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  • Tommy Thompson

7th Movement: Wally Heider's

Updated: Jul 10

“The only thing that stands between you and your dream is the will to try

and the belief that it is actually possible.”

- Billy Martin

Aug. 17th, 1970

Control room at Wally Heider's Studio, SF circa 1970

Our one-day session was set to begin at 12 noon. No prob’. We’d already done other early-afternoon outdoor shows before without any hitches. (Hey. We were teenagers. Who needs sleep at that age?) Nonetheless, we made sure that we arrived early. This was gonna be a one-day affair. We only had one shot at it. And we didn’t want to get bogged down in any unexpected Monday morning rush-hour traffic while heading over the Bay Bridge from Oakland into “The City.”

Hence, at 9:30am we left our Rockwell abode with ourselves, our gear, our crew, and Kathy. Fired up our “Wagons, Ho” wagon train consisting of the “Bing Sue Van,” Kathy’s “Arrest Me Red” VW beetle, and Paul’s VW bug: “The White Rhino.”

And began our trek towards our destination, and – we hoped – our future destiny.

Found the studio that was located in SF on Hyde St. Double-parked and moved our gear inside. Parked our wagons in various locations near and around the studio. But actually - like in the “Old West” - we prob’ly should’ve deployed pickets to survey the surrounding parking areas. And sentries to patrol around our vehicles.

Due to the type of low-life neighborhood in which we found ourselves.

If the Keystone was located in a North Beach area that resembled “Sodom & Gomorrah,” then this little enclave was more like “Panic in Needle Park.”

Junkies, street thugs & pimps n’ hookers galore. We saw very few cop cars. Hmm.

Well, it was what it was, and we t’weren’t a’gonna let this new development cancel or affect our encounter with the Heider’s 16-track beast.

Larry was right there to greet us as we walked thru the front door. Upbeat, joking around and full of positive words, as usual. Which, truth be told, always really did help to relax us. Larry had a gift for that kinda stuff. He then took us into the control room and introduced us to our engineer: John Vierra. What a cool and nice dude he was. John then directed us 6 Mamas and our crew – Terry Fowler n’ Pres – on where to set up our gear inside the studio.

Which was really great n’ all that.

Except for this:

Engineer Vierra was accustomed to bands recording tracks in a certain way and in a pre-ordained order. Rhythm section first. Which would mean drums, bass, and both guitars. Then, he’d add in the horns doing something called “overdubs” (more on that later). Then, overdub the guitar and horn solos. And, finally – the vocals.

Though we were young and inexperienced,

we still knew how this whole thing would work best for us.

So we manned-up and told John that this was a major “Uhn-uh” for us. And we told him why. We were used to playing together, all the parts of the song, all at the same time. After a certain amount of back-n’-forth dialogue, he agreed to let us try it our way. But, he said: “However we end up doing this, one thing is certain: the vocals will be done last.” Via overdubs.

We acquiesced to his professional advice on that one…

...and so here’s how it went.

Just like at “Rockwell,” we set up in a sort of circle. Vince and his drums at the far end of the studio. Lou and his bass amp to Vince’s left. Pat and my amps to Lou’s left, and directly across from Vince. And then Paul and Steve and their horns were to Pat’s and my left.

Vierra had originally set up a 10’ sound barrier around Paul n’ Steve. We said that would be a problem. He said that if he didn’t do that, then the horns would “leak” into the mics recording the other instruments. We didn’t care. So, realizing who it was he was dealing with – inexperienced teen-aged boy musicians – he cut a compromise a put up a shorter 4’ tall baffle “wall” around our horn section.

Why did any of this matter to us?

Well, we were used to being able to see each other so that I could signal changes and such. And so we could good-vibe each other while playing. This was just how we did things. Both at Rockwell, and on-stage at “live” shows. Albeit when we played live we were all in a straight line spread across the stage...yet all of us still being able to see each other.

Larry, amazingly so, kept quiet during all of the above discussions. But, after that was all done, he then took John aside for a few private words with him. We were then asked one by one to go into the studio and play our instruments so Vierra could get volume levels & tones on the various microphones used on the different instruments.

Vince’s drums were up first. Then, Lou. Then Vince and Lou together. Then, Pat. Then, me. Then, the four of us played a short bit all together. And then Paul n’ Steve had their turn with their horns. And finally, the whole band blew thru a short section of one tune.

Whew! None of us had any idea that this would all take so long.

I mean, we were used to just turnin’ on the Mightly Wollensak, punchin’ “record,”

and then just countin’ off the friggin' tune.

Finally, John told us that he had some great “levels” on all of our mics. It sounded really good. And then he said: “Would you like to try one?” Would we like to try one?

Hell yes, we would! Let’s get this train a’rollin’, bro’.

