Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Motown Sound Man ... Russ Terrana (Part Three)

We wrap things up today with our EXCLUSIVE piece on Russ Terrana.  Thanks again to Joe Klein for providing our readers with this interesting piece of musical history.  Russ was in the eye of the hurricane during Motown's most creative and inventive period ... and today we delve a little bit deeper into this era.  


Hello again everyone! 

In Part Two of the story of Russ Terrana's earliest days as an enigmatic engineer, some of the more interesting events and recording sessions that occurred in the months prior to the purchase of GOLDEN WORLD STUDIO by Berry Gordy were told.

Around the end of September, 1966, after months of rumors and a surprise, low-key visit to the studio by Berry Gordy about a month earlier, the announcement was made, and the takeover of Golden World by Motown was complete. Within days of the buy-out, a rhythm track session was scheduled for four songs, by a couple of new writers that Gordy thought would be well-suited as duets for his hit artist MARVIN GAYE and a new singer he had recently signed, TAMMI TERRELL. The recording session had just started when Berry Gordy arrived, and things were about to get interesting ... 

Now, here's the third and final installment in the story of the earliest days in the brilliant career of RUSS TERRANA, the MOTOWN SOUND MAN!  


The very first official recording session for Motown Records at Golden World Studio, which they had just acquired, had just gotten underway. Berry Gordy walked into the control room a minute or two after the music started. He began listening to what was being recorded, and was not happy. In fact, he was downright irritated with the recording engineer at the control board who had just started working for him, Russ Terrana. But, the burning question of the moment was ... Why?  

There was, in fact, a valid reason for Gordy's displeasure, but it's kind of complicated ... and a bit bizarre. It's the kind of story that's better suited for hard-core audiophiles ... or die-hard Motown fanatics who can never get enough Motown history. So, at the risk of boring everyone else, here goes ... 

At this particular point in time (the fall of 1966), Motown's infamous "Studio A" on West Grand Boulevard had recently installed a new, custom-built recording machine which was capable of recording eight individual tracks, instead of the usual four that machines at other studio's, including those at Golden World, were limited to. On the eight-track Hitsville machine, the basic rhythm tracks for a record were recorded on the first four tracks (with the drums recorded on one track, the bass on the second track, guitars on the third and keyboards on the fourth). Vocals and other additional sweetening instruments were then recorded on to the remaining four tracks, usually at separate recording sessions a short time later. But Golden World was still equipped with conventional tape machines only capable of recording on four tracks, resulting in a serious limitation. Rhythm sessions could be recorded there, but the master tapes would then need to be taken to Studio A and transferred to an eight-track tape before vocals and additional instruments could be added.  

The musician's union contract with Detroit's record labels required that when tracks were being recorded for a song that would be released with a vocalist, a paid union vocalist must be present at the recording session. Motown, and other labels, didn't want their stars to take time away from promotional duties or other commitments to attend tracking sessions ... so they would hire low-paid "stand-ins" to show up at the tracking session and sing a rough "scratch track" of each song being recorded. This scratch vocal would be recorded only on the first take of each song. The singer was often dismissed after the first take of the last song being recorded at the session to avoid overtime fees.  

To cover the record company in the event that a union representative showed up near the end of a tracking session after the singer had left, the stand-in singer would be recorded on one of the available additional tracks of the first take each song, so it could be played back to the union rep if he showed up. This was no problem at the Hitsville studio, since there was a recording machine with eight available tracks, and only four were used or the rhythm tracks.  

But, at Golden World, the tape machines only had four tracks available, and they were all needed for the basic rhythm tracks. So, at these tracking sessions, Russ (and other Golden World engineers) would combine the guitars with the keyboards and record them on to a single track instead of two, making a track available on which to record the "scratch vocal".  This was only done on the first full take of each song being recorded, however. Then the session proceeded with the instrumental track assignments returned to the original configuration.  

"It was a hassle for sure, but we had to it because of that union rule," recalls Russ. 

