A Capitol Idea
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Not many people get inside the circular walls of the spaceship-like spear of the Capitol Records building that defines the magical Hollywood landscape residing on the famed intersection of Hollywood & Vine. The first circular office building of its time, it was made to look like a stack of records atop a phonograph, but in person, it is simply breathtaking and a bit overwhelming (in a good way!).
A talent roster that rivals all others, Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Sam Smith, Paul McCartney, Nat King Cole, and many others, the walls of this building are dripping with history that could fill an ocean with its stories.
Songwriter, Jonny Mercer founded this institution in 1942 with one of the first few sessions hosting the new jazz sensation, Billie Holiday and it only got better from there. By the 1950’s, Capitol had become quite the contender on the music front signing well-known artists including: The Andrew Sisters, Judy Garland, Dean Martin and the incomparable, Frank Sinatra. So, to say this Mecca has earned its accolades is an understatement.
Fast forward to 2007, yours truly had the opportunity most singers only dream about...to record in the famed Studio A at Capitol Records with all expenses paid!
I’m one of those people who when stumbling across your average “contest” generally fill them out figuring, “Well, SOMEBODY has to win!”
Over the years, this has proven to be rather fruitful…I won a lovely bike from the brand Linus, complete with a basket, a bell, and side saddles. I also won a complete vacation compliments of the Tyra Banks show (I was never able to go, my life was in turmoil at the time and sadly, I never set sail), I’ve won gift bags and all kinds of little things over the years. So, suffice to say, it actually DOES pay to fill them out when they show up!
But I must admit, I WAS actually surprised when I received and email stating that I had won the contest.
After reading it over about 10 times and emailing back asking if this was a joke, it was confirmed…I had indeed won and would be flying to California with a day’s worth of recording time and a meet & greet with Corinne Bailey Ray (a British singer most known for her singles, “Like a Star” and “Put Your Records On” ….). I was informed I would have the opportunity to record some Corrine songs in the studio and would have full access to the facilities as well as an engineer.
Seeing this as a very rare and unique opportunity, I respectfully asked if I might be able to record “anything” to which I was told there would be no problem.
Having done a number of shows in New York already, I had collected a lovely group of excellent musician friends and decided the best thing to do would be to pre-record my instruments here, and just do the vocals at Capitol Records.
This is where “learning who your friends” are comes into play.
I reached out to a piano player I had done two shows with who was, in a word, amazing. He was one of those rare players that plays what is in your mind before you even articulate it. I told him the deal, asked him if he wanted to play on my songs and record them in New York, and he accepted.
As the days got closer, this piano player disappeared. Never responded to any emails, texts or phone calls. Lesson learned. Always have a backup plan.
So, I flew to Chicago, my old home, and called one of my old band members who had a recording studio and then contacted my mentor and friend, Mr. Vince Willis.
I cut my teeth as a singer and performer on the Chicago club scene which is where I met Vince. A wonderful friend at my day job, Lorna Boston, told me to stop by her gig one night and I promised her I would ( I might add, Lorna is utterly fabulous and remains to this day, my sister) ….I got there early and saw a book on top of the piano. It was filled with music…lots and lots of music. Songs I loved, songs I knew… I riffled through this book as if it were mine on my piano…but, it wasn’t. It belonged to the master…Vince Willis.
A handsome man with a fedora with a soft voice and a smile said, “Can I help you? Do you wanna sing something?”
I was a bit taken aback-here I was, going through his book, and he was so welcoming…. I picked out a song I saw “Out Here On My Own” and he began to play. He didn’t just play the song; he played the imprint of my soul. It was as if he inhaled my spirit and put it into the music. I had never heard anyone play like him before. It was truly a most humbling experience. I stayed until 4 am that night. He was my drug. He was my drug for years. Whenever I can, I get back to Chicago for my fix. I highly recommend if you have never heard him before, find him. He will change you. I digress. Back to the studio.
We went to my friend Jim Massoth’s studio to lay down the tracks. I played my song for Vince and he took it from there.
It was as if angels came to play. Vince took the song and made it his own.
SO…. now that you know THAT, it’s on to California!!
