Interview with Bones Howe
Source: Elvis Australia
November 7, 2020
The Grammy he won for producing one of the '60s' top hits sits tarnished on an out-of-the-way shelf in the den. His stack of gold records 'are in a box around here someplace'. That's Bones Howe-a 40-year veteran of the L.A. music scene, labeled 'legendary' by the trades, who's made records with Elvis Presley and movies with Steven Spielberg without getting wrapped up in the Hollywood tinsel.
'My passion was for the music, not for the showbiz', says Dayton Burr Howe, EE '56, who picked up the nickname 'Bones' as a skinny junior at Sarasota High School in Florida. 'And the reward for me has always been that if you do it well, you get to do it again. That's why I've come out the other side pretty much the same guy I was going in'.
Still slender and tall, the youthful 65-year-old shares a home shoe-horned between the Southern California mountains and the Pacific Ocean with his wife, Melodie Johnson Howe, a former film and TV actress who now writes mystery novels.
The compact, yellow-and-white ranchhouse says a lot about Howe, who downgraded from the 'typical producer's mansion' of image-driven Hollywood to a house where 'we use all the rooms'.
Just off a narrow lane flanked by century-tall eucalyptus trees, it's dwarfed by some neighboring estates. A '91 Volvo station wagon-Howe's 'disguised truck'-sits on the gravel driveway alongside Melodie's meticulously groomed flower garden.
Inside, the scent of heather gives way to an aura of old wood, likely from the 19th-century ship's benches Melodie wrangled for her plankhouse dining table. The walls are an eclectic palette of artwork: original Chagalls, a signed Rockwell litho, a LeRoy Neiman sketch of Howe with his overgrown '60s sideburns.
But the prized position over the fireplace mantle is reserved for the certificate Howe's father earned as an ambulance driver in World War 1.
Now 'retired' from record production, Howe's list of credits includes literally dozens of Billboard-chart singles, not to mention a string of No. 1 hits such as The 5th Dimension's Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, which earned Howe his Grammy and one of six nominations. Likewise, as music maestro for feature films, he added titles like Back to the Future and Stand By Me to his resume. Meantime, he was an early experimenter with stereo and one of the first independent producers.
Howe discovered his lust for music as a teenager and learned to play drums, a talent that earned him gigs at downtown Atlanta's San Souci and Peachtree clubs while studying electronics and communications at Georgia Tech.
'I was a jazz musician, and I worked six nights a week', he says, sinking back into the sofa with one leg crossed, revealing the slightest grimace of nostalgia. 'In those days there were road bands coming through town. They would take the tennis court nets down at Tech, put a bandstand in there and bands would come in and play.
'I met a lot of guys in road bands as they came through Atlanta; I played in a lot of jam sessions with those guys after hours, and they would say to me, 'You should come to California'.
Howe learned that the only people recording music in L.A. at the time were old radio engineers who 'didn't know what a rhythm section is supposed to sound like', let alone how to set one up. His thoughts about the future began to take shape.
'That idea really caught on with me, and somewhere in my sophomore or junior year I began to think seriously about it', he says. Howe rejected the hustles of engineering recruiters at graduation and set his sights on the Left Coast.
'I went to California with $200 in my pocket and went slugging around in the streets looking for a job in a recording studio'. He smiles and leans forward as if sharing a secret. 'I figured the worst thing that could happen to me was that I'd fail and go get a job as an engineer somewhere'.
Howe landed at Radio Recorders, editing and re-recording radio programming for the armed services network at $72 a week. It was around that time he began playing around with stereo recording, well before it became a standard, and approached some other technical thresholds as the 'Golden Age' of Top 40 music began to blossom.
'I went to California with $200 in my pocket ... I figured the worst thing that could happen to me was that I'd fail and go get a job as an engineer somewhere'.
'Every now and then something came along that became an engineering challenge', he says. 'I made a record called The Purple People Eater, and [the producer] came in the studio and said, 'I have to figure out a way to make this voice. And 1 don't know how to do that'. I devised a way'.