It was Russ' first Motown session, and the first take of the first song was being recorded. Russ was recording the scratch vocal on its own individual track and had the level of the vocal raised in the control room's monitor speakers to make sure it was being recorded properly. As fate would have it, this is exactly when Berry Gordy entered into the control room. Russ vividly recalls the scene:  "He heard the dummy vocal up pretty loud in the mix and looked at the meters on the tape machine. Berry immediately noticed that I was recording the scratch vocal on one of the tracks, and combining guitars and the keyboard on another track. He was not happy." 

Gordy knew about the union rule and why scratch vocals were recorded during the first take of each song at tracking dates but, apparently, it didn't occur to him at that moment that the tape machine at Golden World had only four tracks instead of eight. Russ continues ... "We had just started recording and my new boss gets mad at me as soon as he walks in because I'm wasting a track on a scratch vocal! But with the music blaring, I couldn't explain it to him until the take was over."   

The boss was mad, and everyone else was nervous, especially writers Ashford and Simpson, who were particularly hoping that things would go well. Russ remembers, "You could hear a pin drop in the control room after the music stopped and I pressed the stop button on the tape machine." Russ needed to chill things out fast, so he nervously explained the situation to Gordy, reminding him of the union rule and how the company dealt with it at rhythm track sessions. "It was like a scene from a movie. Everyone's eyes were glued on Berry, waiting to see his reaction."  

Gordy quickly digested what his new hire had just told him and realized that Russ was merely doing what was needed to cover the company and protect it from union problems. Then, his frown instantly turned upside down. Russ remembers, "Berry got a big smile on his face and told everyone in the control room, 'This boy's alright! He's looking out for the boss ... I like that!' There was a big sigh of relief from everyone and we all laughed along with the boss man!" Suddenly all was well, and one the most historic recording sessions in Motown history proceeded. "It was the very first time I had met Berry Gordy and things were really tense for those first few minutes. One of Berry's assistants told me later that she thought I was going to get fired on the spot! Fortunately, everything worked out and Berry was very happy by the end of the session."  

It's easy to understand why Gordy was so pleased by the end of that memorable tracking date. Russ can't swear to it, but, to the best of his recollection, rhythm tracks to four of Marvin and Tammi's greatest duets, all of which were written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, were recorded that day. The songs were AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH, AIN'T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING, YOU'RE ALL I NEED TO GET BY and YOUR PRECIOUS LOVE.  

What a happy ending, indeed. Instead of getting the boot from the boss, an incredibly rich and successful 22 year-long business relationship between Russ and Berry Gordy was born, and Ashford and Simpson would go on to have a "pretty decent run"  in the music business for many years as well!  

Whether the rhythm tracks for all four smash hits were actually recorded at the session and, if so, these were the tracks that were used in the actual hit records may forever remain in question. During those wild days, things were happening so fast and furiously that few who played and sang on or were directly involved in the producing or recording of the hundreds of hits emerging from Detroit can remember with absolute certainty the full list of or details about every session or production to their credit. Motown, in particular, became notorious for having their artists cover many of their other artists hit songs ... over and over ... for subsequent releases. Producers, engineers and musicians would bounce between projects and studios like bumper cars in an amusement park. The sheer volume of material being recorded, then scrapped, then re-recorded was mind-boggling! It's pretty easy to understand, then, how difficult it is for those asked today to remember with clarity details about events they were barely able to keep track of as they were happening fifty years ago!  

What is clear, however, is this: Ashford and Simpson were at the session. Berry Gordy himself was there as well, and very happy at the session's end. Finally, it's an established fact that four songs were usually recorded at each Motown tracking date. So, it's not much of a stretch to consider that it was the four Ashford / Simpson hit duet tracks that were recorded that day. Different articles, reference works, bios, stories and blog posts list different recording dates for the duets. But this is understandable as well, because the records were usually recorded over several sessions and the company often shelved partially-completed masters, only to finish them for release months later, as market conditions dictated. It was very common for vocals and additional instruments to be added  at different studios from the original tracking studio. 

