Bob Black
coming soon…
By William Hernandez

WHO?MAG: Talk about the new album on K7 Records of unreleased material?
Bob Blank: When Bill Brewster, who is very much involved in the compilation I’m working on contacted me a couple of years ago to get information on a book he was writing about the Disco era in the early 80’s in New York, he said that I was an idol of his in the music industry. When the book came out and the follow up was starting to be written he brought it to K7 records. My good friend John Morales was also talking to Bill Brewster at the time. John thinks I’m crazy, but he told people at K7 that I was an influence on his life and we should do the record.

WHO?MAG: What exactly are these lost archives of your work?
Bob Blank: The obvious stuff from that era were the hit records that came out from the studio. From every record on the CD, there was “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads or “Let’s Dance” by Donna Summer, which was recorded in the studio that I own. What we decided to do was take the music that was important to me and that we felt was big. We got alternate takes and odd versions of it. We figured people who loved dance music would be familiar with these songs and they wouldn’t need another copy of “Work that Body” or “Heartbeat”, but they would be interested in hearing an outtake from some music. One of songs that never made it on this compilation was “Caught Up in a One Night Love Affair” by Inner Life, which was a pretty big deal record. We just looked for odd stuff and put it together.

WHO?MAG: How did you get into music?
Bob Blank: First of all, I was a white kid living in the suburbs. A great uncle owned a lot of real estate in Elizabeth, NJ. He owned a number of bars and clubs that were all black oriented. He would bring me records by James Brown and all these R&B artists at the time in the 60’s. Of course you didn’t hear them when you watched Ed Sullivan or mainstream TV. It was a big influence on me personally. I noticed how much I enjoyed that music and how little I enjoyed the mainstream music that was around at the time. He was big influence in getting me started in the music and the music he gave me influenced me as well. I was never as interested in pop music as I was in more unusual stuff.

WHO?MAG: How did you get into the technical aspect of production/engineering?
Bob Blank: When I was young I was a nerd and built recording equipment. I’d be always ripping down radios and things. When I was teenager I started recording a local band. We had some success placing some product and I was trying to learn to play guitar. I was always much more successful working on the other side of the glass. Being in the studio was torture for me because I was probably ok as a musician, but I wasn’t talented. I was always successful working with the musicians to get their music and when I always had the opportunity I would make records. When I was living in New Mexico I was working with artists like Bo Diddley and the local people. We had a lot of success. That’s what I gravitated towards.

WHO?MAG: As far as studio equipment, what did you use back in the 1970’s?
Bob Blank: That’s a good question. There were a few things that we had going for us in the 70’s. It was a pretty magical time. The equipment was the specialty stuff that everybody wants to have these days. When I first started in the studios, the recording equipment was consoles, mostly custom made. You wouldn’t buy them from a console manufacturer. You would call a guy and he would try and put something together for you. I was very fortunate in the early 70’s to work on very high custom consoles. The ones you see on eBay that you can’t afford to buy. The recording technique was totally different. It wasn’t like you can put things on separate tracks and not worry about it. You had to work with what you had. We had at those times was the kind of equipment that you see when you’re in protools sessions and you pull up a plug-in and it’s some weird back in the day type piece of equipment. I actually worked on that real equipment. You had to kick it if it didn’t work right and you had to let it warm up. You work with this equipment. It was a much different process. Once you started recording, you didn’t have a lot of opportunity to fix things. The drums and the bass might have been on one channel. You might have to mix all the vocals down and things like that. It was much more exciting working with this older equipment because you had make your decisions on the fly; which is why a lot of music from that time has a lot of more energy. I always say the reason people are using samples from the 70’s was because it was a great time for music. But definitely you’re in the studio and you didn’t have the opportunity to fix it and move things around like in protools. You had to get it right. There was all this crackling energy and you had to play really well and try hard to do things. I think that energy shows up. I’m sure you’ll agree that some of those older records have a lot more vibe than some of newer ones that are out.

