ONE TOKE OVER THE LINE
At the dawn of the '70s, three years down the line from the Summer of Love, the Bay Area music scene was strong and diverse. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, It's a Beautiful Day and other groups were successfully touring and selling a lot of records. No longer bound by the requirements of their record labels to record at in-house studios in New York and L.A., they mostly worked in Bay Area studios. All of the major labels set up offices in San Francisco, but only one, the relatively weak Mercury Records, actually had a studio there. There was a vital jazz scene that drew the best out-of-town groups and nurtured locals like John Handy, Vince Guaraldi and recent transplant Bobby Hutcherson. Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Kahn was one of a number of great musicians from around the world who found the Bay Area a hospitable place to showcase his talents and he moved there. Innovative programs at Mills College, Stanford and San Francisco State in the '50s and '60s had created a climate conducive to less commercial strains of experimental music. And the concert production business had Bill Graham firmly in control, promoting concerts at the Fillmore West on Market Street and the much larger Winterland (former home of the Ice Follies) in the Fillmore district. Beginning in 1974, too, he held multi-act Day on the Green extravaganzas at Oakland Stadium.
Studio owner Wally Heider
Photo: Lester Cohen
With Wally Heider's San Francisco operation going strong and Coast Recorders' recent move to new Folsom Street digs also bearing fruit, it's no surprise that people outside of the Bay Area suddenly decided that there was money to be made from the Northern California music scene.
After rejecting the overtures of staff producer David Rubinson to set up a Columbia Records studio in San Francisco in the late '60s, the company had a change of heart in September 1970 and bought out Coast Recorders' new facility, bringing in a trio of top engineers from New York: Roy Halee (who ran the operation), Roy Segal and Glenn Kolotkin. A considerably diminished Coast operation moved elsewhere and never regained its strong local foothold. At first, it seemed as though CBS/Columbia's move was a winner. Paul Simon (who was one of Halee's acts), Santana and Blood, Sweat & Tears were among the acts who worked there in the first year, and there seemed to be a steady stream of acts moving in and out of the studio.
However, engineer Fred Catero, a one-time employee of Columbia in New York who'd moved out to California with Rubinson as independents, had his doubts about the long-term viability of a CBS-owned studio in San Francisco. “At that time, Columbia was a very conservative company,” he says. “It was all-union and everything was done by the clock. There were very strict rules about how long sessions could go and, of course, about drugs and things like that. But the San Francisco scene was really very loose — que será será and good vibes and ‘flower power’ and all that, and Rubinson told them, ‘Look, if you open a studio out here with your corporate image the way you're doing it in New York, you're not going to get many people recording there.’”
Over at Heider's, they could barely keep up with the demand for studio time; by 1971, they had four rooms going most of the time. The Dead cut their classic album American Beauty there with a young staff engineer named Steve Barncard. Heider's was also a training ground for engineers such as Jim Gaines, Steve Jarvis, Mallory Earl and Jeffrey Norman, and Rubinson and Catero took up a residency there following their tenure at Pacific Recording in San Mateo. Among the many notable acts to record there in the early '70s were Brewer & Shipley (“One Toke Over the Line”), Oakland's Pointer Sisters (who were “discovered” by Rubinson), Herbie Hancock (another Rubinson act), Seals & Crofts, Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Van Morrison (who lived in the Bay Area during much of the '70s) and many others.
Meanwhile, over in sunny Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a couple of recording big-wigs — Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren of the famed Record Plant studios in New York and Los Angeles — were building a new state-of-the-art studio in a quiet, out-of-the-way location close to the Bay. If the atmosphere in most Bay Area studios at that time was casual and funky, the Record Plant was Marin County elegant, which is to say that it was still totally casual, but very tastefully appointed with first-class materials and design and the best recording equipment. At first there were two identical studios with API consoles and Ampex 16-tracks. Later, other studios, including “The Pit,” were added. Noted engineer Tom Flye was brought in as technical director and chief engineer. Artists using the studio could stay at two beautifully furnished guest houses or on one of the nearby houseboats. They could also avail themselves of Gary Kellgren's purple Rolls Royce (license plate: GREED) — a bit ostentatious, maybe, but fun! The official christening was Halloween 1972; John Lennon and Yoko (dressed as trees) and much local rock royalty were in attendance for the festivities.
