Joe Sidore: A Key Staff Engineer at United/Western in the 1960s — Part Two

Joe Sidore moving faders
Joe Sidore

I’m pleased this month to present Part Two of my interview with the wonderful and generous Joe Sidore along with some of the amazing photos that he took during his years at Bill Putnam’s United/Western Studios in the 1960s.

Tell me about United/Western when you were there.

I’d like to mention the terrific staff of engineers that worked at Western and United. Of course we could start off with Bill Putnam. When Bill moved out here from Chicago, he took over the United building at 6050 Sunset Boulevard, which I believe was a sound stage and a part of Columbia Pictures. Bill had the building converted to the rooms that he needed, with help of acoustic design engineer John Edwards, and the construction genius of Hal Halverson, who built all the rooms at Western and United, including all the great-sounding physical echo chambers.

He built Studio A, Studio B, and then some of the little mix rooms and mastering rooms. On the second floor, in the front of the building, were all of the United main offices.

One of the key engineers that Bill hired was Don Blake. Don Blake was the original owner of Western Recorders, which was at 6000 Sunset, a block away. He bought the building from Don and gave him an engineering position. As I understand, originally, Western Recorders was a radio studio, and before that, a supermarket. [Laughs.] When Don owned it, it became Western Recorders.

The next very important move for Bill was the hiring of Winston Wong. Winston and his friend/partner owned Coast Recorders in San Francisco. Winston and his partner were both electricians and had started out on a government job, installing electrical and communications wiring in battleships. Don’t remember the details on how they got interested in the recording business, but they decided they would open their own little studio in town, which they dubbed Coast Recorders. Bill, wanting to open a satellite studio in San Francisco, purchased Coast Recorders from Winston and his partner, and in return, offered Winston an engineering position with him in Los Angeles. Not sure what happened to Winston’s partner. That's how Bill acquired Western and Coast Recorders, Don Blake, and Winston Wong.

Western Recorders in 1967
Western Recorders 1967

Lest we not forget our technical staff … Frank DeMedio, Bob Felthausen, and Chief Engineer Jerry Ferree. Frank left Bill’s organization to work for Wally Heider in the '70s and then open his own console design and manufacturing, DeMedio Engineering, where I might add that the components that he used in his consoles were strictly UA. Bob Felthausen and his wife moved to Oregon for a different kind of life, and for Bob, a different line of electronics. Jerry Ferree moved on to ABC TV where he again headed up the engineering department as Chief Engineer. He has since retired.

And then there was our Setup Crew, which consisted of John Gaines and J.L. Greys. They’re the guys that kept the studios going. You’d turn in a setup sheet before your date and they’d set it up, hang the mics, plug in the headphones and then be standing by to test them out for you. What service!

The person in charge of Bill’s studio operations was Bob Dougherty, Bill’s studio manager. He was also an engineer, and did many record dates. There was Andy Richardson who came from Decca Records Studios along with Lee Herschberg. Andy wound up working for Lee at Warner Brothers Records until his retirement.

Saul Weiss worked for Bill. Saul, along with his brother, was the original owner of Fantasy Records. He was the guy that originated the idea of mixing all the colors of vinyl to make those multi-colored pressings that Fantasy Records was famous for. Saul would tell me some stories of how, when he did these remotes, he had no monitor speakers to listen to. He had to mix by watching the level on the VU meter to tell him where everything was. That is how some of those early Fantasy recordings were done. Amazing!

Some of the other Western and United engineering staff went like this: John Neil—John, a pretty well-known engineer with a good track record--was one of the standard fixtures. Jimmy Lockart, a heavyweight from Nashville, John Boyd, H. Bowen David, John Haney, “Lanky” Lindstrot, formerly of Liberty Custom Records and Henry Lewy, who later went on to A&M Records.

Hal Halverson
Hal Halverson

Michael Shields changed his name to Michael Nemo, because of his infatuation with H.G.Wells’ 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and was known thereafter as Captain Nemo. His first session as Captain Nemo was this procession down the hallway leading to Studio 1. Like the pied piper, Nemo, dressed in full captain's attire and with this mysterious black box under his arm, led his entourage of producer and peanut gallery to the control room. Many of the staff who was looking on kind of pooh- poohed all of this, as just the extent some people will go to get attention, but Michael went on to become a success in spite of what we thought. He had many successful records to his credit, and built his own classical label, Tower Hill Records.

