FEELING BEFORE PERFECTION - AT THE PRIVATE EYES SESSIONS
THE PRIVATE TIMES #11, JANUARY 2001
by Gino Baffo
Hello, dear Tommy fans. I have decided to give The Private Times my story of meeting Tommy. I would also like to include a few things about me and why I truly believe that Tommy and I were destined to meet. This may not be believable to all of you, but its just my feel on it all. So here it goes man, lets dig it.
June 1976, an afternoon in Hollywood, CA. One year before I was at this same hotel, the Continental Hyatt House. I was here learning the ropes of “go for the backstage pass.” Well, now I knew it enough to do it on my own. I scoped this hotel before, so I was very quick moving around it. I was in search of the Jeff Beck band. I wanted a backstage pass.
Beck was my favorite guitar player. Him and Blackmore. I just started listening to Tommy when Teaser came out. The reviews were great on Teaser and he just replaced Blackmore.
I had checked the lobby and the coffee shop and found nothing. Then I decided to go to the rooftop pool. When I pulled open the door to the pool area I pulled it from this guy’s hand. He was leaving the pool area. I say to him, “sorry,” he says, “its ok”… Well I didn’t notice that he had an English accent. After checking the pool I went back to the elevator and that guy was waiting there.
I asked him if he was with the Jeff Beck band. He says, “No,” he’s with the Tommy Bolin band. At that moment I hear his accent. I say, “Hey, I know his music. I love the Teaser record.” He says, “Great, my name is Dennis.” I say, “Dennis the one and only MacKay?” He says, “Why yes.” Now I am like so amazed its him, because he is what I wanted to be. I have always wanted to be a recording engineer since I was 13.
When I was working with a band called THE NATIONAL HEET TREET we did a lot of covers like Styx (Witchwolf), ELP (Karn Evil 9/Hoedown/Jerusalem/Tarkus) and the heavy song “Back Alley Commando.” We eventually became the band Darkstar in 1973.
As the story goes, Dennis says, “You know my name.” He was amazed like me, so he says, “Hey let’s get a drink and I will tell you about engineering.” We go down to the bar and the bartender says I can’t come in. We go to the coffee shop and we drink coffee and talk for two hours about being an engineer. Dennis would talk about how he started as a clean up person at Trident studios. He worked as a tape operator on Bowie’s Ziggy and Hunky Dory albums. Actually you all would be surprised because Dennis was Ken Scott’s apprentice. He worked on many great records Bowie, Queen, and many others. He told me about being keen. He said I was keen and that I could become an engineer too. It was like a dream come true meeting Dennis.
He asked if I would like to go and see Tommy record. I went home and told my parents who I met and that I wanted to go see a studio session. They said, “Do it, we want you to experience that.” I called Dennis the next day. He said, “Great, meet me at the hotel at 5 p.m.” on that day. My mother took me out and bought me a new shirt, pants and shoes (platform).
I met Dennis and Barry Wood at the Hyatt. We drove in a Pacer. What an odd car, I felt like a fish in a bowl. We arrive at Cherokee Studios and come in the back door.
I walk in and follow them into a very small control room with a big window and a couch in front of it. Tommy is there sitting behind the console deck. I stood in front of Tommy, he had his legs kind of up kicked back in a chair with a pencil in his mouth. I say, “Tommy, I love your songs. You’re a great guitar player.” We shake hands. Tommy always dressed so good just a cool look. He wore a wrap around kimono it had little buildings, I think. It was blue and white. His shoes were like macrame woven in beige yarn (comfortable shoes).
Man, what a smile Tommy gave! He was just smiling. Its funny because I am sixteen and I was pretty smart when it came to music. I had already written many poems and a few songs and some short stories. Look what Dennis dragged in. As it turns out Tommy was writing the words to “Bustin’ Out for Rosey.” Tommy says, “So you’re Italian.” I say, “yes I am Sicilian.” Tommy told us a story about how he did a show in New Jersey and wanted to get paid. Well, the owner was Italian and he had these big guys standing next to him as Tommy asked for his money. It was a funny story and Tommy was very happy and alive.
Dennis had introduced us and we just got on real good. Tommy says, “So you want to be a recording engineer.” They all took me for a small tour. They bragged that Bowie was using the big room and so forth. Then we found the lounge. There were pinball games and electronic games. Tommy asked if I would like to play him on the game Tanks. Tommy won he really knew that game. Studio can be a lot of fun I had thought right then.
We started to get down to the business at hand. Dennis got behind the deck and Tommy and him talked about songs and what’s next and Tommy says, “Hey, anyone have an idea for album title? I was thinking of WHIPS AND ROSES.”
“This is my time now,” I say to myself. I blurt out a title. Its SEEING THROUGH THE EYES OF A BLIND MAN. Tommy writes it down. They all look at me like I am okay.
Five years ago when I got back together with Dennis, he told me that I helped to title the album. That Tommy wanted the word ‘eyes’ so he finally came up with PRIVATE EYES. I always had a feeling I did help ‘cause when I got home I told my friends and they cheered when the record came out. They knew that my EYES had made it into the title.
