The multi-Grammy winner talks about tracking Stevie Ray Vaughan, pulling the plug on a Santana TV appearance and the reason band democracy is a disaster.
By Marty Paule
Jim Gaines’ discography is staggering. At first it’s the marquee names and high-profile projects that impress. From Santana’s mega-hit LP Supernatural to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s critically acclaimed In Step, Jim’s ears have presided over some of the most illustrious and commercially successful recordings in rock, blues and pop over the past five decades.
It’s only later you notice the scope and depth of the man’s resumé. His fingerprints are all over projects that range in their diversity from the intensely personal Saint Dominic’s Preview by Van Morrison to the radio-friendly sounds of Huey Lewis and the News’ Sports. With skills honed over countless sessions at world-class studios around the globe, Jim still brings the perspective of the eager young Memphis engineer who was present at the birth of some of our most soulful and blues-drenched music.
We spoke to Jim by phone at his recording facilities, the name of which is as plainspoken as our subject himself: Jim Gaines Bessie Blue Studio.
The HUB: You’re 73 years old and you don’t financially need to keep producing records. What keeps you going back to the studio?
Jim Gaines: I like the hunt. I like working with and breaking out young artists. Here’s the deal: If I don’t like the project—if I don’t think it’s working—even if it’s already started, I’ll send people home. I’ve sent some pretty heavy artists home. They weren’t prepared. I sent Luther Allison’s band home after two days of rehearsal, back to France. Bought them a round of drinks and fired them as Luther hid out in his room. He had to deal with them when he returned and wanted me to fire them. I’m in a fortunate position being able to pick and choose who I want to work with.
We have a 100-year-old house here—the one my wife grew up in. Before her mother passed away, I bought some gear and put it in my office and was recording one of [my wife’s] records there. One day, after her mother passed, I came over here and was looking around and thought, ‘You know what? I’ll make this into a little studio and getaway.’ I had no plans of being in the studio business. In fact, I swore to God I’d never, never own my own studio. I’ve run major studios—two of ‘em, and now here I am in the studio business! It’s turned into an international studio. I’ve had people here from Vienna, Austria, two or three from London, Canada…it’s amazing—they love this little hideaway out here. And it’s great, because I don’t have to travel, I can go home at night.
The HUB: Where exactly are you Jim?
Jim Gaines: I’m two hours due east of Memphis, three and a half hours southeast of Nashville on the Tennessee River. I’m 45 minutes from Muscle Shoals, on the Tennessee - Mississippi - Alabama line. As a matter of fact, Mississippi is a half block down my street and Alabama is a mile across the river.
The HUB: It sounds like you’re situated in the heart of the country where so much of our great blues, R&B, soul and rock has come from.
Jim Gaines: I haven’t worked that much in Muscle Shoals. But in the last year my wife has hooked up with some cool hitmaker songwriters there, and they love coming up here. I’ve gone down and done a couple of sessions at Fame with her as a matter of fact. So now we’re kind of friends with the people at Fame and at some point I’ll probably bring a session in there because it’s an hour’s drive for me.
In the studio with Carlos Santana.
Up until four years ago I was gone six months out of the year. Now I can go home at night. I think last year I was away four weeks total. In the past, I’d did a lot of work with Carlos Santana—I was the guy who went out anytime he was doing live shows or TV. I was there to oversee it, do it myself or in some cases, with unions, you can’t touch the board. I was kind of the protector of the live sound. Of course, when we did Supernatural, everything went ballistic—we went traveling all over the world. Hell, we’d’d be gone for three or fours weeks at a stretch in Europe doing TV and radio shows, promotional things. And a few times I mixed live for him when he had a problem with a live mixer.
The HUB: How did you get into doing TV sound? Is that a bit of a stretch from studio recording?
Jim Gaines: No, not really. The thing is, when you work on the records, you know what they’re supposed to sound like. In [Santana’s] case he wanted to protect the sound as much as possible out there, live. The way he looks at things, his audience is the people in front of him; the TV broadcast that usually goes with the live audience—that’s secondary. That’s not his priority. So I’d be in charge of trying to get a handle on it. By the time I quit doing this four years ago, we had 65 mics live coming in. Now, you show up in Madrid, Spain and they’ve got a 32-channel console. Or you show up in Sao Paulo, Brazil and they might have 32 channels. Well then, you’ve got to figure out what to do about this.
