The mike is an apple on a stick. It hangs there in the room's semidarkness, capturing my chokes, quakes, false starts, flat notes. "Uh, could we try it again?" comes a seriocomic voice over the intercom. The voice belongs to Tony Mulcahy, 23, the engineer-producer for this laugher of a recording session. Tony, an ex-newspaperman from Vermont, sits at a Star Trekish console of knobs and dials in the brightly lighted control room. Through the double-thick plate-glass window that divides us, I can see him clearly; he is smirking.
Okay. Here we go again. I'm singing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," theme of the 1969 hit movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." I have chosen this pleasant little toe-tapper, originally cut by B. J. Thomas, on the theory that it would demand neither the ragged, taunting voice of a Bob Dylan nor the superstylish one of a Frank Sinatra. The song is what's called in the music business a MOR number; that means "middle of the road." Somehow that seemed me.
The tape is rolling. The tune's first notes come welling up through my headset. (I have a finger poised on each earphone, imitating Kris Kristofferson in "A Star Is Born.") Ten seconds in, Tony cues me to start singing. He is all business now. Gulping, my eyes on the sheet music before me, I bravely mount the first line while a lush orchestral soundtrack swirls in the headset. It doesn't help: I'm flatter than an Illinois prairie. It's too late to turn back, though, so I beat on against all mercy and good sense. This is the fourth take, and I have yet to get through the thing once. I am bloody determined. Besides, I've about used up my studio time.
I make it all the way -- though not without singing on the break at one point and blowing a line at another. (Afterward Tony dryly wants to know if I thought I was "in a race or something.") But my sense of accomplishment is delicious. I even feel an ounce of arrogance. "Listen, I think I got it," I announce into the mike. "Lemme do it a couple more times and maybe we'll have a wrap."
Perhaps this off-key tale best begins at the beginning. Dimensional Sound, Inc., on the edge of New York City's grubby theater district, is a maze of submarine hallways and cubbyhole offices. The place has two recording facilities -- Studio A, where serious musicians lay down their licks, and Studio B, where rank amateurs like me are allowed to live out a Walter Mitty fantasy -- for $99 and 30 minutes.
Dimensional is in business primarily to record instrumental tracks of Top 10 hits that are eventually sold around the world to be overdubbed in foreign languages. In the industry these recordings are known as "cover hits" or "sound-alikes," with the music generally provided by out-of-work professionals looking for a gig to tide them over. In America, where vocals are usually added, the sound-alike recordings are hawked via late-night TV. ("Greatest Disco Gold of '76. Send $4.95, plus postage, to Box 14, Radio City Station. . . . "
Over the years Dimensional owner Eddie Chalpin has made a tidy living off his specialized business. He has also accumulated a vast library -- the world's largest, he thinks -- of prerecorded instrumental music. What to do with it? Rather than let his tapes grow moldy on the shelves, Chalpin decided not long ago to risk opening his doors to the public. Because the music was already available, he could offer studio time to would-be Englebert Humperdincks for a fraction of normal costs. (At some Manhattan studios, where no canned music is available, the cost of materials and studio musicians can run a recording session into thousands of dollars.) Chalpin decided on a flat fee of $99, which would include the music and an engineer-producer. The songs would be recorded on two-track stereo, live, with only several run-throughs. The singer would have to bring his own sheet music. For an extra $14, he could run his tape across the street and get it pressed into an acetate disc.
In the several months since he first ran a 60-second radio spot announcing his cottage industry, Chalpin's studio has been fairly afloat in cabbies, hairdressers, frustrated housewives, bar mitzvah crooners, used-car salesmen, and any number of reporters -- all ready to junk their jobs and go directly into show business. "I sing to Muzak in the shop, and the customers say I'm pretty good," one Brooklyn beautician reportedly told the New York Post. "So when I heard about this, I figured I'd throw away $100 anyway, so why not see how good I sound with full orchestration? I mean, my mother called me stupid and my boss laughed at me all week."
