Mix Master | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Mix Master

Recording engineer Jim Reeves manned the sound board for some of the biggest stars of the rock era, but he's finally found his own balance working out of his Evanston studio.


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


By J.R. Jones

This summer, when the Allman Brothers Band came to the New World Music Theater, Jim Reeves hoped to introduce his teenage son, Alex, to Gregg Allman. In 1973, as an audio engineer at the Record Plant in New York City, Reeves had recorded the southern rock legend's solo album Laid Back, which included his only Top 40 hit, "Midnight Rider." He hadn't spoken to Allman since the 70s; in fact, he hadn't recorded a big-name rock band in nearly two decades. But after the show he went to the stage door and sent back his business card with a note on the flip side, reminding Allman who he was and asking if he could visit for a little while.

After about five minutes one of the band's roadies came out with a pair of backstage passes, and Reeves and his son were ushered onto a terrace with a crowd of autograph hounds. Reeves knew the backstage hierarchy--he'd mixed live sound for Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Dave Mason, Manhattan Transfer, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Billy Joel, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, and Booker T. & the MG's, among others--and this was most definitely coach class. He approached the gatekeepers again and asked if he could pop in with his son, just for a few minutes, just to say hello. Word was sent back to the dressing room once more, but the response wasn't quite what he'd hoped: "Gregg's really tired; he said to say hello."

Reeves still gets steamed telling the story, but he's used to being the invisible man. Most laymen think of the recording engineer as a faceless technician, the guy who twiddles the knobs while the artist and producer create. Yet few who've sat through a recording session leave with that notion intact. "If you think of how a record is made, the engineer is really the glue that holds the whole thing together," says Timothy Powell, who grew up on some of the music Reeves recorded and now owns Metro Mobile, Chicago's preeminent remote-location studio. "And frequently engineers don't get credit for what they do, financially or careerwise. I can go down the line, over and over again--I'm sure Jim can too--of situations where the session was stuck and the engineer does something to either get the creative juices flowing or make a sonic or musical suggestion. Or the producer's on the phone trying to order sushi, and while he's out in the lobby doing that, you actually get a song done because he's not there yammering with everybody."

Reeves is as big a gearhead as they come, but when he talks about mixing records he sounds like a painter, weighing color, form, and balance. "I like to take answering parts or parts that mirror each other, and I'll put one of them on the left and the other one on the right," he explains. "That establishes my parameters and my wall. Then I start building things. I think of things in height--things are up and they're down, and they're forward and they're backward, and they're to the right and to the left of center, and they're all the way out. Then we try to even create things that are past the left and right, by using psychoacoustic effects....But if anything breaks those parameters--if any one element is too loud or stands out too much--the effect is destroyed."

He's been studying this odd combination of art and science since he was a teenager: the child of a broken home, he was raised by an aunt and uncle in their Manhattan apartment, where he built himself a little studio with a hand-built console linking two Wollensak reel-to-reel tape machines. He worked at a series of independent studios during the 60s, briefly opened his own place, and then moved on to Columbia Records and the Record Plant; by the late 70s his credits included classic albums like Lou Reed's Berlin and ZZ Top's Fandango! But by 1980 he'd burned out on the rock 'n' roll business and took up jingle work. He married and had two sons, and in 1992, hoping to hold his own family together, he followed his wife and kids to the Chicago suburbs. Now 56, he runs his own state-of-the-art facility, Reeves Audio Recording in Evanston, where he's back to working on albums, albeit mostly with local artists. After 40 years of frustrations and compromises, he's finally got the studio he dreamed of as a kid.

But the ride home from the Allman Brothers show was still a long one.

"I was the only child of a family of seven," Reeves jokes. Born Jimmy Capposella in 1943 in Tarrytown, New York, he had six brothers and sisters, but after his father, Lou, walked out, the family was split up and most of his siblings went to foster homes. As a preschooler he lived with his mother, Marie, in a welfare unit in a hospital basement.

"It was a pretty bad place," he recalls. "My mother got beat up by a bunch of other women. Some kid took my bike, and I would never do anything about it. My mother said, 'The next time you get picked on, fight back. If somebody takes something, you hit 'em, and fight back.' So I fought back and knocked a kid down. He cried and went home to his mother. His mother and about ten other mothers came around and ended up beating the hell out of my mother, and all I can remember is my sister dragging me back in the room as I was looking out and seeing my mother under a pile of women at this place."