I’ve actually pulled a couple of TV shows. There was one we did in Germany, in Munich; we had this piss-ass poor remote truck. Nobody spoke English; nobody cared about speaking English. The venue was on the second floor of this building with cables running out the wall and down the street. And so here I am with two piece-of-crap consoles trying to get something together for a sound check. And we never got the percussion working. For whatever reason, they never showed up.
The HUB: That’d be kind of a problem with an act like Santana…
Jim Gaines: So here I am, it’s time to do the show, and the manager is on the walkie talkie with me asking how’s it’s going. I tell him, ‘Not good.’ He asks me what I want to do, and I told him, ‘We don’t have percussion—I’m pulling the plug here.’ He said, ‘I’m going to give you three to four minutes because I’m holding the band and the audience is ready to go.’ I just took my hand and pushed all the faders down and said, ‘No show.’ And man, I thought I was going to get killed for it.
The HUB: So you stopped the train!
Jim Gaines: I was telling Carlos about it later and he was laughing his ass off. ‘That’s why you’re here Jim. We have a no-show without percussion—that’s for damn sure.’ But that’s the kind of stuff you run into out there. I could tell you story after story with all the crazy crap that’s happened to me out there.
The HUB: I understand that you were in the room when Otis Redding was tracking some of his legendary singles at Stax. How did you come to be there?
Jim Gaines: I started in the business in ‘61 or ‘62. I went to work for a little jingle company—at that point they were small— called Pepper Tanner—they were owned by John Pepper, the guy who owned radio station WDIA. We were next door and made radio commercials, recorded station ID and sponsor jingles. Because I had worked on shipping docks, I ended up being the mail boy/gopher. After being there a year, I told my boss he needed somebody to make tape copies and blah, blah, blah… I created a position that hadn’t existed before in the engineering department.
So I started making tape copies and began looking for the next logical step. I actually mixed before I cut. One of my mentors was Ronnie Capone, a great engineer. He ended up leaving us and going to work for Stax. And then he went to Ardent and worked there. We followed each other. He took my place when I left TMI, Steve Cropper’s studio.
The way the sequence went, at the jingle company we would hire Steve and Booker T. [Jones] to play on a jingle session. Booker would actually play trombone! So one day Cropper calls and says he’d like to have me come over and talk about working part time at Stax.
So I was hired. When I walk in the door, he says, ‘See all those white [tape] boxes over in the corner?’ There wasn’t a name on any one of them. ‘We need to go through all these boxes and figure out what’s on them, then start a tape library.’
The HUB: What a job.
Jim Gaines: That was my job. I was never really an engineer there. I think I mixed the B-side of “Laundromat Blues” for Albert King and worked on the B-side of “Soul Fingers” by The Bar-Kays. I was there about two years. I’d get off my regular job at 5 o'clock, get to Stax around 6 and go home about 1 or 2 in the morning. But while I was there I heard Otis cut, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Albert King. The way it worked in those days, let’s say they were working with Sam & Dave. [Cropper and Booker T.] would come in early at night before they actually started cutting and write songs right on the studio floor. While I’m fiddling, making copies or whatever, Booker may be playing drums and Isaac [Hayes] might be there playing piano. Like any demo session, they’d say, ‘Let’s lay this down so we’ll remember it tomorrow.’ So I’d just turn the mics on, and here we go. Then after they’d got enough songs, they would bring the MGs in and cut the session.
At that point we were recording in 4-track. They actually cut mono, and the 4-track was a safety in case they had to do overdubs. With the 4-track you put the bass, piano and guitar together or the bass and drums together, and vocals and horns would be on separate tracks. I remember watching Otis cut with the background singers standing right next to him, all around one microphone in the corner. That’s how it worked, and I got to see a lot of this stuff going on at night—because that’s when most people work in our business.