I know the feeling. When I casually told my girl friend I was going up to New York the next day to "cut a disc," she made a strange gurgling sound in her throat and looked away. Undaunted, I went out and bought a John Denver songbook; also the Home Library Series' edition of 57 Songs, 1960-1976. That night, alone in my darkened apartment, I bayed at the moon for nearly an hour. Singing to my living room furniture, at least, I was boffo.
When I hit Dimensional the next day (my nerves buffered by a half bottle of wine, an over-dubbing session was in progress in Studio A. Four young women, who turn out to be classical-music students, are putting down a strings track atop a rhythm track recorded by another group the previous day. The song is called "Do Ya," an innocuous disco tune whose stabbing, insistent melody keeps wanting to know: "Do ya do ya want my love?" "I think it's about No. 30 on the charts, with a bullet," shrugs Johnathan Thayer, engineer for the session, who once studied oboe.
In a while, Chalpin appears. A short, wiry man, he has on a Palm Beach suit and talks with triphammer speed. He wasn't always in the sound-alike business, he says. In fact, he was the first man in America to produce a Jimi Hendrix record; then he and the late legendary guitarist had a falling out --but not before "I made a million off him." At various times Chalpin has managed and/or produced Chubby Checker, Jayne Mansfield, and Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff.
Today, however, Chalpin is managing me. "You're not scared, are ya?" he barks. "D'ja eat? No? Good, we'll go to lunch. I don't know, though; maybe we should eat in."
We decide to eat out. Over Italian food and more wine, the producer tries to quiet my fears (which have been growing by the hour). "Now listen, all you gotta remember is that the artist is nothing. Elton John? I got 10 of 'em every time I want to cover a record. Barbra Streisand? How many do you want? No, it's the song, the arrangement, the production, the promotion of an artist that's important. Now I can take you in there this afternoon and make you sound like a star; no problem. But selling you as a star -- well, that takes indoctrination and mass hypnosis of the American public."
I allow that becoming a recording star is not really what I have in mind; I just want to take home a record with my own voice on it. "Oh, c'mon," he says with a wicked little grin. "Inside, everybody thinks he can be a superstar. I mean, everybody's a shower singer, everybody sings in his car. Every time you buy a record you're unconsciously identifying with the artist. You know you're really as good as he is. Only thing, will you be uninhibited enough this afternoon to let out your true feelings? Can you go in there and really belt it out? That's all it takes."
Well, has he ever tried it? "What? Go behind those mikes? Me? Are you nuts?"
It is time. I enter the slightly cluttered studio (with its orange shag carpeting going up the walls) feeling a cross between a doomed man being led to execution and the world's biggest sap. The microphone, wrapped in black foam rubber (to cut down on sibilance, I'm told), looms in front of me. It looks like an inverted ice cream cone; I don't want a bite.
Tony Mulcahy, my engineer, goes over the game plan. We will be recording on two-track stereo, he says. He will do the cueing, I will do the singing, and his board of dials and gadgets will handle the rest. "Don't worry," he says. "It'll be a cinch."
Not quite. "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" turns out to have a few too many high notes, especially for the guy Father Gregory always stuck in the back row of the seminary choir. Finally, after four perspiring tries, I begin to make some progress. I never quite get the damn thing right, though admittedly each playback sounds increasingly professional, thanks mostly to Tony, who is a whiz at fudging and finessing my gaffes. (If nothing else, the session demonstrates how producers and engineers can sculpt and mold and otherwise transmogrify a turkey of a recording into something palatable; the whole thing is done with mirrors.) On tape, my voice sounds like somebody's I once vaguely knew -- a twin brother's maybe.
Yet, by the final take, a strange metamorphosis is taking place. I actually begin to feel like Tony Bennett. Or at least Sergio Franchi. My fingers are snapping, my head is bouncing, my shoulders are rocking, my whole body seems to be moving to some sudden, new-found, inner rhythm. My God, I say to myself, so this is what it's like. In the microseconds following, I think I really wondered if a star wasn't being born right there on Eighth Avenue.
Not long after, Mulcahy got up from his board, opened the door to the studio, walked over, and said: "Not bad, really -- at least compared to some who come in here. I'd say you were about a 6 on a scale of 10. But let's face it: God just didn't have in mind a singer."