Like Heider's before it, the Record Plant was an instant success, attracting a wide variety of first-tier acts including Sly Stone, Van Morrison, Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and by the end of its first decade, it had hosted such notables as Stevie Wonder (Songs In the Key of Life), Fleetwood Mac (Rumours), Grateful Dead (Wake of the Flood), Journey, Jefferson Starship, George Harrison, Pablo Cruise, Aretha Franklin, Rick James, Joe Walsh, The Eagles and many others. The studio was also the setting for progressive FM radio station KSAN's beloved Live From the Record Plant series of intimate concerts with the likes of Bob Marley & The Wailers, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Garcia, Nils Lofgren and many others. In 1980, two years after the death of Gary Kellgren, Chris Stone sold the Record Plant to Arne Frager, who has enjoyed success with the studio ever since.
Another New Yorker who came into the San Francisco recording world in the '70s (after a stint in Nashville) was Elliot Mazer, who took over the Brady Street facility known as Pacific High Recording (see preceding article) and re-named it His Master's Wheels. Besides attracting name acts such as Journey, Jerry Garcia and Frankie Miller, Mazer headed a highly successful remote recording operation; indeed, he was the chief engineer on the The Last Waltz at Winterland on Thanksgiving night in 1976.
Across the bay in Berkeley, Fantasy Records — which began life in 1949 as a small jazz label headed by brothers Sol and Max Weiss, and had been bought in 1968 by an investment group led by the company's sales manager, Saul Zaentz — struck gold with Creedence Clearwater Revival and built a first-class facility in the East Bay in 1971. Nicknamed “The House That Creedence Built,” Fantasy Studios was exclusively an in-house facility for Fantasy artists until 1980, when it opened to outside acts.
Patrick Gleeson, a one-time English professor at San Francisco State, was an early champion of synthesizers and electronic music and in late 1971, opened his own studio, initially called the Different Fur Trading Company (later just Different Fur) as a place to work on his own projects. He had a Moog and an 8-track and a good relationship with Herbie Hancock, whose music was increasingly headed in an electronic direction. He helped Hancock (and, later, his fusion band Headhunters) make several albums, and as his studio environment solidified, he began to attract other clients, Brian Eno and the local Kronos Quartet among them. Different Fur would remain a strong presence in San Francisco recording for three decades.
Jim Gaines and Herbie Hancock get down to details at The Automatt.
Photo: Kaz Tsuruta Photography
Over at Columbia, Fred Catero's prediction turned out to be prophetic and CBS decided to divest itself of its San Francisco property. Rubinson, who had been renting a studio space — dubbed The Automatt — on the second floor of the building with great success since the fall of 1976, managed to convince CBS to turn the lease over to him, and in late 1978, he took over the former Columbia Studios to make The Automatt a three-studio operation. The Automatt was certainly the toniest studio in the city proper — with Rubinson's gorgeous collection of vintage jukeboxes spread around the building — and also the best equipped in that era, with Harrison and Trident TSM consoles, MCI 24-track recorders and a crack engineering staff that started with Catero and went on to include Ken Kessie, Leslie Ann Jones, current Mix L.A. editor Maureen Droney and others during its eight-year history.
Catero describes the studio's '70s hey-day as “the beautiful days. David ran the studio in a very hip way. He was really into the music — we all were — and that's what drove us more than making money. So many great acts came through there,” including Santana, the Pointer Sisters, Herbie Hancock, Journey and many others.
By the end of the '70s, the Bay Area had become a hot-bed for punk and new wave music rivaling New York and Los Angeles, with its own homegrown heroes — Crime, The Nuns, The Avengers, Dead Kennedys, Tuxedo Moon, The Dils, et al. There was a thriving club scene (based around The Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway in North Beach) to support all the action, and smaller inexpensive studios around the Bay Area got much of the recording work in that genre. Between the new wave and the rise of a number of fine acoustic music groups (the best being the David Grisman Quintet), country-oriented artists
(Norton Buffalo, High Country, etc.) and R&B acts ranging from Larry Graham to Stoneground to Lady Bianca,
there was lots of energy at many different levels of the music industry, which led to a proliferation of budget and midrange studios in the second half of the '70s. It also led to the birth of this magazine in 1977: Huzzah!
Click here to read more about The Plant Studios, circa 1999.
To read more about the Automatt Click here