Tom Dowd & the Language of Music

Tom Dowd & the Language of Music

Tom Dowd is (or was—he died in 2002) a music studio recording engineer who helped create countless records over the course of more than fifty years starting in the late ’40s, for top jazz, blues, and rock artists, including Ray Charles, the Drifters, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Cream, the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and on and on.

I’ll admit I’d never heard of him. But I probably shouldn’t feel bad about that, as this documentary makes the point that he’s the kind of “behind the scenes” guy that people on the inside recognize as hugely talented and a key to the success of others more famous, but who remains pretty much unknown to the general public.

My knowledge and interest in this subject area is middling. I enjoy music, and the artists he’s worked with happen to overlap considerably with my musical tastes, but I really don’t have the experience, the background knowledge, the ear for music to be any more than a layman. I’ve never played an instrument, I don’t know a lot of the terminology—really music is more of a casual interest of mine.

So I would have gotten more from this film if they had dumbed it down just a little. For instance, I was able to pick up gradually some of what an engineer like Dowd does, but it would have helped me if early in the movie they had included a simple thirty seconds to a minute job description of a music engineer.

I don’t know, for instance, precisely the differences among, say, the engineer of a song, the producer, and the arranger (and probably various other people involved in the process). For example, I thought George Martin did the kind of thing Dowd is shown doing in this movie, but I believe he’s described as a producer rather than an engineer.

So I wouldn’t say I’m a natural audience for this material, but nor is it foreign to me or of no interest to me.

And as it turns out, I got into this documentary somewhat more than my preexisting level of interest in the subject matter would have led me to expect.

One reason is the very positive, at times reverential, way that the interviewees—musicians such as Clapton; other movers and shakers in the music industry such as Jerry Wexler—speak of Dowd. One gets a good sense from those interviews just how integral a role he played in the success of the artists he worked with, both due to his technical prowess and his people skills. Clapton, for instance, emphasizes that one of the most important things Dowd contributed to his career was bolstering his confidence, noting that he’s always struggled with believing in himself as an artist. (Which is quite the revelation in itself. You’d think that when people think well enough of you to nickname you “God,” you’d realize that you’re at least pretty good at what you do.)

But an even more important reason this documentary won me over is Dowd himself, who is interviewed at length and shown at work.

What a radiant, humane, positive guy he is. The movie is unabashedly celebratory of him, so certainly you’re not getting a thorough “warts and all” treatment of him and his life. But even if things are stacked to some extent, just watching him interact with these artists, and hearing the way they speak of him, leads me to think he’s got to be almost as impressive a person as the movie wants you to believe.

He’s just fun to listen to, with his infectious love of life and enthusiasm that never seems phony. He’s the sort of guy who loves going to work every day because he believes in what he’s doing and is dedicated to doing it well. And because he loves the people. With all the negativity that’s present in an industry like that, he speaks as happily about the relationships he’s formed with these artists and the way they stay a part of each other’s lives and talk regularly, as he does about the music they’ve made together.

And it’s interesting watching and hearing about the creative process. For instance, he recounts how the members of Cream were getting increasingly frustrated that “Sunshine of Your Love” just wasn’t coming together the way it should, and after they all wrestled with it for a while, Dowd suggested Ginger Baker switch to an American Indian style off beat on the drums, and it gave it its distinctive sound that made it a hit.

Or another example is where he’s shown mulling over the mixing of “Layla,” basically recreating his experience of thirty years earlier, engrossed—and totally delighted to be so—in working the control board or whatever it’s called, moving levers up and down for a little more Clapton here, a little more Duane Allman over here, bring the drums down a bit here, make sure the piano is audible when it comes in here, make adjustments for the vocals here, etc.

He’s a cool guy, and he had a good life. It’s nice that so many insiders appreciated him, and that with this movie some more people can.

There were a few other little tidbits here and there that I found interesting. For example, he tells how when he was in England in 1967 and was invited to work on some Beatles material, he was struck by how primitive the studio set up was. The biggest musical act in the world was recording on three or four tracks at most, while he had been recording his artists on eight tracks for a decade.

Someone who’s even a greater music buff than I would probably appreciate Tom Dowd & the Language of Music more, but I enjoyed it. I’d put it in the top half of the movies I’ve written about thus far.

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