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COLUMBIA / A&R, 799 7th Avenue

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The Brunswick Building at 799 7th Avenue was built by the Brunswick Phonograph Company in 1924, with a recording laboratory on the 7th floor. Electricity was unreliable and would cause fluctuations in recording speed, so early recordings were powered by a system of weights and pulleys.


When Columbia Records took over in 1939, A&R Director Mitch Miller wanted to recreate how his voice sounded in the shower. Engineers created an echo chamber in the building's steel and concrete stairwell, with a speaker on the 7th floor and a mic on the 6th floor, picking up sound reverberating all the way down to the basement.

 

That "slap echo" became a signature of Columbia recordings - you can clearly hear it on Tony Bennet’s “(I Left My Heart) In San Francisco”.

Highway 61 revisited session, Columbia Studio A, June 15-16 1965.

© Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On June 16th, 1965 Bob Dylan was struggling to find the essence of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

 

Producer Tom Wilson had invited Al Kooper, a 21-year-old musician from Queens, to visit the studio. “I was about ten percent talent and ninety percent ambition” says Kooper. “There was no way in hell I was going to visit a Bob Dylan session and just sit there.“

 

Kooper suggested he play the organ, bluffing that he “had a great part”. Wilson scoffed - Kooper was a guitarist, not a keyboard player - but didn't say no. Kooper improvised, playing one beat behind the band so he could follow the chord changes.

 

About a minute into the playback, Dylan said to engineer Roy Halee, "Turn the organ up louder." Tom Wilson quickly replied, "Bob, that guy is not an organ player." Dylan responded, "I don't care — turn the organ up!"

Columbia Studio A console

credit: Jim Reeves

Highway 61 revisited session, Columbia Studio A, June 15-16 1965.

© Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Kooper wound up playing some of the most memorable organ chords in rock history. With its combination of Dylan's cynical vocals, and the directness of the question "How does it feel?", "Like a Rolling Stone" became the anthem of cultural revolution in the 1960s.

In August 1966 Columbia consolidated their recording facilities in New York and put ‘Studio A’ up for sale.

 

Meanwhile, over on 48th Street, A&R Studios had been given a year to vacate when their building was sold to the Rockefeller Company. “Boy, was Columbia pissed when they found out it was us that had bought the studio” recalls A&R owner/producer Phil Ramone.

Once dubbed “The Pope of Pop”, Ramone is best known for his seven-album, decade-long relationship with Billy Joel.

 

“I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band,” said Joel. “My approach to recording had nothing to do with making hits. It had to do with having fun. Phil understood that. All we would do is make jokes, and throw food at each other, and yell and do crazy stuff.”


Ramone recalls “The debates over which take sounded best - the pre- or post- Chinese take-out, were legendary.”

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A&R Owner/Producer Phil Ramone and Billy Joel.

© Unknown

During sessions for “The Stranger”, Ramone thought the album could use another ballad.

 

“Well here’s a song we’ll never record, but you should hear it,” said Joel. He sat at the piano and halfheartedly played “Just The Way You Are”. 

 

The band was reluctant to record the song. They thought it was schmaltzy and would brand Billy “a wedding singer”. Ramone proposed drummer Liberty DeVitto play a Brazilian Baião rhythm with brushes, and Joel swap his signature piano for a more sensual Fender Rhodes keyboard.

When Linda Rondstadt and Pheobe Snow later visited the studio, Ramone played back the recording - but Joel still wasn’t convinced he wanted it on the album.

 

“Are you crazy?” they replied. “That’s the hit!”

 

"The Stranger" was released in the fall of 1977. By the end of the year, it had gone Platinum, and “Just the Way You Are” won the 1978 Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

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The rear cover of 'The Stranger' features Billy Joel and his band having dinner with Phil Ramone (top left) at Guido's Restaurant on Ninth Avenue between 38th & 39th street.

Joel followed The Stranger with "52nd Street", named after the studio’s cross street on 7th Avenue. The photo for the album cover was taken outside the building by a service elevator musicians would use to avoid the crowded lobby.

The video for “My Life” features Billy and the band taking the subway to the studio, meeting Ramone in the control room, and performing in studio A1. 

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In March 1981 the Equitable Life Assurance Society announced plans to build a $200 million, 54-story office tower taking up the half block of 7th Ave between 51st and 52nd streets to be called 'The Axa Equitable Center'.

The Brunswick Building at 799 7th Avenue was demolished in 1983.

Equitable commissioned over $7 million of artwork in what The New York Times called “the largest partnership ever forged between art and real estate in Manhattan”.

 

Roy Lichenstien’s 68-foot high “Mural with Blue Strokes” dominates the lobby on 7th Avenue. Due to its sheer size, Lichtenstein painted the mural in place, climbing up and down an eight-story scaffolding.

 

The building was completed in 1986, with critics calling it "54 stories of ambivalence", and “one of the most pretentious and ungainly new buildings in New York."

In 2016 the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) acquired the building for $1.9 billion. In 2022, a sign with the name of the building's largest tenant, French bank  "BNP Paribas", was installed above the Seventh Avenue entrance, replacing Equitable's name.


When the building first opened it housed two galleries of the Whitney Museum of Art. The north gallery, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 52nd Street, shared the footprint of 799 7th Avenue where Studio A was located.

 

Today that space is a Pret-a-Manger sandwich shop.

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