Peeples Place At KHTS: Grammy Spotlight Q&A With 'Layla' Engineers Ron & Howard Albert
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The epochal 1970 "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" album by Derek & The Dominos — Eric Clapton (guitar, vocals), Bobby Whitlock (keyboards, vocals), Carl Radle (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) — was reissued in a deluxe two-CD 40th anniversary edition in spring 2011.
A super-deluxe edition (right) included more goodies, like the Dominos' complete Fillmore East concert from fall 1970 and a new 5.1 surround mix by another engineering legend, Grammy-winner and surround pioneer Elliot Scheiner, that later in the year was nominated for a Grammy. Today, in the pre-Grammy telecast, it won the award.
Ron and Howard Albert were the original "Layla" session engineers in August and September 1970, working with legendary producer Tom Dowd at Criteria Studios in North Miami, Florida. I grew up less than a mile from the studio, and went to the same junior and senior high schools with Ron; Howard was a few years older. That would make them 19 and 23, respectively, when "Layla" was recorded.
The new surround album's Grammy nomination prompted me, impulsively, to reconnect with the Alberts for the first time in more than 30 years. We are not getting any younger, after all.
It also prompted me to reach out to Bobby Whitlock, who I did not know, but met via Facebook. I read his best-selling 2011 "A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography" and spoke with him by phone for almost two hours. One of the most fascinating interviews I've ever conducted; that Q&A is coming in a near-future Peeples Place post.
The Albert brothers and I hadn't been in touch since 1979 or so; by that time, Ron and Howie had become superstar engineer/producers at Criteria and were kingpins of their own company, Fat Albert Productions. They'd produced the "McGuinn, Clark & Hillman" album for Capitol. As the editorial manager in the label's press department, I got to interview the artists and producers at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood and write the liner notes that appeared on the front cover. It was a long way from North Miami Junior High for Ron and me (pictured at right back then; photo by Henry Diltz).
So in fall 2011, with two clicks on the Web, I found the brothers' current studio, AudioVision, also in North Miami, not far from the old Criteria Studios. I stalked the AV building using Google Earth's street view. In two phone calls I was talking with Ron. He remembered me right away, and we had a great time trying to catch up on the last three decades in half an hour. I told him I wanted to focus on "Layla" because of the anniversary and the Grammy nomination, and we set up an interview via Skype for a few days later so Howard could get in on the fun, too.
In preparation, I listened to "Layla" front to back for the first time since the '70s, probably, and marvelled at how much I still liked the songs, the stuff both with and without special guest session ace Duane Allman, also from the Allman Brothers Band, another Criteria client, on slide guitar — especially the deeper tracks like "I Looked Away" and "Keep on Growing" (both EC only), plus "Why Does Love Got to be So Sad" and the album-closing acoustic "Thorn in My Garden," written and sung by Whitlock.
Perusing the original 12"x12" gatefold album cover and the splendid candid shots from the sessions that fill the inside panels, I thought again about the album's inspiration: Eric's attempt to win the heart and hand of Pattie Boyd Harrison, wife of his best friend, George Harrison. And the fact that Eric, his bandmates, and Duane were all doing heavy drugs at the time.
I read Whitlock's hair-raising book, Ashley Kahn's excellent book accompanying the 40th anniversary box, Jan Reid's "Layla" book, and "Layla"- related sections of Pattie Boyd's autobiography, several Clapton bios and Scott Freeman's 1996 Allmans bio. And I re-listened to a bunch of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends albums, EC's solo debut produced by Delaney Bramlett, Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," and all the outtakes and live extras that came with the "Layla" box. In one combination or another, the Dominos were on them all.
(Pictured during the "Layla" sessions: Duane Allman, Jim Gordon, Eric Clapton, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock.)
I also caught up on the Alberts' illustrious career, during which they pioneered new studio techniques and technology, and engineered and/or produced albums that have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
Our Skype Q&A from Dec. 16, 2011 follows; you can also see the interview in eight video clips on my YouTube channel.
Stephen K. Peeples: Welcome to Peeples Place, Howard (left) and Ron Albert (right). How are you?
Howard Albert: We're great, how are you? Nice to see you, Stephen.
Peeples: Doing great. Nice to talk to you guys again. It's been a long time. We're going to talk mainly about the “Layla” sessions, but I wanted to get a bit of background on both of you guys. So, Howard, tell us how you got into rock 'n' roll. I understand you were in a rock band when you were in high school.
Howard: Yeah, I was in a rock band in high school and then I graduated to an R&B band, and then started playing different venues around town, mainly frat parties near the University of Miami. I used to do the parties down there every weekend, so I never went to a football game or a basketball game when I was in high school. But I was making about 80 bucks a week, so that was pretty good.
Anyway, I got hooked up doing some background session work at Criteria, which was a one-room facility at the time. I was working with a group called The Legends and played some keyboard stuff on their record, and some other things here and there. That, more or less, got me into the studio, and knowing the people at the studio. Then Lee Hazen, one of the engineers there at the time, was getting ready to leave to go to Nashville. He asked me if I knew anybody that could come in there. They were looking for a body. So I said, “Yeah, my brother, he could do it.”
Ron: Here I am!