By age five he was becoming malnourished, so his mother sent him to live with her sister Helen Reeves, whose husband, Al, ran Reeves 57th Street Pharmacy, at 57th and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. After about a year Jimmy returned to his mom, but before long he was back to stay, and at 18 he changed his surname to Reeves. "I was the only one that got lucky," he says. He still talks to some of his siblings, but he's lost touch with others. His mother is dead, and he thinks his father died a few years ago. "My sister always went after him to try to get him to be a participating parent, but she could never get it to happen. His wife was always chasing her away. She was kind of a diehard--we all thought she was kind of ridiculous about pursuing it."

His mother wasn't musically inclined, but all her brothers were, and Reeves's aunt put him through six years of piano lessons, harmonizing as he practiced and switching his legs with a toy archery bow when he made mistakes. "God knows what that meant to me when I was learning piano, but I remember at some point that I didn't care that much about playing classical music or anything else I was being taught." By 11 he was more interested in rock 'n' roll and listened to Alan Freed's radio show every chance he got. "I didn't see my mother very often, but she bought me my first transistor radio. They were very new--to have a portable radio was pretty outrageous. I used to put it under my pillow at night when I went to bed, took it everywhere with me."

The sound Reeves heard through his pillow was doo-wop, which was starting to spread from black R & B singers to white (and often Italian) pop crooners. In late 1955 the Platters' "The Great Pretender" became the first R & B vocal single to top the pop charts, and in early 1957, when Reeves was 13, the Dell-Vikings' "Come Go With Me" became the first pop hit by an interracial vocal group. Reeves and his friend Tommy Pezzino would harmonize to songs on the radio, and one day Pezzino took him down by the East River, just north of the Queensboro Bridge, to hear his amateur group.

"It was Phil Giacomontonio, Tommy Pezzino, and I don't even remember the names of the other two guys. They sang 'One Summer Night.' The lead singer started the melody, and then the bass comes in: Doh-doh-doh.... And then they hit this oooh.... And I was blown away, that was it for me. When that chord came out, and the sound of it--Phil's bass was so resonant and deep and rich, and Tommy's first tenor was so crisp and silvery on top. And it was like, fuggeddaboudit. I had to do that."

Reeves was among hundreds of New York teens gathering on street corners and subway platforms to harmonize--Lou Reed and Paul Simon were also baptized in the warm waters of doo-wop--but by the time he was a junior in high school he'd begun to tire of pickup singing and wanted to get serious. After all, Frankie Lymon was only 13 when the Teenagers released "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" At a Sunday-night church dance Reeves ran into a friend in the men's room--where vocal groups liked to rehearse for the echo--and learned of a good group that was looking for a tenor. The other three members came over to his apartment building, and Reeves took them to the back entrance, where the marble walls between the inner and outer doors created an awesome reverb chamber.

He passed the audition and quickly became the group's arranger, teaching them parts he'd worked out from the records. "I would play the record over and over and over, sticking my ear up to the speaker," he says. "I would just put myself inside the record and find out everybody's parts, and I was really careful about it. I had to make sure every note was really what they sang, I couldn't guess. Sometimes it was really obscure, because an instrument would block it out. You had to learn how to listen past that, which I think probably helped me develop my ear a lot."

They called themselves the Melodies, then the Londons, then the Catalinas, then the Companions, and then the Four Scores. Bob Constantino, who joined a year later, says even then Reeves was a recording whiz: "He had two tape recorders in his bedroom, and he went from one to another, and we did like five- or six-part vocal things, just the two of us, tape to tape. And as talented as he was musically--he was always very good at hearing the notes and everything that we had to sing--he was even more talented technically, with the equipment and everything. That always floored me. I think he built and wired his own console in his studio."

At the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, on the Upper East Side, kids could rent rehearsal rooms, and Reeves's group met there, as did their heroes the Del-Satins, who would go on to back up Dion DiMucci on "Runaround Sue." By the time Constantino joined, the group had become the Progressions, and they won a citywide contest singing tunes by the Skyliners and the Flamingos. The prize was an hour of studio time, but the owner of the studio was apparently mixed up with some gangsters and got bumped off before they could collect their prize. One night the group showed up for a gig supporting the Mello-Kings, a white group that had scored a minor hit in 1957 with "Tonite, Tonite." But the Mello-Kings didn't materialize. "The owner said, 'You have to be them. The kids are gonna tear the place apart if you're not the Mello-Kings.' So we went out as the Mello-Kings! We sang about two or three of their songs, and the rest of it was the stuff we did. We got to sign autographs!"

