New York, March 1969
It was not luxurious-- a control room, beige-on-beige walls, brown tile floor, furnished with a couple of rolling office chairs, a broad flat console studded with knobs and dials for mixing electrical signals from microphones, and some tape recorders, dominated by a tall Scully eight-track machine. The engineer (me), and my boss, the producer, usually faced the console and two giant speakers above it. The Scully loomed behind us.
Mercury Studios was the first real music recording facility I had ever worked in. Actually it was the first real music recording facility I had ever seen.
That morning and afternoon I spent on a commercial for Ponderosa Steak Houses, home of Coconut Cream Pie in a Pan. Tonight's session was scheduled to start at 7 pm. By 10, Clients and musicians were beginning to drift in.
The console, built by the studio’s technicians, allowed the engineers and producers to alter and guide the electrical signals as they flowed from the microphones to the tape recorders. The microphones were on the other side of a double-glazed window that allowed us to see the musicians–– a rhythm section, meaning drums, bass, guitar and keyboards, and a half dozen horn players–– but didn't allow any sound through the glass, except by way of the microphones and a couple of massive Altec speakers mounted on the wall above the glass.
That's the way almost all recording studios are arranged: 2 rooms, separated by a soundproof wall with a soundproof window in it. The control room is for engineers and producers and kibitzers, and the other room is for sound makers like announcers, singers and musicians, like this guy.
“Hi, I’m Jimi.” He extended a hand as a giant grin spread out across his face, then became apologetic. “Don’t worry about the hair—it’s just my cancer.”
I grinned back at Jimi Hendrix.
His hair did look bad. The trademark Afro was markedly diminished, and pretty scruffy. But there they were, the words hanging right out there. "Just my cancer", huh. What do you do with that? Jimi’s sense of humor took some getting used to. As I was to learn, this guy could stop a conversation better than anybody.
He was slim and lanky, almost fragile, in contrast to his old army pal Buddy Miles. Buddy was the hefty drummer in his own band, The Buddy Miles Express. Mercury Records, my employer, had persuaded Jimi to come to their 57th Street studios to help produce Buddy’s next album.
I was 19, and had only been working at Mercury for a few months. The year before, after dropping out of The Cooper Union art school, somehow avoiding the draft (imagine: they used to actually force people to join the army) and getting an engineer job at a tiny spoken-word studio, a bogus outfit called Educational Publishers, I had kind of figured out what recording engineers did— and gotten almost to the point where I could imitate one fairly well. Also, I was starting to feel like a true New Yorker, having been mugged once, burgled twice, and held at gunpoint in my living room for an hour and a half.
Kid stuff, you will say, but it scared me pretty good.
So I figured it was time to quit fooling around and escalate the whole Skilled Professional charade to new heights, and started scanning through the New York Times employment ads. At least there was a chance that a real job would get me out of the Lower East Side. And there it was:
RECORDING ENGINEERS WANTED
Alayne Spertell Agency
December 1968 (prequel)
Every Sunday the New York Times ran a boxed ad that read RECORDING ENGINEERS WANTED in bold type. Below that the name SPERTELL AGENCY and a phone number. In those days there was a fair chance the ad was for real, and not a come-on for an “apprentice” position (like mopping studio floors and cleaning toilets), or a “school” that would teach you how to fake your way through a recording session. (I already knew how to do that.) And what did I have to lose anyway?
Alayne Spertell, the lady behind the ad, with offices in a big hive on Lexington Avenue, was definitely for real. The interview with her lasted almost 2 hours.
We didn't talk about technical stuff or music. Editing, acoustics, ability to lift heavy reels of tape, not a word...
We just talked about people and life, with some side trips into politics and travel. I got the feeling that she was more interested in just talking, probing for signs of social skills, rather than engineer skills. At 19, I didn't really have much of either. Lucky break: we just got along.
That meeting with Alayne was pivotal. She took a chance on me, and made it safe for management at Mercury Records Studios to do the same. (Then, 6 years later, she did it again!)
There were two main studios at Mercury, imaginatively named 'A' and 'B'. I was assigned to B, the small rock n' roll room.
I started by just watching and listening. Building up a working knowledge, based on what I could figure out by looking at unfamiliar gizmos and sort of intuiting how to use them to make interesting noises, and lapping up what crumbs of information the old-timers would occasionally sprinkle my way. Even though I wasn't really performing at a professional level, I became the pet of younger producers who wanted to experiment a bit. They wanted to try stuff. They had heard the rumors of the Beatles' 96-track tape recorder and other miracles of the still popping and fizzing British recording scene. (The truth was that the Beatles were a little behind us, still using 4-track machines after we Americans had already graduated to 8 and even 12 tracks. Apparently their more primitive technology did not inhibit their ability to make great records. Sometimes, all you need is genius.)
And a few months later I'm sitting next to one of the most highly regarded guitarists of all time. He's busy spinning out riffs and variations on them, as the horn players frantically scramble to translate Jimi's guitar licks into “horn language.”