Howard: So I sent Ron over there — I think he was 14 at the time — and he asked Ron if he could type, and of course Ron said. “Yes!” But he couldn't type, so he went home and asked my mother, who was a pretty good typist, if she could teach him how to type. I don't know if she taught him, but anyway, he said yes — he faked his way through it — and he got a job at the studio, doing (tape box) labeling and so forth, and looking over (Criteria founder/owner) Mack Emmerman's shoulder. And at the time at the studio, we did the Orange Bowl Parade every year, and it was a big deal where…am I saying this right?
Ron: Sounds good.
Howard: …where all these acts and stars would come in and do their pre-recording for the parade, so they could lip-sync when they were riding on the floats in the parade. Ron was helping Mack, then Mack got sick, so Ron just stepped in and took over, and that was it for Ron. He became the engineer at the studio, and that's pretty much how I became the engineer at the studio — I think I was looking over Ron's shoulder for a while. So, that's pretty much how it started.
Ron: Sounds about right.
Ron: Then Howard was drafted into the Army and spent some time in Vietnam. When he was discharged in 1969, he decided his playing chops were less than he wanted them to be, because he hadn't been playing a lot in the Army, obviously. So, he decided to come back and become part of the family at Criteria.
Howard: I had a wedding to go to in New York, so I got out of the Army in Oakland in '69. Ron sent me a notebook, and it had all these microphones in it, and I was to study this guide. He said, “Here are the names of the microphones and what we use them on, yada yada yada.” So I was studying that on the plane on the way to New York for this wedding, and when I came home to Miami I went right to work at Criteria. So, that was my internship, my technical schooling.
Ron: We went to work right away with the Allmans, I think, in three months. Not a bad way to start your career, huh?
Peeples: Not at all. That would be “Idlewild South,” the second Allmans album, early 1970?
Howard: That was “Idlewild South.”
Ron: You know, our partner Steve (“Every Day I Have to Cry Some”) Alaimo — he had signed Gregg and Duane (Allman) to his production company before it became T.K. Productions. It was on Bold Records, I think, and we were there when Gregg got involved, and of course, the original recording of “Melissa” co-written by Gregg and Steve is on that record as well. So we worked with the Allmans a fair amount before the Allman Brothers became a band. It was just Duane and Gregg, and of course, Butch Trucks was the drummer in a band called The 31st of February, and we also recorded an album with them at Criteria for T.K. So we had ties to not only Duane and Gregg, but also to Butch Trucks at that point.
Peeples: And you had some prior working relationship with some of the members of Derek and the Dominos, right?
Ron: Yes. “To Delaney From Bonnie,” sure. Delaney and Bonnie were already signed to Atlantic, and that entire band is the roots of the “Layla” album, which is Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, as well as Bobby Whitlock. They were all players with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. And of course, Eric Clapton was the guitar player at the time.
Peeples: Right. I've got my vinyl copy of “To Bonnie from Delaney” right here (released in October 1970; Duane Allman also guests on it).
Ron: That's it. She was a fabulous singer, and it took a lot of work but it was a lot of fun. We really enjoyed those sessions. All those early Atlantic sessions of that time were really special. The interactions of (engineer/producer) Tom Dowd and (Atlantic Records co-founders and producers) Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, as well as us, we were kind of given this gift of greatness to be around all those wonderful people, and it was an unbelievable opportunity for us to not only learn, but to be a part of some amazing music history.
Peeples: So, Criteria being dubbed Atlantic South — how did that happen? Jerry Wexler moved down there and was looking for a neighborhood studio, right?
Howard: Not exactly.
Peeples: OK, well, you tell me.
Howard: What happened was, both Jerry and Tom Dowd liked to fish. They used to come down here on the weekends and fish. And they said, “Yeah, this is a great place down here. Maybe we ought to get a house.” So they did — they got a house, they brought their boat, The Big A, down from Montauk, New York. Then they decided, “You know, rather than fly back and forth, we could stay here. If we had a studio, we could bring our acts down here.” So that's how that came about.
Criteria was the only real studio in town, I would say. So they would bring their acts down and we were the house guys. At that time, I was just learning stuff, but because I didn't know one microphone from the next, Ron showed me on a piece of paper. And Mack Emmerman was a jazz buff who had every Neumann and Telefunken and every other kind of expensive microphone at the studio — he was a junkie for that stuff.
I didn't know any better, so I'd be using these $5,000 Telefunken microphones for a drum mike. And I didn't really know how to mike the drums, except for what I thought was the right way, so I started multi-miking these drum sets. No (engineers were) doing that. They were just using a couple of overheads and a snare drum mike or maybe a kick mike, but I was using like, 10, 12 microphones, miking every drum — top, bottom, side, everywhere I could stick a microphone. And I wound up coming up with this great sound. But Mack was having a heart attack — he walked in and was dying when he saw those used on the drums.
Ron: At that point, the Telefunken microphones — which, to this day, are highly regarded — those were exclusively for recording orchestra string sections and things like that. No one ever thought about even bringing them out of the case in a rock 'n' roll environment. We only used one microphone or two microphones at the time, so Howard basically, single-handedly —
Howard: ...and out of stupidity —
Ron: — out of experimentation, invented what we all know as multi-mike technique of drum miking.
Howard: I even tried some old Electro-Voice pencil mikes as drum sticks, but that didn't work out well.
Ron: It was just a magical time. We had a studio that didn't have a lot of business, so we had a lot of time to play and experiment. We had all these amazing pieces of gear to play with, microphones and everything else that we could get our hands on. Mack had, as Howard was saying...
Howard: ...all this gear.
Ron: We had all this gear, we had all this time, and basically it was a very experimental time in music and in all kinds of things, from drugs to inventing the music itself. So, the times were right to do what we did, and we were very fortunate to have had the opportunity.
Howard: We also had Jeep Harned, who was MCI, and a good friend of Mack's. Mack used to take gear that was broken or wouldn't work anymore — he'd take it up to Jeep, who had a hi-fi electronics repair shop. Jeep would fix it and give it back. Then we decided he could make some of this stuff better, so he started making equipment and we'd test it out at Criteria. So, we became the test center for MCI. And then Ron and I — mind if I tell another quick story? If you've noticed at all, the modern boards now have the subgroups in the center. That's because Ron is left-handed...
Ron: You can see that there's two of us, right? We have four hands.
Howard: Right. But...
Ron: It's this way, so if you put them in the center —
Howard: He could grab them, and I could grab them, very easily. Whereas if they're on the end of the console, we would have been [fired]...
Ron: What Howard's saying is that the big consoles were set up in such a way that the eight or 10 or 12 subgroups were off to one side, not in the center of the console. The faders were in the center of the console, but the subgroups were off to the side. We had MCI's Jeep build us a console for Criteria that moved those subgroups to the center specifically so we could both reach the subgroups, instead of reaching over each other. They're right there, so we both have — there was no automation in those days...
Howard: Ron could take half the console, I could take half the console, we both had the subgroups. Not sure what year it was... but SSL stole that from MCI and started putting subgroups in the center of their consoles the next year.
Ron: Because of us being brothers, one left-handed and one right-handed, the design of all future recording consoles changed forever by putting subgroups in the center.
Peeples: Pretty amazing.
Howard: Yep. Strangely true, huh? And now, we use ProTools.
Peeples: Four hands and you use ProTools.
Howard: Yeah, one little finger to move a mouse — we don't need those other 19 extra fingers now.
Peeples: OK, let's get to the “Layla” sessions. When did that start? We got the call from somebody, “Hey, we're going to come down and record an album” — tell me how it started.
Ron: It was a long time ago — but the way I recall it, we were sitting in the control room in Studio B at Criteria, and we were working on someone's record, I don't remember who exactly it was. Eric Clapton called Tom, and said that he wanted to start the next record with Tom, and Tom said, “Well, gee, that's great. Let's plan on doing it in Miami, because that's where our base is set up at the moment.” And Eric was excited about coming to Miami and working in Miami.
This band showed up, which was Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock and, of course, Eric Clapton. We set up in Studio B in a very unique way, which we'll detail quickly for you, but anyway, it was set up without the addition of Duane Allman. In fact, the first “Layla” that you know as the double album — the first three or four songs on the album are without Duane.
Stephen: First three songs.
Ron: … are without Duane. So, Duane came into the picture shortly thereafter, and the way that happened was, the Allmans were coincidentally playing a show in Miami at the Jai-Alai Fronton, as my memory tells me. And we all from the studio, from the Clapton session, went out to see the show. And when the show was over, [we were] hanging around backstage till it was time to leave, and we all came back to the studio to go to work, and in tow came the Allmans. Not just Duane, but the Allmans — they were there, but they weren't part of the session. There was just Duane and that admiration and respect between Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. They both knew each others' musical abilities and playing, but hadn't worked together yet. So, this was an opportunity for them to get in and kind of just jam.
And that's basically the way all of the records of those times were made — all of the ones we were involved with. We would just jam. Everybody would sit in the studio and play for hours and days and weeks, and would just make beautiful music together. Not all the time, but ultimately it would come out that way.
And as soon as Duane and Eric started to play, there was just this magical interaction. Duane playing slide, and Eric playing... And it was just a really incredible thing. And even this sort of symmetry worked out so well, where Duane would be playing his gold top Les Paul and Eric would be playing his Strat, and the two sounds would complement and blend with each other, but they weren't the same sound, they were different sounds. So, all of these pieces just sort of fit together correctly. And the rest is history; “Layla” was made.
But the uniqueness of that session, the set-up — everybody was playing large, and we created an environment where they could all play large in the studio. Studio B, as you might recall, at Criteria was not a big room, but it was the right room. It was an amazing studio, the best studio the two of us could have ever been involved in anywhere in the world. It just worked. It was a magical space.
What we did was, we set up the grand piano along the side wall, with Jim Gordon's drums in a drum booth we had built, and had Eric and Duane sit alongside the piano, where the lid would open up. Their backs were to the piano. Carl Radle was behind that.
But the idea there was that we didn't have really exotic cue systems in those days, so we (covered) the piano up with moving pads, put the mikes inside the piano and closed the lid. And we set little Fender Champ amps on top of the piano lid so when Duane and Eric were sitting with their backs to the piano, their little Champs were basically like monitors in their ears. They could hear each other, but they weren't real loud amps. They weren't giant Marshalls putting out all this sound. So, we were able to mike the piano, mike the amps and record everything live, and still have a semblance of control over the record, because everybody was playing loud. It worked, and there's been articles written and we've discussed it forever about (how) the guitar sounds on the “Layla” album are so unique and so special, and the reality of it is that they were recorded through Champ amps.
Peeples: Sound-wise, you were talking about the room having great sound. It had egg crates on the walls and fabric and stuff still right?
Howard: No. When Mack built the room, he put these cylinders or diffusers and particle board in there. He saw it in a magazine or whatever, and made what he saw. But whatever it was, it worked. And it's a high ceiling, like, 20 feet...