Reeves had his first brush with stardom when a severely wasted Johnny Mathis crashed one of their concerts. "I was in the wings because we were waiting to go on, and Joe Cariotti & the Delmonicos were onstage," he says. "Mathis gets out of a convertible, and these two guys carry him in--he's sort of slumped down, with his eyes closed. Gets to the wings of the stage and he stands up, his eyes open up, and he walks out on the stage right while they're singing, right in the middle of the song. The girls started screaming and everything, and he just waved to everybody, walked back out, and went into a slump; his two bodyguards grabbed him, put him back in the backseat of the convertible, and off they went! And Joey came offstage: 'He ruined our set! He wrecked everything!' Just flipped out. He was right, of course--I didn't see it from that standpoint, because we weren't the ones onstage."

By the time they got out of high school the Progressions were signed to a tiny label, Herald, but they never made a record. Reeves says he wanted to go professional but the others wouldn't get serious, so he got more and more involved in recording. Kapp Records had a studio in the same building as his uncle's pharmacy, and he would hang around there. Helen and Al wanted him to enroll in a prep school so he could go on to college. But in 1962, when Reeves was 19, the owner of a neighborhood deli introduced him to Dave Sarser, a 41-year-old recording engineer who was part owner of Studio Three, just four blocks from Reeves's home. "Jim was clean-cut, polite, and seemed serious about learning the recording business," recalls Sarser. "He said he would do anything to help me, from being a gofer to get sandwiches for the musicians in sessions to sweeping out the place, just to start learning the right way." Sarser offered him a job, and Reeves, to the great disappointment of his aunt and uncle, decided that Studio Three was the only college he'd ever need.

To a young man eager to learn the art of recording, Dave Sarser was the Rosetta stone: in the late 40s he'd helped legendary guitarist Les Paul construct the first eight-track recording system. A violinist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and audio director for the network's opera company, Sarser was friends with Skitch Henderson, the bandleader for Steve Allen and then Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and the two musicians opened Studio Three in partnership with Henderson's wife, Ruth. According to Reeves, most of the studio's business was advertising jingles and sound tracks for educational slide shows, but some film scores and chamber groups were recorded there, and Sarser's old friend Benny Goodman had the run of the place every time he came to town for a TV show.

"He used to lean up against the Steinway and put his cigarettes on the keyboard," Reeves recalls, "and he would let them burn the ivories. And I would put ashtrays everywhere. He put 'em on the Musser vibes, and he'd burn the lacquer off the vibes. I went to Skitch one day and said, 'He's a groovy guy, and he's a great clarinetist and all that, but he keeps leaving his cigarettes and burning the piano.' Skitch turns to me and says, 'Let him burn the piano.' And that was that."

Reeves started out mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets, but eventually Sarser made an apprentice of him, teaching him how to run the console, how to set up microphones properly, how to solder an RCA plug. Reeves helped record and edit hundreds of the slide-show sound tracks, shaving each segment of music and narration down to 14.4 seconds to match the interval of the projector. "If it was too long you'd have to cut out the breaths, to squeeze it tighter and tighter until it fit into the right amount of time," he says. "It was one thing to do it in English, but we did it in five languages." Eventually he got bored and started moonlighting at A-1 Sound Studios, a small place near the Brill Building on Manhattan's west side. The owner, Herb Abramson, who had founded Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun in 1947, hired Reeves as a full-fledged engineer.

A-1 had a much hipper clientele than Studio Three: Reeves's first session there was with Johnny Nash (who'd later have a number one hit with "I Can See Clearly Now"), and he later worked with Luther Dixon, Cissy Houston, Ruby & the Romantics, Martha & the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. And it was a far less predictable place to work. Once Abramson had a session booked but didn't have any blank tape. "So he says, 'Ah, how 'bout that one,' and he grabs some guy's master, and we just recorded over it to do the session. Don't you know, the next day the guy shows up, and I see Herb and this guy through the glass, and arms are flailing all over the place; there was a lot of heat going on. The next minute I'm booked for this marathon session with this guy, for days and days and days of recording, with all of his artists."