Working with Radio Recorders, Howe learned to edit tape, a skill in great demand by record producers. He began mixing records in about 1957, working with Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, B.B. King and other legendary performers. He even had the opportunity to share some of his expertise with The King.
'We were working on a song, and it was going great until it got to the end and somebody played the wrong chord', Howe says. 'Elvis went, 'Oh God, that was perfect. That was exactly the feel I wanted; everything I wanted! So I said, Why don't we just get him to do the last chord, and I'll cut it on'. We did that all the time.
'Elvis had never seen anybody cut tape before. In those days there were no cutting blocks; you just held the tape in your hand and cut it with a pair of scissors. Elvis was fascinated, and I thought afterward, 'Oh, now he's going to want to cut every song; he's going to want to fix every mistake'. But he wasn't that way. If it wasn't something really glaringly awful, if it felt right and sounded right, that was it.
He kept copies of the tapes from Elvis' sessions in a box in his garage for 30 years, selling them back to RCA after the record company lost theirs.
Of course, all of Howe's early days weren't spent in the King's court. They were, after all, the 'maverick days of the record business' when anybody with a little cash could cut a record and look for a distributor.
'I made records with guys who would come in and pay the musicians a few dollars and a bottle of gin, or three guys would be there who all put $500 into making the record, and everybody wanted the record to sound the way they wanted it to, it would be a brawl in the studio', Howe says. 'It was very street level. There was a lot of cash flying around and independent distribution. Of course, there was payola and all the other things that went along with it. But a lot of good records, and a lot of classic records, were made under those conditions'.
A Booth with a View
Howe stayed at Radio Recorders five years, developing a reputation as a fine engineer and a following among studio musicians, something he credits to the dues he paid on stage. 'I was never an engineer engineer', he says. 'I was always happier on the other side of the glass, out in the room with the musicians. I think that a great deal of my success was due to the fact that I was always closer to the musicians.
'I played on some records, and I knew what it was like to sit out there'. Howe took pains to ensure musicians were comfortable, and he sat them close together, using the directional characteristics of microphones and room acoustics to enhance the sound, rather than recording them separately and mixing it all together at the end. 'As someone very astutely said, 'If you do it that way, then it's a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, not a ham and cheese sandwich',' he relates. He also shied away from invoking technology for its own sake, citing the emergence of such things as synthesizers a decade later for a rash of performers who 'were making sounds, but they weren't making music'.
'I think we lost a whole decade of music because people had their faces in manuals instead of thinking about music'.
In 1961, Howe moved to United-Western Recording Studios, at least partly for the opportunity to use some new technology. One of his projects there was an album for the Chairman of the Board, Sinatra Swings. But perhaps the biggest development to come out of the 18 months he spent at United-Western was the decision to leave the studio.
'I just decided that in order to do what I wanted to do, I was going to have to do it independently. My philosophy was-I was 29 years old in 10 years I'm going to be 40, and I'm not going to be able to do that. So if I do it now and I fail, I can always go back to work'.
Just Say Yes
Within a year, Howe had his first charted record, hitting No. 40 with a song he had co-written for The Routers, Sting Ray. In 1963, he hit No. 1 on the pop charts with Out of Limits by The Marketts.
'We all knew each other in those days, and everybody went to everybody else's sessions, and everybody hung out with everybody else', he explains. 'Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys came to the recording studio. Everybody was having a good time during that period, and there was all this discovery'.
By 1965, Howe had made the unexpected transition from independent engineer to producer, helping create hits for The Mamas and the Papas, Jan and Dean and Johnny Rivers along the way. Soon he was working with The Turtles, then The Association and The 5th Dimension-with success based on some simple principles.
'In the music business you never say 'no' until you're too busy to say 'yes',' he says, punctuating the statement with a finger. 'If you're not doing something, do something. You never know whom you'll meet. I know more musicians who got to be successful in the studio because they played on a demo for free. It was networking before networking was hip.
