Bill McCullough — who would serve music history as Track’s Chief Engineer from 1977-1983 — can readily conjure a mental image of the Silver Spring recording studio’s control room in all its 1970s wood-paneled glory:
Photo(s) courtesy of Bill McCullough
Silver Spring, in the new century, is now blessed to have the presence of the American Film Institute, who would help revitalize – with county taxpayer support – an art deco movie palace that came this close to getting the wrecking ball as a public exhibition space. I remember attending 2013’s documentary tribute to the legendary Van Nuys recording complex, Sound City, and being particularly struck by the realization that the film is essentially a love letter to a recording console. But not just any console: Neve. (The true-life film suddenly gets very dramatic when Sound City becomes no longer solvent, thus threatening to forfeit its Neve console to the mixing board orphanage!)
Silver Spring – thanks to Track Recorders – was once also blessed with a hand-wired analogue mixing console designed and manufactured by Neve (of England). The big question on everyone’s minds: Is it Neve (like ‘Steve’) or Neve (like ‘Neve’ Campbell)? Answer: unclear.
1970s Silver Spring Breakout Star: Track’s Neve mixing console!
Ownership of a Neve console would figure prominently in the summary blurb Track provided* for The Unicorn Times‘ Annual Studio Guide in its October, 1980 edition. Track’s main recording room, McCullough notes, was spacious enough for an orchestra, and featured a hardwood floor mounted on springs that – when combined with a custom Neve mixing board – added up to stellar sound, as affirmed by no less an authority than Steely Dan producer, Gary Katz, not to mention Howard University Jazz Ensemble’s Gregory Charles Royal. (McCullough is unable to verify the model number or year of manufacturing but does affirm that Track’s mixing board had “Neve 1081 EQ for each input channel”.)
It is also worth pointing out that engineering ‘whiz kid’ George Massenburg — one of parametric equalization’s co-creators — would seek out Track for use of its Neve console, even though Massenburg was already engineering recordings for International Telecomm Inc. (ITI) at its state-of-the-art facility up the road in Cockeysville, Maryland.
“No Drinks or Cigarettes on [the Neve!!!] Console”
When he was twelve years old, Bill McCullough already knew that he wanted to pursue audio engineering professionally. Perhaps this was inevitable given Bill’s background as the son of a musician mother and father who possessed dual engineering degrees. Transforming a Northern Virginia house into a recording studio with brother Pete and mentor/neighbor Dana Lambert proved to be a formative event in Bill’s young adult life. McCullough, around this time period, would also enjoy membership in a jazz group named Blue Horizon with future Danny Gatton bandmate, John Previti.
An early-career opening at DC’s Audio Video Concepts, a small studio with tape duplication services, was made available by Gerry Wyckoff‘s departure in 1974 to Track Recorders (which he would own a few years hence). Wyckoff would sagely advise Bill to ditch the long hair, thus helping to seal McCullough’s eventual success in being selected to join President Ford’s Election Committee for two years, beginning in February, 1974.
Bill’s audio engineering skills were immediately put to work fulfilling his job’s mandate to record everything Gerald Ford said in public. With funding from both the Ford Commission and the National Archives, every speech was recorded for posterity, as well as non-syndicated sound bites edited for radio. McCullough has the distinction of engineering the audio for Air Force One’s first ever press conference. [Historical aside: A photo exists of Bill shaking hands with Ford on the day of the election; “Thanks for the use of your headphones,” the former Vice-President would later say to McCullough, in reference to a prior act of generosity on Air Force One.]
Ooh La La! 25′ x 40′ Main Studio room – Track Recorders
McCullough’s intersection with Track Recorders would occur at the time Gerry Wyckoff was acquiring the studio itself, i.e., April/May 1977. Bill, in fact, “begged” for a job. Fortunately, for history’s sake, Gerry said yes.
Root Boy Slim & Track Recorders
Root Boy Slim would feature prominently early in Bill McCullough’s tenure at Track, and the sequence of events leading to his signing with one of the top major labels would have all the makings of rock legend. Dick Bangham, who would enjoy renown for his iconic cover image for Root Boy’s Zoom album, was another key participant during this period who saw it all go down:
“Joe Lee and I originally booked the studio in April 1977 to start recording the Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band demo album that would eventually lead to the 1978 Warner Bros release produced by Gary Katz. During that spring and summer, we would go into the studio for a few days at a time whenever the band was in town to play gigs.
