My friend Rip Rense has been working with The Persuasions, a legendary and brilliant a cappella band nearly 40 years old. He helped them get two record deals, for a children's CD titled "The Good Ship Lollipop" and a collection of Zappa songs titled "Frankly A Cappella." A couple of years ago, he asked me if I thought there was a chance anyone would be interested in a CD of The Persuasions doing Grateful Dead songs.
At the time, I was working on a compilation of other artists' recordings of Dead songs for Grateful Dead Records. (It's called "Stolen Roses," and it came out in early August.) I wasn't doing a "tribute" record — I was gathering recordings of Dead songs that other artists had done of their own volition, most of them from out-of-print or hard-to-find recordings. I suggested that Rip ask The Persuasions to record a Dead song on spec. He worked with the band to choose an appropriate song, and they recorded it in a kitchen in New York. Everyone loved The Persuasions' rendition of "Black Muddy River" (from the Dead's 1987 Big Huge Hit "In the Dark"), most notably the lyricist, Robert Hunter.
The "Stolen Roses" project was put on hold last summer when I joined the team that compiled the boxed set "So Many Roads (1965-1995)," which was released in November 1999 to great critical acclaim and commercial success. With the clout and credibility I earned through the success of the boxed set, I was able to persuade Grateful Dead Records to agree to finance the recording of a CD of Dead songs by The Persuasions. To my surprise, Rip Rense wrote me into his plan as co-producer.
Friday, May 19, Brooklyn NY
I have spent a few hours with The Persuasions over the last two days, and I am in love! Wait til you hear these guys doing these songs. They GET IT about the Dead, for sure.
Yesterday I attended a rehearsal in an office building near Cooper Square in Manhattan. Today The Persuasions were working at the Dance Studio of Park Slope. I walked in through a sea of little girls in tights and sweats to find The Persuasions working in a small mirrored room with great big acoustics. I just sat there hanging in for an hour or so, listening to them and only speaking up occasionally. After hearing their rendition of "Brokedown Palace," I did feel compelled to pipe up, "I have loved that song for thirty years, but never as much as I do at this moment."
I went out to get coffee for everybody, and while we were hanging in the lobby (again, surrounded by energetic little kids and their pram-pushing parents), we yakked about this and that. When I told them I was playing a gig in Brooklyn tonight, they asked me if I do any of these songs. "Yes, I do," I replied. "In fact, 'Brokedown Palace' is one of my favorites.'" The next thing I knew, we were back in the rehearsal room and I was singing "Brokedown Palace" with all five Persuasions backing me up and Jerry Lawson's eyes locked on mine, as if he were reaching into my head to extract the essence of my knowledge and phrasing of the song.
It was an ecstatic experience, and I'm still pumped about it more than an hour later.
Sunday, May 28
I booked time at Bay Records in Berkeley, with Mike Cogan engineering. I've known him for several years, and I have admired the quality of his work with many jazz, bluegrass, folk and other musical forms. Eric Rawlins and I mixed "Home By Morning" there (with John Lumsdaine producing), and I recorded "Monica Lewinsky" with the Broken Angels there, too. Cogan was really excited about the project, and his recording plan made a lot of sense to me. The record company agreed to our budget and turned me loose, and...
We nailed "I Bid You Good Night" (the only non-original) to get started, then went to work on "Sugaree." They asked me to play acoustic guitar, which I was not expecting. Their version is slow and sweet, and the part I made up is a spare fingerpicking thing which I suspect will not survive — at the end of the evening, after the band went home, I stayed around to fix up a few parts, and the engineer and I decided it might not be necessary to the track at all.
These guys are hard-working and seriously committed to serving the music. Their method is to start with the bass and lead (Jimmy and Jerry), and then add the other parts one by one. They have rehearsed the material thoroughly, so everyone knows what has to be done. Hearing the full Persuasions thing emerge is a thrill; figuring out what to add on top is a lot of fun.
After the basic "I Bid You Good Night" was finished, Jerry and Joe went in and took a pass at the middle and end sections, just improvising embellishments — Lawson's in his own general range, repeating phrases as rhythmic punctuation, Joe Russell emitting ecstatic screamy stuff. Then we did a pass of each guy doing that alone, so we'll have lots of material to work with when we mix it down.
Monday, May 29
Today we had Peter Rowan in to help us with "Sugaree." Jeez, it was terrific. He took three passes through the whole song, singing the third verse/chorus and just adding soaring lines and the occasional yodel to the rest.
There is an eight-bar place where we were going to have a solo — I had asked Peter to bring a mandola or mandolin — but we wound up using no instrument other than the beautiful human voice in there. I put The Persuasions in a circle, and when the instrumental space opened up (under a lovely sustained Rowan line), one by one they sang an improvised line with the word "Sugaree" in it. Then we put all five Persuasions and Peter around a stereo mic and sang through that passage again, the voices in a different order and singing "shake it" instead.
Then we redid the last verse, with Jerry Lawson and Peter Rowan trading lines.
The vocal tracks we have for this song are an embarrassment of riches. We made some notes, but we'll have to make some tough choices at mixing time.
Then Cynsa Bonorris (of Mary Schmary) came in to do some baritone lines on "Liberty." As I expected, everyone loved her. And vice versa. We have everything we need for "Liberty" now, too, so that's three songs finished in two days.
To my surprise and mild disappointment, The Persuasions (and Mike, our engineer) were ready to quit after eight hours. So we'll start at 11 tomorrow.
Tuesday, May 30
The following is a pathetically inadequate attempt to capture some of the amazing stuff that happened today. I can't say I'll ever have a chance to finish writing up today, because tomorrow is almost here and it promises to be just as big.
* * *
We got three songs in the can today — everything except the overdubs that will be done by other musicians: "It Must Have Been the Roses," "Might as Well," and "Brokedown Palace."
The Persuasions really get it about this material. These songs go a lot deeper than the Zappa stuff — tons more heart and soul, and these singers have an excellent grasp of the broad references contained in Hunter's lyrics. "Night the chariot swung down low," they sing in "Might as Well," and they know where that chariot comes from. Every one of these guys has made comments to me about the personal connections they're making with the songs.
Today I learned that Ray Sanders — who I still don't believe is really anywhere near 61 years old — was an undercover drug cop in New York for 25 years. He's got some stories to tell from that job.
I was asked to play acoustic guitar on "Might as Well." I went through it with them in the studio a few times, figuring out how to simplify the chord changes to match their arrangement, and then went into the side room so I could record in isolation. It was abundantly clear to me that this guitar was utterly useless in this arrangement, and I said so as soon as we were finished with the take. Honestly, I don't know what possessed them to suggest it in the first place. No one argued with me about taking it out, thank God.
After the five of them pumped out a keeper take of "Might as Well," Jimmy Hayes sat down with a weak, breathless look. "Palpitations," he said. At first I thought it was a figure of speech, a comment on the power of the performance, but it wasn't. His heart was racing. It doesn't happen often, but it happens often enough that his bandmates took it in stride while I — and James, the young assistant — worried. Worried a lot. The other guys went to work fixing their tracks while Jimmy sat there on his stool waiting to for his heart rate to recover. At one point I asked Jimmy if he was all right, and he replied that he'd be okay in a while — and one of the other guys gave me shit for making Jim waste his breath replying to me! "Man, you guys are brutal!" I joked, but I knew it was going to be okay because if there was any real danger they would have stopped taking care of business to take care of Jimmy.
