In early 1983, my collaborator Ed Cohen and I were searching for a new direction. Ed had never lost his love for progressive music, though his interest had been taken to a new level by the influence of Progressive Jazz (or Fusion, as it is called in many circles). Unexpectedly, as a birthday gift, Ed’s father Joe gave him enough money to go into a studio in Hollywood, and record four songs. After Ed and I worked on the writing of these tunes we assembled a group of musicians to record. The line up was myself on bass, Ed on keyboards, Dudley Brooks on guitar, Tim Timmermans on drums and Michael Acosta on saxophones and flute. We called the group Windows. With a freshly finished master of four songs, Ed had 25 demo cassettes made up to send out to small local record companies. Over the next two months, twenty-four form letters came back saying, “not interested.” Then one showed up saying, “I like what I hear, can we meet?” It was signed by Michael Dion of ITI Records.
ITI was distributed by Allegiance Records, a small business operating in a house on Highland Avenue in West Hollywood. There I met several people who would influence my musical direction in the years to come. There was Deborah Dobkin, an accomplished musician who wound up playing percussion, writing and singing on several Windows and my solo albums. Scott Bergstein, who was to become head of A&R for Higher Octave records, to which Tim Timmermans and I licensed the album “Poem of the Five Mountains.” The talented saxophonist Richard Elliot was also on ITI. Though we never met at this period, we became aware of the great level his playing was on. He later performed on our album, “Blue September”.
Late in 1983 after signing our first recording contract, Mike Dion asked us to deliver a mastered record for the pressing plant, I asked: “What is mastering?” The response was “It’s what you have to deliver to us if we are going to put your record out.” (Mastering being the process where the final mixes of songs prepared for an album are assembled). So I went about trying to find out who and what I needed to do to get our record mastered.
I had loved listening to the audiophile releases of the day at a short-lived job I had at University Stereo, back when I was 17 years of age. The Sheffield releases were my favorites, so I looked on the back of one of their album covers to see who had mastered it. It was credited to engineer Mike Reese, who worked at the Mastering Lab owned by Doug Sax in Hollywood. So I made an appointment with their office manager, and off I went with the tapes that would become our first Windows album.
At the Mastering Lab, I was greeted and sent into a small dark studio room. There was a little console, a pair of large speakers, some tape machines, and a device that floored me: a record lathe. Mike then came in the room, and started asking questions about my group and the type of music we played. He asked how I found out about him, all the while setting up the tapes on the playback system to listen. It sounded clear, but then he started to work; adding EQ, compression, and level matching from track to track, making notes of all theses changes. I had sequenced the album in order of side one and side two, and his job was to get it all to sound consistent. Once this process was completed, he then pulled out a pair of lacquer disks for creating a LP test pressing.
During this process, I recall asking Mike, “How much is this going to cost us?’ The price was $3000.00, give or take a few dollars. I about fell out of my chair. I explained to him, while looking horrified, that our budget for recording and including artwork for the whole album was $1500.00. He asked what label I was on, and winced; ITI and Allegiance Records had a reputation that was not exactly stellar. He then handed me the test pressings, told me to go home and listen, and then come back the next day. I was a bit flabbergasted, but off I went to immediately listen and make my notes, not knowing where this would wind up.
Upon my return the next day, Mike asked what I thought. Being quite nervous about the whole dilemma, I said, “It’s great!” Mike looked at me rather sternly. “I don’t believe you,” he insisted, “tell me what you really think.” So, track-by-track, I told him my thoughts on what I disliked, and he made adjustments. Mike then made another test pressing for me to review, sent me on my way, and told me to be there at 11:30 am the next day.
What I heard at home, listening to the test pressings, was wonderful. I had the rest of the band come by to listen, and they were all thrilled. I explained our odd dilemma of cost. We all agreed that I should be very up front with Mike the next day. Upon my arrival the next morning, Mike asked again, what I thought. This time I said, flatly, “It’s really great!” He then mastered the record on the lathe with fresh lacquers for pressing, said he was hungry, and proceeded to take me out to lunch. I had a fabulous time hanging out with him, hearing his stories about working at Fantasy Records and all the masters he cut while up in the San Francisco Bay area (Fantasy had been home to Credence Clearwater Revival and one of my favorite jazz artists, Vince Guaraldi). Mike spoke about his lovely wife and family, and living in the Hollywood Hills.
Returning to the Mastering Lab after lunch, Mike handed me the master lacquers for pressing, ready to go to the manufacturing plant. I started to speak about the money issues when he interrupted. “If the record succeeds and sells, pay me then; but for now, get out of here and go get your record pressed and released.” I stood there silent. Here was one of the best mastering engineers of all time, who had taken me out to lunch, paid for it, and now was doing all of this all on speculation.
