Tom Dowd

The Language of Music

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If ever the saga of a behind-the-scenes figure in popular culture was worthy of exploration, it is the story of Tom Dowd. The Language of Music (2003) tells the tale of a man who was generally unknown to the public at large, yet worked on assignments as diverse as providing key contributions to the infamous Manhattan Project to revolutionizing popular music. R&B, jazz, pop, and rock enthusiasts have undoubtedly glossed over his name numerous times while scanning the liner notes of their favorite long-players. The many artists he produced or engineered range from Thelonious Monk to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mark Moormann -- producer and director of The Language of Music -- entwines a primarily chronological first-person narrative of Dowd's entire life with highlights from throughout his pop music career. He is joined by a literal music industry who's-who from the latter half of the 20th century. The list of luminaries include: Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers Band members Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Les Paul, Aretha Franklin, and Joe Bonamassa. Plus, peers and cohorts Ahmet Ertegun, Phil Ramone, Mike Stoller, Arif Mardin, Al Schmitt, and Jerry Wexler. Besides hearing plenty of stories from the past, Moormann actively pursues Dowd at work and at play. Even well into his mid-seventies, Dowd sought out fresh talents and continued his interaction with old favorites. There are several telling moments in understanding Dowd's empathy and unity with the musicians -- visiting an unsuspecting Ray Charles backstage at one of his late-'90s performances, working with relative newcomer Joe Bonamassa. and even attending a live gig by the re-formation of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Equally as engaging is being privy to the man "on the job" -- as he was active at Criteria Studios in Miami until shortly before his passing in October of 2002. As a motif, Derek & the Dominos' rock anthem "Layla" plays a significant part as a bookend for The Language of Music. Dowd sits down at the piano used by Bobby Whitlock to create the song's memorable ending to discuss the ragged but right instrument's import. Near the end, he works the mixing console to remix the song in real time -- pulling apart Clapton and Duane Allman's otherwise inexorably intertwined fretwork as they, in his words, "play notes that aren't even on the instrument." The irony being, they would not have been playing together at all, had there been no Tom Dowd.