Criteria Recording Studios “College of Music” (or how I went to University of Miami and got a free course in reality)

The Allman Brothers Band set-up during the 1970 recording sessions for Idlewild South at Criteria Recording Studios, Miami, Florida. Mack Emerman, founder and owner of Criteria, pictured center. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Allman Brothers Band set-up during the 1970 recording sessions for Idlewild South at Criteria Recording Studios, Miami, Florida. Mack Emerman, founder and owner of Criteria, pictured center. Photo courtesy of the author.

As the summer of 1969 wound to a close, my ears were abuzz with the sound of music. My hometown of Cleveland always attracted the top touring talent, but in the late 60s it was also incubating some of its own. I’m thinking of The James Gang, the house band for local parties. Like The Yardbirds, The James Gang always had an amazing lead guitarist. I was lucky enough to have seen the succession of Glenn Schwartz (off to join Pacific Gas & Electric) by the original rhythm guitarist Joe Walsh (who later left to join The Eagles). There was always music to see and hear, and I made a point to seek it out, whether Blue Note-style jazz at Sirrah’s House of Jazz or underground sounds at La Cave.

However, the most bizarre local venue was Muiscarnival, an outdoor open-air tent with a stage that rotated 360 degrees. It was intimate and funky and it was probably for those reasons that I chose to make it my summer sanctuary. On July 20th, I’d seen Led Zeppelin in the early days of their ascent to stardom. Then in mid-August, Ian and Sylvia with Great Speckled Bird and the re-vamped Paul Butterfield Blues Band both passed through, each offering their unique takes on rock mixed with country and blues, respectively.

By that time though, I was already deep in the blues, having traveled to the University of Michigan at the start of August for the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival. For a kid from the Cleveland suburbs, that festival was a revelation: the Blues as played and sung by its originators and leading proponents. It was one thing to see Paul Butterfield, it was another to see the artists who got his mojo workin’. Beyond simply stunning performances — such as Magic Sam’s unforgettable set that I recorded on my little portable recorder (and which found its way onto a Delmark Records release) — there were also the performers and I had access to all of them because my brother John was one of the festival’s organizers. To be a fly on the wall watching Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf drink beer and reminisce with Big Joe Williams or spending an afternoon hanging out with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Arthur Crudup, those are vivid memories that still blow my mind to this day.

Yet in the midst of all that music was the quickly approaching sad task of saying farewell to childhood friends and the nervous excitement of heading off to college. Eager to start my new life as an “adult,” I drove straight-through the day and night from Shaker Heights, Ohio to Miami, Florida suburb Coral Gables with a car full of some clothing and my most important personal effects, namely the better part of my prized 400+ LP collection.

For most young people, going off to college means four years of studying mixed with fun. And yes, Miami in that time period was beginning to bubble up and offered plenty of that. I managed to walk/luck, almost immediately, into a job as Entertainment Editor of the school newspaper The Miami Hurricane. From my early days at the University of Miami, I lived a life of reviews: movies, books, restaurants, and music. While executing the “scam” of reviewing top local eateries and seeing movies weeks prior to release, I had an epiphany: having “press credentials” could open many other interesting doors.

Less than two months into my tenure, I had the opportunity to test that theory. I’d tapped into Miami’s burgeoning music scene and found at its center Henry Stone and his set of enterprises tucked in an industrial corner of nearby Hialeah. Besides running Tone Distribution, an indie middleman for sales, Stone was then spinning off several new labels, including TK and Glades. I used to make a weekly run to this warehouse where I picked-up the newest promotion releases on Atlantic, Warner and the many now-defunct indie labels that specialized in Black Music — Stax, Motown, Chess, Brunswick, Jewel and numerous other small record companies.

