Real Mastering and RealFeel

Recording Keith Richards & “You Win Again”

The production arc which started with Wingless Angels, sidetracked on Bridges to Babylon, blossomed during the production of Keith Richards You Win Again and Hubert Sumlin’s About Them Shoes. In this installment, I talk about the making of You Win Again.

The Hubert Sumlin Rehearsal

There was a rehearsal at Keith’s house for Hubert Sumlin’s record. Hubert came up to Keith’s house; he had never been there before.

Doris, Keith’s mom, happened to be there. That was an amazing thing. Her getting to meet Hubert was a big deal because she explained to us how she used to listen to the Lomaxes – John and Alan Lomax – how she listened to Alan Lomax’s radio shows in England.

She told a story to all of us – Hubert, Keith, everybody – about how Alan Lomax had come to England. He had left the United States because of the communism witch hunt. Lomax had made copies of all of the blues recordings he had made and brought those to England with him. Then he did a radio show. There was only BBC One and BBC Two at the time. This is when Keith was a child. You had a 50/50 chance of hearing this stuff.

Unlike in the United States, where the King Biscuit Flower Hour went on its little trajectory up from the South up to Chicago. And the way that the ionosphere works, the signal would be picked up in a funnel-shaped pattern in the middle of the United States. That’s the only way you’d hear it. There were 17 or 18 radio stations on the U.S. dial at the time. So the chances of hearing the King Biscuit Flower Hour were way slimmer than hearing Al Lomax’s radio show in England.

That really explained to all of us how the blues became so popular in England, because of that 50/50 situation where you had a 50% chance of landing on this station and this blues stuff. Doris blew all of our minds that night and I’ll never forget it. It blew Keith’s mind. It blew my mind. It blew Hubert’s mind. I told Chris Blackwell about it. I was saying that everybody thought blues spread because American servicemen came over to England with their U.S. records.

But it’s not that at all. It turned out that it was really all about Alan Lomax playing these recordings. Lomax created the awareness for the English kids and various people. Now, remember, Keith was really just a baby when Doris was listening to this stuff, but she got into the music and then she played it for Keith as he got older.

This is what spread the blues in England and why the blues became so much more popular in England than in the United States. Her story was a revelatory story. I’d heard and read all kinds of stuff about how blues spread in England, but never did this particular discussion or scenario come up in anything I ever read or heard. Her story just fascinated all of us.

Afterwards, we went downstairs in this house that Keith had built. I’ll never forget: when it was being built, we went down to the basement and Keith said, “Well, maybe we can record down in the basement.” So we went down to the basement and there was a drop ceiling, those panels that are two-foot by four-foot and they have that funny pattern on them. They’re a form of drywall. Once things were already in place, I reached up and I could touch the ceiling with my finger. I’m taller than Keith and he couldn’t quite touch it. He looked at me; I looked at him. We both said to each other, “So much for recording down here. The ceilings are too low.” We just dismissed that idea – this while the house is being built.

Now, Hubert’s there that day and we wanted to do a rehearsal. Blondie Chaplin and George Receli were there. We went down to the basement and into the room where the pool table was. I set up the stereo microphone on one end of the pool table about four feet off the ground, a little higher than the pool table. They set up on the opposite side of the pool table against the back wall. When you face them, Receli’s drums are in the corner on the right. There was Blondie with the bass playing through a B15 Ampeg, then Keith and Hubert.

I’ve got this stereo mic, so I plug it into a DAT machine and I record. Not for the intention of making a recording, but to record the rehearsal so we could just talk about the songs and stuff. We did that and I had no way to listen to it. I just plugged the stuff in and had no way of listening to it. When it was done, they played for 40 minutes or whatever, we rewound the tape and listened.

Great Production Sound in a Low Ceiling Basement

Immediately, we all looked at each other and went, “Holy shit. Listen to what this sounds like.” We were all just completely flipped out. I laughed and looked at Keith and said, “Yeah, so much for our little trip downstairs that day when we said we could never record down here.” He says, “Yeah. Isn’t this a surprise?”

The sound stage was just fabulous. You could hear where everybody was located. You listened back and the sound had this visual quality to it. It was like watching a movie. You could really tell where everyone was. Simply, a stereo mic plugged into this DAT machine and that’s it.

So I said to Keith, “Wow.” We were saying to each other, “We have to expound on this a little bit.” We started doing these. They had the guys come by and they’d play. Then I started adding microphones, which dated back to that three microphones story about Ron Malo at Chess. That night, I realized what Ron Malo was talking about. I was like, “Okay, there’s that stereo mic. Gee, I wish I could hear a little more of this, a little more of that.” I thought of Ron Malo and I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to put a microphone here.” So I put up two microphones and we had a little mixer. I recorded the four tracks without really being able to hear them.

Then when we played back the tracks, we realized that we were really onto something special. We had really landed on something, but we didn’t really get that at first.

Then we started to build this studio down there. But not build with construction with hammers and nails, but just assemble equipment and get stuff down there. We now realized that we had this space that we had dismissed when the house was being built. When we had heard the DAT, we knew that the sound was much more than just usable. Our goal was to try to take it a bit further. That’s what we did.

You Win Again Begins

When the You Win Again thing came up, Jane Rose (Keith’s personal manager) had told Keith that there was this opportunity to do the song for a Hank Williams compilation. Jane came over and looked at this setup that looked like nothing. It was just a bunch of equipment in this room. It wasn’t a studio as studios go. She made some comment like, “You can’t record down here.”

Keith flipped out and made her leave the house. “We don’t need this sort of talk. We’re trying to make music and you’re not helping by saying stuff like that, so why don’t you just go?” The ironic thing was that we won a Grammy from it. Boy, was he ever vindicated.

The thing about You Win Again that’s really interesting is this. This is one of the things about how Keith works that’s really part of his brilliance. It’s all instinctive. I shouldn’t say that like an authority, but I think so. He has a thing where he’ll play a song once or twice and then he’ll say, “Okay, that’s enough. We don’t want to chase this thing down the road. Let’s just let it rest and we’ll come back to it.”

With You Win Again, that’s exactly what happened. Over a six-week period, each week, we’d get together one or two days. At least once each week, we would play You Win Again. We played it all sorts of different ways – acoustic guitar and vocal by itself; the way it was on the final record; him playing a 12-string instead of a 6-string. A lot of different combinations of things, but we would only do one or two takes and that would be it. Then it would be like, “Okay, let’s just let it rest.”

For the next session, it was up to me to keep track of what was going on. Being the producer, my job was to find the best stuff and then feed it back to them and help it propel them into something better or finishing what they were starting. I would play back the You Win Again from the week before. Everybody would be thinking about it and then they’d play it again. They’d just do it a couple of times.

That happened five times. There were probably, at the most, three takes. I have all of these recordings. There were just a few takes and then that was it. The song was left to be.

You Win Again’s Unsung Hero

Then, this one particular night, everybody played for just a little bit – for half-an-hour or 40 minutes. The guy that used to take care of Keith’s dad, Roy Martin, who lives in the gatehouse at Keith’s house, is a great chef coming from his maritime days, from being on ships and various things. Frequently, he would cook dinner.He cooked dinner that night and we all ate. He prepared this incredibly great dinner. I always kiddingly, but seriously, give him credit for You Win Again because I said, “You cooked such a good meal that we got that take.”

We finished eating and went downstairs. They played the song one time and that was the take. It was immediately obvious to all of us we had the take. It was like Ansel Adams setting up for a picture and waiting for a month until the lighting is right. It was like we were waiting for that moment. When we captured it, Keith just nailed the vocal and that’s a live vocal. Everybody was so moved. It was just like, “Bam!” That was it; one take.

Adding More Depth

Then we did a couple of overdubs. Over the next couple of weeks, we knew we had this take. Keith was saying, “You know, it would be neat to put horns on this.” I said, “I know a guy.” Then we had got Bobby Keys. Bobby said, “I need a couple of other guys.” I knew a guy, this guy Craig Dryer. I got Craig to get a trumpet player. Craig played sax, too, so it was two saxophones and a trumpet.

We set them up in this other room down there – not the room with the pool table but the other, larger room – in the one corner. We put the microphone in this spot that was really the place where this stereo microphone always lived and picked up the space in this room. That microphone was always there and was there when we did the original track. The mic was never moved, not even a sixteenth of an inch.

I just said, “We want them to sound a good distance away. We want them in stereo. We’ll just set them up in the room that way.” Then, we recorded them like that. That’s how we got the horns.

John Pirruccello played the pedal steel. He owns Lakland Basses and Hanson Guitars. He’s a friend of Nick Tremulis from Chicago, a guy I introduced into the picture. John was in town. Keith said, “Let’s have him put a pedal steel on it.”

Lou Pallo played an acoustic guitar part. When he did that part, I used that same microphone. I just sat him in the room where I wanted his part to be in the stereo mix a little off to the left when you’re facing the speakers. Keith did one electric overdub. Just one take. I had him off to the right.

When we finished that last guitar overdub, I did a rough mix on this console that we had. The intention was to take this recording, go to a studio, and mix it. This console that we had was a PA board. The board didn’t have any mute buttons on it so you couldn’t mute the tracks. The thing that was cool about the board was that it was class A electronics and sounded really good. But still, the setup was way too funky to do a real mix for a record on.

The You Win Again Mix Down

I did a rough mix of this thing. We were listening back we were all really digging the sound. I tweaked the mix while we listened. Then, I printed it onto a DAT. I said to Keith, “I’m going to take this over to my house and listen to this. I just want to see what this sounds like,” because I didn’t have any real reference point. I had these speakers that I trusted at his place, but they weren’t my end-all, be-all judgment. I thought my speakers at home would be a much better judge.

I went home with this DAT and I listened to it. The recording scared the shit out of me when I heard it. I said, “Oh, my God. This sounds so damn good. How am I ever going to top this?”

We had done the pedal steel with the amplifier. The guy was in the room, but the amplifier was up the staircase and the microphone was down below. It sounded like that was far away. We had done all of that stuff; we’d done all of those overdubs already. So when I did this rough mix, everything was there and I just was quivering in my boots at home listening to it.

I sheepishly drove back to his house and I walked in. I had this look on my face, I guess. He looked at me and I looked at him. I said, “Keith, do you know what?” He said to me, “This is the mix.” I said, “Exactly. That’s what I was going to say to you.” He said, “Yeah, I’ve been listening to it, too. I don’t know how you’re going to beat that, but why should you?” That was it. That was the mix. That’s what we used.

We found out that, if we did it the right way, we could overdub on this stuff recording with just the four microphones. We already knew that because we learned that doing Wingless Angels. We took that from Jamaica and we did all of these overdubs in Connecticut. It was a big revelation.

I thought it was a big deal to put the microphone eight feet away from the guitar amp, but it turned out it had to be twenty feet away in order to sound like it was done at the same time as the original recording was done in Jamaica. We learned a whole lot about that and about how you have to mic things and how to make them integrate with that loose mic-ing technique. We knew all that already and that applied to this. That’s why it all worked.

In the third installment, we win a Grammy and Sheryl Crow visits.