Meet Don Casale, the man behind the sound of superhit 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'

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Don Casale holds a Gold Record given him by Atlantic Records for his engineering work on his cherished Gold Album; inset The song's album cover.. (Rochester Voice photo)

WEST LEBANON, Maine - When Don Casale of Lebanon was a teenager he remembers being fascinated with his first tape recorder, an old-fashioned two-spool 1950s-era affair.

His affair with sound recording turned into an affinity and ultimately a career, a career that began at Ultrasonic Studios on Long Island, N.Y.

"I was driving home from a part-time job in 1965 and saw the studio's sign, so I thought I'd go in and take a look," he said during an interview with The Rochester Voice earlier this month. "I hit it off with the guy who owned the studio and he offered me a job for $75 a week."

The cover of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly (Courtesy)

And even though Casale had just been offered a job at Grumman Aircraft for many times that amount, his fascination with sound recording won out and the band Iron Butterfly and music lovers the world over are the richer for it.

Casale was working in the studio by himself that day on May 27, 1968, when he was told by his boss that the band would be in to record "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," after they were unable to record at Atlantic Records in New York due to a scheduling conflict.

"They all came into the studio and I told them I had to know everything about the song they were going to record," Casale said. "Then I told them to go play the song while I got the mic levels right. Then I went into the control room and hit the record button."

Looking back on that day more than 50 years later, Casale says he doesn't remember every detail, "but I must have known what they were doing sounded good," he said.

So the band literally played on jamming for what seemed an eternity.

Drummer Ron Bushy remembered the scene in an interview with Drumhead magazine.

"We set up our gear and Don Casale, the engineer, asked us to run through a song so he could get some levels on the mics, so we did. But he wasn't even in the room, he was upstairs watching through a window," Bushy said. "We didn't even know we were being recorded. Unbeknownst to us, Don pressed the record button, but we didn't know that because we couldn't see that the red 'record' light was on inside the control room. So we're playing through the song, and thank God we didn't stop.

"After the first take of the song is over, we're going, 'Is this guy brain-dead or what?' referring to Casale, who had never said he was done with the sound check.

"After 17 minutes and five seconds I ended the tape," Casale said. "I then called down to the band and said, 'Guys, come on up and listen to this.' They loved it."

He said between doing the band's forever signature song and five singles on the flip side it took only four days,

"But this was something like never before, when most songs that were singles ran two minutes and 30 seconds," Casale said.

The song got a lot of pushback by record execs at Atlantic who complained that there wasn't enough singing, but mostly that it was just too long.

But Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun finally agreed and the rest is history.

"In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," sold more than 30 million copies, was named the first Platinum record ever and stayed on the Billboard magazine charts for nearly three years.

"In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was Iron Butterfly's only song to reach the Top 40, reaching number 30.

In 2009, it was named the 24th-greatest hard rock song of all time by VH1.

But while recording "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was a treasured part of his career in music, it was also deeply frustrating for Casale as his credits as engineer do not appear on the album cover.

The album's producer, Jim Hilton, is credited with the engineering though Casale notes he was never in studio during the recording.

"He took it back to his California studio and mixed it there," Casale quipped.

He said he would never have gotten the Gold record he deserved if it weren't for Atlantic Records exec Arif Marden, who presented him with one that Casale still cherishes to this day.

"I didn't ask for the gold record, but I did expect to see my name on the cover," he added.

Don Casale working at his home studio on Long Island in the 1980s (Courtesy photo)

A self-effacing Casale admits he's not musical and never had an interest in music; he's just an engineer who wants the best possible sound for his clients who entrust their recording careers with him.

And in his time he worked with a lot of big-name talent, including Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Rascals, Meat Loaf and Tiny Tim.

On the Rascals, he said some in the group wanted to do TV to boost their popularity, but they were wary of the terrible sound they'd heard on different shows.

So Casale told them he'd go with them to make sure the sound was pristine.

"So we get to New York to do the Johnny Carson show. I'm there to supervise the guys in the control room," he recalled. "So we're waiting in the Green Room and then suddenly someone comes in and tells the band 'Let's go' and ushers them off to the stage.

"So I go to the control room door and knock on it. I can hear people inside going, 'He's not getting in here.' I mean they're all union. So I'm struggling with the door and Ed McMahon walks by and says, 'What's going on?'

"I said I'm supposed to be in the control room for the Rascals. So he says I'll get you in there and let's me in. I get in there and it's dark, completely dark. I was a nervous wreck. I told the guys in there - they were all much older than me - I'm just here to help.

"Then I look up and Eddie (Brigati) is singing and you can't hear him. Afterward Felix (Cavallere; keyboard, vocals) said that's crap." But they agreed to continue with appearances on the "Tom Jones Show" in England and the "Andy Williams Show" in California and it went much better, Casale said.

He said Tiny Tim "was a very nice guy and easy to work with. "He always called me 'Mister Don' and he always carried a bag with him," Casale said. "I'd put him in a booth to record his songs, but he always had a hard time coming in (with the vocals) on time. I'd really have to like point at him."

Casale said the song he did for Tiny Tim was titled "Am I Just Another Pretty Face?"

"It didn't become a hit," Casale said.

After bouncing around at different studios over a couple of decades, Casale decided to set up a small studio at his Long Island home where he worked successfully with smaller-name clients for some 30 years before retiring to West Lebanon nine years ago.

Looking back on his life and career in the recording business, he knows that seminal event that was the recording of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" will always be with him.

"One thing I'll tell you is people think I'm rich because of that song," he quipped, "but nothing's further from the truth. I was just working at Ultrasonic for a paycheck. I get no royalties from that."

Asked if he likes the song, he pauses.

"Do I like the song? It's not a consideration when you're recording people, but I grew to like it."

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