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On Thursday, August 21, 2003, at 2:45pm, my wife of 34 years, Rebecca, died in my arms in an emergency room.

The last words we spoke were in perfect synchronization: "I love you with all my heart."

 

 

In The Studio - Remembering STAX Sessions

 

What was a recording session like, anyway?  Quite a few people have asked me about this, so I'll try to put it into words.

STAX sessions were perfect

Before I went to Memphis, I'd only recorded twice before, both times in New York City.  My limited understanding of a "session" was based on the high speed, frantic atmosphere of New York, and having somebody in the control room screaming in the headphones.  If you've never experienced somebody screaming in a pair of headphones, don't rush into it.

Physical Layout

At STAX, things were totally different.  First of all, the A studio was huge.  It was approximately one half of a movie theater, with the sloping floor, and could have easily held 80 musicians or more.  The ceiling was around 20 feet up, maybe higher.  It had carpeting on the floor, I recall it was a dull, neutral color.  Most of the wall treatment was colored burlap pulled tight over insulation and stapled down.  Simple wooden strips covered the places where sections of burlap joined.  The movable sound baffles were about the same - some had white acoustic ceiling tiles with the little holes, others had burlap to deaden sound and block it.  Some baffles had windows, and were pretty wide and tall, almost like a wall, others were smaller, shorter, and were more for use in front of an amplifier. 

It wasn't a real elegant room, and nothing at all like the beautiful creations of lava rock, glass, plants, and polished hardwoods you'd see in a modern Westlake type room.  Instead, it was a simple, functional environment, with very few frills.  Both acoustically and electronically, STAX was pretty far behind the cutting edge of technology, compared to some of the world-class studios around the country.  And as we all know, it really doesn't require $6 million in room treatment and equipment to cut the best records in the world. 

The hallway door was just a light, wooden door, I believe it swung open either way, and had a little diamond shape glass window in it.  There was no soundproofing at that doorway, or the one going up to the control room. 

The famous "STAX drapes" were hung on both sides of the room, and legend has it that Jim Stewart wouldn't even let them go out to be cleaned, because that might change the sound of the room.  They were dark, very heavy velvet drapes from the original theater, I believe.  Another part of the STAX legend, which I heard many times, is that any proposed changes which could affect sound usually resulted in a war with Jim - he wasn't going to allow the sound to change.

The control room was also very large, located on the original movie theater stage, at the north end of the studio.  In the southwest corner, against the wall, was one of the old, original theater speakers, with the enormous multicell horn.  I never heard it used for anything, I don't think it was hooked up.  Here you can see it in the background.  It must have been at least 7 feet high.  The control room was about 4 to 5 feet above the floor of the studio. 

Al's drums were on a kind of platform, or riser, on the west wall of the studio.  His drum set was kind of "mixed" - it was basically a Roger's set, I believe, but I think he also had a Ludwig tom.  One of the toms was a different color from the rest of the set.  I remember how Al's drums were miced - but that's one of my secrets.

The Hammond was close to the control room, at the north end, on the linoleum part of the floor, facing south, so the player's back was towards the control room glass.  It moved around every now and then, but not much.  The Leslie was usually a little to the right or to the left of the player, and back closer to the wall.  While I played at STAX, the Leslie was always miced the same way: one Neumann 87, on cardioid pattern, about 2' away from the side of the Leslie, at about center height.

To the east of the Hammond was the doorway and steps leading up and to the left, into the control room.  At the top of the steps, there was also a kind of steel loading platform area and a heavy, barred and locked steel door which opened outside to the parking lot.  That's the path where large equipment came into the control rooms.  I only saw the door opened when recorders or a console were brought in. 

The bass amp was in front of the control room wall, near the drum riser.  At the time I was at STAX, the bass amp was just a simple Standel, solid state, with 2 15s.  I don't think it was miced, the bass went through a direct box, straight to the board. 

Guitar amps moved around a little, but mainly were somewhere near the middle of the room, in front of the Hammond.  The ones I remember were plain Fender Super Reverbs with standard Fender speakers in them.  There were several of them, used not only for guitar, but also Wurlitzer electric piano and clavinet, too. 

