Mack Emerman turned recording hobby into thriving South Florida industry


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“Music is supposed to move you very deeply,” Mack Emerman once said. “It’s best when the sound overwhelms you.”

It was 1989, and he was talking to a reporter about the epidemic of hearing loss among rock musicians, something that also vexed Emerman, 65 at the time.

Sometimes, said Emerman, a self-taught sound engineer who founded North Miami’s legendary Criteria Recording Studio in 1958, it got so loud “that your pants flap. Sure, you put yourself at risk. But when the client wants to hear it loud, you crank it up.”

He was an icon by then, having assembled a technological wonderland where superstars like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Bob Marley, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Rod Stewart came to lay down hits.

Among them: The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, The BeeGees’ Tragedy and The Eagles’ Hotel California.

For nearly 30 years, Emerman ecstatically and extravagantly put himself at risk, body, soul and fortune, so that bands could make rock history: Derek and the Dominos with Eric Clapton’s Layla and Other Love Songs; Crosby Stills & Nash with Just A Song Before I Go; Fleetwood Mac with Rumours.

No microphone or mixing console was too pricey or exotic, and if he couldn’t find it, Emerman challenged the engineers flocking to Criteria to invent it.

“His biggest contribution to the industry had to do with his relationship with technical tinkerers,” said Trevor Fletcher, who hung out at Criteria as a kid when his mom worked there. “Criteria was a hotbed for innovation.”

Fletcher now co-owns Hit Factory Criteria, created when New York’s Hit Factory bought Criteria in 1999. By then, Emerman was long gone.

“It had the best acoustics anywhere,” said Ron Albert, a teenage “gofer” in the 1960s who learned engineering from Emerman and recorded some of Criteria’s mythical albums. He now runs his own Miami studio with his brother, Howard, and other Criteria alums.

“We’ve been all over the world, and the sound and ambiance there was second to none,” Albert said. “Mack built most of it himself: this giant playground with all these toys.”

Rich legacy

When Emerman died on May 17 at 89, his legacy included some 280 gold and platinum records, a South Florida industry that might never have developed without him, pioneering studio equipment and imaginative ways of capturing notes that produced Criteria’s unique sound.

Emerman, whose heart belonged to jazz, also helped bring the University of Miami’s Concert Jazz Band international acclaim by recording its albums at no charge.

Whitney Sidener, a onetime studio musician who chairs the UM Frost School of Music’s jazz and studio music programs, said Emerman “liked to have the band come so he could experiment” with equipment.

“It really upped our profile and helped us recruit and got us on the Today show,” Sidener said. “We were having a blast.”

Emerman “didn’t hesitate to spend money, [and] Criteria generated millions for local musicians,” he added.

Emerman “loved to talk about music,” said Sidener. “He’d be excited about big bands and what kind of recording techniques these guys were doing.”

Almost as much as he loved music, Emerman loved sailing. He bought impressive boats and wired them with sound systems. Aboard, he entertained artists who had come to record at Criteria and industry heavyweights like Atlantic Records producer Tom Dowd, label co-chairman Jerry Wexler and president Ahmet Ertegün.

‘Atlantic South’

Wexler and Dowd had vacation homes in Miami, but after meeting Emerman, they brought in a parade of Atlantic R&B artists and made the studio Atlantic South.

“At Criteria, you got the same feeling as [New York’s] Hit Factory and the Record Plant,” said Artie Kornfeld, the Woodstock producer and songwriter who became a record-company executive. “What Mack did he was ... give the East Coast a place in the southern part with a studio comparable to any in the world. It was equal to Abbey Road.”

Emerman mentored engineers who went on to become industry giants, including the Albert brothers, Karl Richardson, Chuck Kirkpatrick and Albhy Galuten. He also nurtured electronics geniuses like the late Jeep Harned, who later sold his recording-equipment company MCI to Sony.

A Society of Professional Audio Recording Services co-founder, Emerman had ridden the rock-music roller coaster to celestial heights — with perks like an architecturally significant Coconut Grove home and a red Maserati — then survived a fall so harrowing it nearly killed him.

Overextended just as the recording industry began to disintegrate and his hearing failed, he sold his cherished studio in 1991 and plunged into near-catatonic depression.

But a decade later, his spirits and hearing restored, Emerman stood before members of The Recording Academy’s Florida chapter and lofted a shining trophy. The group that bestows Grammy Awards had named him a “Hero.”

“Those were still the good times,” said daughter Julie Goldman of Miami, who manages The Falls shopping center. “He was thrilled to death.”

