Thursday, June 16, 2005

Les Paul and Tom Dowd

I've been on a little musical voyage the past few days, and I've now come full circle. On June 8, I logged onto the computer that hosts this BLOG. I have it configured to announce that day's highlights in history. One of the entries was:

06/09 Les Paul (Lester Polfus) is born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, 1915

I know who Les Paul is. He's one of the inventors of the electric guitar. Fascinated that it was his birthday, I googled his name, and read some more about him. One crazy tid-bit: In order to prove which solid-body material had the better sound (wood or metal), he once mounted a guitar string to a steel railroad tie! He eventually produced and sold his invention through Gibson. ("It's terribly popular," he says.)

I searched the New York Times website, to see if there were any freebie articles about him. I didn't find much in the search results, but what caught my eye was this headline: Movie Review: In a World of Singers, an Unsung Hero. The review was for a documentary by Mark Moorman called Tom Dowd and the Language of Music. Tom Dowd was a recording engineer and producer at Atlantic Records, and he was involved in music since the 40s. He's recorded John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Ornette Coleman, Cream, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, and Eric Clapton. What caught my eye in particular was that Tom Dowd mixed Layla, one of Clapton's definitive songs.

Without hesitating, I bought the DVD. And during the two days before it arrived, I listened to my CD of Layla (and Other Assorted Love Songs). I hadn't listened to Layla in all her glory in quite some time, although I do catch it on the radio now and then. Layla is a love song that Clapton wrote for Pattie Harrison, whom he was in love with. At the time, she was still married to George Harrison (yes, of the Beatles).

The documentary is a splendid treatment of Tom Dowd's life. It's a grand celebration of his work as a recording engineer, the kind of person no one ever considers when listening to a record. After watching this DVD, and listening to the other musicians praise Tom's work, I learned how important a role it is. It's a marvelous documentary about a marvelous man. During the film, Tom sat in front of a control board with the Layla tracks, and he separated the aching guitar riffs of Clapton and Duane Allman. "Those are notes that aren't on the guitar!" he exclaimed. "It's in the tips of their fingers!"

Tom Dowd's life intersected with Les Paul's. Both had an interest in doing multi-track recordings, and Les Paul pioneered this field. Tom had heard Les Paul's recordings, and wanted to know how that sound was created. When he learned that Les Paul used a multi-track tape player, Tom got one for Atlantic Records. Tom said that Les Paul was mixing his own stuff in his own home-grown studio much like what kids are doing today. Except that Les Paul did it all with tape machines back in the 50s.

There was extra footage of Les Paul on the DVD. It showed him in a workshop, filled with boxes and equipment. On camera, he described his early experiments with the electric guitar, and then proceeded to display his "guitar on a railroad tie." To think that he still has this device after all these years! Off camera could be heard the high praise "Sir, you are the man."

Les Paul was born June 9 and he is still very much alive, making music at the age of 90.

No comments:

Post a Comment