Between a Hard Place and the Ground
Norman Dayon on Recording Michael Bloomfield
By Ralph Heibutzki
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in “Tape Op” #25, Sept. 1, 2001. The magazine was intended for those in the recording industry, which is why Dayron describes equipment used in detail. The article appears here by the kind permission of its author.
Twenty years after his death, the late Michael Bloomfield still exerts a gravitational pull over anyone who heard his ground-breaking blend of blues-rock guitar power and modal improvisations.
That mixture captured my imagination – I can remember trying to kill time on a lengthy high school bus trip, and swapped Cream’s "Disreali Gears" for Nick Gravenites’ "My Labors," which had Bloomfield's fingerprints all over it. As I was enjoying “Gypsy Good Time,” somebody piped up behind me, “Don't you have any music that isn't bizarre?” Suitably appalled, I turned around, “C’mon, man, this is your heritage! Don’t you care where your Top 40 comes from?” I drew a blank stare, but I’d made my point.
Bloomfield’s friend and producer, Norm Dayron, relishes the anecdote. “Michael’s idea was [that] you always go back to the source – as far as you can, to the plantation sound, the work song, the prison song. He was not interested in music that was created by imitating what someone else did last week.”
Bloomfield practiced what he preached, shunning the major label rat-race after "Super Session" (1968), the jam-oriented album that became his only gold record. Instead, he focused on playing his San Francisco Bay home-turf, and recorded for small indie labels – making his work hard to find before he died of a drug overdose under murky circumstances in 1981.
work is undergoing a reappraisal, after a series of reissue CDs – including "Live
at the Old Waldorf" (1998), which Dayron compiled – and a new, unflinching oral
biography, "If You Love These Blues" (by Jan Wolkin and Bill Keenom:
Backbeat/Miller Freeman Books). Dayron is among numerous friends offering
insight into Bloomfield’ musicological bent, as well as his bouts with insomnia,
addictions to heroin and alcohol – and contrarian quirks that eventually spun
out of control (such as blowing off gigs).
Home recordings for fun (not profit)
Dayon originally planned to become a teacher, having left his New York City home at 16 “just to get the hell out of there,” he says. Musically, he preferred classical or jazz.
“I didn’t listen to blues at all,” he recalls. “I had a pretty good ear – I’d taken piano and violin as a kid. I was never any good, but I could get by. I knew something about music.”
At the University of Chicago he met others who shared his new love of the blues: Paul Butterfield, guitarist Elvin Bishop, vocalist Nick Gravenites, harpist Charlie Musselwhite, keyboardist Mark Naftalin … and Michael Bloomfield. “On the South Side, on a summer night, there’d be guys sitting on the stoop, playing guitar,” says Dayron. “So I saw there was this unique music, and I started to really like it.”
Born in 1943, Bloomfield was sitting in with blues greats like Muddy Waters while still a teenager. Even then, however, his style transcended the idiom – as the brisk acoustic picking of his “Bullet Rag” or the traditional “J.P. Morgan” demonstrates. Both tracks represented “probably the first semi-serious recordings that Michael ever made anywhere,” says Dayron, who captured them at his apartment on January 28, 1964. (However, the discovery of a five-track recording in February 2007 -- which is believed to be an audition tape – may actually predate those efforts.)
He compiled those tracks for a CD that accompanies Wolkin’s book, and used an Electro-Voice 654 omni-directional mic, and a cardioid 666, “a high-tech lookin’ mic, at the time,” Dayron recalls. They accomplished Bloomfield’s first overdubbing on another track, “Kingpin,” by cutting the Tandberg tape recorder’s erase head wires.
“If you were sensitive to the volume changes, you could overdub in mono – maybe 20 tracks,” says Dayron. “It would just record, and eventually stuff would just disappear into the ozone.”
The CD showcases some jaw-dropping snapshots of Bloomfield’s 21-year-old guitar fury (“Blues for Roy,” “Country Boy” and “Gotta Call Susie”), recorded at Big John’s on October 15, 1964. Norman used an Ampex 601 recorder with seven-inch reels, and hung a Neumann U-67 mic from a rafter in the room’s “sweet spot,” which varied, depending on how many people were in the room.
“In some places there’d be a ‘suck-out,’ where the bass would just disappear,” says Dayron. “Then you’d walk four or five feet over, and all of a sudden, the bass would be there.”