Stone’s employees were quite an impressive bunch/motley crew — though it took me some time to comprehend who was who was who. Composer and soul singer Clarence “Blowfly” Reid was the guy stationed at the back entrance tucked away in a small office with upright piano and little else, while the two very young guys in the steamy, crammed to the gills warehouse who often pulled my records were Howard Casey and Rick Finch, soon to become known worldwide as members of KC and the Sunshine Band. Oftentimes, former black music radio pioneer “Butterball” would be around talking about the underbelly of the music world, or you might see Henry’s wingman Steve Alaimo, himself a former teen pop star and co-producer of Dick Clark’s “Where The Action Is.” It was an operation that fascinated me beyond the product it sold. This was the indie music business and it had more personalities than anyone can ever imagine. The characters were all something out of a Damon Runyon novel — something that piqued my youthful imagination

It was at this destination that my string of good luck began with a chance encounter meeting veteran record man, Dave Benjamin, back to visit his “indie music world” colleagues at Tone. Benjamin had recently started working at the newly-formed Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Distribution. Benjamin and I started talking and at some point he kindly offered an invitation to come visit him at his new office located at Criteria Recording Studios in North Miami. Benjamin was a long-time record man, who had worked with the early dealmakers and small-time sharks who really shaped the post-war record industry. Now Benjamin was working very closely with the giants of the modern music industry: Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Mo Ostin, Joe Smith and Jac Holzman. I didn’t need to be asked twice. I was living the dream by meeting the people behind the artists that made the music I loved.

Never one with much use for patience, the next week I went over to Criteria under the guise of writing a story on the roots of then-contemporary soul and rock music. Walking through the hallway, Benjamin casually introduced me to Mack Emerman, the owner of Criteria. While the three of us were speaking, up ambled one of my heroes, engineer-turned-producer Tom Dowd (who I believe may have been a minority partner of Mack’s in building up Atlantic’s burgeoning Miami recording scene). Being young and figuring I’d be putting my journalistic skills to use, I was bold enough to ask Mack and Tom if they would sit for an interview for the student newspaper. They both agreed and my lucky streak continued. So here I was hearing about the good old days of marketing and promotion from Dave Benjamin with an invite to come back and speak with the guys who were sitting in the control booth recording the music that was providing the soundtrack of my life.

About a week later I was back at Criteria with Mack and Tom (who had relocated to South Florida and commuted back to New York as needed). They ran through the basics, this history of how the studio started small with local soul (Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders) and jazz artists (Jazz at the Philharmonic tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips) and then segued in the mid-60s to rock and roll. They asked me to join them in one of the then-two main recording studios at Criteria and I sat in the booth with them and young engineers called the Albert Brothers (Howie and Ronnie). Behind the glass in the studio was a group of musicians they referred to as the studio’s “house band,” The Dixie Flyers — a group of Memphis master musicians, who came to Miami at the urging of famed Atlantic Records talent scout and hit producer Jerry Wexler. They were some of the greatest “then unknown” musicians in the world: organist/pianist Mike Utley, guitarist/pianist Jim Dickinson, guitarist Charlie Freeman, bassist Tommy McClure and drummer “Slammin’” Sammy Creason. (As an aside, over the next 40+ years, the various Flyers’ paths would cross mine in unexpected ways. For instance, in 1979, I was in Cuba with Utley, McClure and Creason as part of the Havana Jam cultural exchange concerts. Several decades later, I ran into Utley again when he was with Jimmy Buffett. Buffett is someone I also met around this time when he was also a Florida native and still unknown folk singer, living in Coconut Grove and performing in a local Coral Gables club called The Flick.)

Hearing the Dixie Flyers at Criteria was always a treat, but this first time who should I see coming through the studio door to join them but Wilson Pickett. I had seen “Wicked Pickett” perform at Leo’s Casino in my hometown and knew he could command attention. That day was no different. I don’t remember what tunes they cut, but I’m sure I went out and bought them months later upon release!

