Every day, whenever I had the chance, I’d visit the office at A & R Recording’s 799 7th Avenue facility to take a look at the scheduling “book.” I was excited to see who would be coming in to record at the studio where I worked during the 1970’s.
The “book” rested on a drafting table that stood about chest high. It covered the entire angled platform with heavy white sheets. Each page was one day’s schedule of recording sessions in our five studios. A-1, A-2, and A-3 were at “799,” and at our other location, 322 West 48th Street, were studios R-1 and R-2.
The studio manager, Nick DiMinno, was in charge of the book. When a date came in, he would mark in the upcoming sessions with pencil, because he often had to move things around to accommodate all the clients, producers, and mixers who were certain that their session was the most important in history.
The feel of those thick sheets covered in pencil provided a tactile pleasure. I’d lift up sheet after sheet and go through the days to come. It was like going to the mailbox. You never knew what cool surprise awaited.
Nick would write in the name of the client. Our impressive roster included Columbia Records, 20th Century Fox Films, or the world’s#1 jingle house, HEA Productions. Then he would write in the name of a spectacular artist like Paul McCartney, a top film like Midnight Cowboy, or a million-dollar product like Chevrolet.
He’d draw a line to indicate the length of the session, but the allotted time usually wasn’t nearly enough. Sessions were notorious for going over. I can’t count the number of times I disappointed friends and lovers saying I’d meet them for dinner and a movie at 8 and then wouldn’t appear till the wee hours of the morning. It was the rule more than the exception, and if your girlfriend couldn’t swing with it, the relationship was doomed.
Finally, at the top, he’d put in the name of the assistant engineer, and in a circle in the middle, the name of the senior mixer.
I’d get a warm buzz looking at the names of the people coming in to work, and it was especially fun to see my own name on as many sessions as possible.
This reminds me of a story I once heard about the great departed comedian, George Burns, who performed till he was 99. When someone asked how we was doing, he’d say, “I’m booked!” I still dream of A & R’s scheduling book, and looking for my name, but in the dream I never find it. It must reflect some existential emptiness. (I’m booked, therefore I am. I’m not booked, therefore I’m not.)
On one particular morning, I lifted the page and saw that on August 18th, 1975, in our premier room, A-1, the client was “Reprise Records.” The time booked was 4PM to 6PM. The artist’s name was Frank Sinatra. Rich Blakin’s name was in the center circle. He’d be engineering the date. Underneath Rich’s name it said, “Vocal O/D.” This meant Frank would be coming in to add a vocal to a previously recorded instrumental track. My name was at the top. Sinatra was coming in to sing, and I was on the date!
When I bumped into Blakin in the hall, my excitement showed. “Hey, man, how about that Sinatra thing?”
Rich was more taciturn. “Yeah. Actually, It’s a little scary.”
I knew what he was talking about. We’d all heard about Sinatra. This stuff goes around the studio. Frank represented the extreme sport end of recording: you fucked up, and you could be maimed for the duration.
When the special day came, outta respect, instead of my usual outfit of ripped jeans, tee-shirt, and sneakers, I wore shoes.
We chose a lusciously warm tube U-47 for the microphone. By this time I knew how to move those behemoths on their Atlas booms with ease and grace, as Rich had taught me to do. I situated the mic in a spot where we would be able to see the singer from the control room, but away from the reflective glass. I set up some burlap-covered fiberglass baffles behind, so the sound wouldn’t be too ‘live’ in that big room. I placed a simple stool in front of the mic and a music stand in front of that, under the microphone. I sat on the stool and adjusted the height of the mic and stand so there would be minimum fuss when the star arrived.
Rich suggested something a bit unusual. Considering Sinatra’s reputation for not suffering fools, we wanted to give him every option for happiness. We wrapped both a two-sided headset and a single sided one around the music stand. Behind the microphone, we also placed a small cube-shaped speaker called an “Auratone,” in case he didn’t want to use headphones at all. Having Frank listen through a speaker would not have been optimal, because some of the prerecorded music would “leak” into the vocal mic, but if that was what ‘ol blue eyes wanted, we’d deal. With these three options, he could listen to the prerecorded track about any way a singer could.
