Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
December 9, 2004
As with many art forms there are countless unsung heroes who work behind the scenes and help make things happen. Tom Dowd was such a person. He was a legendary music producer/recording engineer who pioneered all sorts of techniques and worked with such diverse musicians as Charlie Parker, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers. For years he had only really been known by musicians, other techies and dedicated music aficionados. This should all change with the fascinating documentary, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music (2003), which examines the life and career of this amazing individual.
Tom Dowd was born in Manhattan to a family steeped in show business. His mother was an opera singer and his father a manager and producer of musical performances. Tom stepped into his first recording studio in 1947 and became fascinated with the process of making and recording music. He started at the bottom and managed to get his foot in the door at then fledgling Atlantic Records. He engineered their first hit and everyone after that for many years. He got to work with their impressive roster of talent: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs to name a few. Ray Charles, whom Tom also worked with, talks in the documentary about how he used to imitate Nat King Cole but when he hooked up with Atlantic, Tom helped him cut loose and be himself. He gave Ray complete freedom to try anything. In turn, Ray taught Tom how to hear music properly.
The documentary only touches upon Tom’s prolific career. His love of all kinds of music saw him freelance with legendary jazz greats like Lester Young and Dizzie Gillespie and Latin music legend Tito Puente. There are some remarkable revelations contained in this portrait. At one point, Tom worked on the Manhattan Project dealing with radiation problems. He was recruited right out of school because he was a physics expert with dreams of becoming a nuclear physicist specialist. However, after the tests Tom realized that there was nothing else that he could learn at school and entered the music business full-time.
Tom was one of the first engineers to record musicians in stereo, even before the average person could play it. He had vision and was an innovator, creating technology that no one had thought of before. He helped assemble the first eight-track recording device, which, at the time, opened up a whole new world in recording. Tom was a captivating storyteller. He did so much and worked with so many incredible people that he had an inexhaustible supply of stories. You could have easily listened to him talk for hours.
There are three deleted scenes. Tom talks about how Thomas Edison invented the first sound recording machine, he also defines the term “producer” and talks about his ancestors and family.
“Additional Interviews” contains extra footage with everyone who was interviewed for the documentary, broken down by individual artist and within that broken down by specific topic. The amount of material contained in this section amounts to practically an entirely other documentary! You always hear how documentary filmmakers shoot hours and hours of footage now the DVD format allows the audience to see some of this extraneous footage.
“Making of Studio Shoot” is brief behind-the-scenes footage of a recreation scene that was shot for the movie.
“Photo Gallery” is a two-minute reel of behind-the-scenes snapshots from the documentary with vintage photos of Tom and some of the musicians he worked with over the years.
Sadly, Tom Dowd passed away on October 22, 2002. The documentary is a fitting tribute to this legend. It shows that despite all of the legends he worked with and all of the innovations he helped pioneer, he was a humble man who loved all kinds of music. His passion is clearly evident in this excellent documentary.