My debut blog: Columbia Records/Studios, SF


Hi! This is my first attempt at a blog, so bear with me. I started this thing to share info from my book, “If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios,” as well as other random musings related to the San Francisco recording scene: news, interviews, pics, commentary, and whatever else comes to be. This first l-o-n-g piece of text is about CBS/Columbia Records; who, for a blip in time, thought it wise to open offices and a studio here. After about five years, they thought otherwise. Enjoy the read, feel free to comment, save, forward, and whatever else people do with these things. I will do my best to be consistent with updates. Hopefully soon I will learn how to make this look prettier, too. — Heather

Columbia Studios

While David Rubinson and Fred Catero went about their business as
one of the top producer-engineer teams of the late 1960s and early
1970s, Columbia Records, the label they had severed contractual
ties with in New York, had a change of heart about San Francisco.
Columbia realized that former “company freak” Rubinson had been
right about San Francisco all along. Columbia president Clive Davis,
already enamored by the city and the top-draw artists he had signed
from the area..Santana, Janis Joplin, Herbie Hancock, Taj Mahal,
Boz Scaggs, and Sly Stone..spearheaded a mission to shake up the
local scene by opening studios and A&R offices in San Francisco.
With the studio, Davis hoped to create a facility less regulated by
the union rules that stifled so many artists and engineers. The e A&R
office would not only handle the administrative tasks for its exist-
ing local roster, but sign new acts as well. George Daly ran the A&R
office initially, later replaced by Ellen Bernstein. They achieved these
goals with only minimal success.

Record industry mogul Clive Davis (center) with earmuffs

Is record industry mogul Clive Davis (pictured, right) wearing earmuffs?

On March 3, 1971, Columbia Studios celebrated its “official” opening with a
grand party, which was attended by Bill Graham, Mike Bloomfield,
Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, and several Columbia staff members,
including Davis. Under the long-term lease agreement, Columbia
gained exclusive use of Studios A and B, the mastering room,
maintenance shops, and offices. Coast then converted some of the
building’s unused space into a quadraphonic ..dubdown.. room, new
offices, and work areas. As much as Coast tried, with its “groovy” murals and dimmer switches and all, it had little luck attracting the
San Francisco Sound crowd—the large converted warehouse just
wasn’t bringing in the business Putnam had hoped it would. Coast’s
broadcasting business did well, but Coast-on-Folsom as a hip rock
studio would not come to be.

“We were always doing advertising; our expertise was commercials,” says Steve Atkins, who would later manage Coast Recorders. “We tried to get the San Francisco bands…it was a period where everyone wanted the San Francisco sound.” Not everyone got it.

<>It’s possible the musicians could sense something uncool about the vibe of the place. Coast had the atmosphere of a jingle studio, which is very different from a rock room. The presence of Columbia and its powerful roster had the potential to alter that vibe and bring in a lot of regular business. So, with Coast continuing work in its small corner of the world, CBS installed a custom 36-input 16-track of its own workhorses sent from New York..equipped withUREI..s then-new 1109 preamp, designed by Erik Porterfi eld, director of Columbia’s electrical engineering, research, and development. They stocked the studios with cherished tube electronics such as old RCA compressor/limiters, Pultec EQs, and, giving a nod to Mr. Putnam, UREI 1176 compressors. Th e microphone selection was equally first-rate: at least 10 Neumann M49s and 10 U67s, along with multiple KM84s and AKG C-12s for string dates.In addition to great equipment, Columbia sent two of its top New York studio personnel: revered producer/engineer Roy Halee, known for his work with Simon & Garfunkel and Blood, Sweat & Tears, would run the operation and serve as head engineer, and RoySegal , who joined Columbia in 1958, worked his way up to engineer, and had already worked on albums for locals Sly Stone and Big Brother, would supervise the facility and engineer. “Clive Davis basically told me I could build the studio and do whatever I wanted out there,”Halee said in an interview with Mix magazine in October 2001. Davis may have thought that Halee’s experimental recording techniques, which clearly conflicted with union rules, would go over better in S.F. “If you wanted to do something really strange with a lot of machines, they didn’t like it,” said Halee, known for putting speakers in elevator shaft s and other interesting techniques. “If I had four or five tape machines running with echoes and reverbs—because you didn’t have digital delays in those days, of course—I’d line ’em up in the hallway of the studio, and
the union didn’t like that. [They’d say] ‘What do you need all those
machines for?'”

Right behind Halee and Segal came engineer Glen Kolotkin from Columbia in L.A. Kolotkin got his start in New York, had worked with Halee, and coincidentally had mixed Rubinson’s hit album for the Chambers Brothers. Then, when Mercury packed up in October, George Horn moved over to run Columbia’s mastering department. While at Columbia, he made the decision to focus solely on a mastering career (he previously worked as both a studio engineer and mastering engineer) and still masters records today.

Coast Recorders kept the Westrex cutting system in Studio D. Horn commissioned that lathe and mastered most of the Columbia projects that came through the door during its first few years, in addition to taking care of maintenance issues. Engineers Mike Larner from Golden State Recorders, Mike Fusaro from Coast, and Tom Lubin joined the staff during the first year.