Meanwhile as that day’s tour continued, we saw British pop star Lulu doing overdubs in another studio with an amazing young “hillbilly” long-haired guitarist. Upon inquiring who he was, I received the answer, “Oh, that’s Duane Allman. He’s in a new band called The Allman Brothers.”

Maybe it was my youthful enthusiasm and a bit of naiveté, but whatever it was, all of the guys at Criteria seemed to take a shine to me and kept inviting me back, session after session. Despite a busy college schedule, I could always make time for Criteria. In quick succession, I witnessed sessions done by a host of soul stars like Joe Tex, Jackie Moore, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, and Aretha Franklin (with her “Sweet Inspirations” that included a young Cissy Houston). There was even a rare solo session by Sam Samudio (formerly Sam the Sham of “Wooly Bully” fame) recording “Lonely Avenue” with the aid of its songwriter, the legendary Doc Pomus, who was visiting the session. I had no idea about Doc or for that matter many of the people and stories I was hearing, but I did know that it was something special.

Then just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I met a person who would become one of my original music mentors, Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun. Through him I received invitations to attend the jazz and R&B sessions: jazz vocalist Carmen McRae; saxophonist Eddie Harris joined by local legend like trumpeter Ira Sullivan and New Orleans transplanted drummer Tubby Ziegler, alongside Stax house bassist Duck Dunn and New York-based guitarist Cornell Dupree; R&B royalty Esther Phillips wailing the blues with the soulful backing of The Dixie Flyers; and on and on. I distinctly remember a song Jerry Williams (later to become a personal hero — Swamp Dogg) was working on with soulster Charlie Whitehead, who was introduced to me by his pseudonym, “Raw Spitt.” There was a lot of music happening and Criteria was ground zero. So much music, in fact, that a good bit of it was left unfinished or cast-aside and still remains unreleased. And that was just my first semester at the University of Criteria, I mean Miami.

From that point came the parade of the heroes of rock and roll, week after week. For starters, here’s three standouts. The first would be the sessions of the Allman Brothers Band’s second album, Idlewild South. For those sessions I had the wherewithal to snap a few photos, including one of a smiling Gregg Allman with his nose pressed against the glass and another of Duane and Berry Oakley laughing. While seeing the Allman’s at work in a studio environment was amazing, it only got better during another session featuring a group of unknown origin they called Derek and the Dominoes. This was the period of “Eric Clapton is God,” so was I ever surprised when Eric entered the studio alongside “Brother” Duane! I was actually there for a major portion of the classic “Layla” sessions. And then to top even that were the Delaney & Bonnie sessions for To Bonnie From Delaney, where Eric and Duane were joined by the considerable talents of tenor saxophone soul King Curtis and one of the original originals — Richard Penniman a.k.a. Little Richard. Anything I could say about those sessions would sound glib, so all I will venture is that I was unbelievably lucky to watch classics like “Midnight Rider” and “Layla” come together and that as good as they sound today, they sounded even better then!

Stephen Stills might pop by at any time, often unannounced, sometimes with his new group, Manassas. In fact, Criteria was forced to build a third studio for him so that, whether he showed or not, there’d be a place for him to work, play, and record. Vividly etched in my mind are a row of more than 40 vintage guitar cases holding legendary models, chained to the wall in that studio.

Knowing my background with the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals and interest in Blues, Tom once called me up come over for a Buddy Guy and Junior Wells session. Who showed up to co-produce? Ahmet Ertegun. And who did he bring along? Eric and Duane. And was I just an observer? Hell no, I participated. Ahmet wanted the group to record Amos Milburn’s “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” but no one could remember the exact words, so each of us frantically called people (landlines were all that existed) and little by little (no pun intended for the Junior Wells session) we pieced it together. My first endeavor in production work? Well it was to me.

And lest I forget, at Criteria was the first time I was introduced to Albhy Galuten, an engineer-musician, Criteria stalwart, and “character” of the first degree, as well as a youngish Turkish-born composer-arranger named Arif Mardin, fresh to the States on a education-work visa furnished by the Erteguns. Talent and personalities abounded in every corner and even on the outside in the parking lot where musicians would play basketball during breaks.

