Numero Group: By The Numbers

Snail Studios Chicago
February 19, 2015, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Jeff Cowell | Tags: , , , , ,
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 12.22.14 PMIn the mid ’60s, radio personality Ken Nordine was doing a nightly radio show for WMAQ called “Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz.” Rather than spending studio time at Universal, the top floor of an unassuming Edgewater, Chicago home at 6106 N. Kenmore was emptied, and engineer Bruce Swedien (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, et al) started moving some Ampex 2-tracks and mixing equipment in. The studio grew from 4-tracks to 16-trk, then 24-trk. A quad 8 console grew to be replaced by a Harrison MR-4.

“The premise was quite simple,” says Nordine.** “You had a musician who could play all sorts of different instruments. He could play drums, he could play flute, he could play piano, vibes, marimba, all of these funny sounds. Bruce would be in the control room and he would be recording everything on the fly. And I would be in the booth here with books. I had cookbooks, the Merck Manual, anything, old papers, scientific treatises.

“The show would begin and I would say, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ And out in the studio, he’s playing the flute or the organ and Bruce would have wind sound effects going behind it and I’d say, ‘Well, I was thinking about God the other day.’ And at that time, Bruce would change the atmosphere and so, instead of wind, there’d be chickens clucking. And then I’d react to the changes in the background and I’d talk about Aristotle and whether he ever ate eggs. Then I’d pick out a cookbook and maybe get a strange recipe for eggs Benedict or some strange eggs with truffles out of Escoffier. In those days, I used to drink beer. I’d have a six-pack during the first show and we’d do five shows in five hours, and by the fifth show I was a little looser.”

Snail Records started as a vehicle for Ken’s Word Jazz and some other side projects. The bulk of the work centered around radio and TV commercial production with Ken’s son Kris Nordine and a host of session musicians serving as the in house band. In the off hours, Kris would sneak in bands such as The Asteroids, Manfredo Fest, Bonnie Kolac, Paul Wertico, Howard Levy, and Tom Waits to name a few. Jerry Garcia once hung out at the studio as well. In 1974, Kris brought his childhood friend Jeff Cowell into then 16-trk studio to record what would become Lucky Strike’s and Liquid Gold. The Nordine’s would spend summers at a Chain of Lakes vacation home and Kris and Jeff met in 1966 as teenagers, bonding over the excitement of upcoming Beatles records. Jeff would often visit Kris in Chicago, and would come down for a week or so with a handful of folk and country songs that he had written. Kris formed a band and fleshed out the orchestration of Jeff’s songs, and with the help of his brother Ken Nordine Jr. they recorded two full length LPs which Jeff self-released on his Iron Mountain, MI label My Own Record Company.

**additional source material from the Chicago Reader

Jeff Cowell at Snail Records Studio in Chicago 1974

Jeff Cowell at Snail Records Studio in Chicago 1974

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