Phil Kaye, who was originally from Radio Recorders worked pretty heavily on cartoon music and cartoon sound effects in the '60s. He did plenty of record dates as well. Years later he wound up with many hit records to his credit while working as chief engineer at ABC/Dunhill Records. He also owned Jennifudy Studios in North Hollywood (now Entourage Studios), was manager of Ken Dunkin’s studios (Kendun), and lastly, Chief Engineer at Sony Studios in Santa Monica. Now retired in Palm Springs, California.

Bill Perkins, or Perk as he was nicknamed, was strictly a mastering engineer, and also a famous jazz musician. Engineering-wise, all he wanted to do was mastering, and that was fine with Bill Putnam. He was not interested in being a recording engineer. When I asked him why, he said he had a very fragile personality and probably would not have faired well under that kind of pressure. He’d rather be on the other side of the glass playing his instrument. If he had a session booked during working hours, and was playing flute or saxophone on that session, the studio would let him off. After the date, he’d pack up his instruments and go right back to mastering [laughing]--but it would all be at the same place. He never had to leave. He was truly a fine mastering engineer and certainly one of the jazz greats of our time.

"During a take, he [Eddie Brackett] would actually be swaying violently back and forth, pounding his feet to the beat while still seated, clutching the rotary fader knob like his life depended on it. Everybody was looking at Eddie more than they were paying attention to the music."

Bill Putnam had given Warner Brothers Records free reign of all the studios, because they did not yet have their own recording facility. Bill provided them with their own office space, located in the Western Recorders building, and use of any of the studios that fit their projects.

John Gaines and J.L. Grey
John Gaines and J.L. Grey

All they had to do was book it with our traffic office. Lee Herschberg, who first started with Bert Gotshalk at Electrovox Studios in Hollywood, then Decca Records along with Andy Richardson, succeeded Lowel Frank as chief engineer in charge of recording for WB. Lee had his own independent crew as well. They were Rudy Hill and Bobby Hata.

Both had started in the business working for Wally Heider. Once hired by Herschberg, they continued engineering for WB until retirement.

Ben Jordan originally came from Sun West Studios, at Sunset and Western. He did a lot of commercial and record dates when he wasn’t cutting dubs or doing some mastering. He recordedJourney to the Center of the Earth in studio #1, where I was his second.

Artie Becker, who was from Radio Recorders, was also busy scoring for popular TV sitcoms. Studio 2 was where he hung his hat most of the time with shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” He also did a lot of commercials and voiceovers. Artie was like a second father to me. He was old enough to be my father. He kind of kept an eye on me, and the direction I was going. He always volunteered good feedback and advice. He became my engineering mentor. I have only one photo him, sitting at the console in Studio B at United. Aside from all of his wonderful talent, he was truly a warm and caring man. I really miss Artie.

Then there was Bones Howe. I heard through the grapevine that Bones got his name from the musicians that really dug the sound he got from a trombone section. They called him Bones, and it stuck.

I interviewed him. He was really interesting.

Oh, yeah. He is. The story going around about Bones at that time was that he had started out at Radio Recorders sweeping floors. I never had the nerve to ask him if it was true. He wound up being the hot ticket for recording jazz. When Bill Putnam got wind of Bones, he hired him away from Radio. Bones, not too long after becoming a staffer, was one of the first engineers I know of to go independent. His loyalty to Bill, so it seems, never wavered, as he always could be found in Studio 3 at Western. That was his favorite room!

Winston Wong in 1967
Winston Wong 1967

Bones was always a very cool, mild-mannered kind of guy. He was both quiet and modest, in the boldest way. It was evident that he made no bones about where his abilities were concerned. Lots of precision recordings. I remember going into Studio 3 on several occasions to get some leader, splicing tape. or an extra reel or two, and there would be Bones, all by himself after another all-night session with producer Lou Adler, with his head down on the console, listening intently to the playback integrity of his mixes through the cheapest little tin speaker he could find. I guessed if it could sound good on that speaker, it would sound good on any speaker. And it did!