Still, any way it's sliced or diced, that first Motown recording session at Golden World definitely merits a page ... or two ... in the history of Motown ... and pop music!

1967 Promotional Photo of Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye

As interesting as it is to read about, imagine what an awesome experience this session must have been for Russ! And it would only be the first of HUNDREDS of historic Motown recording and mixing sessions that he would helm in the decades to come, as "The Motown Sound Man"' molded the Motown Sound within the walls of "Studio A" and basement mixing room on West Grand Boulevard ... and "Studio B," formerly known as the great Golden World.
Russ at the console of the Motown basement mixing room 
on West Grand Boulevard in (1966)

The Ashford & Simpson-penned duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell went on to define a genre that Motown had incredible success with in 1967 and 1968. They were recorded at the very peak of Detroit's golden years. Sadly, Tammi Terrell succumbed to the complications of a brain tumor and passed away in 1970, just shy of her 25th birthday, and Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his own father in 1984.  

With the acquisition of Golden World in 1966, Berry Gordy got ownership of the Golden World label, some of the artist's contracts and the recording studio, which was renamed as Motown's "Studio B." It was soon upgraded to a full 8-track facility compatible with Studio A on West Grand Boulevard. Wingate retained the ownership of the RIC-TIC imprint, and most of its artist roster, until selling those remaining assets to Motown in 1968. Edwin Starr became a Motown artist, however, in 1966, and went on to have two major hit singles at Motown, TWENTY FIVE MILES in 1969 and the chart-topping anti-war anthem WAR in 1970. Russ worked on both. THE SUNLINERS would morph into RARE EARTH, which Motown signed in 1969 and even created a new label imprint for, called RARE EARTH RECORDS. Russ either recorded or mixed all of the band's major hits in 1970 and 1971, and worked on all the other hits released on the Rare Earth label, including the FLAMING EMBERS' hit, WESTBOUND #9 and INDIANA WANTS ME, the top-ten hit by singer / songwriter R. DEAN TAYLOR, who had previously written the hits ALL I NEED for THE TEMPTATIONS and I'LL TURN TO STONE for THE FOUR TOPS, which Russ also worked on as well! 

Motown's much-heralded "duet era" marked the beginning of a long goodbye to Detroit from Motown. The city experienced deadly race riots that raged for an entire week in the summer of 1967. Motown's headquarters, including Studio A and Studio B, Don Davis' United Sound and Ralph Terrana's fabled TERA SHIRMA studio all survived the riots without any damage. Motown vowed to stay in the city, relocated its offices and built two new, state-of-the-art mixing suites in the fabled Donovan Building that Berry Gordy purchased in 1968. But Berry Gordy had been visiting and recording in the L.A. area for a few years by that time, and had dreams of moving his company to Hollywood. The dream started to be realized in 1969, when he moved his newly-signed stars-to-be, THE JACKSON 5, out to L.A. to finish recording their first album.  

Russ would work for Berry Gordy as his senior recording and mixing engineer for most of the next 22 years, except for a year-long period from June of 1967 until 1968, when he worked at his brother's studio, Tera Shirma. The deadly race riots, which spared the studio, occurred just a month after Russ started working for his brother. By the time Russ returned to Motown in 1968, Gordy and his producers had so much faith in his mixing abilities that they started to allow him to mix major label releases in the new Donovan Building mixing suites on his own, more often than not approving the first mixed versions he would submit! Of particular historic note, in the late summer of 1969, Gordy sent the multi-track master tapes of the first Jackson 5 album (which was completed in Los Angeles) to Detroit from L.A. for Russ to mix by himself. Russ, thereby, became the very first human being to hear his own completed mixes of all the earliest Jackson 5 hits on that historic first album! Not surprisingly, his brilliant first mixes were accepted and released by the label. Shortly thereafter, (and three years after recording and mixing the original duet by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell), Russ mixed the classic Diana Ross cover version of the Ashford / Simpson masterpiece "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," destined to become one of Motown's most renowned signature hits!  