I straightened out the cables from the mic and headphone box that plugged into the wall so they were neat and out of the way. I adjusted the lights to suffuse the area around the mic with a blend of warm colors that deepened the rich darkness of the large room around it, filled with shadows and music vibrations from time past. For this guy, we would go classic.
Blakin, a fastidious man who was one of my great teachers, looked at my set-up, and said, “God is in the details.” He approved.
A record company functionary delivered the multitrack tape, preceding the arrival of the Chairman of the Board. I slipped the 10-pound reel of 2” tape on the right hand, take-up side of the mammoth, Ampex MM-1000 16-track tape machine. I threaded the tape across the heads and onto the feed reel on the left side of the machine. Tapes were always stored end-first. I rewound to locate the two strips of white “leader-tape” which signaled first the end, and then, after a passage of black magnetic tape, the beginning, of the master take that we would use for our vocal overdub. When I reached that second strip of white tape, I hit fast-forward to engage the recorder’s brakes, and when the machine slowed to a crawl, I hit the stop button.
I pressed play, and Rich turned one knob at a time to create a rough mix of the lush orchestral arrangement of strings, woodwinds, and horns. He balanced the instruments, placed them across the stereo plane, and added reverb from our sweet EMT chambers that lived seven stories below in the basement, next to the library where I once worked and suffered. Sitting at the console, he placed a pair of cans on his head, and created a tasteful headphone mix. Later, as Sinatra sang, if he chose to use headphones, Blakin would feed the live vocal, slathered in luscious echo, back into the cans, on top of the prerecorded track, to inspire the greatest living vocalist to do his thing.
We followed our standard approach of having the minimal amount of electronic gear between his baritone and the tape. Microphone, preamp, that’s it. No limiting, no compression, no EQ. Why screw around with this guy’s voice unless you had to? At the same time, a Fairchild limiter, LA-4A compressor, or Neve Equalizer were always a patchcord away, just in case. Most singers needed a little squeezing or “top end,” after all.
We were ready. Everything had been checked three times. We sat down to wait. That was the way we liked it. When the artist entered, we’d be cool. We wanted to exude the professionalism that made it all look easy.
A roly poly Neapolitan looking fellow barreled into the control room anxiously. He introduced himself as Don Costa, one of Sinatra’s favorite musical arrangers from that time. He had not actually arranged the track we were about to work on -Gordon Jenkins had – but he was there to facilitate the process. He told us that Mr. Sinatra had just left Jilly’s – a saloon run by his friend, Jilly Rizzo, just up the block on 52nd between Broadway and 8th, and one of Frank’s favorite hangs – and would be here in a moment.
My adrenaline pumped even higher when a massive gentleman, with slick, black hair and a paranoid mien ambled into the control room to size up the joint. In his raspy, “L’il Itly”-inflected voice, he told us Frank was about to enter. The large man was intimidating as intended, and I would be sure to show him the appropriate deference.
A few moments later, Frank walked into the A-1 control room. At 60, he was dressed in a well-tailored charcoal suit, his face broadened by waning middle-age, his graying toupeé perfectly plausible. He was the epitome of fluidity and confidence.
In the world’s most recognizable voice, he said, “Good evening men!”
He was in fine fettle, a good mood. I saw Blakin take a palpable breath. Maybe we’d be OK.
Then Frank said, “Let’s go.”
I opened the door that led out of the control room with a butler’s hand motion and small bow. The bodyguard walked through, with Sinatra next, then Costa, and Blakin following behind.
I led them into the air lock that separated the control room from the studio for sound-proofing purposes, and pushed open the heavy door that took us into the grand recording room.
I had no idea what he was referring to, so I chuckled, guessing this was a joke. I knew enough to know that one always laughed at the king’s asides. He raised an approving eyebrow and flashed a smile that made a billion bobby-soxers swoon.
Later, I found out the story. Miller was the head of A and R at Columbia Records in the 1950’s when Sinatra was on that label. A and R stood for Artist and Repertoire. This was the person who signed the artists and decided what material they would record. The gig was the most coveted spot in the record company pantheon.
Though the studio I worked for was called A & R, it had nothing to do with this aspect of the business. It was simply the initials of the names of the two men who started the company, a business man named Jack Arnold, and the inimitable, and now dearly departed, Phil Ramone.
