I hope you’ll indulge me for the next thousand words. It’s taken all of eight issues for me to attain this level of presumption, which at any of the 72 other publications for whom I’ve ever toiled, would have taken at least 12. That’s the synergy of print and the web, I guess.
I’m going to write about my day job, or, at least, the place at which I work at it. The Boutwell Recording Studios celebrates its semi-centennial this year, and we, the few, the proud, the proprietors, have arbitrarily selected this week to share our mutual bafflement that we’ve come this far.
Speaking of other publications, several friends have been kind enough to mention this occasion in their pages, and we thank them for that. We are a firm enmeshed in mass communications, staffed by a sturdy coterie of professional communicators, but we become inexplicably tongue-tied when we should be tooting our own flugelhorn. We appreciate the efforts of our peers to help us be brazen.
(One publication ignored our plea for PR, perhaps because we are either insufficiently Birmingham or Business. We are afraid to ask which.)
The Boutwell whose name is still on our stationery is a mythical figure named Ed who still lives on the Southside. He is indeed kin to the Boutwell whose monicker is affixed to the old Municipal Auditorium downtown — former mayor and uncle Albert — but that’s the only connection between the two establishments. So the next time Frankie Beverly and Maze are going to play at Boutwell, remember, it’s the Auditorium, not the Recording Studios. Call them about the tickets.
Ed started his unassuming enterprise in his house back in 1961. He had a family there, too, but it was the only place he could afford to bring clients when they wanted him to record commercials for them. At that time, he was working days up on Red Mountain as a broadcast engineer, but he was so skilled at recording commercials that he made fans in the Birmingham advertising community, fans who didn’t mind working after hours if it meant they could get the Boutwell touch on their spots.
(Ed, you see, had been an engineer at a sure ‘nough Nashville studio once, which helped him vanquish an old bromide in the ad community in those days, which was that no real and artistic thing is native to the Magic City. Though Ed was from hereabouts, the fact he had worked at Columbia Records and had come up with the idea to have Johnny Horton say, “Hup-two-three-four,” on the hit record, “The Battle of New Orleans,” made him sufficiently exotic to work on big agency productions.)
Were the advertising men of 50 years ago in Birmingham like the ones we see drinking and smoking their way through Mad Men on cable TV? Yes. More so, in fact, because they drank only brown liquor and drove their own cars. Fortunately, they compensated by, well, compensating. Ed made enough to move out of his house and acquire a desanctified church building over near Sloss Furnaces for his recording enterprise. It was a fine place to install recording gear, because he could turn the basement into a gigantic reverb chamber, which would make all the records he started cutting sound like real Top 40 hits.
I heard about Ed because I rode to high school with his sister most mornings in Dave Hammett’s Chevy II. To be accurate, Rowena was sitting in the front seat with Dave and I was enjoying the Body by Fisher all by myself in the back. But I knew Ed was cutting hit records like “Behind My Wall” As Heard On WSGN (that the producer actually worked at WSGN did not figure into my worldview at that time), and it piqued my interest because I thought I might want to be on radio one day.
I listened a lot, but the closest I had come to actual radio was winning a stack of unlistenable 45s from Scotty Day at WYDE 850 one year, until I heard that Lynn McCroskey had a radio station in his basement.
Lynn, a classmate, and his next-door neighbor Fred Mohns were allegedly on the air every night playing records and cutting up. Hammett and I, who had some scheme to dominate show business with a solid gold homage to Martin and Lewis (or it may have been Lucy and Ethel; it was a long time ago) contrived to take our act on the road.
All the way to Montevallo Road, where it turned out Lynn indeed had his own radio station. His father was the general manager at the aforementioned WYDE, where Lynn had apparently scavenged parts from the engineer’s workbench and constructed a working transmitter for his microphone, turntable and console. WOSY, as he called it, was right there on your car radio, blasting away at 870 on the dial.
Unfortunately, that’s where the operatives from the Federal Communications Commission found it. Since Lynn had neglected to scavenge a permit from the FCC to operate his station, WOSY, as they say, went dark. It worked out okay, because Lynn didn’t go to jail, or into radio, either, but used his electronic expertise to make a gazillion dollars constructing the world’s greatest sound systems with another old buddy, Jim Cawthon.
Me, I stuck with radio and made gazillions less.
I was working in Tuscaloosa at that very trade in 1976, when a friend named Greg Bass called from Birmingham to say he’d successfully kicked the radio habit and was working in Ed Boutwell’s studios. Come on up, he said, I can get you on here, too.
Well, I did, and I’ve been there ever since. I still haven’t made my first gazillion, but the company’s good and the work is fun. In times like these, I’d say that’s as sweet as a gig can get.Boutwell Studios celebrates its 50th anniversary this Friday, Nov. 4, with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from 4-8 p.m. Partygoers are encouraged to dress like it’s 1961. For more info, call (205) 870-1180 or visit www.boutwellstudios.com.
In addition to his work at Boutwell Studios, Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.