In 1970, Motown leased a small recording studio just off of Melrose Avenue in Hollywood and dubbed it MOWEST. A new Motown imprint, MOWEST RECORDS, was launched in 1971 and was home to an interesting mix of artists that included THELMA HOUSTON, SYRETTA, THE COMODORES, THE CRUSADERS, FRANKIE VALLI and the eclectic soul-fusion group ODYSSEY. The Mowest label even had a surprise top-ten spoken-word novelty hit by controversial Detroit radio deejay TOM CLAY in 1971 

Read the MOWEST story here:  

Russ started making regular trips to L.A. to work at Mowest sessions. He flew back and forth between Detroit and L.A. for the next couple of years to work hundreds of Mowest and other Motown sessions for a large percentage of Motown's major stars. By 1972, with new offices on Sunset Boulevard and the purchase of a near-new recording facility (called Poppy Studios) on Waring Avenue, Motown had fully relocated to L.A. The now-legendary Studio A was preserved, soon to become a museum dedicated to the history of the label. Studio B, formerly known as Golden World was, sadly, dismantled, as were the mixing suites in the Donovan Building.  

Russ moved west at the beginning of 1972, and continued on as the label's senior mixing engineer, recording and mixing scores of Motown's monster hits through the 70's and 80's. Rather than list any more of the hits Russ was involved with in the confines of this article, simply check any reliable Motown discography or other source of detailed Motown credits, and Russ' name will fill page after page of recording engineer titles. 
Russ, Billy Preston and composer David Shire 
in Hollywood Hitsville studio (1979)

In the fall of 1988, the Motown story, for all intents and purposes, came to an end with the sale of the record label to MCA. Motown's Hollywood Hitsville Studio was sold a short time later and converted to a video post-production house by its new owners. 

Russ has had a truly remarkable career, which included three decades as one of the most accomplished recording engineers in pop music history. Due to his modesty and low-key attitude in an industry overrun by egos an narcissism, Russ never achieved the notoriety that many of his colleagues in the business garnered. But the sheer number of credits to his name are without equal in 
his field and speak volumes about his role in molding the Motown sound. There's not a single second in the present day where tracks that Russ worked on are not being broadcast, streamed, downloaded or listened to somewhere in the world!  

Russ is now retired and lives with his wife Linda and their two dogs in Santa Cruz, California, where Russ performs volunteer dog-adoption work for the local ASPCA. His close friend and colleague of nearly FIFTY YEARS, Ed Wolfrum is still working as a digital audio consultant in the Detroit area.  
The story's author, Joe Klein, and Russ Terrana in the late 80's

Text Above © Copyright 2013 by Joe Klein. All rights reserved. Used by permission. May not be copied in whole or part without permission.  

JOE KLEIN currently lives in Bullhead City, Arizona, where he writes new media content and works as a free-lance media producer and voice-over artist. Find him on Facebook here:   

RUSS TERRANA'S MOTOWN, written by his brother Ralph, was published in 2010. It's a great read, with many more cool stories about Russ' years as an engineer from the 60's and 70's. You can buy it here:

Check out another great page-by-page history, this one all about Ralph Terrana's storied TERA SHIRMA studio in the late 60's Detroit:  

Here's a very cool "video mix" of the 1967 music video of AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH superimposed over images of Motown' Studio A, where the vocal tracks of the hit single were recorded:   

A classic "staged" promotional video of a Temptations recording session released by Motown to the media in the late 60's. Russ appears in the video as a "lowly" assistant for a few seconds at the 1:16 mark (standing next to one of the tape machines in the control room and flipping a switch). A black engineer is seated at the board. It was all staged, however, as it was usually Russ seated behind the console! Still, cool to watch and see Russ ...  
And finally, a video of Motown's historic "Studio A," where Russ would spend countless hours behind the control board from the fall of 1966 until his, and the company's permanent move to L.A. in 1972 ...   

To contact Russ, email  

Ed Wolfrum's professional website can be found at: