SHUT UP & LEARN -
THE AUSPICIOUS APPRENTICESHIP OF GENE PAUL
BY JOHN KRUTH
Published April 2010
In the ten years I’ve known Gene Paul he hasn’t said much. Maybe that had something to do with Joel Dorn usually being in the room, holding court. But now that the Masked Announcer has left the auditorium, a wealth of stories and history suddenly began to pour forth.
Gene’s apprenticeship as a sound engineer began under the man responsible for inventing modern multi-track recording, his father, Les Paul. As a teenager Gene played drums in his father’s band. Backing up “the old man” as Gene refers to Les, took him to some interesting places, from Alaska, South America, Asia, Europe, Vegas to Rudi Valee’s Hollywood home, which was wallpapered with photographs of his favorite singing star, himself.
When Gene left Atlantic Records, recording engineer Joel Kerr and Paul moved to the Fisk building on the corner of Broadway and 57th Street, where they opened DB Plus engineering mastering sessions in what could only be called cramped quarters. But as Gene points out – it’s all about the music.
JK: When was your first session with Atlantic Records?
GP: It was like ‘69, or ‘70. I wore a shirt and tie. I was trying to make good. That was for an Aretha record, Young Gifted and Black, I believe, with Tommy [Dowd]. He just blew me away. I was really nervous because he let me sit at the board and actually do something, where I would have been happy just to go get the coffee. Tommy had remarkable patience, where Wexler was all gut. Jerry would respond to things without the discipline of mulling it over first and finding where the if ands and buts were. Tommy would pace back and forth in the front of the control room for half an hour, workin’ it all out. Not only did he know what he was doing, but he analyzed and digested every move he made. All of a sudden he told me to push the talk back button. He said “Cornell [Dupree], drop the low notes.” If he wanted to change the sound I could have gone out and moved the mike. So Cornell dropped the low notes on his guitar part and all of a sudden you could hear Aretha’s piano much clearer and the tune was done within five minutes. It really made me think.
JK: What was the control room at Atlantic like?
GP: The console was terrible. I couldn’t believe it. I was used to my dad’s console. I called the old man up and said, ‘Jesus, am I in the right place? Are there two Atlantics?’ He said, ‘What do you see? Is it an orange and green room with a couple of pillars?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You’re in the right place.’ I said, ‘Where’s the console?’ He said, ‘It’s that flat black thing.’ I was like, oh my God! ‘Where’s the EQ?’ He said, ‘It’s in the back of the room.’ I was used to dealing with the old man who had a real console with everything perfectly in line. He said, ‘Now take a good look at studio A and visualize twenty two pieces, with Ray Charles sitting at the piano. Remember that album I played for you back at the house? That’s where they did it. Now shut up and learn!’
JK: Did the next session go any better?
GP: My second session was with Aretha again, and Tommy, Arif [Mardin] and Wexler. I was in awe of those guys. In the middle of one take Bernard Purdie’s mike fell down on the hi-hat and I figured, well I better get out there and fix it. So I run out to the studio as Wexler was walking back into the control room seeming very pleasantly happy. He says, ‘Where ya goin?’ I said, ‘Gotta fix Bernard’s mike. It fell.’ He said, ‘Don’t bother. That was the take!’
I heard the mike fall in the middle of the song but they weren’t interested in perfection. It was all about the art of the performance. I wasn’t used to that. Now I had something else to think about. I started wondering if these guys knew what they were doin.’ Then I remembered what the old man said, ‘Shut up and learn!’
JK: Do you recall the name of the song?
GP: When we finished the record, it went out number one. I forget which one it was. There were so many back then. I sat down and listened to the record again. It felt so good and I realized right there and that it's not about somebody doing something perfect. They’d be doing overdubs with Aretha and she’d be pissed off because she wasn’t doing what she wanted. Everyone else was ready to wrap it up and take it to Tiffany’s. She said, ‘Let me do that again.’ I look at Arif, who looks at Wexler. Where are we gonna put it? We’ve got to take the last note off [the previous take]and put this note on it. Everybody was on the edge of their chair! She did it five times and every time was better. And finally she says, ‘That’s it. Goodnight!’ [Laughs] And everybody was like, ‘Did you get that?’ It was all about the music. It was never about anything but that. Once I got a taste of that I had to rethink a lot of the things I learned at home where I learned to do things technically ‘right.’
JK: So you had to learn to fly by the seat of your pants.
GP: At Atlantic if you stopped the tape or the take you’d be in the basement. J.D. [Joel Dorn] always kept a two-track tape running, recording everything that went on in the studio. One time we were recording Roberta [Flack] when somebody played something odd and J.D. said, ‘What was that?’ We went back and listened to the two-track and that mistake evolved into the finished tune. Atlantic's producers appreciated the value of the performance. Even Arif, who never went too crazy, went with a mistake if it was good, that was it! Done! Beautiful!
JK: That’s the true nature of recording that a lot of people hadn’t realized at that point.
GP: Now it’s been completely forgotten. They get the slide ruler out and measure the mike distance.
JK: With pro-tools people are making music visually, forgetting to actually listen.
GP: I don’t think it’s about music anymore. I think it’s about how you get the music. But Jerry had that gut thing. If he heard something, he’d go sit in the corner with the guitar player or drummer and work it out.
JK: So Jerry was like a weathervane or a bloodhound – pure nose and instinct.
GP: Absolutely 100% So was J.D.
JK: Unlike Arif, neither one of them knew how to play an instrument.
GP: No. But Wexler had great ears. He heard it from the bottom on up. He was always saying, ‘more bass.’ He really knew what he was doing. I might disagree with him over certain things but it never got to the point where I’d jump up and wave my hand because nine out of ten chances they were right – all of them, Tommy, Jerry, Arif and J.D. And you just didn’t get in the way of what was goin’ on.
JK: What was Ahmet like to work with?
GP: As much as everybody put Ahmet on a high horse, I gotta tell you, my first record working with Ahmet was on R. V. Greeve’s “Take A Letter Maria.” Arif did the charts on that song. And we were mixing it when Ahmet comes in and says, ‘Let me hear what you got.’ He says, ‘Hmmm… let me go to the bathroom and when I come back we’ll start over.’ So we start the session over and I find myself scooting over in the chair as Ahmet became more active, taking over the faders. I’m like… groovy. Something could come out of it. Who knows… he finishes the song and says, ‘Okay, I got a phone call to make, when I come back let’s A/B the tune.’ When he returns he picks the one I did. But he was that kind of a guy. As long as not too many people were in the room and he came out smelling good, he was straight as an arrow. He said, ‘What you got’s great.’ And that was the record that went out. Jerry was different. Jerry had to be on top, even when you were alone with him. [Laughs] Joel Dorn, never. J.D. would always ask you what you thought.
JK: So Jerry was invested in everything he did ego-wise.
GP: That’s probably what pissed people off the most. [Laughs]. Wexler really was a professor of the music, well versed in all the players and musical genres. You had to respect him. But it was Ahmet who really was the king. He had the great ability of not saying a word and you still knew who was king. Wexler always had to make a point of letting everyone know he came in the room. If you can get past all that stuff and just look at the music, they were all gems.
JK: So what was the story with Nesuhi?
GP: Nesuhi was a sweetheart of a guy. I did one demo for him with this cabaret singer. I can’t remember her name. We had just gotten a new MCI tape machine. We had two two-tracks hooked up together and it was time to put the vocal in. It was easy, a piece of cake. We go through the whole thing and Nesuhi says, ‘Let’s hear one back.’ Well, we play it back and there’s nothin’ on it. It was a new tape machine and the gate in front of the head was manual where the old tape machine was automatic, you couldn’t put the tape on without it. The new one had a lever and it was up when I strung the tape and the tape didn’t touch the head. So the end result was, we had a good blank tape! [Laughs] Nesuhi was very polite. Phil Iehle, who was the studio manager at the time, took me to the basement. Now whenever you go to the basement you know you’re in big trouble.
JK: What did they have? Whips and chains down there?
GP: Now Phil was the reason I was there in the first place. The old man and Phil were buddies and Phil called up the old man one day and said, ‘You got any talent you can tell me about because we need an engineer at Atlantic.’ And of course he told him to hire me and that’s how I got in there. So Phil takes me down to the basement to show me the echo chamber and I know I’m fucked! [Laughs] So the question was, did I have another chance? He said, ‘You really pissed off Nesuhi.’ I said, ‘Look, it was a stupid thing. But it was a mistake. It’s a new tape machine. I wasn’t aware of it and it won’t happen again.’ He said, ‘Okay, the first one’s on the house. Do it again and there’s gonna be a problem. I don’t give a shit who your father is!’ [Laughs]
Nesuhi was a quiet guy he wasn’t like Jerry or Joel or Ahmet. He was more like Arif, but he knew he couldn’t go there (Nesuhi lacked the musical training Mardin had). He recognized people with talent and was so damn wonderful, that you just had to respect him. It was like visiting West Point. You walk in the front gate slouching but by the time you leave you have perfect posture and are saluting everybody! [Laughs] I never got that feeling from Ahmet or J.D. Nesuhi had a vibe all his own. It was like Einstein just walked in the room. Nesuhi would never tell you what to do. He had a way of pulling it out of you. We did such great sessions together with the MJQ [Modern Jazz Quartet] among many others.
JK: Well, Joel’s Hommage A Nesuhi (the recently released 5 CD box set of the best of Atlantic jazz dedicated to his mentor) gives you a pretty clear perspective of what Nesuhi did and how much Joel respected him.
GP: In all the years I worked with Joel Dorn, he would say, ‘Some day I’m gonna make an album right. Besides great music, when you hold it, it’s gotta feel right. It should be like a coffee table book with immaculate pictures.’ When I got Nesuhi's box set, Joel's last project, all I could say was, ‘Okay, if you had to go, damn, this was a good time!’
JK: Yeah. Joel went out with a grand-slam. There’s no doubt about it.