Eventually I was able to pay Mike some money for his efforts, a lot less than his going rate, but our relationship was cemented. Mike mastered all my records going forward, including my solo record, “The Clock and the Moon,” several top 30 contemporary Jazz albums, and three number one contemporary jazz radio albums between Window’s “The French Laundry” and the first two Peter White‘s albums that I co-produced.
Mike suddenly passed away after I finished Peter Whites first record. I was shocked to find out when I had called Sandy at the A&M Records mastering studios, where Mike was then working. To this day, I feel fortunate that he was able to see his hunch (and kind efforts) in supporting my career pay off. I remember being very proud that I was eventually picking up the tab for our lunches together.
There is a story here that was one of the best moments I shared with Mike. While mastering our album “The French Laundry” with Mike at A&M, Herb Alpert walked into the reception area of the mastering offices. This was his studio and record label, and I was always in awe of his great success as a musician and businessman. Herb also was an accomplished artist and loved to paint.
Herb had requested a building custodian to assist him. All the while Mike and I are observing this carefully though the door of the studio we were in. The reception area featured some of the unique abstract paintings that Herb had painted. Finally the handyman came in, and Herb was pointing to one of his paintings. What happened next was dumbfounding to us, as the handyman picked up one of the large paintings, and rotated it 180 degrees. Apparently, it had been hung up side down, as the work was so abstract that nobody knew which direction to hang it. Mike immediately closed the door and went into hysterics.
It was a wonderful moment for me to share with him, and I will always miss the time we shared together. It’s a sad reminder to me how short life is.
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“Windows,” our self-titled first album, was released by ITI in 1983, receiving decent reviews that allowed us to book shows in Los Angeles and create a small following. The attention attracted Jim Martone of the newly formed Intima/Enigma label. By this time, we had pooled our own money to begin work on our second album (to be called “Is It Safe,” after the line Lawrence Olivier mutters to Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 movie “Marathon Man”). In 1984, we were signed to Intima, which released “Is It Safe” to very little interest from radio or retail. Months went by, and we figured that was it for this album, but then came a twist of fate. The phone rang one day, and a woman’s voice on the other end of the line asked, “Is this little Skipper?” I asked, “Who is this?” The reply: “I don’t know if you remember me, but I used to be the music director of radio station KKDJ in Hollywood.”
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When I was thirteen, I had won a 102.7 KKDJ contest by correctly identifying the group who sang the song “Baby I’m a Want You” (the group was Bread). Off I went to visit the radio station to meet my favorite DJ, Jeff Salgo. I wound up with a gopher job at the station, which eventually elevated to a few menial engineering tasks in production (including how to splice recording tape). One of the goofiest and most embarrassing moments in my life occurred there. In those days (the 1970’s), songs played on the air were recorded on 3-track cartridges, which looked like the old 8-track cartridges that albums were issued on. You could only get about four minutes worth of material on the radio cartridges, which was suited fine for the format in those days, as songs were well under that length. Then came along Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” with a playing time of 8:03 that was way too long to fit on the three-track cart. Instead, we had to cue it up on the turntable and play it “live,” sandwiched between the songs on the 3-track carts.
I got the highly coveted job of cuing up the record upon request. (A finger would be pointed at me to start the turntable). This went on trouble-free for a few weeks, until the gorgeous secretary who worked just outside the studio window, pressed her lips up to the studio glass, directed to me. I got flustered, in turn knocking the tone arm of the turntable to the end of the record yielding a “shuuuc, shuuuc” type of sound over the air. I scrambled to put the needle back on the record, only to have the tone arm bounce all the way to the end of the song where Robert Plant sings the final line, “and she’s buy-uy-ing a stair-air-way… to hea-ea-vun.” My summer job ended with a signed plaque from the staff of KKDJ and a picture of me sitting in the same booth, which I still have today. One of the signatures on this photo was that of Chris Brodey, the music director, who was to be one of the architects of what would become known as the Smooth Jazz radio format.
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Chris was in charge of starting up trend-setting Los Angeles radio station KTWV (94.7 “The Wave”) in 1986, and liked the song “The First Dance,” from Windows’ “Is It Safe” album. She had noticed my picture and name on the album jacket, and called the record company to get my number, wondering if I was the same kid who had worked at KKDJ during that summer long ago. We were just finishing our new album to be called, “Mr. Bongo,” for Intima and little did I know that there was now a new radio station and format that would play the type of music we were creating.
The “Wave” format broke out with thirty or so stations nationally, run by a company called the Satellite Music Network. Our song “The First Dance” from “Is it Safe” started getting airplay and began to create wider recognition for us. In the summer of 1987, Intima released “Mr. Bongo” our third album and it reached #3 on Radio & Records (N.A.C) New Adult Contemporary chart.