Abramson's style could create real opportunities, as Reeves discovered when Berry Gordy brought in the Supremes to record a Sam Cooke memorial album. Abramson didn't show. "I'd [call him and] say, 'Herb, the Supremes, they're here.' 'Oh, get 'em started, I'll be there in a minute.' 'Well, Berry is asking for you, Herb.' 'Yeah, OK, I'll be there.' I'd start the session, and I'd call him up an hour and a half later. 'OK, we're recording now.' 'OK, I'm coming, I'm on my way.' And the session would be over, and I'd call and say, 'Well, we're done.' He'd say, 'OK, I'll be over.' And he'd come over and collect the money."

When Henderson discovered that Reeves was engineering at A-1, he promoted him at Studio Three, where he got to record Vic Damone, Leslie Gore, Benny Goodman's young singer Barbra Streisand, and Sarah Vaughan, who was doing jingle work at the time. At Incredible Sounds, another independent studio, he recorded Tommy James & the Shondells and as a sideline he started designing studios for people, including producer and songwriter Jeff Barry, who wrote hits for the Archies and the Monkees.

But what Reeves really wanted was to design his own studio. In 1968 the perfect opportunity arose: Sarser had left Studio Three for a company where he'd help develop the technology for cassette tapes, and Henderson wanted to unload the business. Reeves arranged to buy it from him by paying off a series of notes, and he brought in a partner, a charismatic friend who seemed to have plenty of contacts.

"I foolishly gave him 50 percent," says Reeves of the partner, whom he declines to name. "Skitch's partner in Skitch Henderson Industries said, 'Why do you want to give him 50 percent? Give him 10 percent.' I was like, 'No, no, I'd feel bad about that, I couldn't do that.' I was not a businessman at all. I was really young, and it was the 60s. Who knew anything? But [the partner] would make a phone call and get a session, and then I'd be at the session for three days. And he was getting 50 percent of it!"

The man who was renting the town house above the studio moved to California, and Reeves sublet it from him. But his partner had other ideas. "Without a word this guy called his wife and said, 'We're moving in upstairs.' And my mouth dropped. I didn't know what to say or do. And he had me, he knew he'd moved in on me emotionally. To get around me he'd say how great I was, was always telling me how great I was. So on top of that, to really make myself more miserable, I ended up giving them, because they were married, the master bedroom. Of course that made him the ruler of the house. And I was downstairs in the studio all the time like a dweeb, working my brains out. Which on my own I wouldn't have cared about, but he started isolating me from phone calls and things like that, and then I was just gone."

One day, says Reeves, one of his partner's associates came to visit, casually pulled out a pistol, and asked Reeves to stash it for him. "I didn't think much of it," he says, "'cause I thought I was cool and there was no reason to be concerned about it. So he came around a few times, hanging around. I didn't know what that was about too much; I wasn't involved in their relationship. I'm sure whatever was said with me around had nothing to do with what was said when I wasn't around." Later he heard that the associate and another man had clashed with a police officer, and the second man had killed the cop. He saw a photo of the associate in a newspaper, his head bandaged. "A couple weeks later, after he went to jail, his friends came around, who were much less sophisticated--they were kind of goons. And I didn't like them, but I didn't much care one way or the other."

Reeves has a hard time remembering what happened next--he's spent the last 30 years trying to forget--but he thinks his partner did something to antagonize his associates. One night Reeves came home to find the place thick with cigar smoke, and without warning one of the goons clobbered him. "I went flying back, hit the wall, went down....He's whacking me around, and he's saying things about how I tried to rip them off, and I caused this problem and that problem. I don't even know what the hell they're talking about because none of it makes any sense to me. There's nothing I've done that has anything to do with these guys. It destroyed my sense of, Hey, if you do the right thing, then you don't have to worry about anything. Because there are people that are totally irrational and can do you serious harm. So I really lost my moral sense about things. I didn't lose my morals, but I lost my sense about..." Reeves thinks it over. "I don't know what I lost, but it certainly changed my life."

According to Reeves, the men "told me if I didn't sign some papers, the East River was a nice place to hang out." They gave him a stack of releases to sign, ceding them the business--including his recording equipment. Henderson thought Reeves was crazy, that he was exaggerating the situation, that he was being outfoxed by his partner. "I was really scared. I sat there with my lawyer and Skitch, and my lawyer kept on saying, 'Well, we can--' I says, 'Do me a favor. Let's just get this thing signed and over with.' Then I went to Jamaica."

