic Stuff.
Almost done. Inspired now that they had found the groove, they would play the whole thing again, trying to do it better still. And that's when we would get the body of the song, played now with a daemonic intensity, and verve. As for the next blow, they were tired now, and it was getting later, and only sometimes would it be better. It was generally worse. And so it would be left to Jesse Henderson and to me, using a razor blade, to later edit together the original blow with the subsequent and inspired body, fading the tune when the blow reached its controlled apex. That's how all the tunes on the Stuff LP were put together.
Editor's Note: For an interesting object lesson on the body and the blow of Stuff material, listen to the two versions of the tune "Happy Farms" clickable in the Studiowner.com "Media Library". Listen first to the unedited version( 8:27), in which the long and inspirational blow is featured. Next, listen to the edited version (3:45), in which the controlled apex of the blow is edited onto the re-inspired body. The noticeably enhanced sound quality of the edited version is due to the Roger Mayer sound gates discussed below.
From a business point of view, by far the most important man in residence at Long View Farm at that time was Tommy LiPuma, the well known musicologist and A&R executive at Warner Brothers. Tommy was on the premises to keep track of the Stuff recording sessions, which he had played a role in arranging, and to protect the interests of the big record company in Los Angeles. But he was not warming to the assignment. In fact, he was very unhappy. He would spend little time in the control room, listening to the music being recorded. He was short and dismissive with the studio employees. "No, I don't want anything to drink. And don't ask me again!" He made his way around the farmhouse with the greatest of care, tapping his cane, having been nearly trampled the first day by six shouting and raging musicians who burst their way out of the control room with no advance warning, heading for the bar. Having learned his lesson, Tommy LiPuma would more often be seen sitting in relative security at the big oaken table just outside Control Room "A," bathed in the loud sounds coming from the hanging JBL speakers in the kitchen, these sounds having been piped in from the recording studio. It was at this table that he would often vent his displeasure at the gentle Herb Lovelle, the well-known ex-jazz drummer, friend and confidant of the band. He would summon Herb to the oaken table for these unpleasant sessions. Snippets of these sessions were audible, even over the roar of the JBL speakers.
Tommy LiPuma, typically: "...undisciplined, rowdy, out of control... ...no sheet music... ...one man, a half gallon... ...one song, fourteen minutes long... this is an LP you're making... ...unmixable... ...who's in charge?" Tommy LiPuma's body language left little doubt as to the message he was eager to deliver. It was the index finger on his right hand that did most of the work. It was wagging almost non-stop, except when he would straighten it and point it at Herb Lovelle's nose, making the finger dart in and out. He would occasionally raise his right arm to the level of his neck, and draw his finger across it from left to right as though his finger were a knife. This would make his cane rattle, which had been hooked behind him onto his chair.
Herb Lovelle, typically: "...that's just the way they do it... ...don't worry, looking for that groove... ...maybe they're thirsty... ...I'm just one man... ...whatddya, whatddya, whatddya..." Herb's body language was no less explicit. He had one move, and that was to shrug his shoulders, and to turn the palms of his two hands upwards, towards the ceiling.
I would sometimes seek out Herb Lovelle after the most tumultuous of his interludes with Tommy LiPuma, hoping to give him some moral support. Herb liked to talk with me, and I liked him a lot.
"How'd it go, Herb?" I'd ask.
"Not good, bro," Herb would say. "Not good."
It would take only a few days longer for Tommy LiPuma to decide that he had had his fill with Stuff, and with Long View Farm. The end came early one morning, after yet another night of the band's largely drunken behavior and marginal productivity in the recording studio. They sent someone up to my room to get me out of bed. "Better get downstairs right away. Tommy LiPuma's leaving!" And he was in fact on his way out the door. A car had been called, and was idling on the gravel drive, awaiting its passenger. I caught up to the man just as he was taking his last, hurried sip of coffee.
"Good luck," Tommy said, pointing his cane at me. "Good luck. This project has the chances of a fart in a windstorm." And with that remark Tommy tapped his way down the stone steps and slid into the back seat of the waiting automobile. The car then rolled down the driveway. As it turned out with the crazed piano tuner and the visiting engineer from Florida, I would never see Tommy LiPuma again.