They put me up at the W Hotel in Hollywood. It was beautiful. After a day at the mall so that Benefit Cosmetics could do my makeup (they were part of the contest-makeover, free makeup etc.), I had the day to tool around and hang. My brother and sister and my niece, who all live out in California, came to the hotel and we all went to a bar/restaurant with a mechanical bull.
Now as luck would have it, I had strep throat. Every year, I get some sort of croup that precludes me from making any pleasant noises from my throat.
So naturally, I was very concerned for my voice as it was extremely sore and felt like razor blades every time I swallowed.
We all sit at a table outside that shared a border to the very long bar. A lovely waitress drops by to take our drink order... me, unable to croak out my order of hot tea.
Enter my brother’s wife. No stranger to a bar and never met a bottle she couldn’t find a use for; she tells the waitress to make it a “hot tottie”.
That “request” was met with a look of confusion. The directions were doled out quickly - from one bartender to another, this should’ve been easy.
But alas, the mere look of confusion was all that was needed for the wife to get up, go to the bar and demand access, assuring the on-duty bartender only she had the required skillset to fix said “miracle cure” cocktail.
Before anyone could stop her, she was behind the bar grabbing bottles and barking orders, strutting back with said cocktail.
To her credit, it did do some good. It knocked me out until the Corrine Bailey Rae concert that night.
As any good guest would do, I brought “I “Heart” NYC” t-shirts for her and her band and we chatted ever-so-briefly, and we were back to the hotel to prepare for the next day at Capitol Records.
I remember that night very clearly as there was one song I was still writing lyrics for called, “I’ll Fly Away” and was very frustrated at myself for not having finished it before so that I could have Vince play on it instead of my meager offerings on the piano-but managed to get it done and go to bed.
The next day, a car came to pick us up ( I brought my body guard, lol!) and off we were, whisked off to the famed, “Capitol Records”.
Just sitting in the lobby was humbling…without trying to be to “fan girl” I managed to sneak a picture with one of my favorite musicians, John Lennon, saying a little thank you prayer for the opportunity and asking John to guide the session.
We were ushered in with a PR representative who did the quick tour which included roaming the halls (which reminded me of Marina Towers in Chicago if anyone is familiar)-even sober, I felt dizzy going in circles through their hallways-and eventually we made our way to the roof of the building.
That was spectacular. They had stopped allowing people on the roof for quite some time but made an exception in my case…it must have been that midwestern charm that won her over. It was breathtaking. Talk about feeling like I was on the top of the world that day. We made our way down to the studio where I met my engineer who couldn’t have been nicer. His name was Aaron and had worked with a number of Capitol’s artists and up till recently, was touring with Ariana Grande (we grabbed lunch in New York while he was here a few years back).
Now the magic started.
I handed him my pro-tools sessions from Chicago and told him I really only needed to do vocals but was concerned as my voice was not at optimum health.
He couldn’t have been kinder. The grand piano that was in the room was magnificent and I don’t think I’ve played a piano that sounded that good since. As it turns out, it was the piano that Nat King Cole used when he recorded there. In fact, that building was fondly called, “The House that Nat built” because of the success of Nat King Cole which helped fund the building costs.
He then disappeared into another room (this room was HUGE-it’s where they record the orchestras so you can imagine) and came back with a rather unassuming chair.
“From one Frankie to another” he said. “We haven’t used this in a while but figured today was perfect as this is the stool that Frank Sinatra sat on when he recorded here.”
Aaron was great. Patient, supportive, kind and fast. All the things that make an engineer invaluable.
If I recall correctly, we started with a Neumann U 47, it might have been a Shure 565S, I don’t recall exactly, but they sounded A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. Even with strep throat, it seemed to actually make it sound normal.
Much to my dismay, I mentioned my song, “I’ll Fly Away” and how I had just finished lyrics the night before, and Aaron said to just give it a shot at the piano ….after a number of excuses, he wasn’t having it, and I was sitting on the piano, now asking Nat King Cole to help me if he wasn’t busy.
I was able to get it done and although it needed work that I couldn’t do that day, it was still a moment I’ll never forget.
I never did do a Corrine Bailey Rae song. I figured why do something that was already done? So whenever I hear, “Put your Records on”, I am heralded back to that special day where I was treated “Like a star” by Capital Records. So, the next time you see an entry form, Fill it out. You NEVER know...
You can listen to the two songs I recorded at Capitol Records 'Studio A' below!