The Baldwin grand piano was usually more towards the center of the room, on wheels, further away from the control room wall, but it, too, moved around a little.  It was recorded with one or two mics, and was usually baffled with moving blankets to control sound leakage.

Wurlitzer electric piano and clavinet were always moved around. 

I remember playing one session when the Hammond was near the east wall, facing west, into the center of the room, and it was leaning way to the right, due to the sloping floor.  That was the only time I remember it being there.

On To The Session

The rhythm section (four players: drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard) would meet in the studio and relax for a little while.  Hang around, drink a soda, smoke cigarettes, talk about anything.  The artist might be there, but very often wasn't. 

The producer - in this example, I'll use Steve Cropper as producer - would sit around, going over chords, and basically showing us what the song was built like.  Sometimes, Steve would sing the song, so we'd get a better idea what it was about, sometimes the writer would be there, and sing it.  Sometimes, Steve would have chord charts.  These weren't sheet music, they were just little scribbled notes.  They might look something like this .....

 INTRO: || A | G | D | D || % ||

V: - || A | % | % | % ||

B: - || E | E | F#m | G ||

V - out 

For the rhythm tracks, written music wasn't used at STAX, we learned the songs on the spot, and developed parts in our heads in minutes.  In fact, Booker was probably one of the only musicians at STAX that could read music.  We often called changes by their number - meaning 5 would be the 5th note in the scale of the key the song was in.  For example, if the song's in Bb, Steve says "5", we change to an F chord. 

As Steve continued to run down the song, we'd listen - then everyone else started coming in playing.  By the way, tape wasn't rolling yet - Ronnie was out in the studio, adjusting mic positions, or in the control room, setting up levels.  Sometimes, the artist would do a "scratch" vocal, he'd record the vocal as a sort of guide, but it wouldn't be a "performance" - it would be redone, seriously, at a later time. 

After a few minutes of practicing, working out the intro, turns and ending, Steve was ready to cut one.  If the song had a strange progression in it, Steve might call off the changes to me, and I'd write my own "chart".  Or he might have made several copies, one for each of us.  Most songs were fairly easy to memorize in just a few minutes. 

Even though the A studio was so huge, all the rhythm players were actually grouped together, only a few feet away from each other when the tracks were being cut.  Sometimes, Ronnie rolled a movable sound isolation baffle in front of something if he was getting too much sound leakage, but not very often. 

We all had eye contact, and could visually "communicate" while we played, and the tape was rolling.  The GREATEST thing about almost every STAX session, was NO HEADPHONES.  In those days, nobody played at the deafening levels that we consider "normal" today.  We played loud enough to feel what we were doing, but it wasn't LOUD.  Because of this, we were able to cut the tracks with acceptable leakage, and actually didn't need phones to hear. 

When we did rhythm overdubs, again, it was pretty rare that headphones were used.  Ronnie simply played the track out of the studio playback speakers at a reasonable low level, we heard it, and did the overdub.  Leakage was very slight.  Total isolation was not a high priority, and I believe this really contributed to the players being able to get a much better feel for what they were playing.  For vocal overdubs, phones were used a lot.

Tape's Rolling ... Take One

Once the song was ready to record, Steve would let Ronnie know.  Well, that's a little redundant - Ronnie could hear everything in the studio through the mics anyway, so any of us could talk to him.  We'd get quiet, and Ronnie would punch the record button, "slug" the take - meaning recording the song name and take number onto the tape - then Al would count it off, and we'd go.  At the same time, the red light went on over the hallway door to the studio, so the people outside would know that tape was rolling.  This may sound strange, but sometimes, even when tape was rolling, people might come in or out of the studio - right in the middle of a track.  As long as they didn't make noise that the mics could catch, it didn't make much difference.

When a mistake was made, somebody would just wave their hand, or play something strange, and we'd get the next one going.  Most of the time, Ronnie wouldn't even stop the tape.  He'd just punch the talkback button and say, "We're rollin' - take 3", and we'd start again.  As a side note, and this is important - I think Ronnie (who was a great session drummer himself) was nearly a "part" of the rhythm section when he engineered.  He had a special way of adding his own momentum, keeping a song flowing, and helping us to get into the groove with his enthusiasm.

