Jack Douglas and Jay Messina’s illustrious careers didn’t start with producing albums for Aerosmith — although it’s one of their highlights of the last five decades as the go-to guys for rock’s raddest legends. No, Douglas’s breakthrough in the recording industry happened in the bathroom in 1969.
Grimy, sure, but what began with scrubbing toilets at Record Plant Studios led to Douglas meeting Messina. From there, the two mastered the jingle game, banging out commercial earworms for ad agencies. The rest, you could say, is history, documented in the credits of classic album sleeves. Their collaborators include John Lennon, Cheap Trick, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Judy Collins, Nancy Wilson, Kiss, Miles Davis and so many more. Even the Muppets!
“You have to start somewhere, like lowly,” Douglas says, videoing from his cozy place in Nyack, NY. He puffs a cigar. Messina’s on the call, too, hair slicked back. Certified gold and platinum records hang on the wall behind him. He’s sitting among his at-home set-up — computer, speakers, vibraphone — where all his work goes down these days.
Like many of us in March 2020, Douglas and Messina had to get creative with their careers when the world locked down. Working from home didn’t give them the luxury of the in-person sessions they’d been used to. Not to worry — they quickly adapted, launching Jack and Jay’s Mastering and Mixing Service Online and attracting clients who needed a solution to studio restrictions. We used Evercast to talk about their best stories and how the industry has changed.
Welcome To The Jingle
Douglas and Messina both played in bands growing up. Douglas recorded with some of the greats. Messina went to school to be a radio/TV repairman. They came together at Record Plant Studios in Midtown Manhattan.
“Jay was like the king of the jingles,” Douglas says, and Messina does nothing to dispute the claim. Messina became efficient at recording jingles at A&R Studios — often recording and delivering the final product by the afternoon, on a budget.
At Record Plant, Douglas worked his way up from janitor to dubber to tape librarian and beyond. He worked with Jimi Hendrix to fix Woodstock, helped record Patti Labelle’s demo and assisted on an album for The Who. He had just finished a month recording Don Maclean’s American Pie when he got a gig assisting Messina, who came over to Record Plant from A&R in 1971.
“I would always ask for [Jack] because we became quick friends,” Messina says. “We always had laughs in our sessions together.”
On top of their day jobs, they would gather friends to record at midnight — honing their skills even further. It was a hustle for sure, and Douglas and Messina grabbed every opportunity they could get. Other opportunities, however, came completely by chance.
Meeting John Lennon
Douglas’ three-album run with John Lennon started with a cigarette.
“I was the guy doing transfers and edits of the Imagine album, so I was in another room, away from the action,” Douglas says with a grin. “I was such a Beatles fan, it was exciting to know that John was in the house, and every once in a while I’d get a glimpse.”
Lennon came into Douglas’ room for a break — “I was nearly peeing my pants” — and they struck up a conversation. Douglas told him about the time he defied immigration law and escaped a boat docked in Liverpool in 1965 (which, clearly, is a story in itself). The rest goes as follows. You’ll have to imagine the Liverpudlian accent for yourself.
Lennon: “So what were you doing there?”
Douglas: “I was a musician and I wanted to get involved with the music.”
Lennon: “Well, how’d that turn out?”
Douglas: “Good and bad. Bad, I got deported in shackles, but good, I made a lot of noise.”
Lennon: “You were one of the crazy guys on the cover of all those newspapers?”
Douglas: “Yeah, that was me. Me and my buddy.”
Lennon: “Oh, I can’t believe it. We released a record. It should have been just us on the fucking cover of The Liverpool Echo, and there’s a big picture of these two crazy Americans. That was you?”
Lennon: “Wow, that’s amazing. So what are you doing?”
Douglas: “Like I said, I’m your editor guy.”
Lennon: “You’ve got to come down and work on the record. This is just too good.”
Douglas went on to work on Double Fantasy (which won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1981) and Milk and Honey.
