Home > Features > In the mix
In the mix
Legendary record producer Jack Douglas speaks at Sweetwater’s GearFest
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The history of rock n’ roll is full of stories of happy coincidence, strange meetings of chance or turns of fortune that, somehow, ended up paying off in a big way, whether it’s through a classic album or the “big break” that pushes some deserving artist into the spotlight.
But there’s something about the stories that pop up around record producer Jack Douglas and his long, distinguished career in the music industry that sound almost apocryphal. They’re the kind of stories that prompt people to ask Douglas “Is that really true?”
Douglas is one of the speakers at Sweetwater’s annual GearFest, opening the event with a talk on Friday, June 21. Since beginning his career as a musician in the 60s and then becoming a general studio hand at the fledgling Record Plant in New York, Douglas has worked with many of the biggies — you’ve definitely heard something Jack Douglas has had a hand in, and you probably own something by a few of the artists he’s worked with.
Douglas isn’t exactly sure what he’ll be talking about at GearFest, though with over four decades in the music business, he’s got plenty to draw from. “Probably about the industry, the state of the industry, the equipment we’ve used over the last hundred years I’ve been making records,” Douglas says.
Of course, he anticipates lots of questions. “People usually ask me about my long-standing relationship with Aerosmith, or the years I worked with John Lennon,” he says. “If I get more of a ‘downtown’ crowd, they ask about Patti Smith or The New York Dolls, but usually it’s (Lennon and Aerosmith).”
And they ask him to verify some of those stories they’ve heard about Douglas. Like the story — and the story within the story — of his first encounter with John Lennon in 1971. Douglas, a general studio hand, was one of many audio engineers working on Lennon’s Imagine album at the Record Plant in New York.
Douglas was alone in a small room away from the main studio, editing tapes, when Lennon came in looking for a quiet place to have a smoke. After a few minutes of silence, with Lennon sitting on a couch smoking and Douglas crouched over the editing equipment, Douglas told Lennon that he had been to Liverpool.
Lennon’s interest was piqued — why in the world would anyone want to go to Liverpool? Everyone over there wanted to come over here, to New York.
Like a lot of young musicians, Douglas wanted to experience the birthplace of the band that was making all that exciting new music, so in 1965, he and a friend went over by boat, arriving the day Rubber Soul was released. “We went over on a tramp steamer,” Douglas says. “It was a terrible trip, and we were very naïve. We brought our guitars and amps with us, but we didn’t have work permits, so they wouldn’t let us off the ship.”
But Douglas did manage to slip off the ship, and took their story to one of the local papers. And as he recounted the tale to Lennon in 1971, the ex-Beatle suddenly got very excited. “Wait! You weren’t that crazy Yank, were you?”
Yes, Douglas was that crazy Yank, and Lennon remembered seeing a photograph of Douglas, guitar in hand, on the front page of several papers. Not that the publicity helped Douglas and his friend at the time. “We were deported, literally in chains,” he laughs.
But that chance encounter with Lennon led to a long professional relationship with the artist; eventually, Douglas would go on to man the production boards for Lennon’s classic comeback album Double Fantasy…
That album, however, was still nearly a decade down the road. There were plenty of stories in between. In the early 70s, The New York Dolls were recording their first album, and Douglas was serving as audio engineer. “Mercury records brought in Todd Rundgren to produce,” Douglas says. “He’s a very successful commercial producer, and a great talent, but with The New York Dolls… it was a bit of a mismatch.”
After the first week, Douglas says, Rundgren stopped coming to the studio (“which I could totally understand”) and would call in the session. “It was left to myself and the band to make that record happen,” says Douglas. The record got done, and Steve Lieber and David Krebs, part of the band’s management team, were so thrilled with Douglas that they offered him the opportunity to produce the second album by a “baby band” they represented — Aerosmith. “I totally related to what they were doing,” he says of Aerosmith. “We liked to talk guitars and amps and everything else. Both Steven (Tyler) and Joey (Perry) were both Bronx guys; I’m from the Bronx… We just hit it off immediately.”
That first album Douglas produced for Aerosmith — 1974’s Get Your Wings — was the band’s second, and laid the blueprint for the signature Aerosmith sound. “I could see where they wanted to go, so it was a matter of developing it at that point, and then continuing that development through the next three albums. The next two — Toys In the Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976) — really cemented what their sound was,” says Douglas, who is sometimes called the sixth member of Aerosmith. He also produced the band’s two most recent albums, Honkin’ On Bobo (2004) and Music From Another Dimension (2012).
And if there’s time for just one more…
Douglas was visiting family in Wisconsin in the mid 70s, and a relative recommended they go see an unsigned band playing in a bowling alley in Waukesha. That band turned out to be Cheap Trick. “I called a friend of mine at Epic records and said ‘if you don’t get here over the weekend, I’ll sign them to RCA’,” Douglas laughs. “I was just crazy about them.”