When Steve thought we had a good take, we'd go up in the control room and listen to the playback.  Playback through control room speakers is a lot like looking through a microscope.  Nothing escapes you, and sometimes you can get a better perspective by listening when you're not playing.  If somebody thought we could do it better, we might go back out and do another one, or Steve might want to stop right there.  The tape wasn't erased, so previous takes were still there to decide from later.  Many, many times there were minor mistakes in the parts, but this was a lot less important than the overall feel of the track.  Some of the mistakes would be "punched in" - that is, fixed in only that one small place, and sometimes they were so insignificant, they were just ignored.  I can remember several times, going out and cleaning up one or two places while everyone else took a little break.  Ronnie was really superb at communicating exactly where he'd punch you in and out.  As I've learned over the years, getting the bass and drum tracks locked in is the really important part.  The guitar and keyboard parts are much simpler to fix if they need it.

After a song was acceptably "in the can", we'd take a short break, go get a soda, or whatever.  In a few minutes, we were back in the studio, running down the next song.  Usually, a session was three songs or three hours.  Occasionally, we "stretched" that slightly.  Sometimes, if a groove didn't come together for a song, we'd move on to the next one, and come back to the song later.  That didn't happen very often.  I don't remember very many songs getting up to "take 10", once we learned it and got set with parts - most of them went very quickly, and were down in 2 to 4 takes.  Several were done on first takes!  And when that happened, you could see it in everybody's face - we all knew that track was locked in. 

Occasionally, Ronnie would interrupt, saying, "my fault, let's go again", and Al would instantly count it down again, we'd start it right over.  He'd probably had some technical problem up in the control room, and the tape wasn't printing properly.  That, too, was a pretty rare occurrence.  I definitely remember that once the feel was in there, we could do two or three in a row, one right after another, and you could almost SEE it lock right in.  I don't know the right kind of words to use, but there was magic happening in that room for short sections of time, as the rhythm tracks went to tape.

Ideas for anything in a song were always welcome, from anyone.  For example, if Al said, "let's break it right there, and come back in here", we'd try it, and see how it worked.  Sometimes, Steve might be puzzling over a little part or a turn, and as soon as Duck or I played it with him, the idea took shape all by itself. 

Very rarely did the producer come into the studio with an absolute concept of anyone's part - exactly the opposite, in fact.  Each song just "happened" as we played it a few times, and various ideas and suggestions were exchanged, resulting in the final arrangement.  Most of the time, this happened without words - we just sort of "modified" our parts as we played, and they fit in better.  We kind of "adjusted on the fly". 

In some songs, there were definite lines, accents, cuts, or punches, and we'd learn them and adhere to that.  In many places, especially in my earliest days at STAX, I would listen very carefully to Steve's part, and try to find parts that didn't "touch" his.  In other words, a kind of "yours-mine" type pattern.  Like a question, then an answer, if that makes any sense.  The last thing I wanted to do was "step" on Steve's parts, and break his patterns.  During recording the tracks, everybody's heads were nodding, grooving, smiles flashing, getting into the song, and Steve would often "signal" turns or upcoming parts, shaking his head, waving the neck of his guitar.  

There was ESP in that room, too.  If I screwed up a chord, Duck, Al, or Steve could just look at me and shake "no" real quick.  We'd keep going, and I wouldn't stop the take because of my mistake. They knew I was about to stop, and go for another, and they'd guide me past that.  We frequently looked at each other and smiled as we played, and there was a lot of communication in that.  As I'm writing this, I'm thinking to myself ... "wow, man - these guys were / are the best rhythm players on earth!"

After the rhythm tracks were down, overdubs started.  There was no absolute set order for overdubs, so it could be horns or vocals or mostly anything.  But usually, we did additional rhythm parts before anything else went on.  Depending on the time, Steve might want piano or Wurlitzer electric piano, or he might go back and redo a guitar part.  If we didn't get the overdub parts on during the initial session, we'd just do them the next day.

Let's Get Technical For A Minute

One of the facts about STAX sessions that I'll always love and believe in, is how simple they really were.  Possibly because there were only 8 tracks, (until STAX went to 16), but more likely because the production concepts were themselves, simpler.  Here's a brief explanation, if you haven't ever done multi track recording. 

