By Bob Brennan
o account of the rich musical history of Long Island (or America, for that matter) would be complete without mention of Westbury-based recording engineer Don Casale. A listing of artists who have laid down tracks to Casale's cue over the past five decades could easily be misconstrued for a hall of fame roster, and many of the area's defining and colorful musical moments are associated with sessions Casale has engineered over the years.
The unassuming Bellerose, Queens native stumbled into the music world serendipitously in 1965 when, as Casale puts it, "I was driving through Hempstead, and made a wrong turn." He saw UltraSonic Studios and decided to stop in and check it out. "Sure enough, I hit it off with owner Bill Stahl, a close friend to this day. Bill gave me my first recording job," he said.
One of Casale's early projects as Stahl's assistant was a remake of a Sam and Dave tune called You Got Me Hummin' by a post-Young Rascals, 'blue-eyed soul' band from Long Island called the Hassles, whose keyboard player happened to be Billy Joel. It was Joel's very first released recording. And Bill Stahl's association with George "Shadow" Morton (composer/producer of "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las, on which Joel played without a credit) led to another debut: Casale's involvement with the first three albums by one of Long Island's biggest success stories, the Vanilla Fudge.
In other notable firsts at UltraSonic, Casale assisted in the recording of the debut album by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, and he engineered the Canadian group Footprints in the very first eight-track session on Long Island. Longtime friend Vinny Testa, now a publisher of various music and sound-related magazines, produced the session.
"The recording sounds as good today as it did then," said Testa, who works with Casale to this day, recording voiceovers for his video productions for various conventions, including NAMM and AES. "Don is the finest, most diligent engineer I've ever worked with."
Ironically, it is a session for which Casale was not even credited on the album that is one of his, and one of rock's, most defining moments: Iron Butterfly's monumental In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Butterfly drummer Ron Bushy recalls Casale's part in the historic session at UltraSonic on May 27, 1968: "We were setting up in the studio and Don said, 'Why don't you run through a song, so I can get some levels.' We started Vida and did not stop until the end, 17:05 later! Then, he called us into the control room. We had no idea that he had pushed the record button."
"I told them to play a little," Casale said, "[while] I was making adjustments, setting levels and doing sound checks. They began playing a longer rendition of Vida, and I just let it run because I heard something good happening."
In an era of three-minute pop songs, the 17-minute Vida recorded by Casale proved a watershed moment in rock history. Coinciding with the arrival of FM radio's new, freer format, the psychedelic hit opened the floodgates for extended recordings by Cream, Mountain, Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers and countless others. Vida became the top-selling album in the world at that point, spending an amazing 140 weeks on the charts, including 81 in the Top 10. The platinum designation was created for it.
"Our so-called producer [Jim Hilton] was not even there," said Bushy. "He called and said 'I'm stuck in traffic from New York City' and by the time he had arrived, Vida was done."
"The whole album took four days to record, and Hilton wasn't there at all," Casale recalled, "except for the first day when he introduced himself and the band to me. Then he left. Traffic? Even Long Island doesn't have four-day traffic jams."
When Hilton found out that the band wanted to take up a whole side of an LP with just one 17-minute song, he protested strongly, but the band insisted. Hilton mixed the album at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood and was credited as its only recording engineer, as well as its producer. Atlantic later gave Casale a gold record, but to this day, it seems like a well-kept secret that his name is associated with the mammoth success of the recording that he was largely, if inadvertently, responsible for. "After that," Casale hastened to add, "Atlantic credited me for everything, even a tambourine overdub on someone's record."
On the heels of Iron Butterfly, the seeds for another important association were sown when Gene Cornish, guitarist of the Rascals, came to UltraSonic to produce a band called Brass Buttons.
"I was told we would be working with Bill Stahl, but he wasn't available, so we got 'stuck' with Don," Gene recalled fondly. "We recorded some two-track demos for the band over a two-week period, and I fell in love with his work."
So much so, in fact, that when Casale teased him about bringing the Rascals down to UltraSonic, Gene did just that, and the band recorded the tune Me And My Friends from the Freedom Suite album there. Shortly afterward, Casale became chief engineer at Decca Studios in New York City where, in addition to street traffic and Decca's own artists, he recorded much of the Rascals' subsequent work and, through arrangement with the legendary Arif Mardin, artists including Aretha Franklin, Delaney and Bonnie, Donnie Hathaway and Petula Clark and others.
One Rascals' session is particularly memorable. "I was doing a mix with the Rascals one night, and in walked Phil Spector," Casale recalled, "and he stood over my shoulder all night, telling me to mix it in mono, not stereo. 'Do it in mono, not stereo. Do it in mono. Do it in mono,' over and over again. Finally, I turned around, forgetting for the moment I was only twenty-three and addressing the guru of the recording industry, and said 'Listen, Phil, if we were meant to listen in mono, we'd all have one ear where our nose is.'"