Reeves spent about eight weeks in Kingston in the summer of '68. He hooked up with Johnny Nash there and engineered a few sessions for him. "Funky little studios," he says. "They'd lock up the organ unless you paid to use it." He returned to New York to produce a fledgling band called Cisum for Epic Records, working at Columbia Studios, which was owned by CBS, Epic's parent company. There he struck up a friendship with Don Meehan, a staff engineer who offered to get him a job interview. "I says, 'I don't want to work here. It's like working in a hospital or something.' It was kind of this sterile, clinical environment. But the money was good. So I went for an interview."

During the interview the studio manager gave him a tape to edit. After paring down hundreds of educational sound tracks at Studio Three, Reeves was so adept that he finished the delicate task during their conversation. "He said, 'OK, it's getting late. Why don't you do the edit, and we'll go.' So I said, 'I did it already.' I never saw the console, I never saw the studio before, but while I was talking I sussed out what was what on the thing, and I just brought the monitors up, barely audible, and sat there scrubbing the tape while I was talking to him, and did the splice. So I rewound the tape and turned the monitors up and hit the play button, and he couldn't believe it. He walked over to the tape, rewound it again, played it again, lifted the tape up and saw the splices in the tape, and he said, 'Let's talk.'"

Reeves was hired at the studio's highest engineering rate, and over the next four years he recorded a parade of high-profile artists. His first assignment, the Arbors' debut album, yielded a number 20 single, "The Letter." He produced albums by Bobby Vinton and the Chambers Brothers and engineered Tom Rush's Wrong End of the Rainbow, a Johnny Winter live album, and the eponymously titled Dreams, by the group featuring Michael and Randy Brecker and Billy Cobham. He recorded Argent ("Liar"), Joe Cocker ("Something"), the Edgar Winter Group ("Free Ride"), and Bob Dylan collaborating with George Harrison ("Wallflower"). He helped mix the first album with Dolby noise reduction, and he created some of the first quadraphonic albums, remixing records by Jeff Beck, Al Kooper, Simon & Garfunkel, and Sly & the Family Stone. But Reeves remembers his tenure at Columbia as a mixture of personal trauma and professional frustration.

The Studio Three episode still preyed on his mind. Fearing for his life, he'd never reported it to the authorities. He went to a psychiatrist, then to a doctor who prescribed Valium. "That calmed me down enough to be able to function," he says. "But the downside of Valiums is, you don't care much about anything. I'd make the money, I'd spend the money. Nothing mattered to me. I mean, that was the point--to have things not matter to me so much--but it spilled into other, sensible stuff. I remember some of my first sessions at Columbia when I used to have to go outside for a while and just stand in the street and cry."

Columbia was a union shop, and Reeves joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, but he disliked the stratified work environment. No one but the engineer could lay a finger on the console, and management would peer through the glass into the control booth to make sure everyone was complying. Reeves had an assistant, "a machine man, the guy who'd set up the mikes and earphones and stuff, and I just sat at the board. I kind of lost touch, 'cause I used to do everything. Now I'm the guy who mixes--a prima donna. So after I got out of Columbia Records it was like learning all over again how to keep in touch with my machines."

And on more than one project Reeves felt his musical contributions were overlooked on the album credits. He got to work with some of the great producers--Bob Gaudio, who'd guided the Four Seasons, Roy Halee, who'd done Simon & Garfunkel--but just as often he found himself working for neophytes.

"They didn't know anything!" he marvels. "'I'm the producer, whatever I say goes.' And they'd lean over to you and say, 'What do we do?' And you'd tell them to make sure the band was in tune, or that they're playing the right thing in the right place, and all the things that a producer is supposed to do. These guys were in some hit band, and because they were in the hit band they got a deal as a producer on the label. That's how they did those things in the 60s. You were in Blood, Sweat & Tears and you played guitar? Now you're a producer!" Reeves claims that John McClure, Leonard Bernstein's producer and the president of CBS Masterworks, agreed to get him a job as staff producer if he'd take on the quadraphonic project, but that when McClure and Bernstein both left Columbia the suits wouldn't make good on the promise.

The corporate mentality got on his nerves, and he thinks his irreverence won him a reputation as a troublemaker. He remembers working on one session until 5 AM and then learning that he'd been booked for another at 11. "There was that kind of abuse going on, where you're just taken for granted," he says. "You were one of the machines, an extension of the studio."

