Pete Drake (1932-1988)
Recording with Pete Drake
©2005 By Bronson Herrmuth
It was 24 years ago today as I write this story that I went into the studio with the legendary, Pete Drake, in February, 1981. When I met Pete I really had no idea who he was, other than he was going to produce our first record in Nashville, that he was supposed to be very famous, and that he was acknowledged as one of the greatest steel guitar players in the world. All of the planning and communication leading to our band, The Ozone Ramblers, actually being there to record with him had been coordinated with Rick Sanjek, who worked for Pete. None of us even knew what Pete looked like and we had never spoken to him before meeting him the night before our sessions began. Steel guitar player, Jimmy Crawford had turned us on to this connection with Pete and then my dad cosigned on a bank loan for me so the band could make our first record. Thank you Jimmy and thank you Mom and Dad. The Ozone Ramblers with Pete Drake
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For months we had been preparing for this trip to Nashville as we toured all over the Midwest, playing six nights a week in country dance clubs doing 4 or 5 sets a night. We were a cover band and just starting to write our own music, so we didn't have very many original songs to choose from for our sessions. The ones we did have we had been slowly working into our live shows, recording them on cassette tapes and then sending them to Nashville so Pete could hear our songs to choose which ones to record. As we played these same songs night after night, the arrangements started to come together and so we would record them again and send another package to Nashville. We felt it was the right thing to do since we figured that Pete would want to listen to the best version we had of each song as he prepared to take us into the studio as our producer.
So there we were sitting with Pete in his office, meeting him for the first time the night before our session. As all of the Ramblers were introducing themselves to Pete, two things in his office fought for my attention. The first were all the gold and platinum award wining albums shining at me from the wall. My first major reality check of the magnitude of the career of Pete Drake and how incredibly talented he was as a musician and as a producer, and how extremely fortunate we were that he had agreed to produce us. The other thing that caught my eye was a basket sitting on the shelf behind Pete, stuffed with bulky manilla envelopes. All the packages that we had sent in from the road and not one of them had been opened.
The introductions over the meeting began by Pete reaching into that basket and busting into our envelopes to listen to our songs. I tried to bite my tounge but I couldn't do it so I called him on it. I told him I couldn't believe that after all this time and here at the last minute, he was just now going to listen to our music. Music we had been living and breathing and working so hard on to get ready to record with him. He had never even listened to the tapes we sent, and it really rocked me. His response to me was lesson #1 of so many to come over the years that Pete taught me about the world of recording. Lessons that he always delivered with a big grin and chuckle, obviously amused at my apparent ignorance, but the consummate teacher his answers never sought to belittle you or make you feel dumb. He had a way of speaking that taught you the lesson in a way that you felt smarter for having asked it. Never in the 7 years that I was honored to know Pete Drake did I ever hear him talk down to anyone and I always came away from every encounter with Pete feeling better about myself and feeling more knowledgeable about the music business.
His response to me went something like this, "Bronson, I am in the studio almost every day and I work with artists from all over the world helping them record their music. There is no way I can listen and think about your music, while I am listening and recording theirs. Now that you are here, and until we have finished recording your record, yours will be the only music that I think about or listen to. You now have my full attention so let's see what you got." With that, he started listening, and sat grinning, and laughing for the next hour as he chose the 4 tunes we would record for our EP. As I sat there and what he had said sunk in, I realized how much sense it made and any doubts about his enthusiasm about producing our record went out the window.
Before the meeting ended he threw me for another loop. He made the decision to add keyboards to our session by saying only two words, "Call Pig". Two words, I have to add, that have been repeated countless times on Music Row. Pig being none other than Hargus "Pig" Robbins, (CMA Musician of the Year, 2000). I, of course, had no idea who Pig was and we had already made the decision among the band not to have piano on our record. I piped up telling Pete of our decision, based on the fact we didn't have a keyboard player in the band. We wanted the record to sound just like we would when we played the songs on stage and we couldn't afford to add any more members. There were already six of us on stage now and Chino, who ran our sound and lights made seven. We had already decided, no keyboards. Lesson #2 quickly followed.
Pete explained to us that when he went into the studio he intended to produce a record that would go #1 in the country. Whatever instruments he felt needed to be on the session to do that, he brought in. He said if we cut a hit record, we wouldn't have to worry about being able to afford having a piano player in the band, so don't worry about that. By the time he was finished talking about it the call had already been made and Pig was open, and booked for the next night. We would have keyboards on our record and the instant Pig started playing piano, any reservations about having him on our record were distant memories. What an incredible musician and how blessed we were to have him with us for our first time recording our music professionally. There is no doubt in my mind that we would not have gotten any where near the recording we did, if Pete would have just went along with what we wanted. He knew better, made the command decision as a producer, and again we benefited from his sharing with us from his vast wealth of recording knowledge. Bronson with Pig Robbins and Jimmy Crawford
Another thing that Pete said in this meeting that made a huge impact on our session was his talk about recording a #1 song. I honestly don't think any of The Ozone Ramblers had any illusion of the record we were making actually going #1, until he mentioned it. Once he did and the realization hit home that he had done it on many occasions through out his recording career, it definitely got everyone in the bands attention. As a matter of fact, over and over as we were actually in the studio recording, this was talked about. I can't speak for the rest of the guys, but I know it elevated my performance to another level. One things for sure, as a producer, Pete Drake took us from being just another bar band to being recording artists in 72 hours. By his agreeing to work with us, it changed every one of our lives dramatically and gave us validity in the eyes of the industry. Catfish Dancin' EP
We started recording the next night at 6:00pm and within five minutes I ran head on into the Nashville Number System. Pete Drake, Al Pachuki, Jimmy Crawford, Pig, all started talking in numbers instead of chords. I had no idea what they were talking about. Then we put on the headphones and since I had never played or sang with headphones on before, it definitely took me a few minutes to adjust. Add that to the fact that I was singing directly into the most expensive and intimidating microphone I had ever seen. I could hear myself breathe and the coins jingle in my pocket. It was quite a rush, to say the least, and a totally different world than performing on a stage for an audience. Totally different, and I was immediately out of my element. I had never done this before and at the most important moment of my music career to date, I was supposed to play and sing my songs the best I ever had. I was soaked in sweat and my heart was thumping in my head phones. To this day, when I am producing a singer or songwriter who is new to the recording studio, I think about that night. I always remember it and can go back in time, relating to what they must be feeling out there in the room, singing for their career. And I always remember what happened that night for me, with Pete as our producer and how he handled it.
