Keep your ears peeled as the legendary artist, producer and songwriter Don Dixon will soon be writing a regular review of new music releases and unreleased music that he likes. A new widget which will stream songs from each artist reviewed will also be launched and live on this blog in the very near future.Below is an extract from the preface of a book Don is writing called the “Psychology of Recording”.
People want and need music. For tens of thousands of years, mankind has relied on music to feed its spiritual nature and define life’s sacred events. But music has also acted as a barometer of everyday life. A touchstone for the ebb and flow of commonplace events…heartbreak, frustration, loss, success, love and happiness.
Initially, this was accomplished with the passing down of songs by rote, generation to generation, singing and playing instruments created by hand in the community. Father and mother teaching son and daughter. Elder teaching Disciple. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians and Hittites were using some form of musical notation so they didn’t have to rely solely on rote memorization and about 500 years ago, brilliant Westerners began laying the groundwork for the style of musical notation that we use today. Notation always lagged behind the musicians’ abilities but over the centuries ways were developed to notate complex musical ideas with a growing subtlety.
Only in the last 100 years or so have we had the ability to make audio recordings of a specific performance causing the individual interpretation of a composition, something inherent to a live performance, to be slowly weaned from daily life. Now, live performances have been largely replaced by an icon…the recording. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 1920s & 1930s, almost all the music on the radio was performed live, either by local, part-time musicians or large professional staff orchestras. Many stations maintained staff ensembles throughout the 50s and well into the 60s. I’m not sure that the shift to pre-recorded music was ultimately a good thing but nonetheless I have made it a large part of my life’s work.
With this book, I intend to share my 40 years of knowledge about making records. Not so much about the technical aspects, there are hundreds of qualified people around to teach you those things; it’s my views on the psychology of recording that I want to share with you.
I was born and raised in a little mill town in South Carolina where I began my musical training listening to my parents 78s and my older sister’s 45s. My mother remembers coming home to find me, then a toddler supposedly in the care of my sisters, with all her records spread out on the living room floor, dancing on them I had always loved to sing and like most good southern boys, sang in the church choir. When I was 12, I even sang a solo on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” on Easter Sunday, the only song remotely akin to gospel music in the Presbyterian Hymnal.
When I reached the 7th grade, I was allowed to join the school band and chose the trombone but I soon realized that deep in my soul, I wasn’t a trombone player…I was a bass player and the first instrument I bought was a bass from the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue. My Silvertone bass cost $79.95, case included, and I waited impatiently for weeks for it to show up at the small storefront operation in my little town. I still remember exactly what the case smelled like when I opened it up. I wish I could bottle that smell.
If I’m going to be completely honest, one of the reasons I chose bass was that the best group I knew in town, The Cavaliers, didn’t have a bassist. They were a grade ahead of me in school and I wanted desperately to be counted in their numbers. They didn’t really need me. It was a quartet consisting of Kim Williams on organ, Emil (Sonny) Emanuel on drums, Russell Lowery on guitar and Tommy Lytle on saxophone, the low end being carried amply by the bass pedals of the organ. They played instrumental music, songs like “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Take Five”. Adventurous music for 8th graders. I wanted to be in that band though and the purchase of a bass guitar showed them I was serious about it. I quickly added a used Kay upright bass to my arsenal.
We played a lot, particularly in the spring when we were regulars for many of the small town beauty pageants that eventually led hopeful, doe-eyed young women to the Miss South Carolina Pageant and the coveted title of Miss America. We could read music and had a substantial repertoire of standards, which made us perfect for these jobs that required a wide range of styles for an even wider range of talents. Not every small town girl went on to be Miss America. Also, I assume that we were much cheaper than most of our older competition, so throughout my high school years I have fond memories of traveling around the state getting to know all the Miss South Carolinas and even a few Miss Americas.
One of the most exciting things that happened during this period as an instrumental combo was our discovery by a successful and supremely talented musician named Loonis McGlohon. Loonis had a TV show called “The Newcomers” at WBTV in Charlotte, NC and after The Cavaliers performed on the Christmas Special one year, he began asking me to come to Charlotte and play bass on sessions for him. It was always a thrill working with him and a real event for a small town 15 year old. I got to record in a real studio (James Brown cut “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” there) with some very talented players and singers. I had many wonderful experiences directly attributable to Loonis , not the least of which being these first exposures to professional recording and I will be forever indebted to him.
Inevitably, I began to sing with The Cavaliers. Mostly soul covers of the era. The songs of Motown, Stax, and Atlantic. We added some more horn players and got jobs at sock hops and proms. I had been writing songs from the time I was 13 but hadn’t had the nerve to push the band to do any of them. Finally, the boys all graduated and scattered off to college. Only then did I have the impetus to start a new band that played my originals in front of people.
It was 1968 and times were changing. I went out to California that summer between my junior and senior year in high school where I worked on a wildlife refuge dedicated to growing rice for migratory birds. My job was not a glamorous one, consisting largely of ditch digging, pulling weeds and other manual labor but I returned to Lancaster with a suntan, a wad of cash and an expanded outlook on music after a being in California during the Summer of Love. After that exposure it was all about writing and recording what I had written. I bought a Panasonic sound-on-sound reel-to-reel tape recorder with the cash I brought home and began my career.
The record business has changed a lot in the 40 years I’ve been an active participant. I’ve seen it come almost full circle from a bunch of ambitious individual entrepreneurs working outside the corporate world to a corporate behemoth unable to react to the streets back to thousands of scrappy individuals trying to create and sustain an audience. I’ve seen it go from vinyl to eight-track to cassette to cd to mp3.
As you can see, I’ve been on both sides of the glass for most of my life. By the time I was 20, I was producing small projects for Reflection Sound Productions and some of my friends. I didn’t want that job. I didn’t actively ask for it either even though I realize now that often I just grabbed the reins away from everyone and took off in self-defense. Although I’m most widely known for producing Alternative & Rock, I’ve worked on everything from Gospel to Jazz…from stuff so serious it groaned under the weight of its intellect to stuff so lightweight it actually floated out of the studio.
I’ve made a lot of my own records over the years both solo and with my band from 1969 to 1982, Arrogance. I’ve been signed as an artist to major labels and independent labels. I’ve produced dozens of singers and bands for majors and more dozens for indies. I’ve garnered critical acclaim and commercial success as a songwriter, singer and producer. I even have some gold and platinum records on the wall. But every session is a new challenge and I learn something every time I’m in the studio.
The recording process can be intimidating…daunting at times. Especially in the early days when so much money was at stake…every hour in the studio so expensive. But even with the amazing breakthroughs in technology that we have today, most of the same problems of balancing art with commerce and the needs of both the artist and the label are still at play.