Tom Dowd: Fluent in 'The Language of Music'

Documentary Honors a Behind-the-Scenes Recording Industry Star

Tom Dowd at a mixing board with the sheet music for "Layla."

Dowd at a mixing board with the sheet music for "Layla." Terry Townsend, Palm Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Terry Townsend, Palm Pictures
Tom Dowd and director Mark Moorman in New York City in 1997

Tom Dowd and director Mark Moorman in New York City in 1997. Palm Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Palm Pictures

Tom Dowd had the mind of a rocket scientist, but the ears of a musician. When he died in 2002 at age 77, he left a legacy of recordings that trace the recent history of American popular music and the evolution of modern technology. If you listen to the discography of the Atlantic Records label — from John Coltrane through Eric Clapton — you are hearing Dowd at work, too.

Tom Dowd at a mixing board with the original sheet music for Eric Clapton's "Layla"

Tom Dowd at a mixing board with the sheet music for Eric Clapton's "Layla." Terry Townsend, Palm Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Terry Townsend, Palm Pictures

Dowd never got rich. His name rarely appeared in print outside liner notes. But what liner notes they were: "Layla" by Derek & the Dominoes. "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. "Free Bird" by Lynrd Skynyrd. And the list winds on through a dazzling variety of genres and artists.

Dowd's technical contributions were equally groundbreaking — especially his work in recording on eight-track tape.

Now, a documentary film — Tom Dowd & The Language of Music — has opened in select theaters around the country, giving even casual music lovers a chance to appreciate the work of an anonymous master. Later this month, a DVD with bonus features will be released. The film's director and producer, Mark Moorman, spoke recently with NPR's Liane Hansen.

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