A Conversation with... David Greene

New York City-born and bred audio engineer David Greene has long been a proud Canadian and a key player on the Toronto recording scene. As a senior recording engineer in NYC in the '60s, he worked on albums from artists ranging from The Animals and The Guess Who to Stan Getz and Bill Evans, and he engineered the motion picture soundtrack album for Dr. Zhivago. He then joined the staff of Manta Sound Studios, Toronto, in 1971, and via such companies as Unlimited Productions and Magnetic North, and then independently, Greene has had a very successful and Emmy-winning career working in music production and sound editing for some major television productions and series. He's a man with great stories, as FYI's Bill King discovered in this recent chat.


Bill King: It all started in Queens, New York. Did you catch the audio bug early on?

David Greene: Listening to music and recording was a hobby. I was actually part of a little jazz band in high school and used to do sound for the band and record them. One day they asked if I’d do that full time. I don’t know if they asked that because they liked the way I handled audio or didn’t like the way I played piano. I’ll never know.

B.K: How did you learn how to record, trial and error?

D.G: At that time in New York there was an annual hifi show at the New Yorker Hotel. That little organization later became the Audio Engineering Society. Bunch of hotel rooms and everybody would have their hifi gear. Every Sunday I grew up listening to NBC broadcast live from Carnegie Hall, the NBC Symphony with Arturo Toscanini. It was one Telefunken U47….straight out to air and it was gorgeous.

B.K: You were playing close attention to sound — an early-in-life gear head.

D.G: No question about it. It just stuck.

B.K: Did you have enough skill to find your way into a studio?

D.G: My career has an arc that kind of matches the existence of the independent studio. The independent studio in those days was not a legitimate way to make a living. All the record companies had their own studios. RCA had studios in New York, Nashville…..Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, London and Rome. They were all union studios. That was the industry at the time. Little studios started to sprout up and eventually took hold. That’s around the time I found my way into it. I had gone to university to study electrical engineering and didn’t really like it, so I took a hiatus and went to Washington, D.C. and started working with my brother in a small studio and it was trial by fire. We were so inept at business we were bankrupt in three months and didn’t know it until we were out of it.

If it had something to do with audio we were there. Washington D.C. was a Mecca of good music. We used to do a bunch of R&B stuff often on Sundays because that was the only time everybody was off work. There was one particular production company, Simmons, Floyd and Isbell, and they’d come in on Sundays and you’d set up, put out music stands and the only thing that went on the music stands were racing forms. Al Isbell actually changed his name to Al Bell, and the Floyd was Eddie Floyd and they went on to become Stax Records. Bo Diddley was floating around Washington in those days and we’d do that, it was amazing. After that was done you’d pack up the gear and throw into the car and go up to the Washington Cathedral and record Monteverdi –“Vespers for the Blessed Virgin” for the local classical music station. You don’t know you can’t do it, you just do it. That’s where I cut my teeth and I enjoyed every moment of it.

B.K: Phil Ramone….

D.G: I met Phil when he was audio consultant to the White House when John Kennedy was president. When the White House calls you up and wants you to do this, you do it. I met him that way. We also had a specialty — being able to take our gear and go anywhere. We did a job for MGM Records, Val Valentine in Detroit. Sammy Davis was on the road with a show called Golden Boy. There were previews in Detroit and after the show we went to this empty theatre with the Basie Band and recorded an album arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. That’s how I met Val Valentine who was director of engineering for MGM and when I came back to New York he gave me a job. We hired this producer a big tall crazy man, Tom Wilson, and one of the acts on the label was Eric Burdon and the Animals and they had a limited amount of time they could spend in the States, they were English. Thanks to Max Emerman at Criteria in Miami we packed up a compact remote recording studio and went to Nassau. We recorded “Don’t Bring Me Down”, which is one of their biggest hits. It’s always been about the song and I have been so blessed to grow up in New York in the 60s’ and 70s’ when you couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over another great artist or another hit song. I had kind of a mantra if you will…..when I did a record and somebody listened to it, I don’t care if they love it or hate it as long as they did one or the other, because it does something to them.

