In the early 70’s my band, Stone's Crossing, was looking for a place to record some of our original tunes. We didn’t have a lot to spend, and we found 700 West Studios through a classified ad in the paper. We went out one Sunday afternoon to the old farmhouse to have a look, introduced first to a three-year old blond kid painting a cat bright yellow on the couch with poster paint. It turned out to be an auspicious entry into the slightly askew realm of Moe Whittemore - inventor, composer, musician, and wizard-in-residence. For the next few years we became regulars at the studio, recording, mixing, and sometimes just hanging out, but always amused - and occasionally exasperated - by the antics and escapades of its proprietor.
Moe had been a successful engineer with RCA, but left in order to pursue his dream of recording local artists. It’s hard to believe, but Indianapolis actually had a thriving community of musicians and composers at one time, long ago killed off by the homogenizing toxin of loud corporate radio and properly-coiffed small-dicked producers. Moe was there from the beginning, and his home-styled discount facility provided many of us opportunities we never would have had otherwise. During our tenure some of us sold a few songs and records, and a few of us were signed to national recording contracts. Some did better than others, but each of us benefitted from Moe’s unique talents and personality.
For example, he wasn’t above including his own production choices in a mix, whether we wanted it or not. He was never loathe to hide his opinions of a tune or performance, but went to great lengths to work with artists he thought worth the effort. He elevated flatulence to a performance art, the glint of mischief in his eye ever-present. It gleamed especially when he’d caught you in one of his practical jokes.
I showed up for a vocal session one afternoon, and he pointed to a grocery bag in the control room.
“That’s for you,” he said, deadpan.
“Oh?” I replied. “A gift?” I picked the heavy-ish bag up and peered inside, my eyes adjusting. I bellowed as the unmistakable shapes of a couple dozen severed chicken feet became clear, mixing with their metallic clammy smell.
“What the hell?” I shrieked as I threw the bag down.
“Yeah,” he guffawed. “We butchered a bunch of chickens this morning. I kept those for you.”
And he had. I don’t know why. I certainly didn’t want them and made him get rid of them before the session started. But that was life working with the mad carnival-clown genius at 700 West.
Eventually our paths diverged and after twelve years the studio closed down. Moe still contacts me from time-to-time. He called last week and sent me a CD of some of his most recent compositions. He’s still amazing and full of hilarious, eccentric fire. My life was incalculably brightened by its blaze…chicken feet and all.
As I recall, Jay Wilfong was the person who first introduced me to Moe and 700 West. I was immediately impressed with the audio quality and I think the first cut I heard out there was Ezekial Longspur's song about "Rolling Down the Highway." It sounded so good that it was obvious this Whittemore guy knew what he was doing...........
Shortly after that I played bass on a demo for Bill Jackson and Tom Mobley at 700 West. Rex Thomas also sat in on that one on steel. Jackson was a superb vocalist, and I still think he was one of the best I've ever been around........... Tom later got involved with Sequoiah, but I don't know what happened to Bill.......... He sang one song called "The Death of the Circus with No Thanks to Fellini" that I wish I could hear again............ Definitely good stuff............
I remember sitting on that little padded bench Moe had by the window in the control room and watching him work wonders. He was always lighting up a fresh batch of tobacco in his pipe, and his favorite past-time was making up humorous new lyrics for our songs. We learned so much from him about mike placement and ping-pong techniques for recording with limited tracks.
We were really blessed to have so much talent in that place. The people who sat in on our album project were really good. Obviously, Jerry De Rome and Jay Wilfong were a tremendous help. Jim Moore, who was the steel guitarist for Bill Wilson, did a great job. We couldn't afford to pay the session players, but they just did it because they wanted to record out there. Everybody did.
I remember I later tried to return the favor by playing bass for some other artists there. I don't recall all of the projects, but I do remember playing on a single or two for Ed Ott.
Moe invested a tremendous amount of time and patience in all of us. He could fix so many problems. I had a strap button let go and my priceless Gibson J-50 fell on concrete one night. You could have dropped a golf ball through the back of it. Moe repaired it, and I ended up using it on the acoustic lead break in "I've Seen Your Face." I still use that old Gibson for recording...............
700 West was such a unique place to record. You could hear goats outside and smell Moe's coffee brewing inside. He had a knack for putting you at ease with his sense of humor, and that was really important---- especially the first few times you saw that red recording light go on..........
I first met Moe in 1976. I had written several songs and was looking for someplace to do a demo. I knew that my classmate, Mel Cupp, had recorded an album there with Primevil, and I liked what I heard, so my friend Paul Herr and I decided to check it out.