Later, I looked into the room and was alarmed to find Jimmy lying on his side on the floor — while The Persuasions continued to work. When he was recovered, he went right back to work fixing his tracks, and I made a crack about the other guys doing everything but stepping over his body in their unconcern. No one was unconcerned, of course — they just know the score, and they know that there is no cure for this but time and peace.
During the course of the day I heard great stories from The Persuasions' touring career. In the early '70s they spent a few months on the road with Cheech and Chong — the only act on the concert circuit at that time with no band. The comedians pranked them at every opportunity, reporting them to cops as drug smugglers several times, etc. Joe said they got even with Cheech and Chong a few times — once by making a trail of toilet paper from the manager's office to the comedians' hotel room door.
Another time, in Philadelphia, The Persuasions were on a bill with the Chi-Lites, the Persuaders, and other soul acts when the power went off during a show in front of a packed house. So instead of their usual two songs, The Persuasions did a full set 'cause they didn't need any electricity. "That's when people learned the difference between The Persuasions and the Persuaders for sure," someone said.
While the band worked on fixing their parts on "Brokedown Palace," I sat with Lawson at the board. Everyone took note of the unusual vocal turns he took on this song — and Lawson passed the credit right along to me! I said his lead vocal was like Sam Cooke and Jerry Garcia and Aaron Neville all in one, and he shot back, "But I got all of that from you." I remember feeling that he was probing my mind when I sang the song for him in Brooklyn, and now it was clear that he had done exactly that. He was tickled by his own unusual melodic turns on this song, and I was as proud as could be to think that I had had an effect on this amazing singer's amazing performance.
I heard myself explaining to The Persuasions — all of whom have expressed great admiration for Garcia's soulful vocal qualities — that Garcia was a lifelong smoker who never had the lung capacity to hold notes. So to hear someone like Lawson combine Garcia's phrasing with the power and smoothness of a Sam Cooke is a wonderful thing indeed.
And at the end of the evening, just before the band left for the night, they were taking turns going in to fix their parts on one particular line. I was out in the lounge area being regaled by Jayotis and Ray with stories of leaping from rooftop to rooftop in Harlem. "And fuckin' in the tar," someone said. "What do you think they were talkin' about in 'Up on the Roof,' anyway?" And someone else added, "That was in our repertoire..."
A few minutes later, I was sitting there with Rip going over a few notes for tomorrow morning when the five Persuasions emerged from the control room, walked over and surrounded us, and sang "Up on the Roof" all the way through, all of them addressing it right to me. I just grinned as my heart swelled, and when they were finished I said, "I feel like it's my birthday."
* * *
There are some instrumental touches on the Zappa CD. I (and executive producer Rip Rense) are totally opposed to the use of "real" drums on this record, and I don't understand why Lawson is even considering it. I have recruited Andrew Chaikin, formerly of the House Jacks, to take care of those parts where we need 'em.
There will be real piano here and there, and a Dobro solo on "Roses" — but as I told Lawson in the studio yesterday (in front of witnesses!), every step we take on this CD is a step toward simplicity, not elaboration: The Persuasions' grasp of this material approaches perfection without adornment.
* * *
No click track. Six microphones: Neumann U-87s on the other four guys, and a U-47 plus an RCA ribbon mic (44?) on Jimmy.
There will be some instrumental overdubs — Dobro on "Roses," piano on "Might as Well," and other stuff here and there, following the precedent set on the Zappa disc — but I am doing my best to minimize it. They asked me to play acoustic guitar rhythm on "Might as Well," but after one take I refused to go on and they nailed it without the guitar (of course!) on the next take.
Mary Schmary will be joining in on a few tracks, fattening up the ensemble vocals here and there. Alyn Kelley will do her phenomenal human trumpet on at least one song. And I have recruited Schmary pal Andrew Chaikin to add his amazing human drum kit to (at least) one track.
Rip and I are hoping to get The Persuasions and the Schmaries to do a "space jam" with voices and vocal "instruments." I may turn it into "Dark Star" if we can get an arrangement organized quickly enough.
Wednesday, May 31
The first four hours were spent on "Lazy River Road," complete except for a mandolin solo which will be added by Eric Thompson later in the week.
This verse appears twice:
Way down upon Seminole Square
Belly of the river tide
Call for me and I will be there
For the price of the taxi ride
Night time double-clutches into today
Like a truck downshifting its load
Lazy River Road
The second time, it's sung by Jimmy in the lowest register I've ever heard a human sing. We worked on that part for a while, getting it just right — intonation was spotty here and there, and there was a brassiness on certain words that didn't feel quite right. Jim was patient and good-humored throughout the process. And when he was finished, we had a remarkable interlude that, uh, peaked when he sang "like a truck downshifting its lo-oad," reaching even farther down on the second half of the last word.
This man's voice is a powerful and versatile instrument. Yesterday I was hearing it as a bassoon, but today I was searching my mind for a way to describe the sound. At times in "Lazy River Road" — not in the solo passage, but in the regular bass line — I heard a slightly flatulent brass sound similar to something in the beloved "Earth Dances" of Harrison Birtwistle. I finally put my finger on it: in this particular song, Jimmy's broad vibrato makes it sound like a deep brass _section_ from the back of the orchestra. How it is possible for one man making "bohm-bohm" sounds to evoke a rank of tubas and trombones is a marvel worth contemplating.
As the band was warming up to record "Lazy River Road," Rip whispered that he thought it should be a little slower. Since I'm the musical producer and he's the administrative producer, it was my responsibility to pass this along. And I agreed. "Do you think you could make it a little, um, lazier?" I said into the talkback microphone. The funny thing is, they speeded it up a hair to get a more relaxed feel. Go figure.
Lawson's vocal is tender and flutey. It is a glorious sight, this plus-size character, coarse and bossy and utterly enslaved by his muse, emitting this angelic music. "All the others I let pass by / I only wanted you" is as romantic as Hunter gets, and Jerry Lawson colors that feeling as deeply in his universe as Jerry Garcia ever did in his. Neither Jerry has much in the way of leading-man appeal, but sexy is as sexy sings, and Lawson sings it as sweet as can be. I think it was while listening to this recording that I said to someone in the room, "this is the Ben Webster of singers." The unvoiced breath that slips out through the vibrato is a world of expression unto itself.
All of which merely set the stage for what followed: "Ripple."
The Persuasions have honored my request to track as a five-piece several times, but for this one they did it their way, building from the bass and lead: Jimmy and Jerry.
Jimmy counted, and the song began with Jerry's voice alone: "If my words did glow..." and Jimmy was there with a bass line, a sort of doo-wop oom-pah that acknowledged the Sex Mob recording while hewing to the tempo of the American Beauty original. Rip and a guest and I all sat there open-mouthed as this duet unfolded, and I thought (and maybe even said aloud), "This makes the Grateful Dead sound like a bunch of speedfreaks."
Before it was even over Rip said, "We should just put _this_ on the record." That ain't gonna happen, but we did decide to keep this arrangement as spare as could be. No other voices until the fourth verse.
I don't know what to call the "Ripple in still water" passage — it's not a chorus, so it must be a bridge. Anyway, The Persuasions' arrangement stands those chords on their head: Instead of A minor, D, G, C, A and D, they sing over several beats of D, almost the same number of beats of C, and a G (the root) where the original plays a D. And yet, you never don't recognize it as "Ripple." The melody is similar, but the harmonic structure is radically simplified — and that can be said of many of The Persuasions' arrangements of these songs.
