As a producer and engineer for Atlantic Records, Tom Dowd recorded some of the greatest popular music – rhythm & blues, rock and roll, soul and even jazz – ever made.
Dowd manned the board for recordings by legendary jazz musicians (Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk), rhythm & blues acts (Drifters, Coasters, Ruth Brown), soul singers (Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave) and rock acts (Cream, Rascals). He was an inventor, technician and craftsman who contributed significantly to Atlantic’s success. Along the way, he transitioned from engineer to producer, working with Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others in the Seventies.
A musician himself, he played tuba and sousaphone in the Columbia University Marching Band. He took night classes at City College and worked at Columbia University’s physics laboratory. Drafted into the military during World War II, he worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Columbia laboratory for the government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development.
After the war, he was hired as a sound engineer at a New York studio in 1947 and began doing freelance work for Atlantic Records in 1949. Under Dowd’s direction, the label switched from recording onto acetate discs to tape, resulting in improved fidelity and preservation. He introduced the label to stereo recording in 1952. Atlantic hired him as a full-time engineer in 1954. In addition to engineering countless sessions, he built the label’s recording console and designed its eight-track studio.
In Dowd’s own words, “When I started recording in the late Forties, I was light years ahead of the hand-me-down radio equipment being used. By default, I suppose, I became an innovator. The early Atlantic sessions – when I was still a freelancer – had me experimenting like a madman. I had no choice.”
Dowd built Atlantic’s recording studio at its first offices, located at 234 West 56th Street in Manhattan. The fifth floor served as both administrative offices and studio. In his memoir, Rhythm & the Blues: A Life in American Music, Jerry Wexler recalled the division of labor at Atlantic’s recording sessions: “Our gig [Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun] was to get the music played right and righteous in the studio; Tom’s job was to capture it on tape. It was up to him to find a mix of timbres, bass, treble and midrange; to load a much volume as possible without distortion. Tom pushed [the volume controls] like a painter sorting colors. He turned microphone placement into an art.”
"Tom also knew the music,” Wexler continued. “In the studio he became my mainstay and later one of my best coproducers. When it came to sound, he displayed an exquisite sensibility.”
It was Dowd who recorded Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” among countless other classics. He also engineered key sessions for LaVern Baker, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke and Clyde McPhatter. Dowd additionally worked on sessions at Stax Studio in Memphis (where he repaired the label’s malfunctioning Ampex recorder) and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Dowd established Criteria Recording Studio in Miami, where he moved in the eary Seventies, as “Atlantic Records South.”
On the rock side, Dowd worked on Cream’s Disraeli Gears, the Allman Brothers Band’s Idlewild South, Eat a Peach and Live at Fillmore East, and Derek and the Dominos’ Layla...And Other Assorted Love Songs. It was Dowd, in fact, who introduced Duane Allman to Eric Clapton, paving the way for their summit meeting at the Layla sessions, for which Dowd served as executive producer. For Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dowd produced Gimme Back My Bullets, the live double album One More From the Road and Street Survivors, the band’s last studio album with the late Ronnie Van Zant. Dowd produced a string of successful albums in the Seventies and Eighties for Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, including Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard and Stewart’s A Night on the Town. Dowd resumed his prolific working relationship with the Allman Brothers Band in the Nineties with a series of studio and live albums, commencing with 1990’s Seven Turns.
As Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records’ chairman and cofounder, said of Dowd in 1999, “There is no one who better epitomizes the ideal marriage of technical excellence and true creativity.” He was inducted into the TEC (Technical Excellence & Creativity) Foundation Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Grammys’ prestigious Trustees Award in 2002. A film documentary of his life, Tom Dowd & the Language of Music, was released in 2003.
Tom Dowd (producer, engineer; born October 20, 1925, died October 27, 2002)