We had already previously decided that we’d go “all in” on the first song.

So “Feel Good” it was to be.

All 9 minutes of it.

However, John told us that before we started, we had to all put on headphones and he’d help each of us get a proper band mix. This went on for awhile - but we hated it. Why? Again. It was not what we were used to. More back-n’-forth discussions yielded Larry walking into the studio and announcing to us and John:

“Just let them do this the way that’s most comfortable for them.”

Bingo. Thank you, “Sharky.”

Bye-Bye headphones. At least, for now.

Larry retreated to the control room. John said over some “hidden” speaker inside the studio, that he was ready. And we told him to let ‘er rip.

To this very day, the next words I heard on that day - for the first time ever -

will always resonate within my memory banks in a very special way.

John simply said: “Recording." “Feel Good.” "Take One.”

”Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”

-  Billy Martin

I counted off the tune, and off we went. And because our Rockwell rehearsal room was relatively well-insulated with our collection of old egg cartons, rugs, wall hangings, and stinky sleeping bags on the walls, ceiling and flooring - we were pretty used to things sounding kinda muffled. Which is what you get in a real studio. That is, as long as you’re not wearing your headphones.

Hence, for us Mamas. It now all sounded very Coolio.

No Dumbo Ears = No problemos.

Also - and more to the point - we were all actually so excited to be finally playing & recording our music, that we forgot that this first “Take One” was supposed to be just a “sample” run through. John had figured that we’d stop at some point. Come in and listen to what things sounded like. Make some adjustments on the recording console. And then go back in and do a “real” take.


But that ain’t how it went down that day @ Heider’s.


We 6 Mamas just kept plowing on and on and on. Thru all the time signature changes, the solos, the tempo slow-downs and speed-ups. The loud parts & the quiet parts. The whole enchilada. Finally, we got to the end of our 9 minute Opus. Smiled at each other. And then turned around to the control room window to see the reaction.

Our collective eyes were greeted with smiles from everyone inside Mission Control. And John signaled for all of us to come on in. By the time we’d extricated ourselves from our instruments, done the ‘60’s hippie-era version of “high fivin” each other, and brought our butts into the control room – John had the tape rewound and all ready to go for playback.

Which is what ya call listening back to what the hell it was that you’d just recorded.

"Playback." Hmm.

We used to just call it "listening."

So, yet another new term to enter into our ever-growing

 CM Lexicon of Musical Expressions.

Engineer Vierra hit “play.” And what emanated out from the speakers up above the sound board and facing towards us absolutely blew our minds. Good grief, but it sounded amazing to us. Crystal clear, tight, and with an absolutely huge sound to our band.

Quite a change from the tiny n’ tinny sounds produced by Ye Olde Wollensak.

John waited until we’d listened to the entire 9 minutes of “Feel Good” and then said: “Well, we can do another one if you want. But, for me, that sounds like a keeper.” And. Since we’d forgotten all about doing the guitar and horn solos as “overdubs” – and cuz this tune was mostly an instrumental and all the parts were already on the tape - we just said we were ready to just move on to the next tune.

(Later on after the entire session was over, Larry and Kathy told us that Vierra was completely blown away by the “Feel Good” recording. He was amazed that any band - much less a band as young as we were and with no previous studio experience – could go in and cut an entire 9 minute track, all the instruments at once, including all the solos, and get thru it all on “Take One”…without making even one mistake).

Don’t mean to really brag here or nothin’ like that, dear reader,

but I must say that by this point in time:

 Cookin’ Mama was one hell of a well-rehearsed band, don’tcha know.

So, to once again save time here, I won’t go thru any kinda blow-by-blow description of the next 3 tunes we recorded. Which were (in no particular order that I can remember): “The Word Speaks.” “Out the Door.” And. “Beautiful Wine” - which was our one slow tune ballad for that day’s recording high-jinx. Actually, now that I think about it, we didn’t really have many ballads in our band’s repertoire at this point in time. Those all came later on.

So, the only other thing worth noting now is that John was AOK with us doing all the solos along with what would traditionally be only the basic rhythm tracks, as described earlier in this section. He had seen n’ heard that this method of recording was what was a’gonna work best for us. And, by association, end up working best for him, Larry, our time constraints, and our budget, as well.

The instrumental tracks for those 3 tunes were all done and finished up rather quickly. Pretty much like “Feel Good.” Can’t remember if we were mistake-free on all the “Take Ones.” But, I do remember that things just kept rollin’ along relatively unhindered by any bonehead musical clams from any of us Mamas.



OK. OK. It’s finally time to go on a quick detour in order to explain what the term “overdubbing” means. And for you professional recording engineers n’ such:

I ask for your indulgence while I try to use Neanderthal layman’s terms in explaining this, while staying the hell away from any forms of geek “techno-talk” or “engineer-speak.