From 1971-73, Casale worked at Scepter Records Studios on 54th Street in Manhattan with artists including Lloyd Price, Dionne Warwick, Tiny Tim, Morton Downey, Shirley Caesar, Merilee Rush and Rupert Holmes. He then spent a year at SoundTek in New York, where he worked with, among others, Meat Loaf and folk legend Oscar Brand.
In 1976, Casale returned to Long Island, becoming partners in a 16-track facility installed by the team responsible for Bearsville, Electric Lady and other famous studios. One act he recorded, Sly, Slick and Wicked, was nominated for three Grammy Awards. Casale later freelanced at a studio called Kingdom Sound in Syosset, working behind a console custom-built by RCA for its studios in New York and Nashville, where Elvis, Roy Orbison and other legends recorded.
"In 1979, Kingdom decided to sell the RCA console, replacing it with a state-of-the-art Harrison," Casale recalled. "Because of its intrinsic history, I bought it without knowing for sure if I was going to use it. I just had to have it!"
For years, the RCA console and a Lyrec two-inch tape machine, purchased from legendary producer Phil Ramone, formed the core of Don's home-based studio in Westbury. Then, in 2000, Casale took a leap into the digital world of ProTools, eliminating most of the tape splicing and editing work he had been accustomed to for years. His RCA console, however, still remains in constant use.
"Some things," Casale said, "no amount of new technology can improve upon. The console suits my needs, as it did at RCA, because of its rock-solid design and superb microphone pre-amps that provide a warm, natural sound. Automation did not exist when the board was built - that's where ProTools comes in."
Now in his forty-first year of professional recording, Casale is busy as ever. Some of his recent projects have included Zack Roberson (Nappy Head Funk Army Band), Eddie Brigati, Kuwaiti artist Stefanos Michael and a host of Long Island-based artists: Wes Houston, Bobby Boyd, Tim Gilday, Johnny Cuomo, Bob Pauolucci, Mel Miller, Nick Saunders (the Cleftones), Gary U.S. Bonds, Race Odyssey, Roger Petersen, Jeff Poulos, Don Celenza, Mario Staiano, Ron Casella, Will Bush, Jeff Todd Cohen, Kevin Abboud, Frank Celenza, Al Fox, Bill Heller, Kevin Jeffries, Peter Antell, Debbie Ascari, Des Burke, Pat Carroll, Camille Rotolo, Irv Berner, Jerry Ricci, Pete Morra, Doug Jackson, Chuck Alder, Gary Sellers, and the Island's most revered resident blues artist, Sam "Bluzman" Taylor.
"I met Don in 1998 through Eddie Brigati of the Rascals," recalled Taylor, whose extensive writing and performing credits include Joey Dee, Freddie King, the Isley Brothers, B.T. Express, Sam and Dave, the Drifters and Big Joe Turner. "It was shortly after I had relocated to New York from Tucson. After my first project with Don, I knew we'd found ourselves a new home." A year and a half ago, Casale recorded the comeback album by soul legend Maxine Brown with musical contributions by Taylor, who wrote the top 20 hit Funny for Brown in 1961.
Other recent projects include some of Long Island's more recognizable names including Cadillac Moon, Misbehavin' (Danny Kean / Pat Hunter), Liquid Picasso (an up-and-coming melodic rock band from Nassau County), and NYC-based rocker, Ricky Lance Lane, who has a new CD album ready to break out.
Casale is excited about a new band he is working with. In fact, he believes he may be onto his first platinum album since - well - the first platinum album. The band, a quartet known as Urban Angel, hails from Northern Ireland and consists of Mark McAllister (vocals and keyboards), Gemma Garrett (lead and backing vocals), Gareth "Gaz" Edwards (a rapper), and Ed Hunsdale (guitars and backing vocals).
"Urban Angel is the best group of writers and singers to come along in many years, in my opinion," Casale said. "The strongly memorable melodic hooks and pleasingly intricate vocal harmonies will endear this band to everyone in America and beyond".
Although the band had been together close to five years and released its debut album in 2002, the current lineup has been together for eighteen months. "We started shopping our songs through Songlink International," McAllister recalled. "Then we responded to an ad from Don that said, 'looking for only top-class material.'"
Since June of last year, through file sharing via email, Casale has been helping Urban Angel to re-work and re-mix songs already recorded in Ireland. The band has its own studio in Ireland that has just been upgraded to Pro-Tools HD1 with Focusrite, TLA pre-amps and a Neumann microphone.
"Don's experience and talent has added great warmth and clarity and has really brought our music to life," McAllister said. "The continuity that now exists in the tracks is also very pleasing."
In December, the band signed a representation agreement with Casale. He is now preparing to shop the band's new CD to record labels, and his hopes are high.
"Don calls our style Hip-pop," said McAllister humorously, "but we reckon it's a touch of '70s soul mixed with today's R&B/Hip-Hop sounds. It certainly is very commercial, and I believe a lot more people are going to hear our music in the next 12 months - and the main reason behind that is Don Casale."
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