In the liner notes for "Stolen Roses," which arrived by email from Richard Gehr a few days ago, Elvis Costello says: "... 'Stella Blue' and 'China Doll' have too many 'Norwegians' in them for my fallible fingers." The Persuasions eliminate the "Norwegians" without sacrificing any melodic magic: where Garcia's changes might descend a spiral staircase, The Persuasions would jump down a couple of concrete steps. This enables the band to lay down slabs of accompaniment upon which the improbably graceful Jerry Lawson executes his breathtakingly delicate vocal work.
I was on the edge of tears as we began the careful work of adding voices to "Ripple." Something very special was emerging here.
The tenors were next, Sweet Joe Russell first to the microphone. There was nothing for them to do until the fourth verse, "There is a road..."
Joe was singing a single note for every word of that line. I wanted the tenors' harmony lines to match the contour of Jerry's melody, and after a few attempts to talk Joe through it from the control room, I went into the studio and sang the line I wanted him to do. "That's Ray's line," Joe replied. Hmmm.
I asked Lawson if I could try having only Joe on top of him for those first two lines ("...between the dawn and the dark of night"), and then bring Ray in for the next two lines. You don't have to ask me, David," he said. "Just do it. You're in the Zone, man!" Now Joe was willing to try my close-harmony approach, and we attempted it several times. He was always tentative on that first note, which told me he was unconvinced, or disagreed with my idea. He gave me a solid take of that first line with a level melody line, and I took it because the timbre of his voice, and the perfection of his vibrato, was everything the moment required.
Raymond Sanders, who had been standing by throughout this process, then stepped up and added his own impossibly sweet line on top of what we had, nailing his part in a take or two as usual. I realized that I had had a constant chill up and down my spine for a good half an hour and my eyes had teared up repeatedly as this process unfolded.
Skipping for now the "blow" underpinning the bridge, we moved to the fifth verse, "You who choose to lead..." I asked Joe to sing the first and third lines alone (on top of Lawson and Jimmy), with Ray adding his top part on the second and fourth lines. The result was as stunning as their work on the fourth verse. We quickly wrapped up the "blow" beneath the bridge, and we got a layer of Jay in there as well. Then everybody did some "La-la-la" work to wrap up the day's work on "Ripple." We'll get some Schmarriage in there on the end, and Eric Thompson will overdub some gentle rhythm chops on the mandolin. By the last note we'll have a lot of music, having built it tenderly from the beautiful duet that carried the song from the opening to the center.
There was some fairly schmaltzy exchange of pleasantries after this was over. The Persuasions knew they were in loving hands, and I knew I was in a privileged situation, eliciting great performances from these gifted men. We're all there to serve the music, and the music was served with great care and a splendid result.
* * *
I think it was around 7:30 when we finished.
We decided to get started on "Stella Blue," but it soon became apparent that this was going to require a great deal of work and possibly a guide track played on the piano. So instead we hung out and waited for Rip to get back with the groceries; then we devoured our chickens and sushi and jerk seitan and cheese and soup and stuff, and then we piled into three cars and headed over to KPFA. Wednesday evening is when I'm usually on the air, so I called my substitute host and asked if I could interrupt my own show to present some special guests.
They sang "Might as Well," "Brokedown Palace" (with me taking the lead on part of the first verse as Jerry's insistence), Zappa's "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing," Kurt Weill's "Oh Heavenly Salvation," "Under the Boardwalk," and "Black Muddy River." There were other musicians in the building, getting ready to perform on Larry Kelp's show, and most of them wound up watching us through the studio window. It was a loose, upbeat performance, and many kind words were spoken by all parties.
Thursday, June 1
(At home, in the morning before the session)
I am listening to the basic "Ripple" and the in-progress overdubbed version over and over this morning. I just can't get enough of it. The moment where Joe's harmony comes in gives me a fresh chill every time, and that chill turns to a shiver when Ray joins.
Garcia is looking up from his chores in hell and stealing a smile right now.
* * *
Eric Thompson — who will be adding a VERY sparing mandolin part at the end of "Ripple" and play a mandolin solo on "Lazy River Road" — dropped by today to pick up his rough mixes. He mentioned that he and Jerry Garcia were among the first Americans to hear Jody Stecher's then-new recordings of "I Bid You Good Night" by the Pindar Family — one take of which wound up on "The Real Bahamas," and the other of which was released elsewhere later. So that's how the Dead got the song.
* * *
A note about our engineer, Mike Cogan. He doesn't appear in this story too much, because he is very good at his job, and one of the most important attributes of a great engineer is to be emotionally (as well as acoustically) transparent.
Mike owns Bay Records. He's a soft-spoken, easy-going guy who displays his own excellent sense of humor at appropriate moments. His job is to get other people's creative output onto tape without unwanted coloration, and that goes for interpersonal dealings as well as the flow of sound waves and electrons.
He is absolutely attentive to the work — to the sound going on tape, to the location of everything in the room, everything in the signal path, every aspect of the automated mixing console and everything on the tape and in that non-physical realm where the creative transactions take place. That's not to say he doesn't participate, 'cause he does: his ear is a good part of what we're paying for. He chose the microphones, and made a strong case for going with an arguably old-fashioned analog recording method (24-track analog at 30 ips with Dolby SR) as opposed to the somewhat less expensive but arguably less friendly-sounding digital multitrack format his studio also offers. When we're evaluating takes or "punching in" corrections, he's right there with a valuable perspective on the work in progress. If I get distracted or have to leave the room, he continues the work, and I know there will be no surprises when I get back into my seat next to him.
A great engineer stays out of the way of the creative conversation until he is needed, and he knows when he's needed and when he's furniture. Mike Cogan is very happy to be working on this record with The Persuasions, and we are all very happy to be working with Mike Cogan.
* * *
Today we only got one song done — done except for the lead vocal, that is. But hoo-WEE, what a song!
We began the day by replacing a few bits of "Ripple" that weren't just exactly perfect. Lawson went in and laid down a new "blow" under the bridge, and I overdubbed the baritone part from "If I knew the way, I would take you home" through the end of the song. It didn't make sense for Lawson to be on there twice — it would mar the perfection of his lead vocal — so they sent me in. An honor.
Then we got started on "Loose Lucy," with "Sweet" Joe Russell on lead. Before we started, I played a 1973 live performance of the song for the band because I knew the only thing they'd heard before now was the speedy version on "Mars Hotel." Everyone liked this groove better, as I knew they would. Before we entered the studio, I worked with Joe for quite a while on the phrasing of the lead vocal.
We started this track with the bass and lead. Jimmy did his usual solid thing, demonstrating his usual patience as we stopped and restarted many times to improve Joe's phrasing. When we finished, Lawson gave it a listen; a few bars into it, he snorted, "There's two notes there — that's no good" — meaning that Joe's and Jimmy's pitch did not agree. He also stated confidently that Joe's final lead vocal would not be recorded today — "I know how he is," said Lawson. "He'll come back in a couple of days and lay down the real thing."
I thought we might scrap this basic and try again, but Lawson went to work on his part of the accompaniment. I sat in the control room with a growing unease. Jerry's part sounded terrible, and I didn't understand why Mike Cogan wasn't squirming along with me. Nor did I understand how Lawson could be singing what he was singing — until I figured out that Lawson was _ignoring_ Joe's lead so he could concentrate on connecting with Jimmy's bass line. The lead vocal was sharp and clearly destined for the bit-bucket (oops — we're on analog tape). Lawson persevered, and eventually we had a complete part on tape. But the track was still not happening, and I was distressed.