In the mid-early (8 track) days, the rhythm players would typically each be recorded on their own separate track.  Drums, bass, guitar, and organ or piano.  That used 4 of the 8 available tracks.  Let's suppose that Steve wanted another keyboard part - that's 5 of 8.  And he might add a guitar part - that's 6 of 8.  Still yet to come for this song are vocals, horns, maybe background singers, possibly strings, and maybe some miscellaneous stuff: tambourine, other percussion parts, etc.  By now, you can see we're going to run out of tracks to put things on. 

This is when the process called ping-pong or bouncing begins.  To do this, there must be at least ONE open track on the 8 track tape.  Steve would listen to playback, decide what he wanted to go with what, and consider where it would end up in the stereo mix field.  For example, he might mix an organ part with a guitar part, taking two tracks and recording (or ping-ponging) them together, onto one track.  This would then open up the original two tracks for future use. 

However, in this process, he made a major commitment - the levels of the guitar and organ could not be independently changed ever again, and any equalizing, limiting, echo, reverb, etc. would affect both instruments, since they were both now on the same track.  

This explanation also should include some other facts.  Analog multi track recorders use three heads: erase, record, and play.  They're located in three physically different places in the tape's path, so synchronization becomes an issue. 

Picture this: a recording (just one track is fine for this example) is made, then the tape is rewound.  The machine is switched from "record" to "playback", and we listen to it.  During "record", the signal to be recorded was coming in to the record head.  During playback, it is coming out from the playback head.  If we want to add to the recording (overdub or ping-pong), we must first synchronize the playback, so the new recording will be aligned with the existing tracks. 

Confusing, isn't it?  No, it's not.  This is done by simply using the record head to play back the existing tracks, while recording the new track into the record head.  In this way, the tracks are synchronized.  However, there is one compromise in this process - the record head is of slightly lower quality for playing back the tape. 

If this synchronization weren't done, the new track, when played back with the rest of the tracks in "playback" mode, would actually be ahead of the rest of the song,  because of the inch or two space between the record and play heads.  I learned instantly at STAX - playback has to be in SYNC position before starting an overdub or ping-pong. 

This picture of a 1", 8 track Scully 280-8 should clarify the spacing between heads.  This is exactly the same kind of 8 track used at STAX - a Scully 280.

This was the normal way to record in the 4 and 8 track days, and it required quite a bit of foresight to make these sub-mixes, or "ping-pongs".  Today, with 24 (and often more) tracks in an average studio, ping-ponging is no longer needed.  BUT - having so many tracks available also can encourage another problem - "overproduction", or busy tracks.  With all those empty tracks, sometimes there's a tendency to just keep throwing on more and more parts.  

Run It Down And Down .... And Down

Here's another thought about STAX rhythm sessions ..... I believe repeated rehearsal of anything really takes away some of the spontaneity.  STAX sessions were beautifully unplanned - you walk in, and had no idea what was going to be cut today.  You'd never heard the songs before, and most of the time, had no idea who the artist would be.  You learned one, went over it for maybe 5 or 10 minutes, cut it, and that was it - on to the next song.  Wipe your memory clean, and move on to the next song.  Because there was no written music, the freedom to play what you felt carried the song.  You can believe this - rhythm players like Duck, Al, and Steve were just plain absolute magic.

Gravity Is A Force

While I'm in this subject area, I'd like to introduce my good friend, "gravity".  Gravity is my special word for what a musician "is".  An awful lot has been written and said about feel, groove, style, and dozens of other "identifiers".  There are a lot of "button words". 

It took me a little while to learn this, but I believe that playing STAX music is effortless, if that's your "gravity".  I'm referring to the players here, and not singers.  Singers must really "make a performance".  

As a rhythm section player, though - especially with the MGs - there's no need for intense concentration, the "feel" just flows all by itself.  In fact, it's so effortless, that you actually "stand back" (mentally) while you're playing, and listen more carefully to the other players.  The more you listen to them, the easier it is to play parts that compliment their parts, and create a groove. 

"Gravity" is kind of what a player does naturally, without suggestions or direction.

