The last name on my name list is someone that has become kind of a legend in our Southern rock genre. What can you say about Ronnie Van Zant?
Ronnie was a gem. Ronnie was a brilliant writer. We spent most of our time together traveling on the road for a day or two at a time, or if I had them for a day or two in the rehearsal hall in Jacksonville and in the studio. But we very seldom socialized until the very last album when I was rehearsing them up in Jacksonville and Ronnie said that I should stay out at his house instead of a motel. I stayed for about four days there and that was about as close as we got. I can say that Ronnie was a true consummate professional.
There are two artists when we were recording that would look at me and say, “I want to sing tomorrow” or “let’s sing a week from Thursday.” I would agree and we would set up a schedule for them to come in and sing. There would be songs set up ready for them to sing. Ronnie was one of those, so was Rod Stewart. They would walk into the studio and say “play me this song” and I would play the song they were looking for, and then they would sing. Now, we were not in the studio 30-40 minutes and they would sing, maybe one verse, stop the tape and come into the studio and sit down and listen. Then they would say that they were not ready today. Let’s do it tomorrow, and just get up and walk out the door. They knew where their instrument was and would not sit there and sing for 6-7 hours and not hit the note.
On the other hand, with Ronnie we would be making a track and I would be working on the band and he would always have a bottle of Jack in his hand, and he would put it down on the end of the console and he would say that at 2:00 pm tomorrow he would be ready to record the song. Then he would walk out the door. The fact that he put the Jack down on the console meant that he was going home and have something to eat and have some tea and he would come back in the next day and if it was one of those days when he said, “No, not today.” Then the Jack would stay on the end of the console again. On the other hand if he heard himself sounding good, then he would go through it in half an hour and then he would be feeling really good and know that this was the day, and do 2-3 songs in about 2 hours. He knew when he was ready to deliver and knew when he was wasting his time and running up the bill. He would just walk out the door. I was talking about how the other musicians were coming in at 2:00 pm clear eyed. I never had to say anything to him because if he was going to try to sing tomorrow, whatever the hell he was doing, he would stop when he walked out that door, until the next day or two days later. Just a dead stop, because he knew he was not ready and that was the kind of person he was. Now Ronnie had two or three things going on in his mind.
He had been asking me during the year between the live album and Street Survivors, if I would help or teach him how to produce because he was working with two groups. One was Molly Hatchet, and the other was 38 Special. He used to say, “Donnie is a better writer than I am, and Johnny is a better singer than I am.” Now this is Ronnie talking about his brothers, and that’s the way he felt about it. It just killed me when, after his demise that Donnie is trying to sing and Johnny is trying to write, because if he was alive he would have punched them both out if you know what I mean! (Laughs). Because he said Donnie is the better writer and Johnny the better singer, but they switched hats and he is ready to kill them. That is not his game at all, or how he saw their careers. Ronnie was an avid fisherman, and he used to love to get with Gary and Allen and they all had bass boats on the St. John’s River. Ronnie had said to me while we were doing the Survivors album that his next album was not going to be a Skynryd album. He and Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard were going to make an album together. He asked me if I was interested and would I help him do it. I told him it would be my pleasure. That was the next endeavor. I could just imagine these three guys with their wry wisdom writing “Okie from Muskogee,” or whatever. I could just imagine the three of them and what it would have been like, and I looked forward to doing that. It never materialized, but I thought, what an album that would be!
In the meantime, he was working with 38 and Molly Hatchet trying to get albums out of them. Ronnie was intelligent. He was belligerent or whatever you want, I don’t care, I never had a problem with him. He and I would dispute on something, but we’d discuss it. One night at a band meeting, he said, “ There are two people in this world that if I had an argument with, I won’t hit!” And I knew who they were, Lacy and me. Other people giving him the same static he would have punched them out on the floor.
I wanted to ask you about The Marshall Tucker Band, I grew up in Spartanburg around them and I knew that you had worked with them at one point.
I worked with three of them on the Dedicated record, after Tommy Caldwell died. The only one that I worked with really was Toy, because the other two were so far off the world that their feet never touched the floor. With Toy, I had good memory, contact, and communication.
What do you mean that their feet never touched the ground?
They were always too high. Their was no way to communicate with them.
But you enjoyed working with Toy?
Oh, yes. Toy had a wicked sense of humor. Oh God, he was so funny. I only had short contact with him for about 1-2 months, but he would say and do things, and then when I went back to the room to reflect on the day, I would realize what he was doing and think “That son of a gun, now I just realized what he was saying or doing!” He was hilarious.
One of my friends, who is a writer on the magazine wanted me to ask you this, What ever happened to Thom Doucette?
Oh, he is still in the Sarasota area and shows up once and awhile at Allman Brothers Shows and will play harp on “One Way Out,” or “Southbound,” or something like that. He is the one that I allowed onstage during the Fillmore recording, otherwise I would throw the rest of those guys out. Doucette went through a self destruct problem and then went through recovery and has been a very conscientious, contributor, member of the society. He does blues jams and fund raisers and everything else in the Sarasota area. He is a good guy and still there and very lucid, talks about it but would never go there again.
