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 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.)
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.”