Born January 1, 1925 – New York, NY
Died October 27, 2002 – Aventura, FL
“Sometimes,” Ahmet Ertegun once said, “the guy who brings the coffee produces the session.” At the Atlantic Records of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, such creative serendipity often balanced precariously on the narrow but sturdy shoulders of Tom Dowd. One of the most gifted and innovative engineer/producers in recording history, he died October 27, 2002 at a nursing home in Aventura, Florida after a prolonged respiratory illness.
A youthful prodigy in physics and electronics, the New York City native graduated Stuyvesant High School at age 16 (my father, Howard Schwartz, graduated from the same school at the same age) and attended City College of New York before being drafted into the Army in 1942. Instead of being shipped overseas, Dowd was able to continue his work and studies in the physics labs of Columbia University as part of the US government-sponsored task force known as the Manhattan Project in the development of the atomic bomb. Dowd was also a trained musician (violin, piano, string bass, sousaphone) who performed with the Columbia band and orchestra. His horror at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is said to have led him to abandon nuclear physics and enter the recording field.
Beginning circa 1948, Tom toiled in various small New York studios recording everything from radio adverts to groundbreaking jazz dates with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music credits him with engineering the first stereo album, by the Wilbur De Paris Dixieland Band, “which required customized equipment, including two needles, to play it.” Dowd joined Atlantic as a full-time employee in 1954 (about a year after Jerry Wexler), when the label’s New York office still sometimes doubled as its recording studio. He became, in Wexler’s words, “the architect of the Atlantic sound,” bringing an unparalleled clarity and concision to the recording of r&b and jazz.
“Tom pushed those pots [volume controls] like a painter sorting colors,” wrote Wexler in his 1993 autobiography Rhythm and The Blues, co-authored with David Ritz. “He turned microphone placement into an art…When it came to sound, he displayed an exquisite sensitivity.”
In an October 1999 interview for MIX magazine, Dowd noted that “in February of ’58, the first [Atlantic] session on 8-track was Lavern Baker. Within the next 90 days, I went through Bobby Darin, the Coasters, Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles…I would be sitting in the studio doing the Coasters at 2 o’clock in the afternoon with Mike [Stoller] and Jerry [Leiber]. Ahmet would call me up and say, ‘Ten o’clock tonight, we’re going to do Mingus.’ You want culture shock? Go from the Coasters to Charlie Mingus in ten hours!” Dowd designed Atlantic’s first 8-track studio on West 60th Street in 1959 and began recording there the following year.
In 1963, on his first visit to Stax Records in Memphis, Tom performed emergency repairs on the label’s archaic mono equipment and the next day cut Rufus Thomas on “Walkin’ The Dog.” Two years later, in July 1965, Dowd installed the first two-track stereo tape recorder at Stax, then broke in the new setup by recording Otis Redding’s entire Otis Blue album in two marathon sessions within 24 hours.
During his Atlantic years, Tom Dowd engineered landmark sessions by John Coltrane (including “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things”), Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the (Young) Rascals, Dusty Springfield (including Dusty In Memphis), and Cream (including Disraeli Gears, which “was finished in one weekend” according to Eric Clapton). Some less celebrated albums from his immense Atlantic discography include The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby, Suddenly the Blues by Leo Wright, Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, Latin Bugalu by Charlie Palmieri, Blues From The Gutter by Champion Jack Dupree, and High On The Hog by Black Oak Arkansas. Dowd was never admitted to the Atlantic partnership and did not share in the rewards from the $17 million sale of the label in 1967. He remained a high-salaried employee until the mid-Seventies, when he left Atlantic to pursue independent production.
Musicians loved him for his great patience, his peerless technical ability, and his total dedication to the task at hand. It was Tom Dowd who introduced Duane Allman to Eric Clapton, and who a short time later produced Derek & the Dominoes’ 1970 double album Layla, And Other Assorted Love Songs. The Dowd/Clapton partnership persisted into the Eighties through such albums as 461 Ocean Boulevard, EC Was Here, and Money and Cigarettes.
“For better or worse, the strength of [Layla] rested almost entirely on Tom’s faith in me,” wrote Eric Clapton in an essay published on the occasion of NARAS (the Grammy organization) presenting Dowd with its 2002 Trustees Award. “I had no finished songs, no real concept or idea of where I was going, nothing but an abstract burning passion for live, spontaneous music.”
“On top of everything else, I refused to make the record under my own name, and was developing a powerful drink and drug problem – not a great position for any record producer to be placed in, but Tom pulled it off. He saw the potential and exercised the most incredible patience in getting through the obstacles that I would constantly place in front of him. It’s little wonder that I eventually came to look on him as a father figure.”
Dowd formed a similar long-lasting bond with another gifted but troubled musician, Gregg Allman, beginning in 1970 when Tom produced the Allman Brothers Band’s second album Idlewild South. Producer and group soldiered on through four more LPs, including the classic 1971 live double At Fillmore East. The band split in 1980, then regrouped nine years later—and Dowd took the controls once again for a pair of live sets and three more studio albums. (Where It All Begins, from 1994, ranks with the ABB’s best post-Duane Allman recordings.) Their final, touching reunion came September 13, 2002 when Tom—now using a wheelchair and and an oxygen tank—attended an Allman Brothers Band performance in West Palm Beach, Florida.
A less affectionate but even more lucrative affiliation was with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the albums Gimme Back My Bullets, One More From the Road, and the original band’s final testament Street Survivors. Dowd also made numerous dully-professional albums with the likes of Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, and Chicago. But in his last professional decade, working with the Allmans, Primal Scream, and Joe Bonamassa, Tom returned to the forceful, blues-based electric music that he had helped bring to prominence twenty years before.
As an album producer, Tom Dowd shared in other people’s Grammy Awards like Allmans’ 1995 win for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Incredibly, Dowd never won his own Grammy Award in the Producer and/or Engineering categories. His only elective Grammy, for Best Album Notes of 1992, was earned for his contribution to the liner booklet for the Aretha Franklin box set Queen Of Soul – The Atlantic Recordings—an award he shared with six other contributors. Ten years later, in a belated attempt to correct this gross oversight, NARAS presented Tom with both a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the Trustees Award. He was also the subject of the 2003 documentary film, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, directed by Mark Moormann.
“There is a tribe of musicians, spread all over the world, who have been fostered and nurtured by Tom Dowd,” wrote Eric Clapton. “We know who we are, and we are proud of who we are, but most of all, we are proud of him. I am honored and privileged to be one of them.”