Ron: It's a big, high ceiling.
Howard: But there was fiberglass in between these cylinders.
Ron: They were poly-cylindrical diffusers, which are like half-curves off the wall, and then there were what we called “retengers,” which were fiberglass-backed with movable wood slats that you could adjust.
Howard: We never moved them. (laughs)
Ron: That was a bunch of crap. But it was a real work, and it was amazing, and it was just one of those things where everything in that room came out right. None of it was mathematically planned or calculated. In all studios, you have to get lucky. You build a room, and then you have to adjust the acoustics sometimes to make it correct, no matter how good the mathematical formula. Now, of course, even when you record with a computer, you still have to adjust it. That room was the best room ever.
Peeples: Sounds good. Now, you gave us an outline of the setup — how about the production team, the producers, the engineers? Who were the crew that worked on this session?
Howard: We all worked like a family, so we would do it like a tag team. One day it would be me, one day it'd be Ron, one day it was Karl Richardson, one day it was Chuck Kirkpatrick. Then sometimes we would take somebody in another room and do an overdub, so some other engineer would work on that. One of the four of us would do that. Tom Dowd was obviously the producer. It was a group effort.
Ron: Howard and I — as we always worked together as a tag team — we held the responsibility of the majority of the record, from the onset of the record to the end of the mixing, although what Howard's saying was that there were times when mostly it would be either Chuck or Patrick or Karl Richardson taking a day or two or even working in another room with one of the players. Even Mack Emmerman got engineering credits. He did some work on that record. But Karl or Chuck were very capable of going in and taking one of the wheels, whether we were working for a while with Eric Clapton or while we were working with Duane Allman, or whatever the case may be. It was a way of multitasking, if you will, in using all these people that were capable of making this record such a great thing.
Peeples: Well, it definitely had to be a team effort. There was so much going on, it seemed.
Ron: So much was — you have to remember that they only had 16-track in that session. And there was such a plethora of guitar parts and keyboard parts and vocal parts, so much of the planning of the engineering was, “Oh, we can overdub a tambourine over here on the kick drum track because we don't need the kick drum for the remainder of the section.” We had three or four things on the same track. We got a vocal track that's also a lead guitar track, there's also a bass overdub, all happening at different places at different times in various sections during the song. So, it required a lot of thought and planning, as well as making the mixing more complicated because you label it as a guitar track, but actually, this part of the song is the background track, or the vocal track or whatever. With 16-track, you really have to plan out...
Howard: We obviously had no automation, so you had to remember what was where and when, and that's how we just kind of did it. Especially that's why when there's two of us or even three of us, sometimes with Tom, we could keep track.
Ron: It was an amazing time. Ahmet would fly in and visit with Eric, and I remember George Harrison calling on the telephone early in the morning, and Eric hanging out and talking with George. Those things are just special moments in your life that you kind of just live with forever, and you look back on it and you go, “Wow.” There was such a whirlwind of stuff going on, you know? Having the opportunity to work with Duane Allman would be special enough, and now you're playing in that environment... It's hard to really comprehend the magnitude of it all.
Peeples: OK, now what kind of shape was the band in when they arrived in Miami? They'd been doing some heavy drugs before they got there, so what kind of shape were they...
Howard: Uh, what kind of shape were they in... I don't know. 5'8,” 5'9,” not too heavy? (laughs)
Peeples: How healthy were they?
Howard: Well, they often walked, at times. They stayed up late. I don't know.
Ron: You know, it wasn't unusual for bands of that stature to be somewhat inebriated.
Ron: These were the '70s, you know? Woodstock. It really wasn't an unusual session, in terms of drug use or drug paraphernalia, I guess, in more than moderation.
Howard: And there wasn't a lot of open use of it, either.
Ron: Yeah, that pretty much was behind closed doors, for whatever reason.
Howard: I think Tom kept it in check with that. He didn't put up with it.
Ron: We give a big nod to Tom for keeping the drug usage to what would be considered a minimum for them.
Peeples: For them.
Howard: Yes. Moving on...
Peeples: Moving on, the individual players — I wanted to talk a little bit about each of the guys and what it was like to work with them. Let's start with Carl, with Carl Radle. You worked with him before, with the Delaney and Bonnie sessions and stuff, so you knew a little bit about how to work with him. But, what was he like as a person and a player?
Howard: Yeah, he was very easy to work with. They were really talented people, obviously professionals. That applied to just about everybody, really.
Ron: Carl's bass playing, I think, is a big part of the record that probably goes a little unnoticed in many ways, because of the greatness of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Carl was what we called a very melodic bass player. He played a lot of melodic bass lines that had structure and were very listenable — it's not just galloping, driven rock 'n' roll. It's very musical and very melodic. Carl was a fabulous bass player, and he was very low-key. Carl was not a hot-headed, loud-mouthed guy. He was very reserved, and I think... where is he from? Is it Oklahoma, maybe?
Ron: So, you know, sort of humble, with a country attitude, kind of low-key, not-a-big-city-loud-mouthed kind of guy. He made it very, very easy to work with, and between him and Jim Gordon, they were the rock of the band. They made it sound all together. They had been playing together for a long time, too, as you know.
Peeples: And Jim Gordon was another story, though.
Howard: No, we didn't have any problem with Jim, either. He was also... We got along fine with Jim, he showed up when he was supposed to be here and did his parts.