The Dark Days and Surprises
Rock 'n' roll follows no rules. What you think is sure to happen often doesn't; what you think is unlikely to occur often does, instead. Why this happens so particularly in rock 'n' roll, and not in other disciplines, is not for me to speculate on in this essay. That's an analytical question, and I'm not doing analysis here, but reportage instead. I'm simply telling you what I've seen. All with a bit of jaundiced humor, I suppose. I would be the first to admit that there are whiffs of condescension, manufactured irony, and needless cynicism in between the lines of these essays I have written, including this one. So be it. It was with such feelings that I originally reacted to the roller coaster events being described here, and it's with similar sentiments that I remember them now. All perhaps signs of a basic misfit between the man — a university-trained philosopher — and his chosen avocation, that of the owner of a rock 'n' roll recording studio. At least I had Kierkegaard's "laugh on my side." It was my sense of humor that made these contradictions supportable at the time, and which now, thirty-five years later, lightens up the telling of the story. Like I said, so be it.
Take this situation at Long View Farm, for example. A rhythm and blues ensemble (Stuff) becomes the talk of New York City, and attracts the attention of a hip record label (Just Sunshine Records) and a major, international distributor (Warner Brothers). The band is well-rehearsed, having dazzled crowds for years at the upper east side bistro Mikell's, and they've made some plausible tape recordings in studios as well known as Media Sound. Only, these guys are first-call session musicians, in high demand on short notice for a variety of important projects, and it's difficult to get them all together for any length of time. You can get a few of them to show up for basic tracks on a tune, and maybe another couple of them to show up a day later for overdubs on the same song, but in any case you're dealing with the inevitable distractions of life in a big, busy city — the drug deals, the girlfriends, the appearances on Saturday Night Live — and the recording project tends to take a back seat. "We'll do it when we can do it," seems to be the attitude. Here's an idea: let's take them out of the city and put them in one of those countryside recording studios, up in the boondocks, where they'll have nothing else to do but make music, recordable 24 hours a day according to that guy I met in an elevator last week. On the cheap too, as it turns out. Think of it: all of them, alone with their musical creations — sharing, evolving, synergizing— with the mikes always on! And on the cheap! That's the way to make this LP for Warner Brothers.
But this is rock 'n' roll, and we are due for our first surprise. The band does not arrive at Long View as a team of dedicated musical monks, but as party animals instead. They stay up all night, and get prodded out of bed only in the early afternoon, if then. They love that "open bar," and use it. Eric Gale nurses an Amstel beer watching while his high-end Chevrolet Caprice gets its daily wash and polish from Kent Huff, the Studio Manager. Steve Gadd sips on a glass of something while trying to comfort his young wife, who has been crying on the patio for hours for reasons unknown. Gordon Edwards is shouting down across the acreage to the two chubby white girls he imported from the city only this morning, now in tiny bikinis on the raft in the middle of the pond, doing the Boogaloo. "Get yo' asses up here," he yells, spilling half of his Russian vodka, and going back into the house for more. Therein, the recording studios are silent. There are no musical charts lying around. No instant cassette copies of the magical riff that came to mind in the middle of a dream. No playbacks from the night before being scrutinized. No one wearing headphones. This is not looking good for the home team. These guys were making at least some music back in New York City. But they are making little or no music here at Long View Farm.
And then, more surprises, none of them ever envisioned as likely. First of all, the visiting engineer who was there one day, but not the next: Sonofabitch had a red face — couldn't handle his booze. Or the terrorized piano tuner, who ran down the road, trying to get away: Didcha' see that guy runnin' and screamin'? Or the senior executive from Warner Brothers Records, who departed the Farm in disgust, leaving only warnings behind: Whoaa... why that mother fucker split? Whoaa... This is looking less good still for the home team. It would appear that the Stuff LP might not even get recorded, much less released.
