My poor neglected blog. I’m so sorry for leaving you alone for so long, but I promise to pay more attention from now on.
Like most cities, the San Francisco studio landscape continues to expand and contract in all sorts of mysterious ways. Fantasy Studios (see previous post), has found a way to carry on. Different Fur, a popular recording site since the 1970s, is up for sale. Historic Coast Recorders remains intact, albeit under new owners and the name Broken Radio. Coast is one of the oldest and most traveled studios in the Bay Area, having had successful runs at locations on Folsom Street, Harrison Street, and Mission Street, the location now known as Broken Radio. But before all of that, Coast operated for a brief time at 960 Bush Street in Nob Hill. For those interested in Coast’s early days, I’ve provided an excerpt from my book, If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour Through San Francisco Recording Studios. Enjoy, — Hj
Sound Recorders, one of the earliest known commercial studios in San Francisco, opened in 1946. Jingles for radio, mostly, poured out of this second-floor space at the corner of Post and Powell Streets, while the United Airlines ticket office booked flights downstairs and trolleys outside carried businessmen and shoppers through bustling Union Square. Toward the end of the 1950s, advertisers could finally purchase 30- or 60-second spots rather than sponsor an entire radio program, so naturally, the city’s top ad agencies needed a place to produce these bright, brief bursts of words and music. The demand for these short spots increased as Top 40 AM radio began to dominate in the early 1960s.
Sensing a prime business opportunity in the Bay Area’s commercial industry, audio legend Bill Putnam purchased Sound Recorders in 1962. Putnam had founded Universal Recording Corporation, a successful recording studio and audio equipment manufacturing business (the precursor to Universal Audio) in the Chicago area in 1947, and United Recording Corporation in Hollywood in 1957.
Rooms stamped with the Putnam name were considered prime acoustic real estate, and some of his recording techniques—he is acknowledged to be the first to use artificial reverberation for commercial recordings, developed the first multi-band equalizers, and was one of the first to record in stereo, among other achievements—advanced the field in innumerable ways. When Putnam picked up Sound Recorders, the expanding United umbrella already included both United and Western Studios in Los Angeles, Universal Audio (manufacturers of prized UREI compressors and amplifiers), and the URCON studio in Las Vegas.
Putnam promptly christened his new purchase Coast Recorders and moved the operation and its clientele to 960 Bush Street, a large building in the tony Nob Hill area, not far from the activity of Union Square. The building wasn’t ideal for recording, which is probably one reason why Putnam almost immediately began looking for another space, but he inherited a veritable landmark with a fascinating musical history.
Long before Putnam moved in his custom recording equipment, music ranging from the highly spiritual to the deliciously sinful reverberated through 960 Bush. Hymns and sacred music filled the sanctuary during its original incarnation as a church. During the first half of the 20th century, the house of worship either closed or moved (few records were kept, so the exact date and reason for its move are uncertain), and in the early 1930s, a theater called Hawaiian Gardens moved in. Longtime San Franciscans remember 960 Bush as a home for the San Francisco Repertory Theater, the Bush Street Theater, Barney Gould’s Emperor Norton Theater, the Balalaika, and the Club Kamokila.
In 1956, The Andros Brothers assumed the space to open the nightclub Fack’s. Mel Torme, June Christy, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Buddy Greco, and the Hi-Lo’s, among others, played there. Duke Ellington was supposed to perform one night, but was greeted by a padlocked door; apparently, the I.R.S. shut the place down because the Andros Brothers owed them $36,000 in back taxes. Ellington returned when the club reopened for a short time as The Neve.
For a brief period in the 1960s, the Quake, later named the Million Cellar, presented topless dancing in a Gold Rush–type atmosphere on the bottom floor. The red velvet curtains, stage, and large crystal chandelier from The Neve/Fack’s era were still there when Coast Recorders moved in, serving as reminders of the After extensive renovations, Coast Recorders, a United Affiliate, officially opened its doors in October, 1963, equipped with some of Putnam’s custom equipment, a 3-track tape machine, and remote recording services.
Coast aimed to satisfy the needs of the Bay Area, which, at the time, meant accommodating a mix of advertising agencies and musicians. Putnam sent up Don Geis from L.A. to serve as chief engineer, and Geis busily recorded jingles for commercial clients and random singles, demos, and other projects for a smattering of Bay Area bands. Coast Recorders claimed to offer “state-of-the-art” equipment in its promotional materials, and it did. In 1963, “world class” generally meant 3-track recording, but it wasn’t long before 4-track came along. Coast made the necessary modifications to become a 4-track studio, but that’s right where it stayed until 1969, when competitors in town offered 8- and 16-track options. But Putnam had bigger plans for Coast Recorders, so instead of purchasing a new machine for 960 Bush, he allowed Coast to rent Columbus Recorders’ 3M 8-track machine, which was the most advanced machine in San Francisco when owner Frank Werber purchased the heavy beast in the mid-1960s.
