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Opening the Doors to the Temples of Sound

Author and local resident Jim Cogan
takes us inside the Great American Recording Studios
Mar. 22, 2003

Story by Tony Bonyata

All great music has a birthplace. And while most may not know exactly where, back in 1961, a young Bob Dylan ambled in with his guitar to record "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" or where Little Richard helped usher in rock 'n' roll in 1955 with his sexually charged cry of,"A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, A-lop-bam-boom," authors Jim Cogan and William Clark are about to change all of that.
With their new book Temples of Sound just hitting the bookshelves, the two authors have opened the doors to fifteen of the greatest recording studios in the U.S. While many of the sessions, stories and images recorded in these hallowed halls have been locked away from the casual fan and observer, Cogan (writer, recording engineer, teacher and visiting lecturer) and Clark (writer, playwright and documentarian) take their readers on a fascinating insider's tour into these mysterious, enigmatic rooms. Temple of Sound
Temples of Sound is an intoxicating document of not only the great recording rooms in America, but also of the men behind the boards; legends in the recording industry such as Sun Records' Sam Phillips, the Chess brothers from Chicago, New Orleans' Cosimo Matassa and Motown's Berry Gordy, among many others. But what Cogan and Clark also portray are the people on the other side of the glass; the artists whom these rooms were originally created for in the first place. Through detailed accounts and interviews, along with many rare and historically important photographs from famed photographers such as Jim Marshall and Michael Ochs, the performances of the artists come to life as if you're actually in the recording session with them. And the breadth of artists featured reads like a veritable who's who in 20th Century American music. Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, The Beach Boys, Little Richard, Howlin' Wolf, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, and the list just keeps going. Within the realm of the recording studio, the authors have successfully taken all of these drastically different musical styles - from swing to cool jazz to folk to rock 'n' roll to soul and funk - and have made them all fit comfortably together within the front and back covers of a single book.
Cogan, a Chicago native who currently resides in Fontana, Wisconsin, has certainly had his share of experience from the inside of the studio. After teaching British-American literature at the American School of London in the early '80s, he first landed a job at Chicago's Zenith / db studio. "When I came back from England I knew I didn't want to teach," Cogan admitted, "so I got the phone book out and started calling up studios in Chicago. The only place that was hiring at all was a film mixing house called Zenith / db on LaSalle and Huron. Fortunately it was only two blocks from where I lived. So I got a job as a projectionist behind film mixers, loading up 16mm and 35mm film for industrial films, B movies, C movies, but mostly commercials. We also did the audio for Wild Kingdom, which was kind of funny, because we'd click two pencils together when it was two horns or antlers locking together in the tundra," he laughed. "This was Marlin Perkins in like 1980. And when you'd hear him walking in snow, it'd be us with our fingers in cornstarch and that kind of stuff. It was blast! That's where I saw my first studio and I really cherish that memory."
With a minimal amount of studio experience Cogan then managed to work his way into a job at the venerable Chicago Recording Company (whose recent clients have included the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Carlos Santana, Wilco, R. Kelly and Michael Jackson). "I was there..... "After a few months [ at Zenith / db] I knew I wanted to go into a regular studio," he said. "I got together a really wacky resume, one that I'd kill to have now. You know, pre-word processor, with White-Out all over the typos," he chuckled. "I had previously lived in L.A. for six months and I put down on the resume about five or six studios in L.A. as places that I'd worked, when I'd never even set foot in any of them. So I really padded the resume big time. I got an interview with the C.R.C. [Chicago Recording Company], and because of my 'experience' at these L.A. studios, they hired me. I literally had zero recording experience before that. None!"
Cogan went on to explain, "So that first weekend it was apparent that I didn't know anything about studios. I'll never forget when the engineer I was assisting on the first day told me, ''Okay, get an 87 [an expensive German Nuemann microphone], put it in hypercardioid with a 75 hertz rolloff and a 10-db pad, and put it on the cello'.'' And the only thing I knew was 'cello'," he laughed. "So that first week I was really way over my head, because they put me right on sessions. Usually you're a gopher or a runner. You get lunch, you make coffee and those sort of things. I literally leap-frogged my way in there. So that weekend I locked myself in the dub room and I taped the new single of the day from WXRT, which, by the way, was The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." I taped it on two-track quarter inch and I taught myself how to edit, you know, take out the verse, take out the chorus."
