Thursday, March 15, 2012

Columbus Recorders (Sentinel Building basement), corner of Columbus and Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA

Sentinel Building, under construction prior to the earthquake, just after the 1906 earthquake.

Despite the 1907 finish, building work had begun before the 1906 earthquake the previous year, but extensive damage to the building site, and the rest of the city, slowed down the construction considerably. For a relatively small building such as Columbus tower, with the extensive workforce available in San Francisco at that time, taking more than a year to complete the building was slightly longer than would have been expected.
The top floor initially housed the headquarters of the notorious Abe Ruef, a local political figure at the time. Also featuring early in the building's history is the restaurant 'Caesar's', which is the restaurant widely credited with the creation of the popular Caesar Salad. Despite its flourishing business, the restaurant was closed down during prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment.(2)
From Heather Johnson's book, If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios:
A few years after the Kingston Trio hit it big in 1958 with their self- titled Columbia debut and singles such as “Tom Dooley,” manager Frank Werber re-invested the group’s earnings to form Trident Productions, a multi-faceted enterprise located in the historic Sentinel Building at the corner of Columbus and Kearney, at the financial district, Chinatown, and North Beach border. The triangle-shaped, copper-clad structure, also known as Columbus Tower, housed Trident’s management, production, publishing, and promotion divisions.

The real action, though, happened in the basement—ground zero for Columbus Recorders. The studio had a smallish tracking room—not much bigger than most control rooms these days—but it was adorned with redwood walls
that gave the studio a stylish feel refl ective of the owner’s good taste. It would serve as a model for studios to come. There was another perk. “You could walk up the back stairs and be right at the back door of Zim’s Hamburgers,” says multi-instrumentalist/song- writer Bill Champlin, who recorded there with his band Sons of
Champlin. “How much more could you ask for?” To complement the comfortable recording environment,
Werber’s studio off ered a solid array of equipment. In addition to multiple echo chambers, the studio contained a custom-built 10-input Langevin console, which was an impressive deck for the time. A mastering room with a Scully mono lathe was installed upstairs. Hank McGill served as the studio’s fi rst house engineer
and operations director.

The opening of Columbus Recorders gave the Kingston Trio a regular place to record until their “offi  cial” retirement in 1967. As the trio’s career slowed, Werber found other acts to manage and produce under the Trident Productions, Inc., banner, including the Limeliters, Mystery Trend, and Blackburn & Snow, among
others. “In terms of what they were trying to do, they were sort of San Francisco’s answer to Stax/Volt,” Champlin says of Werber’s enterprise.
Werber discovered the We Five in 1965, a folk-rock quintet led by singer/guitarist/banjoist Mike Stewart, who also arranged most of the group’s music and, not so coincidentally, was the brother of Kingston Trio member John Stewart. Bassist/vocalist Pete Fullerton, lead vocalist Beverly Bivens, electric guitarist/vocalist Bob Jones, and acoustic guitarist Jerry Burgan rounded out the fi ve-piece group. Th e We Five did well with reworkings of everything from “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music to Stewart-penned originals, but they scored their fi rst big hit in 1965 with “You Were On My Mind,” a song written by Sylvia Fricker of
the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia. Th ey hit the Top 40 again in 1966 with “Let’s Get Together,” but with not nearly the same luster. They recorded a second album with Werber, Make Someone Happy (which has been compared to the sound of Jeff erson Airplane’s first album), before they split up. Th is ended their career, despite Stewart’s attempts to reconfi gure the group later. In addition to working with We Five, Stewart lent his vocal talents to another up-and-coming Trident Productions band, Sons of Champlin, a highly skilled ensemble that evolved out of a Marin County R&B outfi t called the Opposite Six in late 1965. “When we signed with Werber, we had to go to court to get the signatures okayed by the judge because we were all [underage],” says frontman Bill Champlin. “I was maybe 17 at the time.”

Despite The Sons’ departure, business was especially fer- tile at Columbus Recording in 1967. Among other projects, the Grateful Dead came in to record  one song with arranger/producer Jon Hendricks. The studio tallied up enough profi ts that year to upgrade their tape machine and purchased a 3M 8-track—the first in the city—for $15,000. Naturally, it became an in-demand item for tracking and mixing clients both in-house and at other studios.

“We used to rent that machine to Coast Recorders for $200 a day,” recalls George Horn, who assumed McGill’s role in 1968. “Creedence Clearwater Revival did their first album on that machine while they were at Coast.” The combination of the newly modified Langevin and the 3M 8-track attracted many producers and engineers, including Dan Healy, who recorded many of his Mercury Records projects at Columbus following his tenure at
Commercial Recorders.

One of the most interesting projects Healy worked on at Columbus wasn’t for Mercury, though, and it didn’t involve cutting tracks in their studio. The Grateful Dead’s second LP, Anthem of the Sun, shattered the mold of conventional recording. The Dead thrived on the spontaneity of the live setting and resisted most forms of organization. The studio environment limited their potential and often felt like it was too…controlled. Getting a decent take from the band, Healy says, was “like pulling teeth. It had to do with the way the whole scene was structured, which was raw unadulterated anarchy. Plus, personally and collectively they always thought that they sucked, and that carried into the studio. Nobody was ever satisfied with their tracks or overdubs, so we’d do them over and over and over for weeks, even months. As a result, their records ended up being really over-recorded and overproduced and overplayed. They lacked spontaneity.”

The group started their second album at RCA’s Studio A in Hollywood in the summer of 1967 with their label-approved producer, Dave Hassinger, who had also produced their self-titled debut album in just four days of “live” recording in the same studio. Actually, the lead-off  track from that album, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” was tracked after the RCA sessions, at Coast Recorders and required many more takes than the Hollywood material.

They challenged Hassinger every step of the way. The project moved to American Studios in North Hollywood, where they continued to test their producer. Th ey allegedly contemplated recording in a desert to record in a more “purified” atmosphere. As the now-frazzled Hassinger had discovered, working with the Grateful Dead was like “trying to organize a school of fish,” says Healy. “Just when you think you’ve got something together, it blows up and goes in the opposite direction.” That’s exactly what happened when the project moved a third time to  a pair of 8-track studios in Manhattan: Olmstead Studios and Century Sound. Recording lurched along, with Hassinger trying to set boundaries on a band that wanted none.

He disapproved of the constant experimentation on the album—for instance, one of Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s friends, avant-garde composer and keyboardist  Tom Constanten, contributed a section of music for one song played on a “prepared piano,” a technique originated by John Cage in which different objects, ranging from coins to spoons, were placed in a piano’s strings, altering the sound of each note in bizarre ways. The final straw may have been when rhythm guitarist Bob Weir asked Hassinger if he could create the sound of “heavy air.” According to Weir, Hassinger stared back blankly before leaving the room—and the project—for good.

Columbus Recorders began its slow burn to cessation when Werber became part of a major drug bust. According to an article in the October 16, 1968 San Francisco Chronicle, two owners of the Sausalito bar Latitude acquired 258 pounds of marijuana. (A friend of Werber’s said the two men had made advance arrangements with about half-a-dozen people to purchase the marijuana, Werber being one of them.) However, upon landing their plane in Laredo, Texas (where they were to pick up the weed), the two men were caught
by federal authorities. They then flew back to California with the pot, but accompanied by two federal agents. When they delivered the marijuana to Werber’s DeSilva Island home, a stakeout ensued.
The authorities charged Werber with transporting and concealing marijuana—a Federal offense. In his home city, he was charged with importing marijuana into the state for possession and sale.

At the same time, competition in San Francisco’s studio scene had become exceedingly tough, especially for smaller rooms such as Columbus. Werber and Horn had initially discussed expanding the studio, but after the court battles, he closed the studio in 1970, handing the now-famous Columbus Tower space to San Francisco native Richard Beggs, an engineer and soon-to-be sound designer who rented out the space to work on commercials and demo recordings.

As fate would have it, Francis Ford Coppola purchased the building and moved his American Zoetrope offices there in 1972, after a pretty good run on the second floor of Coast Recorders on Folsom Street.(1)

"By [mid-1967] I had logged quite a bit of time in recording studios – three or four years of ass-kicking, everyday studio use doing a lot of commercial jingles, and some rock & roll songs. I recorded Paul Revere & the Raiders, a couple of old hit records, and obscure local San Francisco hits… I had outgrown the studio I was working in, in San Francisco. Several of the groups had asked me to take them into the studio, and I was using everybody’s studio because these were record-company situations. I would just go rent the time and take the group in. I was using Coast [Recorders], Golden State, and another small studio [Columbus Recording] that was built for the Kingston Trio… Since I was using other studios, I had quit my job at Commercial Recorders. They were into lots of commercial work, and I wanted to get more into music production." (Dan Healy)

On the ground floor is the Cafe Zoetrope (previously Cafe Niebaum-Coppola), which has occupied part of the building since 1999. The cafe is a bistro and wine shop satellite of the Rubicon Estate Winery in the Napa Valley.[4]

April 3, 1960

Jerry recorded here in
1968 Grateful Dead Anthem of the Sun(2)

1.)^Johnson,Heather, If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios
2.)^ "The Lost City: Columbus Tower". The Things That Were. Retrieved 2010-04-21.[dead link]
3.)^ "Citylights, Vesuvio Cafe, Columbus Tower San Francisco". LocationSite Panorama Cityguide
4.)^ "Welcome to Cafe Zoetrope". Francis Ford Coppola Presents. Retrieved 2010-04-21.

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