<>Coast Recorders’ original space also offered a large live room, which worked well for orchestral dates and certain jazz recordings but wasn’t as good for the burgeoning rock bands who were unaccustomed to such expansive surroundings. These bands felt uncomfortable in the room, which was roughly the size of a 300-seat club, shaped like a big empty box with a small stage at one end and a chandelier up above.
Jan Ashton of local rock band the Mojo Men in session at Coast Recorders, 1967.
In the mid-1960s, engineer Bob Shumaker played drums in a band called The Answer (a great name for a sixties band, he says, because “everyone was looking for it!”), who recorded at Coast on Bush. “There were three monitors; we were recording mono in 1965, not stereo.” The studio had no iso booths, he recalls, because “no one really knew about them in those days. I don’t remember seeing gobos either, but maybe there were some. We set up the drums on the stage, and the rest of the band was beneath me. We recorded 20 songs that day.”
Shumaker also sat in on a pre-1966 session with Denise Kaufman, who later joined the psychedelic girl group Ace of Cups, a popular fixture in the late-1960s San Francisco ballrooms, despite not releasing any records. Before joining the Cups, Kaufman recorded the single “Boy What’ll You Do Then” under the name Denise & Co. at Coast. It later became “the most sought-after garage band record of all time,” says Shumaker, “because all of the copies, save for one or two, were stolen from her producer’s car trunk.” Coast’s more mainstream clients included crooners such as Jack Jones, who flew in from Lake Tahoe in 1965 to re-record and edit his new album, Dear Heart. In an early United and Affiliates newsletter, Geis said that artists working the resort hotels and music halls of touristy Reno and Tahoe seemed to gravitate to Coast due to its close proximity to their nightly gigs.
The Charlatans also recorded at Coast while working in Nevada, but lived in a world far removed from the squeaky-clean pop singers. Straight out of the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, The Charlatans were part of the vanguard of the area’s psychedelic movement. Ringleader George Hunter, guitarist Mike Wilhelm, piano player Mike Ferguson, bassist Richard Olsen, and drummer Dan Hicks blew into town like a stray tumbleweed, taking a break from their three-and-a-half-month stint at the Red Dog. The Western-themed bar/restaurant/nightclub had become quite the happening scene for the burgeoning drug counterculture; its Victoriana setting was made all the more surreal with generous amounts of LSD, visits from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and live music from the nattily dressed Charlatans.
Though Wilhelm and Hicks were proficient players, the band itself didn’t always have their set down, but darn it, they sure looked good, and could pull off shows that lasted until the sun came up. “Since there’s no closing time in Nevada, we’d play as long as there were people there,” says Wilhelm. “One time we played until 7 a.m.!”
After one of their nightly gigs wound down at the reasonable hour of 1 or 2 a.m., the group boarded the night train from Reno to San Francisco. They were headed for Coast to record a demo for Autumn Records, which had already amassed an extensive local roster thanks to co-owners Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell, both popular DJs on radio station KYA, and their multi-talented in-house producer, Sylvester Stewart, who would become better known later as Sly Stone.
An exceedingly chipper Stewart greeted the group, who showed up at Coast with suits rumpled and on no sleep, having knocked back a few drinks in the bar car chased by hits of LSD to stay awake. They knew young Sly; they had seen him not long before playing bass and leading the house band at the Cow Palace. “We showed up and he was just wired,” Wilhelm recalls. “He said, ‘I’m Sly Stewart and I’m here to help you guys, so if you need any musicians, like, I play bass, I play guitar, I sing, whatever you need!’”
Donahue then presented the group with sheet music for a couple of songs, one of which Wilhelm recalls as a protest song, which “wasn’t really our bag.” Another had references to modern society, which didn’t fit with the group’s well-crafted Victorian image. Wilhelm recalls telling Donahue, “Hey man, The Charlatans don’t hang out at airports.” He continues, “We studiously avoided any song that might pin us to a certain point in time. So we didn’t really want to cut these tunes, plus we didn’t know ‘em, and here’s
Sly Stone bouncing around going ‘I play everything.’ We’re thinking, ‘Well what do you need us for!’ Basically we just insulted him and kicked him out of his own session. We cut four tunes, a couple of which are okay, but we were so fried from the night before, we just weren’t in the mood.” The group recorded live, no overdubs, in less than an afternoon, then promptly took their burnt-out selves back to Virginia City, leaving any future with Autumn Records in the dust.