“When Columbia moved here, because of David [Rubinson] and Bill Graham and one or two other producers who had vision, the industry had really grown in S.F.,” says Catero. In a United and Associates newsletter, Halee said, “There’s a wealth of talent abounding in the area, and a lot of unknowns with whom I’m anxious to work. I find this opportunity very challenging…to really build something here. The prospects are pretty much untapped at present and I think much can be done.”

Kolotkin agreed. Of his decision to join Columbia’s San
Francisco staff, he says, “[San Francisco] was where all the great
music was coming from. It was, like, the flower children days, and
this was Clive Davis’ personal venture, and he was the man! And
Roy Halee would be heading it up, and we were friendly. It was a
chance to get in on the ground floor of something really big, which
was very exciting.”

The level of engineering talent was also pretty exciting. Halee is considered one of the greatest engineers of all time, and his partner, Segal, was known as a superior engineer as well as an excellent organizer. Larner and Lubin were both geniuses at designing and maintaining equipment, and Kolotkin was already regarded as a top mixer and was on his way to becoming an equally skilled and efficient recording engineer. “Kolotkin was one of the fastest engineers I..d seen,” says Paul Stubblebine, who joined the staff in 1973. “It was amazing how fast he could get a sound, whereas Halee liked
to take his time. Halee would do days of preparation and would spend typically three days just getting echo sounds before he ever started to mix.”

Despite all the hype and buzz and the presence of kingpin Clive Davis, the studio got off to a slower than expected start. Most of the “name” acts in 1970 gravitated toward the independently owned and wildly popular WallyHeider Recording down in the Tenderloin district. To feed Davis’ new baby, Halee brought in his own Columbia artists, and Davis shuttled in acts from the New York, L.A., and Chicago offices to record. As one of the most powerful labels in the industry, they had little difficulty filling the new studio with their own kind. Blood, Sweat & Tears christened the room, recording B.S. & T.4 in the studio with Halee producing and engineering. He then went on to record Paul Simon’s self-titled solo debut in 1972, a million-seller that he recorded, at Simon’s request, “in a sparse, almost homemade way; almost like a demo,” saidHalee . “No big arrangements or big flourishes; just straight ahead, his voice way out in front” His former partner, Art Garfunkel, followed suit in 1973.

Segal, meanwhile, engineered Big Brother & the Holding Company’s second Columbia album, How Hard It Is (he recorded their debut at Columbia Studios, New York) and several other projects during his first year in S.F. This was followed by Fresh from Sly & the Family Stone and portions of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show’s Sloppy Seconds, with “Cover of the Rolling Stone” as the album’s brightest spot. Kolotkin and David Brown engineered on the project, as well.

Several albums and a couple of breakups into their career, Clive Davis took an interest in The Sons of Champlin and signed the group to his label. Armed with a new rhythm section that gave the group a deeper R&B groove, the group entered Columbia Studios to recordWelcome to the Dance with Roy Segal co-producing and engineering and staff er Mike Fusaro assisting.

“We had tried to do it ourselves, so I went with an engineer into a studio in Berkeley, and we did demos of the whole record,” says BillChamplin. “Then we re-cut the whole thing with Roy, and he did a bang-up job. He’s the guy who told us, ‘You see this stuff ?’ pointing at the equipment. “This stuff ain’t here for a hobby!’ which meant we better record some hits!”

David Brown began work on Santana III in 1971, but made the
classic mistake that others have made so many times through the
years: He called in sick. It’s hard to avoid catching the fl u on occa-
sion, but unless working with a very loyal client, that healthy
fill-in—in this case, Kolotkin—could very well take over your project. “It just so happened it was a full session with the whole band,” recalls Kolotkin of his first day subbing for Brown. “I just did my normal thing, and their road manager called the band’s manager and said, ‘You gotta come down here right away. I’ve never heard the band sound like this!’ So from that point on, I worked with Santana. I felt bad and said, ‘David, I didn’t mean to steal your band,’ and he says, ‘Believe me, it’s a pleasure! I’ve had it with those guys!’ Their entourage consisted of the Hell’s Angels, and they used to bring their motorcycles right through the hallway. I was amused by all of it, but it drove Roy Segal crazy!” The good-natured engineer would go on to record nine more albums with the band, though Santana III remains his favorite……

For more info on “If These Halls Could Talk,” visit



Filed under Music, Recording, San Francisco

4 responses to “My debut blog: Columbia Records/Studios, SF

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate
    your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups
    thanks once again.

  2. bonisainc

    Wonderful account. Thank you Heather.
    It might be worth noting that, the Little John band had the honor and privilege of making the very first recordings in the new studio, with the masterful Roy Halee at the board.
    John Hart (pictured between Boz and Clive, above) remembers Roy Segal and Glen Kolotkin, fondly, and with deep gratitude for their patience with his young band, making their debut. He will never forget the generous guidance and encouragement he received from these two great professionals.

  3. Carla L.

    Oh wow! When I worked for Dr. Hook, we always referred to that studio as Haleewood! I remember driving up one evening and Roy had a garbage can on it’s side, mic inside and furiously banging it with the lid. As we got out of the car and asked what he was doing he said, “Trying to get a New York sound out of this damn San Francisco garbage can!”

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