He then ran a cable
to his tape recorder, and taped an Altec mic (“the size of a big salt shaker”)
to the PA mic, which he separated with a piece of sponge rubber. “Then, I would
just mix the vocal with the band,” says Dayron. “I’d pick up the whole band
sound with the Neumann, and get the vocal with the Altec.”
Studio seasoning (for a reduced salary)
Because his University of Chicago scholarship only covered tuition, Dayron took a job cleaning up after sessions at Chicago’s legendary blues label, Chess Records.
“During the sessions, people would throw up on the recording board,” he laughs. By 1965, “for a reduction in salary,” Dayron became an apprentice engineer. For “another reduction in salary,” he moved to apprentice producer, learning from people like Willie Dixon (“he was like a conductor”).
Bloomfield’s crisp slide guitar had also made its mark on Bob Dylan’s "Highway 61 Revisited" (1965), the modal peaks of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s "East-West" (1966) and the blues-funk-gospel-rock fusion of the Electric Flag’s "A Long Time Comin’" (1967). Dayron’s production debut came on "Fathers and Sons" (1969), which teamed Bloomfield and Butterfield with the men they considered their mentors: Muddy Waters and his pianist Otis Spann.
“We used Chess Studio A. Believe it or not, it had a 12-track Scully recorder, a Neumann console and Fairchild compressors,” recalls Dayron. “They had a lot of the old Pultec tube equalizers.”
The album’s popularity encouraged another Chess all-star outing, "The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions" (1970) – with heavyweights like guitarist Eric Clapton, keyboardist Stevie Winwood, and the Rolling Stones’ rhythm section, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts being used to augment Wolf’s raw vocal style. Again Dayron produced and Glyn Johns engineered. Recording occurred at London’s Olympic Studio.
“It was more of a classical music studio, actually. They had all these great condenser microphones,” recalls Dayron. “U-67s and 47s, and Telefunken 251s [for classical recordings].”
However, he laughs, “I had learned to record using all that other shit” – since Chess only had Electro-Voice dynamics, which they got through a deal with the company. Condenser mics “have more high end, less mid-range punch,” says Dayron. “If you took a U-47 and put it inside a kick drum, you’d probably blow out the mic – if you didn’t you’d probably get a distorted sound.”
Dayron’s world changed drastically when Leonard Chess – who’d run the label with his brother, Phil – died of a heart attack shortly after London Sessions was released. The survivors sold off the company. Unsure of his next move, Dayron called Bloomfield, who’d reestablished himself in California, and Michael suggested forming a partnership to produce records, including his own. The pair ended up living blocks apart in Mill Valley, just outside of San Francisco.
To supplement “long
periods of no work,” Dayron invented and taught a recording arts class for about
a year at New College of California, in nearby Sausalito. Students spent one
night per week at his home. “I would play records, and ask them to identify all
the parts. Then, on weekends, they’d work up their songs in producer Elliot
Mazer’s Alembic Studio. It was very cool, because nobody had ever done that –
you could not, in ’72, pay a small tuition fee,” says Dayron, “and be trained to
be a recording engineer, musician or producer.”
Labors for love (not money)
The Bloomfield-Dayron partnership reached an early zenith with "If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em as You Please" (1976) – an instructional record issued through Guitar Player magazine’s short-lived label. The album featured blues, country and folk tracks, with Bloomfield briefly explaining how he played each one – and restored the critical stock he’d blown after his brief dalliance with the ill-fated supergroup KGB. While Bloomfield got the production credit, “I was pretty much the co-producer of that, putting everything together,” Dayron says.
The venue was Blossom Studios, a “spit-and-glue-baling-wire home studio” literally “slapped together” by its owner, hippie engineer-musician David Blossom. Several Bloomfield projects had already been done there, including the Andy Warhol’s Bad soundtrack.
“He [Blossom] had an old Ampex 8-track in-line recorder that looked like Les Paul had built it!” exclaims Dayron. “I don’t know what his board was – every piece of equipment was some kind of spare parts that he found in junk yards or cannibalized.”