While Cogan may have initially 'cut his teeth' in the studio on a Stones' rocker, it was the realm of jazz, and cutting edge jazz at that, in which he was to make his name. "I was there [at C.R.C.] for six years and I lucked into making some really cool, avant garde jazz records for the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. It was a big movement with bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the likes. I just got into that crowd through luck, though, because I took this low paying session that another guy turned down. So I started becoming known as the guy who was doing these avant-garde jazz records. Even labels in Sweden and Germany would send me work to record these Chicago musicians. I got to work on some critically acclaimed acts, such as 8 Bold Souls. They're very much like Henry Threadgill, very avant garde, almost like free-jazz. They're really a cool band. It's like chamber music, but its jazz, with cello, upright bass and tuba. So because of recordings like these, I became known as their jazz engineer."
Although Cogan seems proudest of his engineering work with avant-garde jazz artists, he also had his fingers on the knobs for a then burgeoning new music scene coming out the Chicago underground known as House music, a music dominated by simple bass lines and driving percussions that blended disco, electronica, funk and soul with an all-night rave mentality. "It was really cool to work with guys like Farley and Marshall Jefferson and Steve "Silk" Hurley, these were truly the fathers of Chicago House. A lot of the stuff that I worked on wasn't that big in its own right, but it was very influential. Like I did an early session with these House guys and these jazzers back in '84 or '85, which was acid jazz, which literally became the rage in London a year or two later."
But House music aside, Cogan admits, "As an engineer, there was nothing that equaled having 18 players in the room - five saxes, four trombones, three trumpets, a beautiful Bosendorfer piano, upright bass, percussionists, singers. The love of being a recording engineer is when all those mics are open and the music is flowing through, and the lights are low and its one in the morning."
After six years at C.R.C. Cogan felt he had enough clients to go out on his own and start free-lancing. Unfortunately, however, he overestimated his client base, finding it more difficult to secure recording sessions during a time which Cogan now refers to as his "fallow period." Opportunity came calling, however, in the form of a former colleague from Zenith/db who heard that he was freelancing and asked him if he'd like to teach a class on audio engineering at Chicago's Columbia College. Needing the funds and realizing that he missed teaching, Cogan took the job, which lasted 14 years (8 of them full-time). "I taught one class and then built that up, and then became a full-time teacher after a few years there. It was a really great period where I was making five or six cool records a year and teaching at a really great school with cutting edge students. And because of the audio department's reputation, they're coming from all over now. It was nice teaching and working at the studio at the same time because I didn't get stale of either one."
It was around this time that a band called Rant Chant, featuring Cogan's later writing partner and close friend William [Bob] Clark, came into one of Cogan's sessions to record. "They sounded like The B-52's meets Prince," Cogan explained of the band. "Bob and I immediately hit it off. We soon realized that we were both fans of Jackie Wilson and Langston Hughes. What are the odds?!," he laughed. "His stuff should've been huge. He was such a great writer. He played Farfisa [organ] and his wife and another gal in the band were the rhythm guitar and background vocal chicks, and their stuff was really loopy and off-the-wall, but it really rocked."
Although Clark later moved to Washington D.C., where he still currently resides, to write for educational television shows, as well as Discovery and National Geographic's Explorer, Cogan never lost touch with his good friend. "We never stopped communicating," Cogan stated rather proudly. "Our friendship was so strong that we'd still talk every week or so. And he called me to do music production and engineering for soundtracks for films and documentaries that he was working on. We did a really cool thing on Harriet Tubman called "Steal Away", and that won some New York Film Fest awards. And we did a thing on unlovable animals for Geographic, which also won some awards. Bob did a great job on that! It was really fresh. We have this great working relationship."
The inception for their Temples of Sound book took place some ten years ago as the two self-proclaimed 'pop culture sponges' were thumbing through the pages of a book over a couple of scotches. As Cogan remembers, "We saw this picture of a recording studio, and I think Miles [Davis] was in the picture, and I said, 'Don't these pictures of musicians in the studio look cool, no matter what they are! Wouldn't a book with nothing but cool photos like these make a great book?' And Bob's like, 'yeah, yeah, yeah' and we didn't really do anything with it."