Norma is there and she is dressed in a black jumpsuit. She is a very attractive lady. Bobby Berge is there. Dennis and Col. Tubby are on board. Billy Robbins is tuning Tommy’s guitars. Tommy goes in the room and starts to play the acoustic guitar for “Sweet Burgundy.” I sit on the couch in front of him behind the window. He strums with a steady pace and he seems relaxed at it. Dennis and Tubby play it back. Everyone loves it. It is done in one take. Tommy starts playing the acoustic for “Gypsy Soul.” He just does the rhythm. Tommy plays it through in one take. He sways back and forth throughout the song, he is in a trance, his eyes are closed and he is hypnotized. I believe the drums were already done, so in Tommy’s cans he was listening to the drums and bass with keys. All the guitar solos were done in England at Trident.
During the recording I got to sit behind the board and observe Dennis and Tubby work their mastery. Tubby had worked on some Steely Dan records. Tommy mentioned how he dug the arrangements by Jimmy Haskell. Tubby was such a nice person he had a big smile and he was a great compliment to Tommy’s record. He worked excellent with Dennis. I was like being taught recording by Dennis and Tubby.
They both showed me the channels. Dennis said to copy down a channel. Today I still have the piece of paper from Cherokee showing the channel setup.
I was, like, in the best place ever. I learned what cans meant and panning. I wore headphones and listened to Tommy play on tape, then Dennis would pan it left to right. I was learning and that’s what Dennis invited me for. He wanted me to experience the ultimate, a true live recording session. I was just like in a dream, and you know what? I am still there. I can close my eyes and see it all still, the magic of the Private Eyes sessions.
Hey, the people I met were all so cool. During the session there was Billy Robbins, Tommy’s guitar tech. I can tell you he was the most down to earth guy. He really was the true rocker, a simple soul, he fuckin’ rocked. I see him tuning the 12 and 6 string acoustics. He is kneeling down on the side of the studio. I just wanted to see the beautiful wooden fiddles, Tommy’s strings.
I say, “Hey I am Gino and nice to meet you.” Billy shakes my hand and man, this guy is it! He is just like, I don’t know, the guy from like a great Eagles or California rock style. I ask him who he is and what he does. He says, “I am Tommy’s tech. I tune the guitars. I make sure all the gear is set up and ready for recording.” I ask him how he met Tommy. He says he met Tommy through Joe Walsh. My eyes open wide, I am so diggin’ this! I say, “I love the song Fallin Down.” Billy says, “I helped write that song with Joe. We were roommates and we spent a lot of time together.”
At this point I just felt the whole power of what I was into because Tommy and Billy really were a team, and Joe and Billy were a team. How can you go wrong with this? Tommy, Billy, Joe I am smiling writing about this because its true it was there Dennis and his patience, Tubby with his excitement, and Billy just a true rock ‘n roller. Tommy had it all right there.
If you listen to Teaser, it’s the greatest, but Private Eyes was the team. Its a solid, down to the bone, true rocker’s session. We partied and we smiled, the guitars were flowing, the sax was soaring, and we still to this day know why ’caaaaaaaause my baby loves me!! Hey, if anybody can truly look on and see what I saw, and just hold it, man, it was like a love session. A true cool feeling and we can all have it. This is what will take us there now. I want you to put the CD Private Eyes on now and just feel it. It’s done at that moment. This record was done with a special style. I use that style today in my own sessions. The singers and guitarists I work with just come to life when I tell them to flow and play it, don’t be shy, open up, don’t worry, play it man.
Tommy was so open to his players. He taught me that, and now I am going to show you what he showed me. During the session we talked about the troubles of getting a good take. Tommy made this statement to us during the session. He said FEELING BEFORE PERFECTION. This is the key to all of us in our lives. We need that simple feeling that comes to all people. Tommy had it. I have it.
Dennis played back the drums and acoustic parts with the 12 stringer. The 12 string stands out here, it is Dennis who really loves that sound. This is true because when I started working with Dennis on the POPMAN sessions he had me go out and get a 12 string guitar, so it all goes on.
Tommy had Norma in front of him. He says, “check this Norma.” Tommy takes his hands as the playback plays and he sways them and he says “DAH DAH DA LA DAH.” He literally says her sax parts right there. Norma just nods her head and moves with the feeling. Norma is in the sound room. She is ready are you?!!! WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. She plays the notes, the feeling that Tommy expressed to her. Feel it just like the slappin’ and the saxin’. Feel it friends, its all there. From this day forward you will now know what the feeling was like when she did her solos. Norma was like no other. The real wild thing about all of the session was how so soulful Norma and Tommy got on. I mean they were too much. I saw Tommy play on “Sweet Burgundy” with Norma Jean Bell. When I see it I feel it.