By 1972 he'd had enough. "The last group I worked with at Columbia Records made me nuts. And I didn't pay attention to it at the time, but everybody said that I was the seventh engineer with this group....

They were a problematic group. I remember I mixed the song, and as far as I can recall the song came out great. But I walked out of the mixing room, and I couldn't go back in. I went down the elevator and never came back to Columbia Records."

For a few months he didn't do much of anything. "I refused to work for anybody that said they were a producer, because they were full of crap," he says. Columbia was the big time, no question about it, but like so many engineers before and since he'd hit a glass ceiling. There were opportunities on the west coast--Columbia had asked him to open a studio in San Francisco, and Martin Mull would later offer him a job on the TV show Fernwood 2-Night--but he didn't want to leave New York. "Once I dig my roots in, I gotta stay where I am," he says. "I start building and start creating things, and calling people and setting up things, and moving is just--what is that?"

Roy Cicala had produced the Arbors album that was Reeves's first project for Columbia, and when he learned Reeves was available he offered him a job at the Record Plant, which he'd bought around 1970. The studio had opened in '67, the concept of an ex-Revlon employee named Chris Stone; its first album session was the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Electric Ladyland. With its relaxed "living room" environment and state-of-the-art 12-track capability, it had quickly became a popular facility in the burgeoning world of album rock, and Frank Zappa, Traffic, Vanilla Fudge, and the Velvet Underground had made LPs there.

Reeves didn't feel ready to engineer again, but he agreed to come on board as an assistant on the Record Plant's mobile unit: In the late 60s, San Francisco audio wizard Wally Heider had come up with the idea of building a studio on wheels, to make multitrack recordings of live performances with something approaching the fidelity of an in-house session. The Record Plant had inaugurated its remote recording service at George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh in 1971. For an engineer, taping a concert performance is a high-stakes game: there are no retakes, and one botched show can stain the engineer's reputation. "You definitely have to be more of a road warrior," says Metro Mobile's Timothy Powell. "I've known a lot of guys over the years who did remote recording, but after a while they just couldn't take it anymore."

Eventually Reeves returned to the control room. He engineered Allman's Laid Back and helped producer Bob Ezrin record overdubs for and mix Lou Reed's Berlin. "That was a depressing album," says Reeves. On the eight-minute ballad "The Kids," a mother loses her children to the welfare department after exposing them to a string of sleazy sexual encounters; during an instrumental break, one child sobs while another shouts angrily for his mother. "That's a recording of Bob's kids, actually. He antagonized them and then recorded them, and we mixed that into the Dobro." Berlin was "a stunning record sonically when it came out, and now it still holds up," Powell remarks. "It has some pretty challenging little pieces of stuff."

When Cicala's remote engineer took another assignment, Reeves inherited the truck, and over the next three years he recorded sets by Queen, King Crimson, the Band, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, the Beach Boys, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and B.B. King. He recorded the New York half of Mott the Hoople's live album at the Uris Theatre and the live cuts for ZZ Top's Fandango! at the Warehouse in New Orleans. Powell thinks the live albums Reeves engineered for the Record Plant still sound good a quarter century later. "In those days the biggest challenge was the equipment, and just the general nature of the concert touring business in the 70s. It wasn't as organized, it wasn't as together, the equipment was just not as reliable. Just to get it on tape was a major accomplishment. But then to get it on tape with some kind of fidelity was almost miraculous."

Columbia and the Record Plant were like night and day: the latter's homey decor translated into a comparable attitude toward the staff. "They were very good to everybody," says Reeves. "They were very communal about things. Everybody participated, they were treated like family. But I wouldn't go on staff because I was so abused at Columbia Records. I was not gonna work on staff for these guys because I didn't trust them--and I should have." Reeves says he got into a political scuffle with his assistant on the truck, who was angling for his job. "He would always come back and say, 'Well, you know, he brought girls into the truck, and they were doing drugs.' I'd say, 'I didn't bring them in, the producers brought them in.' I mean, it was rock 'n' roll."