Is there anyone that you would personally like to see voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and why would you name them?
Alright, this is the conversation that I had with someone the other day. Jessie Stone, and Jessie Stone is a name that nobody knows. He had another name Charles Calhoun. Last November would have been his 100th birthday. Jessie Stone was part black and part Indian. He had a touring band in the 20’s and going through the West, Midwest, Northwest. He did big band type things, a cross between Dixieland and big band. One of the songs that you hear a big band play and was popular during the 30’s was “Idaho.” That’s a Jessie Stone composition. It was his theme song and his wife was in his band, used to be one of the singers in his band. Evelyn is still alive and she is about 86-87 years old and she still sings like a bird. She threw the 100th birthday party for their anniversary and in her speech she said, “Jessie, you can tell by the audience and the fun we are having that I am not wasting your money!” It was a humbling thing.
Jessie was the man who from 1949-50 until about 1955, did all the Atlantic Records with The Clovers, Ruth Brown, Laverne Baker, The Drifters, The Cardinals. With any of those artists it was a Jessie Stone arrangement and a Jessie Stone session. Let’s see, “Momma He Treats Your Daughter Mean” by Ruth Brown, that is a Jessie Stone chart and a Jessie Stone session. “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” was a Jessie Stone, but he wrote and put it under the name Charles Calhoun so he could switch it from ASCAP to BMI. Jessie Stone is the history of American Music before people knew about Benny Goodman or Andie Kurk and the Clouds of Joy, twenty years before them was Jessie Stone, you follow what I am saying? There has never been a flag lifted, nobody knows who’s Jessie Stone and who’s Charles Calhoun? If you knew what he contributed to American music you would not ask.
Now, I’ll give you the other one and you will gag on this one. They never voted me into it. This is the first time in 17 years that they inducted people into the Hall of Fame that I did not have at least one that I worked with. Every other year they have inducted someone in that I either did the arrangements for, produced the session, or wrote one of the songs. I make jokes about it, and Ahmet and I were at the Grammys together back in February and we giggled about it. I thought, if they do it posthumously then they are not going to like what my kids are going to tell them to do with the award. (Laughs)
(Laughs) That’s ridiculous. You are the most prolific producer out there and you have not been put in. That’s just weird...
No, it’s not weird. I can tell you, I told Jann Wenner off one day and he blackballed me ever since.That is his pleasure and if that makes him feel better I really don’t give a damn.
You did what to him?
I made him look like an asshole. He said, “We will put the Hall of Fame in Cleveland.” At that time in 1989, 1990, I was on the advisory council for the Department of Commerce in the State of Florida. They did have then a Department of Commerce. I had called Ahmet up and I said, Hey, Ahmet, I have a good deal for you, we can put the Hall of Fame in Orlando in between Disney and Universal so on rainy days people will have a place to go. In Cleveland, they are talking about raising a 40 million dollars bond. I said, Ahmet, remember the comedian W. C. Fields, he had a joke about Philadelphia. He was from Philadelphia. He would say, “Alright, we are going to have a contest tonight and the first prize is one week in Philadelphia, and the second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia.” (Laughs). I said to Ahmet , “You are not going to get anyone to go to Cleveland from Columbus day to the 4th of July because the weather is insane there.” I said if you give me 30-60 days I will get Universal, Disney, and the state of Florida to put it up down here and you will make more money on a rainy day than you will in Cleveland for one year. Jann Wenner said, “ Allan Freed started in Cleveland, and Florida has nothing to do with rock and roll!” I told him he was a jackass and had his head up his ass. That’s it.
Florida would have made sense to me.
Jann is a good businessman and that has nothing to do with intelligence.
And it doesn’t have anything to do with rock and roll either.
No, nothing. I am pretty sure every time my name comes up that guy is shooting me down. I really don’t care.
Well, you are in the GRITZ Hall of Fame, if that is any consolation, you were one of the first ones voted in!
I appreciate it and it is quite flattering. Hey, you have got a friend of mine living up in that neck of the woods named Bill Simpson. I know he records out of a studio in North Carolina, but I feel like he is still living in South Carolina. He only did Bob Seger for about 4-5 albums and then Hotel California, what else do you want?
Tom and his daughter, Dana.
I bet Jimmy Johnson can tell me where he lives. Jimmy worked on all those Seger albums.
I’ll check into all that. Will you comment on the loudness of the music the way the kids play it today. I did not know what you would say about it but what really gets on my nerves is the music today is played so loud that is rattles the windows in their cars, how do you feel about it? I have talked to so many people from the 60s and 70s that have had hearing loss, can you say anything to us about that?