B.K: Nothing worse than being indifferent.

D.G: There’s a lot of wallpaper around. There’s a song I did with this folk artist Michael Johnson from, I think, Minneapolis who plays guitar and sings and if he’s sitting there playing and you walk by and have to stop and listen. He’s very compelling. It was an album that was actually started by Phil Ramone and Peter Yarrow in New York for Atlantic and they blew eighty percent of the budget on three tunes so they shipped to Canada and gave to Chris Dedrick and myself and one of the tunes we did was a song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1949 for the show South Pacific. At the time there was a great uproar about the song because it’s about race. The lyric is very simple, “You've got to be taught, to hate and fear, you've got to be taught, from year to year, it's got to be drummed, in your dear little ear, you've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, you've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught before it's too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you've got to be carefully taught!” That is so in tune with what’s going on today.

B.K: The movie Dr. Zhivago — one of the biggest films of the day and you worked on the soundtrack?

D.G: I mixed the album. It was a large orchestral feat for MGM Records and they kind of just threw it at me. Three track/ 35 mm.

One of my favourite stories comes from that era. We had a label called Verve Forecast that was supposed to be kind of a folkie thing and the guy who ran it signed two girl singers in the same week and did albums with both. I did one and Brooks Arthur did the other. The deal was, singles would go out and the first one to make some noise is what the label would jump on and promote. Brooks had a single that was picked up by Leonard Bernstein because the girl was fifteen years old and the song was “Society’s Child” Janis Ian. He put her on a Saturday morning Young People’s Concert on CBC Television Network with New York Philharmonic Orchestra. True to form, the other album was kind of swept under the carpet. The single from the album that was later re-released and did very well was a tune called “Wedding Bell Blues” by Laura Nyro. We actually started the second album, which included “Stone Soul Picnic” when engineer Roy Halee was in New York with The Fifth Dimension. They were appearing at the old Americana and A&R had studios right across the street and he played the kids this song that hadn’t been released and low and behold out comes this song with the Fifth Dimension. That was New York in the 60s,’ you couldn’t miss.

The centre of it all was the Brill Building. There was one guy who couldn’t get anybody pay attention to his song so he had a hundred copies printed and went up to a high floor in the Brill Building then threw them out a window then walked down to Times Square and said, “I made this mess” and they arrested him. He and his song make the front page of the paper and he sold the song. It was a factory. The Brill Building was a factory.

B.K: How many songwriters would you estimate hung around at the time?

D.G: I wouldn’t have any idea.

B.K: They had major publishing companies in the building with writers on salaries.

D.G: And down on the main floor was Colony Records. Colony Records was a record store that had at least one of everything…..always. New York in that era was unbelievable. Walter Cronkite wrote a biography and he talks about Don Hewitt who was the creator of 60 Minutes, which is still an amazing program. The day he came back from the production office – Black Rock which is the corporate office and people asked “How’d it go?” He says, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.” Give us the good news first! “Last month for the first time in its history, 60 Minutes made money.” So what’s the bad news? “Last month for the first time in its history 60 Minutes made money.”

Once people started to figure out how much money there was in music, technology drove it. I remember 7 inch 45 was king; then came the 10 inch LP, then the 12 inch LP. That was something that was now accessible to everybody. It wasn’t the old 78s that had a maximum of three or four minutes on a side. You now had twenty two/twenty three minutes the side of a record. They were initially affordable.

B.K: We are wired differently.

D.G: Speak for yourself.

B.K: We sit around with tablets, smart phones, we can’t live without these. I don’t argue with this, it’s inevitable. Change occurs and we adapt.

D.G: It’s always been that way in the studios. No sooner did we pay off the loan for the eight track then we had to buy a sixteen. Then barely paid that off before we had to buy a twenty-four track.


Look for Part Two of this Conversation in Monday's FYI.



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