Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Capitol Records and Jane Gray

Located just north of Hollywood and Vine, the landmark Capitol Records Building was designed by Welton Becket, the architect who also designed the Music Center, the Cinerama Dome, and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The 13-story tower, which resembles a stack of records, was the world's first circular office building when it was completed in April 1956. It is a mid-century modern icon.

The Capitol Records Building is the site of the historic Capitol Studios, where Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Paul McCartney, and a myriad of music legends recorded some of the most treasured music in history. The first album recorded at Capitol Studios was Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color, among the first concept LPs. 

But what gives Capitol Studios its great sound qualities? Why do artists dream of recording there? At Capitol, much of this magic is attributed to a curious design element created by Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor of the famous Gibson Les Paul guitar. Paul was commissioned to give the studios reverb, the sonic quality of echo and delay. Paul built a series of eight cavernous trapezoidal echo chambers dug 30 feet below the Capitol Records building. The sparse concrete chambers, each with there own unique characteristics, have speakers on one side and microphones on the other. Sound engineers working in the studios above can pipe audio into the reverb chambers and re-record the sound, adding as much as a five second delay, giving singers a booming vocal quality that makes it sound more like the track was recorded in a cathedral, not a sound studio in L.A. The difference is huge. The effect is perhaps most famously heard on The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."
The  black and white graphic image of the building  which appears on albums became iconic in itself, as did the phrase, "From the Sound Capitol of the World."
The building itself was indeed designed to look like a stack of LPs with the 90 foot spire at the top resembling a tone arms needle. The needle is topped by a red light that continuously blinks the word "Hollywood" in Morse code. The light was turned on when the building opened in 1956 - Leila Morse, the granddaughter of Samuel Morse, threw the switch. 

There are certainly more famous studios. The Beach Boys, while alongside Frank Sinatra as Capitol's biggest selling artist, preferred Gold Star Studios (stayed tuned). Of course there is Abbey Road, A&M, Sunset Sound, The Hit Factory and Electric Lady, but these are all nondescript industrial settings. It's Capitol Records that still creates an aura that something great is happening inside. One can picture Frank Sinatra recording there with Nelson Riddle, stopping for lunch and wandering down Vine to the Tick Tock Restaurant or to Musso and Frank's. The famous Hollywood tower is one of music great landmarks.

For the past umpteen years, I've been writing a psychological memoir that mimics The Picture of Dorian Gray. From the working title (Unblinking) to the format, I'm yet to be satisfied with the novel - but getting there. It's the story of Jane Gray, a former 60s pop star trying to make sense of her new 60s; not the decade, but her age. (Want to help bring Jane Gray to life? Buy Jay and the Americans.) Here's an excerpt from a scene that takes place at Capitol Records:

In my zeal, I kicked off my heels and knocked the box of photos from the striped bergère onto the floor.  It is compelling to fit the pieces of what transpired into those few years I consider my youth.  The things that happen in literature and in film have an authenticity, a verisimilitude that creates depth and round characterizations, while my life appears substantively unreal.  But for the snapshots. 

At 8:45am on April 7, 1968, for example, I walked into Capitol Records in Hollywood, California, an unknown 17-year old with a Mia Farrow hairdo and a lemon-yellow shift with appliquéd daisies tantamount to spring.   I wore Ship'n Shore flats in white and brown that I'd bought from the Montgomery Ward catalog for $5.88.  Fashion was good to me then.

And there it was, the building on the album covers, a building designed as a stack of 45s, its lobby arrayed with gold records from Sinatra and the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  My appointment was on the 13th floor and I insisted that my parents stay back at the Roosevelt Hotel and go to breakfast.  I entered the elevator a little ball of nervous confidence, a little high on amphetamines, and within the hour I had a good faith agreement to produce an album of songs to be determined, and the stage name Lady Jane.

"Miss Gray this is an opportunity that we [there was no one else in the room] would like you to view as la de da [I wasn’t listening].  Miss Gray?  You will bring your parents to my office this afternoon?"

Later that day the cab driver took a Polaroid of mother and father and me, one of the few we ever took together.  In my hands I am holding the contract that today hangs in a frame in the hallway.

But for these things, it could not be real.

The album was produced as if I was Dusty Springfield, but favored a Wall of Sound, everything at the same volume, hit you in the face American sensibility.  There was a smash hit in the album's title song, "Leave Me Alone," a big-voiced mock-psychedelic ballad with a honky-tonk style due solely to the piano of Leon Russell.  The other numbers, whether up-tempo or melancholy, each contained a quality the producer somehow deemed "appropriate" for a 17-year old girl, and included songs like "Anyone Who Had a Heart,"  "As Tears Go By," and "Hurt Me."  Conceptually it seemed the world-weariness of youth was a quality found within my vocals (I thought it a bit ridiculous), yet somehow at my insistence they gave in and allowed me to sing "Popcorn Double Feature," a cover from the Searchers that went straight to number two, unable to topple "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers.  The press panned the album for the most part, which I find humorous to this day, particularly in light of my residuals.  What did they expect, Rubber Soul?

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