I do lectures in the high schools, colleges, and engineering schools down here. I have started a campaign with the hearing foundation. The thing is that you are born with five senses. You learn hot from cold whether you put your hand on a hot stove or an ice cube, or you get burned, you learn the hot from cold. You are born with a sense of taste and you know salt from pepper and ice cream from whatever, you cultivate taste. Then you learn odors and how to detect something that is burning or dangerous that is this or that. Then in preschool, the teacher gives you crayons and tells you to color the Easter egg orange and you pick up the blue crayon and she says, “No, this is the orange crayon.” So you learn hand to eye coordination. Everybody is talking to you and they presume that your ears are working. No one has ever taught anybody how to employ their ears or how to protect them. The people that you can best learn from on this are the handicapped people and these are the people that we don’t pay any attention to. People like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder see with their ears. They literally see with their ears. If we stood for two hours a day with our eyes closed listening to what was going on around us, then we might better understand how to use and appreciate our ears. People do not know how to employ their ears. They have no idea. They do not realize that as they listen at those high levels they are doing permanent damage. Eyes, you can get glasses for, laser surgery, or cataract surgery, all those things that can restore your eyes or get them closer to what they were when you were younger, but there is nothing that will help the ears. Once you have injured that nerve and established tinnitis, your hearing starts to go down. People don’t know, and they don’t realize it, that the rest of their life is at stake. They just cut themselves off.
Give me your thoughts of the state of Rock and Roll in the 21st century.
Well, I will give you an example. I was at a magnate school lunching with the children that aspire to do art of all kinds. They called me up and asked me to give a talk on Muddy Waters and blues artists and I said, “Oh, that’s right down my alley.” So we had records to listen to with Leadbelly or Muddy Waters, and then I played them a couple of things. People today think that all blues are 12 bars, but if you listen to Muddy, some were 13 and some were 15, because he had a story to tell and he didn’t want to change the melody until he finished the sentence. I wanted to relate to them grammatically and poetically and why all Muddy Waters’ songs are not 4 x 4 or 2 x 4. Then we took a break. Then we watched some videos that showed white people picking cotton and black people picking cotton and songs that the white people sang and songs that the black people sang. Here’s the Methodist church and the Baptist church, the black church. Then I fielded a couple of dumb questions and this and that, and all of a sudden I had a kid about 16 years old stand up, a boy, and he looked at me and said, ”I thoroughly enjoyed it and now I finally understand where some of those things come from.” Then he asked, “What blues do we have to write about today?” I looked at the kid and he stopped me right in my tracks. This kid probably rode to school in a BMW and has a cell phone and he is asking me what blues does he have to write about, think about it, society has changed so much. There are still people suffering and being hurt but they are finding other ways to express themselves besides that standard 8/12 church form that we know, but it is not a concerted effort that everybody accepts everywhere in the world. More and more the dancers are taking over the music business. I can not think of a rap record that will be remembered ten years from now, but they will dance to it. There is a social change and words do not mean as much as they did 30-40 years ago.
I had an interesting conversation with Kid Rock at the Grammys. I am not a fan of the way he is being merchandised or some of his music. But when I had a conversation with him I realized that there was a lot of depth to him.
He loves a lot of good music.
Oh, I can not tell you how deep that man is intellectually, conversationally, and observationally. He knows what the hell he is talking about. The way they are selling him is something else, just trash.
I don’t think that is really him. Just image.
Yeah, but there is depth to that young man. I am just thinking, I wonder if he survives the pressure they have put him under, how will he mature? What is he going to come off with next? He is a deep thinker and writer and I never thought of it, but when I sat with him at Atlantic Records table he ran things by me that made me think. Wow, he’s no dummy!
I hear he is a die hard fan of Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, etc. and all the things you have done, r&b and everything. He can sing, and write and sing a ballad.
Yeah, listening to a record you think, get that damn stuff off. Having a cross table conversation with him I realize that I am biased and wrong and must reassess this situation. This guy has something going. I gained a great deal of respect for him.
I would like to see him do a good rock album and leave all that hip/hop behind for a minute, but I know that is what is selling for him.
Yeah, that’s paying his rent and car.
Do you have a favorite album that you worked on?
People always ask me what’s your favorite album, who are your favorite artists? I just look at them and say let’s go by decades. I can’t go through the 50’s and omit ; Ray Charles, Joe Turner, The Modern Jazz Quartet, or John Coltrane. So argue with me. What do I do with Bobby Darrin, what do I do with the Drifters, Aretha or Cream and you go by decades, so ask me what’s your favorite album? I just had a little angel on my shoulder where ever the hell I went, that’s what it amounts to.
Thanks so much for this interview and answering all of our questions. I appreciate your honesty.
Something I learned when I was a physicist and it was by accident. Don’t ever be afraid to be wrong. Even if you make a mistake someone learns from it. Even if I say something wrong somebody has to take me to task on it. If we all agreed, there would never be any progress. Difference is what causes progress. I am not afraid to put it out there and if someone differs, fine, I am willing to learn.
Update: Tom Dowd passed away on October 27, 2002, one week after his 77th birthday. He will never be forgotten.