When lunch arrived, I was grateful for the opportunity to pause and gather my thoughts. What was I going to say to the band?
A while later I went out the back door to find The Persuasions hanging out in the brilliant spring sunshine. "What are we going to do?" I asked. I was worried that we were going to have to scrap the day's work and start "Loose Lucy" over again — but it soon became evident that I was in danger of underestimating The Persuasions. Moments later, Jerry and Joe and Ray were in the studio laying down their parts all at once — again, locking on to Jimmy's bass line. The lead was audible only as leakage in the bass track.
When the trio had finished, it was clear that our track was back on track. Prompted by a remark from a guest in the control room, I spoke into the talkback, saying only "Thank you."
While listening to Jimmy working on his "fixies," hearing the old part and the new part together in the headphones, I wondered what it would sound like if each singer recorded the same thing twice — mixed with one full ensemble in each channel. So after Jerry and Ray and Joe had each gone back through their new parts and fixed a few timing and pitch errors, they stepped up to the mics together and sang the same parts again onto three fresh tracks.
Then Ray went back in to record a soprano part. Then he doubled it.
Then Jay went in to record a baritone part, fixed a few phrases, and then recorded it again.
So now there were ten Persuasions on top of Jimmy's bass line, and those ten voices were pretty well locked up. This made the flaws in the bass line easy to spot and relatively easy to correct. After he finished his fixies, Jimmy quickly laid down an identical line — giving us an even dozen vocal tracks.
Lawson said he thought the doubled bass line sounded lame. I listened to it again and immediately agreed, and then we polled the rest of the band. They listened to the two bass lines and then to the single bass line, and the decision was unanimous: one bass track.
What we wound up with at the end of our nine-hour day, then, was a complete track of "Loose Lucy" minus the lead vocal. We dumped this karaoke version to cassette for Joe and to DAT for me; Joe will rehearse with the tape and record the lead when he's ready. With all but one of the parts doubled, what we have here sounds a bit like The Beach Boys. Sweet Joe will rock on top of this foundation, for sure!
Friday, June 2
For the Dobro overdub on "It Must Have Been the Roses," I recruited Pete Grant, who drove in from Roseville (just east of Sacramento) for today's session.
Pete's Grateful Dead connection goes way back. After Jerry died in August 1995, he emailed me this story: "Before the Grateful Dead or even the Warlocks, Jerry and I were driving in his Corvair up from Palo Alto to Berkeley to see the Kentucky Colonels play. 'Together Again' came on the radio, with that memorable solo by Tom Brumley. We both listened in reverent awe, and said, 'Man, we gotta learn pedal steel.' Between the two of us, I was the first to get a steel and start playing, and that's how I ended up playing on Aoxomoxoa." "Doin' That Rag," to be specific.
Pete and Henry Kaiser and I played a "Dobro Dark Star" at a bookstore in Larkspur when "Not Fade Away: The Online World Remembers Jerry Garcia" came out (including Pete's email), and I have jammed with him a few times since then. When Jim Page and I stopped by to visit him on our way to a gig in Grass Valley in March, Pete broke out a wonderful instrument: a ten-string Dobro that was tuned like a pedal steel and sounded somewhere between a pedal steel and a Dobro. He played it beautifully, too. So when Jerry Lawson said he wanted pedal steel on "Roses," I immediately thought of Pete Grant and his steel like Zephyr ten-string acoustic.
He actually had three instruments with him — two six-string Dobros and the Zephyr. He started out on one of the six-strings, but it sounded too aggressive and Dobro-like to my ear. We did a take or two, but I didn't like what I was hearing at all.
"Let me ask you something," I said. "If you were playing the Zephyr, would you be doing more chordal, arpeggiated, pedal-steel stuff, as opposed to the single string Dobro action you're giving us here? Would the sound be a little more delicate?" Pete said yes, and I said, "That's what I'm looking for." So he got the Zephyr, tuned it to the track (a little south of F, he said), and immediately my mood improved. This is what I had heard in my mind when I first thought of Pete Grant!
We decided the sound would not appear until the solo but that it would stick around afterwards.
One of the inspired touches on "Roses" is an idea that came from Rip: after the last verse, Jerry sings the next-to-last chorus solo, with the band blowing behind him. Then they finish with a full chorus, like the earlier ones. This is a nice surprise, a delicate moment where a strong return is anticipated. (And this is a nice example of the "stew" idea that Jerry uses to characterize this project: all suggestions are welcome, everything is worth discussing, and everything is worth trying. Rip has come up with more than his share of inspired suggestions, including the stripping down of "Ripple" to just two voices for nearly two thirds of its duration.) So the Dobro lays out in the Jerry-only chorus and then returns with some sweet fills on the final chorus and a nice up-and-down arpeggio on the last, held note.
Pete Grant being the outgoing, impish sweetheart that he is, when we finished "Roses" he demanded that we give him something else to play! "It doesn't really work that way, Peter," I protested, and although we both knew he wasn't really _demanding_ another assignment, I did decide to have him try a few bits at the very end of "Ripple."
"Ripple" builds from just two voices — the lead and the bass — starting at the fourth verse. We add two more voices in the fourth verse and some "blowing" under the second bridge, and then the two tenors are along for "You who choose to lead must follow." Another voice joins in on "If I knew the way, I would take you home" and continues through the "La-la-la-la-la" ending. We're planning to add a light, rhythm-chopping mandolin on the la-las, too, so why not a touch of Dobro? If it doesn't work, we'll leave it out of the final mix.
* * *
We started on "He's Gone" at around 2:30.
This was a very straightforward process, building from the bass and lead (Jerry). The tempo is pretty brisk — more like "Europe '72" than the more funereal readings we grew accustomed to over the last 15 years or so of the Dead's career. It turned out faster than the band had intended, I gather, but there is a spirit to this reading that makes it a Persuasions song.
After Jerry and Jimmy finished cleaning up their parts, Joe and Ray went in to lay down their patented locked-in tenor-section part. One thing that impresses me about this band more every day is how different these five voices can sound, in different pairs, keys, tempos, styles, etc. Most impressive is the way Joe and Ray lock in sometimes, their vibratos synchronizing perfectly. I told a visitor that they sometimes made me think of a flag flying on top of a baseball stadium. On "He's Gone," it was less a picture of waves moving through horizontal stripes than of sleek power, like fighter planes in tight formation. The Persuasions' "He's Gone" isn't the lugubrious legato of the Dead; it's punchy, with clipped exclamations of "Gone!" in the choruses. And when Ray and Joe are blowing, they're tight and smooth and brisk. Ray stacked another high part on top of, giving it more power and more punch and more sleekness.
There's an instrumental bridge "He's Gone," just a few bars. In the Persuasions' arrangement, Jerry Lawson does his vocal imitation of a guitar there. At first I thought he was just marking the spot where something else would be inserted, but this is what he means to do and it's quite cool.
I thought they were pulling my leg when I was summoned into the studio to sing. But they were serious. They scared the shit out of me by telling me they wanted me to harmonize with Jerry on all the verses — which I had done almost without thinking while they were running through the song earlier — but after they had thrown a good scare into me, it turned out I was only expected to harmonize with Jerry on the second verse.
I was quite intimidated, and I wasn't at all sure my voice had any business showing up in such a prominent, vulnerable place on the CD. But Jerry led me through it, while the others hung out in the control room alternately heckling me and encouraging me. I wasn't happy with the sound of my voice in the headphones, and I wasn't sure I was going to be able to match Jerry's phrasing. And suddenly I realized I was in danger of sabotaging myself, that they really did want me to add "that Dead flavor" in this spot, and everyone was certain I could do this. So I quit being such a pantywaist and I sang out, and after a few passes we had an acceptable take.