This is all to say nothing of the other guest appearances on one or more of my visits: Dr. John, Billy Preston, Jimmy Buffett, Fred Neil, Vince Martin, David Crosby, Gram Parsons, Jim a.k.a. Roger McGuinn, James Brown, Chris Hillman, Bill Wyman, Jackie DeShannon, and sightings of Frank Zappa (a very brief, but exciting glimpse) and Johnny Winter, as well as a host of others I probably didn’t recognize at the time. One consistent factor was Duane, ubiquitously jumping from one recording session to another — brilliant across the board.

So much was happening and so fast that it sometimes took years to process. It was only in 1990s when I saw him as a member of the all-star Tex-Mex ensemble The Texas Tornados, that I realized that it had been “Sir Douglas” Sahm working with Jerry Wexler on a band that was called Louie (Ortega) & the Lovers.

They were just one of the “near-legends” that barely made an imprint. In that category were so-called super group, Ramatam featuring April Lawton, a much hyped and very proficient female rock guitarist, sharing lead duties with Blues Image’s Mike Pinera and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell; Black Oak Arkansas (with their cover of the rhythm and blues classic “Jim Dandy” a particular standout); and the former superstars who tried to rekindle their careers in this new setting of North Miami, including Petula Clark and Ronnie Hawkins, the popular but short-lived Eric Quincy Tate, Jo Mama, and a later, post-Joe Walsh version of my hometown favorites The James Gang. Though they barely made a dent back then, listening back to their records almost 50 years on, it’s amazing how they still sound pretty fresh and new. Maybe they were simply before their time? Or maybe because too much amazing music was hitting the marketplace at the same time. It was coming from everywhere: New York, Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and even Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

By 1974, a distinct impression had been made on my life and it was a lasting one at that. Although I had graduated and was working as a City Desk reporter for the Palm Beach Sentinel/Fort Lauderdale News, I had the music industry itch — covering city council meetings was boring compared to being around the musicians at Criteria. As luck would have it, I was hired several months later as an editor for Billboard Magazine, but that meant leaving Miami for New York. With heavy heart I attended my final session at Criteria in April and packed up that record collection now totaling more than 1,500!

The friendships made at Criteria as a wide-eyed, college music critic persisted. After moving to New York, Ahmet Ertegun was kind enough to introduce me to legendary talent scout and producer John Hammond and CBS Records mainstay Bruce Lundvall, two men who I am fortunate to have called close friends and mentors in music appreciation and the business that recorded and marketed that talent. Over the years, I stayed in sporadic contact with Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, though I never had the privilege to see them work their particular magic in the studio again.

I guess when people talk about being a child of privilege, I qualify in that category…but certainly not in the conventional manner. I was fortunate with a mix of luck to have been around in the halcyon days of great music created in a monumental period at an “outpost” in southern Florida. Sometimes, I re-listen to the various Criteria sessions that I attended and relive that period of excitement and musical history. I grow older, but the music still proves the freshness test, just as it did nearly 50 years before. And I did get the chance to become a member of the music industry on a full-time basis, now enjoying my fifth decade.

I recently came across a copy of my bylined newspaper article that I wrote about my initial visit with Mack and I was flooded with deciphering those early days. My memories never lose their luster and I still have that sense of wonderment, when I hear new music and think back to that earlier time and place. Long live those flashbacks and the music created at Criteria Recording Studios.

Years later this landmark was sold to New York’s Hit Factory conglomerate and merged into Hit Factory Criteria, but to me it will always be “the House that Mack built. “ Criteria was a Hit Factory, but on its own steadfast terms. Pro Tools be damned…this was the age of what you heard was what you got!

— Jim Fishel, 2016

Jim Fishel