"Analine" (1977) found Bloomfield in an acoustic setting on banjo, mandolin and ukulele, with nods to blues (“Mr. Johnson and Mr. Dunn”), folk (“Frankie and Johnny”) and jazz (Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” – the tune played at his funeral). He also got to use San Francisco’s Zoetrope Studios – which was built by engineer Richard Beggs, and belonged to director Francis Ford Coppola and his father, Carmine Coppola.
“I think it had 16 tracks and a Trident board,” says Dayron. “For San Francisco – which was not a great high-tech recording area – it was pretty good. Richard was a pretty good engineer – he knew how to take whatever equipment he had and get a sound.”
"Count Talent & The Originals" (1978), on the other hand, became “the ultimate usual suspects album,” with many cohorts writ large in Bloomfield’s address book – including Nafatlin, bassist Roger “Jelly Roll” Troy, vocalist Anna Rizzo, drummer Bob Jones and his girlfriend, Soma. TK Records owner Henry Stone – a veteran record man who’d known the Chess brothers, and was now surfing the disco wave – lavished a “completely atypical” $50,000 for the production’s budget, according to Dayron.
“The Takoma albums were $1,500 to $2,000 tops, everything but the artwork. For the TK record, all the musicians were paid decently – I can’t say that for the other ones,” he adds.
The musicians worked with engineer Bob Rose at Xanda Recorders, “a real out-of-the-way studio” located about 50 miles from Marin, Dayron recalls. “It had an MCI board, and the usual assortment of Sennheiser, Shure, and Neumann microphones. The multi-track was an old Ampex 16-track tape recorder, one of these things that looks like a soda fountain, an 1100 model, I think,” he adds.
“The atmosphere was
quite informal – we would all show up at the studio, and work everything out in
’We did have to mix back through the board’
"Michael Bloomfield" (1979) trimmed "Count Talent’s" extended lineup, with Bloomfield playing most of the parts, anchored by Jones, bassist Dave Shorey and Ira Kamin’s piano overdubs. They worked in Mill Valley, where Pete Adams and Alan Rice had built a garage studio, which had “very marginal equipment,” according to Dayron, including “a Tascam eight-track recorder with one-inch tape, and a Tascam board.” The recording section of the Tascam board in the early ’70s was a nightmare – tinny, brittle, distorted, no headroom – so if you exceeded the volume by one tiny amount, “it would go ballistic and distort,” he explains.
Dayron would plug a Schoeps or Neumann mic into an outboard mic preamp – in this case, a Neve “and go directly into a channel of the one-inch tape recorder. I could just go to the tracks, and mix them later.” The scheme took more effort but paid off where it counted most, in Dayron’s eyes.
“We did have to mix back through the board. The playback section was fine, because they were just line inputs, and we did not have to go through the shitty Japanese mic preamps.”
(1979), on the other hand, saw Bloomfield revisit the acoustic format on a
series of gospel duets with Woody Harris – which they recorded in Dayron’s
living room, “using these two gorgeous handmade microphones fed into a
brilliantly fine-tuned German recorder,” he says, “so the innovations would be
at the amplifiers.” Michael used the internal delay of a Randall amplifier – the
spring reverb, and various effects – to get the effects he got playing those
songs. “I just recorded what came out of the speaker.”
‘Throw up your equipment as fast as you can’
When asked how they’ll remember Bloomfield, most fans will not cite a specific album, but “some hole-in-the-wall, at such-and-such-intersection” – such as the “old” Old Waldorf, where Dayron recorded the performances on "Between the Hard Place and the Ground" (1979). (However, the recordings are earlier than that date, since the club had two different locations.) In keeping with Bloomfield’s eclectic policy, the music swung from the title cut’s gritty straight blues, to jump swing (“Lights Out”) and slinky funk (“Big Chief from New Orleans”).
The original Old Waldorf “was this 100-year-old building of creaky wood, where the alcohol had soaked into the timbers – a funky, badly-lit nightclub, where Michael used to play with his friends,” he adds. The actual recording, however, proved problematic because “Michael and those guys were always very disorganized,” says Dayron.
“It was, ‘Come in, throw up your equipment as fast as you can, and get whatever you get.’” So Dayron “would just lug whatever I could carry. I used a Stellavox tape recorder and a Nagra passive mixer. I put up maybe no more than three microphones, one for the vocal, two for the band.”