The HUB: So you sort of slipped into Stax sideways from doing jingles to engineering soul and R&B demos by just being the guy on the spot…
Jim Gaines: I was there observing, being a tiny piece in this cog and seeing history being made, but not knowing it. When Otis came in, they brought in Tom Dowd from Atlantic to be the engineer, because Otis was actually signed to Atlantic through Stax. Anytime Otis was cutting, Tom Dowd would be there. Here’s the way it worked a lot of the time: Otis would come in and he and Cropper would check into the Lorraine Motel (the same place that Martin Luther King got shot). They’d take a couple of bottles of alcohol—they’d drink rum and vodka—and go in there with two guitars and come out with these great songs!
There’s one more piece to this story. When Martin Luther King got shot, I had a jingle session that night with nine mics and a big round radio board with no EQ or anything. We were recording a big band—10 or 12 people. As we’re getting ready to go into the studio, we can see that downtown Memphis is burning. I didn’t know what was going on. We turned the radio on and found out that he’s been shot at just about dusk. So I go into the studio and tell our guys, ‘Y’all go on home. This is crazy.’ And Cropper’s calling me on the phone, saying, ‘Can you get in your car right now and get over here to load up as many tapes as you can and get them out of the building?’ So we’re over there loading master tapes in cars and taking them home. They didn’t burn the studio down, but they burned down the shopping center across the street.
The HUB: That was a close call for some incredible music! Just this morning I was listening to the Van Morrison LP, Saint Dominic’s Preview, on which you had an engineering credit. The tracks that have big horn arrangements have an amazing live-in-the-studio sound and feel. I wondered if you remember those sessions.
Jim Gaines: Oh man, yeah! I did an interview with this Greek writer last year who’s writing a book—just on that one record. He knew more about it than I did. I did three cuts: “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” Redwood Tree” and one other one. We cut all that live. As a matter of fact, Van is standing in front of the drums playing acoustic guitar and singing. Janet Planet and one of the other background singers, they’re standing next to him in front of the drums.
The HUB: That seems like a challenging setup. But the sound on the record is so live and upfront.
Jim Gaines: We were at [Wally] Heider Studios, which had a vocal booth right next to the control room that I was going to put Van in. But there was no view of the studio from the booth. So he walks in the door and says, ‘Where am I going to stand?’ I told him in that vocal booth, and he said, ‘No, I have to stand in front of the drums.’ [Laughter] Now, he has just made a statement that’s an engineer’s nightmare! You can’t get more of a nightmare than a vocalist standing in front of the drums playing an acoustic guitar.
The HUB: And he wants to hear that guitar.
Jim Gaines: There wasn’t really a producer. Tom Salisbury was the arranger and keyboard player and Jules [Broussard] was playing sax in the room—we had a little corner for him. This is in the early days in the ‘70s, we didn’t have all this fancy crap we have nowadays. But it was Heider’s studio so we had the best and latest of that time. So [Van] tells me, ‘When I cut in New York I cut in a big live room.’ Well, this was a medium-sized room but it was big enough. So I said, ‘Okay if that’s the way you’ve gotta cut it, we’re going to record the heck out of it.’ So that’s what we did.
The HUB: So how did you work around it?
Jim Gaines: I don’t know how far you go back, but we used to have these short baffles that were four feet tall to go in front of the drummer. These were the days when the drummer was right on the floor and they couldn’t be taller or the drummer couldn’t see out. Eventually, they made some taller ones with glass in them, but we only had one of them. So to block the drums off, we had this piece of plywood with some insulation—burlap on it. And [Van Morrison’s] standing five feet in front of the drums. And then the bass is off in a corner and he’s baffled a bit and so’s the guitar. We didn’t have of these iso booths like we have today.
To back up a little bit, Wally Heider tried to recruit me to move to California. At first he wanted me to come to L.A., but I told him there was no way I was bringing my kids to Los Angeles. He was doing that Operation Entertainment thing where they record big bands live on Navy and Air Force bases. And he was a big-band freak. The first time we met I was recording a jingle session with 15 or 20 people and he was impressed. So as I’m working for Steve Cropper as his chief engineer at his studio Trans Maximus, Wally Heider calls one day and says, ‘I’m flying into Nashville in a couple of days—let’s have lunch.’ And he gives me one of those Bulova Accutron watches where there’s no face, you can see all the guts working. And he says, ‘Here’s the deal. Every time you see that watch, you say, Wally Heider wants me.”’
