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Tasty sounds

What brings a record producer for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to an abandoned seafood restaurant in Treasure Island?

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 2, 2002


What brings a record producer for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to an abandoned seafood restaurant in Treasure Island?

TREASURE ISLAND -- Inside an abandoned restaurant on Gulf Boulevard, against the wall of a cavernous and ghostly dining area, three dozen plush chairs are piled high enough to hold off Godzilla.

This is a beautiful sight to Jack Douglas.

So is the cramped dishwashing station, the far end of what was once a smoky bar, and a sprawling space strewn with old tables.

The cacophony from happy patrons of the defunct Careless Navigator seafood establishment, later home to such spots as Margot's and Manhattan's, has given way to the rich sounds of electric and acoustic guitars, bass and booming drums.

The front room now houses state-of-the-art music recording equipment and the creative vision of an acclaimed rock music producer.

Douglas, who looks part rocker, part college professor with his long, wavy gray hair and glasses, has turned this place with the blank sign out front into his own musical playground.

"It's what I call a guerrilla recording studio," he says.

Douglas, 56, knows a little bit about recording studios. His resume reads like a Who's Who of gold- and platinum-lined rock history (and, in fact, includes the Who). He has produced 11 albums for Aerosmith, won a Grammy in 1981 with John Lennon for co-producing Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, and produced other big-name acts from Alice Cooper to Cheap Trick to Supertramp.

As an engineer for producer Phil Spector, the native New Yorker mixed Lennon's Imagine and George Harrison and Bob Dylan's The Concert for Bangladesh.

The guy can work anywhere he wants. So what's he doing in the shell of a long-gone Pinellas County seafood joint?

A good first Mpression

Several months ago, after Douglas finished scoring James Caan's new movie, This Thing Of Ours, set to open in 2002, he began looking for a new challenge. His agent let all the major recording studios in New York and Los Angeles know that he was interested in producing a young, unproven group.

Douglas was deluged with demos. All sounded similar, formulaic. "I was getting depressed, and thinking about maybe doing another movie," he says.

Then he got a call from an old friend, Henry Smith, a former Aerosmith tour manager now with a St. Petersburg-based record label, Big 3. The company, started by area businessman Bill Edwards, has been focusing on teen pop, and in November its girl group Mpress hit No. 9 on Billboard's singles sales chart.

Smith told Douglas about Big 3's multimillion-dollar, high-tech production facility on Central Avenue and explained that Mpress' distribution was being handled by a major company, Artemis.

"That impressed me," Douglas says. "Plus, I'd seen this gigantic mural of Mpress the size of a building driving to work every day (in Los Angeles), too, so I figured somebody's spending some big bucks."

Big 3 had recently signed a seasoned Southern California rock quartet, Vesica Pisces, which won the 2000 Los Angeles Music Awards contest. Smith gave Douglas two Vesica Pisces compact discs built around the vocals of female lead singer Kelly Fitzgerald. Douglas loved it.

"I was really surprised," he says. "The band has something special. The songs are well-crafted. And the girl sings phenomenal."

Douglas agreed to fly to Tampa to check out the group and the label, but figured he would have to pay for the ticket. Instead, he was flown in, picked up in a limo, and given a grand tour of the operation. It included the abandoned restaurant, which was being used as a rehearsal hall by Big 3.

The clincher was the meeting with Big 3 chief Edwards. "The major (labels) all have really good people, but they are all bottom line and corporate and are scared of signing artists who don't sound like acts at the top of the charts," Douglas says. "Big 3 is like a mini-major, and Bill is a guy with tremendous energy and a willingness to do things the right way."

Vesica Pisces members liked Douglas, and the deal was done.

For the past few weeks, Douglas, assisted by Big 3 production supervisor Johnny Green, has been recording instrumental tracks at the restaurant, with a production truck parked outside.

Douglas loves any chance he gets to use warehouses or empty buildings to make albums, where stacked chairs can act as sound bafflers, the dishwasher room offers a distinctive echo for drums, or the bar area can be built into a soundproof cubicle.

The expansive rooms, with the different shapes and acoustics, offer a natural ambiance and organic kind of reverb, like rock records of the 1960s and early '70s. The bigger spaces also are less claustrophobic than most studios, and can create a comfortable chemistry with musicians in the production process.

Vocals and post-production, meanwhile, are being done at the label's Central Avenue complex. Douglas has to fly to Paris for a weekend to approve the Aerosmith roller coaster ride at the Disney MGM park in France. He produced and synchronized the music for the attraction at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando by riding the coaster more than 100 times with his hands taped to a laptop computer.

Other than that, he'll be busy with Big 3 for the next few months.

"Having Jack Douglas lends a lot of credibility to what we're doing here; it's a real inspiration," says Big 3 executive vice president Tom Gribbin. "We're already talking to him about more projects."

Meeting a Beatle

Douglas' long and winding road entwines political jingle-writing for young New York Senate hopeful Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, a close bond and work relationship with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and a drug addiction that almost killed him.

The trip began with a bizarre trans-Atlantic trek Douglas, then 18, embarked on in 1964 after graduating from high school in New York City. Beatlemania had just swept through America. Douglas, a folkie singer-strummer, was mesmerized.

He and a friend, Ed Leonetti, bought dirt-cheap tickets on a tramp steamer, a slow-moving ship that stopped in Georgia for crates of bourbon and South America for bananas, turned north to Newfoundland, and eventually churned into Liverpool.

Douglas and Leonetti brought their guitars, hoping to experience Beatle magic firsthand. But upon reaching Liverpool, they were forbidden by British immigration to leave the ship during its several-day layover -- they lacked the proper papers.

