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.”
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.