Ron: He was an amazing drummer —
Howard: — and we got a great sound. We didn't have to tell him how to tune his drums, which was unusual at the time.
Ron: Yeah, he had his drums tuned perfectly. Jim Gordon, Russ Kunkel, the drummers in that era all started as guys with great ability.
The coda part of “Layla,” the instrumental piano section after the body of the song, was originally played by Jim Gordon. And we overdubbed the band for the piano parts. It was a very technically complex piece of music to make, because the body of the song was recorded in one piece, and then we created this piano interlude.
Actually, Jim Gordon wasn't part of the song. Jim was playing the piano, kind of fooling around, and Tom kind of thought that would be a really cool thing to somehow include. The piano part became the center section, and the band played the end section on top of that. So it was a very complex piece of music to record and to put together in that day, with the technology we had. But it was a really cool thing.
Then, the next player of excellence in that band would be Bobby Whitlock, and Bobby came back and actually replayed that coda section and did a lot of the piano overdubs in that session, and made it just come alive, because the piano-playing is such a moving, important part of the record.
It wasn't written as part of the song. It's a very unique and special thing that happened because, again, we're talking about Eric and Duane doing magic together, and then Bobby started playing the piano part and it all came together really well. It's just magnificent. It's just amazing.
Also, speaking of that, one of the most moving pieces of music on the double album is the last song on Side 4, “Thorn Tree in the Garden.” So many people have assumed that was Eric Clapton singing, and it's actually Bobby Whitlock, one of the great rock 'n' roll singers of our time. He really was underrated in a lot of ways, because he was such a key part of the record as well... Bobby Whitlock is a phenomenal singer, as well as a great keyboard player.
Peeples: Actually, since we're speaking about “Layla” and the coda, Bobby in his book is of the opinion that the coda was superfluous — that it was unnecessary and the song would stand alone without it and should've been done without it.
Howard: Everybody has an opinion.
Ron: Well, that's an interesting thing, because initially when the record came out as a single (in 1970), in those days, singles were mostly three minutes or less, as you know. And “Layla” was out as a single without the coda part, and really didn't have a lot of notoriety initially, because it was released intentionally with the idea of Eric not being (identified as) Eric Clapton and these guys (were just being called) Derek and the Dominos. And in my opinion, it wasn't until rock radio — what would soon be called AOR, or album-oriented rock — started playing the album version of seven minutes and change, that revolutionized album-oriented radio, because that record was so incredible. I think “Layla” then became this huge worldwide success because it had all of those ingredients. It wasn't just a love song that was three minutes long. And the coda is some of the finest playing you'll ever hear in an instrumental section that is actually twice — the piano section, and then with the band at the end, which is instrumental as well.
Howard: The remake Eric did without all that on the “Unplugged” record is great without all that stuff.
Ron: That's true, but that's a whole different version. But also a fantastic version, I would say.
Peeples: Yeah, and it won a Grammy.
Ron: First time I heard it, I thought it was brilliant.
Peeples: Let's go back to one of the other tracks on the album. In fact, it's the third track on the album, Eric and Bobby’s “Keep on Growing,” recorded before Duane came into the session. There are just loads of guitar overdubs on that. It sounds like Eric's playing about 15 guitars, all weaving together, randomly, but each one complementing the others. Can you recall recording that track and any special notes about recording it?
Ron: Yeah, he recorded one guitar at a time. He played each part separately. And it just kept growing. We watered it and it grew and it grew and it grew. So much of that stuff is, again, it's not really planned out. Those parts and all those guitar pieces — he would overdub one day, and maybe three days later, go back and revisit it…
Howard: (He’d) do another one, another one, another one, and then it became, “(Mix) 'em all up at once!”
Ron: Put 'em all out!
Howard: That's exactly how that happened.
Ron: A lot of people want to think that there's all this joined-up parts and planned-out session playing, but it wasn't that way. It's just not done that way. It's just, “Let's get lucky and jam.”
Peeples: Just keep the tape rollin'.
Ron: That's right. But you know, we have a story about that.
Peeples: All right. You said you had a story.
Ron: About tape rolling, yeah. It's pretty simple. When we started out in the recording business, you'd see pictures of the old NBC studios or CBS studios, and when the engineer pushes the button the big, red light comes on that says “recording,” “Quiet Please!” or whatever. We used to go in before our session started and unscrew those light bulbs. So when we pushed the record button, the wall didn't light up [to let everyone know we were] recording.
And later, out of necessity because of the way the unions worked, when we used to record in New York City...
Howard: …we used to turn the tape machines around.
Ron: When we'd do our string parts and horn parts, we couldn't double our overdubs without paying (union) scale twice. So, we physically turned the tape machine around so that when we were recording, the red lights on the vu-meters were not visible through the control room glass window. So, the string players, we had a lot of them go, “Yeah, let's do another take, let's try it again from letter C” or whatever it was, and we were doubling them up without their knowledge, more or less.
Howard: We cheated, yeah, but we learned from Stephen Stills to always keep the tape rolling, 'cause you never know what kind of magic you would record. So we always kept tape rolling all the time. The band didn't know if we were recording or not. We never said to start or stop, it was just... that's the jam thing; let's play. That was it.