I've been asked hundreds, maybe thousands of times - "How do you get that STAX feel?"  The only answer I can offer is - "you just play it".  That's it.  I believe it isn't something you read.  It's not something you go to school for, it's something you areIt started when you first learned to play, and after awhile, it's just like gravity - it happens all by itself.

STAX players weren't really superb, educated, accomplished musicians - and that's exactly why they were superb.

I did a session once someplace in Memphis where I was asked to "play some Jimmy Smith lines in there - really get it going!"  That sounds fine, but gravity keeps me in my place.  Personally, I've never had any interest in being a soloist, and couldn't play "Jimmy Smith lines" to save my own life.  I'm not a busy player, and never had the capability that some of the jazz greats have for playing intricate, complex lines.  I compromised on that session, but I think those "solos" sounded a lot more like Booker, and a lot less like Jimmy Smith. 

I hope you can tell from the above paragraphs, STAX sessions were relaxed, laid back, with no pressure or rush.  This kind of atmosphere contributed everything to playing.  I said at the start of this story - STAX sessions were perfect.  I wasn't kidding.

 

(Addendum - October, 2002):  Steve Cropper recently made this remark, privately, and again publicly, in front of a large group of people at a Memphis show:  "Sandy, if you didn't play your ass off the first time we heard you, you never would have been allowed back inside STAX the second time." 

Words like that, coming from Cropper, are the kind you remember for a long time.  

The Engineers Work As Hard As The Players

Ronnie put a big label on every tape box, listing the artist, songs, "keeper" takes, and other details.  Inside the boxes were track sheets, showing details: eq settings, what's on each track, and little notes, etc.  He also "leadered" the individual takes on the tapes with white leader tape.  This made a specific song or cut easier to locate when the tape was used the next time. 

I learned how to do the leadering, and always helped out with that - once Ronnie trusted me NEAR a master tape with a razor blade in my hand!  I learned how to rock the reels, and use a white grease pencil, marking exactly where the song started at.  Tapes were stored "tails out", so the sound didn't "print through" the tape.  This really confused me.  I spent hours wondering about it, and I'm STILL not sure why, but that's the way it was done.  Whenever a roll of tape was put on a machine, it was loaded on the right (takeup) side, and had to be completely rewound before using it.  They also used a colored tape system at STAX - red and blue (heads and tails) - to hold the end of the tape on the reel.  Ronnie did a lot of paperwork, in addition to engineering. 

I learned as much as possible from Ronnie, Steve, and Gordon.  Ronnie gave me a 1/4" Editall block, leader and splicing tape, and I practiced on all my own tapes at home.  Every tape I owned was leadered between cuts, and they were all stored tails out.  Ronnie taught me a lot about engineering, and he watched over me as I did certain tasks.  I remember the first time he let me do a ping-pong, and guiding me right through it.  I was unsure, but it was actually pretty easy, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment.  Ronnie taught me how to clean and demagnetize the machines, how to use alignment tapes and calibrate them, and hundreds of other functions of an engineer.  Ronnie, Steve, and Gordon taught me many other things about engineering, so when I wasn't playing, I was learning and absorbing everything possible.  

A Sense Of Humor Required

I recall some sessions when Gordon was engineering.  We were very good friends, and you probably know how friends will sometimes pull practical jokes on each other?

On a few occasions, not during recording, I slipped the cellophane wrapper off my cigarette package, leaned over slightly, and squeezed and crunched it, right next to the Leslie mic.  It made a crackling, frying sound, like something electronic was about to explode.  Up in the control room, Gordon couldn't see me doing it, because of the angle.  But he sure could HEAR it - at about 112 decibels or more! 

He'd come dashing down the stairs, ponytail flying out behind him, into the studio - unplugging and replugging mics, trying to locate where it was coming from.  By then, I'd be sitting up straight, looking stupid and innocent, and talking to Duck or Steve or something.  He'd go back in the control room, I'd wait a few minutes, and do it again.  And he'd come flying out again.  After two or three, I'd stop. 

Raymond saw me do it one day, and he was hysterical - we had to run out of the studio to stop laughing. 