That result might actually have occurred had it not been for Herb Lovelle. Despite what it said on the eventual album cover, this man was the sole, de facto producer of the record. Held in the greatest respect by all of the band members, including Gordon Edwards, it was he who established non-stop presence in the control room, nodding if a song had been recorded correctly, or giving his "thumbs down" if another take was in order. He had strong opinions when it came to the "sound" of the various instruments, and the manner in which these sounds were displayed on the loudspeakers. It was he who would liaise most closely with studio staff on matters of scheduling, mealtimes, arrivals and departures, and so forth. And it was he, Herb Lovelle, who gathered the band members for an emergency meeting around the oaken table on the day that Tommy LiPuma abandoned the recording project, and left the Farm. Herb Lovelle was not at all pleased.
"Lemmee tell you something," Herb began. "We're fuckin' up big time. That guy from the record company who stormed outta' here this morning? He was pissed, and he took our futures away with him in his back pocket, with a big question mark on 'em." The band members sat silently around the oaken table, heads bowed. "See, he thinks that we can't do it — that we're too busy drinking vodka and hangin' out and ogling those white chicks doing the Boogaloo down there on the raft — too busy fucking off to make a record. And you know, I'm beginning to think he may be right." No response from the band members.
"Well, we have one chance to prove him wrong, and that one chance starts today. You're going to get your black asses back into that recording studio — sorry Steve, sorry Chris — and play the music we came here to record. Starting now, you hear me? We haven't come all this way to see it end like this." Still no response from the band members, except for the most important one, Gordon Edwards, who pushes his bottle of morning beer away, into the middle of the table, nearly spilling it..
"Shee...it" he says. "Shee...it," he says again. "The man's right. Let's get cookin'."
And that brings us to our next surprise. The lecture worked. The two girls would continue their jive on the raft, of course, squeaking and waving and pushing each other off the raft at intervals, into the chilly water of the pond, but they were now doing this dance for themselves alone. New York City's finest R&B ensemble was now back in the recording studio, making music. And what music it was! Like nothing we had ever heard before. Six men, playing as one. Deep, dark, rock-hard rhythms. Glittering, transcendent melodies. Pure groove. The big 3M tape machine rolled on and on, its red lights blinking, capturing it all. There was magic in the air.
Al Schmitt, Tommy LiPuma's engineer friend from LA (now thought of as one of the world's finest recording engineers) arrived in the middle of this happy chapter, and was impressed. "Sounds great," he said. "Don't know what all the fuss is about." Stuff finished recording its LP by the middle of the next week, Wednesday, June 23, and promptly departed in order to prepare for its next adventure, which was to be an appearance at Claude Nobs' Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland. That left us with only the mopping up to do: making some quick rough mixes, sending the two-inch tapes off via Delta air freight to a fellow named Tony Lawrence at Warner Brothers in LA, and then waiting for the postman to arrive with our check from the record company — a check that was sorely needed, as I remember things, since the bankers were calling again with renewed threats.
The postman arrived all right, about a month later, but with the biggest surprise of all. It was not a check that he delivered to us, but a letter from the heavyweight law firm in New York City called Pryor, Cashman & Sherman. The letter, dated July 19, said that the two-inch tapes delivered to the record company were technically unsatisfactory, this being the fault of the recording studio, and that the studio would not be paid for its work, outside of the $2,000 deposit it had already received, and perhaps for incidentals such as alcoholic beverages consumed should an accountancy of these incidentals be seen as "reasonable." As for the recording project itself, the studio would not be paid. I should have thrown the letter away years ago, but I never did. You can see a copy of it here, as an attachment.
Rock 'n' roll follows no rules. There are surprises instead, some of them very unwelcome. Here we had recorded what we felt was the very best tape ever to have been made at Long View Farm, and maybe anywhere else for that matter, but one of the most prestigious record companies in the world had deemed it unmixable, and was seeing to it that we would not be paid for our work. And it would be in this fashion that the Stuff project at Long View Farm now seemed likely to end.
Unless, of course, someone (like me, for example) could demonstrate that the tape was mixable after all. It would take me a month to figure out how to do this.