So, here goes nuttin’….

As I mentioned earlier, Heider’s had what was called a 16-track recording board. Which sorta meant that instead of one or more microphones being able to be recorded into only a single track or “space” (if you will) on the tape, you now had 16 different tracks or areas of the tape to use. (Think of it this way: Each track kinda lived in its own world).

And. Each of these individual16 tracks (also called “channels” on the recording console) had it’s own EQ for treble, bass and mid frequencies. Left-to-right "panning" (another term I'll address later). As well volume input and output levels. And each track also had its own separate area on the mixing console into which you could add effects. Such as Reverb or Echo or anything else for that matter.

Hmm. I just re-read that and even I'm confused.

Let's just move on, ok?

So, for our band – it went something like this:

One mic each (and, hence, one track or channel each) for Pat’s guitar amp, my guitar amp & Lou’s bass amp. Now you’ve got 13 tracks left. One for Paul’s horn. And one for Steve’s horn. Now we’re down to 11 tracks left. When singing solo or together, Pat and I would sing using one vocal mic. 10 tracks left.

And, as always, the drums took up most of the remaining tracks. One mic for each of Vince’s two bass drums. 8 tracks left. One more for his 2 smaller tom-tom drums. 7 tracks left. Another for his 2 floor tom-tom drums. 6 tracks left. A snare drum mic. 5 tracks left. A high-hat cymbal mic. 4 tracks left. And 2 mics on tall microphone "boom" stands that would be placed as over-head mics (that is to say, about 2 – 3 feet above Vinnie's collection of other cymbals).

Now there were 2 tracks left available to use, if necessary.

John said he always liked to try n' keep at least one or two tracks open for the possibility of a late-show arrival from that pesky n’ perennially tardy boy:

“Justin Case.”

...back to the session...

So, now it was finally time for our band’s only “Achilles Heel”:


And all of us were very shortly going to learn all about the concept of “Overdubbing.”

And just how alien a concept it was going to be for those of us who sung.

As well as, for those Mamas who would have to suffer thru

this final section of this day’s recording session.

“Learn from the mistakes of others. 

You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

- Billy Martin

On Aug. 17, 1970, Pat and I were the only lead vocalists in Cookin’ Mama. On “Out the Door,” Pat sung lead on the verses, and then we both sung harmony on the choruses. And we also sung together on the choruses of "Feel Good." But, it was me – and me alone – who sung the lead vocals throughout the entire tune on both “The Word Speaks,” and “Beautiful Wine.”

And, speaking for myself, I have always looked back on the methods I employed for overdubbing my vocals on that day with more than just a few regrets.

My comfort zone had always been singing while I was playing my guitar. And other than practicing on my own, I had never once sat down while singing and playing. Not while onstage. Nor during any rehearsal. But, for some reason unknown to me even now, I decided that I would sit in a chair to sing my overdubbed vocals.

Hence, the singer or singers would go into the studio. Put on a pair of headphones. Yech! And then John would play the band’s instruments back thru the headphones so that the singer(s) could then know when to come in on the various vocal parts.

The only microphones that would be put into “record” mode would be that one vocal mic. You’d sing your parts over the band's parts (Hence, "overdubbing" your vocal parts). Then you would listen back to them. And when they were finally sounding close enough to nifty? You were done.

Easy peasy, right? Hah! Not exactly, Pavarotti.

I choose “Beautiful Wine” – the ballad – as my first tune to sing.

Mistake Numero Uno.

We should’ve started with “Out the Door.” Why? Cuz that way I’d at least have Pat in there with me for emotional support. And so that we could both navigate these new headphone overdub waters together as a team.

But, dat ain’t the way it happened.


I'm in there by myself. Not standing by the microphone. Nope. I'm sitting in a damn chair. Waiting. Nervous pert near fit to pee my bell bottoms. Playback started. I sung a li’l bit so John could get me and my chair positioned in the right spot and in the correct proximity to the mic. He got the correct recording volume level on my mic. Brought the band into the equation. And off we went.

However, even with onstage vocal monitors – like at “The Lion’s Share” –

I had never, ever heard my voice that loud above the band. It completely freaked me out.

However - seeing that I was a "recording studio rookie" who didn't know any better - instead of speaking up and asking John to lower my vocal volume in my headphones, and to bring the band’s volume level up…I just plowed on thru the whole tune.

Came back into the control room to quite a different group of facial expressions from what I’d seen after our instrumental stuff. John hit playback and I immediately knew why there were so many long faces. I sounded like a 12-year old trying to sing like Tony Bennett. Bill Champlin this was not. Arghh! Went back in and tried it a couple of more times until my lead vocal didn’t completely suck eggs.