'The second-hardest answer to get in Hollywood is 'no',' he continues, 'and the reason for that is there are so many people who are afraid you'll go across the street and be successful, that they'll string you along. You've got to learn that 'no' is OK because it frees you to go someplace else'.
'They wanted to record all the music live on the set. It required somebody who knew how to keep it all in synch. ... It was the first time I got my name on a movie. That's all it took'.
When the 'Summer of Love' rolled around, Howe had already charted a couple more No. 1 singles, produced several albums, even handled some of the engineering and set-up for the Monterey Pop Festival. But his real recognition would come in 1969 when he took two pieces of music from the successful and controversial musical Hair and turned them into gold.
Up, Up and Away
'The record that was the most successful for me was Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In', he says, beaming like a new father. 'And I'm proud of the way that I put those two songs together because that was an original idea that I had'.
It was a difficult birth, though. While The 5th Dimension ', made me crazy about recording Aquarius, Howe stood his ground, saying 'it's not a complete song; it's the opening to a musical'. Several other artists, including Spencer Davis, proved Howe right when their recordings of the song failed to get any attention.
'Then I came up with the idea of putting the last three bars of The Flesh Failures with Aquarius. The Flesh Failures was this horrible lyric, a real downer kind of protest lyric, but the last three bars of that is Let the Sunshine In'. Although they were in different keys, Howe strung them together with a few eighth notes and created a No. 1 single that earned him the Grammy-and a place in pop-music history. The medley remains a staple three decades later.
Howe continued producing records through the 1970s and early 1980s in Hollywood, New York and London, compiling a discography of five pages with artists ranging from The Monkees to Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle to, Amad Jamal.
He made a foray into music production for film with Elvis Presley's 1968 Comeback Special on NBC Television. By the end of the following decade, he would turn to film as a new career.
'When I was in the record business full-time, I did a lot of work on films, producing tracks with various artists that were made specifically for films', he says. 'I was attracted by that part of the business, and I always felt that at some point, I wanted to be involved in music in films. In the late '70s, I began to realize that my days were numbered as a record producer, and I started looking around for other things to do.
'Melodie was a contract player at Universal, and she would drag me along to cocktail parties and things at the studio. I would inevitably run into a producer or director who would say, 'You've got to help me. 1 need to figure out how to get this song for my movie'.
Breaking into the medium. presented Howe with a Catch22. To get a job supervising music for a film, he needed credits. But to get credits, he had to do a film.
Howe worked the network, offering to supervise music production on a film for nothing, just to get the credit. In 1979, the offer paid off when a friend at Electra Records put him in touch with actor-turned-rocker-turned-actor Meatloaf, who was starring in a production called Roadie.
'The big problem they had was they wanted to record all the music live on the set, as opposed to having people prerecord it and lip-synch the tune on the set', Howe remembers. 'It required somebody who knew how to keep it all in synch.
'I sat down with them, and they hired me on the spot. They gave me credit, and they even paid me. It was the first time I got my name on a movie. That's all it took'.
Over the next decade and a half as an independent and as executive vice president for Columbia TriStar (now Sony Pictures) - Howe oversaw music production for directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Zemeckis, Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, Rob Reiner, Ivan Reitman and many more. His film credits are equally stellar, ranging from zany comedies such as Top Secret to the biographical La Bamba. Howe's favorite was Back to the Future, mostly because of Steven Spielberg, who also worked with Howe on Hook.
'Spielberg did the detail work so carefully that the third and fourth-time people saw the movie, they would see something new', he explains. 'I had never worked on a movie where anyone even talked about people coming to see a movie the second time. But Spielberg had this sense of filmmaking that if you made a really good movie, they'd come back. That was a very exciting thing to be part of.
'We started shooting the movie, and it wasn't working. So they stopped it, just shut it down until Michael J. Fox was available. Then they started all over again'.
Another of his top-rank experiences was with a bizarre sci-fi flick with a comic edge, Buckaroo Bonzai. 'What makes them fun is the crew that you work with, the director. There were great people; it was a lot of laughs. We wondered if we could pull it off, though. It was so zany'.
