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Producer Tom Dowd Dies

Legendary behind-the-scenes figure worked with Clapton, Aretha

October 28, 2002 12:00 AM ET

Few resumes could match the one put together by Tom Dowd in his nearly fifty years in the music business. The legendary producer and engineer left his fingerprints behind on recordings of myriad stripes. By producing classic recordings for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers in the Seventies, he helped invent the genre of southern rock. He was instrumental in the production of numerous famed soul recordings, including albums by Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield. He oversaw landmark jazz albums by Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. And by serving as engineer on Cream's Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire he fostered a professional relationship with Eric Clapton that extended a quarter century, through Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and numerous solo albums. Dowd died on October 27th in Aventura, Florida, after battling respiratory illness for the past two years; he was seventy-seven.

Dowd was born New Year's Day in 1925 in New York City. With a background in physics, Dowd went to work on the Manhattan Project at the physics lab at Columbia University in 1942, where he worked for four years. A year after leaving, he placed his foot in the music industry door, applying his science background to the logistics of recording music. In 1952, Dowd began a two-decade relationship with Atlantic Records, helping to introduce binaural stereo recording. Two years later, he helped build the label's first eight-track consoles, helping modernize the recording industry. An in-house engineer, Dowd also had a gentle touch with the musicians and began to foster relationships with the artists on the label's roster.

Earlier this year, Dowd received the 2002 Grammy Trustees Award, which recognizes significant achievement by non-performers. "For better or worse, the strength of [Layla] rested almost entirely on Tom's faith in me," Clapton wrote in a tribute to Dowd. "I had no finished songs, no real concept or idea of where I was going, nothing but an abstract burning passion for live, spontaneous music. On top of everything else, I refused to make the record under my own name, and was developing a powerful drink and drug problem -- not a great position for any record producer to be placed in, but Tom pulled it off. He saw the potential and exercised the most incredible patience in getting through the obstacles that I would constantly place in front of him. It's little wonder that I eventually came to look on him as a father figure . . . There is a tribe of musicians, spread all over the world, who have been fostered and nurtured by Tom Dowd."

A documentary film, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, which features interviews with Clapton, Charles, producer Phil Ramone, Aretha Franklin and the Allmans, is in the works.

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