I may yet vote against keeping it in there, but for now I'm willing to go along with their judgment.
"Sweet" Joe Russell sure got a kick out of seeing the shoe on the other foot, with me out there in the studio alone under the headphones, singing my line over and over while people in the control room moved and laughed and talked to each other beyond my hearing.
We're going to give "He's Gone" a good long ride at the end, over the "Oooh, nothing's gonna bring him back" refrain, for several minutes. We'll have the Schmaries in there, and several layers of Persuasion exaltations and ejaculations, over a very long fade. Mike Cogan joked about adding a "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah" like the one on the long psychedelic fadeout of "All You Need Is Love."
After we had finished the day's work, with all of us in the control room listening through one more time, we all spontaneously started singing lines from the other songs on the CD — which seems like a very cool idea. It turned silly after a while — I threw in lines from the Zappa CD and the children's disc — but even that isn't beyond the realm of possibility. Why not fold in some good-natured weirdness? Cogan thought we should toss in a few lines from classic Persuasions songs. A fine idea!
* * *
At the end of the evening, Jerry Lawson stuck out his hand and said, "It is a pleasure to work with you, David." I told him it was totally mutual, and I thanked him for giving me the opportunity to learn from him and The Persuasions. Then Jerry told Mike it was a pleasure to work with him, too, and we all gave Mike a round of applause.
The whole thing has been exhilarating, challenging, hilarious, touching and enlightening in more ways than I can enumerate. We have a lot of work to do between now and next Thursday — and beyond, 'cause that doesn't include mixing and mastering. And beyond that, we have to sell the damn thing when it comes out in October.
Jon Carroll [San Francisco Chronicle columnist] came over to meet the Persuasions and find out if there might be a column there, and he has been there every day. He's got THREE columns planned, and of course we are thrilled. So every morning I answer his questions...
Saturday, June 3
I keep thinking things can't get any more intense and ecstatic, but they do.
What kind of day was today? Well, one early peak came when Joe Russell called me "The Caucasian Persuasion." That is an honorific to cherish.
The work began on schedule at 11:00 Eric Thompson, another great local musician with ancient roots in Deadland: he played in bluegrass bands with Garcia in the pre-jug band days. I know him from his work with the California Cajun Orchestra, and Aux Cajunals, the Blue Flame String Band, the Todalo Shakers, etc. He and his wife also led the "Zyde-klez" band that played at my wedding. He was here to play a mandolin solo on "Lazy River Road" and to lay down a simple mandolin rhythm in the last section of "Ripple."
As Eric played the mandolin in the studio Joe and Jimmy sat in the control room chuckling, "The Persuasions go bluegrass." "Might as well!" I exclaimed — the title of the album and also something of a battle cry for this project. "Might as well!" Joe replied. "Take your shoes off," said Jimmy. "Set a spell." The "Beverly Hillbillies" Theme, you see.
Eric played along with the song for a while, getting in tune with the track — which is not exactly at concert pitch, though pretty close. We always start from a piano note, but drift is inevitable.
Once he was in tune and Mike was happy with the selection and placement of the microphone, we began to record the solo. I wasn't entirely happy with what he had worked out, and although I felt a little weird doing so, I asked him to change the melody a little.
"It's funny that I'm doing this to you," I confessed, "because yesterday I was telling Pete Grant that I prefer solos that aren't based on the sung melody — particularly in short spots like this one where you don't have time to elaborate over several repetitions of the changes (which was one of Garcia's specialties)." But I sang the melody for Eric and asked him to hew a bit more closely to it; all I really wanted was for the first and third phrases to go either up or down at the end rather than stay on the same note, which I found uninteresting and ambiguous. Eric was happy to oblige, choosing a note that turned the melody up at the end exactly as the sung melody did. The rest of his solo was a delightful departure from the melody — including a passage that Eric called the "Jibaro" section, referring to the "hillbilly" region of Puerto Rico (he often plays a guitar-like instrument called the cuatro that comes from this region). Eric is a treasure trove of this sort of stuff. He knows a hell of a lot about all sorts of music from all over the world. I always learn a lot when I work with him.
A couple more passes and we had most of a terrific solo; Eric recorded a couple of "fixies" on another track, and then Mike worked his magic with the automated mixing console to swap the new phrases in where the bad ones were, and the job was finished.
In this case, the mandolin appears for the solo and then disappears again. The voices are all the orchestration we need.
Eric nailed the simple rhythm chops on "Ripple" on the second try, and he was finished. He hung out for a while to enjoy the atmosphere in the studio as we got to work on "One More Saturday Night" with pianist Vince Welnick and "vocal percussionist" Andrew Chaikin.
Vince was my first and only choice for these piano parts, not just because of his Grateful Dead connection but because he's a great piano player and a very easy guy to work with.
Andrew entered my consciousness with a bang on April 30, in a walk-on (literally) during Mary Schmary's performance of "Babar" at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. Andrew came out as the song was starting and brought the house down with his spectacular vocal imitation of a drum kit, which is accompanied by hand and arm gestures that make it clear that he has a virtual drum kit laid out in the space around him as he works.
When the idea of drums was proposed for The Persuasions project, Rip was adamant that "real" drums were out of the question. "They tried that on two albums 25 years ago, and they failed miserably," he explained. I didn't want to repeat that experiment, for practical as well as artistic reasons: getting a drum kit ready for multitrack recording takes at least one full day in many cases.
I told the band I had a guy in mind who could do drums with his mouth, and although Lawson was deeply skeptical, I had enough credibility with him that he was willing to give Andrew a try. (The Persuasions and the House Jacks, Andrew's former band, had worked together before a few years ago, so they weren't total strangers.)
I had sent CDs of the proposed songs to Andrew last week, and he is a great admirer of The Persuasions, so he arrived up very well-prepared and highly motivated.
We gathered around the piano to work out the groove and the changes for "One More Saturday Night." I was in the thick of this, teaching the singers where the changes are in the bridge, which encompasses more than the usual I, IV V and occasional VI chords — there's an important III in there, and although I honor and respect The Persuasions' manner of simplifying the songs, I thought these chords belonged in this arrangement. I knew Vince could compensate for anything, but I also knew Vince could help me get the band up to speed quickly. With Andrew wandering around on the outskirts of the circle trying out various instruments and patterns, we went over the vocal stack time and time again until everyone was solid on their parts and Vince had decided how much left hand and how much right hand he was going to offer up in this song. I liked the boogie woogie groove, but it seemed appropriate to play a little less.
And now we had to address the big question of how to record this thing. Lawson wanted to record the lead and the piano and then add the rest, but I was a fierce advocate of the full-ensemble approach.
I got my way, and the payoff was tremendous. Vince counted it down and then came in on piano with Jimmy singing bass, and then there was Jerry on the lead vocal. The ensemble came in with what I call "pads" and The Persuasions call "blowing" — smooth Ooohs through the verse — and then when Jerry sang "Hey uh-huh," the room exploded with sound. "Hey-hey, Saturday night!" over and over, with Ray and Joe on top as sleek as a twin-blade razor.
This arrangement has two of those bridges that only occur once in the Dead arrangement, and the orchestra does this big huge AAAAHHH-AAAAHHHH thing that tore the roof off the place every time. Everyone in the control room was jumping up and down with the punches, and Andrew upped the electricity by rolling melodically across what I call his "infinite rack tom."