(One day a young man, who seemed quite befuddled, came up to our studio and asked if he could play us a tape. I agreed, telling him there was nothing I could do with it, but I’d be happy to listen. The tape was garbled, and I soon realized that this young man was probably mentally ill. I asked why he had come up to this studio to play this tape, and he said that he was told he should find the “A and R man.” He assumed he would find him at A & R Studios. An honest mistake.)
Mitch Miller, who was the real “A and R man” in those days, had the job because he made enormously successful records, even though his taste ran somewhere between the conventional and crap. He was a sucker for novelty tunes, songs with some kind of gimmick that made them stick in the mind of the lowest common denominator.
He convinced Sinatra to make a record of a song that featured barking dogs called “Mama Will Bark,” sung as a duet with a large-breasted TV celebrity named Dagmar, who couldn’t sing. This song is considered by many to be the nadir in Sinatra’s canon, and marked a low-point in his popularity. Though by the time I was listening in the mid-70’s, Sinatra could sometimes verge on being a parody of himself, he was generally a man of impeccable taste. He found that barking record to be a great embarrassment. Thus began a lifetime of enmity between Sinatra and that A and R cat named Mitch.
This very room we stood in had once been Columbia’s studio, the place where Sinatra recorded under Miller’s tutelage. It was here that he had sung with the starlet and the dogs.
I only found out all that later as part of my ongoing musical education. For now, the leader of the Rat Pack sat on the stool and, being the consummate professional, graciously allowed me to adjust the mic.
Rich asked which headphone or speaker he wanted to use. He said it didn’t matter to him. He picked up the single sided headset. Singers and musicians often preferred that, so they could hear themselves naturally through one ear, while listening to the pre-recorded music with the other. It could help them stay on pitch.
Costa draped the chart over the music stand, so Frank would have some music to read.
I followed Costa and Blakin to leave the studio, and almost bumped into the hefty guard, my slight frame coming up to about his bulbous belly. If my heart had not already been beating at 160, it jumped 30 or 40 beats-per-minute in that second. I managed to roll around his gargantuan stomach and not touch him. I smiled, obsequiously, as I looked up at the towering figure and produced a small wave. He glowered. I scampered back into the control room.
Sinatra said, “I’ll run it down for you one time so you can set levels.”
Rich hit the talk back, and said, “Great.”
I hit play and record. I had learned by now that you record everything, from the first take. You never know when the magic will hit, and even though he said this would be a run-through, if he asked afterwards if we recorded, we’d want to say yes.
Watching the meters and Blakin’s hand, we were both astonished. Sinatra was able to increase his volume and intensity, while the needle hardly moved. How could he do that?
With most singers, one needed to be deft with the “pot” or potentiometer, the knob with which we controlled the recording volume. If the singer got loud, you needed to turn the knob down so the tape wouldn’t be saturated and you’d get distortion. If the singer got too soft, you needed to turn the knob up, so the signal on tape would not be too scant, and buried in the floor-level of noise that was on all analog recording tape. If we did not trust our hands to do the job well enough, we would patch in that technical device called a limiter, or a compressor, which electrically narrowed a signal’s dynamic range. This device would lower the highest volumes and, in the case of the compressor, increase the lowest ones. But with Sinatra, Blakin barely needed to nudge the dial at all.
We watched Sinatra to figure out how he did it. Listening to his own vocals through the headphones, he carefully and subtly moved toward the mic during the softer passages and moved away from the mic during the louder parts. He “rode” his own levels, by how close or far he was from the microphone. In this way, his intensity would increase, but the recording volume stayed within the narrow range that the equipment liked best. This is called good mic technique, and I’ve never seen anyone use it as effectively as Frank.
Watching Sinatra sing, I thought about what he meant in the history of music. There were many factors, I mused, about what made him such a phenomenon, but now I realized that one of them was how he used recordings and the microphone.
Until just a few years before Sinatra, most singers learned, as central to their technique, projection. They needed to be able to be heard without amplification by a large audience. That’s what singing was. There were no mics, amplifiers, sound systems, or recordings.
You can hear what I mean by listening to opera. That kind of singing seems so false to us today, but at the time it was what was necessary to reach the back row of the great concert halls so everyone could hear the words over the clangorous orchestra.
