The Norman Petty Years

  My first encounter with Norman Petty was in 1965 when our band, The Dimensions Unlimited, decided we would drive our black 1951 Dodge limousine (which we had purchased from a failing funeral home in Borger) to Clovis, NM to meet Norman Petty. He was the record producer I had known about since my brother Ron played in a band in 1959 with Jimmy Gilmer, then future Norman protege and pop music star. We waited for hours outside the famed 7th Street Studio where all the hit records were made until finally, here comes Norman walking up the sidewalk. Dark hair, slim & youthful, he invited us in to see the studio. Of course, we were young punks, totally in awe of where we were and who we were talking with. Norman was more than gracious, showing us the features of the studio,how it worked and offering us malted chocolate balls out of the crystal bowl sitting on top of his console. Norman was always the most hospitable host. The Dimensions Unlimited were now convinced that we could make a record and with Norman's help, we were bound to be successful in becoming pop music stars. We booked a session with him for the following weekend and went back to Amarillo to work on two songs to record that would be our "45" release. That next Friday, when it came time to go to Clovis, we realized we did not have money to pay for studio time. I was the one who had to call and cancel. The conversation went something like this: "Mr. Petty, this is Scott Nelson with The Dimensions Unlimited....and...and uh our keyboard player fell down today in P.E. class and broke BOTH of his arms, we just won't be able to make it over...". I remember, once again, he was so gracious, saying "That's fine, you boys give me a call when you can come over to record." It was thirteen years later I wound up on the opposite side of the console from Norman, where I would learn from his mentoring for over five years.   In January of 1978 I received a call from my good friend, drummer Lynn Williams,(currently with Delbert McClinton's band) asking me if I would join him on a trip to Clovis for some recording with Norman, Of course, I said let me just grab my bass & pack a bag. That began five plus years of learning the art of producing and recording popular music from one of the top producers of our time. Before we left for the sessions, fellow musicians told me "Let Norman run the show, he won't like anyone making suggestions...he wants to be the captain." Nothing was further from the truth! While on some level he was a bit like Captain Nemo at the helm, Norman took great relish in our suggestions, moreover, he encouraged Lynn and me to take an active part in arranging, engineering and all phases of production. After finishing a session at 2:30 in the morning, we would sometimes remain with Norman long after the artists had gone to their motel room, to listen to him speak regarding every aspect of production. Talkin' shop.   Ah, the Theater! When Norman built his new studio in the theater on Main Street sometime during 1969, he created a magic place. When I arrived in January of 1978 to record for the first time , he had just refurbished the studio with new MCI recorders, console and other various goodies thanks to a publishing transaction with Paul McCartney.   A typical recording day at Norman Petty Studios began shortly after lunch. Lynn set his trap set up on the stage of the theater, far below my perch in the control room located where the projection booth had been. The walls of the theater were black with gold-plated chains hanging down the sides from top to bottom. The stage had an off-white crescent arch rising from the floor on each side that framed the entire stage like a rainbow. Norman's favorite instrument sat on the front of the stage, a ten foot grand piano. We listened as he would play "Mood Indigo" and other Norman Petty Trio hits. Also on the stage was a small home-made celeste Norman built from piano parts and is the featured instrument on Buddy Holly's "Everyday". The control room was spacious and trimmed in wonderful wooden bars that transversed the open space above the playback monitors. Between the playback monitors is where I would stand to play, across from Norman sitting at the console situated on a riser. We both had the vantage point of looking through the huge window of the control room into the theater. The size of the window must have been 7' high x 20' wide, starting roughly four inches from the floor. It was not simply a plate of glass either, individual glass pieces would angle out then angle back in, zig-zagging in and out accross the 20' width of the window.Talk about King of the World! Behind the control room was a vocal booth which was home for the RCA ribbon microphone used to record Buddy Holly and many others. Norman's hospitality never faded. In a room directly next to the control room was a kitchenette complete with industrial coffee maker, fridge and a plethera of substance. He always had a case of Delaware Punch for me, my favorite. There was always a couple of packs of Juicy Fruit gum on his console and Cracklin' Oat Bran cereal was a popular studio snack. In the early days, Norman & wife Vi had a sidekick named Norma Jean who handled business affairs for Norvajak Music. She would make home-made tequitas and hot sauce and bring this little care package to the studio. We always ate very well; Norman knew an army fights on its stomach. The recording day would get along, working on arrangements and usually getting a couple of basic tracks done before dinner. Dinner was very much part of the process, Norman would take us all out for a lovely dinner. This was usually a three hour process, as he would really make the artist we were working with feel special by sharing Buddy Holly stories, just making this time a relaxing time because when we got back, it was time to work.