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Legendary Producer / Engineer Tom Dowd is Dead

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Tom Dowd, producer of Aretha Franklin, Allman Bros, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and engineer of dozens of Atlatnic classics dies at 77 in Florida:

    Dowd died on Sunday morning at a nursing home in Aventura after fighting a respiratory disease for two years, his daughter, Dana Dowd, said.

    “His contribution to music was immense. He covered so many genres over so many years and touched so many lives. He loved what he did,” she said.

    Dowd worked at Atlantic records for more than 20 years before becoming a sought-after independent producer in the mid-1960s. The roster of artists he recorded with included jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, engineering “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things,” and Charles Mingus.

    Soul diva Franklin was one of his personal favorites. Among the hits he helped her create was “Respect.” He recorded other black artists such as Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and James Brown in Florida and Memphis for Atlantic.

    His relationship with Clapton was one of his most enduring, lasting from the British guitarist’s days with Cream through Derek and the Dominos and his later solo successes. Clapton called him “the ideal recording man” in a 1996 interview.

Writer Ben Cromer conducted an excellent interview with Dowd for The Encyclopedia of Record Producers a few years ago:

    “It’s like going from a Piper Cub to landing on the moon,” says legendary producer Tom Dowd of the technological changes he has seen since he entered the recording industry more than 50 years ago.

    “The recording industry in 1947 was operating on used radio consoles because nobody was designing equipment for recording studios,” Dowd explains, adding that he designed the first eight-track console for Atlantic Records because no commercial counterpart was available.

    After joining Atlantic in 1954, Dowd became involved in virtually every aspect of the recording process: from the original session to post-production to disc mastering. During his tenure at Atlantic, he worked with such diverse acts as Aretha Franklin, Ornette Coleman, Joe Turner, Charles Mingus, the Drifters and the Young Rascals.

    “Every session was an adventure,” Dowd recalls. “You could be doing the Coasters at 2 in the afternoon and Mingus at 2 in the morning.” Dowd says that Atlantic Records, an independent in its early years, could challenge major labels such as Columbia, Victor, Decca and EMI because it was developing artists “in a market that they didn’t know existed, or if they knew existed didn’t know how to cope with.”

    Dowd is understandably proud of Atlantic’s storied past, particularly in light of the obstacles faced by what was then a struggling independent. “Victor, Columbia and EMI were using cutting heads that cost $2,000 and $3,000 apiece and weighed nine pounds,” Dowd points out. “We were trying to compete with $150 and $200 cutter heads. We were going by the seat of our trousers.”

    Dowd made the transition from engineering to production by becoming a valuable technical resource in the studio. For instance, he constructed finished masters by using bits and pieces from various takes of a song, blurring the distinction between engineering and production.

    “Here I am mixing down the first and third take up to point X, figuring out which one I want to use for the intro and which one for the chorus, then back to the other one until we get to the solo,” Dowd explains. “All of a sudden I’m coming from a different place than they’re accustomed to.”

    When he left Atlantic at the end of the ’60s, Dowd quickly established himself as one of rock’s preeminent producers, supervising such classics as Live at Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band and Layla by Derek and the Dominoes, an album Dowd considers one of his proudest moments.

    Yet, Layla was initially a commercial failure. “When I walked out of the studio after having done that album, I said, ‘That’s the best album I have made since The Genius of Ray Charles,'” Dowd recalls. “When it didn’t sell I was talking to myself saying ‘I’m wrong. There’s something missing somewhere.’ But Atlantic stuck to their guns and a year later the thing was the rock ‘n’ roll national anthem of the world.”

    Dowd also collaborated with Eric Clapton on 461 Ocean Boulevard, There’s One In Every Crowd and EC Was Here, albums that included such songs as “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Let It Grow,” “Further On Up the Road” and “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.”

    Moreover, Dowd produced Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing and A Night On the Town, featuring such tracks as “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” “Sailing,” “Tonight’s the Night” and Stewart’s first rendering of “This Old Heart of Mine.”

    For Atlantic Crossing, Stewart’s first American recording, Dowd suggested setting up shop in Muscle Shoals, Alabama using such players as guitarist Steve Cropper and the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. However, Stewart was shocked to discover that the band Dowd hired was not quite as he envisaged.

    “We go into the studio (Muscle Shoals Sound) and here’s Barry (Beckett), Jimmy (Johnson), David (Hood) and Roger (Hawkins),” Dowd remembers. “I introduce them to Rod and he gives me a nod like ‘I want to see you outside.’

    “Outside the studio door Rod says, ‘You lied to me. That is not the band that you meant. They’re all white.’ All of a sudden, they start running down one of the songs and Rod stops in the middle of the conversation and slides over to the door, cracks it open, looks in and sees it’s them playing and says, ‘I have never been so humiliated in my life. I swore they were all black.'”

    Dowd’s appointment book was perpetually full during the ’70s and ’80s, when he produced the likes of Eddie Money, Wet Willie, the James Gang, Lynyrd
    Skynyrd, Pablo Cruise, Firefall and Wishbone Ash. Since much of Dowd’s post-Atlantic recordings were produced at Criteria Studios in Miami, his adopted home, it is not surprising that he prefers staying close to South Florida.

    “With the cost of recording today, I’ll go wherever the group is most comfortable, as long as the facility is professional,” says Dowd. “When it comes to remixing I prefer working here in the warm climate, either at Criteria or Island Studios.”

    Even after a half-century in the industry, Dowd adapts to changing technology with a young man’s ease. And while he loves digital technology, he hopes tape will eventually be eliminated as a recording medium.

    “Recording systems are still dragging an abrasive iron oxide tape across a head, wearing grooves in the head, and wearing the oxide off the tape,” Dowd says. “We have to get rid of friction. I look forward to the day when we go to completely optic recording.”

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