The excitement was incredible, and as the song ended, everyone knew it was a winner. Suddenly Jerry shouted, "ONE TWO THREE!" and it was "Hey, another Saturday night" one more time, with Vince ripping across the upper registers. Everyone on both sides of the studio glass was out of breath when it ended.
We tried another take, with two false endings, but it was clearly a step down in energy and tightness. We did a third take, which was probably a little tighter then the first take, but the decision to stick with Take One was unanimous. Mike and I spliced the second ending from Take Three onto the reel after Take One, thinking maybe we can edit to make it feel like a real triple ending, but that may prove to be gilding the lily.
Listening to the rough mix now as I write this, I am again blown away by the sound made by "drummer" Andrew Chaikin, and by Jimmy's amazing bass line. This record is a great showcase for the abilities of the human voice.
When it was over, Jerry Lawson shook my hand again and congratulated me on having the instinct to bring Andrew in and to make the band record "OMSN" live. Then he turned to Andrew and told him, "When David told us about you, I wasn't sure I was going to like it. I've heard other guys do this sort of stuff, and they wasn't any good. But you, man, you're great." The others joined in praising Andrew, who responded by telling The Persuasions what a thrill it is to be part of this session.
* * *
Jerry wanted to rest his voice after all the work he did on "One More Saturday Night," so after determining that both Vince and Andrew were more than willing to return on Monday afternoon to tackle "Bertha," we took a break and got ready to go to work on Jimmy Hayes's favorite song of our collection: "Ship of Fools."
I call this performance "closing time at the psychedelic cafe." It's just Vince playing what he characterized as "the laziest groove ever" behind Jimmy's deep, rich Brook Benton voice.
Vince wanted to have Andrew playing "drums" on the basic track, and although I was more than skeptical, we went ahead and gave it a try. The result was unsatisfactory in many ways, most notably the intrusion of the drum track into the vocal and piano tracks via headphone leakage. I told Vince that if he wanted a time reference we'd be a lot better off with a metronome than with a human beat box. So Andrew was given the rest of the night off, and Dr. Rhythm (a small electronic beat generator) was plugged in and fed to Vince's headphones only.
This arrangement worked fine, except that the click track mysteriously disappeared right at the end of a delicious piano solo. We restored the click and recorded a new take, planning to splice the new piece on to the incomplete but entirely wonderful take we had just done. The new solo wasn't as good, but it wasn't clear whether we would have a good spot to make the splice. You don't cut two-inch tape unless you're absolutely sure of what you re doing, but just as we were deciding that I'd experiment with the edits on my Sonic at home tonight, Vince and Jimmy said they'd like to go in and do the whole thing at least once more.
That did the trick. With a few patches of the piano and the vocal track, we had a keeper basic. As we listened to it, I turned to Lawson and said, in a tone of fake accusation, "Just exactly what do you think you're going to do with EIGHT vocalists on this track?!" To my relief, he said he was thinking of using only "the girls," not the Schmaries and The Persuasions. That I can live with — and at that, I think it'll be a pretty ethereal, minimal choir.
I saw Lawson miming a violin and I said, "Be careful what you wish for, brother. I can have you a violin player here in half an hour if you want.
"Actually, the violin player we want might take an hour to get." I was joking, but I do know who I'd call for this: Rachel Durling. This isn't a Laurie Lewis call; it's not even a Darol Anger call. It might be a Dave Balakrishnan call, but it's definitely a Rachel Durling call. I heard her when I recorded the Bay Area Jazz Composers Orchestra at Yoshi's about twelve years ago; she played a dark, powerful solo on Bob Brookmeyer's "Transparencies"that sticks with me to this day. I have seen her in other contexts — in the "pit quartet" at the California Shakespeare Company out in Orinda, etc.
I'm surprised by the specificity of this knowledge. I don't know that many musicians, really, but I have made nothing but smart choices on this project so far. Pete Grant was exactly the right guy for the ten-string Dobro solo on "Roses"; Grisman might have been a fine choice for the mandolin parts, but Eric Thompson did beautifully on both "Lazy River Road" and the simple chops on "Ripple." Vince performed spectacularly on both "One More Saturday Night" and "Ship of Fools."
There is more to say about this hugely productive day, but I am running out of steam and tomorrow promises to be even more intense and rewarding: Mary Schmary will be in to add vocals to several songs. I also want to get them to JAM together.
P.S. Anyone who ever doubted the soulfulness, depth and musical ability of Vince Welnick will have to re-evaluate their attitude after hearing his piano playing on "Ship of Fools."
Also: Rip and I were there in the midst of the hilarity last night, thinking how much Garcia would have enjoyed this scene and these guys.
Sunday, June 4: Schmary Day
Today was the day we had Mary Schmary, a brilliant and delightful Bay Area a cappella quartet, in to add their magic to several songs. Mary Schmary are Cynsa Bonorris, Myriam Casimir, Alyn Kelley and Desiree Pointer. I've been friends with Cynsa for more than ten years, and a fan of the group since its inception in the early '90s; I've mastered their three CDs, recorded a lot of their live gigs, and evangelized them to anyone who'll listen for years. (I direct you to their web page at www.schmary.com for more information.)
We began with "I Bid You Good Night,"adding a wholesome feminine timbre to the spiritual; the result has a mountain-curch feel that makes me think of the "Old weird America" that Greil Marcus store about in _Invisible Republic_. This was an easy piece and an excellent warmup. Next up was "He's Gone," and that's where the Schmaries began to do their special thing. We just played the"Ooh, nothin's gonna bring him back" (30 repetitions, several minutes' worth) ride over and over while they tried stuff, and when they were ready, we hit record and away they went. Across this pumping rhythm, pulsed by Jimmy's Motownish bass line, the men sing a sleek, punchy version of the Dead's line; in between, the Schmaries sang three variations on "nothin' gonna bring him, nothin' gonna bring him." What we have now is a solid, grooving vocal bed over which the Persuasions will testify, drop in phrases and titles from other songs on the CD, etc., during a long, slow fade.
We experimented with several approaches to "It Must Have Been the Roses." The Schmaries were part of our original plan for this song, but when we recorded it last week it was so perfect as a five-piece with the Dobro solo (and a few fills) that I was more inclined to leave it unadorned. Lawson wanted to try the additional vocals, and our default is to try stuff, so we tried stuff. We wound up with just just Alyn and Desiree (the sopranos) on the very last chorus. That is definitely all the song needed.
The genius of "Might as Well" will have to be heard to be appreciated. Cynsa, Myriam, Alyn and Desiree came up with an extremely cool background line for themselves, simulating "a train going by," and developed other sterling touches that defy description. And then Alyn performed a "trumpet" solo that knocked The Persuasions and everyone else in attendance right on their asses. We made her do it again, and the second take was even more amazing than the first. And while we were listening back to it, the other Schmaries started playing "trombone" parts — and the next thing we knew, we were recording a FIVE-PART vocal trombone backing for the trumpet solo, along with a "baritone sax" by Jimmy. Every time we heard this, performing live or listening to playback, everyone in the studio burst out in applause and laughter, so I decided we'd better record some applause for the CD. A dozen or so people gathered around the stereo microphone, listened to this human brass performance in the headphones, and contributed a heartfelt round of applause for the record.
After all that, Jerry went in to add a "choo-choo" train sound that will run through the whole song.