The session was long and very busy. Tommy was recorded first. He did the wonderful acoustic parts for “Gypsy Soul,” “Sweet Burgundy,” and the most memorable thing I saw was “Someday Will Bring Our Love Home.” The 12 strings he played it and said he couldn’t do it. It hurt him. The chord changes and the pressure that is applied to make the sound is very hard. Tommy actually had trouble playing his own music, he was like, so strong when he played. After enough takes he had it done. Norma had done all her sax in one night. Done man, like just so easy. I am jealous. She wails. Tommy was a lucky man to have her. My hat’s off to all the wonderful female saxists. Be cool and play on man.
After all the guitars and sax were recorded, then Dennis and Tubby started doing their stuff. The next 4 hours were spent on fixing mistakes. These guys just picked apart the music and did what a producer/engineer does. Tommy’s music was now in Dennis’ hands. Dennis did what we would call a cut-copy-paste. The process was for a missed part, a note missed… well, Dennis did an insert of a previous note played. They spent like 2 hours getting it done. I want all you audiophiles to try and find that insert ‘cause its there. I have lost it in my memory, but it took the rest of the session to get it done. We were on tapes so its a lot longer to get it done.
Now I will give you my last interaction with Tommy. The time was late, Tommy was away from the session. Dennis and Tubby had been working on the song. Dennis says, “Gino, go find Tommy and tell him we have it ready for him to listen to.” I stepped out of the room and then entered the big room. There was Tommy with his girl. Tommy was playing piano, he was just doing some ragtime riffs. I saw a man like any other man, a true, artful, giving, human being. Someone you would easily be friends with, never seeing what he’s been. Tommy lifted his hands and head from the keys and nodded a “yes,” his girl said he will be there in a minute. Tommy then came into the control room. Dennis played back the song. Tommy was happy, and the session was done. It was 5 a.m. I was quickly delivered to the Hyatt by Dennis and Barry. We said goodbye and man, it was “like this is a dream.” I sat on the bus bench and almost fell asleep. The bus came, I got on and relived this story all my life.
I want to thank all of you for letting me share this with you. If it wasn’t for you and Tommy’s music, we wouldn’t be here now.
Some of you may wonder who I am. I am a music maker. I get to march down the street with my band and I love it. I am currently working on SPANK. I have co-produced a few tunes on their new cd. The lead singer for SPANK is GREGG ST. JOHN. He is POPMAN this is a solo project I have been working on. Vacation Alley Studios is located in downtown Los Angeles. We have a Roland 1680 hard disk recorder and many other little vintage and midi applicated devices. Our newest toy is the Roland Groovebox. Its like a sampler/drum machine/synthisizer. Spank consists of two people and one Groovebox. They are BMD (that’s BASS MASTER DAVE) and POPMAN. BMD plays 5 and 6 string bass with ampeg amps and numerous pedals. BMD is a graduate of BIT (Bass Institute of Technology), his teacher was Jeff Berlin. He reads, writes, and arranges music. Gregg St.John (POPMAN) studied under the popular vocal teacher David Kahn known for training Geoff Tate of Queensryche. Both musicians love the funk style of music and now have come to combine a progressive sound with a pop like funk sound. I would have to call it progressive power pop funk.
I have enjoyed telling my story and sharing with you all what the power of music can do. I started working in jazz clubs when I seven years old, and I am still in the clubs now. I love being there and I invite you all down to our show January 17th at The Gig in West L.A. with JRZ SYSTEM, and January 19th at Paladino’s in Tarzana, CA, after a long day at the NAMM CONVENTION. The show at Paladino’s is SPANK opening for GENE LOVES JEZEBEL.
Once again, thank you all for supporting Tommy’s legacy. He really has influenced many people and their music. Today people, friends, still always say to me, “Gino you turned me on to Tommy’s music and that is so cool.”
Have a great new year. Peace and love, Gino.
A BIT MORE GEAR TALK
If anyone is wondering, like myself, about Tommy’s effects, I believe Tommy used the now vintage pedal MXR PHASE 90 as his phase device. I believe it is an educated guess on my part because I have been using it for 27 years myself. It is also a great effect for keys and wonderful matched up with a Leslie speaker. Funny, I need to close my eyes and see if I can see Tommy reaching down during his acoustic guitar parts (Private Eyes sessions) and see if he’s fiddling with the MXR. I think he is.
Last year in an interview of Dennis MacKay in Mix Magazine, Dennis says that the sessions on the new Stanley Clarke/Lenny White record that he had fun working with the MXR PHASE 90 again and that it is a great effect. After reading that interview I became nostalgic and went and bought one for my last session work with POPMAN who Dennis also helped me get started with a couple of years ago. Let me tell you I have carried this device over into my latest sessions with SPANK and BASS MASTER DAVE has now confiscated it for his own, and I am scratching my head saying, “hey that’s mine too.”
This pedal most likely is the phaser Tommy used, if Billy Robbins could be found he could definitely confirm all of Tommy’s effects during the Private Eyes sessions. It is nice to know that even Tommy’s technical influence lives on. I just dug the fact that he may have used the MXR because I was using it 3 years before I met Tommy and I understand it was the phase that Hendrix used before he passed on.
Gino Baffo from CA, USA
The Private Times was published by Sal Serio and Art Connor, and was dedicated to providing news for the fans of Tommy Bolin’s music. Story used with permission.