WHO?MAG: I’m glad you mentioned sampling. What is your opinion on music sampling?
Bob Blank: I’m going to tell you what’s interesting about that. When I first noticed how sampling was happening, the first record that used a sample of mine was by SWV. I remembered getting a note saying that they wanted to use a sample of “Over like a Fat Rat” on there. I had no idea what they wanted to do. I basically said, “Yeah, sure whatever”. Then I saw a royalty statement for many thousands of dollars. My first thought was, “Oh great this is good money”. Then I got really disturbed because I thought I was the only one seeing money. I’m the producer. The musicians who made this music aren’t seeing any money. I thought that was not good. Fortunately, the musicians from “Over Like a Fat Rat” were still working with me. We agreed to share the profits and everything. I feel on one hand sampling is very viable as process. Let’s face it, you hear music and that music is in your mind. If you really like an artist, you’re going to be influenced by them. I think on the other hand, sampling has taken almost a generation of people and has made musical ability a very secondary thing. Back in the 70’s, you weren’t able to hear a lot of music, but to be honest with you, to be successful musician, what you had to do as a successful musician, you had to have chops. You played every night at a club if you were a Latin musician. You played six nights a week, six hours a night. You became a good trumpet player because you did it. Now you don’t really have to do that and there’s really not a scene like that because music can be organized and fixed, you don’t necessarily have to be great. It’s created a different kind of musician and the music sounds different. I’m not too sure if I’m happy about today’s music because of that.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Bunny Sigler?
Bob Blank: I have to tell you Bunny was a big influence on my life. For almost 2 years, I worked with him day and night on everything from Curtis Mayfield to all those records including his solo albums. He was incredibly talented. He was a blast. He is so much fun as a person. If he’s ever in your area you got to go and meet him and talk to him. He’s just bubbling full of life. He’s the same personality that you can imagine outside and in front. For 2 years he lived in Cherry Hill, NJ, which is an hour and a half south. For 2 years he would come up and work. We would drive 2 hours each day. That showed how much of a bond we had. When we worked on the song “Got My Mind Made Up”, the reason the girl said “say what” and does all that was during this recording session, it was some girl he knew, some girl one of the band members knew. He stood behind her and began whispering in her ear what to do through out the song. Now’s he’s a singer with The Tramps and he tours with them.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Larry Levan and Tony Humphries?
Bob Blank: I worked with Larry and Tony extensively. Tony was a very detail oriented and methodical type of guy. He has very definite ideas of how to deal with songs and structure. He’s a focused guy. Larry, we had some interesting times together. Larry had a drug problem and he also was very busy and successful. What would happen a lot of times he wouldn’t show up to the entire session. He would rely on me to put the mix together and then he would come in and approve or make suggestions. I always say that the best producer is the one that doesn’t come in and rip the music apart, but enhances it. I think Larry did that. He was very comfortable to let everybody who was involved do their thing. He let me at that time, as an engineer, do what I do, which I think makes him very smart. You want somebody to let you do your job and encourage you to do your best.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Kid Creole?
Bob Blank: When I first met him, they had won an award and they were riding high and he had gotten an album deal with RCA/Victor records to do Gueci Dan. We worked on that record project. First thing I noticed was he booked all the sessions from midnight to 8am. I thought it was pretty interesting. It turned out the reason we did was because he was homeless at the time. I’m sure he had money here and there, but he didn’t have a place to live. We’d record every night and during the day he’d sleep at a girlfriend’s house. He was very resourceful, creative. Thanks to him I met my wife who was going to John Hopkins University. They were both in the drama department together. He was one of those people who was very into preparation. He would come in with a list of thing to do for the day and this is how we’re going to do it. He was very much into quality. We worked very well together and we did several projects together.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Ashford and Simpson?
Bob Blank: They were clients of the studio. They came in and did this song. The interesting thing about them was we had one studio that had an isolation booth in the main room. They only recorded themselves totally isolated. They were husband and wife, but they never sang in the same room. It would always sound like they were singing together on the mic. In reality, they were in two isolated rooms and never looked at each other or whatever.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Salsoul Orchestra?
Bob Blank: What usually happened with Salsoul Records was they used Walter Gibbons to mix all their records. I used to work with him. I did something crazy on the remix. It was based on a classical piece. Nobody thought of bringing up like the Cellos and this and that. We just went wild on it. I thought that the record came out really good. It was more of dance record. Of course, you couldn’t play it on the radio.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Sting?
Bob Blank: Good question. Let me think about that (pauses to think). I think the best way to describe that is Sting is a guy that comes to the studio. He would come every day and while we were preparing the session he would go into a corner and read Shakespeare out of a little tiny book. I thought it was very interesting. You know if you work at studios that much, you see people eating junk food or talking on the phone, but he was just this quiet guy and that’s just what he’d do.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Donna Summer?
Bob Blank: I worked on two projects with Donna Summer. Obviously “Lets Dance” was the big one. The reason we wound up working that record was because they wanted people to play at discos. Obviously nobody wanted to play her stuff because it was considered too commercial for discos. She’s interesting, she comes from a Broadway background. Whatever came out of her mouth was at 800% volume . She was very cool and comfortable working with the producers. Like I said, she was in the German production of Hair, she used to work with a vocal coach. I think for her to be a disco artist was very unusual because we think of disco artists of being very much salty, not down to earth. She was not a Diva.

WHO?MAG: How about working with Talking Heads?
Bob Blank: They did the “Burning Down the House” album and also produced a number of artists in the studio. David Burn is quite a gentleman. This is in the days before computers. He would carry a notepad and a book in which he had all his notes and they were all color-coded. Red would mean where this part went and blue etc. It was so interesting. Imagine before computers you’re trying to organize yourself. He came from the art school background, the whole band was art students. They were from this visual element, they were very hard workers. David was a focused player. When Bernie Worrell joined the group, he would spend hours getting his synthesizer sound. He would spend two hours getting a sound perfect.

