Russ's Factory: The Man Behind Creedence's Sound
Russ's Factory: The Man Behind Creedence's Sound
Back in the spring of 1969, Russ Gary had just about gotten used to being a
witness to some fairly amazing musical moments. As staff engineer and head mixer
at the then-brand-new Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, Gary had a hand in
shaping the sound of the budding Bay Area music scene. As word of the
artist-friendly vibe and feel at Heider's spread among musicians, the studio
became a kind of headquarters for that scene, and Gary was there to help cut the
Jefferson Airplane's groundbreaking, statement-of-purpose album, Volunteers.
Sessions with the Airplane were particularly instructive for Gary. "As wild as
the characters in that band seemed at first, when it came to making music they
were all business," he recalls. "What I saw in the studio was a lot of hard work
to create the music the group was after." Gary also remembers that some of the
music that impressed him most was performed when the tape machines were off.
"Jerry Garcia was playing pedal steel on that album, and sometimes in between
takes he and Jorma [Kaukonen] and Jack [Casady] would launch into impromptu jams
on some of the traditional country and bluegrass tunes I'd grown up with. I
thought a lot of that playing was even better than what we were supposed to be
Gary, a relatively clean-cut Virginia native, never felt completely at ease with
the psychedelic side of the Bay Area music scene, but he soon found a
soul-satisfying way to put his talents to use when Heider's became the new
studio home for one of the Bay Area's hottest, decidedly non-psychedelic acts:
Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Creedence had cut their first album at Coast Recorders in San Francisco and
their second at RCA Studios in Los Angeles, but – despite scoring early hits
with "Suzy Q," "Proud Mary," "Born on the Bayou" – band leader and frontman John
Fogerty had not been particularly happy with the sound or the recording process
at the other places.
"I was in the middle of work one day when, in a studio hallway among all this
gear and cables, I saw John standing around," Gary says. "He looked more like a
working man than a rock star, in his jeans and a flannel shirt. But he had a
real intensity to him. It turned out he was there to scout the place, and a day
or two later, his record company called to book a three-hour `audition' session.
Basically, the band wanted to cut a couple tracks to audition the studio and see
if it felt right for them."
The day of the session, the CCR crew showed up to load in gear, setting
everything up the way the band had gotten used to in previous sessions. Then all
four band members showed up in a shared limo. "I kind of got a read on the
personalities of the band just watching them get ready to play," says Gary.
"[Drummer] Doug Clifford seemed like a real happy-go-lucky kind of guy.
[Bassist] Stu Cook looked like a kind of hip, college professor who had somehow
stumbled into a rock 'n' roll band. Tom Fogerty – John's older brother – was a
thoughtful, sensitive guy – a real gentleman. And John was clearly in charge of
everything, though he was probably the quietest of the bunch. It wasn't unusual
at that time for bands to rely on various substances for inspiration, but all
those guys needed to get going were cigarettes, coffee and root beer."
The band played a bit and Gary began setting up microphones, using a number of
Shure SM56 mics as his workhorse. "My engineering philosophy has always been
pretty simple," he says. "Get things to sound good in the room, then take the
time to find the right places for the mics. I always preferred taking the time
to do that rather than assuming I'd add EQ or effects later."
When Gary felt he had Creedence's sound fairly well dialed in, he signaled to
John Fogerty, who joined him in the recording booth while the rest of the band
continued to play. "He liked that real honest sound too, but he asked for a
couple of tweaks," Gary recalls. " He wanted a little extra treble on Tom's
guitar. He wanted to mute the mic on the bass amp because he liked the direct
sound better. And he wanted the snare drum signal run through an echo chamber to
make it sound fatter."
With that, Fogerty rejoined the band and, with tape rolling, they began to play
through a couple of instrumentals, "Briar Patch" and "Glory Be." Gary was struck
right away by how well the band played together. "They were just so
well-rehearsed and had such a great raw sound, it made my job real easy," he
says. "And I know sometimes people have put down Doug and Stu as a rhythm
section, but from that first time I heard them I thought they absolutely kicked
ass. They were so strong and steady."
After a couple of takes, John Fogerty indicated that he'd gotten the songs done
the way he wanted them, and the band matter-of-factly packed up their gear. " I
was hoping John Fogerty was satisfied with my work, but it wasn't easy to tell,"
says Gary. "There were no handshakes or backslaps exchanged. There was really no
indication at all as to whether any of the band members were happy with the way
things had gone. They simply shouted goodbyes and galloped down the stairs back
out to their limo."
The call came a few days later. The studio had passed the audition, and the band
would be back to record their next album, Green River. And they wanted Russ Gary
to engineer the sessions. Within weeks, Gary was back at the Heider board as CCR
stormed through a session that produced both "Green River" and "Commotion."
From that first audition session forward, Russ Gary engineered and/or
co-produced everything Creedence recorded until their final Mardi Gras album in
1972, meaning he helmed the board for an amazing string of hits that includes
"Bad Moon Rising," "Lodi," "Down on the Corner," "Who'll Stop The Rain,"
"Fortunate Son," "Have You Ever Seen The Rain?" and "Up Around the Bend." He
went on to engineer, produce or co-produce solo albums for all the members,
including John Fogerty's Blue Ridge Rangers album.
These days, Gary is developing content for an ambitious Musicians' Television
web project, and lets off steam playing his Les Paul Historic Florentine in a
number of informal groups. Looking back on his role in the enduring,
still-powerful body of work created during his brief (1969-72) but spectacularly
productive time with Creedence, Gary says, "At heart, I'm a countrified rock 'n'
roller, so from the start I was right at home with that band. Whatever I
contributed to their success comes down to the simple fact that those guys
played the music I really liked."
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