Lightly Touching Greatness

This is a 4-part blog about the music biz, and my small part in it back in 1979. It’s for those of you who might want to know a little more of the underbelly of what used to be called “the record business.” I’ve tried to make it readable and understandable… hell, there are things about it I still don’t understand. Money, power and massive egos have ruled the music industry for years, not that much different from our politics.

Many songs we hear on the radio are recorded with no problems, no hiccups. Nashville is especially famous for the “painless” single release. The reason, Nashville has long had a formula for producing and releasing its music. It’s not always honest and above-board, but they do release tons of music every year with a quiet consistency that most of the record business would love to emulate. So you know, this look into the summer of ’79 is that of a somewhat rogue record company, Bang Records, which was a small satellite of CBS Records. You can find more on Bang, their signed acts and the personalities we encountered at that time by googling Bang Records.


I was watching a Chicago concert on AXS several nights ago. Great music,
lots of energy, playing their hits. All those familiar tunes washed across the
living room, “making me smile.” Then, as happens so often these days,
my memory began to kick in, as Chicago’s music began to fade and I slowly
heard other music, and other voices.

I knew a little bit about Chicago, as I had met their manager and producer,
James Guercio, at his home and recording studio at Caribou Ranch in Boulder, Colorado, back in 1979. Guercio was already successful and wealthy, his Caribou Ranch recording studio having cut albums for Elton John, The Beach Boys, and of course, 3 or 4 Chicago albums. Google James Guercio if you’re interested… he’s a fascinating man. Also Google Caribou Ranch, one of the most beautiful mountain ranches I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a few.

Caribou Ranch

About the time Guercio was starting with Chicago, he also produced one
album for Blood, Sweat & Tears, which became a favorite of mine and
many of my friends. We loved the jazzy flavor of the horns, the songs were
good, and David Clayton Thomas sang like a wild man. That album was
released in 1968, and 4 years later I was in a farm house north of Toronto,
drinking home-made wine and listening to that album for hours on end.
A total joy. Little did I know that 8 years later I’d be talking to the producer
of that album, and walking his Caribou Ranch property with him.

James Guercio – Caribou Ranch

Why was I in Toronto, Ontario in 1972? My good friend Joe (The Bear)
Glosson had invited me to join him briefly at York University in Toronto
to write and produce some original music for a school play. I was returning
from a two-month vacation in Nova Scotia, where I’d helped a friend from
Boston build a new goat shed. I know, I know, all this really happened, and
I can’t prove it, unless Eric (the goat shed owner) chimes in and verifies all
this for me. And as of last year, he was living on a farm in Norway. Eric, by
the way, had been one of the head technicians for Steinway Pianos for years, as the Administrator/Teacher of Technical Training and Education at the C F Theodor Steinway Technical Academy at Steinway & Sons in New York City. A great technician and teacher, and a cherished personal friend.

                                                        Eric Schandall           

Anyway, one play became two plays and I was in Toronto  for 3 months. With the plays performed and done, I slid on down to the States and ended up in Atlanta. As a friend told me on the phone before I went, “It’s not what we thought… there are no fat, cigar-chewing sheriffs waiting at the county line to arrest our sorry asses…” Well, there were, but not in the Atlanta area, which is where I ended up. Atlanta was totally open to young newcomers back in ’72, and with the help of some very kind folk, I soon had my feet on the ground and started my music career, which lasted 35 years.

But how did I end up at Caribou Ranch, sitting across from Michael
Douglas one evening at dinner in the big ranch house? Well, all that was
courtesy of James Stroud, whom I met and worked with after I’d been in
Atlanta about 5 years. James (his friends from Louisiana and Alabama
always called him “Jimmy James”) had come up to Atlanta to jump start
his music career. He was a great guy, a fabulous drummer, and had
produced a few cuts in a few southern recording studios. We did some
studio dates together and became good friends. When he got his
opportunity to produce a soul group called “The Masqueraders,” he put
me on his staff as his arranger.

                                                        James Stroud

Just so you know, here’s a definition of what a music arranger does.
“The best of the best in the music business had music arrangers.
The Beatles had George Martin, and Michael Jackson had Quincy Jones.”
A music arranger selects how many instruments are needed for a piece,
what instruments they will be, and he/she writes out the parts they will play, in order for the song to sound like a finished song. These choices usually define a song’s sound, mood, and often its ultimate popularity. Arranging horns and strings to tracks that have already been recorded is fun, but can be challenging. The horns and strings on most songs have to stay out of the way of the lead vocal, the background vocals and any solo instruments… usually guitar leads, in rock and roll. Enhancing the track, while dodging around the other instruments, can be difficult. I found it to be much like a musical crossword puzzle.

Again, just so you know, the Masqueraders have been around for over 50
years now, with lead singer & pianist Lee Wesley Jones being the main
talent of the group, writing many of their tunes and keeping them together.
You can google them auditioning for America’s Got Talent on Youtube. They
had already gotten a shot with Motown and had failed to get a release when
James picked them up. I’m guessing that James saw that group as a
springboard for his new career as a producer, which actually turned out to
be the case.

James was hired by Ilene Burns, owner of Bang Records, to produce an
album of the Masqueraders. She pledged him $50K for the project, and
Jimmy James ran with it. We cut all the rhythm tracks at Bang in Atlanta,
with Ed Seay engineering. James then booked Crystal Recording in L.A.
for the horns. Then Caribou Ranch for the vocals, backing vocals and
final overdubs. We were up at Caribou for a week and it was heavenly!
We each had our own cabin, with a stocked fridge and chopped wood
outside the door for the wood-burning fireplace we each had. Breakfast,
lunch and dinner at the main house, Michael Douglas sitting across from
us with his family, detoxing from a recent film, and James Guercio, the
owner, showing us around and checking on our session every so often.

                                                Caribou Control Room

There were Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears plaques and memorabilia
on the walls of the studio. I sat down and played the same piano Elton John
played on his album there. Lightly touching greatness.

Steve Hulse

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