Norman Smith: 1923–2008

Another of the great ones is gone. Norman Smith had been a refrigeration engineer, but at 36, he decided to apply for an entry-level position as a recording technician at EMI in the UK. EMI had a strict caste system at the time and technical staff (the "white coats") were considered a rank below that of producers and even of balance engineers, who were allowed to sit in the mastering room. By 1962, Smith was promoted to balance engineer and was paired with George Martin for the first Beatles recordings. As balance engineer, he chose the microphones and recording equipment for each session and Smith is generally given a great deal of credit for the clarity and accuracy of the group's recordings from the beginning through the recording of Revolver in 1965. Because of Smith's age (he'd seen service in WWII) and EMI's dress code (ties and lab coats), Lennon nicknamed him "Normal." (Hence the title of Smith's autobiography: John Lennon Called Me Normal.)

When Martin left EMI, Smith was promoted to senior producer and signed a new band to the label: Pink Floyd. Smith produced the radically experimental Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Saucerful of Secrets, and Ummagumma, albums that still sound amazingly fresh and different. In 1968, he produced the first-ever rock opera, the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow.

In 1971, Smith recorded a demo tape of a song he was trying to shop around for a prominent artist to record. Legend has it that when he played it for producer Mickey Most, Most insisted they release it. The LP that ensued was released under his nom de rockstar Hurricane Smith. It generated three unlikely hits, "Oh Babe What Would You Say," "Don't Let It Die," and "Who Was It." Other lower-key hits followed.

Smith was a pivotal figure in developing the rock recording as an art form. When he started working at EMI, the gulf between the technical staff and the artistic staff was so rigid that he felt he had to keep his side gigs as a musician from the senior staff. Yet it was his musical knowledge that enabled him to see that Ringo Starr was indeed the right match for the other three Beatles when Starr came in as the band's replacement drummer after a disastrous test recording. According to Geoff Emerick's Here, There, and Everywhere, Smith declared early in the first sessions, "He's just having a little trouble finding his feet, but he's a lot better than that other bloke."

When Pink Floyd was recording A Saucerful of Secrets, drummer Nick Mason became increasingly frustrated with nailing "Remember a Day." Smith played the part himself. This isn't a story about Smith being a better drummer than Nick Mason, it's an illustration of how Smith managed to get such great performances out of the musicians he worked with: He was one of them—he not only understood what they were doing, he thought it was worth doing well.

Remember a day before today
A day when you were young.
Free to play alone with time
Evening never came.
Sing a song that can't be sung.
Remember a Day, Richard Wright

One reason that day before today is worth remembering 40 years on is that Norman Smith cared—and dared—to burnish it for posterity. He died Monday, March 3, at the age of 85.

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