Tom grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan. He was so smart that he was going to Columbia and studying physics by the age of 16. When WWII broke out he was enlisted into a program known as The Manhattan Project. For any of you that aren't familiar with that title it is the program that developed the first nuclear reactor (Tom was there under Soldier Field in Chicago the night they removed the rods and produced the world's first nuclear reaction) and then created the bombs that ended WWII. Tom told me that the devastation of those things never really hit him until he saw the first underwater test. That's when he left the Army and thought he would head back to Columbia and finish his physics degree. Trouble was the physics that was used to develop the bomb was still classified, so Columbia was still teaching an outdated course and Tom just couldn't see himself studying a subject where he knew more than his professors. So, lucky for the world, Tom decided to go to work as a recording engineer. His first recording was done straight from a mic onto a disk. It was "If I Knew You Were Comin I'da Baked a Cake", by Eileen Barton in 1949. The list of people he went on to work with as an engineer and later as a producer is amazing:
Blow your mind and look carefully at this list http://www.thelanguageofmusic.com/discography.htm
For those of you that don't have the time to read that very long discography I'll just give you some high points, The Drifters, The Coasters, Lavern Baker, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Derek and the Dominos, Joe Bonamassa, just a small sampling.
Tom was a genius. He had the musician's touch but he had a way of working with musicians that was more like a psychiatrist. He could pull the very best out of any musician. Most producers have a sound that they bring with them to the studio. Tom's genius was that you could never tell that one of his works was done by him. He was simply the guy that showed us how to play the best music that we were capable of playing.
There was a time in 1970, Tom was at Criteria studios in Miami, with Eric Clapton and a group of players that either already were or were soon to become The Dominos. There was all of this talent and some incredible material but Tom just didn't seem to be able to get things rolling as well as he knew they could. The Allman Brothers had recently finished our second album (our first one with Tom), Idlewild South, and it just so happened that we were playing a concert on a field in Miami Beach. Tom asked Clapton if he had heard of Duane Allman and after a few minutes of "you mean that chap that played slide guitar on Wilson Pickett's, Hey Jude......." it was obvious he had so Tom mentioned that we were in town. Well that night may be the only time I ever saw Duane nervous. We walked onto the stage and sitting right across the front of the crowd was Clapton, the rest of the Dominos and Tom Dowd. We proceeded to blow the roof off of the place and after we finished they all came back stage and we got acquainted. We decided to head over to the studio where we spent most of the rest of that night jamming on a lot of old blues stuff in various configurations. Duane and Eric spent the time between jams talking about things like Robert Johnson, Willie McTell, etc and by night's end you could see a bond forming.
Eric asked Duane if he would like to come play on their record and, as they say, the rest is history. From that collaboration came one of, if not the best album of the '70's: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. This was how Tom worked. He saw what needed to be done and then set about getting you to do it, he never told you to do it. If we got bogged down on a song Tom would do something like "remember that lick you played earlier?" and more often than not the suggestion would get you unstuck and, although that lick was almost never used, it would be the impetus to get the song finally finished the right way.
I could write a book and I may one day about this great man. You can see the kind of man he was by getting a very good film made about him that was completed shortly before his death. The film is called Tom Dowd and the Language of Music and I'm sure you can get it from Amazon.com or some place like it. Trust me it is a film well worth having. Many special guests in it including Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, myself and many more.
Tom had an amazing zest for life. He loved people and music and wallowed in the fact that he was able to live his life being with people he liked (for the most part) and respected and make music with them. In all my years of being his very close friend (I was fortunate enough to live a one hour drive from him so we spent many nights together at dinner or some social affair) I never saw Tom unhappy nor ever heard him utter a single derogatory remark about anyone. Tom was my friend and my mentor. I loved him deeply and I will miss him for as long as I live.