Douglas produced Cheap Trick’s debut and a couple years later was called in to mix At Budokan. “It was a very, very primitive recording done for a Japanese TV special,” he says of the Budokan tapes. “It was like trying to mix 1950s Ed Sullivan shows. To try to make a commercial rock record took some work. And the band didn’t do any overdubs in the studio. Obviously, we never expected it to be as big as it was. We didn’t even expect it to be released in the US.” Douglas is set to work with Cheap Trick again sometime this year.
So, those are just a few of the stories that seem to attach themselves to Jack Douglas and his career. There are, of course, many more, like his stint as bass player in the mid 60s with Canadian rock band The Liverpool Set, a band whose shows in curling rinks on Thunder Bay inspired a young Paul Schaffer to pursue music. And his time playing bass for Chuck Berry. And his time with The Angels…
As we said above, they can sound a little apocryphal, but as Douglas is happy to tell you, they’re all true. And to hear him tell it, Douglas worked very hard to get himself in the right place at the right time for when those opportunities came knocking.
Born in New York, Douglas was a musician before launching his career “on the other side of the glass,” as he puts it. In the late 60s, he formed a band called Privilege with his friend Edward Leonetti, formerly of The Soul Survivors (“Expressway to Your Heart”) and they were signed to the Isleys Brothers’ label. “The Isley’s wanted a rock band,” Douglas says. “Jimi Hendrix had played with the Isley Brothers, and Hendrix was big then.”
But Privilege was exploring a heavy, blues based sound inspired by Led Zeppelin, and the Isley Brothers didn’t get it. “They heard things with R&B ears, we heard things with rock ears,” says Douglas. “I persuaded them to let me mix the record.”
Privilege didn’t work out (the album has been reissued in Britain), but Douglas says he fell in love with the process of making records. He went looking for a studio job and found one at the newly opened Record Plant — as a janitor. “It was any way I could get my foot in the door,” he laughs. “I stayed the janitor for months while I absorbed everything that was going on around me like a sponge. By the time I became a general worker there, the Record Plant had recorded the Woodstock Festival, and I was suddenly surrounded by incredible artists who were fixing up their tapes.”
Douglas went from janitor to general worker to the tape library to the dub room to assistant engineer… “I did it very, very quickly, but I was so interested in doing this, I pretty much lived at the studio those first three years.”
“I made some terrible mistakes,” he continues. “At one point, I was the guy who did your demos. I was doing Patti LaBelle’s demos, and didn’t see her bass player had left his beer next to the console remote. I reached for the remote and knocked his beer into the console, directly into the transformer, and burnt that console up. I thought I was dead, but the recording sounded really good, so they kept me. I also did Billy Joel’s demos. But I made a lot of friends while I was doing that, and suddenly found myself doing their real records.”
As we said above, one of the projects Douglas is most known for — and the one that still elicits lots of questions — is John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album. Released just three weeks before Lennon’s death, Double Fantasy was the artist’s first album of new, original material in over five years. The making of the record was shrouded in secrecy — for the first two or three weeks of pre-production, not even the session musicians knew whose record they were working on. They’d rehearse and work up arrangements, and Douglas would handle the vocals. “I kept telling them ‘believe me, I’m not the artist. Don’t worry about my singing’,” Douglas says. “But they didn’t know until the very last rehearsal, when I told them to meet me on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West (the address of the Dakota). Then they figured it out.”
“Lennon hadn’t made a record in five or six years,” Douglas explains. “He was worried it would fall flat. If it failed, he didn’t want the press all over it. It wasn’t until he heard the playback of the vocal for ‘Watching the Wheels’ that he thought he had something, although I told him from day one that the material was great.”
The rumors, myths and legends surrounding the making of Double Fantasy could fill a book; in fact, Douglas says there is a book offer on the table from Johnny Depp’s publishing company, and he’s mulling over how to approach it.
But one thing that probably won’t be in the book is something that has been the subject of fan speculation for years — the night he was murdered, Lennon was returning from a session with Douglas. Douglas always kept the tapes running with Lennon, and December 8, 1980 was no exception. But Douglas erased those tapes, telling Goldmine that “there were some strange things said in the control room… I erased that tape because it was a real painful tape.” Over the years, he’s continued to decline to talk about it (and I don’t ask).
In the late 70s, Douglas’ work with Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and Starz began earning him a reputation as a “hard rock” producer, and though he continues to do rock dates, his discography boats a pretty wide range of artists and genres. Early next year, he’s set to produce a band called Brothers of Brazil, popular in their native country, but virtual unknowns outside it. And they really don’t know Jack Douglas as, say, the producer of Aerosmith. “The thing about producing so many different kinds of acts… in the beginning they were saying I was ‘heavy metal producer Jack Douglas,’ but I’m not really that. I’m a musician. So I started to break it up so I didn’t get pigeon-holed. I co-produced Alan Ginsberg with Bob Dylan, I did film scores… In doing that, I have a lot of different artists in my catalog.”
Jack Douglas appears at Sweetwater’s GearFest on Friday, June 21, 9:30 AM – 10:30 AM.
For more info on GearFest, visit sweetwater.com