A more relaxed approach prevailed on "Live At The Old Waldorf," which rounds up gigs from 1974-1976 (as well as one track from the Record Plant). Owner Jeff Pollack had moved his club from Divisidero and California, according to Dayron, to San Francisco’s financial district. This time, the musicians did soundchecks, while the management let Dayron take whatever time he needed, and “use their equipment.”
“Once we set up I left most of the equipment, because we recorded every weekend for six months,” he says.
He also bypassed “the usual PA mics” for his own Sennheiser and Neumann mics, and used a Harrison multi-track board for the actual recording. The Harrison had a sub-set of mixers, so “the engineer could do one mix for the house, and I would do the mix for the record,” he adds.
“I brought my own
tape recorder to record that album which was a Swiss Stellavox – same quality as
a Nagra, only smaller.”
The final albums (1980-81)
For many fans, Bloomfield’s final albums – "Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’" (1980) and "Living in the Fast Lane" (1981) – are decidedly mixed bags, with the musicianship varying by the participants' moods.
"Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’" had an especially protracted birth “because Michael was using drugs and the musicians were a very odd assortment of people,” according to Dayron. While Norman didn’t want pianist Jon Cramer or his cocaine lament, “Snow Blind,” on the album, Bloomfield insisted on having his friend present in both capacities. (Cramer committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge after the album’s completion.) When no suitable drummers emerged, Anna Rizzo’s younger brother, Tom, got the job. “He had no idea how to play the blues,” says Dayron. “I asked him to play brushes on one song and he didn’t even know what brushes were.”
Progress further slowed, because “the studio that we used was this dark, suffocating little studio on Polk Street (Wally Heider’s),” Dayron adds. The equipment there included Neve and Trident boards and “a good multi-track 3-M recorder, which used a closed-loop capstan drive, one of the great innovations in analog recording,” he adds. Why? The Ampex 1100 and 1200 models “had this big, rectangular box, with these giant reels shoveling the tape across a path that was a yard long, and they were always breaking down,” says Dayron. On a 3M “the tape would go around the heads, drop down, and go up again, like a U-shaped path,” he adds. “They were mechanically clean – you wouldn’t get tape flutter. Everything stayed in pitch, nothing ever went out of tune.”
All things considered, “that was a very strange session, very strained, but Michael really pulled that off – whatever happened to work was Michael triumphing over all the problems, really, not me,” Dayron insists.
Bloomfield’s death, "Living in the Fast Lane’s" title raised eyebrows. It was
really “a bunch of leftover shit I hadn’t used, from Blossom, or Zoe-trope
Studios,” he recalls. The album had originally been called Producer’s Choice,
“because it was a collection of stuff that didn’t fit in anywhere else,” says
Dayron – such as “Andy’s Bad,” and “Roots” (Bloomfield renamed it, because
nobody liked the original title).
Producer’s choice (the unheard Bloomfield)
Bloomfield made his last major public appearance in November 1980, when he guested at a San Francisco tour stop with his ex-employer, Bob Dylan. Less than three months later, Bloomfield was dead at 37. The final months had been difficult, for Bloomfield had lapsed into virtual inactivity following "Brusin’s" completion. Part of those distractions, Dayron believes, stemmed from trying to reconcile with longtime girlfriend, Christie Svane, while the others seemed harder to pin down.
“He was suffering a lot of emotional pain – he was drinking a quart of gin a day, when he’d get up in the morning,” recalls Dayron.
“I didn’t see any point in trying to suggest projects to him, because it didn’t seem like he was in any shape to take ’em on.”
Even so, Bloomfield’s demons didn’t automatically permit others to lead him around, according to Dayron, who takes issue with the critiques of their albums made by Al Kooper and Harvey Brooks, among others. Kooper, who produced and performed with Bloomfield on "Super Session," dismisses them in Wolkin’s book as “ill-conceived” exercises to squeeze quick cash from the indie labels that released them. Dayron laughs off the comment “because Bloomfield never wanted to be responsible for getting it [the logistical work] done, especially for practically no money. Michael was the person who determined what he wanted musically – he was out to express himself as fully as possible,” maintains Dayron.
“I was the sounding board: ‘Norm, is that a good cut? Is that a good take? Should I try a guitar part again?’ He totally trusted me to know whether something was good or bad. Here was a guy who always did exactly what he wanted to do – it was a problem for a lot of people, but he could never be manipulated, and we never made any money from doing those albums.”