The great thing about this — as Jerry reminded me at the end of our long, exhausting, magical day — is that the title track of this CD is an astounding example of the power of the human voice. We had originally thought to have a piano solo on "Might as Well," but what we wound up with is a rocking performance full of smiles and surprises, all borne on sounds made by the unaided voices of nine great musicians.
One of the experiments I wanted to try was a short piece of "Here Comes Sunshine" — just the a cappella intro that Vince Welnick brought to the Dead's December 1992 revival of the song. My first thought was to build the track on top of a DAT of the Dead's live performance, and my goal was to stack ten voices — all the Persuasions, all of Mary Schmary, and me — from Jimmy's bass to Desiree's soprano.
After we listened to the Dead tape a few times, I got my guitar out and played the changes live a bunch of times while people wrapped their minds around the chords. Then Lawson took charge, securing his pitch from a piano note, and laid down the main melody. Then I grabbed Joe and worked with him until he had a line above Jerry's. Next was Jay, who struggled a bit but did get a good part on tape.
After that it sort of fell apart, with some people making fun of it (or so it seemed to me) and others wondering where they were going to fit in. I was ready to abandon the idea, but several Schmaries and Ray and Jimmy started to get somewhere with it and commanded me to get my guitar. So I sat across the room from the live microphones, cuing the singers with my guitar and counting down, and we recorded a six-piece "Here Comes Sunshine" intro.
After a break for food, we put some work into the "la-la-la" ending of "Ripple." At first the Schmaries tried a sort of call-and-response approach, singing in between the traditional lines, but everyone agreed it was a little too cutesy. So they put some effort into a four-part addition to what we had already — which didn't work until we eliminated the tracks that Vince Welnick and I had added earlier. Once it was down to The Persuasions and the Schmaries, it sounded fine.
It was getting pretty late by now, but we still had "Ship of Fools" on the agenda. I wasn't too keen on the idea of adding many layers of voices to this bare-bones (just piano and Jimmy Hayes) track, but the rule is that we don't reject ideas out of hand, and as long as everyone was willing to remain standing and give it a try, we gave it a try.
The nine of them sat in the studio and listened, and over the nine-minute course of the song, everyone found a place in the stack and a grand but somehow fairly subtle "blow" emerged. We recorded it, and then listened critically to the playback. By now everyone was pretty tired, and I found myself looking for a graceful way to bring this ten-hour to a close without a discussion of whether any of this was appropriate. We settled on a decision to have the men do the blowing in the verses and use the Schmary-Persuasions parts on the choruses — but when we reconvene in the morning and talk this over, I'm going to suggest that we scrap it all and bring some VERY spare backgrounds in from scratch.
Lawson again mimed a violin at me while we were working on "Ship of Fools," so I guess I'll try to find someone who can give me an appropriately spooky overdub. And that will eliminate some background vocals, I think.
My description of this monumental day conveys nothing of the intense pleasure that suffused this encounter among nine brilliant colleagues from two different musical worlds. At any given moment, when something was going on in the control room — playback, adjustments, setting up more microphones in the studio, etc — we'd hear music erupting from another room. The Schmaries got to show off some of their stuff for The Persuasions (I made them sing "Abraham" and "Gooberoni," both from their latest CD "Hidden Agenda Items") and vice versa. They sang "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home," which the Schmaries learned from The Persuasions — and of course, the men loved the women's rendition.
It was a huge day, and I am proud to report that a hell of a lot of that excitement made it onto the master tapes. Cynsa, Myriam, Alyn and Desiree brought a wealth of talent and inspiration to the party, and although they were in the presence of genuine heroes and role models, I am certain that the admiration and respect were one hundred percent mutual.
* * *
I'm too exhausted to write more. It was another humongous day, the eighth day of twelve, each more momentous and exciting than the day before. Tomorrow will be less intense but it will have to be as productive. We still have a lot to do.
Monday, June 5, before the day begins
I lost control of the session yesterday. There were too many guests in the building, and too many musicians in the room, and I spent a little more energy than I should have taking pictures and making sure the "documentary" tape was running. I should have asked some of the visitors to leave, but I didn't figure out it was my nasty job and mine alone until it was too late.
Some of the visitors were journalists I had invited. Others were long-time friends of the band. One was a friend of my co-producer. I wanted them all to be there, and I didn't see what it was costing in terms of focus until it was too late.
This was a particularly unfortunate confluence of events: Mary Schmary, the brilliant and energetic quartet who came in to add layers of magic to our already sparkling work, were enough of a challenge without the Sunday open-house action. It was inevitable, I suppose, and the only way to avoid it would have been to have the Schmaries in on a weekday when the side traffic was considerably less heavy than it was yesterday. I should have known that Sunday would be visiting day. Rookie mistake, and I am a rookie producer.
Here's the deal: the Schmaries have their own fascinating way of working, and it was an appropriate strategy to let them work that way. I _indulged_ them, let 'em try all sorts of stuff, get silly, etc. The payoff is in the tracks on tape, for sure — but the cost, as an observer put it in email this morning, a period when the Persuasions felt like sidemen on their own record.
My principal regret is the timing of the "Here Comes Sunshine" attempt. It played out badly, with Lawson and Joe and Jay working on their parts only to have me throw my hands up and abandon the effort — whereupon the Schmaries, with Ray and Jimmy in tow, kept at it and put a nice six-part take on tape. I think Jerry's and Joe's feelings, especially, were hurt by this, and it depressed my persona for the rest of the session, which went on another three hours or so.
"Here Comes Sunshine" was _my_ idea, and although The Persuasions were up for it when I brought it in at the start of the day, my timing in bringing it up here was dreadful.
Not a fatal mistake, but a costly one. It still weighs on me this morning.
Monday, June 5, late night
I got the the studio early in order to apologize to Mike Cogan for letting the population get out of hand. He said it was not a problem, noting that he has a client who brings a portable bar to their recording sessions! He's used to working with an audience (or worse), in other words. And he made it clear that he would not hesitate to make it known if he wanted the room cleared or whatever.
When the band got there I made another apology to them, for losing control of the session and for allowing the "Here Comes Sunshine" fiasco and for possibly making The Persuasions feel like sidemen at their own session.
Lawson told me I had worried all night for nothing. Regarding "Here Comes Sunshine," when I apologized for allowing Jerry and Joe to be dumped from the tape in favor of the new recording by the six PerSchmaries, Lawson said it wasn't a problem "because Jimmy was in there, and he represented The Persuasions. What you have there is a great-sounding piece of music, and if there's a place for it on the record we'll use it. Maybe we'll add some more voices to it, maybe we won't. But you know what this audience wants, and if you felt that was worth doing, then it was worth doing."
Jerry also told me that he had been about five minutes from chasing everybody out of the studio, too, and he praised me for clearing the room when I did.
The apology wasn't unncessary. After we finished a second (keeper) take of the six-voice "Here Comes Sunshine" intro, Lawson got on the tailback and said, "I'm gonna call the airline and book a flight outa here!" It was a joke, but it was informed by a stung feeling. What stuck with me overnight was the knowledge that these two men were hurt by what had transpired, and what I did the the morning was to make amends. I said so to the band. Just as when I made the commitment to my wife it became important to tell the truth and not sweep stuff under the rug, this is The Real Thing and it was important to me that I say what I had to say. It was heard and accepted, and we went to work.
This isn't about strokes. I am not having any problem whatsoever letting these guys know how totally great I think they are, and they don't seem to need a lot of pandering. And they are pretty clear that they respect me. Also, the music bats last here and everybody knows it.