Remnants of that style can be discerned even in early recording stars, like belter Al Jolson, or crooner Rudy Vallee, who preceded Sinatra. You can hear the style changing and becoming more real with a guy like Bing Crosby. Recording made it possible for people to sing in a more natural style because they didn’t have to project in the same way. The vocal was amplified electronically on stage, and, at home, we listened with our ears by the speakers and turned up the music as loud as we wanted.
Sinatra perfected this possibility. By using impeccable mic technique, and taking full advantage of the recording medium, Sinatra created an intimate effect where it sounded like he was singing only to you, whispering directly into your ear. It is incredibly sexy. In this sense, Sinatra was the ultimate modern vocalist. He changed our sensibility of what vocals were meant to sound like. His emotional directness made everything that came before it seem overwrought. He was an everyman, a kid from the street, the son of immigrants, a hot, skinny Italian guy laying next to you in bed, seducing you. That is, he embodied the American male of the World War II generation, the guy you hoped would come home alive from the war and make a baby with you.
And there I was, the son of a man from that time, looking through the glass, at the man.
My reverie was broken when the song ended. Sinatra said, “Did you get what you need?”
Blakin said, “It’s perfect, Mr. Sinatra.”
“Well, let’s do it, then.”
I rewound the tape to the top while Sinatra waited patiently. When I got there, Blakin gave me the nod, and I hit record and play again, saving the first vocal on one track, and recording the second on another.
Sinatra finished the song a second time. When he was done, Costa hit the talkback and said, “Sounds great, Frank.”
The Voice took off his head phones and walked into the control room. He said, “Let’s do a playback.”
We listened together silently, with the reverence that always befits such moments.
The tune Sinatra was working on was called “The Saddest Thing of All.”
Sinatra’s rendering was stellar. In 1975 he was certainly past his prime. His voice shook at moments, but this only added poignancy to the lyrics of loss and time gone by. This sad song, interpreted by the consummate master, was filled with what the Spanish called duende, a magical quality that comes from aging and pain and is filled with an awareness of death.
When the melancholic arrangement announced the arrival of the chorus, Frank sang,
“Life is sad, when people hurt you,
Sad when friends deserts you,
Sad when dreams get lost beyond recall,
But remembering from spring to lonely spring,
Well, that’s the saddest thing of all.”
I thought of my departed dad, a guy who looked a bit like the Jewish version of Frank. He would have loved to have known that I got to sit in a room with Frank Sinatra, got to hit the record button for this guy, got to adjust his microphone. I got to hear him sing as part of an audience of four: Costa, his bodyguard, Blakin, and me. My dad would have loved that. But my old man was gone, and he would never know. The duende hit me, and my eyes filled with tears.
Now I sit here, remembering that moment, and the dreams of mine that have been lost, almost as old as Frank was when he sang this song, older than my dad when he died. I can hear my father’s voice, and Frank’s, but they live now only in my memory, and that’s the saddest thing of all.
The track came to its end. I hit stop. Frank nodded and smiled. He walked over to Blakin and me. He shook our hands, and said thank you. He turned and walked toward the control room door, followed by Costa and the big fella, and was gone.
Most singers would worry a track like this for many hours, days, or weeks. But not Frank. He nailed it in one take. The whole thing was over in 30 minutes.
Rich and I had hung with a lot of stars. We no longer had to fake the cool. It was just another day’s work. But this was Sinatra, man. We looked at each other, and at the same time, said, “We did it!” We survived. Like the master Japanese calligraphers who after decades of practice would produce their masterwork in an instant, our years of hard work paid off. We had achieved the pinnacle. Frank Sinatra, the toughest, most demanding, son-of-a -bitch in the business, walked out a satisfied client.
Now what? We had nothing to do. We expected the session to go over by at least a few hours. So we rolled a fat one and breathed in deep. Blakin committed a 1/4” rough mix to tape for posterity, and we listened back dozens of times to our day’s work, each time amazed at the nuances we found that we hadn’t noticed before, happy to be alive.
Thank you to Rich Blakin for his invaluable assistance with this piece.
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Dr. Glenn Berger is a psychotherapist, relationship counselor, business and artist’s coach, and young person’s mentor. He sees patients in New York City, in Mt. Kisco, NY, and around the world by Skype.