Dayron’s tape archive contains a trove of unreleased Bloomfield cuts that are worlds apart from the fare associated with him – such as “Crisco Kid,” an irreverent take on the gay cruising scene (“He’s a friend of mine / He hangs out down at Polk and Pine”).
Originally slated to open the Michael Bloomfield album, “Crisco Kid” is a ten-minute song with monster guitar playing, in a disco mode, with his voice in deep echo, through a megaphone,” according to Dayron. “Well, [Takoma] heard that song, and they said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t use that.’ We were shocked, ’cause we couldn’t imagine anybody censoring something.”
Whether today’s audiences will hear the whole story, however, is an altogether different question because Bloomfield’s brother, Allen, controls the estate. Dayron has long wanted to see an album featuring Bloomfield’s piano abilities, storytelling and acoustic guitar playing, “not just hot licks – I hope that happens some day, and I’m not very optimistic,” he says. “Right now, I don’t know who’d put something like that out.”
In other projects, Dayron has completed an “astounding” Robert Pete Williams album, which he hasn’t shopped, because “I’m not optimistic about who’d want it.” (A Son House album is also in the works.) A similar frustration occurred with the production of Chilly Day for Willy, an unreleased album by ex-Bloomfield cohort Shorey, whom Dayron calls “the Charles Bukowski of the blues.”
“I’m very proud of it – it plays well,” he says. “We did it in a little garage studio in Laurel Canyon, using really ramshackle equipment, but it sounds like a Chess record or something.”
Working flat-out for nearly a week, Shorey emerged with an album of poetry set to blues, which “was too avant garde,” says Dayron. “People didn’t know what to make of the spoken word part. I just gave up trying to sell it.” (However, Shorey – who remains a star in France – still records for Rambova Records.)
Rounder Records has also reissued "Robert Nighthawk: Live On Maxwell Street," a collection of street performers that Dayron compiled on a portable Nagra recorder (and won the first W.C. Handy Award, in 1980). When it first came out, the sound quality wasn’t that good, because the equipment, in those days, was limited,” says Dayron.
“I mastered it with Don Ososke in 24-bit technology, from the original master tapes, and found five additional cuts – it’s the best version of that Maxwell Street stuff.”
Producer’s choice (the Michael Bloomfield legacy)
For Dayron, the lasting imprint of working with Bloomfield is often missing in today’s scene, because even the most accomplished engineers “don’t have the musicologist’s reference.” Bloomfield drew inspiration from the records that he loved.
“It was always, make it sound like this song, and this phrase,” according to Dayron. “That’s why he wound up working with me as much as he did, because he was comfortable with that.”
The ’60s offered fewer options, particularly when Bloomfield was battling “these professional white-collar guys, with white shirts and ties” – the Columbia union engineers. “They were very, very competent – all they wanted to do was get a nice, clean sound on everything, and he didn’t want a nice, clean sound on everything,” says Dayron. Not surprisingly, then, his advice to aspiring engineers is succinct: “Study American music and where it came from – if you do that, you’ll have a foundation on which you can build the rest.”
While much of Bloomfield’s post-sixties work didn’t galvanize the box office, it still draws listeners who want something honest and raw – which he provided, no matter the genre, or the project.
“Michael had the most amazing ear that I’ve ever seen – he could hear the death of a sparrow 100 miles away,” says Dayron. “He never cared about speakers, mics, hi-fi or any of that – he could hear everything you needed out of the cheapest transistor radio and play whatever he needed on whatever axe he could find.”
For that reason, Dayron is amused by the ongoing interest “about the instruments he played,” he says. “Michael basically didn’t give a shit. He said, ‘It’s all in the hands – bare meat on steel strings’.”
Any era produces its equipment-obsessive players, “and that was not the case with Michael,” adds Dayron. “It was more the case with me – if I got certain mics or tape recorders, I had a better chance to get something good. Beyond that, there was not an impeccability, or a meticulousness, to what he did – it was just trying to get the art out.”
Ralph Heibutzki is a reviewer and author whose work has appeared in a variety of music publications including Discoveries, Goldmine, Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar. His latest book is "Unfinished Business: The Life and Times of Danny Gatton" (Backbeat Books 2003). His web site is www.chairmanralph.com.
© 2010 Ralph Heibutzki