“Layla.” “Respect.” “Stand by Me.” “Free Bird.” “What’d I Say.” “Try a Little Tenderness.” “In the Midnight Hour.” Buffalo Springfield Again. Dusty in Memphis. Disraeli Gears. Eat a Peach. The Drifters. The Coasters. Booker T. & the MGs. Solomon Burke. Thelonious Monk. Charles Mingus. John Coltrane.
Tom Dowd may not be a household name. But if this list of classic songs, albums and artists means anything to you, then you already know the work of this illustrious producer, engineer, inventor and all-around musical genius. In an era when most pop and rock music – not to mention the dreaded “modern R&B” genre – has been polished, processed and overproduced into irrelevance, it’s hard to imagine that a man like Dowd could leave such a monumental legacy by, if anything, underproducing his acts. His personal stamp was nothing more or less than plain quality. He never imposed a sound of his own on musicians; he simply brought out their best and laid it on tape in the most organic way possible.
Opening with the majestic piano break from Derek & the Dominoes’ classic-rock monolith “Layla,” director Mark Moormann introduces to Dowd, in his late seventies, as he heads into work at his Criteria sound studio in Miami. The hallways of the place groan with gold and platinum records, a testament to his work’s popularity as well as its quality. Dowd is a welcoming figure from the very start: open, positive, friendly and funny. He lives in a small apartment, drives a little Saturn, wears a succession of loud shirts, yet still loves his job enough that he spends time working with young, untested, even unsigned bands.
Then, with infectious enthusiasm, Dowd takes us on a tour of his amazing life, which also happens to be a history of 20th century recorded music in general, and Atlantic Records in particular. Dowd began his career as a freelance recording engineer in the mid-1940s (after spending much of his youth working on what would become the Manhattan Project, but that’s another story). Still only in his early twenties, Dowd learned the primitive art of single-microphone recording, mastering directly to 78 RPM discs. In short order he became a master of mixing sessions in one take, on the fly, figuring out how to make a bassline audible against the clatter of Buddy Rich’s drums. Soon, an independent jazz label, Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records, hired Dowd as their house engineer, where he recorded the above-mentioned jazz giants as well as Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Cab Calloway and Big Joe Turner. Atlantic’s move in the direction of a new sound, “rhythm and blues” (a term coined by another Atlantic staffer, producer Jerry Wexler), happened to coincide with the advent of the long-playing 12″ record.
Dowd embraced the new format, producing countless classic sides of Atlantic’s unique “funky, soulful music.” In 1954 Ertegun signed Dowd on as Atlantic’s exclusive house producer – and into the studio walked Ray Charles, perhaps the single most important artist in the label’s storied history. Dowd’s deep, trusting relationship with Charles, his gentle way of letting Ray be Ray, was a major factor in the singer’s huge success. As the late great Charles says in his tasty interview segments (which include a touching surprise visit by Dowd himself), “I don’t care if you got 90 tracks – what does it sound like, baby?” Dowd made Charles’ rich voice and piano playing sound sweet indeed, and Atlantic’s sales exploded as a result. Jazz soon gave way to R&B and soul – rememember soul music? – then pop and harder-edged Stax funk. And rock. Lots and lots of incredible, monumental rock.
For while Dowd was hard at work refining Les Paul’s own recording invention into a viable 8-track console, the Dylan and Beatles-influenced psychedelic ’60s were starting to happen. At Atlantic, that meant a British power trio called Cream. Eric Clapton was initially resistant to Dowd’s hands-on production involvement, but when Dowd intuitively suggested a Native American-style downbeat for “Sunshine of Your Love” and the song became a smash, a lifelong friendship was born. Clapton, interviewed at length in the film, speaks with nothing less than reverence about Cream’s ingenious mentor-producer. Based on Dowd’s success with the short-lived Cream, Atlantic moved full-bore into the booming British rock business, signing Led Zeppelin, Yes, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, King Crimson and others. “We had a good run of English groups,” says Ertegun with amusing understatement.
Ertegun is far from alone in his loving assessment of Dowd’s talents. Everyone Moormann has rounded up for “The Language of Music” is in love with Dowd, be it Ertegun, Wexler, Les Paul, Gregg Allman or fellow producers Phil Ramone and Arif Mardin. For the viewer, this parade of geniuses of the last 50 years in popular music is damn near exhausting. And sad, for the fact that those glorious days of nonstop musical innovation seem so far gone these debased days.
There’s just so much greatness on display here – and so many great songs, one after another! – that by the time we make it to a delighted Dowd sitting at his console revisiting the 30-year-old master of “Layla,” breaking down the tracks, walking us through the dueling guitars, the bass, the drums, the piano…even describing how he came to introduce Clapton and Duane Allman in the first place… we’re giddy. And there’s more – hot off “Layla,” Dowd rang in the ’70s by scooping up the Allman Brothers Band, refining the Southern Rock sound and creating perhaps rock’s greatest live album, At Fillmore East.
He wouldn’t remain with Atlantic forever, and recording technology would change in unimaginable ways. But Tom Dowd never stopped working as coach and conductor to musicians of all kinds. What a pair of ears the man possessed, and what a legendary life he led. It’s an indescribable pity that Dowd did not live to see Moormann’s lovingly crafted, rockingly entertaining portrait of him; he died on October 27th, 2002.
Music fans of every stripe should kill to see this film, one of the very best music documentaries in recent years.
Then, get thee to a record store.