13 June 2006

session log, volume four

song: "lucky man"
artist: skip denenberg

instrument(s) played (deep breath): rickenbacker 12 string guitar, danelectro DC-3 electric guitar, 40's gibson lap steel, dobro, mandolin, harmony vocals (exhale....)

studio: phildelphia international records, 309 s. broad street, philadelphia PA

engineer: craig white

producer(s): skip denenberg, simon illa, craig white

mixed by: craig white, skip denenberg

this session was my first introduction to the studios at 309 s. broad street, the headquarters of philadelphia international records for the past three and a half decades. before that, it was home to the cameo-parkway record label and studios, where "at the hop" by danny and the juniors and "the twist" by chubby checker were recorded. the building was a frequent haunt for young songwriters kenny gamble and leon huff while they were honing their craft, although cameo-parkway didn't have the time of day for them. when they took their business to sigma sound and set up shop in the schubert building right across the street, things started to happen for them and they had front row seats as cameo-parkways' fortunes took a turn for the worse. if you look up irony in the dictionary, you could very well see a picture of the enterprising kenny gamble and leon huff buying the building at 309 s. broad street, where they'd been denied a chance for all those years, and moving their thriving philadelphia international records into the building and putting philadelphia on the map in the seventies with artists such as the o'jays, teddy pendergrass, the intruders, lou rawls, billy paul, the three degrees and many others (this doesn't even take into account fellow songwriter thom bell's successes with the stylistics, the delfonics, the spinners, and other acts that weren't under the PIR umbrella).

you walk in the front door and back into the elevator and up to the third floor. the elevator opens and you see a larger-than-life poster with the images of gamble and huff on it. to its left as you get out of the elevator is a glass case with a smattering of gold and platinum albums in it. when you round the corner and walk through the doorway at the end of the foyer, you go into the main hallway leading to the studio, and that's where you get your first real sense of the history of the building - the entire wall to your right as you walk back to the studio is lined with gold and platinum albums...almost two dozen just in the first ten yards of the hallway. newspaper articles and such accompany the records to further drive home the history engrained in the space you're standing in.

the studio itself hasn't changed a great deal since the salad days of the seventies - hot orange and lime green carpet adorns sections of the walls and the floor, and the place has the retro vibe like you wouldn't believe...as if you could turn around any minute and see norman harris and bobby eli tuning up for a session while earl young was poundin' away at the kit behind the half-wall that isolates the drums from the rest of the room. a yamaha grand piano sits on the other side of the room with keys eggshelled from age - the instrument that bore responsibility for so many of those songs that were immortalized in oxide during that time period.

this particular session started at 8pm, and began with basic tracks. george manney played drums on the track, mike demartinez played guitar, and dave humphries played bass. george, dave, and skip did the basic track as a rhythm section, with skip cutting a scratch acoustic track as a reference for the section.

it can't be overstated how important it is to get a solid take of the rhythm section. the session was done to a click, so there was a reference point for any future flubs that had to be fixed, but having a solid track to build on is essential. after a few opinions flew back and forth as to where the accents should be and such, the basic tracks were done at around 10:30. mike began working on his part shortly thereafter and was done with his part between 12:30 and 1am. after he was finished, i began working on my parts. between 1 am or so and a little after 3am, we put down a danelectro rhythm track, a 12 string guitar track, a lap steel part, and a mandolin rhythm track. we wisely decided to forego doing any vocals at that point, as everyone was fried, and i'm not certain that anyone would be making solid decisions about what was a keeper and what wasn't at that point.

there were a number of reasons why we were able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. one, the song itself was a great canvas to work from. simple, earnest, and well arranged. by putting down such a tight rhythm track, my job was a lot easier. also, skip knew almost exactly what he wanted, and he's good at communicating his wishes to the session guys. craig and simon are also incredibly easy to work with. often, when you're working on the other side of the glass, you can feel whatever the vibe is in the control room coming through the walls...and even after working all those hours, they were still encouraging and positive...and it's easy to do good work for people like that.

so we broke up the first session for this song at a little after 3am, and called it for a week. we went back in the following monday, and i put down a dobro part, followed by skip doing the final vocal take. while we were out, he'd also had someone put a hammond part on, and simon had added some strings to it.

skip executed his first pass on the vocal, and simon addressed him on the talkback:

"i think you have a very bright future in the fast food industry."

everyone, including skip, cracked at that point. it was the perfect moment of levity to break up whatever tension or self-confidence issues might've escalated from that point forward. as skip worked on punching in whatever fixes needed to be made, simon would "promote" him: "that was excellent. you can work the fryer now." or, "i think you're finally ready for the register."

two subsequent sessions saw me adding "ooohs" and beginning cleanup for mixdown. the mix itself took a couple of sessions, as we kept them relatively short to reduce fatigue and/or burnout.

craig actually did a few mixes, one of which was a "campfire mix" that featured all the acoustic instruments that we put down on the sessions, sans drums and bass. that one i haven't heard yet, but i know it's out there somewhere.

the song was recorded for submission for the sountrack of a feature film - its fate is, as yet, unknown. it was played on WIP during the morning show the day after the final mix was finished, though.

this could very easily become my favorite studio to work in...craig, simon and i all hit it off right away, and i absolutely love the history of the place...and it's a great studio to work in.


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