Book Review: Temples of Sound

TEMPLES OF SOUND: Inside the Great Recording Studios
by Jim Cogan and William Clark; Foreword by Quincy Jones
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003. Softcover, 7.5" by 10", 224 pp. $24.95. ISBN 0-8118-3394-1.

Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios is a history of those US studios that were either the most influential in advancing the state of the art of American popular music from the late 1940s on—the "Golden Age"—or that made the records that were the most popular. In many cases, those were one and the same studio.

The book is organized into 15 principal chapters, each dedicated to a particular recording operation and the artists most closely identified with it (footnote 1). The authors' approach is to blend business history, technical information, musical history and analysis, and social commentary. That approach works very well in avoiding the disconnected dryness that a single-minded focus on glorified equipment lists would bring. The authors are more concerned with how each studio as a whole—especially taking into account the human factor—contributed to the making of the records.

The 15 studio chapters are organized on both geographical (west to east) and temporal (late 1940s to late 1970s) continua. The book starts off in California, with the early history of Capitol Records and the later construction of its own office building, which included studios. Next is United Western, famous for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds sessions, and Sunset Sound, where the Doors' studio albums and James Taylor's Sweet Baby James were recorded. The focus then moves to Nashville (the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, later Elvis), Memphis (early Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Redding), and New Orleans (Fats Domino, Little Richard); then Chicago (Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Rolling Stones) and Detroit (Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Stevie Wonder); and, finally, New York (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cream at Atlantic; Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Simon and Garfunkle at Columbia), New Jersey (John Coltrane at Van Gelder), Philadelphia (Delfonics, Laura Nyro), and Miami (Bee Gees, Derek and the Dominos, Eagles).

Each chapter begins with a large photograph of a recording artist associated with the studio, and then covers the origins and careers not only of the studio, but also, in many cases, the record labels that were the clients. There are many wonderful photographs (a precious few in period color), but the photographs do not predominate. Rather, it is the firsthand accounts of producers, engineers, and, in some cases, the recording artists, that make this book so rewarding. I consider myself well-read on the history of recording, but a few stories in Temples of Sound were new to me.

Although I had been aware of the American Federation of Musicians' boycott of the recording industry in the early 1940s, I had not realized how that strike paradoxically paved the way for Capitol Records' early success, and the early career of Nat "King" Cole. Believing that the musicians were serious and would not back down, Capitol's owners rushed to record sides before the ban went into effect. Some of those songs, such as "Cow Cow Boogie" and "GI Jive," became hits both on their own merits, and owing to the lack of new releases from other labels (footnote 2). But as the AFM strike continued, Capitol beat the bushes for masters they could prove had been recorded before the ban. They bought two Nat "King" Cole sides from a local African-American independent label, and released them nationwide.

Cole's later financial success (after the industry agreed to pay musicians royalties and the boycott was lifted) enabled Capitol to offer a home to Frank Sinatra, who had been let go by Columbia and had failed in a suicide attempt.

These are just a few of the "ah-ha" moments in this book. An appendix recommends 12 classic recordings from each of the 15 studios—an admirable and welcome feature.

I think that the decision to end the coverage in the late 1970s is a function of the writers' fascination with recording music as an exercise in holistic organicity (those may be code words for "analog"). Indeed, Temples of Sound can be viewed as a history of pop recording during the age of analog, open-reel magnetic tape. The first paragraph of the Introduction says it all: "Recording music in the studio used to be a romantic endeavor. Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, players by and large were all in the same space at the same time, along with the engineer, who was piloting the whole deal."

Digital multitrack studios in which one part can be piped in by ISDN network routers somehow don't seem to hold the writers' attention as much as does the room where Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, and Glenn Gould re-recorded the Goldberg Variations.

Temples of Sound was a labor of love, but the writers' enthusiasm caused them to unleash a barrage of clichés and mixed metaphors. Also, a book about recording studios should not consistently misspell Bruce Swedien's last name as "Swedein," much less Michel Legrand's first name as "Michael."

But a few minor shortcomings should not keep anyone from adding Temples of Sound to their library. This is a great book, and one that nearly all audiophiles and lovers of American popular music from the late 1940s on will immensely enjoy reading from cover to cover, and then having on hand for reference. I'm sure you'll get many kicks out of it, as well as learn a lot. Highly recommended.—John Marks

Footnote 1: I use the word operation advisedly; some operations moved as they grew, and, in some studios, different rooms had distinctly different sounds and histories. Columbia Records operated studios in two different locations in New York City, at 30th Street and Seventh Avenue; the authors have treated them together in one chapter.

Footnote 2: "Cow Cow Boogie" saw CD release on Capitol's retrospective decade-by-decade six-CD boxed set, Capitol Records: 1942-2002 (Capitol 41220 or 41221). Though hardly a desert-island disc, it's worth a listen.