* * *
We began with a conversation about "Ship of Fools." I wondered what we'd be able to use from the material we recorded at the end of the evening Sunday. As beautiful as it was, I felt it threatened to overpower the intimacy of the Jimmy's and Vince's performance. I slept on it, and in the morning I made a proposal to the band. They left me alone in the control room to make a new rough mix with Mike, and when I played it for them they accepted my plan. Then the Persuasions went in and recorded a new thing for the very beginning of the song and two other three-line passages. Everything from last night was eliminated except for one line. The final result is breathtaking. The PerSchmary chorale only appears on one line, but it is perfect. You'll hear.
This was another instance of the sort of grace this project is experiencing/generating. Last night we were like a bunch of overtired kids after an all-day romp at Disneyland, unwilling to go to bed but unable to keep our ears focused. No one really wanted to end the festivities even after they stopped being festive, because there was always another beautiful idea to try out. The stuff they all sang together on "Ship of Fools" was lovely, but using it would be a huge mistake. I'm glad we did it, and I'm glad everybody agreed to let it go.
After settling the "Ship of Fools" matter, we moved on to tracking "Stella Blue."
The plan was for me to play a guide track on the acoustic guitar (for the singers' reference only, not to be included on the finished product), and that I would use a click track to keep my tempo steady. On a song as stately as "Stella," building it up from the bass and lead, the musicians need pitch reference as well as time reference.
We tried a take or two with the click in my ear and my guitar in Jerry's and Jimmy's ears, but Jerry called a halt to it. "It sounds fake," he said, and he was right. Every time we got to the bridge, we wanted to speed up. Maybe there is some good reason to keep a steady tempo throughout, but it is definitely not a core value of Persuasions music. We did just fine with the guitar and voices interacting.
Jimmy redid his bass part a couple of times. We had to stop working on "Stella Blue" when Vince Welnick and Andrew Chaikin arrived to work on "Bertha."
We worked on "Bertha" with the piano, without the piano and with the piano again. Vince played some kick-ass solos, and Andrew did another fine job. He tried a couple of different grooves — it's really amazing what that man can do with his mouth! — and the one we all loved the most was the "Bill Kreutzmann." I can't describe it, nor tell you how it differs from the other patterns he played, but I did on some level understand how what he was doing reflected Billy's drumming style!
I don't want to give away the secrets of our arrangement of "Bertha," but I can say that once again, potential conflicts between those who prefer "pure" a cappella and the instrumentally-augmented approach were resolved to everyone's satisfaction by the music itself. That is, once we tried a few different approaches, it was clear to everybody which one was the one that worked.
* * *
Our last task of the evening was to finish "Stella Blue." The tenors and baritone had to add their parts to the bass and lead we had worked on earlier in the day.
I listened in the control room while the singers tried again and again to find their way through the verses, whose chord changes are unlike those of any other song The Persuasions have ever heard. Simple enough, I suppose — E, E maj7, A sus4, A, Em, C7, B — but The Persuasions were trying (for example) to hold notes over the C7 and B7, which just wasn't working.
Finally, I got my guitar and went out into the studio to work out the lines with them. What's fascinating to me is how little range there is in each of the three parts. Jay's (baritone) is G#, G#, E, E, G, E, F#. Joe's, goes B, B, A, A, B, Bb, A. Ray, on top, goes E, D#, D, C#, E, E, D#. I would sing each guy's melody to him in compressed form — going through the notes quickly so they could hear the tune and then stretch it out over several seconds per note. That was also interesting.
I think in the a cappella business, motion from not to note is where the action is, and so holding a note from chord to chord sometimes doesn't feel right. I think they also spent a lot of time learning, or trying to learn, parts that were just wrong. Whatever the reason — and the fact that we were in our twelfth hour there at Bay Records was undoubtedly part of it — we weren't having much luck getting these parts on tape solidly, so we agreed to call it a night.
On the way out, Rip said that while I was in the studio working with the singers, Lawson had been out in the lounge saying he was thinking about starting "Stella Blue" over from scratch due to tempo fluctuations in Jimmy's carefully-reconstructed bass part. We sure put a lot of time into this song, and it's got gigantic potential, and we're running out of days and we have a lot of fixies to do on just about every part of every song — so I guess that means the hair-tearing part of the producer's job is looming on the horizon.
Tuesday, June 6
Joe recorded his lead vocal on "Loose Lucy." Took some doing. After trying a few times, Joe decided he wanted a faster track a half step higher. No way we're going to scrap a day's work and cut a new one at this late date, I insisted.
"I've got an idea," said Mike Cogan. "Let's try to VSO the track" referring to the variable-speed oscillator that can be used to speed up or slow down the analog tape. It's a good thing Joe wanted the track faster AND higher, because those two things go hand in hand. An 8% increase in tape speed yielded a semi-tone rise in pitch and an increase in tempo sufficient to please Sweet Joe.
Joe sang "Loose Lucy" three times, each take more energetic and spicy than the last. Miracle Mike Cogan!
While Joe was delivering the smokin' goods, Rip reminded me that we had discussed getting some "yeah!"s in there to counter the group "Yeah!"s in the choruses. I jokingly said, "Okay, Ray and I will do the Raeletts part," but Ray liked the idea. So we did it! Joe decided we should be called the "Sugar-letts," since he's "Sweet" Joe Russell. So I suppose we'll be listed in the credits that way. Just a few quick high-pitched vocal interjections, but what a thrill!
* * *
During the dinner break, I brought up a scheduling question that produced a bombshell: We are dropping "Stella Blue."
I went to Jerry Lawson with the suggestion that we tackle "New Speedway Boogie" before we returned to "Stella Blue" for the third time. My thinking was that if we ran out of time, we'd be better off with one more rocker than one more ballad. Lawson said we should save "Stella Blue" for another time, since we have 14 or 15 songs already and we don't need another ballad.
I was shocked, but I immediately began to get used to the idea. Rip walked in a few minutes later and was absolutely stricken when we broke the news. He tried to argue a bit, making an impassioned case for the beauty of Jerry's vocal. No one disagreed about that, but I pointed out once again that the music has told us what it needs, and we are here to serve the music.
This decision takes a lot of pressure off of us. We now have one song to start and several to finish, and probably one full day to go back over everything and tuck in all the loose threads and wobbly notes we can find. Joe was in the studio rehearsing the lead vocal of "New Speedway Boogie," and Lawson declared that we'd knock it out first thing in the morning.
I suggested that we get to work on "One More Saturday Night," which I knew was going to need some replacement Jimmy lines and tenor-twins action. Jerry wound up putting in some additional whoops and hollers here and there, too. After everyone had done their "fixies," all that remained was for Jerry to go in and record a new background vocal line he'd thought up while we were reviewing the track — but it was 8:30, and he is commuting to and from Guerneville (I knew he lived up there, but I didn't realize he'd been driving it EVERY DAY!), so he said he'd knock out the new vocal first thing tomorrow.
* * *
When we began, I had some vague fears about all the songs sounding the same. Some of the bluegrass "tributes" are hideously Procrustean, and the last thing I'd want to be involved in is the processing of these great songs through some Doo-Wop Filter. No one who knows The Persuasions would expect a half-assed job from them, and it was clear from "Black Muddy River" that they are capable of connecting with the material.
The songs are being Persuasionized, but they all still retain their individual identities, and it's been fascinating to hear how the Persuasions strike that balance. This record is doing exactly what I hoped and expected it to do: shedding new light on these great songs with thoughtful, creative arrangements and soulful, spirited performances.