The Noise Gates
Noise gates are electrical devices which, when inserted into a circuit carrying sound, will shut down the circuit when the sound passing through the circuit falls beneath a certain volume level, allowing no sound at all to go through. If, say, you put such a device between an audio tape machine in playback mode and a mixing console, and adjusted the cutoff level to be at the faint level of tape hiss, then, whenever the level of the recorded sound fell beneath the level of the tape hiss, the noise gate would shut down, removing all sound delivered to the mixing console, including the tape hiss.
That's what we know now, with noise gates included as an in-line feature of all professional mixing consoles, and even cheap, non-professional mixing consoles used in garages, and basements. Everybody's got noise gates now. But in 1976, that was not the case. They were thought to be theoretically possible, only. And so all this weighed heavily on me as I made my way down to New York City that day in August in the twin engine airplane to see the guy who had published some recent technical articles on the topic, who had reportedly built a few prototypes of the gadget, and who had just financed a small production run, hoping to see the devices tested out by professional users. I found Roger Mayer in an office on East 57th Street, this office cluttered by circuit diagrams on the walls, bits of wires on the floor, and hanging, naked tungsten light bulbs. A temporarily transplanted Englishman of about my age, he was sitting, visored, at a small desk behind a mound of electrical parts— a cup of coffee in one hand, a hot soldering iron in the other.
"Come over here," he said, "I wanna show you something. See this little knob on the noise gate? This is what makes the thing work. Set it at too high a volume level, and it will cut off the quiet passages of your instruments and vocals, and make them sound like shit; set it too low, and it won't cut out anything — tape hiss or anything else. But if you set it just right, it should work for you. Increase the dynamic range of the program material, let you use any EQ you want, and take out the tape hiss. Whatd'ya think?"
I was not allowed the time to respond. "Here," he said. "Here's twelve of them mounted in a nineteen-inch rack. With a balanced, Cannon-connector wiring harness all attached. Stick 'em between your tape machine and the console and have a ball. You don't need sixteen. You can't use them on the cymbals of the drum kit anyway. Cymbals fade out to a level beneath tape hiss. Shouldn't use them on the piano either, if it's being featured in the mix. Twelve should do you just fine. But I need $1,260 for the gates, and $175 for the rack, net ten days. Whatd'ya say now?"
I wanted these noise gates. And I had a flight bag all ready to put them in, since I had some people (band members) that I wanted to show them to only a couple of hours later. "Roger," I said, "this is terrific. But I may have a problem with the ten days. I've got to use these to get paid, and that may not happen ten days from now."
"No problem, Mate," he said eventually, perusing my business card. "Take 'em. I know where you live."
I took them. In retrospect, thirty-five years later, this event was clearly the game changer. It would shortly make possible the international distribution, by Warner Brothers Records, of the Stuff LP. But I now had some additional work to do, uptown and on the east side of Manhattan, in the nightclub called Mikell's.
I arrived at the corner of 97th Street and Columbus Avenue by cab about 8 o'clock in the evening. It was still light out. Over my shoulder was a flight bag containing my newly-acquired Roger Mayer noise gates, together with their mounting rack and a long gaggle of wires and connectors required to wire them into the studio back in Massachusetts. I was here at this nightclub to meet with the band members of Stuff, and to propose that I personally fix, and mix to stereo the controversial magnetic recording tape — this to impress our current detractors at Warner Brothers, to get the tape released as an LP, and to get everybody paid. Pat Mikell, who had arranged this meeting for me, was there at the door, waving me inside.
Pat was the wife of Mike Mikell, and between the two of them they had created the hippest and most exciting night spot in New York City. There was the good food, of course, and the sparkling bar and the deep wine cellar — but what was most interesting about this place was the clientele. No off-the-street walk ins, no tourists from Iowa or wherever — these clients were all show business professionals. Writers, critics, poets, song writers, performers, record company executives, TV personalities and their band directors, and every night a different group of visiting celebrities — all of them eager to be seen and to interact with other core elements of "the business." You would see the author James Baldwin there one night, hobnobbing with his brother the bartender and chatting with Joe Cocker. Cat Stevens would be there another night, rubbing shoulders with Stevie Wonder, who had just flown in from the coast. Paul Shaffer (of Saturday Night Live, and later, David Letterman's TV show) would introduce a fresh recording wannabe, who turns out to be Whitney Houston, remarking that this venue was, for him, "soul heaven." Clive Davis, of Arista Records, would be seen jotting notes down on a pad of paper, elbowing his A&R chieftain, Bob Feiden. This activity would often go on until 4 o'clock in the morning, here on the outskirts of Harlem.
