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Tom Dowd’s music-making legacy moves from board to screen

Anyone who loves the history of music enough to check album credits has probably come across the name of Tom Dowd. A longtime producer and engineer, Dowd worked on discs by jazz greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, R&B stars Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, Latin ace Tito Puente, and rock heavyweights from Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Dowd's accomplishments further include bringing stereo recording to Atlantic Records and building the label's first eight-track console. But he was much more than a button pusher. "He wasn't just running the board. He was a partner in making things happen [musically]," says Atlantic cofounder Ahmet Ertegun, one of many movers and shakers interviewed in the compelling documentary "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music."

The film is not for everyone. Sometimes it gets into arcane talk of equipment that makes more sense for a Berklee College of Music engineering class than for a mass-market movie -- but as a probing look at a really nice-guy genius in the studio world, it succeeds admirably.

Dowd, who died at 77 two years ago, grew up in New York (his mother was an opera singer, his father a stage manager/designer) and studied nuclear physics at Columbia. He worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and was at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean for a bomb test that left a lasting impression on him.

He could have continued on the nuclear path but opted for music instead, starting in the late '40s by recording his first hits, "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake" by Eileen Barton and "Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-O-dee" by Sticks McGhee.

As his name grew, everyone suddenly wanted him. The workaholic Dowd shares his "culture shock" of working one afternoon on a session by the teen-poppy Coasters, followed by an intense late-night session by the jazz experimentalist Charles Mingus.

Dowd was Atlantic's chief studio wizard -- and there's some dynamic behind-the-scenes footage of Aretha Franklin singing and playing piano as a young woman. Dowd, who was interviewed extensively for this film, says that Atlantic had him on the move: "I had the five Ms: Manhattan, Miami, Macon, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals" in Alabama.

His knowledge of music enabled him to go in and out of different genres easily -- and many musicians comment on his open mind. Clapton worked with him on solo projects as well as on records for Cream and Derek & the Dominos. In the film's most emotional moment, an aging but lucid Dowd plays back the Dominos' "Layla" on a recording console, isolating the guitar parts of Clapton and Duane Allman and rolling his eyes in ecstasy. This man loved all kinds of music -- and one might argue there aren't enough of these nonjudgmental producer/engineers around anymore.

"His role was making me feel comfortable and inspiring me to do my best and have confidence in myself," Clapton says. "He was such a gentleman. . . . I really respect this man a lot. He was kind of like a father to me."

Dowd also clears up a misconception that he became a multimillionaire from working on so many hit albums. Not true, he says, because on "90 percent of the records I made I was just paid for hire," meaning just for his studio time. "But the reward is that I go to bed every night and my conscience doesn't bother me. And I'm still friends with every one of these artists."

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