Hours before an 80th birthday bash nine years ago, an aggressive virus struck Maxwell Louis Emerman, born in Erie, Pa., on Oct. 14, 1923, destroying his balance and his confidence. Daughter Bebe Emerman, of Pasadena, Calif., said age-related dementia and diabetes followed. He ended his days at the Miami Jewish Health Systems Douglas Gardens Hospital, where he succumbed to pneumonia. Music

was Emerman’s lifelong passion. Daughter Julie said that as a youngster, he’d take the train from Erie to New York City lugging heavy recording devices to the “top of the Astor Hotel and make his crazy recordings.”

At Duke University, he played horn with the Ambassadors swing band. That’s where he met his first wife, the late ceramic artist and weaver Ann “Chili” Clark, mother of Emerman’s daughters.

Brush with death

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Emerman enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which taught him to spot and identify fighter aircraft. Stationed aboard the battleship USS New Mexico in the Pacific, he nearly died in a kamikaze attack that killed more than 100 sailors.

In 1953, the family came to South Florida, where his father, Harvey Emerman, ran a candy business. He worked for his dad, but took his gear into nightclubs every chance he got to record local acts.

The family settled into a small house on Plunkett Street in Hollywood, where Emerman set up his gear in the garage. Goldman recalls thick cables snaking from the garage into the living room, where he recorded radio-station jingles and commercials.

Among the talent: Steve Alaimo, a teen idol in the late ’50s.

“I kept reminding Mack that I recorded the first song in that living room,” said Alaimo, who learned engineering at Criteria and now runs Audio Vision Studios with the Alberts. (It as there, after a doctor restored much of his hearing, that Emerman found joy late in life recording once again.')

The song was I Want You to Love Me , a regional hit. The producer: Henry Stone, 92, the subject of an upcoming documentary about Miami’s seminal place in the disco era.

Stone used Emerman’s equipment to tape Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ The Twist at the North Miami Armory in 1960, launching the dance that Chubby Checker turned into a craze.


Miami’s music scene “would have been halfway without Mack,” Stone said. “He had the studio; I had the distribution. A lot of people don’t realize the relationship I had with Mack from the beginning. We didn’t know we were making history.’’

With a loan from his dad, Emerman bought property at 1755 NE 149th St. and built a one-room studio. As word spread, artists came, and he added more space.

In a 2002 PBS documentary called The Music Man, Emerman said he heard a knock one day, opened the door, and found himself face to face with Benny Goodman, the fabled clarinetist and bandleader.

In 1965, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, recorded I Got You (I Feel Good), Criteria’s first big hit.

Spirits Having Flown Tragedy

By the mid-1970s, Emerman was at the top of his profession. The family lived in a Coconut Grove house with 54 sets of French doors, according to Julie Goldman. He belonged to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club and bought a vacation cabin in Little Switzerland, N.C. — where he installed a cutting-edge sound system.

“He could sit on the deck and listen to his music,” Goldman said.

Living his dream

Janet Oseroff met Emerman in the ’60s when she did promotion for Atlantic and spent so much time at Criteria that he gave her work space. Small and shy, he was “unassuming in his demeanor, but so strong and powerful in what he wanted to do with the studio,’’ Oseroff said.

“He had people from all corners of the world, every kind of music you can imagine. He was a sweetheart and a gentleman. His whole heart and soul and intellect was wrapped up in having as many people as possible come there. It was so obvious that was his dream.’’

After a 1974 divorce, Emerman married Dannie Jo Cagle, and lived with her and her two children for two years aboard a 52-foot yacht.

“He was the most interesting man I’d ever known,” said Dannie, who now lives in Okeechobee.

Emerman kept the boat after moving into a Grove townhouse. Dannie recalls sailing with Greg Allman “and his whole entourage. Kenny Loggins. Phil Ramone.”

But Emerman’s insistence on the newest and the best racked up expenses he couldn’t cover once the record business began to slide in the 1980s. In 1985, he made a deal with Broward developer Hap Levy, whose son, Joel Levy, was looking for a business to run, and for a while, it seemed to work.

Then, say his daughters, he was forced out, and had a breakdown.

“The best you can say is that it was poorly handled,” said daughter Bebe Emerman.

“It sent us both into mental illness,” said Dannie. “I was suicidal, and Mack just stepped out of life.”

Joel Levy said that at first, he and Emerman had “a similar vision of the future,” but gradually the relationship fell apart. He denies forcing Emerman out.

“I was the young buck and he was the old man, and maybe he wasn’t feeling as involved as he wanted to be. ... All of a sudden, he didn’t just come back. ... Mack would be the first to admit he wasn’t a businessman.”

‘A visionary’

With Emerman’s death, said Levy, “Miami loses a pioneer and a visionary.”

He knew that about himself, said daughter Bebe, who was with him and her sister when Mack got the 2001 Hero award.

“He knew what his contributions were and he was very proud that they were being recognized in the wider arena,” Bebe said.

Emerman’s family plans to spread his ashes in Biscayne Bay, where he spent so many happy days sailing.

Miami Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this article.

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