Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Tom Dowd & the Language of Music


In 1946 Tom Dowd faced a career decision. During the war he had been working at Columbia University for the Army Corp of Engineers, Manhattan District. Seemed logical; Columbia is in Manhattan. What he was working for, without knowing it, was the Manhattan Project, studying neutron beams for use in atomic weapons. Later, he was one of the witnesses to one of the Bikini tests. So … should he continue working in nuclear physics, or should he pursue his other love, music? He went with music, and thus changed history in two ways. Without him in the recording booth, much of the music we all know and love would not sound nearly as good as it does. And … if he’d stayed in physics, I can guarantee that on that great day when we all kiss our asses goodbye, the bombs would sound terrific!

Dowd is one of those unsung heroes that people like me know nothing about, but who musicians worship. He’s the dude who records and mixes the music. He makes musicians sound better than they ever expected to sound, better than they had any right to expect. In his career until his death in 2002, he worked with … well, damn near everybody. Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tito Puente, Otis Redding … many, many more. Somebody like me figures the recording engineer is some gnome who squats in front of his 150-channel mixing board and tweaks stuff in ways that no one but a nerd like him will ever notice. Maybe some of them are, but not Dowd. He helped create the sounds, not just mix them, and people like Clapton and Charles enthusiastically endorse this proposition. His contributions were as much artistic as technical.

But that is not to belittle the technical achievements. Sound was originally recorded by analog signals onto cylinders. Then they went to wax disks. When Dowd came along, they were still recording everything with one mike, directly onto disks. One take, record a whole album in an afternoon. He was a pioneer in hi-fi, stereo, tape, multi-tracking. He got the second 8-track recorder Ampex made, right after he found out Les Paul had one and was doing revolutionary things overdubbing tracks, playing all parts himself. It’s hard to remember, in these days when a bass line may be laid down in Eugene, Oregon, uploaded to a Zimbabwean band in London, and then mixed in with other musicians who may be mailing it in from Africa (my son Maurice “the Mofessor” recently did just that) just how totally revolutionary this was. When Ray Charles heard what Dowd was doing to his music he went ballistic … for about ten minutes, then he listened, and from then on Tom Dowd was Ray’s man, a miracle worker.

This movie shows all that and much, much more. Dowd is an irrepressible presence, a guy you know in an instant that you’d really like. He was working right up to the end of his life, adapting easily to the digital revolution, computers, sound shaping and sampling. He was enthused that people could now do in their garages the sort of thing he couldn’t do at all in the 1950s. People talk about that shameless self-promoting, murdering freak Phil Spector, but it was Tom Dowd and a handful of people like him who are really responsible for the music we’ve heard in the last half of the 20th Century. I couldn’t recommend this flick more highly.