Although nothing immediately happened, after thinking about for awhile, Clark later called Cogan and agreed to work on the book with him. "One of the things that Bob's really great at, among other things, is finding the proper channel and the proper protocol. We had a killer book proposal. Sixty pages in length, sample chapters, market strategies and so on. All you had to do was look at the proposal and every question was answered. But it languished for a couple of years. One day Bob was having lunch with a friend, who he meets with about every six months, and he explained the idea of the book to her. Well, she mentions to him that she has a friend that is really high up at Chronicle Books, and that maybe he could do something. It turns out that her friend is the owner and founder of Chronicle Books, which, surprisingly, was the only publisher Bob ever wanted to be with, because their books are so attractive and well designed. The next day Bob Fed Ex's the proposal to the publisher and he says,' We're doing it.' Just like that!"
While ten years from their initial idea to the actual release of the finished book may seem like a long time, Cogan couldn't be happier with the timing of its release. "The great thing about this book coming out now is that we've hit a time - through VH1's Behind the Music and DVD's featuring added bonus material, such as 'The Making of' and 'Behind the Scenes' - where people are more comfortable with this type of thing. There's a retro movement right now, whether its Hitchcock or early Apocalypse Now, or Scorsese or Spielberg or Beatles records, in how all of these things were made. Even the casual T.V. viewer and movie fan today has been exposed to the movie studio, the newsroom and the radio station. But never the recording studio. We just kind of took it to a deeper level."
"What I'm really proudest of is I think we managed to pull a couple of different strands together. There's a cultural strand in the terms of, from the '40s through the '70s, every region - from Nashville to New Orleans to Philly - had their own identifiable sound. We don't really have that now. You've got east coast / west coast hip-hop, techno in Detroit, House in Chicago, but, by and large, you don't have that. So each studio represented its own culture, distinctly apart from any other studio that's in the book. I mean, Philly couldn't be any more different from RCA B in Nashville and from Cosimo's in New Orleans. These were their own universes! And they really meant something to the community."
Aside from music, another topic that Cogan feels the book subtly deals with is racial issues. "The studio was the only place in the arts in the latter part of the 20th century where blacks and whites collaborated together, making art every single day," he explained. "It didn't happen on Broadway. It didn't happen in dance. I don't think we hit anybody over the head with it, but its a big part of the book. Coincidentally," he added, "my partner Bob is African-American and I'm a white guy, so we bring that to the table as well."
Although he comes from a technical background in audio engineering, Cogan is also adamant when it comes to who their book is targeted for. "It's not a technical book at all. I'd like to think that if you're a musician, especially of a certain age, and you've been in the studio, then you almost have to have it. But even if you're not and you just like pop culture then...I mean if you're a fan of The Beach Boys or Billie Holiday or Miles then its written to you too. I think its knowledgeable, without being inaccessible. And I'm proud of that." Cogan continued, "We call the stories in this book 'The American Soundtrack.' For as long as there'll be radio in America you're going to hear "Only The Lonely" and "Strangers in the Night" and "Respect" and "Light My Fire"....always. People know all of these songs but they don't have a clue as to how or where they were made, or by whom. It's an idea that hopefully will be embraced by anyone who has a love for these records."
"As a former college teacher, I think that this book could be a resource tool for a lot of pop music courses and pop culture courses. I think there's a lot of ways that this book can grow in finding an audience of high school and college kids, educators, as well as pop music and pop culture fans."
While growing up Cogan listened to whatever records his two older brothers were playing at the time, such as Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. But oddly enough, or, considering his later accomplishments behind the studio control boards, not odd at all, some of his fondest musical memories as a kid were not of who he was listening to, but rather how he was listening to them. "My dad, who was a carpenter, installed these speakers to go from this portable Zenith record player that was upstairs, down to the basement. You'd flick a toggle switch and the speakers would go on downstairs and I was like 'Whoa!,' he laughed. "Now this was way before I knew anything about a bass line, but the thing I would do is put my ear to floor. And it wasn't the lyrics or the melody that would come through the clearest, it was the bass line. So I got to recognize songs by the bass line." Cogan continued," At the same time, in order to keep me occupied, my mom would sit me in front the Zenith portable record player with my little dog, Pepper, and she'd take all my brother's 45s - Orbison, Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Elvis and the likes - and put on all the A-sides on the spindle, where they'd go down one by one. Then when all 14 or 15 of those had dropped down and played, she'd just flip them over to hear the B-sides. And this was like every day. This is why it goes so deep for me, because I had such an incredible exposure to it."
