Engineer/Producer Tom Dowd Dies

Tom Dowd, a recording engineer and producer who created some of the greatest pop, jazz, and rock recordings of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, and who ushered in the era of multi-track tape recording and stereo playback, died Sunday, October 27 of emphysema at an assisted living center in Aventura, Florida, near Miami. He was 77.

Trained as a multi-instrumental musician, Dowd was drawn to physics and engineering at an early age. He worked on the particle accelerator at Columbia University after graduating from Stuyvesant High School at the age of 16. Two years later, during World War II, he joined the US Army, which sent him back to Columbia to continue his work as part of the Manhattan Project, the United States' vast research drive to develop an atomic weapon.

Secrecy surrounding the project was enforced for many years after the war, preventing Dowd from pursuing a career in physics. That field's loss was the music world's gain, as Dowd combined his technical prowess, excellent ear, and natural rapport with musicians with some of the greatest studio advancements of the 20th century—resulting in some of its greatest recordings. Dowd worked with recording stars from many genres—pop acts such as Bobby Darin, Rod Stewart, and The Young Rascals; jazz giants Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and the Modern Jazz Quartet; soul stars Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, and Aretha Franklin; the uncategorizable Ray Charles; guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton; and Southern rock icons the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Dowd was responsible for teaming Clapton with Duane Allman in the studio group Derek and the Dominoes, whose "Layla" became theme music for an entire generation in the early 1970s. Dowd later recorded another "anthem," as he put it, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." These monster hits were but two of hundreds of albums and singles that the Dowd touch helped reach gold or platinum. A sampling of his achievements includes Darin's "Mack the Knife," Franklin's "Respect," Coltrane's Giant Steps, Charles' "What'd I Say," Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," and Cream's groundbreaking Disraeli Gears. Dowd often said that the project he was most proud of was the Allman Brothers' classic, Live at Fillmore East.

Dowd had the diplomatic skill necessary to get the most from any performer and the technical ability to capture it on tape. He came into the recording profession when most of his colleagues were still going direct-to-disc using acetate masters and simple, primitive microphone techniques. Dowd was one of the first to experiment with close-miking drums and bass, which added an unprecedented fullness and dynamic range to recordings. He is widely credited with creating the first recording console with more than four inputs, with developing the first eight-track professional recording decks, and with creating stereo mixes long before there was a market for them. "There is no one who better epitomizes the ideal marriage of technical excellence and true creativity," said Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of Atlantic Records, where Dowd worked as an engineer for more than 20 years.

He left Atlantic in the mid-1960s, and in 1967 moved to Miami, working primarily out of Criteria Sound Studios, but he recorded wherever he was called, including Memphis, Muscle Shoals, New York, Los Angeles, London, and elsewhere. Mix magazine honored Dowd with a TEC ("Technical Excellence & Creativity") Hall of Fame award in 1999; the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. Joan Tarshis interviewed Dowd for Stereophile in May 1996 (Vol.18 No.5) while Blair Jackson's insightful and entertaining interview with Dowd can be seen on the Mix website (part 1, part 2). A documentary film, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, will appear next year.