And there was of course the house band, led by bassist Gordon Edwards and supported by the guitarists Eric Gale and Cornell DuPree, the gospel and R&B keyboardist Richard Tee, and the drummers Chris Parker and Steve Gadd. There was no name for a while for this house band. But then someone suggested the name Stuff, and the name stuck. Stuff was born at Mikell's, and Mikell's reached the apogee of its influence in the New York City musical community with Stuff playing there three nights a week in the mid-nineteen-seventies.
"They're not here yet," Pat said to me at the door. "Come on in. I want to talk to you. Put your gear there on the table, and follow me." There is jazz in the air as Pat leads me down along the dark, hardwood bar, its glasses clinking and its clients jabbering. We slide along past mini-skirts and long legs and high-heel pumps swinging like pendulums on the tips of manicured toes. Serious-looking young men are sitting on bar stools with their Walkman cassette players at the ready, confidently counting off the deal points of business arrangements on their fingertips. The music swells as we pass the modest stage, with its piano player, another man playing a stand-up bass, and a young woman playing a flute. Pat mumbles something into the ear of the piano player, and he nods.
The music and the crowd are behind us now as Pat leads on. "Watch your step," she says, as she motions to our right and to a steep staircase leading down into the basement. The staircase squeaks as we make our way downwards, holding onto a shaky two-by-four wooden railing. "Down that way," she says, pointing down a long corridor framed by hundreds of Budweiser beer cases, piled high above our heads. Down at the very end of the corridor is a light bulb hanging by a wire, and we make our way towards it, hearing only our feet on the cement floor, and the very faint sounds of the revelers coming down through the ceiling. "In there," she says, pointing into a tiny room. "Sit down." There's not much in this room except another hanging tungsten light bulb, and a table piled high with papers. There's a dirty black telephone on the table, and a large dusty mirror, facing upwards towards the ceiling. There are several large Woodstock posters hanging on the walls, covering up the cinder blocks.
"Business junk," Pat says derisively, indicating a particularly large pile of papers on the table. "They say we're a cabaret, and that we have to do this, and do this, and do this. Those guys in the clubs down on 52nd Street don't have the same problems. But we do, here just a stone's throw from the Apollo Theater, of all places. Makes me sick."
"But listen," Pat resumes, her chin resting on a fist. "I know what you're here to do — to get the tapes back and mix them and make everything come out all right — but you need to know what you're up against. It may not happen, what you want to do.
Look, I'm not here to play any race card. Couldn't very well do that, could I? I'm married to Mike Mikell. But I can see things from the band's point of view, and it's not pretty. They've been fucked over a dozen times, left and right, and each time it's been in the corner office of some silver-tongued white guy downtown who's promising them this, and promising them that, but it all comes out backwards, with them losing publishing rights to their material, and getting stuck in non-performing contracts, and sometimes being held responsible for the payment of their own studio time. It goes on and on. Fucked over, left and right.
Andhere we have this situation with an LP they did for Just Sunshine that might not even get released. I was astonished they did that deal — knowing how they think. They wouldn't have, had it not been for Paret's relationship with Lovelle. Herb speaks highly of him.
But now you waltz in, fitting the mold exactly with your white face and your leather jacket and your jeans and boots, and with your big words and promises to make everything right. Don't you count on it, Gil. They're pissed. All except for Herb Lovelle, who likes you a lot, too."
Pat is interrupted by a loud "ker-boom" coming from the bar directly overhead, and by the scraping sound of a fallen bar stool. It was one of those high steppers in the dangling high heels who had just come to floor level, hard. "Oh, I'm O.K.," could be heard. "I'm O.K."
"Look," Pat continues. "Just tryin' to help. What you gotta' do is go back up there and pitch them your deal. Short and sweet. No big words. And we'll see what happens.