And the Beat Goes On
Howe left Columbia in 1991 amid the furor of its sale to Sony, but he's continued working independently in films-Howe is trying to develop a film on the life of Ricky Nelson now.
Despite 'being retired' from show biz-'the business retires you; the phone slows down, stops ringing'-Howe's kept a hand in record production, too, putting together four jazz albums since 1994, one of which made it to No. 9 on the jazz charts. He produced an album for Michelle Shocked in '96, but he's not really interested in making pop music in the current climate.
'Granted, I'm looking at it for the most part from the outside now', he says, 'but it doesn't seem to me to be nearly as exciting as it was in the '60s. The '50s and '60s were just amazing. So much happened, so much new. It was a great time to be part of all that.
'I'm just not fascinated with the music I'm hearing now. What I'm hearing just sounds like combinations of stuff that I've heard for 20 years. There's nothing new going on that's exciting to me, and in the absence of that, I've fallen back on the things that I really love and have loved traditionally classical music and jazz'.
Howe is involved with four music publishing companies, actively seeking films, television shows or commercials to use the songs he has copyrighted. He also enjoys teaching occasionally, and he has a job at home these days copyediting Melodie's mysteries.
'Editors and producers are much the same'.
Just 'over the hill', meaning the mountain chain between his home in Montecito and the West Valley, Howe has two children and four grandchildren-the main reason he chose to stay in the area. His son, Geoffrey, seems to be following in dad's footsteps in a way. One of the few American experts in high-definition TV engineering, Geoffrey won an Emmy last year for his use of 'lipstick' cameras in the X Games.
Howe also enjoys the relaxed lifestyle of the seaside community. He's an avid tennis fan and plays regularly. Then there are the beach walks with Emma, the couple's camera-shy poodle.
And given his track record so far, the phone won't ever stop ringing completely for Bones Howe.
Howe's Hits -- Charted singles produced by Bones Howe
- Sting Ray, The Routers
- Out of Limits, The Marketts
- It Ain't Me Babe, The Turtles
- You Baby, The Turtles
- Follow Me, Lyme and Cybelle
- Windy, The Association
- Never My Love, The Association
- Everything That Touches You, The Association
- Time for Livin', The Association
- Dreamer, The Association
- Paper Cup, The 5th Dimension
- Carpet Man, The 5th Dimension
- Stoned Soul Picnic, The 5th Dimension
- Sweet Blindness, The 5th Dimension
- Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, The 5th Dimension
- Working on a Groovy Thing, The 5th Dimension
- Wedding Bell Blues, The 5th Dimension
- The Independence Medley, The 5th Dimension
- One Less Bell to Answer, The 5th Dimension
- Puppet Man, The 5th Dimension
- Love's Lines, Angles and Rhymes, The 5th Dimension
- Never My Love, The 5th Dimension
- Last Night, The 5th Dimension
- If I Could Reach You, The 5th Dimension
- If I Can Dream, Elvis Presley
- Memories, Elvis Presley
- Someday Man, The Monkees
- A Man Without a Dream, The Monkees
- Seabird, Alessi
- 0' Lori, Alessi
- Fallen Angel, Barbara Dickson
At the Movies -- Feature films with music by Bones Howe
- About Last Night
- A Good Man in Africa
- Back to the Future
- Betty Boop
- Beyond the Law
- Boyz'N the Hood
- Buckaroo Bonzai
- Casualities of War
- Circle of Friends
- Corinna, Corinna
- Desert Bloom
- Ghostbusters 2
- La Bamba
- Lakota Woman
- Man, Woman and Child
- Mariette in Ecstast
- Old Gringo
- One From the Heart
- Radio Inside
- Serial Mom
- Someone to Watch Over Me
- Stand By Me
- The Fisher King
- The Last Outlaw
- The Prince of Tides
- Top Secret
- Tuskegee Airmen
- Vegas Vacation
- Zeus and Roxanne
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