Sunday, September 11, 2011

TOM DOWD: The Greatest Record Producer Who Ever Lived

I have written about the man that had the biggest impact on my life, Duane Allman. Today I want to talk about the man that ranks right up with Duane. Tom Dowd was as exceptional a human being as you could ever know. Tom became a part of the Allman Brothers Band very near the beginning and stayed a part of it until his death,  October 27, 2002. He was the greatest record producer that ever lived, in my book. There are many very successful musicians out there that will tell you the same, starting with Eric Clapton, Ray Charles and a list far to long to put here.

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 Trouble was the physics that was used to develop the bomb was still classified, so Columbia was still teaching an outdated course and Tom just couldn't see himself studying a subject where he knew more than his professors.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

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 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.


  1. Thanks for the story Butch. A true Leader inspires greatness in others. Tom sounds like he was an amazing leader. His legacy will live on forever in the wonderful music he captured for generations to enjoy. I wish I could have met him.

  2. What a great, very moving post...and how psychic. About three days ago, out of nowhere, I thought of the song "If I'd Known You Were Coming I'd've Baked A Cake". I looked it up on YouTube, played it about three times, and have been humming it all week. What makes stuff like that happen? And now I know there's a Tom Dowd connection to that song. Incredible.

  3. About a month ago I watched "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music". What an amazing man and what a life he had. Men like that don't come along very often.

  4. Great post Butch.

    If you have not yet seen "Language of Music " it is a must see !!!

    Easily found on line for $15....

  5. Smile for the day - a 4 yr old laying it down on the kit !!!

    have a great day

  6. I'm glad he went into music instead of making bombs and weapons.


  7. Butch;

    A great piece on the genius of Tom Dowd, but your following statement is waaayyy erroneus;

    "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."

    The location of the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place under a section of STAGG Field bleachers at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942, NOT UNDER SOLDIER FIELD which is the current and long standing home of the CHICAGO BEARS!!!!....Just thought you'd like to get the facts straight as you are a seeker of the truth....Otherwise a good read!!!

  8. Thank you for the correction. I just googled it and you are right. Tom told me it was under a football field at The University of Chicago, I guess in my mind there's only one football field in Chicago so I've always told the story that way. There's at least one new thing I learned today. Again, thank you.

  9. Just stumbled across your blog Butch; Good stuff. I too had the pleasure of calling Tom a friend and a mentor.
    I'm comfortable calling him the greatest man I ever met- on any number of levels.

    In fact, the night they cut Layla, I was five and asleep in the dub room next to Studio B. Long story, but still working at the studio to this day.

    With respect to the 'Language of Music'- It should be required viewing for every individual that is interested in the field. And in case it helps give you a little solace- Mark the filmaker told me that Tom had the opportunity to view the first rough cut of the movie just before he passed.

  10. Very much enjoyed your blog on Tom - pity an x-wife domestic dispute landed his first releases at the bottom of Biscayne Bay - would make an interesting dive. Fan of Tom Dowd from former dog park

  11. Butch have you read what Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd says about Tom Dowd on his website?

    Ed King said:

    "I thought Dowd's mixes were LOUSY on everything he 'produced'. Obviously, the material was all great.

    After working with Dowd in '91, I better understood the entire relationship between Dowd & the band. Dowd was a monumental kiss-up. Sure, he was a pioneer in music engineering in the 50s & 60s...but he was damn lucky to get his name on LIVE AT FILLMORE EAST. LUCK-KEEEEEE. Dowd couldn't mix two eggs.

    Great engineering by competent engineers @ Capricorn made Dowd look like a genius. The Allmans' sound was already ON STAGE. Whoever engineered GBMB was INcompetent...then combined w/ Dowd's mixing ineptness, it all ended up sounding PRETTY LOUSY."

    "Dowd had the gift of kiss-a$$ like no other...and somehow got Ronnie to worship him. But I know a kiss-a$$ with bad ears when I see one. And a man whose just GOT TO HAVE HIS OWN WAY. What an ultra maroon. Though I'll acknowledge his contribution to recordings early years.

    I often wonder if the Dowd Skynyrd albums were made to sound like cardboard so that the Dowd Allman Bros. albums would always be better. Though I feel that LIVE AT THE FILLMORE mixed itself...well engineered (NOT by Dowd).

    Then you have the LAYLA album. Talk about BAD MIXES."

    It is obvious Ed King despised Tom Dowd, and accuses him of favoring the Allman Brothers over Skynyrd to the point of Dowd sabotaging the sound on Skynyrd albums to favor the sound on Allman Brothers albums.

    Butch, what do you think of Ed's opinion of Dowd and his accusations?

    I look forward to your response! Thank you!

  12. Maybe Ed King should lay off the crack/meth pipe for awhile so he doesn't fry his brain cells anymore than they are...

    What are Ed King's contributions to the world of music...?
    Other than the riff for "Sweet Home Alabama," and writing contributions with Ronnie on a few other songs, that's about it...

    What were Tom Dowd's contributions to the world of music...?
    Well, he has a list of engineering/producing credits that is historical in it's significance to 20th century recorded music. His repetoire is much too long to list here, but it makes Ed King's contributions look like a gnat on an elephant's ass!!

    Besides the music, Tom was instrumental in developing stereo, 8-track recording in the late 50's, linear faders(instead of round ones) on recording consoles, art of microphone placement for recording, overdubbing, etc.
    The list is amazing in it's depth.
    Tom was a humble guy and didn't go around tooting his horn about his many accomplishments.
    If he had, he probably could have retired on the money that patents would have brought in from his recording "inventions." Tom was the kind of person who willingly "shared" his genius with the world, not keeping it for himself.

    He passed away not rich in money, but wealthy in the respect and love he received from his peers in the music world, not to mention his family and friends.

    Tom will be remembered long after we are gone, not only for his musical genius, but for what he so unselfishly gave to the world...
    God Bless you, Tom, I miss you...

    Rob M. Coconut Grove,FL