And that's what we did. We then went back upstairs where the band members of Stuff were now assembled — serious-looking and eyeing my flight bag full of electronic gear with obvious discomfort, and some suspicion. And I pitched them the deal — using no big words that I can remember.
I finished... and silence reigned. The jazz trio was on a break, and all you could hear was the clinking of glasses at the bar. Otherwise... silence.
There was no movie being made in Mikell's that night — no cinematographer present. But if there had been, here's the film segment that would have been made. Starts with a portrait of a band member, grumbling, head downcast. Pans to the portrait of a second band member, looking unhappy and shaking his head. Continues to a close-up of a third band member, silent and sullen, and pulling on a cigarette. A fourth band member is seen looking at the ceiling, rolling his eyes. Pat Mikell is then seen, looking nervous, her right hand coiled into a tiny fist which she is pounding silently on the tabletop. Herb Lovelle puts a comforting hand on top of hers. Camera pans finally to the face of a fifth band member, Richard Tee, and zooms in slowly. Unlike the other faces, Richard Tee's face is smiling, and he speaks.
"Look," he says, "the way I see it, we're fucked. We can't get more fucked than we are already. The album's dead. And so here's this man who says he can re-mix the tape with these toys of his here on the table, and make it sound better, and get it released. He says he'll do it on spec'. The way I see it, either he can, or he can't. If he can't, we're no more fucked than we are now; and if he can, well, who knows? We're only going to pay him what we owe him already. I say we give him the tape and wish him well and hope for the best."
Quick pan to Herb Lovelle, who has his hand in the air, summoning the bartender who was watching all this from his nearby point of vantage. "David," he yells. "Another round of drinks. Whatd'ya drinkin' there, Gil?" Camera zooms out to include the group in its entirety — its members now looser, elbowing each other and pointing one after the other across the table — pointing at Richard Tee. Fade to black.
I was extremely pleased. But my greatest compliment, and encouragement, came from Gordon Edwards himself, just as we were all getting up from the table an hour later and about to leave. He grabbed me by the arm, wheeling me about and putting my face, even if a bit lower, in front of his. "You still suck at the easy things," he said. "But this thing you're gonna' do now ain't easy." A faint smile flickered across his mouth.
Roger Mayer was right: the noise gates worked. And the tape got mixed. Herb Lovelle and I did it. Herb would say later that these mixes were the best he had ever heard. Warner Brothers must have liked them as well, since the LP got released (going "gold" on Billboard Magazine), and everybody got paid. Including the recording studio, which was compensated not only for the work it had done six weeks earlier, but for the mixes as well. As for the band Stuff, it achieved great industry influence after its departure from Long View Farm, its signal honor being perhaps its role as the Paul Simon backup band for many years. Stuff released several more LPs, but by many accounts these records weren't as good as the Long View product, which was only recently re-mastered using the original Long View tapes, and which continues to sell robustly, particularly in Japan, where it is pushing quadruple platinum status as of this writing. As for the band members and the other personalities described in this essay, the results are varied. Mike Mikell, Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Herb Lovelle and Cornell DuPree have all died, Cornell very recently. Pat Mikell came to Stevie Wonder Day at the Farm in September of that same year, 1976, and now lives with, in her words, "mixed memories" in Woodstock, New York. The rhythm section members Chris Parker and Steve Gadd are well, the latter touring widely and thought of as being perhaps the greatest drummer alive in the world. His ex-wife Karen no longer returns my emails. Roger Mayer is back in England, still very active in the creation of audio processing hardware. I am in regular touch with Ray Paret, and better friends with him than ever before, but not in touch with Michael Lang. Nor with Tommy LiPuma, who is apparently retired in nearby Connecticut. As for Gordon Edwards, he is alive but is occasionally ailing. He still plays a rock hard R&B bass guitar, fronting a band regularly in a New York City restaurant and nightclub. With great legitimacy, I suppose, he calls the band Stuff.
STUFF: Herb Lovelle & Gil Markle, 2006 Thirty years later, the producer and mix engineer of the jazz-funk classicStuff album reminisce on the troubled birth of this milestone recording.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.