Joe would take the latest mixes to Josh at WHFS, and he would play them on air. The other ‘HFS DJs soon jumped on the Root Boy bandwagon, and the demo became one of the most requested albums of the year – months before it was actually released as an LP!
Josh had gone to Bard College with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and when we had a full album of material mixed he gave a cassette to Fagen and invited them to come see the band perform in DC. Then Fagen handed the tape to Steely Dan’s producer Gary Katz in LA and Gary flipped. He had recently been hired by Warner Bros Records A&R and after hearing the demo, signed Root Boy to a two-album contract.”
Battle of Wills: Root Boy VS. The Carnation
[L to R] Gerry Wyckoff, Les [?], Doug Percival, Kate Ragusa, Bill, Mark Greenhouse & Root Boy (Kneeling)
Upon being signed by Warner Brothers, Root Boy, along with the Sex Change Band, and associated musicians and personnel (e.g., Bill McCullough and Dick Bangham) would be flown to Miami to re-record the songs that got the band signed. During the time it took to record at Criteria Studios, the band found itself holed up in a mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay thanks to the label’s largesse.
McCullough would work with engineer (and songwriter) Roger ‘The Immortal’ Nichols while in Miami and later characterize these sessions as a major learning experience. McCullough took careful note of Nichols’ approach to mic’ing the drums, for instance — two microphones per tom, 10-12 microphones for the entire drum kit — and brought these ideas back to Track, thus directly raising the quality of audio engineering.
Bangham picks up the story again:
“Within 6 months since Joe [Lee] and I had brought them into Track, we were recreating the entire album (using McCullough’s masters for reference), with Katz producing and Roger Nichols engineering at Criteria Studios in Miami – and Fagen & Becker attending the sessions. We were in the studio for the whole month of November ’77.
Since we’d burned up so much time recording at Criteria, the mixing had to be done in December at ABC Studios in LA. Katz and Nichols couldn’t quite match Root’s puking vocals in ‘Boogie Til You Puke’ at Criteria, so they extracted that from the Track demo master.
Bob Marley and the Wailers (including guitarist Junior Marvin who currently lives in DC) came into Criteria one day while we were there in November ’77 to record a single, ‘Punky Reggae Party.’ We were all gobsmacked.”
Friends Making Music at Track:
Gerry Wyckoff, Root Boy, Doug Percival, Bill, Kate Ragusa, Les [?] & Mark Greenhouse
The Washington Post, who fortunately were supportive of Root Boy from the beginning, informs Bangham, would dispatch Leslie Marshall to write a full-length feature profile of Foster Mackenzie III for the February 26, 1984 edition of its Sunday Magazine. Washington Post readers were no doubt intrigued to learn that ‘Ken’ – as “Prince La La” – would front a soul/R&B band named The Midnight Creepers while a Yale undergrad in the mid-1960s. The future Root Boy Slim, in fact, would attend Yale at the same time as our future 43rd President, reports McCullough (they would not get along). Would you be surprised to know that bassist Bob “Rattlesnake” Greenlee was also a Yalie?
Root Boy, Ron Holloway & Deanna Bogart
Ron Holloway, an “amazing” musician (as affirmed by McCullough), is quoted by Marshall as saying, “Slim started on a level — in terms of audience size and enthusiasm — that most bands in this city never even reach.” Holloway deserves recognition for being an important part of Root Boy’s success, McCullough emphasizes, having invested “hundreds of hours” in the band’s early days helping to develop its sound. [Holloway, who would go on to from The Ron Holloway Band, recorded a 7-inch in 1984 with The Hijackers, featuring vocalists Ann Ellis & Amy Kale, at Track shortly after McCullough’s departure, a Mitch Collins-produced session that included Steuart Smith on guitar and Jim Crenca on bass, congas & knob twiddling — picture sleeve design by Dick Bangham, of course.]
McCullough still vividly recalls that one fateful day when Root Boy and the band were lounging at the studio playing billiards (or possibly the Missile Command arcade game) when the TV suddenly erupted to life with news announcements that the Shah of Iran had been deposed. All of sudden, before McCullough’s very eyes, a song was born — note Ernie Lancaster‘s “Iranian” intro that abruptly jumps (using what sounds like a good old-fashioned slice of the razor blade) to a re-start of the song in a modern blues groove, as Root Boy and the band put a twist on B.B. King’s big 1970 crossover hit.
“The Shah Is Gone” Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band 1983
Bangham adds this coda: “[Future Track owner] Mark Greenhouse wisely stored all of the Root Boy masters and I now have them, thankfully! I’ve reissued 4 of the 6 albums as CDs on Rip Bang Records, with bonus unreleased tracks on each of them. Currently working on a full length Root documentary which we hope will be done by next year.”
Bangham’s covers for 1978 Warner Bros. debut & 1984’s ‘Dog Secrets’ albums
Track Recorders as Magnet for DC-Area Talent
Singer-songwriter Bob Brown also played an important part in the Track Recorders story. Especially noteworthy is the musical connection Brown shared with Greenhouse going back to DC’s “beat” coffeehouse days of the Crow’s Toe (Jim Morrison’s old stomping ground), Through the Gates and the Iguana Coffeehouses [see Mark Opsasnik’s history piece in the Beltway Poetry Quarterly]. Thanks to Greenhouse, The Iguana would be the first of the DC coffeehouses to charge a cover to see Bob Brown perform.
A Provincetown gig opening for Richie Havens led to Brown becoming a recording artist signed to Haven’s Stormy Forest, an MGM subsidiary label. Havens produced and sang backup on Brown’s first two albums – 1970’s The Wall I Built Myself and 1971’s Willoughby’s Lament. Tompkins Square decided to reissue these two titles in 2016, an act made possible with assistance from the aforementioned John Simson. Brown eventually joined forces with Baltimore-area vocalist, Aleta Greene, and things looked promising when the two got signed to almighty Columbia in 1973, only to find themselves dropped in the wake of Clive Davis’s sudden departure from the label.
Bob Brown – NYC
Brown’s extensive recording experience at Track predated the “dynamic duo” of Bill McCullough and Mark Greenhouse. He had worked closely with George Massenburg at Hunt Valley’s ITI recording complex, where he and Aleta Greene recorded two albums, Let Me Be Your Love and Hit the Truth, that unfortunately did not enjoy official release until years later via Brown’s own website (Brown and Greene, interestingly, would record backing vocals for Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band’s Zoom album).
Under Greenhouse’s leadership, Brown continued at Track Recorders with sessions for the No Refunds for the Rain album. Songs were reconstructed in the studio, with backing tracks laid down by the indispensable rhythm section of bassist Jim Hanson and percussionist Steve Dennis. Brown treasured the “band of brothers” atmosphere at Track, where collaboration created a magical transformation into something greater – thanks to everyone’s input and sweat equity – than the songwriter could ever have imagined. McCullough’s “steady hand,” combined with Greenhouse’s musical command and Steuart Smith’s virtuosity made for a formidable team.
Greenhouse, Brown & McCullough at Track for the ‘No Refunds’ sessions
The team’s mastery of getting the most out of the artist was memorably displayed during the recording of No Refunds album closer “Quiet Waterfall” when Brown was told to play a solo vocal and guitar track “just to set the recording levels,” only to find his studio brethren waving their hands frantically behind the glass of the control room, motioning for him to let the final notes ring out. “You nailed it!” yelled Greenhouse, McCullough and Smith excitedly, as it dawned on Brown that this supposed “test” recording was simply a ruse to elicit a relaxed and unforced performance. And it worked like a charm.
Cover photo by Big Al Sevilla
Fellow Track studio stalwart, Steuart Smith – who referred to Track as a “Polaris” for musical talent in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area – would point out in his liner notes for Brown’s No Refunds album that “the real reason to work there I think was the presence of two extremely talented and (for the time) accomplished pros; engineer, Bill McCullough and engineer, producer, musician and songwriter, Mark Greenhouse.” (Richard Harrington would also note that Smith enjoyed renown “as a guitarist and keyboardist in Washington and Nashville decades before he earned accolades for producing albums by Shawn Colvin, Terri Clark and Rodney Crowell, and 25 years before he started soaring as guitarist with the Eagles.”)
Steve Dennis at Track Recorders
We learned from Johnny Castle‘s profile in January’s epic overview of Track’s prodigious output about Dog Days Revue, a musical lark from a dedicated core of studio enthusiasts — Mark Greenhouse, Jim Hanson, Steve Dennis, Jeff Watson, Jamie McKinnon, Mitch Collins, Steuart Smith, and Castle — who would produce one of Bill McCullough’s favorite recordings, “Inspiration.” Jeff Watson’s name would appear on another special Track recording that McCullough would find to be rather lyrically adept — “Can Count on You” from Mike Jones’ Downtown album.
2005 Track Recorders Reunion!
[(L to R) Bob Brown, Big Al Sevilla, Steuart Smith, Bill McCullough, Jeff Watson]
A number of Track studio stalwarts — Steve Dennis, John Previti, Steuart Smith, Tim Jarvis, Han Ro, Pete Lambert & Pete Finney — would join together in common purpose to help fully realize the songs written by Mark Greenhouse for his Shore Leave album. Two of these songs – “Lifetime Guarantee” and “See It Through” – would be recorded around the time of the first Root Boy Slim album, when Gary Katz paid a visit to Track one day.
Mark and Bill had already said their goodbyes and begun the playback on “Lifetime Guarantee” when Gary came bursting back into the control room demanding to know, “What is that?!” Inspired by Katz’s enthusiasm, the musicians would go right back into the studio to record a few more songs. McCullough’s old band, Blue Horizon, would be brought in to play on “Caroline” – a song inspired by Caroline Kennedy that would include Previti, along with violinist Han Ro and guitarist Peter Lambert – as well as “Flags.”
Another local talent, pianist Mitch Collins (who would join Catfish Hodge’s band, Chicken Legs), also spent a fair amount of time at Track. Collins would lay down his own version of “Push and Shove” at Track that preceded The Nighthawks’ better-known version (Collins would also back Billy Hancock on a French-only release from 1983 that included ace guitarists Evan Johns, Bob Newscaster & Eddie Angel).
Guitarist/violinist Coe Anderson and his roots rock revival band, The Hub Caps. were no strangers to Track Recorders, either. Anderson, McCullough remembers, would be brought in on one of Mitch’s own songs. McCullough also fondly recalls the sessions that produced seminal seven-inches from Original Fetish and The Slickee Boys in 1979 and 1980, respectively.
McCullough also recalls the five days or so it took to engineer The Muffins‘ groundbreaking album <185> on which Fred Firth would indulge his love for sounds played in reverse. French webzine, Guts of Darkness: Les Archives du Sombre et de L’Expermental would proclaim <185> (with the assistance of Google Translation) “the ultimate album of The Muffins” and assert that “the group did not usurp its place among the other great barons of Rock in Opposition, such as Henry Cow or Univers Zero” (Silver Spring-based independent label, Cuneiform Records, would reissue this album in 1996).
Ω – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Ω
Recording Technology De-Jargonator*
Parse the dry ‘technicalese’ studio jargon in the text below – Track’s summary blurb for The Unicorn Times‘ Annual Studio Guide, published in their April, 1980 edition – and you will find a sprinkling of Gerry Wyckoff witticisms.
Zero to 180 provides the accompanying Recording Technology De-Jargonator as yet another public service for its faithful readership:
"Sonic Reflection Inverter" = [layperson's translation] "Electro-Acoustic Accelerator" = [layperson's translation] "Doomsday Implosion Simulator" = [layperson's translation]
Marketing Over the Years
That same October, 1980 issue of The Unicorn Times would also include a head-turning full-page advertisement trumpeting Track Recorders’ ability to provide “studio musicians for all instruments and vocals on call.”
Things at Track weren’t always thus. Advertisements from earlier years reveal a studio in the process of establishing a reputation for excellence.
Track advertisement, circa mid-1970s — custom “NERVE” (!) console
Track advertisement, circa early 1970s — All about the hits!
How heartening it is to see Track Recorders perform their civic duty in April of 1980 when they paid for that pricy Superman-themed full-page ad.(as featured in “part one“); Younger readers (to the extent they exist) may not realize that The Unicorn Times – at that particular moment in time – was desperately trying to keep their wonderful arts publication free and wholly-supported by advertising.
Outtake Photo from 1980 Unicorn Times “Superman” Ad (Bill, Mark & Gerry)
Note that The Nighthawks would also do their part to keep The Unicorn Times the “people’s” publication, when they participated in a benefit volleyball game just before the band’s headlining set at the University of Maryland’s Richie Coliseum. [Polygram, points out Bill McCullough, continues to sit on an entire album of Jimmy Thackery-era Nighthawks material that was engineered at Track by McCullough — some of the songs would come out on the Ten Years Live album, while their respective studio versions continue to gather dust.]
Forever indebted to the Bill Hanke Music Research Archives for access to all the vintage ads featured in this piece.
Bill McCullough: Post-Track Recorders
Track’s approach during the Greenhouse and McCullough era was hands-on in all the right ways. As Steuart Smith would observe first-hand, “[Mark and Bill] had worked together on numerous projects and [were] able to give aspiring artists a chance to, with minimal financial investment, make high quality demos and local records that transcended the normal standards of such ‘products.’”
After his seven intensive years of Track came to a close, Bill McCullough went on to do engineering for television before joining the firm of Arthur Young & Company (a studio facility that produced a successful series of instructional videotapes for Lotus 1-2-3). Bill notes with satisfaction that his current work affords him the opportunity to record the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra on a monthly basis as a philanthropic venture for Arthur Young & Company.
McCullough reflects on his professional engineering experience at Track Recorders, most often in his home basement, where this oil painting (from the hand of Jim McCullough) hangs.
Diorama in Perspective:
Track Recorders from a Father’s Vantage Point
Secret Hidden Bonus Track:
Dave Nuttycombe Remembers Track Recorders
I think my first contact with Track was in 1971 or ’72 on a session produced by Caltrick Simone (née Jeff Stein), whose Secant Records released quite a few titles from DC-area groups in the ’70s and maybe ’80s. I believe he did all his recording at Track. And I’m pretty sure our session was his first as well as mine. How we hooked up I can’t recall. Perhaps an ad in the teen section of The Washington Star.
Guitarist overdubbing on floor – Secant session at Track Recorders – 1971/2
That session was to record two songs for a 45 by a very precocious 16-year-old from Springfield, Va., Jan Ince, who wrote and sang well beyond her years. “I’ve Been Waiting” b/w “Sailor” was Pick Hit of the Week on an AM station in Easton, Md. We all drove down when she was interviewed by the DJ. She later moved to England and married Nick Glennie-Smith, now a big-time movie soundtrack guy: Sadly, I don’t think she’s done any more recording. She was quite wonderful.
Jan Ince Takes Dave Nuttycombe’s Ludwig Drum Kit for a Test Drive – 1971/2
I did a few more Caltrick Simone sessions and a bunch of jingles and soundtrack sessions with ad man Dan Pasley and/or composer Demos Chrissos (who I believe was at one time the mayor of Gaithersburg). There’s a picture of my drums set up at Track on my site, along with some of the tunes I recorded there.
Then the singer in my band, Fran Tate, got a job at Track and I got to hang out there much more often. I was there when Buffy Saint Marie stopped by, for reasons unclear then or remembered now. I was also there when Emmylou Harris was recording “Coat of Many Colors.” Not sure if that version ended up on her debut album or if it was just a demo. It was pretty spectacular. Tommy Hannum, then of the Rosslyn Mountain Boys, was playing pedal steel.
Mixing Decks at Track Recorders – 1971/2
And then there was that pilot for a TV show in 1977 starring Cerphe and Tommy Curtis. I think the only thing that was filmed was an interview with Little Feat at Track. I was the photographer and snapped a bunch of shots. Feat keyboardist Billy Payne met Fran at Track and they got married. At which point I did more recording at Omega, then in Kensington.
My ‘claim to fame,’ such as it is, was playing drums on the Jerry’s Ford jingle (“Let the Competition Beware”). I think the session was in ’73, and that earworm played on Metro DC radio for a quarter century. In fact, the tape finally wore out and the jingle was recreated with synthesizers. I was driving home and heard the new version and my ears did a double-take, which may not actually be possible.
So I called up Jerry, planning to do a fun little piece for City Paper about this odd bit of local ephemera. Of course he didn’t know who I was; he was not at the session. Sadly, I can’t remember the producer’s name, but it was just him and the engineer and he just left it to the musicians to come up with…something. The original session was a trio — myself on drums, Gary Falwell (later of Smalltalk fame) on bass and Marc “Chopper” Chopinsky on guitar. We noodled around with all kinds of crazy stuff for hours until the producer got us down to a repeating riff of four descending notes. Horns and vocals were added later.
Got $25 for the session. If I’d asked for a nickel royalty I’d be rich today. The jingle was syndicated nationally. I was driving into Dallas one night and heard it on the radio, changed to something like “Frank’s Chevrolet makes it clear, let the competition beware.” And sure enough, there was a billboard for Frank’s Chevrolet with the slogan. I was driving a VW bug.
Anyway, I told Jerry that I was paid $25 for his jingle and he got very short and said, ‘I’m sure that was good money for the time.’ Then he cut me off and said he couldn’t talk any more about his ‘business dealings.’ Huh? I wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein coming to blow up his company. Sheesh. So no story. Until now, I suppose.
Coda: One of the things I always liked about recording at Track was that there was a Little Tavern right across the street. That was pretty much the menu for every session.”