Name a musician or band in the 20th Century, and Tom Dowd likely worked with them. From jazz to blues to R&B to rock to pop, he covered all the bases. Dowd was a member of a very select crowd of engineers/producers who piloted the greatest recorded music. There is a terrific documentary about him, Tom Dowd: The Language of Music. If you like modern music from the second half of the 20th Century, see this film.
Dowd grew up in a music family, his mother was an opera singer and his father, a conductor. He attended City College in New York and played music at nights. As a physics student, he got a job with the Office of Scientific Research Development, which at the time was doing classified work for the government during World War II. Dowd was drafted into the Army and continued with the classified research, which would be known as the Manhattan Project, nuclear work resulting in the atomic bomb. According to The Language of Music film, Dowd was even sent to monitor nuclear tests as part of his work. After the War, Dowd sought to get credit towards his degree for the work he had done, but because the work was classified, the College turned him down. That decision, plus a musician union strike, were responsible for Dowd shifting his focus from physics to music. Dowd had taken a job at a recording studio and suddenly, studio technicians were in demand, so Dowd began his musical career.
Dowd would work mainly with Atlantic Records, which was where serious jazz, blues and R&B records were made. Dowd and legendary Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler were building reputations for both innovative recording techniques while capturing the essence of these American musical genres.
Recording studios, at the time, were hand-me-downs from the radio industry. Dowd relied as much on his technical background as his musical knowledge. Until the late 1940s, artists recorded direct to disc, instead of to tape, which would soon change. He started recording gospel and jazz in 1947, what were called “race records” at the time or “black” records for the black markets. Atlantic was one of the first companies to invest in 8-track recording machines and manufacturing stereo records, although the recording process was quite rudimentary at the time. Dowd not only worked on arrangements and instrumentation, but how to mic the instruments and to isolate sound to get the best recordings.
Dowd would work with pioneers of jazz and R&B, including Ben E. King, King Curtis, The Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Bobby Short, The Clovers, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Herbie Mann, Mel Torme, Mose AllisonWoody Herman and Aretha Franklin. He recorded Ray Charles’ classic “It’s What I Say” which had lyrics deemed as sexually offensive. Different versions of the song were mixed for different audiences. He also recorded Saturday Night Live at the Apollo, when the Apollo Theater was the place to be for new artists. Live recordings were in their infancy at the time, it was less technical and more focused on the spirit and energy of the performances.
There was no recording school to learn to be an engineer or producer, it was on the job training or working your way up through the business. Dowd would mentor many over his career, including young songwriter/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who would write and produce many classics.
Dowd regularly used the Stax rhythm section and one from Memphis to back his singers. These musicians were experienced studio players and worked quickly. He spoke in an interview of having to convince Rod Stewart that the Muscle Shoals rhythm section was white instead of black, because of the number of R&B artists he recorded.
In the 1960s, Dowd worked with The Rascals, Bobby Darin, Cream, Dusty Springfield, Jerry Jeff Walker (“Mr. Bogangles”), Sergio Mendes, The Four Seasons, Otis Redding (“The Dock on the Bay”), Max Roach, Toots and the Maytals, Patti Labelle, Nate Adderly, Pickett, Burke, Freddie Hubbard, The Bar-Kays, Cher and the Allman Brothers.
Aretha Franklin had been kicking around for a few years without success on another label. Dowd took her to Muscle Shoals for the basic tracks and gave her songs that were in her wheelhouse. Her first album for Atlantic was produced in a week and included “RESPECT”. Otis Redding had done the song before, but she made it her own; it was recorded in an afternoon.
Before recording Dusty Springfield, Dowd listened to her previous records to get a feel for her style. They recorded “Son of a Preacher Man,” a song Springfield wanted to rerecord, but it was released before she knew it and became a hit.
Dowd was asked to record Cream, who were touring after their first album. The second Cream album was done in three days because of their visa expiration. Disraeli Gears. “It was frightening how powerful they were,” Dowd said in a radio interview. The production was credited to Felix Pappalardi, but Dowd did the technical work. Dowd and Clapton would work together many times over their careers.
In 1970, Idlewild South, the second album by the Allman Brothers, was recorded by Dowd, along with the classic Fillmore live albums. Dowd continued to work with Clapton, and also Lulu, Dr. John, Delanie & Bonnie, Black Oak Arkansas, JoJo Gunne, Buddy Guy, James Gang, Wet Willie, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Stephen Stills, Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wishbone Ash, Bette Midler, Booker T & the MGs, Firefall, Kenny Loggins.
The next year, Dowd was brought in to record Eric Clapton’s new group. He was also working with the Allman Brothers at the time. Dowd took Clapton to see the Allman Brothers in concert, and that led to Duane Allman being a part of Derek and the Dominos; if only for a short time.
Clapton’s manager (Robert Stigwood) then asked Dowd to produce Clapton’s comeback album, 461 Ocean Boulevard. Dowd exposed Clapton to music he had been sent from London. Bob Marley’s music was in that stack, Clapton chose “I Shot the Sheriff” which became a major hit for him.
Rod Stewart as he was preparing to leave the Faces. Atlantic Crossing. Sailing. “The First Cut is the Deepest”. Recorded using the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. He made four albums with Stewart, arguably Stewart’s best work.
Dowd began to limit his work to fewer artists, understanding when to move on when he didn’t feel the relationship wasn’t advancing.
Lynyard Skynyrd was one such hit and miss relationship. Their first three albums were produced by Al Kooper, so Dowd took the help of their fourth studio album, Gimme Back My Bullets, which was only a mediocre success. He also produced their more successful live album, On More From the Road, and worked on their fifth studio album.
Dowd recorded much of his music in Miami at Criterion Studios, where Clapton and The Bee Gees would call home during the 1970s. Dowd referred to it as a relaxed environment. Atlantic made a deal with Criterion to guarantee a set amount of recording hours, so the studio owner could get a loan to expand the business and meet the increased demand.
In the 1980s, Dowd continued working with Clapton and Rod Stewart, and hooked up with Chicago Eddie Money, Meatloaf, Rita Coolidge, Robin Gibb, Aaron Neville, Diana Ross.
Tom Dowd was truly a pioneer of modern music. His work during the late 1940s through the 1960s was the soundscape for American R&B, jazz and soul. Moving into blues-rock and Southern rock, he helped define the blending of blues with soulful rock
Dowd is known for honest, genuine music, whatever the genre. Artists responded to his touch, delivering performances that are timeless.