On September 29, 2016 over forty of the greatest singers and musicians from the halcyon days of the New York recording studio scene held a sold-out reunion concert at The Cutting Room in New York City. The show was inspired by the release of my book, Never Say No to a Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger and More, and was a benefit for MusiCares, a charity that helps musicians in need. But the event transcended the reasons that inspired it. Everyone who was there, both on stage and in the audience, will tell you that the music was spectacular, but even more than that, what made this evening so special was that the room was filled with love and joy. The energy was timeless. None of us will ever forget this historic event. I hosted the show, and told a few stories from the book. Before the last act went on, here’s what I said:
A lot of people ask what led me to write this book. As some of you may know, I’m a psychotherapist now, and one of my clients thought if we listened to some of his favorite music it would open him up emotionally. What I didn’t expect was what it did to me. By the middle of the first song, tears were streaming down my face. I didn’t understand these emotions – it wasn’t sadness, exactly. Over the next several days, I was flooded by memories of my early days in the biz. I figured there was a connection between those strange feelings and these memories, so I started writing down these stories to help me figure out what those emotions were about.
After writing most of the tales, I still didn’t know what it all meant. Until I had one last memory. There was this guy who worked at A&R Studios (where I worked as a recording engineer throughout the 1970s) whose name was Milton Brooks, but we called him Broadway Max. Max was the unlikeliest character you’d ever find at a hip midtown recording studio. He always wore the same shiny black suit covered in dandruff. His shirt and teeth were yellow, and his red tie was always stained.
Max had been born in Minneapolis, and was slated to inherit his father’s haberdashery store, but the minute he was able to get on the Minneapolis to New York train, he headed for the great White Way. This was Max’s world: 42nd and 59th street on the west side of Manhattan.
Max was the “yoda” of A&R. He took each one of us young schleppers under his wing. He took me to the theater, and turned me on to great literature. When the whole thing was driving me crazy, Max was my respite, my shelter in the storm.
One time, after suffering some humiliation at the hands of Paul Simon, who could be a little prick at times, I went up to Max’s office to tell him the story. Max listened, chewing on the stub of an unlit cigar, nodding his head sympathetically. Then, when I finished my story, he said, “Yeah. So?”
“Yeah? So?” I sputtered. “He can’t do that!”
At that, Max broke out into his beautiful, demonic laugh. I didn’t understand what he was laughing about at that time. But then I saw myself, as I am now, sitting in his chair, looking at the kid that I was then, and saw him through Max’s eyes. And then I understood what the laughter was about.
You see, Max was like a sage – he had this amazing top-down view. He knew that this was our one spin on the turntable – this was our one glorious moment in all of eternity when we lived at the center of the universe – the New York music biz of the 1970s. This was his jungle, and he loved every bit of it – the lunacy, the pain, and the glory, because it sure was better than selling handkerchiefs.
And then I understood those weird feelings. It was a mixture of remorse, gratitude, and grief.
You see, beyond the sex, drugs, and ego-maniacal superstars, what the scene was really about was the earnest hard work of YOU, the studio cats, the people behind the scenes, who did so much to make some of the greatest records of all time. Everyone involved in the crafting of a recording put their whole heart into it. Everyone, from Phil Ramone, the top-flight senior mixers, the musicians, producers, arrangers, the assistants, down to the kid who made the tape copies, or the person who answered the telephone, were impeccable. You behind-the-scenes folks are the real heroes of my story because your goodness, your generosity, and your egolessness was so beautiful in a culture that celebrated, and celebrates, jerks.
I felt remorse that I didn’t really appreciate the extraordinary gifts I received from all of you who welcomed me with such open-hearts into this world of music. I regretted never having properly said thank you. I regretted never being able to say that I love you all.
So here’s the big secret. This is the reason I threw this party. Because I wanted to get all of you in a room together at one time and say – THANK YOU – and I LOVE YOU.
I feel gratitude for having these memories, for having had the chance to share these once in a lifetime experiences with you all.
And I feel grief, because the scene is over. It’s gone, never to return, like our youth – and I miss it. I miss it in the core of my being.
All of us who worked in the New York music scene of the ‘70s share an ineffable bond. For many of us, those years were the most thrilling and unforgettable of our lives. We lived in the presence of greatness, and, if we were lucky, touched greatness ourselves. We were the best, and we made history.
In the studio we always had the chance to do one more take, and I wish I could do that in my life, but I can’t. None of us can. But if I could, I’d take in every crazy second of it, and I’d be a nicer guy.
On my first day in the studio, I learned the lesson that you never say no to a rock star. What that means is, you’ve got to care all the way, no matter the cost, no matter the outcome. I can’t go back, but goddamn it, for the rest of my born days I’m gonna follow that lesson. No matter what life asks of me – my only answer is YES.
Here are a few musical highlights:
Valerie Simpson and Curtis King Jr. singing one of the greatest songs ever, written by Valerie and her deceased husband, Nick Ashford, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band performing “Gimme Some Lovin’” featuring Will Lee on lead vocals.
The Mar-Tays, featuring Martee LeBow on vocals performing, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”