When Jim first met Stevie Ray Vaughan, the first question out of the guitar god’s mouth was whether he could record 10 amps at once.
So I worked for Cropper for about a year or so, and I love Cropper, but there was another person involved who I didn’t care for. And Wally caught me on one of those days when I’d worked like 20 hours straight. He says, ‘Man, would you go and look at the studio in San Francisco, please, just take a look.’ So I go out there. They had three rooms going on Hyde Street. The guy who’s running the place, I believe his name was Mel Tanner, says, ‘Jim, will you do us a favor—I’ll give give you a tape and give you 20 or 30 minutes to make the mix, so we can see where your head’s at. The tape was John Fogerty for God’s sake! I’m the biggest John Fogerty fan you can find and there I am mixing a John Fogerty tape as a test! So when I get done, they say, ‘We would really like for you to come.’ So I made a deal—it was probably one of the best deals I’ve made in my life —it would still be good today. I got one percent of the entire studio operation, five week’s paid vacation…
The HUB: How old were you at this point Jim?
Jim Gaines: 28 or 29. So I went to Wally Heider’s and it made my career. Right after I left, Memphis fell apart. Stax folded up, Chips Moman left. A lot of things went wrong here, and I don’t know what I would have done. Wally Heider was the guy that made my career.
The HUB: You had reservations about going out to the Left Coast, particularly L.A. Did San Francisco sit with you a little better?
Jim Gaines: I like San Francisco. At that point in time it was run by the hippies. And they showed me Marin Country—I’m a suburbia kind of guy—they drove me out to Novato in Marin County and I said, ‘Wow!’ I bought my first house out there in 1970 for $38,000—3 bedroom, 2 baths with a swimming pool.
The HUB: That’d probably go for a million or so these days.
Jim Gaines: I was making music and money in those days! I was making almost a grand a week in 1970. Of course, I was working 80 hours a week. Plus I had a percentage of the studio. I took Russ Gary’s place—he was doing all the creative stuff. Russ was hired by Fantasy. They had built a studio for Creedence in the back and they brought Russ over to make him the house engineer-producer. So I was the guy recruited to take Russ Gary’s place. God, he made great records.
The HUB: Those CCR tracks still have a lot punch today.
Jim Gaines: I was working with Carlos next door when Concord bought Fantasy. They went back and remixed some of the original Fogerty stuff. Stephen Hart, who used to be one of my assistants, says, you need to come and hear this. The original singles were only like two or three minutes long. But there was like another two minutes of great music that they had faded out on. So they were making them a lot longer and Stephen says you need to hear this. I was very fortunate to be around for things like that. I’ve lived a charmed life.
The HUB: You produced Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step and two tracks on the posthumous The Sky is Crying. I understand that he was straight out of rehab when you cut In Step. He’d been recently divorced and his confidence was shaken. But somehow that session was a big turnaround for him.
Jim Gaines: I was working with Santana and he did a show with Stevie somewhere in California. They were looking for someone to work with Stevie, and [Carlos Santana] recommended me. They flew me down to Los Angeles to meet him and the band—they were doing a show down there. The second line after ‘How ya doin’’ out of his mouth is, ‘Hey Gaines, how do you feel about recording 10 amplifiers at once?’ [Laughter]
I told him, ‘I just finished a Ronnie Montrose record where we did six. With Santana we use two to four. Yeah, that sounds like a hell of a challenge.’ So I go away—I’m in Canada cutting tracks, and Mike Caplan, the A&R guy, calls me. Now, I knew they were looking at some other people like Joe Hardy. The thing is, I’d never gotten into drugs; I was squeaky clean, and they were looking for somebody like that. But I knew they were looking at five or six guys.
The first words out of Mike Caplan’s mouth are, ‘Hey Gaines, how ya doin’. You weren't my choice, but the band chose you.’
‘Okay then,’ I thought, ‘I’m working for you and I’m not your choice. That’s a great start, isn’t it?’ But we did it. It took a while. That record was done live and it took a while to get 10 amps going at once. It was another engineering nightmare.
