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Mike Stahl Recalls: Mixing Chicago Live In The 1970s
The engineering approach with a seminal fusion group, along with anecdotes and experiences from a unique time...
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Interesting Collaborations
After the freak show with Columbia at the studios, the Criteria sessions calmed down and were progressing well. Whenever I had some free time, I liked to explore the other studios because Criteria was a great facility in those days, having leapt into prominence with the success of the Bee Gees.

In fact, Criteria had just finished building a brand-new wing on the main studio that was to be used exclusively by the Bee Gees. They were in the process of setting up to record their first album since Saturday Night Fever.

I would occasionally wander over there and just shoot the breeze with the engineers, and one day, I met Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees. He couldn’t have been nicer—I’ve never been disappointed by big-name stars because the majority of them never forget their beginnings and were always very nice, especially to me. We started talking about sound companies, music, and other groups I’d engineered besides Chicago, and he was a huge fan of the band’s big brass sound.

Later that day, I was back on the Chicago side of the building and I told Jimmy Pankow about having met Maurice and how nice he was. Jimmy said that the Bee Gees had the best vocal harmonies in the world and he would love to have the Bee Gees sing on a Chicago song. I told him that Maurice was a big fan of the Chicago brass and maybe he could work something out between the two groups.

Within two days it was all arranged; Chicago was going to play on a new song for the Bee Gees and the Bee Gees were going to sing on a new song from Chicago. Unreal! Now the stage was set for the two supergroups to perform on each other’s records. I’d never been involved in such exciting times!

Peter Cetera had written a song, “Little Miss Lovin,” that the band felt would be perfect for the Bee Gees’ harmonies. In return, the Bee Gees wanted the Chicago brass to play on a new track that Barry Gibb was producing called “Tragedy.” About a week later, the Bee Gees came over to the studio and laid down their amazing harmonies. It was just astounding! I was in the control room and there are no words to describe the feelings of hearing those soaring harmonies on one of Chicago’s songs. I was seeing and hearing true talent.

That session went well, and I was looking forward to Chicago recording their parts on the Bee Gees song. A week later, I brought the “hole in the ass gang” over to the main studios at Criteria to begin rehearsing. When we arrived, to everyone’s complete surprise, we discovered that no brass charts had been written. I could tell the guys were upset because Jimmy Pankow always spent long hours writing the brass charts, getting them perfect for all three instruments. Since the charts weren’t done, we all assumed we’d have to come back another day.

When Barry came into the studio and introduced himself to everyone, he asked his engineer to run the rhythm tracks they’d recorded the day before. When Jimmy asked him about the brass charts, he said, “I’m going to write them now.” As the music started, he sat down at the piano and began singing and hitting single keys on the piano to signify which notes he wanted the brass to play. His transcriber sitting next to him furiously wrote down what Barry was playing and then charted it for all three of the brass instruments. None of us had ever seen anything like it!

When they ran the track the second time, Barry started singing and hitting the notes on a piano the way he wanted the brass to accent them with his voice: “Da-Da-Da-Dot Da-Da-Da-Dot Dot-Dot-Dot.” And then again: “Da-Da-Da-Dot Da-Da-Da-Dot Dot-Dot-Dot.” The Chicago guys were staring at me and I was staring at them—we were all overwhelmed. No one could play the notes, have them written down and transcribed for sax, trombone and trumpet, and then have them ready to record within 30 minutes. That just can’t happen! And yet it did.

Jimmy pulled me aside and said Barry must be doing this for show—“this can’t be real.” I told him I thought he was wrong because on many of my trips to the Bee Gees studios I’d talked with their engineer, Ably Gilbratin, and he’d told me what a genius Barry Gibb was. I knew that we’d just witnessed a true phenomenon.

After the charts had been duplicated for all the brass players, the guys were then thinking this was going to take a long time to record because again, simply, the charts couldn’t be correct. No one was that good… there were going to be too many wrong notes and too many bad accents and everything. These mistakes would then take a lot of time to correct and then they would have to be re-recorded.

The level of skepticism was at an all-time high as the brass players took their seats in the studio—until they started reading the charts and playing the parts. The sound was full and the stabs and staccatos were tight and bright.  hey were literally perfect. No bad accents, no bad notes, nothing.

The song, which was the title track of the Bee Gees new album, Tragedy, was completed in under an hour, and we were out of there.  When we listened to the playback after the brass was finished, the brass charts were nothing short of amazing and had a “totally fresh” feel which gave the song a new meaning. Barry was tapping his pencil on the console and was very pleased. 

Creative Musings
As we were leaving, everyone thanked them profusely for the experience and we got into our car for the drive back to the house. The entire ride back was very depressing, especially for Jimmy, who always agonized over his charts to get them perfect, sometimes taking days to perfect them. Since he was the only one who wrote the brass parts for the group, this tour de force he’d just witnessed seemed to affect him the most, knocking him for a loop.

It wasn’t that his charts weren’t good, it was just that he (and the rest of us) had never witnessed anything like that. Even superstar writers and performers need to get out of their own bubble sometimes, and this was a huge revelation.

By the time we arrived at our house, Jimmy was coming around and after dinner, he felt he’d been incredibly inspired by Barry’s writing.  Even though Chicago had finished the entire title track “Alive Again,” and it had already been recorded and was “in the can,” Jimmy still hadn’t been crazy about the brass charts. After all, this was going to be Chicago’s debut back into recording, their first album since Terry died, and he wanted the title track to be very special, and in particular, wanted the brass parts to stand out and attack the music. He was bothered because he knew they weren’t sparkling yet.

After dinner, he stayed up all night re-writing the brass for that song because he liked the sound that Barry had gotten from the instruments. Two days later, we went back to the studio and re-recorded “Alive Again” with Jimmy’s new brass charts, which gave the song a whole new feeling and the sparkle Jimmy had been looking for all along.

That song, and the Hot Streets album, symbolized Chicago’s re-birth in their recording and performing.

Editor’s note: We’ll be presenting more great articles from Mike on his engineering career during one of the truly great periods in the history of popular music. Stay tuned!


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