Gordon came to my house a lot, and it was everything I could do to keep a straight face when we talked about this.  Maybe it was a bad mic cable?  Could it be one of the modules in the console?  A resistor getting ready to fry?  He'd be wondering about that noise for days.  I don't know if he ever figured out what I was doing, but if he reads this page, he'll know for sure. 

Maceo, Bring In The Horns

Soon, the horns came in.  Wayne and Andy would listen to the track once or twice, and, unless Steve wanted something specific, they'd come up with the horn parts, like magic, in just a few minutes.  Sometimes they cut a single track - meaning two horns - and sometimes they "doubled", cutting the horn lines again, effectively sounding like four horns.  On some sessions, there would be other horn players, bari, second tenor, trombone.  It all depended on what the producer wanted.  Sometimes, the bari player would come in and do overdubs alone.  I remember a gentleman named Freddy Ford doing a lot of bari overdubs.

Sometimes, the horn session might be for one or two songs from this artist, and one or two from that one.  Something like, "We're here - let's put horns on Ollie's songs, too."  It was a lot of fun watching Wayne and Andy, because they had ESP, and could look at each other and play lines.  Very little talking, just looks.  Sometimes they'd use written music, but not very often.

The strings were another world entirely.  STAX hired string players from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  One observation I made in Memphis - certain kinds of players seemed to generally fall into certain age groups.  The rhythm section players were the youngest and wildest, frequently the horn players were just slightly older, the string players were older than everybody.  And the strings went no place without everything written down on paper!

Can You Envision This?

Imagine 8 violin, viola, and cello players showing up at STAX for a string session.  Their average age is probably around 72, and they all have white hair, if they have any hair.  Seven out of eight are wearing conservative jackets, white shirts, and subdued ties.  They're ushered into the studio as a group, chairs and music stands are quickly set up for them, and they take their seats.  Ronnie is running around, placing microphones and getting cables out of their way, and in walks the producer.  In this case, Isaac Hayes. 

Today, Isaac happens to be wearing a pair of cranberry-maroon dance tights with black leopard fur trim, genuine zebraskin boots, a gold chain vest, no shirt, and a big smile.  His size 28 mirror sunglasses reflect about 80% of the earth's surface.  His trademark huge floppy hat is on the desk in his office, and his skull gleams like a mirror.  Sixteen eyes widen to coffee cup size, and eight brains simultaneously realize - there will BE no Beethoven or Brahms in here today.  But there will be some stories to tell when these folks go home tonight!  (Do you think I'm laughing as I write this?)

Sheet music is distributed to everyone, and Ronnie starts tape playback.  Explanations and notations are made during the first playback, the tape is rewound.  Playback starts again, and Isaac conducts, getting more into it by the second.  The players are nodding, tapping, counting measures, and suddenly, eight hands move eight bows on a lot of strings.  The hands seem to move almost in unison, forward and back, as their lines come forth. 

We've been listening to this song for days, over and over, as the rhythm tracks were laid, and overdubs were done.  But nobody has yet heard strings on this song - and the addition is absolutely amazing.  The visual impact of "old meeting new" was something that's stayed with me for a long time.  Thirty minutes later, it's done.  The string section takes a break, compliments are exchanged, eight symphony musicians seem to have grown twenty years younger in less than an hour, and they're getting ready for the next song.  You'd have to see this to believe it.


Writing songs at STAX was kind of like the "fuel supply" for the whole company.  It was the songs, with the catchy hooks, that sold records.  STAX maintained a staff of writers who were signed to the publishing division, known as East-Memphis Music.  Many writers also played, produced, or were artists themselves. 

A writer could be anybody from Eddie Floyd, to Isaac, to a secretary in Accounting.  One thing I found very interesting ..... whenever anybody wrote a song, it would be put on a quarter inch, 7.5 tape, as a little demo.  Or it might be cut in a rhythm section session, and then that little 7.5 copy would just disappear down the hallway somewhere.  I think STAX had someone on staff who transcribed the songs to sheet music, so they could be sent in for copyrighting. 

I don't know how it worked or who did that at STAX - all I know is, a few days later, there were writer's forms to sign, and presto - the rest of it was all taken care of.  More STAX magic.  Incredible. 

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