Tom Dowd & The Language of Music ..a new film uncovers an unsung music legend so talented that it will even make you reconsider "Sweet Home Alabama"
There was a time in the history of popular music, about a century ago, when a hit song was measured by the number of copies of sheet music that sold. Pop songs entered the national consciousness not through a particular performance or interpretation but by way of the middle- class parlor room, where a piano was nearly as common an object as a cd player is today.
Tom Edison changed all that with the invention of the phonograph, a discovery that, like many of Edison's most innovative ideas, came to him through studying an unrelated piece of technology when he discovered that he could feel vibrations coming through a telephone receiver. You don't have to be Walter Benjamin to realize that the ability to record and preserve a single performance changed the way music is heard, used and even created. As recordings - a specific, fixed document of a piece of music - replaced sheet music - a blueprint for a potential performance -, the nature of music changed forever. Music and technology were intertwined, evolving together into a new language that most of us have learned to take for granted.
If you've never heard of Tom Dowd - a reasonable assumption - you may find it hard to believe that one person could have had such a long- lasting role not just in the way musical recordings are made but in a wide-ranging field of genres from bebop and soul to "Southern rock". As an engineer and producer, Dowd's had a hand in more great recordings than you could even listen to in a day, but one of the most welcome things about Mark Moormann's film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is that it keeps its subject off a pedestal, preferring to find him where he's happiest, working the knobs and sliders of a recording studio console.
The film, which opens theatrically in selected cities this week and will be released on video later this month, is a string of talking-head anecdotes, archival footage and musical performances but there's not a dull moment in it, even on a second viewing. (Moormann succumbs to the unfortunate trend of staging some period scenes, but does so sparsely, never pushing the film into the contrived fictional region that marred Standing in the Shadows of Motown.). Dowd, a shaggy man in his seventies (He died at 77 in 2002, the year the film premiered at Sundance) who not only was a living witness to pop culture and history (in addition to his recording career, he worked on the Manhattan Project but gave up a dream of becoming a nuclear physicist when government security prevented him from returning to college), but remained at the end of his life every bit as excited by the memory of a musical performance or a technical detail as he had been when he first faced them.
Dowd started engineering in the late 40s, when the limitations of a typical recording studio made capturing the dynamics of a band an almost insurmountable challenge. Hooking up with a new, fast-rising label, Atlantic, he recorded some of the most prominent jazz and rhythm and blues acts of the 50s, experimenting with multiple tracks before stereo had even been developed. (A few years later, Dowd's tapes allowed Atlantic to reissue their back catalog in authentic stereo, when most labels were stuck creating ineffective simulations of two-track sound.) Taking a cue from guitarist Les Paul's home studio, he began experiment with eight-track recording years before it became an industry standard, and when Atlantic became one of the major labels of the 1960s and moved to new offices, it was Dowd who called the shots and designed the recording studios.
And then there are the records, from classic jazz albums with Monk, Coleman and Mingus to the breakthrough pop hits like "Mack the Knife" and "Stand by Me", from Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin to the quasi-psychedelia of Cream's "Disraeli Gears" (where Dowd is credited for overcoming the suspicions of the musicians by coming up with the syncopated beat for "Sunshine of Your Love"). As he became in demand for sessions at the Stax studio in Memphis as well as in, Macon and Mussel Shoals, the New York born physicist-turned-engineer relocated to Miami, where he became closely associated with the early careers of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. What keeps the film from no more than a parade of guest stars and greatest hits, however, is the sense conveyed by Dowd's recollections and footage of studio sessions that we are watching artists at work, tending less to the illusion of celebrity than to the real labor of laying down tracks and making them work.
As one might expect, the film includes many interviews with Dowd's associates, from industry legends like Ahmet Ertegun and Phil Ramone to artists like Clapton and Charles. The finest moment, and the film's climax, is given to Dowd alone, as he sits at a mixing board listening to the original tracks for "Layla". He works the dials eagerly as he explores the raw materials, excitedly pulling an additional slide guitar part here, a second piano there. This, we finally see, is his instrument, and he moves his fingers over the board with the same skill and passion that others give to their guitars and keyboards. If you think recorded music is just a matter of aiming a microphone in the right direction, or if you're used to thinking of "Layla" as just another piece of "classic rock" background noise, this film is a real ear-opener.