Updated: Apr 3, 2019
Video Length: 5:17 min
Tom Dowd was a fascinating fellow. Born in Manhattan, New York City, he graduated from High School in 1942 at the age of 16 and subsequently accepted to Columbia University where he pursued a degree in nuclear physics. Dowd was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 but continued his work in physics at Columbia University in the U.S. government labs. He eventually worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. Dowd planned to obtain a degree in nuclear physics after the war, but, because his work was top secret, the university could not review his work to give school credit.
Dowd decided to drop out of school and went to work for a small recording company in New York City. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in February 2002 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a soundman and record producer in 2012.
Description & Discussion:
Tom Dowd’s story is about being pushed off the path you set for yourself and recorrecting that path to set oneself on a completely different journey. Dowd took a love and understanding of music, his scientific mind and forged a new career. He became a pioneer in stereo and multitrack tape recording, encouraging Atlantic Records to record on tape rather than acetate discs and making binaural recordings. He helped Atlantic design and build the second eight-track multitrack recorder ever made. He designed and built the company's first stereo and eight-track consoles while creating the fader feed for music consoles. Wanting the controls to feel more like playing the piano, he had Atlantic’s technicians replace its knobs with slide meters (the industry standard today). On top of all that he was a legendary recording engineer and record producer working with artists from Jazz, R&B, Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul and Classic Rock (as evidenced by the video).
I discovered the Tom Dowd story in the early 1990’s while reading a book by Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of Atlantic Records. I didn’t know it, but I had been a Tom Dowd fan for decades (Booker T., Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, Otis Redding, Cream, Allman Brothers, Black Oak, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Eagles, Eric Clapton and on and on from 1947 to 2002).
I am no Tom Dowd, that’s for sure! I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I never knew I was doing something unique until I watched a documentary on Tom Dowd entitled “Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.” (released 2003).
He talked about how he listens to songwriters, the artist, the band and the people in the control room. In the documentary he said: “Listen, learn and try to understand the links between the ideas from each contributor. Be bold, recognize crap when its crap. Be real and approach problems consistently and systematically so that the contributors never feel singled out as the problem person.” And finally, “Show respect! Reflect on the reasoning of a contributors’ assumptions, beliefs, and values as it relates to the art being created.”
To fully understand what he meant got to Youtube and find “Mastermind Behind Layla.” Watch how the song is broken down and how it was listened to and constructed.
Decision, Design & Discipline:
I was on a similar road when I first went to college, chasing a dream career only to get stranded by of all thing’s, the undergraduate prerequisite courses. I wanted to be a marine biologist and study great white sharks (the movie “Jaws” had been in the theaters the previous summer). What did all that math and science have to do with me spending the rest of my life on the water in a t-shirt and swim trunks? Some college academic advisor kept trying to tell me that marine biology was a science, while all I could see were little great whites dancing in my head. I had to rethink my path.
Long before I ever heard the name Tom Dowd, I was in the same place, stopped dead in my tracks with my vocational dream. Much like Mr. Dowd, I took the things I loved, history, travel, social studies, and politics and channeled it into a college degree, a master’s degree and I found myself in the most unexpected of careers: serving in the Clandestine Service and working all over the globe.
I honestly felt, shortly after retiring, as I looked back over my 32 years of military and government service that I had been creative and a guy who “thought outside the box.” Mr. Dowd has given generations of music lovers pure, simple joy from a bulk of work that he cultivated for over 50 years. His story made me remember that while I finally did conquer those math and science obstacles that stood between me and my toothy friends 40 years ago, the pure joy of the life I’ve lived to date makes me realize I was on the path I was always meant to be on, even though I didn’t know it.