He Knows the Day the Music Died : Jazz: Pianist John Wood, who plays in Huntington Beach tonight, says the loss of live recording sessions killed pop artistry. He’s out to save the scene.
John Wood is a 44-year-old on a mission. His goal? Nothing less than the rescue of American popular music.
Poke around his living room and you’ll find plenty of evidence of his obsession. A pile of bumper stickers urges “Back To 2 Track,” Woods’ call to arms against record industry dependence on multitrack recording. There’s a reel-to-reel tape of him playing piano at his Studio Masters Concert Space in Los Angeles. And on the coffee table sits a catalogue dated 1965 from Randy’s Records in Gallatin, Tenn.
Randy is Wood’s father. The company was a mail-order business that helped introduce black R&B; into white culture. The elder Wood, who now lives in La Jolla, also hosted a radio show, beginning in 1945, that brought jazz and blues to the listening public. Legend has it that the first time Little Richard heard one of his records on the airwaves, it was when his mother called him in to hear it on “Randy’s Record Shop,” the show Wood broadcast from WLAC in Nashville.
Spurred by the music on the radio program, the mail-order business took off, and soon Randy Wood was recording his own sessions. In 1951, he founded Dot Records, a label that had hits in the ‘50s and ‘60s with Pat Boone, Billy Vaughn and the Surfaris. By 1956, the family had moved to Hollywood. During his formative years, the younger Wood was around musicians constantly, everyone from the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters to Elvis and Colonel Parker.
Wearing a T-shirt featuring the old Dot label, Wood related all this last week while eating a turkey sandwich as his sons, 8-year-old John and 6-year-old Evan, scrambled around. The keyboardist--who plays Kikuya in Huntington Beach tonight as part of a trio--went on to tell the story of the time Lawrence Welk, who had a hit on Dot with “Calcutta” in 1961, introduced him to Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s legendary saxophonist.
“It was 1965, and I was into jazz. It was my life. I had a couple of Johnny Hodges’ records and thought, gee, I’d really like to meet this guy. So Dad called Lawrence and when the time came, he picked me up in his big Dodge. I can still see the metal nameplate--'Lawrence Welk'--that he had on it.”
The occasion was a Dot session to document a rare collaboration: “Lawrence Welk and Johnny Hodges.” Wood pulled the album from a stack in his den and recalled, “I got to talk to Hodges for some 30 minutes. . . . Then I went back to the booth. The orchestrators all arrived: Marty Paich, Benny Carter, George Cates, just to be there, just to watch.”
And then a little slice of history was put on a recording.
“That’s what recording was in those days. Three minutes of heartbreak. You either did it right, or you did it again. And most of the time they did it right. As soon as multitracking caught on, the greatness was gone. Musicians used to be the ones making recordings. Now producers and engineers have taken the artist out of the process.”
In the multitracking process, musicians come into the studio at different times to record individual parts to be assembled later. Actually, Wood thinks the problems with today’s recordings go beyond the process and really reflect what he sees as the decline of American culture in general.
“Today, you have black music, country music, easy listening. Everything’s very specific. I don’t get the sense anymore that American music represents the American people.
“In the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, everyone in the country all listened to the same songs over the radio. It was very diverse and compelling and rich. Fats Domino would have the No. 1 hit, and then someone like Ricky Nelson would follow him. The same American public was tapping its foot to all sorts of music. Today, we have all this segregation.”
Still, he insists, “we lost everything when we lost live performance” in the studio. Much of the greatness generated by pop, Wood asserts, came because musicians gathered to record together.
“Even the Beatles,” Wood said, “who were among the first to use multitracking with ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ even the Beatles did their original recordings live to two track. There wouldn’t have been Beatlemania without live recording.”
All of which is why Wood started the “Back to 2 Track” movement under the banner of “SRAM: The Society for the Rehumanization of American Music,” a quasi-organization whose membership is loosely determined by display of the “2 Track” bumper stickers.
Wood’s musical interests focus on jazz but, again, he is very outspoken about the types of jazz he prefers.
He started out playing guitar and listening to Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson and his sister’s Andre Previn records. Then, at 13, he heard organist Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon,” which “put me into the deep end of jazz.”
A rabid record collector, he soon moved into Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell and Lee Morgan. At 15, he started playing the piano, concentrating on the music of the hard-bop era, the style he still champions today.
* John Wood, bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Billy Mintz play tonight at 7:30 at Kikuya, 8052 Adams Blvd., Huntington Beach. (714) 536-6665.