Columbia Pt. 2: Mysterious gonks and reigning loonies

Hello! In the spirit of, I dunno, organization, here is the rest of Columbia Studios’ brief San Francisco story, all the way to their exit from the city, which left the door open for The Automatt, the beloved studio owned by producer David Rubinson. I have a splitting headache at the moment, so I’ll be brief. But the blog, again, is long. Future entries will be shorter. Happy reading — Heather J.

…To make matters worse as far as Segal’s blood pressure was concerned, Santana had secured a special contract that granted them free studio time after selling a certain number of records, which meant the studio turned into their second home. “They used to book the studio by the year!” Kolotkin recalls. “They’d just book the studio until they went on tour, move in a refrigerator and stock it every day, and we’d record all the time.”

But maybe one reason for the ongoing studio lockout stemmed from Carlos Santana’s recording style. He was, and still is, the polar opposite of a one-take guy. “We’d punch in a lot and we might work on a solo of his for hours at a time, maybe a day,” Kolotkin recalls. “He just wanted to get everything perfect. I like to record live, get the best feel, and not plan out each solo, but Carlos would learn those solos and play them identical each time they were on the road—the exact solo—because he had perfected them in the studio.”

One day, Santana got a bit of competition from young guitarist Neal Schon, then relatively new to the group. The song “Toussaint L’Overture” became a contest between Schon and Santana. “We were working with Carlos’s guitar solos and Neal comes in and says, ‘Oh let me try one!’ So Carlos let him try one, and it was great! Then Carlos would do a solo, and Neal would come in the next day and try to better it. We had 16 tracks back then, and we were just about filled up when one night, Neal came in with a bunch of his friends and wanted to do his solo over. I said, ‘Are you kidding? That solo was incredible!’ He really wanted to do it, but in order to [re-record his solo] we had to erase the original, so that’s what we did. To this day, I think we erased the best solo he had on that album. But it’s my word against his, and he swears the new one’s better.” Kolotkin continued working with Santana as he explored his spiritual path and a jazz-fusion direction, beginning with Caravanserai.

When the original lineup disbanded in 1973, Santana collaborated with guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin on Love Devotion Surrender. The guitarists shared Sri Chinmoy as a guru but possessed very different recording styles. “John did all of his solos in 45 minutes,” Kolotkin says of the album, recorded in New York and San Francisco. “John played thousands of notes, and then when it came time for Carlos to record, it took him three days! But when we were mixing, we listened to John’s solos, and at the end of each one there’d be this ‘gonk.’ Carlos said, ‘Well we can’t leave those gonks in there.’ So we spent two more days hand-erasing the gonks! So John might have done all of his solos in 45 minutes, but it still took us three days to work on his parts.”

Like most studios, every day was full of surprises at Columbia, some of them magical, like the day Paul Simon sat down with Kolotkin and Roy Halee in the studio. He wanted their feedback on some new songs he had just written. “Kodachrome” was one of them. Kolotkin recalls Simon asking them, “You know, I’ve known both of you for a number of years, what’s your true opinion of these songs?” Their response was the verbal equivalent of falling out of the chair. The studio continued to operate full speed ahead for a solid half-decade. Halee brought in as many Columbia acts as he could to fill Studios A and B, while Coast kept its remaining C room booked with commercial spots and film and television projects. One of the highest profile ones came from New York, down on Sesame Street. In only its third season in 1970, The Children’s Television Workshop program began incorporating the now-famous number and letter cartoon spots—i.e., “sound like…the letter ‘I’!” Imagination Inc., a film-production company based in
San Francisco, played an integral role in many of these spots and booked heavyweight talent to get them done. The company brought Grace Slick and jazz musician/composer Denny Zeitlin, who worked with Imagination Inc. producers Walt Kraemer and producer Mike Felix. For numbers 1 through 20, Zeitlin composed and played music on an intricate electronic panel, while Slick improvised vocal and scat singing. For letters E and O, Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks performed to music by Great Society’s Darby Slick. Bud Luckey put together animation and music and sang for numbers 2 through 6. Music for the animated spots was recorded on Coast’s 16-track, as was another television campaign, the stick-in-your-head-for-days jingle “A is for Apple, J is for Jacks” for Kellogg’s Apple Jacks cereal. Steve Atkins, longtime partner of Lloyd Pratt, who oversaw Coast Recorders, came over to Folsom Street after Pratt passed away. “I was on the road, and by the time I came back in 1970, Lloyd had merged with Coast. I had been working at my tiny studio when they called me the day after Lloyd died and asked me to baby-sit Coast on Folsom. So I did; I was with Coast for about three or four months, then they made me manager. I stayed with the company until 1993.”

<>George Horn, who served double duty as both chief tech and lead mastering engineer, handled much of the mastering for the studio, including most of the in-house work as well as outside clients. To accommodate the influx of business, he trained engineer Phil Brown, who soon joined him in the mastering department. In the early 1970s, Columbia was the only place in town that could cut stereo lacquers, so anyone who wanted their album mastered in stereo and didn’t want to travel to L.A. to do it brought their business to Columbia. As an aside: at the time, one of the only independent mastering houses period was Doug Sax’s Mastering Lab in L.A., which opened in 1968. The Lacquer Channel opened in Sausalito in the mid-1970s and even then, it was a rare bird, and rarer still in a “B” market such as San Francisco. Even now, the city maintains a limited number of indie mastering rooms; Stubblebine owns one of them.