The HUB: How loud was he in the studio?
Jim Gaines: We were looking for a studio before we did the project. We flew down to Tallahassee; Butch Trucks had opened a brand-new studio there. He wanted us really bad; he wanted someone to open the door for him. But we felt it was too new. I had worked with this Canadian band at Kiva Studios in Memphis and they had one really huge iso booth and a nice big tracking room with three other iso booths. So I talked to the owner, Gary Belz, and asked him if he could give me some days to experiment with what was going to happen there. I had run into a hum that runs through that building—it wasn’t an AC-type hum; it was almost like a magnetic hum, as if you’re under a power line. With a single-coil pickup it’s a nightmare. So anyway, I screwed around for three or four days and even had the power company come out and shut down a grid for me for about 15 minutes. The people living in those four or five blocks would have probably killed me if they’d known!
The way Stevie worked, with two Tube Screamers, a wah-wah, single-coil pickups and 10 amps going full blast, you can imagine, the hum level was tremendous. I was talking to a friend in New York who said I might have to wrap the room in copper mesh. I told him, ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’ About the fourth day I was there I went out and bought some chicken wire and conduit and made a cage—it looked like a batting cage. You could back into it; it was covered on three sides and on top, and it knocked down the hum like 60 or 70 percent! If that hadn’t worked, we were leaving and going to Los Angeles.
We actually started at The Power Station; we were there for three or four days. They put us in this smaller room, but you can’t get 10 amps in there. We never got a track cut there; we just messed around with sound for three days. Finally, after the second or third day, I said, “Man, this is not working.’ We had [booked] six weeks there, but we pulled out. They tried to sue us and I said, ‘It’s not working. We have a unique situation, and it’s not working for us.’ That’s how we ended up in Memphis.
Then we moved to Los Angeles to mix; we did the vocals pretty much there and cut “Life by the Drop.” That was on The Sky is Crying, which was leftover pieces from the other records.
The HUB: Listening to In Step this morning, it struck me how big the ‘verb is on the snare—it’s that ‘80s drum sound. Since then, recorded drum sound has changed a lot and I wondered if you’d comment on that.
Jim Gaines: For old folks like me, it’s still the same. [Laughter] Maybe I’m still caught up in some of the ‘80s sound. When I produce a band outside of my realm, I hire an engineer. And a lot of these kids don’t believe in any reverb. As a matter of fact, when we were working on Santana’s Supernatural record, some of the stuff coming in to us from other parts of the world—they didn’t want any reverb on the drums, percussion—nothing. Carlos is an old-school guy like me. I would set him up with reverb and delay on his guitar—he would play to it. Now this drives some of these other engineers and producers crazy. But he’s the artist, and I’m going with him. Each of the songs were mixed by two or three other people and then they’d pick the mix they wanted. I think I’ve got three mixes on the record. But I’m an old-school guy; I still like the R&B and the big rock sounds—I call it live sound. It’s like going to a concert. You wouldn’t hear drums that are dry as hell in the audience—they’d be roomed up. As a matter of fact, the board guy has probably got a little [reverb] going on it himself.
The HUB: You call your operation Jim Gaines Blues and Rock Studio, which sounds pretty much like a mission statement. That led me to wonder, being the old-school guy you are, at the end of the day, is there really a lot of difference in the way you record those two genres?
Jim Gaines: Most of the stuff I do is blues-rock now. Once I did Stevie Ray’s record, man, I became a blues-god for the moment. I had every blues artist ringing the phone off the wall. I treated most of that stuff with Luther Allison, Albert Collins and those guys the same. At that time I was still doing a lot of my own mixing or co-mixing—someone would start the mix and I’d finish it. It’s about trying to create a “live-ness.” I’ve had artists who want us to back off the reverb and give them more snare up front and that’s okay—it’s their record. But I’m going to start with my sound because that’s why you came here to see me, and then go from there. Most of the time the artist loves it because it’s almost like new to them. Even though it’s old to us, it’s kinda new to some of these new artists. They’re used to working with these guys in home studios who don’t know anything about compression, don’t know anything about EQ, and God forbid, don’t know anything about reverbs. I started out when there wasn’t anything but live chambers. There was no gizmo. There was a live room with a speaker in it—that’s how I started out.