And then we moved on to Pat and I singing “Out the Door.” After that, the two of us would sing the short vocal sections on "Feel Good." And then finally, I'd sing “The Word Speaks.”

Pat and I had already learned more than just a wee bit from my first attempts at this new vocal recording w/ headphones conundrum, and so our singing on "Out the Door" and "Feel Good" - and for me on "The Word Speaks" - went by much more quickly n’ smoothly than it had previously gone for me on "Wino's Lament."

Sometime soon after that session, Pat and I came up with a new expression for what it was like being inside the studio singing, while the other 4 members of the band - as well as Kathy, Terry, Pres, Larry & John - were all inside the control room.

Behind the large glass window which separated the control room from the studio itself.

It was like being a fish inside a fishbowl.

But - more to the point - it was like looking into the eyes and faces of:

"The Panel of Judges."

FYI: Years later in the late-‘90’s while I was recording with Gregg Allman at Fantasy Studios – along with Tom Dowd producing – I discovered something that made me feel a lot better about my earlier plight back in ’70 @ Heider’s. As it turned out, Gregory always did all of his vocal tracks for The Allman Brothers Band records – as well as, for his solo albums – with only him, Tom Dowd (or some other producer),

and the engineer inside the control room.

And with no one else inside the recording studio with him either.

He, too, didn’t want to have an audience around him when he was recording vocals.

And this, coming from a world-class vocalist whom I had admired

since the late-‘60’s, and continued to admire during all the years

that I played and recorded with him.

Back to Heider's.

“I feel more like I do now, than when I first got here.”

-  Nicholas Del Drago

So now that the vocal tracks were done - and we were all finally starting to breathe normally again - it was time to just kick back. Throw down a beverage or two. Pass around a couple of joints. Of Producer Dope. And listen, as John Vierra began mixing our session.

And the ever-developing sounds that Engineer Vierra pulled out of the tracks

we’d just laid down...was magical to us.

He’d add in a li’l Reverb on a vocal. Or on a guitar or horn solo. Put a wee bit onto Vinnie’s drums – all except the bass drums which he left alone pretty much. He adjusted treble, mid, and bass tones on all the individual instruments. "Panned" different instruments either towards the left speaker or the right speaker (such as, having Pat's guitar on the left, and mine on the right).

Placed the 2 bass drums and the snare drum pretty much dead nuts center. And spread out from left to right, Vinnie's 4 different tom-tom drums and his various cymbals. Did the same "panning" thing with both Paul and Steve's horns. Put all the guitar and horn solos near the center, as well. Or he'd split 'em slightly left or right. Tried different individual track volume settings.

And finally he brought up the volume on the 2 overhead mics above the drums

in order to get some overall ambiance into the sound.

"Ambiance". Huh. Another new word for our CM Lexicon of Musical Terms.

But, then he did some other really trick stuff.

On one later-in-the-song section of “Feel Good” – right after a super loud n’ heavy part which during the recording we had already begun to make softer n’ softer, while at the same time slowing down the tempo bit by bit – we would then go into a really mellow part and hit one of our favorite chords: Major 7ths aka “The Pretty Chord.”

Then, even though during the recording phase we had already begun to swell the volume up n’ down between these sweet-sounding chords in this newest section, John brought the overall volume of the entire band up n’ down as well during the mixdown. To make the parts further "swell" between the chordal changes.


 It sounded like pure bliss to our musical ears n’ hearts.

Even better than "Duck on a Pond."

If heaven was a’gonna be anything like this? "Then take me now, Lord."

John finished up mixing all 4 songs that day. The finished product all sounded out of this world to us. He gave both Larry and us one copy each of the final mix on individual 1/4 inch reel-to-reel tapes. We thanked him and Larry for everything. And we were then off and on our way back to Rockwell…for a major all-night listenin’ n’ smokin’ session.

The herb supplied via Larry’s rather still-substantial stash of...what else?


"Producer Dope."

Now, dear reader, I really don’t mean to end this particular section of our story on a low-note, or on any sort of a downer or nothin’ like that…that is, especially considering all of the mainly good stuff that had just happened to us Mamas at this point in our tale.

However, it is important for you all to know at this point in the story –

as well as before we go forward – the following li'l bit of info:

Which is that we had never once - neither before nor after this session –

applied pen to paper and actually signed any kind

of a binding contractual agreement with Larry.

Larry and Mrs. Fowler, on the other hand? Well. Who knows?

I sure didn’t. Hell. None of us did.

In the side yard of Larry Sharp's palatial mansion in Belvedere.

6 Mamas demonstrating the body language, facial expressions,

and overall emotional effects brought on by "The Shark's:"


"Producer Dope."

©2024 Cookin' Mama


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