I had never been in a real studio before, and that big farmhouse at the end of the lane sure didn't look like any I had imagined. We knocked on the door and were greeted by a tall, lanky fellow wearing a white V-neck t-shirt and fly away hair. We were invited inside and escorted to the control room where we arranged an appointment to do my first professional demo session.. an inauspicious beginning to what was to become a milestone in my life.
From the beginning, I always felt a sense of camaraderie at 700 West. Moe was not just the engineer, but also the producer, arranger, vocal coach (you haven't lived until you've witnessed Moe demonstrating a high harmony pad!), guitar tech, session player, publisher, promoter, and guidance counselor. Nobody's fool, I'm sure he saved many of us from being eaten alive by the industry sharks.
One of our favorite pastimes during recording session lulls was to come up with parodies of the popular songs of the day or whatever project was currently in the studio. No one could best Moe at this game. I used to feel sorry for the sensitive "artiste" types who's lyrics were sacred to them, because I knew that after about three listens, Moe would rework it into some uproariously bawdy parody (anybody remember the "many physicians" or "floating lily pads" lines? He still has insulting titles for most of my tunes. In later years, when producing projects for other artists, I've had to be careful not to fall into Moe's pattern in that regard. ..some of those guys are way too serious!)
I spent a great deal of time at 700 West in the late seventies and early eighties and I can't remember not having fun. Moe, Betty, Bobbie, Maury, David and Mark all made me feel like part of the family, sharing their food and even putting me up for the night when the power steering belt broke on my 1970 Bel Air.
Here are afew things I learned from Moe:
1. If one of your kids messes up, send them all to bed, because "it's the army way!"
2. Kalamazoos really can sound like Marshall stacks!
3. Don't take yourself too seriously
4. There's always a way to fix it (but let's do it BEFORE we mix!)
5. Take care of your livestock. Goats got milk too. (This one in memory of Thor, the wonder horse)
6. Don't be a clock watcher
7. Overly busy rhythm parts just add clutter
8. The wonders of high-string guitar
9. The difference it makes when somebody believes in what you're doing
10. A lack of gadgetry can be overcome by creativity
11. I could be better than I thought I could be (thanks for the push)
12. Do it until its right
Since my days at 700 West, I have recorded or produced a fair number of albums and several hundred demos for myself and other writers all across the country. The roots for much of my production and recording work can be traced directly to what I learned from Moe. Of all the projects I've been involved in, nothing surpasses the pride and satisfaction I take in my first LP, Day Before Tomorrow, on 700 West Records. There was just something special about those days when dreams were so alive and "the music mattered more than the bottom line".
P.S. Oddly enough, about two weeks before I knew about Moe's website, I wrote a song about those days. Here are the lyrics:
Copyright 1999 Kevin P. Stonerock (BMI)
LyricsYoung man on a bridge with a stick in his hand I wonder what ever happened to him? It was a long time ago in a fairy tale land Sometimes I wish I could go there again When the songs we sang were real and they came from our souls And the music mattered more than the bottom line It was a lifetime ago but I remember it well Late at night when I am all alone Dreaming Again Beneath this calm exterior lies a frantic man Frightened by the things that he don't know With dreams too wild for dreaming out loud But every now and then I let them show When I get out on the road with nothing but time An echo from the past comes calling me And the years just melt away until I find That who I was is what I'll always be When I'm dreaming again Dreaming again Sewing patches on my jeans or patches on my dreams Either way the stitches come undone Try to save them as you may, they soon fall away And leave the threadbare remnant in the sun But when I get out on the road with nothing but time An echo from the past comes calling me And the years just melt away until I find That who I was is what I'll always be When I'm dreaming again Dreaming again
LyricsYou had to know just where to turn It was a little county road with a driveway that wound thru a cornfield Out at 700 West, he gave the bands a chance and they gave it their best--- and it sure showed....... If you get the chance to take it Ride the county road, someone's gonna make it Some played metal, some played steel They played it from the heart and he caught it on reel---on an 8 track I'd like to tell you if I could about the ones you never heard They sure sounded good on that old farm So If you get the chance to take it.... On summer nights, if the song was right You'd feel there's nothing you can't do When the light turned red, the lyrics in your head You'd feel the magic inside you Now collectors stand in line, bidding up the price on the records they're buying--- from the old days....... The bidding's up, the bidding's down, but the only thing that matters Is the way that it sounds in the long run........ So if you get the chance......... On summer nights......... Even though the odds were long, everybody wonders how far they'd have gone with some airplay But I'd like to tell you if I could about the ones you never heard.... They sure sounded good on that old farm..........