On another note, I remember an occasion when the Mamas and Papas bought Bones a brand-new Alfa as a way of saying thank you for the success of one of their hit records. I also remember a gift of a motorcycle from Johnny Rivers, for what reason I’m not sure. It was parked in front of the door to Studio 3, so that Bones wouldn’t miss it. As I recall, Bones refused it, and it remained in that doorway for a week. Hmm. I wonder why?

Some projects I remember that had Bones' precision were Barry McGuire’s "Eve of Destruction," Jan & Dean, Johnny Rivers, The Mamas & the Papas, The Association, Jerry Lewis and the Playboys, and The 5th Dimension. What a success story.

I was hoping you could tell some stories about memorable, interesting sessions. You mentioned Sinatra.

Yes, I was definitely there during the Sinatra recordings. I worked as second engineer to Lee Herschberg in Studio 1, where he did most of the Sinatra recordings. I've gone on some web sites where they're talking about which songs were recorded in which studio and discovered lots of misinformation about where these songs were actually recorded. I’d love to set the record straight about one song in particular that Sinatra did, and that was “That’s Life.”

Artie Becker in 1968
Artie Becker 1968

Contrary to popular belief, it was not recorded in Studio A at United, but Studio 1 at Western. I know because I was sitting right behind Lee on that date as well. In the later years, Sinatra was most comfortable in that room, and Lee was equally as comfortable, as was evident to me by the ease with which he balanced that great sound that was so much a part of Sinatra’s signature.

Also from Radio Recorders was Eddy Brackett, who, like Bones Howe, was also very much in demand. He worked mostly over at United in Studio B, which was his favorite room. Some of the artists that he recorded, where I was his second engineer, were Dino, Desi and Billy, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. In Studio A he did all The Ventures' albums and the music score for the motion picture Hatari, where the recording of “Elephant Walk” became a hit. There was one very memorable session where I was Eddie’s second engineer. It was the Nancy Sinatra "Boots" session, produced by Lee Hazlewood. I remember when they were running down the track, arranger Billy Strange asked the bass player, Chuck Burghoffer, if he could do something original with his part. That’s where Chuck came up with that funky bass line in the intro that became so famous. "These Boots Are Made for Walkin’" turned out to be a big hit for Nancy. Yeah, Eddie was quite a character. Where Captain Nemo would wear a captain’s outfit, Eddie had another outfit to wear. First of all, he always wore his self-proclaimed “lucky” green corduroy hat on all of his sessions. Secondly, during a take, he would actually be swaying violently back and forth, pounding his feet to the beat while still seated, clutching the rotary fader knob like his life depended on it. Everybody was looking at Eddie more than they were paying attention to the music. [Laughs.] He was really something.

And then there was my personal idol, Chuck Britz.

Like so many others of our staff, Chuck also came from Radio Recorders. Before that, it was Armed Forces Radio. That's where he first started. Chuck was just an all-around great engineer. I loved his sound. It was always so tight and defined. Aside from other random sessions that were dealt each engineer, Chuck’s mainstay was the Beach Boys. I can remember the days when I would be walking from one studio to the next, hearing “Good Vibrations” coming down the hallway. There were musicians standing in line outside Studio 3, waiting to add their part to the recording. It was a regular assembly line. I remember that “Good Vibrations” was actually recorded twice, from scratch, because Brian didn’t like the way it turned out the first time. At that time we were only up to four track-recording machines, and so everything needed to be layered by filling up all the tracks and then going from machine to machine for about as many as four generations. As you can imagine, it was quite a process, and for them to throw away the first version of “Good Vibrations” was an expensive proposition. The idea of throwing away many hours of production decisions, engineering, musicianship, and vocal overdubs was a mind blow. But, no doubt, it served as a good rehearsal on tape, as they finally got it to everyone’s liking in the end. When you listen to it you can only imagine what it took to create that great sound, given the process and all the obstacles.

Tune in next month for part three of the epic Joe Sidore interview.

— Marsha Vdovin

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