Horn recalls mastering a Neil Young album directly from 16-track, without going through a mixdown stage. Producer Elliot Mazer, who had opened his own studio, His Master’s Wheels, in the old Pacific High Recorders space in 1974, had a Neve 8016 desk with a Neve Melbourne sidecar, along with a couple of Ampex MM1000s. “His idea was to work out all the mixes with automation and transfer them directly onto multitrack tape to the lathe and bypass the 2-track tape,” recalls Horn. “It was quite an undertaking but it worked.” Horn couldn’t recall the name of that particular Young album; he remembers catalog numbers, not album titles. A young Paul Stubblebine began his mastering career at Columbia in 1973. He joined the staff as an intern, worked his way up to second engineer, then joined the mastering department where he learned from both Brown and Horn. The studio had two shifts, so once Horn trained Stubblebine, he would work the first shift while Brown took the second shift, or vice versa. The team of three collectively handled everything from the Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and other Columbia projects to classics such as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and The Grateful Dead’s From the Mars Hotel, “which not everybody knows because there were hardly any credits on the album,” says Stubblebine. “George Horn got credit on the LP, but only because he asked.”

The studio held its own until 1975, when a convergence of events led to its eventual downfall. One, the goal of signing up new talent on par with its existing roster didn’t happen. With the exception of Journey, which released its self-titled debut with Columbia in 1975, the acts signed later, such as the Rowan Brothers, Pamela Polland, Grootna, Masters of the Airwaves, and Les Dudek didn’t sell well, either because, in label parlance, “the hits weren’t there,” or because they got buried under company bureaucracy. Their field reps could take part of the blame, as the label passed on locals The Tubes, Earth Quake, The Doobie Brothers, Jefferson Starship, Tower of Power, and Graham Central Station. “All those acts were in CBS Studios and made demos there and CBS passed on every one,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin in 1976. “They were pioneering and everyone else adopted a wait-and-see attitude while Clive flopped around. That failure justified the end of the San Francisco explosion.”

Strict union rules didn’t help matters, even though Segal and Halee didn’t run the studio the way CBS ran its facility in New York. Drugs were used in the Columbia studio as they were everywhere; you just weren’t allowed to smoke in the control room. As the only union studio in town, however, it had nearly 20 people on payroll and an expensive lease, both factors hugely detrimental in an industry where it is hard turn a profit.

The biggest blow, however, happened in 1975, when CBS fired Clive Davis. It was Davis’ vision to open the studio and branch office in the first place, so with him gone and the local roster waning, the studio didn’t really get much support from New York. That same year, Halee took a position at ABC in Los Angeles, where he had been working more frequently anyway. “I eventually got really tired of it, because I had to keep bringing musicians in from L.A.,” he said of San Francisco. “I tried using Bay Area players. I brought in San Francisco Symphony players a few times. And there were a few horn players. I brought in Jerry Garcia a couple of times, which was nice. But Hal [Blaine] was down in L.A., and so many of the regular musicians I liked to use were down there, and then I got involved with Albert Hammond and I was spending more time there than in San Francisco, so I figured I’d go back down there. I just couldn’t find the musicians I needed to help me.”

Though he stayed in San Francisco a few more years, Glen Kolotkin followed Halee’s lead and left the studio to work as an independent engineer/producer. “It came at a good time for me,” he says of Davis’s departure, which led to the end of Columbia Studios. “I’d thought I wanted to be on my own more, and I was interested in doing more producing, and I did.” Even as an independent, he continued to bring acts to the studio until it closed. During Columbia’s final year, he allied with the eccentric Matthew Kaufman (self-proclaimed “reigning looney,” known for claiming that Reverend Ike and marijuana were his greatest life influences), who brought in the band Earth Quake, dropped from A&M Records after two unsuccessful albums. Kolotkin recorded these initial tracks and offered to help Kaufman get them a deal.

Kolotkin and Kauffman

Mathew Kaufman (left ) and Glen Kolotkin, going Beserkley in Columbia’s Studio B control room, circa 1976. Photo courtesy Glen Kolotkin

Kaufman wanted his own label instead and promptly formed Beserkley Records with partner Steve Levine. The band’s first single, “Sitting in the Middle of Madness,” sold more than 3,000 by mail-order and grassroots efforts, which gave Kaufman the funds needed to move forward. Kolotkin stayed on board as a producer and engineer and worked with the entire original Beserkley roster: Greg Kihn, Earth Quake, Jonathan Richman, and The Rubinoos. He recorded Richman’s Rock & Roll with the Modern Lovers in Columbia’s echo chamber—the whole band in the echo chamber.

He continued to work with Santana, as well, through his 1977 release Moonflower. Kolotkin then moved back to New York not long after, but he and Santana would reunite in San Francisco many years later to work on his mega-mega Platinum release, Supernatural, in 2000. In the midst of all of these developments on first floor of 829 Folsom Street, David Rubinson took over the upper two floors (which had been occupied by Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope enterprise) for offices and rehearsal space as well as Studio C, the small studio used mainly for voiceovers by Coast. By this time, Coast had moved what was left of its Folsom Street business to 1340 Mission, former home of Mercury Records, which it acquired in late 1970.

When Rubinson began negotiations with Cal Roberts, CBS vice president in charge of recording operations, he needed his own studio badly. His lease with Heider’s, for which he paid for about 3,000 hours a year in advance in exchange for a discounted rate, required him to work during its off-hours, which usually meant a lot of nights and weekends. He also worked in Los Angeles quite a bit, often working in both cities the same day. He produced the lion’s share of his work at Heider’s, and therefore felt justified in asking for a few modifications to the studio: a 4-channel headphone cue system and monitor section mute switches and automation for the console. This feature was just beginning to make its way on the market. Filmways, the company that owned Wally Heider Recording at the time, refused, further reinforcing Rubinson’s quest to find a permanent home.

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