Tom Dowd and the Language of Music

We have digital cable, which gives us this great online guide, and sometimes, I go to a channel that offers a lot of interesting programming and look ahead to see what's coming up, and I record anything that sounds vaguly interesting. That's how I opened up my DVR list last night to find this movie.

Tom Dowd's biography is, by itself, incredible. He worked on the Manhattan Project from the time he was 16 until he was 20. He worked at the tests of the atom bomb in Bikini Atoll. But after that, he took his energy and ability into the music industry.

He worked as a recording engineer for Atlantic Records, and his name can be found on the back of records by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Book T & The MGs, The Allman Brothers Band, Cream, Bobby Darin and Lynard Skynard, among others. What I got from the movie is that his real genius was about getting the best sound possible from each individual artist he worked with. Artists who spoke about him for this documentary mentioned how he coached them, how he was able to take their ideas and help them make it better, and how no one ever felt criticized or belittled by him. One of my favorite moments was when Ray Charles (sexy as hell, even as an older man) was talking about Dowd and Dowd came into the room - the genuine affection between the men was palpable.

Aside from that, Dowd pioneered a lot of technical advances - from recording in mono to recording in stereo to recording on 8 tracks to modern recording equipment. Another moment in the movie that stands out is a clip of Dowd playing with the tracks from the recording of "Layla" - he was giggling with delight as he brought the tracks together.

I have never given much thought to how music gets from the brain of a musician onto a disc of some kind of material that I can play on some kind of machine. I like to sing and learn new music, but I'm not really a musician - I'm a singer, I interpret music that someone else has created. I've always been sort of mystified and awed by people who make music - I've tried to write a song before, and I can't - and this opened up a whole other avenue of interest for me.

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