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Dixon Van Winkle has traveled many miles in a career that spans three decades, but his story begins in the sleepy upstate town of Ogdensburg, New York. A fine place, but if your goal is to work in the music business with the likes of Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Dizzy Gillespie, chances are you’ll one day set off on the road heading out of town.
“Both my parents were musicians,” he says. “My mom was a vocal teacher, and my dad ran the high school band. He was a very creative guy. When I was in the fifth grade, he started teaching me different brass instruments and eventually the acoustic bass. From then on until I graduated high school, he had me sitting in with different ensembles and eventually going out on the road with him in dance bands. We went all over the north country together, carrying the official Glenn Miller books. My dad had it in his mind that I’d be playing tuba and bass like the guy in the back of Guy Lombardo’s band. It was a great experience.”
But if you stay in a small town long enough, you’re likely to wind up in trouble – even if you play the baritone horn instead of quarterback. “I was taking my father’s car and getting into some trouble, and I had pretty much outgrown the level of musical training in Ogdensburg, so my parents sent me to the Interlochen Arts Academy for my senior high school year, and the summer before I’d attended a music festival in Burlington, Va. That’s where I first met Bobby Ludwig.”
Interlochen led to the Eastman School of Music, followed by a couple of years kicking around upstate teaching band and playing in clubs. In 1969, Dixon met Phil Ramone. “Phil was already enormously successful by that point,” Van Winkle says. “He was teaching a course on engineering with a couple of other guys, and it was there that I first got my hands on a multitrack – Phil brought out an 8-track recording of the Broadway musical Promises, Promises and let us go at it. Phil thought I showed promise and told me he’d make me a star if I came to New York, so down I went.”
Young people looking to become studio engineers started out in the ’60s, just as they do today: “I was a setup man at Phil’s studio, A&R Recording. There was a lot of young talent in that place: Don Hahn, Elliot Scheiner, Tony May, Bob Ludwig to name a few. One day, Tony May was over in Studio A1 tracking a Van Morrison session. The setup man got sick. I had been there a month, was really green and they stuck me on the date. Van was grooving along with his band, and I see Tony making a motion to me with his finger. I can’t figure out what he’s doing, but he’s got a nasty look on his face. He makes the same motion again. The band’s wailing, but I push the stop button on the tape machine and stop the take. Well, they were recording `Moondance,’ take 1. Take 2 was the keeper, the one that became a monster hit! That was back in ’69.”
After a year’s apprenticeship, Dixon got his first big break. Paul McCartney came to A&R to record Ram, his second solo album, with Phil Ramone behind the board. Swamped with projects by this time, Ramone turned the reins over to Van Winkle. “What a ball I had! Paul felt comfortable with me. Each day he and Linda, along with their baby, Mary, would be led up to Studio A in a back elevator. We’d set up a playpen for Mary and go to work. I also worked on Red Rose Speedway. Paul is such a pro! And he’s a one-taker. Paul liked to develop ideas in the studio, and he encouraged me to throw different sounds at him to inspire him. For example, he’d play his guitar, and I’d put different loop and echo effects on it and feed the processed sound out through his cans. He liked that spontaneity. One day he was standing around strumming on a ukulele, rocking from side to side, singing `Ram On.’ I ran out and put a mic on the ukulele, one on his face and a pair of mics down by his feet. The tapping you hear comes from the mics on his feet. We were recording to an Ampex MM1000 16-track machine that looked like something you should be making ice cream with. Once word got out that I’d done a lot of work on Ram, the dates flew at me,” he continues. “People started to realize that I could handle most any kind of session, since I could read charts and had played lots of different styles of music and many instruments.” […]