We recorded the first of our 4 songs and it went pretty good. Pete immediately made changes in our arrangements and that took another few minutes for everyone to adjust to, since none of the Ozone Ramblers were using charts of any kind. We were playing totally from memory, so everyone had to remember the changes at the same time. IE the Nashville Number System and having charts. Anyway, I was playing acoustic guitar and singing and after we played the song a few times, Pete stopped us and said we had a good track. He then called everyone to come into the control room to listen, except me. Now I was in the room alone and I was looking at a dozen people looking back at me through the glass. I could see all of them from where I was sitting and they were all talking and laughing, and I was sure they were all talking about me. Total silence in my headphones other than the pounding of my heart.
Then Al Pachuki, Pete's engineer and one of the greatest of all time, spoke to me over the headphones. He told me he was going to start the tape over and for me to play a different guitar part on my song. He was speaking again in numbers and recording slang and I had no idea what he was saying to me. I was still getting over him saying that I should play another part. I mean I had wrote this song, played and sang it many times and I always played the same part. He kept saying we were going to overdub another part and I had no idea what an overdub was. I had quit having fun and was starting to get very embarrassed and upset with myself when the door opened and in walked Pete Drake.
He pulled up a folding chair and sat facing me, very close. Everything went away except for him and me. He told me I was doing great and he really liked my voice and my song. He explained that an overdub was playing an additional part to be added over what had been played already, that corresponded and make it bigger, fuller. I started getting excited realizing that this was going to be cool and a whole new world started opening up to me as an artist and as a songwriter. He also spoke to me in chords and not numbers, and I was right there with him. He told me what chords he wanted me to play and where to play them. Pete explained to me several of the words they were using in a way I could understand. He had Al roll tape and then sat there grinning and playing air guitar along with me as we added two brand new rhythm guitar parts to my song. It was awesome and it went really quick. He slapped me on the shoulder, told me that I had done a great job and called everyone back in. They all congratulated me and told me how good it sounded coming through the big speakers in the control room, and we went on to the next song. It was very exhilarating and I was pumped.
The whole night went like that, song by song, as did the next two nights as we sang and mixed and finished our sessions with Pete. One of the best parts of working with him was after the tape was shut off. He would sit all night and tell us stories about his career and answer our many questions. We sat in the control room with him and he played us music that had never been released, and music he had made that he was especially proud of. He played us recordings he had made with George Harrison during the All Things Must Pass sessions, where several of the Beatles were singing and Pete was playing his talk box that made his steel guitar talk, playing his guitar in a way to sound like their voices singing. He had a way of talking and also mimicking other peoples voices that really brought life and humor to his stories. We had a lot of fun recording with Pete and everyone that worked for him. They really went out of their way to make us feel at home.
Our trip to Nashville to record included a six night gig at Cactus Jack's, a combination steak house, urban cowboy style nightclub complete with a mechanical bull. Pete had told me to expect to be approached by industry folks during our engagement and to be sure and not sign anything with anyone, without talking to him first. Sure enough our second night in we were approached by Mario Olmos, a famous concert promoter from Mexico who offered us a tour. Mario had taken Jim Morrison and the Doors, the Police and Canned Heat to Mexico to name a few. We ended up taking the 3 month tour and while in Mexico, after our very first show we were approached by several record companies. We gave them all copies of our new Nashville record with our promo packs and before the smoke cleared we signed a four year recording contract with RCA Mexico. All through the negotiations, Pete Drake advised us by Telex what to do and what to say. Pete also published the songs we recorded with him and the original songs we recorded with RCA on the following two albums we cut in Mexico City. There was even talk about flying Pete in to produce our sessions for RCA but his health and his schedule prohibited it.
Pete Drake died on July 29, 1988. During his career he made a whole lot of music in many different genres. He recorded with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Earnest Tubb, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Ringo Starr, Dolly Parton, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lynn Anderson, Charlie Rich, Charlie Daniels, Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and on and on. So many incredible artists and songwriters whose records he either performed on and/or produced. With that said, I know that producing our record was far from a huge highlight for Pete, but I would like to think he had fun working with us too. I know he helped The Ozone Ramblers in many ways, way above and beyond any business responsibilities he had to us. That's for sure and personally, Pete even gave me a job after I moved to Nashville, working at his house to help me out. He was quite a guy and such a talent. Pete Drake opened my eyes to the world of recording, professional songwriting, music publishing and production. I owe him a great deal and I am proud to have known him, and to have been honored to have him as a producer, a publisher, and as a friend.
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