So it’s interesting watching some of these kids. I did Joanne Shaw Taylor, this girl from England. I’ve done three of her records here and we did quite a bit of it live—some of the vocals are not live—but I could see she had never heard that before. She had grown up listening to some of the records I had done; that’s why she wanted me. But when you get into the mix, I like delays and reverbs—they just add dimension. But some of the new kids, they don’t put any reverb on! It drives me nuts, but it’s okay if that’s what they want. I did my part. I’ve got lots of gold and platinum records on the wall—I must have been doing something right.
When it comes to delays and ‘verbs Gaines has a decidedly classic-rock approach.
The HUB: There’s a lot of discussion these days about where the line falls between record producers and engineers. Do you think that A) it’s changed in recent years, and B) where do you see that line being?
Jim Gaines: Let me tell you where the line was. I was an engineer for many, many years and the way it worked is this: You get any engineer who becomes successful, and eventually they’re going to be producing something. I had producers I was working with that didn’t know a damned thing that was going on in the room. I had one guy who did crossword puzzles; he could care less about what was going on in front of him. I had another guy who stayed on the phone. We’d finish a take, and he’d say, ‘Whaddya think, Jim?’ And I’d say, ‘Let’s do it again.’ and the guy would reach for the talk-back and say, ‘Let’s do it again, man’ and get right back on the phone. So eventually, the band would look to you for the answers instead of the guy next to you. And that becomes a political problem. The band would come back for the next record and say, ‘Can you record and co-produce us?’. I look at myself as a co-producer with the artist on every project. I may be the guy listed as producer, but I’m not going to put any demands on anybody unless it’s a technical nightmare for later in mastering or mixing.
But sooner or later, somebody has to make some decisions. If you get a very democratic band, oh my God, somebody’s gotta make a decision. Otherwise you’ll be there forever getting anything done, because nobody want to to make a decision. So that’s how you become a producer coming out of the engineering world. I had a kid call who wanted to train with me to produce. I said, ‘Dude, there is no producers’ school. You learn by doing it and doing it and working with people—you don’t just go to school and say, I’m a producer.’ That doesn’t happen. You work your way into that. Does that make sense?
The HUB: Absolutely. Of course, you had paid years of engineering dues, and in some cases became a producer by default when the guy with the credit wasn’t engaged in the project.
Jim Gaines: I know guys who wouldn’t even show up at the studio. They’d check in once a week: ‘What y’all up to?’ And he’s the producer. Damn, that’s a good job! The way it works is if you get an engineer worth his weight, the band is going to look to you at least for part of the decision-making. It depends on how strong the producer is. I have engineering and producing experience. So I can use that strength to get us through things, like, ‘Okay, that’s good enough, we’re not going to spend four more hours, it ain’t gonna get any better.’ But if you’ve got some weak guy, you’ll be there all night trying to get the part. You’ve got to give it up at some point; say okay, it’s done.
I did the Royal Southern Brotherhood’s last two records, and I was brought in because I like to get live sounds and go for a live feel. We did both of those records in five days complete. With the first record, the band had never really played together and I’m going to record it in five days and mix it in three. We’re not going to spend hours and hours dwelling on this solo. ‘That’s a good little solo, let’s go with it.’
The HUB: Your wife Sandy Carroll is an accomplished recording and performing blues artist in her own right, and of course, you’ve tracked her. How does the dynamic work when you’re recording the missus?
Jim Gaines: How would you like to produce your wife?
The HUB: That’s why I asked the question. [Laughter]
Jim Gaines: It’s walking on eggshells. We’re starting on a new record this week actually. She’s learned that I know a little bit about what I’m talking about. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got an artist and they have a vision and you try to line up your two visions. When I start tracking a song, I kind of know what it’s going to sound like when I get done. It’s something like putting a painting together knowing what the end result will be. But you’ve got to start with the first lines. That’s the way I look at my job. I kind of have this vision, and hopefully it lines up with the artist’s (or your wife’s) vision.
We’re starting that new record and it will be going through another adventure. But we love each other, and that’s the main thing.