By the late 70s he'd left the Record Plant and was spending most of his time doing live sound. He'd been running the board at shows since the late 60s, when he worked at a discotheque called Ondine. Around 1975 he'd been hired by a nightclub entrepreneur to design a high-tech sound system for JP's, a club on the Upper East Side, and later he designed another club called Traxx, where Cyndi Lauper and Manhattan Transfer got their start. In the club scene there was plenty of rock 'n' roll to go around. "I had groupies at the console every night," he confesses. "It was very fun. And I always got a big credit at the end of the show. They'd say, 'Let's hear it for so-and-so, and let's hear it for Jim Reeves at the console.' And I'd take a bow. Then there'd be a line to meet me after--it was great."

From there Reeves graduated to concert tours, running the sound for Manhattan Transfer, Booker T. & the MG's, and Dave Mason. On the Mason tour he experienced full force the disorienting rush of life on the road. "I didn't know where I was," he says. "I would walk into a room, my bags would be in the room. I would unpack the bags, I would pack the bags, I'd leave the bag on the bed. I would walk into the limousine, get on the airplane, get in the limousine, get in the hotel, walk into the room, and there were my bags again. It was unbelievable--it was like you never left." Every venue had its own acoustic challenges, but when the show was over he had nothing to do but party and get laid. "And these were finer-than-wine foxes. I couldn't believe it. That would never happen to me under any other circumstances."

But by 1980 he was tired of it all. He was approaching middle age with no family and no job security, nothing but an apartment full of recording gear and a wealth of expertise that always seemed to be fattening someone else's wallet. Edd Kalehoff, a talented string arranger Reeves had met at Columbia, offered him a job recording jingles, and he took it. They did work for Bayer, Volkswagen, and Oldsmobile, and Reeves's musical contributions were significant enough that Kalehoff added him to the contracts so he'd earn residuals like all the players.

Reeves had recorded jingles at Studio Three, but working for Kalehoff was a real sea change. Professional recording cleaves neatly into two kinds of business, albums and jingles, and without a doubt jingles are where the money is. Jingle sessions are geared toward producing 30 or 60 seconds of music and are booked on an hourly basis, whereas album clients usually book time on a "lockout" basis, claiming the studio for days or weeks at a time and often negotiating a lower rate. For album-oriented professionals, jingles are hackwork. But Reeves found them more interesting as well as more lucrative.

"Rock 'n' roll bands--you can find yourself a lot of times with your elbow slipping off the console," he says. "They're in there all night, they're babbling, they're talking, they're doing this"--he flattens one nostril, snorting an imaginary line of coke--"and they're doing the wine, all that stuff. And then they finally go, 'OK, let's do it, man. OK, one! two! Hold it, hold it!'" He snorts through the other nostril. "A little more wine. And then finally, they do this one take and they say, 'OK, that's it,' and they leave! And you're like, What is this all about?... In the jingle business, you get to do your rhythm section, you've got your horns that you never get, you get your strings that you never get, you get percussion and background singers that you never get, professional lead singers, and you're producing stuff, and you really have a chance now to learn stuff and work with music. I mean, any guy who wants to be an engineer who doesn't like jingles is nuts."

Reeves met his future wife, Deborah, in New York while he was working for Kalehoff; she was waiting tables at a restaurant in the building where Reeves lived. "I stopped going out at JP's so late and started changing my life," he says. "I said, I'm going to bed earlier. I stopped smoking, I stopped being crazy, and so I would stop off at this restaurant. And I wasn't even thinking about getting involved with her, and then I did. And I realized I was making enough money in the jingle business that I could propose to somebody, and I did." They married in 1983; Alex was born in 1984 and his brother, Eric, arrived three years later. In 1985 they moved out to Westchester, and Reeves started his own business so he could spend more time with the family.

When Reeves was a teenager singing doo-wop, his group had booked a recording session at a small studio, and he remembers being disillusioned by seeing the owner's kids running around the place. But after he opened Reeves Audio Recording in his basement, he often found himself in the same situation. "Your wife is going shopping, you're in the middle of a session, and boom! You've got two kids sitting in your lap at the console while you're doing a session. I remember when Alex was toddling around, and I'm back behind the console fixing something. He's got a black Magic Marker and he's drawing hieroglyphics on the stainless steel cover of my $2,000 effects unit. 'Look, Daddy, I did this nice thing!' And I'm like, Whoa! I'm running with the alcohol trying to get it off before it dries."

Reeves had trouble keeping the business afloat--he admits now that he wasn't running it like a professional--and after nine years of marriage, his wife decided to return home to Wilmette. "She said, 'I'm going to Chicago with the kids. You can come if you want to.' So we came back here to give it a shot and see if we could keep going."

