In this edition of unsung heroes we again salute another man behind the glass. Tom Dowd is another name that is much overlooked when people even bother to look at the credits on a record.
Tom was born in Manhattan in 1925. Music was in the blood of Tom Dowd. His father was a concertmaster. That was the title given to the leader of a given orchestral section. His mother was an opera singer. Tom was taught music at an early age and was the master at the piano, tuba, violin and string bass by the time he was in high school.
Music wasn’t the only subject hat Tom excelled in while in school. He was excellent in every subject but really excelled in science. His exceptional abilities allowed him to graduate from high school at age 16. He continued to study music CCNY, while also studying Physics at Columbia. He also played in a band (before long he was their leader) and worked in the Physics lab at Columbia.
Most of us had a job or two before settling in to our life’s work. Very often these jobs were not the most desirable ways to earn money. My least favorite job that I had growing up was cleaning oil burners. It is very hard for me to imagine a dirtier occupation. I think I am still trying to clean off some of the dirt that clings to my body like glue.
We sometimes think that rock stars somehow lead a charmed life and never did anything other than be on stage. Well, most rock stars also had a job prior to making it in the music business. Some had jobs that were pretty far removed from playing music.
It is very hard to imagine that John McVie was a tax inspector prior to becoming a member of first John Mayall’s blues Breakers and then Fleetwood Mac. He trained for the job and it was such a secure occupation that he had to be talked into giving up his “day job”.
Sixty years ago I was too young to be really close to anyone who had died. Life at that young age does seem to be almost endless. Of course it isn’t but I was fortunate enough to have not known any tragedies at that stage of my life.
Then on February 3, 1959 an event took place that shook up my life. Like Don McClean, who made a name for himself with the epic “American Pie”, I read about it in the newspaper. In a huge, bold front page headline it told the chilling story. Three of the biggest rock stars of the day were killed when a plane crashed in cold Iowa field. The news froze my blood. I cut out the headlines and the story and still have them to this day.
No, I didn’t know the three performers, but I felt very close to them because of their music. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were on a tour of the Midwest went their plane apparently had engine trouble and fell from the sky. The news hit me as if I had lost my best friend.
Anyone who has listened to the radio with any degree of frequency has heard the DJ refer to an artist or group as a one hit wonder. You may have wondered what exactly constitutes that designation.
The first thing is that it depends on what your definition of a “one hit wonder” is. Apparently Billboard Magazine, the bible for the industry for many years, considers a song to be a hit when it makes it into the Billboard top forty charts.
With that as the criteria, an astounding number of “superstars” were one hit wonders. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, The Buffalo Springfield, Patti Smith, Dr John and Randy Newman are good examples. The reason of course is that they were all part of the transition from 45s being the marker for stardom to albums. While these “superstars” sold millions of albums, they didn’t do well in the singles market.
Big Brother & The Holding Company
The first time I met Janis Joplin was when I was the MC for her first concert ever in Philadelphia. It was held on the U of Penn campus in their Irvine Auditorium. Also on the bill was Philadelphia’s own Soul Survivors and Edison Electric. Oddly, Edison Electric went on last.
Update December 2018:
The new class of 2019 has been announced. Good arguments can be made for most of those who are going in. It was especially good to see that The Zombies were finally selected. They are one of the most underappreciated groups in all of Rock. Rod Argent, who had a successful solo career, is excellent on the keyboards. Lead singer Colin Blunstone has one of the most impressive voices in all of music. They both expressed delight and surprise at being selected. Both were sure that at this point they would never be picked.
It does seem that, for some unexplained reason, the selection committee doesn’t like the great classic rockers. Just look how long some of the super stars of Rock were kept waiting. Steve Miller and Yes should have been selected back in the 90’s. It is hard to believe that some artists that are already in the Hall of Fame were selected before a group like Ten Years After.
When I was programing WPEZ in Pittsburgh, a young man in his twenties came in to the station and asked to talk to me. He claimed that he was a Pittsburgh native and a movie star. My first reaction was, right.
I usually don’t talk to anyone who isn’t in the music business. Still I was curious to find out what this guy was selling so I decided to give him a few minutes to tell me what was on his mind. It turned out to be an interesting conversation.