Ron: One of our tricks was that we would often walk into the control room and casually just push “record” on the tape machine as we walked by it and continue right into the studio. So the control room was vacated, and we weren't actually physically even in the control room while we were recording. We were just hanging out in the studio with the band as a social event, and a lot of the jamming would just evolve and we would just let it roll. Twenty minutes later, we would just casually wander back into the studio...
Howard: Someone would play a lick that was great, and 20 minutes later someone would say, “You know that lick you played?” They'd go, “No, I don't remember,” and we would go back and find it. It was pretty good.
Ron: Stephen taught us to keep rollin' it. He always used to say, “Tape is cheap.” It wasn't really, but in the big picture, I guess it was.
Peeples: Now, Bobby Whitlock also mentioned in his book that Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs were recording at the same time as the “Layla” sessions went on, and actually a couple of the songs on “Layla” were more or less inspired by Sam's sessions. “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out,” Bobby says, was suggested by Sam. And then later, they heard Sam and his band doing “Key to the Highway,” so they picked up on that and recorded a version of that for “Layla.” Do you have any notes about the exchange or relationship in the studio there between Sam and Eric and the Dereks?
Ron: It's very possible that they heard those songs from Sam. It's possible that he influenced them. I don't have any knowledge of that. That's an interesting scenario, because when we were doing Sam the Sham album, he had a little issue with me where he pulled a gun and pointed the gun at my head...
Ron: ...and Tom Dowd very aggressively jumped in between us, took the gun out of his hand and dismissed him forever from coming to the studio. So, that's the story I remember about Sam the Sham. It was a little different from what you're saying, but musically, it's very possible that happened, yeah.
Peeples: A lot of the music — you were talking about the songs kind of developing in the studio, some of them. What's your favorite of the tracks on the album, from a musical standpoint and then maybe from how much fun it was to record?
Howard: Well, my favorite song on the album is just “Layla.” (laughs)
Peeples: Ahh, you guys...
Howard: We do the album, and then we move on to the next project. We were doing an album a month! That's recorded, mixed and out onto the decks, an album a month for Atlantic. And these were all big acts. So if you go back and say which song was what or where, it's kind of tough for me 'cause it's from way back then.
Ron: One of my favorites would be “Bell Bottom Blues.”
Howard: Oh, yeah, that's a good one.
Ron: “Bell Bottom Blues” was great. The Leslie guitar, that really is important to us... We still have that Leslie, by the way, as part of our collection over the years. We still have that Fender Leslie that appeared on the “Layla” album.
Howard: We have the electric piano...
Ron: We have the electric piano, we've got the (Hammond) B3 (organ)... A lot of that stuff was owned by Howard and me at the time. We've saved it over the years and haven't cashed in all that stuff, so... we got all that stuff. But the “Bell Bottom Blues” track is just magnificent, it's beautiful. I think Eric's vocals on it were some of his best ever, and it's just so from the heart, it's just really a beautiful performance.
When we were learning from Tom about making records, part of what I think was so important in our learning was not only how to make the music and record the records, but what part the vocals played on the records. So many people are not aware of the importance of the vocal performance — I guess I should say they take it for granted. It's such an important part of the record, and I think that the vocals that we got on “Bell Bottom Blues” are a great example of how great it could be.
(As mentioned earlier, rock’s most famous, most documented love triangle plays out in the songs Clapton and his creative partner Bobby Whitlock wrote for “Layla...And Other Assorted Love Songs.” The short version goes something like this: By mid-1970, Clapton was hopelessly, desperately in love with Pattie Boyd Harrison, the wife of his best friend, George Harrison. She also cared deeply for Clapton, but would not leave George. When Clapton read an account of the ancient Persian legend of Majnun, who was crazy for a girl named Layla he couldn't have, the story of unrequited mad love struck a chord, and inspired the album's title song.
When Eric presented the completed album to Pattie in fall 1970 and she still did not relent, he was devastated. Further, the album was not a big hit at first. The initial single release of "Layla" without the piano coda at the end was all but ignored. Nobody knew who Derek & The Dominos were, primarily because Clapton did not want his name used in marketing. He reacted to these rejections by holing up in his country estate and sniffing smack for the next few years.
Meanwhile, in 1972, rock radio rediscovered “Layla” when it was included on a Clapton best-of compilation. The track — with the coda this time — was a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and renewed interest in the original “Layla” album and Eric Clapton, still deep in the pink fog.
Friends including Pete Townshend finally got Eric to return to performing in 1973, and he eventually got off the junk. Pattie did eventually leave George and married Eric, who made a much-celebrated return to studio recording the following year with “461 Ocean Blvd.,” also working with Tom Dowd and the Alberts at Criteria.)
Peeples: Now, it's pretty well-known that the whole “Layla” album, particularly the title track and tracks like “Bell Bottom Blues” — Eric wrote with Pattie Boyd in mind. Was there any discussion or any conversation about or any knowledge of what was going on in Eric’s personal life? Did you know what the songs were about, at the time?
Howard: We used to have a big poster, about 8 feet by 10 feet, of Pattie up in the studio.
Ron: Even the “Layla” album cover is really such a likeness of Pattie's face, it's spooky.
Peeples: Yeah, especially since it was a piece of art created by a French artist who didn't...
Ron: …yeah, had nothing to do with Pattie or Eric Clapton at all. But there it is, you know?
