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Saturday Art: “Legendary Producer” Tom Dowd

I hope you don’t mind but I decided that this week I would write about “Legendary Music Producer” Tom Dowd since tomorrow (Sunday, October 20) would have been his 88th birthday. I will pick up once again with the Influential Authors series next week.

From Tom Dowd’s wiki:

Thomas John “Tom” Dowd (October 20, 1925 – October 27, 2002) was an American recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records. He was credited with innovating the multi-track recording method. Dowd worked on a virtual “who’s who” of recordings that encompassed blues, jazz, pop, rock and soul records.

That is a little sparse but you can watch a documentary on Dowd’s life and career online (including interviews with Dowd himself) that was released a few months after he died. The documentary is titled The Language of Music and is fascinating. The above YouTube is an excerpt from the documentary.

The bio portion of the documentary’s web site has some of the information covered. The following information is from the “1940s” portion of the bio and I have to admit I was stunned when I first heard this in the documentary:

He went on to attend City College at night and play professionally in the band at Columbia University (eventually becoming conductor), where he soon attained a position at the university’s physics laboratory. Working for the Office of Scientific Research Development (OSRD), the teenager found himself under the guidance of such men as John R. Dunning, Bill Havens and future Nobel Prize winner James Rainwater.

Upon turning 18 years old, Tom was drafted into the military and immediately commanded the rank of sergeant. His assignment remained the same, though, continuing the secretive work in the physics labs of Columbia University. He operated a cyclotron, changed targets, performed density tests of different elements, and recorded statistics as part of the Neutron Beam Spectography division.

As much of this early nucleonic research was done in New York, the code name for this clandestine work was derived from the Manhattan Engineer District, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to which Tom was assigned. It was not until August of 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, that the rest of the world first heard about the “Manhattan Project.”

With his knowledge of radiation exposure and detection devices, Tom was sent to monitor a pair of nuclear explosions in the Pacific before returning home to civilian life in 1946. Unable to get college credit for the highly ‘classified’ work at Columbia, the frustrated young man took a summer job at a classical music recording studio.

So, thanks to the federal government’s classifications of the atomic program and Dowd’s awareness that his knowledge of physics was already well beyond what he would need for an undergraduate degree, he dropped out of college and became a recording engineer.

Thus is fate for the “Legendary Music Producer” Tom Dowd. The roster of musicians Dowd worked with is a veritable who’s who of Jazz, Soul, Blues, Rock, and Pop music from the ’50s through the ’90s. Again from his wiki:

Dowd took a job at a classical music recording studio until he obtained employment at Atlantic Records. His first hit was Eileen Barton’s “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake”. He soon became a top recording engineer there and recorded popular artists such as Ray Charles, The Drifters, The Coasters, Ruth Brown and Bobby Darin, including Darin’s famous rendition of Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”. He captured jazz masterpieces by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. It was Dowd’s idea to cut Ray Charles’ recording of “What’d I Say” into two parts and release them as the A-side and B-side of the same single record.

Dowd worked as an engineer and producer from the 1940s until the beginning of the 21st century. He recorded albums by many artists including Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Derek and the Dominos, Rod Stewart, Wishbone Ash, New Model Army, Cream, Lulu, Chicago, The Allman Brothers Band, Joe Bonamassa, The J. Geils Band, Meat Loaf, Sonny & Cher, The Rascals, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, The Eagles, Kenny Loggins, James Gang, Dusty Springfield, Eddie Harris, Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann, Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Joe Castro and Primal Scream.[3] He was also an employee of Apex Studios in the 1950s.[4]Dowd received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in February 2002.

I think the above should answer any questions as to why I keep referring to him as “Legendary Music Producer” Tom Dowd but if there is any question, his bio for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame offers plenty of support for his inclusion.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Dowd and his work but I recall seeing the liner notes and backs of albums the line “Produced by Tom Dowd.” Given that Otis Redding, Ray Charles, The Allman Brothers, and Eric Clapton would all be on my “desert island” list of music you might understand why I sometimes thought Dowd might be about the only producer around.

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Small town Kentucky country boy lived all over the country. Currently in Ruskin, FL