He told me his name was Jeff Goldblum and he was the son of a Pittsburgh doctor (father) and a radio personality (mother). His claim to being a movie star was a bit shaky. Jeff did bit parts in established hit films like the Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” (he played a freak), “Nashville”, “Anne Hall” (one line) “Thank God it’s Friday” (the disco craze movie) and “The Sentinel”. The only real role he had was a supporting role in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
Two recent events really stirred up some fond memories. The first was the WMMR 50th anniversary reunion held at the Fillmore in Philadelphia on September 22, 2018 (story). The second was a panel that I was part of at the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia lunch held on October 17, 2018 at the Bala Club (story).
While there are already stories about both events and a link to the video of the panel on the tmorganonline website, it could hardly tell the whole story of WMMR. After all, much has happened in the 50 years that WMMR has been continuously rockin’ here in Philly.
Since all of us who have ever worked at WMMR have a real kinship, it was really great to see some people that I haven’t seen in years. Exchanging stories of the “old days” is always fun. And there’s so much to tell. Even though I did devote a great deal of space to those fantastic WMMR years in my book “Confessions of a Teenage Disc Jockey”, the limited space in writing a book didn’t allow for all that could be written.
Over the years the art of designing album covers has been almost as appealing as the music inside. Artists were often commissioned to draw or paint a cover that fit the group or title of the record. Some were real works of art and others were just plain strange.
One of the strangest album covers of all time was one that not many people even saw. The group was called Pigeon. It is often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. That was often not true of album covers. Pigeon was a very good example. Their cover featured a dead pigeon that was in a sandwich. This bad taste cover was almost as bad as the record itself. I will spare you the viewing of the cover and instead will concentrate on ones that were a lot more cleverly and/or artfully done.
When interviewing rock stars about what were their biggest influences, one of the albums that almost always comes up is THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO. The album was recorded in 1966, but not released until 1967. The startling record was a major departure from the mainstream of Rock music at the time.
Like so many things in life, the stars had to be aligned for it to have even come to pass. The dominoes began to fall in place when Lou Reed decided to leave NYC and go to Syracuse University to study English/Journalism.
Besides being removed from the campus radio station for his taste in music, Lou was thrown out of the R.O.T.C. and grew his rebel roots. One of his major turning points was meeting and studying with Delmore Schwartz. It was Delmore, who himself was at one time considered to be a young rebel in the literary field, who encouraged Lou to follow his heart.
In April of 1968 WMMR started broadcasting the Marconi Experiment hosted by Dave Herman from 10 PM until 2 AM. The experiment is now 50 years old and is a total success.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. From the beginning there was plenty of competition. The very day that Dave Herman launched his program, WDAS-FM, headed by legendary DJ Hy Lit, started broadcasting album rock music on pretty much a full time basis. Both stations were gunning for the rock station WIFI that I formulated the year before.
Not long after I left WIFI to join WDAS, WMMR went full time album rock. WIFI dropped out of the battle early on, but WDAS hung in for a few more years. Those of us who were part of the WDAS staff were always envious of WMMR’s better signal and the money that they had to promote the station. While they didn’t have huge budget, WDAS had almost nothing.
So how could you make it to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and still not be a name that the average fan doesn’t recognize? Aynsley Dunbar found a way.
Ever since he was a kid in Liverpool, England he was attracted to playing music. At first he was attracted to the violin. His parents, however, were convinced that the seven year old wasn’t serious about his interests. When they finally decided to buy him a violin, he had developed an interest in the drums, thanks to a TV show that he saw featuring a drum trio.
At the same time The Beatles and other Mersey beat groups were making a name for themselves, Aynsley was playing with lesser known groups like Derry Wilkie and the Pressmen and The Mojos. His stint with the Mojos lasted from 1964-1966. The group was popular enough to get the attention of some other artists in London.
It is pretty well known that athletes have a love affair with music. The reverse is also very true.
The many years on the air have afforded me the opportunity to talk to many pro athletes and rock stars. They always say the same thing. The rock stars would like to be pro athletes and the athletes would love to be rock stars. It is more than just thinking the grass is greener. They know full well the pitfalls.
Some pro athletes are actually pretty good musicians. When Tommy Hutton was playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, he also performed in some local clubs. I had him on the air where he played guitar and sang very well. That probably surprised the fans who thought he was just a slick fielding first baseman.