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Obituaries

Tom Dowd, 77; Music Producer and Engineer Behind Many Popular Hits

October 29, 2002|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Record producer and engineer Tom Dowd, who worked on the first atomic bomb before turning to the mushroom-cloud explosion of rock 'n' roll, died Sunday at an assisted living facility in Aventura, north of Miami in South Florida. He was 77.

Dowd, whom Eric Clapton once described as "the ideal recording man," helped create many of the most popular and influential rock, soul, R&B and jazz records of the postwar era.

Among the artists whose recordings Dowd worked on during a quarter century as a staff engineer with Atlantic Records were the Allman Brothers Band, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Charles Mingus and Sam & Dave.

Hit songs he engineered or produced date virtually from the beginning of the rock era, from Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash," Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" and Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" to Derek & the Dominos' "Layla" and Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night."

"Tom Dowd was so germane, so organically tied into the work that in all my years of producing I never put my hands on the [sound mixing] board," veteran producer Jerry Wexler said Monday.

Dowd took a special interest in working with young musicians trying to establish a voice.

"Where I see young bands go wrong is when they get confused about what direction to take all these influences in, chasing success rather than being devoted to the music," Dowd told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1996. "You have to do your homework of American roots music and not copy what's on the radio."

Dowd also was known for "always having a smile," Wexler said.

"You could tell how much he loved music," Lee Loughnane of the rock group Chicago said Monday. "He just lit up in the studio. It was his passion."

Dowd grew up in Manhattan in a musical family. His father produced theater, including many musicals; his mother was a classically trained singer who by turns urged him to study violin and piano.

He didn't stick with either instrument, but learned to read and write music, an ability that later came into use working with rock and R&B musicians who often could do neither.

In 1941, at age 16, he started working odd jobs in the physics department at Columbia University, and soon found himself helping operate a cyclotron, a particle accelerator used in the creation of nuclear reactions.

Dowd went through Army basic training, and was sent back to Columbia to continue working with the researchers who were developing the atomic bomb.

But when he learned that he couldn't translate his experience into college credit toward a nuclear physics degree because everything was still top secret, he took a job in 1947 with the Carl Fleischer music publishing company, which also owned a small recording studio.

With his background in physics, Dowd quickly took to the technical aspects of recording and applied his knowledge to improving the equipment.

He helped Atlantic Records become the first company to use eight-track stereo recording equipment in an era when monaural, single-track recording was the rule.

Dowd soon was working with the early R&B, jazz and pre-rock acts that the fledgling label was recording, and was hired as a staff engineer in 1954.

He helped the company establish a signature sound that was crisp, clean and powerful, in contrast to the often sloppy, raw recordings more typical at the dawn of rock 'n' roll.

"Atlantic had true stereo in its vaults three to four years before anybody else, and that was Tom, absolutely," Wexler said.

Dowd was elected to the Technical Excellence and Creativity Hall of Fame in 1999, joining Beatles producer George Martin, Phil Spector, Frank Zappa and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Dowd its Trustees Award.

"A lot of my classmates died in World War II," he told the Miami Herald in 1996. "I survived atomic bombs. I survived 50 years in the music business. I'm happy with everything I've done. It's been a wonderful life."

Dowd is survived by his wife, Cheryl; daughter, Dana; and sons, Steven and Todd.

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