WHO?MAG: I was reading that you worked with Fania records on your website. That struck me. How did that come about?
Bob Blank: I was for hire. We had done a lot of the local artists especially TR records and all the local labels. Fania was a company that had their own recording studio. At the time as an engineer, I never really saw that. I recorded Willie Colon and people like that on those records. I got a call from Jerry Masucci the owner in 1978. He said he had this group called Fania All Stars and we would really like if you did a remix on our stuff. So every year I would do a Fania All Stars remix. Since they owned their own studio I didn’t see too much of them, but the albums I did in the Latin field were all the independent labels, which I think in a way was cool because Fania was quite a factory. Each group did two albums a year, which was many, many records. I did fewer records, but I thought it was more. (laughs)

WHO?MAG: Was the language ever an issue for you since they were singing in Spanish?
Bob Blank: No it wasn’t an issue. Even though I don’t know Spanish, first word I learned was pinga. At the time, the sessions were totally in Spanish. I understood all the recording jargon, I learned what a montuno was, but I never could speak it. There was one artist, Linda Leida, she insisted on working with her producer and me. Neither spoke a word of English and it was quite interesting. There’s nothing like a great Latin record and a great coro singer. Sometimes I’d say, “What is he saying?” When they would translate, it didn’t sound half as cool as what he sang.

WHO?MAG: Talk about working with Eddie Palmieri on his album “Sun of Latin Music” and how was he in the studio?
Bob Blank: I was working in the recording studio at the time with Eddie and Harvey Averne. They were the producers and we were recording. They brought in Lalo, who was the singer – a young kid. We go in the studio and we’re recording the coro part for the record and what made it different, back in those days, we had a 16-track recorder. We had to record the coro part. The tape recorders back then didn’t have tape counters on them. What we used to do was as we recorded, we put a stencil mark where we needed to go. If we needed to rewind, you felt where it would go back. Plus the recording equipment of that day, you couldn’t punch in and out as well as it is now. Back in those days it was much different because the singer was so young, he didn’t have any consideration for the recording process. He just kept on and the producers would look at each other and not know whether to punch in or out. We did a lot of work on the album, a lot of the vocal recordings on it. It actually won the first Latin Grammy. I wound up working with the producers for many years afterwards with people like Machito and many other classic artists at the time that were after their prime, but still were very important. He [Eddie Palmieri] was very musical. I actually knew his brother a lot better than him. Charlie Palmieri was somebody who I had done many albums with. For a long time, Charlie was considered the better keyboard player; but Charlie decided in that period he was only going to play organ. Charlie Palmieri recorded in the Boogaloo era playing the organ. Charlie wouldn’t play the piano, I guess he didn’t want his younger brother to be overshadowed. His arranger Barry Rogers came from that weird Jazz world. Eddie would come in and talk in very obscure musical terms. I had no clue what he would be talking about. One thing about Latin musicians is that they are extremely educated musically. If you play the horn section in a Latin band, you better have chops. This stuff is very sophisticated compared to generic R&B. Remember, they’re spending $150 an hour. Both were very clean and sober.

WHO?MAG: How did working with Machito come about and how was he in the studio?
Bob Blank: The producers of Eddie Palmieri’s “Sun of Latin Music” had signed him to Coco Records. The vision of that album was to do the Latin Jazz album that they always thought Machito would have made. He was an older man at that time. They got an arranger and one side of that album is a 16-minute tweak. It’s big. It’s really big. The idea was to make Machito relevant, just like anything else in the early 70’s. The musicians at the time, their idea of Latin, they might have known about Machito in the 40’s and 50’s. Their influence might have been Joe Cuba or the musicians of the 50’s. They were the ones that were happening and hot back then. Machito was around the creation of Mambo. They tried to make him relevant. They used a lot of accessory musicians and a lot of hot arrangers. He [Machito] was an older man, he was a bandleader. He played cowbell in some of the songs. He played a role in the thing. Of course he wasn’t singing. Machito might have sung in a coro in his band in the 40’s, by this time he wasn’t up to singing. Machito was still out jigging. His band was playing six nights a week. It’s hard to imagine being 70 years old and running a band, but that’s what he did.

WHO?MAG: How was it working with Jimmy Sabater?
Bob Blank: He was the lead singer of the Joe Cuba Sextet and the original version of “To be with You” which was a Doo Wop ballad. I was working on a solo album, which he was working on in Spanish. The producer, Bobby Marin, told me, “Let’s make a dance version of this”. Chico Alvarez down at Conception Music was called to arrange it and Jimmy always wanted to sing in English. He tore it up. Jimmy Sabater Jr. carried on the tradition. At the time, we didn’t notice that there was very few dance records made on twelve inch [vinyl]. We were successful because there weren’t that many records.

WHO?MAG: How was your approach to doing TV and scene music?
Bob Blank: When you would get a call for movie score things such as Halloween or things like that I would always gravitate towards the orchestral stuff. I did the score for Fried Green Tomatoes. I just loved the idea of going in with an orchestra. At the time we did those scores RCA/Victor records had a recording studio that could hold a 100 musicians. It had moving ceiling that you could push a button and it would open. It was wild to be in room with the 100 best musicians in the world.

WHO?MAG: How did you approach doing remixes?
Bob Blank: In those days, doing remixes was much different. You just play in the machine and record whatever came out. You didn’t have the option of cutting and pasting and doing things like they do today or even replaying because the tapes would come out filled with tracks. You had to be creative and use a razor blade. I’m going to start here and end here and that’s what we do. Hopefully that’s how the record came out.

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