The following year, with their Red Dog tenure behind them, the group agreed to record an album for the Kama Sutra label with producer Eric Jacobsen (who also produced work for the Lovin’ Spoonful, Tim Hardin, and, much later, Chris Isaak), who had signed the group based on the strength of a demo they had sent him. Once he had them in the studio, however, Jacobsen apparently had second thoughts. “He thought we really had something, but then we got in the studio and he didn’t think we had it!” says Wilhelm. “We recorded take after take, trying to get this elusive something that he wanted, but I guess he just decided, ‘These guys can’t sing, they can’t play’ and kind of lost interest.”
As producer of the more good-time hook-heavy music popular at the time, Jacobsen may have wanted something more radio friendly than The Charlatans’ eclectic, folk- and blues-based guitar rock. Despite the differences, the Kama Sutra demos were later considered some of the greatest “lost” recordings of the sixties, but they didn’t come without struggle.
“Erik would drag us through take after take, and we were trying to figure out what the heck he was looking for,” says Wilhelm. “I remember one time we were 50 takes in on something and instead of just stopping us when he didn’t like it, he’d let us go through the whole take and have us do the whole thing again. After you sing something so many times, how do you retain any kind of freshness?”
Jacobsen gave up on the band, but the label saw potential in those 3-track recordings, and decided to release “Codeine Blues” as a single. The group finished the single, and Hunter and Ferguson promptly designed an ad for the music trades. The ad included the group’s logo, a photo of the band, and, in their trademark old-timey lettering, the words: “Codeine Blues: Remedy for a Drug Market.” “Oops! Drug song! Never mind that it was an anti-drug song,” Wilhelm says, “but the label balked and never did put it out.” They did concede to release another single, on the Kapp/Kama Sutra label, of the Leiber Stoller tune “The Shadow Knows,” with “32-20 Blues” on the flipside. The single, says Wilhelm, “went absolutely nowhere, and it wasn’t until years later that I actually saw a copy of it. I never really believed they actually put it out!”
The Charlatans didn’t put out a full-length album until 1969, after most of the original lineup had moved on, but they carved out a path for the mass of psychedelic rock bands to follow. They had the look, the logo, and the posters done before they had ever played a note, and the vision to do something different.
Despite the occasional session, Coast never earned a reputation as a rock room; instead, it held on to its original notoriety as a jingle studio, and became a popular spot for jazz artists, some of whom knew Putnam from his tenure in Chicago, when he recorded projects for top-drawer acts such as Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nat “King” Cole, and Duke Ellington, who later became a frequent visitor at Coast.
Advertising clients, some left over from the Sound Recorders days, filled up the rest of the calendar, eager to work in Coast’s clean-sounding studio. Radio spots were created for many companies, including Comet, Mother’s Cookies, Pacific Telephone, and Pacific Gas & Electric. (At least one spot featured location recording, with Geis recording dishwasher sounds in his own kitchen). Upstairs neighbors Diana Production Company, then owned by Cournoyer, brought in spots from Mercury, Donald Duck Orange Juice, and Lejon Wine, among others. West Coast Productions, also located in the Coast building, produced spots for a wide range of clients, including Sapporo beer, Datsun, and Bank of Hawaii. Toward the end of the Coast-on-Bush era, Dan Healy occupied the room for a stretch to produce and engineer a slew of bands for Mercury Records. Though he’s best known for his longtime studio and live sound work for the Grateful Dead, Healy’s credits extend to albums with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sir Douglas Quintet, and Michael Bloomfield, among others. So swamped was he with work, Healy would finish a session at one studio during the day, then jet over to Coast the same day to record another act.
The Steve Miller Blues Band, another ballroom regular before polishing their sound and dropping “Blues” from their name, was one group caught in Healy’s double-shift. Like The Charlatans, their first studio experience took place on Bush Street. It was, in all due respects, a nightmare.
“We got thrown out of the studio lock, stock, and body!” recalls Healy. “I don’t remember who did it…maybe it was Boz Scaggs[then a member of Miller’s band]…but somebody put an American flag over the B3 console. Mel Tanner, who was the manager at the time, basically came in and said, ‘Get your shit and get the heck out of here.’ They just went nuclear! These guys were all World War II vets and didn’t understand that we didn’t mean any disrespect. None of us were really that political. Our message was more about how to live your life and be a decent person.”
Coast Recorders would soon move to new digs on Folsom Street, and would occupy two more locations after that during its long tenure in the city. Throughout their roving ways, Coast would continue to specialize in jingles and jazz, with a few rock acts peppered in between, and endure as the only Bill Putnam room in San Francisco.