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
"Gordon," I said, trembling. "What the hell are you
doing? Lemmee go!" More warm clouds of vodka breath blew across my face,
"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
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?"
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
"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
"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
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.
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 Stuff album 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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
And here 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
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
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 classic Stuff
album reminisce on the troubled birth of this milestone recording.