After 30 years in the business Reeves had a million contacts in New York, but in Chicago he was on his own, and despite his epic resumé he couldn't get hired even as an engineer. "I went to CRC, I went to Streeterville, I went to tons of studios around town," he says. "Everybody said, 'You did that album? I grew up with that album! That's yours? You did that?' The thing that took it over the top was, I went to one studio over here on Western, desperate for a job. They interviewed me, and I said I did this album and that. And they said, 'Well, we don't have any jobs for you, we just wanted to hear your rock 'n' roll stories.' And I was pissed. What the hell--what is going on in this town?" After a year of negotiations he bought a modern split-level structure in south Evanston that had once housed the Jung Institute and began constructing his own studio, doing jingle work for Terry Fryer Music to pay the bills.

Martin Scorsese once said that a great director isn't someone shouting orders through a megaphone but rather someone who creates an environment where artists can do good work. Working at the Record Plant convinced Reeves that engineering is much the same: "A lot of people regard the musicians as, 'Well, they're just the musicians.' I'm concerned that they're very comfortable and they feel good about what they're doing in the room when they come in. It should look good, it should feel good, and they should have a little bit of catering to put 'em on a pedestal, to make them feel a little bit more proud about what they're doing, and they'll be in a good mood to play well....When I walked into this building to check it out, I said, 'This is perfect. Who's not gonna love coming in here and feeling comfortable about being in this place to work?'"

Reeves still does some jingle work, but about 90 percent of his clientele is independent groups and labels; since setting up shop in Chicago he's recorded artists as diverse as Loyolacappella, the Sones de Mexico Ensemble, Senegalese kora player Morikeba Kouyate, and local bluesmen A Coupla Fat Guys. According to Powell, that sort of versatility is disappearing. "There are a lot of young engineers that come out of recording school that have only recorded live drums because they had to get through the class, and they've spent their whole career doing drum machines and stuff. In the old days there were ten studios in town and they could do anything, really. If you say, Jim, we've got a string section coming in, he's like, 'OK, I've done that before. Look at that record--I did strings on that, that, that, and that.' A lot of engineers under the age of 30 or 35 don't have that range of experience."

Reeves and his wife were divorced this year, and he now lives in the studio building. Alex and Eric split time between their mother's house and the north end of Reeves Audio Recording, which includes a spacious living room, a small kitchen, and two bedrooms. The line between work and family is still somewhat blurry--the living room, with its 25-foot ceiling, doubles as "Studio N," where he has recorded drums, brass, woodwinds, pipe organ, and a 30-voice choir, and for a big project he'll sometimes run microphones into the boys' room--but Reeves thinks he's finally got a handle on it.

"The first couple of years I just didn't book sessions when I had to be with the kids. I would make the sessions booked around them," he says. "Now it's the opposite. Now it's like, Well, I got a session, you guys sleep in another room or something, if I need the room. It's become more the priority. And that's made a difference--a big difference. But here I didn't know anybody. I knew everybody in New York, and I had more of an opportunity to build a business there, had I been able to be dedicated to it. And here, as much as I don't want to be isolated, I'm still isolated. Alone in Illinois."

Reeves's sons have taken an interest in recording lately: they inherited some of the outdated equipment from his studio in New York and set it up in their mother's basement. Alex, a student at New Trier, gets to do a radio show from time to time, and Eric is learning piano and guitar. Reeves thinks Alex is a pretty good engineer for his age, but asked if he'd like to see him go professional, he doesn't equivocate. "No," he says. "I would like to see him do something that he has to do less for and gets more reward for. You gotta do a lot of work in this business, and I've gotten very little back from that. I'd hope if he was gonna be in the music business that it would be well beyond just being an engineer. He's gotta be a producer, a composer, a person with some control and some direction for other people, and somebody who's a good businessperson, to make money out of it."

But for himself, Reeves can't imagine any other life. "Recording's done for the love of it," he says. "I put up with all kinds of hell in the studio because it's for the moment. You wait for that moment, when you say, OK, take one-- 'Don't Be Cruel.' Whatever it is. And they start playing, and you're recording, and it happens. It's like, the hell I go through now, just to have those moments. And I didn't realize that until a couple years ago. It didn't occur to me, you know? That's what it's about! No, I don't want all this other misery, but I do want that moment, when it happens."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Kamba.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment