Backstage in South Florida: Stan Lee and Tom Dowd
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable
rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This
week: Sharing quality time with Stan Lee, Marvel Comics' mastermind, and
Tom Dowd, one of music's most prolific producers.
When I have crossed paths
with that rare individual who is universally considered an icon, it's an
especially humbling experience. Likewise, when that person turns out to
be unassuming and down-to-earth, then the pleasure is magnified all the
more. That was the case with comic book legend Stan Lee and
producer extraordinaire Tom Dowd.
Lee was the man responsible for penning some of the most memorable characters of the comic book world -- Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Daredevil among them. He also helped propel the fledgling Marvel Comics brand when it was in its infancy, having been promoted to the position of editor in chief for the fledgling company when he was only 19. Lately he's become something of a media star, with his own reality show, numerous television appearances, an ongoing string of cameos in the film adaptations of his Marvel adventures, and even the occasional commercial.
It just so happens that my lovely mother-in-law, Pearl, has been a friend of Stan's wife, Joan, for many years, having known them in New York, and when Alisa and I made a trip to Los Angeles in 2007, we were given their phone number. After my wife gave them a call, they were kind enough to invite us to their lovely home in the Hollywood Hills. While I admit I was always more a DC Comics fan than a Marvel man, I was suitably impressed to meet the man behind some of the most memorable superheroes of the past half century. Joan greeted us at the door, her lilting English accent only adding to her charm. She had laid out a lovely buffet as we sat in the den awaiting Stan's arrival. He showed up only moments later, and it was obvious from our first hello that we would have a natural rapport. Stan was friendly, funny, and self-effacing, especially when describing his various film appearances. "Why don't they have an Academy Award category for great acting in a cameo role?" he asked while trying to affect a straight face. "They should," I replied. "You'd be a shoe-in!"
That's become a running joke between us in the three years since, and in fact, I always make it a point to email him whenever I catch him on TV or see him featured in a film. (His name was dropped on Entourage only a couple of weeks ago.) That afternoon, Stan offered a number of insights into his prolific career (he mentioned that Tobey Maguire's manager once stopped him at a stop sign in their neighborhood and thanked him profusely for writing the stories that boosted his client's career) and gracious enough to sign autographs, show us around his incredible collection of comics memorabilia, and pose for pictures while we sipped our cocktails on their patio overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Despite the fact he dwells in the heart of the shallow environs of Tinsel Town, he's largely unaffected. He once ended an email by jokingly insisting, "I gotta go now, the paparazzi are surrounding the house and I can't hold them off much longer!" And comic fans might also be assured that his final sign-off always includes his trademark "Excelsior!"
Tom Dowd's name may not be familiar to many people, particularly those outside recording realms, but the records he produced in his 50-year career span some of the greatest names in popular music. Cream, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Otis Redding are merely a small sampling of the artists that were fortunate enough to benefit from his production prowess. He was also one of the men who nurtured the creation of Atlantic Records, and he was credited with helping to invent the eight-track recorder, an innovation that helped revolutionize the music industry. Sadly, Dowd died October 27, 2002, a week before his 77th birthday, but his legacy lives on through both his studio contributions and the wonderful recordings that bear his indelible stamp. Check out the film Tom Dowd & the Language of Music for an overview of the man's amazing career.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Tom while working at Hard Rock Café in Bayside, a place he often frequented, but it was publicist Susan Brustman, a longtime friend of his, who first introduced me. Despite his remarkable career accomplishments, he remained a man with an extraordinary lack of pretense or self-importance. In an interview for Goldmine magazine, he regaled me for hours with his stories about the crazy musicians he had worked with and the fascinating career that had taken him from atomic scientist to music industry legend. In fact, there were many occasions where I was fortunate enough to share some social time with Tom and find myself entertained by his incredible tales from behind the boards.
Tom was recognized for his half-century of contributions in February 1997 when Julio Iglesias hosted a gala reception at his Miami Beach manse that was organized by the local branch of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I was thrilled to attend and delighted to see several stars on hand to fete him from the stage. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees sang a solo rendition of "Words," Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame paired up with David Lee Roth on "Soul Man," Butch Trucks and Jaimoe of the Allman Brothers Band jammed with horn players Arturo Sandoval and Ed Calle, songwriter Richie Supa and Nestor Torres both performed, and fellow producer Phil Ramone (of Billy Joel fame) gave a rousing tribute. It was truly a night to remember and, needless to say, one I'll never forget. But more important, it was a triumph for Tom that was certainly well-deserved.
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