Peeples: Yeah. In his book, Bobby Whitlock tells a story of how that came to be. (The short version is how he and Eric, Jim and Carl were invited by a rich young French fan named Emile to his rich father’s estate to party, and the entourage repaid the act of kindness by going all rock-star on the guy’s place, trashing it. The owner was the renowned artist Frandsen-de Schonberg and this painting was on exhibit in the house. Clapton marveled at the resemblance to Pattie and bought it on the spot to use as the “Layla” cover. On the back cover, the band thanks the artist, and his son, for "the abuse of his house.")
Howard: I've heard that story, actually.
Ron: And it's true. That piece of art existed independently from this project, and it was just a dramatic thing to Eric. But like I said earlier, I recall George Harrison phoning up Eric a few times. They were best friends; that's well-documented. And that had to be a really — I can't imagine how difficult that must've been to deal with, you know — your best friend's wife and having this torrid love affair. It's what movies are made of, isn't it?
Peeples: Yeah, it was a pretty dramatic event in Eric's life, and (Patti not leaving George for him) apparently was the reason that he chose, basically, to kind of check out for a few of years.
Peeples: And you guys were there when he came back to studio recording with “461 Ocean Blvd.,” right?
Ron: Yes. The whole Eric Clapton-Miami connection is well-documented and it's very important to all of us.
Peeples: Now, what happened in the aftermath of the “Layla” album release? We talked a little bit earlier about how it wasn't terribly successful until a couple of years later. What was your feeling about the record and how it performed after it released? Were you guys disappointed in how it was received at first, or were you too busy to even notice?
Howard: We were probably too busy to notice. Like I said, we'd move on to something else, to something else, to something else... A lot of times, Ron and I would be sitting in a car somewhere, a year or two years later, and we just thought, “Whoa, we did that!” And we didn't ever follow it up so much, I would think...
Ron: The fact is that during the making of “Layla,” everyone involved knew it was a very special project with very special musicians and very special players. It was a much bigger event than the Sam the Sham session, no disrespect intended, just by comparison, I'm just using that as an example. The “Layla” sessions were a monumental event. Everyone had expectations that it would be a huge success, and it just took a little while longer than most people wanted.
Howard: At that time, the time when it was released, a lot of the stuff was singles — it wasn't so much album-oriented stuff.
Howard: So, it took a little while for that to catch on.
Ron: And, you know, in all fairness, it was by design not to be this straight-shot to No. 1 because it was an Eric Clapton-Duane Allman record. It was Derek and the Dominos, and that was in the days when there wasn't any tweeting or texting, so everybody in the world would know, “Hey, that's really Eric Clapton!” By design, it was a slow roll to the top.
Peeples: In Bobby's book, he goes on at great length at how Eric wanted to really be a part of the band and not the front guy, and not the guy that they were hanging all the marketing on. And I think that was successful in what he wanted to do, but it was probably counter-successful to the success of the record, or at least until later on.
Because what really caused “Layla” to take off was that it was included on the Polydor’s “History of Eric Clapton” anthology, which was released, I think, in '72. The entire, the full version of “Layla” with the coda was released as a single at that time, and became a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and caused people to make the connection between Eric and Derek, and generated a lot of fresh interest in the “Layla” album, and then it took off from there. That was the story — looking back on the charts and stuff, that pretty much squares up.
Ron: Yeah, that sounds right. Yeah, that's very possible. We went (in the other room) to grab the “Layla” (gold record) plaque, and right behind it was —
Howard: Interestingly enough, it's right here.
Ron: — was “The History of Eric Clapton.” I picked it up first, went, “Oh, this is ‘The History,’ then put it back. We were very fortunate to have had the honor to have gotten those plaques, because now they don't even make them anymore.
Howard: We have so many of them, we have them on the floor. (laughs)
Peeples: You have to put some on the ceiling if you run out of wall space.
Howard: We have some up in the lobby, but we don't have them all up.
Peeples: Now, while I have you on the line here, are we good for another five minutes or so? Let's talk a little bit about what you guys are doing now.
Howard: We're doing an interview now.
Peeples: Ba-DUMP-pa-tsss...everybody’s a comedian….
Howard: We're doing a lot of fishing.
Peeples: So, really, what are you guys up to today, in 2012?
Howard: Well, we have our studio, AudioVision Studios, in North Miami, which is actually just down the street from what used to be Criteria. It's on 134th and West Dixie Highway while Criteria was on 149th and West Dixie Highway.
We've evolved into pretty much a hip-hop community, which seems to be what's selling these days. So, we have been working a lot with EMI, EMI Publishing, and we have writers in here who are doing tracks and recording tracks for a plethora of people, like Rhianna and Beyonce.
Ron: Miami has shifted from the rock 'n' roll mecca that it once was to be the epicenter for hip hop production, and we're very fortunate to be one of the three hip hop facilities that all the writers and producers kind of congregate around. So, our studio is scoped out mostly by the writers and producers who are making all the great records of today.
Howard and I have... Our production company continues on. We're for hire, if anybody needs to hire producers.
One of the people you're familiar with, Chris Hillman, asked us last year to go back and do a compilation record of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Live at the Fillmore,” which is a great project. That particular version of The Flying Burrito Brothers was with Rick Roberts from Firefall, of course, who we've had a tremendous run with. And Bernie Leadon from the Eagles, and that kind of thing. It's a great record, demonstrating, time-stamping that time in place.
We just did a band from New Orleans, an acoustic-electric bluesy band called The Subdudes. We produced their last record; it's a great record.
(I didn’t want to butt in and break the continuity, but I wrote the record company bio for the first Subdudes album in 1989, when the band was still based in Colorado. Another SKP-Alberts connect.)
And we are in ongoing production, as you might imagine, with our close, dear friend and mentor for all these years, Stephen Stills. We continue working with Stephen, Crosby Stills & Nash, stuff in the future — we hope — and on and on.
Howard: And a lot of fishing.
Ron: And a lot of fishing! We're very fortunate to live in South Florida where we grew up, and we've got our boat and do what we want to do, which is to go out into the Atlantic Ocean and catch big fish. It's an amazing thing. We've always had this balance between the recording business and the fishing, because making records is an indoor activity for the most part, and fishing is an outdoor activity.
Howard: That goes back to when Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler came down. They liked to fish, and we all went together. So, we had fun going there. Fishing brought us all together to where we are today.
Ron: When Tom and Jerry used to bring down the artists, part of that experience was, when they were here in Miami we would all go out fishing, whether (they would be here for) a recording session or just a meeting, that part of that would always be on the boat. So, we continue that.
Peeples: Before we break up, let me ask you a quick question. Cindy Johnson, a girl who also went to our high school — her grandmother used to live next door to me (on N.E. 140th Street and 10th Ave) in North Miami, also maybe a mile from Criteria. And she and her BFF, Jeri Jenkins, put together this company called Home at Last. Tell me what Home at Last did for the bands (who came to Miami to record at Criteria).
Howard: It gave the band a place to stay, so they didn't have to stay in a hotel. They got really personal treatment, and they had chefs that would cook food for them, and they could eat it at the house or bring it to the studio. It was, again, like being home. They got just really super personal valet service treatment, but very, very friendly. The girls were great at that. They made everybody feel good. They would do everything from pick them up or meet them at the airport, to stock the shelves of the pantry with their favorite snacks.
We bought a house, actually... To (explain) how it started, Criteria bought a house, put Cindy and Jeri in there and had them take care of it, and do that whole (concierge) thing that they did. Later on, as we had more important groups that were taking advantage of it, we had to have more houses. So that's how 461 came about, having a rental home with one of the houses that we rented.
Ron: 461 Ocean Boulevard is actually the address of the house.
Howard: In Golden Beach (off Collins Avenue/A1A north of Sunny Isles at 163rd Street).
Ron: In Golden Beach, yeah. If you look at the cover, it’s shot from the ocean's perspective (east to west). It's looking up the beach to the house. When you drive by the house, that's not the front view of the house.
Howard: It's not even a house anymore. They knocked it down.
Howard: Somebody bought it and totally leveled it, then put a new, big, unbelievable house there.
Peeples: A mega-mansion?
Ron: Yeah. But that was Cindy and Jeri’s... they built the format. The rock 'n' rollers of the time had this, as Howard called it, this personal Criteria service. It was a phenomenal idea, it worked, it was amazing.
Peeples: Is there anything that's been written about the “Layla” sessions that you thought was completely inaccurate that you wanted to set the record straight about?
Howard: Nothing that I have read.
Ron: The only thing that's come up a few times that comes to mind is where this event happened, where Eric and Duane saw each other. It was definitely at the Jai-Alai Fronton. Our recollection with 100 percent certainty is that it was the Jai-Alai Fronton, 'cause we were there. And other people, including...
Howard: We were actually in the studio recording, and Tom said, “Hey, let's go down to the Allmans.” So we all got into our cars and drove down there. We went in, we sat in the audience, and I guess we were very close up front, and I think Duane saw Eric and pretty much stopped, like, “Oh, my God, Eric Clapton is here!” After the show, they got to talking and said, “Hey, come on back to the studio.” So they came back to the studio, and that's how that started.
The Allmans lived in the parking lot in their Winnebago, at Criteria, when they were down here. For months at a time.
Ron: The Allmans parked their Winnebago on the side of the building at Criteria, in the parking lot. So, they were in Miami, not playing or recording necessarily, but living here for an extended period.
Howard: But not during the time of the “Layla” sessions...
Ron: No, but that's one of the reasons they were doing those shows. They were, you know, “Hey, let's go play.” And they were, of course, one of the great jam bands — and still are — of all time. So, it wasn't a hard kind of thing for them to play three-hour shows just jammin', because that's what they did. They played music, they loved to play music. And what better way to do it than jam in front of an audience?
Peeples: Well, Ron, Howard, it's been great talking to you. Thanks very much for sharing your memories about the “Layla” sessions, and I hope to talk to you again soon about some of the other projects you've worked on over the years.
Howard: Very good. Thank you, it's been our pleasure.
Ron: Stephen, it's our pleasure and we look forward to seeing you anytime in South Florida.
Peeples: Well, I'd love to come back home and do some fishin’. It's been a while.
Howard: There ya go.
Peeples: See you soon!
Stephen K. Peeples is a writer/reporter for KHTS News (www.hometownstation.com) and SCVNews.com, and host, writer and co-producer of the weekly “House Blend" music and interview show on SCVTV (www.scvhouseblend.com). A former Santa Clarita Valley music and entertainment columnist (The Signal, 2004-2011), and drummer with on-hiatus SCV jazz group RainTree (www.raintreejazz.com, 2010-2011), he is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), an award-winning radio producer (“The Lost Lennon Tapes,” Westwood One, 1988-1990) and an award-winning online editor (The Signal website, 2007-2011). For more information, email email@example.com or visit www.stephenkpeeples.com.