"Kids today don't realize that when we were growing up you never, ever, not even for a minute, saw a recording studio. Not on television or in movies or anything. The only time I ever saw a studio in my first twenty years was Elvis in Jailhouse Rock , where they showed some studio shots. Unlike today, where you see a studio every single day - via videos. But it use to be this invisible profession. I've always been a freak about who mixed and recorded the music I listened to, even though I had never set foot in the studio. As a kid I always memorized that stuff and catalogued it. I just loved it. I would get albums and just pour over the liner notes and the credits."
When asked to choose which of the 15 studios from Temples of Sound he'd most like to work in, Cogan hesitated, "Well, that's kind of a multifaceted question for an engineer. There's the cultural stuff and there's the vibe stuff and there's also the technical stuff. I guess I would have to choose two studios, although neither one exists anymore, unfortunately. The first would be Columbia's 30th Street studio, which was an old Armenian Orthodox church in midtown Manhattan. The dimensions of the room were 100' by 100' by 100'. All wooden pegs, no nails. So just in terms of a hallowed, great sounding room, that was it. It's where Miles did Kind of Blue, and Time Out by Dave Brubeck, Johnny Mathis did Misty. Simon & Garfunkel, Dylan and Streisand did all their early stuff here. Although, again, it's really hard to separate the space from the artists that made that space famous. The other would be, for emotional reasons as well as technical, Universal on the corner of Rush and Walton in the Rush Street district of Chicago. It was right next door to the old Playboy Club right around the corner from Mr. Kelly's, which is where everyone came to play - from Sarah Vaughn to Woody Allen to Joan Rivers to [Count] Basie. My friends and I have always been into that swinging Rush Street era. We're Rat Pack, lounge loving guys. And Rush Street is all that. On the technical side, our book is dedicated to our fathers and to the 'father of modern recording' Bill Putnam. Bill Putnam built Universal. He also built United Western, which is where Sinatra and The Beach Boys did all their great records. He was a genius. Everybody in the book mentions him, from Sam Phillips to Cosimo Matassa. Many great recording engineers, like Phil Ramone, mention Universal in Chicago as the most magnificent room ever. The acoustics were so brilliantly designed, with movable louvers and panels that could make it more reflective or more dry. And, like we've stated in the book, Universal bridged that gap between swing and soul. I mean, you take Basie and Kenton and Ellington, who all recorded there, and then you start getting into Curtis Mayfield and The Chi-Lites. So both places, because of the huge technical and cultural importance."
Both Cogan and Clark are currently busy promoting their book, which, they're hoping, might also lead to other opportunities. "We're very close to getting a film documentary version of this book," Cogan stated, "and if that happens Rhino Records, who has partnered with Chronicle Books in the past, has said that they will do a CD version the book, as well. We're hoping that PBS, VH1 or A&E will partner with us. And we're talking to Quincy [Jones], who wrote the forward, about helping us to get this going. If we're lucky enough to get that to grow, we plan on producing a second book which would cover studios such as Electric Ladyland, Abbey Road, Studio One in Jamaica and Olympia in London, among others. If we're able to do another book, we'll probably just do ten studios, but ten killer worldwide studios."
There's probably nobody who sums up the overall feel of this book better than famed music producer Quincy Jones, who Cogan and Clark secured to pen the book's foreword. As Jones explained, "Temples of Sound brings me back to the days when the modern era of recording began. Maybe it's impossible to re-create the experience of being in the studio during the great takes: the cigarette smoke, the banter, the fights, the sleepless nights, the joy of hearing a playback that everyone knows is right because you can see it everyone else's eyes. Maybe it's impossible, but this is the next best thing. Just listen."

Author Jim Cogan will be signing copies of his new book Temples of Sound at The Crow's Nest in Lake Geneva on Friday, April 4th at 6 pm. For more information call (262) 248-9220

WLKG (96.1) radio station will also be featuring an interview with Jim Cogan at 5:15 pm on Monday, March 31st, and Jim will also be featured as a keynote speaker as part of the Black Point Film Festival at the Showboat Theater in Lake Geneva on Saturday, April 26.

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