Here’s another studio story, this one circa 1975 at Wally Heider Recording, now Hyde Street Studios. The Pointer Sisters recorded some of their first few albums with producer David Rubinson. This one, Steppin’, was recorded at Hyde Street just before Rubinson launched The Automatt in the old Columbia Studios spot (see first two posts). It’s kind of a neat example of spontaneous events coming together to create something better than anyone could have imagined. — Heather
<><> Rubinson and Catero continued to hold court in Studio A. In 1975, the Pointer Sisters returned for Steppin’, recording a fine mix of danceable funk and R&B with a stellar team of guest players, including Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Taj Mahal, guitarist Wah Wah Watson, and some of Hancock’s touring band. “It shows everything these talented artists could do,” says Rubinson of the album, which reached Number 3 on the R&B charts. Just as the album featured an amalgam of funk, jazz, R&B, and blues, it also benefited from a variety of production and studio techniques.
“At Heider’s, we laid down a very simple track for ‘How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)’: drums, bass, maybe rhythm guitar, very spare,” Rubinson says. “The Sisters sang live in the studio with the band. I always did this on vocal records, and even with jazz records. The synergy was the most crucial element. We laid simple tracks to give them as much room as possible to create, plus to make sure we had tons of space for interactive background vocal parts and room for leads and background parts to expand and synergize. Anita sang the lead, the others sang backgrounds, and we had a blast with it. The recorded version went on for maybe 10 to 15 minutes! We never did repeated takes. We’d rehearse, get comfortable, and go. It was free and open. Then I would edit the track for the best creative parts, and then we’d go back in and re-do the lead and background vocals where needed. After that we would think about adding things, if at all.”
“Sleeping Alone” would not have happened in such a special way if it weren’t for some very efficient people in Rubinson’s office. He was down in L.A. with Hancock when he received a message from his San Francisco office that Stevie Wonder had called. When he returned his call, Wonder said that he wanted to come up to S.F. to record some songs he had written for the Pointer Sisters. “When?” Rubinson asked. Wonder replied, “How about three o’clock?”
“You mean today?”
“I grabbed Herbie,” Rubinson recalls, “and we flew up to S.F. My office people got the studio and the other musicians and the Sisters together, and we had tape rolling by five p.m. What a session! We had Stevie and Herbie on keyboards together! Standing in the studio in the middle of this was one of my most memorable moments.” After all of that rushing around to accommodate Wonder, he didn’t actually have complete songs written when he showed up; just a hodge-podge of riff s, ideas, and a few bass lines and chords. “He would start playing a groove, or a melody or a riff, Herbie would check it out, and something would start happening,” says Rubinson. “But for some reason, Stevie’s ’phones went out. This was common then. So he yells out, ‘Hey, I can’t hear my piano in my ’phones!’ I couldn’t hear him, and the engineers in the booth didn’t, either. So he says louder, ‘Hey, I can’t hear my piano in my ’phones!’ Again, we couldn’t hear him. So then he says, ‘Well, I’ll just pretend that I can.’ Such a profound statement, really. It says, ‘The hell with letting the technical shit become crutches instead of tools. We run the technology.’ And, most crucially, ‘I know what the hell I’m playing, and I can hear it in my head anyway.’
We cut three tracks, but they had no titles, no lyrics, no real form, they were just tracks of music. So, we had to get a basic concept for the title and create a song form from the fragments and pieces we had. That meant we had to experiment with rough stereo mixes of all the music and with different forms. Then we spliced it for hours into a few plausible song forms. The Sisters wrote a song that fit the track, called ‘Sleeping Alone.’ So then I had to splice the 2-inch multi-track tape to re-create the song form we used on the multi. Then we could record vocals. Every splice was tedious, but we got it done, finally. And the synergy is still terrific. Not precisely simultaneous, but palpable.”
<><>The Pointer Sisters continued with Rubinson through Having a Party, recorded in L.A. in 1975 and released in 1977. At that point, the group’s new attorney, Jim Walsh, fired Rubinson. The next Pointer Sisters album, Energy, out in 1978 and produced by Richard Perry, gave them another Top Ten album and the Number Two hit “Fire,” which finally put them over the edge into pop’s mainstream…
<><>For the full tour, visit www.out-word-bound.com.