Messina’s introduction to Lennon came by blind-accepting a studio session from Record Plant owner Roy Cicala.
“‘Do you want to do a session tonight?’” Messina remembers Cicala’s offer. “My standard answer always was, ‘Sure, who is it?’” That night he would end up collaborating with Lennon and Yoko Ono on Fly.
Working with Aerosmith
Working on a slew of Aerosmith albums — beginning with 1974’s Get Your Wings — solidified Douglas and Messina as a duo.
The two don’t have a signature style — in fact, if they do their job well, you don’t hear their stamp on a recording at all. “Quality, that’s all we ever really wanted, quality, and to bring out the best of the players,” Douglas says.
Rather than a signature sound, they have a signature working style… one that boils down to a glance.
“The communication with Jay could just be a look,” Douglas says. “I could tell him specifically what I was looking for and he understood it. All my attention could be on the performance, and I didn’t have to think, ‘What is this sounding like?’”
Artful Dodger's Big Storm
The duo engineered music using their shared, calculated language, but sometimes coincidence played right into their hands. Matching smirks creep up their cheeks as they remember recording Artful Dodger's self titled album at a house in Pennsylvania. They captured a particularly “godly” drum fill, thanks to a thunderstorm.
“We put a couple of mics outside under the overhang of one of the roofs,” Messina says. “And during one of the drum fills, there was a big clap of thunder that was like right in time.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t get a good take from Artful Dodger's drummer during the thunderstrike. But using their editing magic, they were able to splice the thunder into a better take — a delicate process when editing tracks manually. Messina recalls the old method of going in with a razor blade to edit analogue tape.
“I don’t miss it,” Messina says. “If you had to put back like a sixteenth of an inch of a tape back in because you cut too much out, that was problematic.”
Yet, as nightmarish as it was, Douglas and Messina were masters of manipulation when it came to sound — and had us all fooled when it came to the album that put Cheap Trick on the map.
Cheap Trick’s Secret
Cheap Trick’s live recording of their Budokan show in Japan became their best-selling album. But turns out, the LP holds another Douglas and Messina secret: It wasn’t recorded at Budokan at all.
“We get in all these tapes from Japan, and they were just awful; the drums were recorded terribly,” Douglas says of the Budokan show.
So they had to get crafty. And that meant using the recording from Osaka instead. That’s right: Cheap Trick at Budokan is actually Cheap Trick at Osaka.
Douglas gets technical explaining what happened next, detailing mic placement, bass drum kicks and surround-sound screaming on “I Want You To Want Me.” It’s the kind of behind-the-scenes tinkering so meticulous that it goes unnoticed by the listener.
“That’s Jay there, not screaming, but mixing,” Douglas quips. “It feels like you’re in the middle of the auditorium and girls are behind you and around you and in front of you.”
The Future Of Music
Over the years, the pair drifted away from multiple tape decks and razor blades and adopted computer software. Their flexibility in learning new programs made their transition to remote work a little easier.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they’d meet up in New York at the studio. Douglas would grab a hard roll for breakfast on the corner of Broadway and Columbus first. At lunch, they’d convene at the diner next door. It’s the social things they miss now — now that the world is virtual.
In 2021, instead of sitting side-by-side in the studio, Messina shares his screen with Douglas. Together, with Pro Tools pulled up, they can still listen and have the visual representation of their song playing in front of them. Messina says going virtual didn’t alter their workflow that much.
“I mean this was the next best thing,” Messina says. “Lots of times, Jack would come to my studio here, and we’d do some mixing here, so the next best thing was to hook up remotely and do the same thing.”
If anything, working remotely has expanded their opportunities. Douglas scored a film — “Maximus,” screening at Cannes Film Festival in July — with an orchestra in Minneapolis and the film’s director in England. Messina is starting to get more band recordings on his schedules as places open up. They both have some big plans in the works with artists they can’t yet name.
They’re excited to get back in the studio, but until then, they keep adapting.
[Header image shot by: Ron Pownall]