Iain Cameron's Diary
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2005-01-25 - 9:35 p.m.
Here’s some stuff I have discovered on the history of ambience. It seems that radio drama was the place that strange sound processing first started. But Bill Putnam’s newly founded company Universal Records in Illinois started using chamber echo on recordings in 1947. Universal became famous, doing recordings for the Chicago based labels VeeJay, Mercury and Chess. It was a hub for rhythm and blues recordings including cuts for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and Chuck Berry. Jazz artists recorded by Putnam included Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington.
Putnam was a serious technologist who went on to do all kinds of pioneering things like the first use of tape repeat, the first vocal booth, the first multiple voice recording, the first 8-track recording trials and experiments with half speed disc mastering. He did the sound for President Kennedy’s inauguration. His company in still going.
Putnam started as a radio ham, he would hire and repair PA systems and was also a big band vocalist bringing his own PA. He went to Technical College and then into the Army during the War. The Harmonicats had an enormous hit in 1947 which was recorded by him - and this stimulated the use of echo chambers all over.
The Hooker story is as follows:
‘In 1948, record store owner Elmer Barbee caught Hooker’s act. Barbee assumed Hooker's managerial reins and recorded him in the rear of his shop to no real avail. Then Barbee introduced Hooker to Bernard Besman and Johnny Caplan, who ran Sensation Records out of a Woodward Avenue office in Detroit, bringing along a worn-out acetate of Hooker singing "Sally May" for Besman's edification. Besman already had pianist Todd Rhodes' popular R&B orchestra under Sensation contract, their sophisticated, jazzy arrangements light years from John Lee's stark, unschooled approach. But Besman decided to take a chance on Hooker, recording his debut sides at the tail end of a Rhodes session at United Sound Systems, probably in late summer of '48.
"They heard me, and they liked what they heard," said Hooker. "They said it was a sound that nobody else had, that they'd never heard before. Said I had such a ringing, good voice-which I thought I did, but everybody else said I did. So they signed me right up, and I come up with some number one hits."
Instead of utilizing the small rhythm section Hooker often fronted for live gigs, Besman cut him solo. Engineer Joe Siracuse soaked John Lee's guitar in echo and rendered a drummer superfluous by liberally miking his stomping foot to create an eerie sound like no one else's on the scene. It was an archaic throwback to the Delta rendered contemporary, flying in the face of the horn-leavened jump blues then dominating the R&B hit parade. Among the fruits of that first seminal session were the brooding B side "Sally May" (that's how Modern's original 78 label had it; it's now generally spelled "Sally Mae"). John Lee's immortal "Boogie Chillen" was recorded at the end of the day when Besman requested a boogie piece of some sort.
As he so often did, Hooker drew upon his own experience for its lyrics, even referencing Henry's Swing Club. "Everybody was talkin' about it, because everybody would go there," explained Hooker. "And I just wrote a song about it." But "Boogie Chillen" would not hit the streets on Besman's Sensation logo. "His label was so little, he put it on a bigger label," said John Lee. Besman struck a deal with the Bihari brothers' Modern Records, based in Los Angeles with a star-studded talent roster encompassing lots of jumping R&B acts as well as a strong rural blues contingent. It didn't take long for Hooker's first slice of Modern shellac to conquer the market. Entering Billboard's R&B charts in January of '49, it sat at number one in mid-February.’
As I said yesterday - the really interesting point is the way that the novel recording technique meets the Delta Blues Style - successfully. Sensation also handled the Detroit modern jazz artists Milt Jackson ( who was about to form the Modern Jazz 4tet at this point bringing a blues inflection to Lewis’ classical orientation) - and Sonny Stitt - a Parker follower who was in the Miles Davis 5tet when it first toured England at the end of the 50s.
The use of these mixing techniques tended to be a black art right up to the 60s. It seems that the first Beatles album involved a special treatment whereby the instrumental mix was fed into an echo chamber and then rerecorded. This ambient sound was mixed with the original track with a tape head displacement to give a combination of delay and ambient.
Here’s a discussion of how ambience went in and out of recording fashion:
‘Very quickly. In the late 1920's when electric recording came in (1925), some record companies like Columbia and Victor, recorded in an ambient environment (churches, meeting halls, etc.)
BUT, when Jukeboxes came in, the Jukebox operators DEMANDED that the record companies deaden their sound. The metallic sound of the Jukeboxes made the records sound too thin. SO, the record companies (hurting from the depression) did just that, just in time for the swing era.
That's why, from about 1935 on (until the 1950's), records were recorded as DEAD as possible.
Then, the HI-FI revolution began and the very start of the 1950's. Engineers tried everything to make their records sound "Hi-Fi" even if they didn't have a clue as to what that meant to a consumer. Mercury Records and engineer Bill Fine, put a single microphone in a big concert hall and recorded the first Mercury "Living Presence" LP. This was the start of the "Hi-Fi" craze, and most engineers from other companies quickly came to the understanding that ECHO = Hi-Fi.
A guy named Bill Putnam founded Universal Recording in Chicago and he invented the first "echo chamber". Easier than recording on location in a big hall. One by one, the "echo craze" spread across the country and around the world. Capitol built their chamber in 1953, and when they moved to the Capitol Tower in early 1956, their chambers were well thought out and amazing sounding (still are). Decca used an American Legion Hall in NYC to get that natural echo on "Rock Around The Clock" in 1954, and Columbia built big wonderful wet sounding studios to record stuff in ("Take Five", "Kind Of Blue", etc.) ‘
This is from http://www.netassoc.net/dougspage/HoffLesson4.htm
You can see that big companies are focusing a lot of time and effort to get some sort of reverb USP in their facilities. (Richard Jones and I were shown the echo chambers at Air in Oxford Circus by none other than George Martin just before we did our finals.). So I come back to my core point - how strange it is that some of this leading edge stuff finds its way onto the Delta Blues in 1948. This sticks in my mind because there is some single sting playing on an early JLH record which sounds as if it is a demonic yelping - I must track this down. I can remember thinking how odd the sound was - back in the 60s when I first heard it. But in fact the technique was 20 years old then.
The key point is that the recording approach isn’t trying to preserve the archaic blues in aspic. Its trying to add to the expression of the piece as a whole - almost like the radio production approach which started echo. It happens at the point where despite the growing sophistication of the blues - Delta can still be offered within the leading edge music making approach - which might have been applied to any kind of music. Its before rock n roll and before blues experiences decline with its core audience. Its before the rediscovery of Delta Blues by McKune in Brooklyn - and well before English Youth muddles all sorts of music together in the early 60s. Oh yes - it happens in Detroit.