Undeterred, Douglas sneaked off the ship, leaving Leonetti, who didn't want to risk big trouble. He made his way into Liverpool, abuzz over the release that day of Rubber Soul, and over news of the impending return of the Fab Four for a homecoming concert. While in town, he alerted an editor at a Liverpool paper of the plight he and Leonetti faced: captive American teens on the docked steamer.

Douglas returned to the vessel, sneaking aboard a copy of Rubber Soul under his coat. The next morning, reporters from an array of newspapers were on the dock to cover the unusual story of the two Beatle-crazy visitors. A day later, teenage girls even showed up, says Douglas. "We stuck our heads over the side, and they all screamed, like we were sort of celebrities," he says.

Eventually, immigration allowed the two youths to come ashore for 60 days if they promised to leave after that. The day they walked off the ship, a story and a photo of them appeared on the front page of the Liverpool paper, along with glowing stories of the Beatles' return, a bit of history that would surface years later.

Douglas and Leonetti reveled in Liverpool, joining a band called the Richmond Group. Douglas says they overstayed their visas, were caught and were forced to leave. But upon their return to New York, doors began to open. Through a friend, Douglas was hired to write political jingles for Kennedy, and later for Johnson. That helped him land a recording contract with Epic, while Leonetti went on to join Soul Survivors (Expressway to Your Heart).

In 1969, Douglas and Leonetti formed a power trio a la Led Zeppelin, and were signed by a label run by the Isley Brothers. But the Isleys' mix was too heavy on R&B horns and background vocals for Douglas' taste. He was allowed to sit at the board and remix it himself.

"It was coolest experience," he says. "I had been getting tired of all the travel as a player. And right then, I decided to go on the other side of the glass."

Douglas enrolled in a production school in New York, the Institute for Audio Research. He then got his foot in the door at the Record Plant in Manhattan, doing everything from sweeping the floors to duping tapes. Finally, he became an assistant engineer. His first break: At the Who's session to cut Who's Next, the chief engineer -- an R&B man who disliked the Who's sound -- wangled his way out of the assignment and turned the board over to Douglas. He was on his way.

Several years later, Douglas was in the midst of a huge job, engineering Imagine. He was nervous about working for his idol, Lennon. One day, he turned around in an empty studio and there was Lennon, sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette. Instantly, the Beatle put Douglas at ease. "The magic of John Lennon was that you could be so nervous about meeting him, until you did, and then you weren't," he says. "He made you feel at home with a smile or a nod."

They made small talk, and then Douglas revealed how the Beatles inspired his adventure in Liverpool.

"He immediately started laughing, and said, "You were one of those a-h-- on the front page! We saw that and we laughed like crazy at these two stupid Yanks,' " Douglas says.

At that moment, their friendship was formed.

Hitting bottom, and battling back

Douglas began hanging out with Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. He helped produce some of Ono's music, heavy on experimentation.

That's putting it kindly. The strangest moment involved a track called Dead Rat. In the middle of the song, Ono left a 20-second gap. "I had a bad feeling about that hole -- I kept thinking of it as the dead rat solo," he says.

Sure enough, he recalls, when all the tracks were cut, Ono's assistant showed up with a shoe box. Inside was a dead rat. Ono wanted it incorporated in the recording. So Douglas had his assistant place it on a stool and set up an expensive mike inches away.

"Yoko wanders in like nothing, and says, "I see you have the rat ready to go -- let's get right to it,"' he says. "When the 20-second dead spot comes, I push up the fader. I'm listening. There's no noise, and I stop tape, and say to Yoko, "It's not quite right, is it?' And she says, "No, Jack, there's something wrong.' "

Douglas had his assistant, stifling laughter, move the mike closer to the rat. "We do it again. I push the fader up, this time with a little smile and I say, "I think that's much better.' And she says, "That's a take.' "

Douglas was in the studio with Lennon and Ono the night of Dec. 8, 1980. They had just finished Ono's cut Walking on Thin Ice for Double Fantasy, and planned to reconvene in the morning. "We were so excited, everything was wrapped," Douglas says. "He got in the elevator with Yoko and says, "See you at 9 in the morning.' He had a big smile."

About 45 minutes later, Douglas' wife came to the studio to tell him Lennon had been shot outside the Dakota. They stayed all night at the hospital and were there when Lennon was pronounced dead.

Douglas was heartbroken. For the next three years, he worked, but felt numb over the loss of a dear friend. He and Lennon had talked of many projects, even perhaps one with Paul McCartney.

Douglas had used cocaine and heroin while working with Aerosmith, notorious for their drug and alcohol binges, but had managed to stop on his own. Now, he dove full force into heroin, closeting himself at home, living off past earnings. For nearly a year, Douglas wasted away. "I figured I'd either kill myself, or pull out of this," he says.

He pulled out, thanks to a helping hand from Aerosmith lead singer Steve Tyler. The group had got through rehab and kicked its habit by now. "Steve came to me and said, "Jack, you know how messed up I was, and if I could do it, you could easily do it -- you're just the producer,"' he says.

With Aerosmith's urging, Douglas entered their rehab program and got clean. He also received counseling and put his life back together. He picked up with Supertramp's Some Things Never Change, produced records for Cheap Trick after discovering them at a Wisconsin bowling alley, and has never looked back.

Married, with four grown children, Douglas downplays his place in music as a producer.

"What we're doing is not brain surgery," he says. "Nobody's life is in our hands. But sometimes, I'll hear from a person who'll say something I worked on changed their lives. It could be from any of those records, and I realize, what we do can make a mark."

Whether it's with a former Beatle, or a maybe a new group dreaming big in St. Petersburg.

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