Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
review by Carrie Gorringe, 19 September 2003

Toronto International Film Festival 2003

For anyone who has ever listened to and marveled at the recordings of such groups as Cream, Lynryd Skynyrd, John Coltrane’s exiquisite Giant Steps, The Allman Brothers, and anything from the vast output of Atlantic Records, there is one more name that should be part of their repertoire: Tom Dowd, the engineering genius who not only made it possible, but also definitive. Director Mark Moorman captures it all in his absorbing documentary, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music. Through interviews with Dowd, Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Dickey Betts, Eric Clapton and others, Moorman creates a rich portrait of both the Columbia Unversity-trained physicist-turned-artist, and the history of the recording process itself. Beginning in 1947, Dowd was still faced with having to record directly to disc. Tiring of its limitations, and thanks to Dowd’s efforts, Atlantic Records was the first record company to have eight-track recording facilities by the mid-‘50s, no mean feat, since Dowd had to build the recording console from radio-station reject parts (prior to the 1960s, that was the only source of material). Moorman also carefully documents the life of a studio engineer during the 1950s: chaos. Dowd recounts how he had to record the Coasters at 4:00 p.m. one day, then work with Charlie Mingus at midnight. There was little time for leisurely retakes.

When Atlantic Records moved away from jazz to go more mainstream in the 1960s, Dowd took his skills and used them to record Aretha Franklin in her classic recordings at Muscle Shoals and Cream’s "Disraeli Gears" before moving on to Derek and the Domino’s "Layla" and all of the Allman Brothers’ albums. While watching footage of Dowd at work, one is reminded of someone who worked by instinct, always knowing when the "right" moment had been reached. Eric Clapton summed up Dowd’s abilities thusly: "Most of the success of our [Cream’s] early recording could be laid at his door." Dickey Betts described Dowd as a psychologist who would dig out of the performers everything that they were capable of doing. All who worked with him describe him as a man who put everyone at ease in his presence. Sadly, Tom Dowd died on October 27, 2002, but this documentary is a fitting memorial to this grand talent behind the scenes.

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:


Directed by:
Mark Moorman

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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