The local music community is indeed having a fundraiser and job search party for Al Powell, the one-time soundman at the dearly departed Main Point and the co-owner/producer of the late, lamented 1020 RPM Studios. But last weekend, camped at the Philadelphia Folk Festival with his longtime bud, bassist Bruce Kaminsky, Powell is all laughs.
Tell him you’re sorry for talking about him, his health issues and such, in the third person and he jokes: “That’s OK. My ex-wife always talked about me in the fourth person.”
Kaminsky is the inventor of the Kydd Bass and a prime motivator behind Monday’s Al Pals event designed to give back to a man who’s given his all to Philadelphia music.
Powell was the acclaimed soundman at Bryn Mawr’s legendary folk/rock club The Main Point — once a small-stage stomping ground for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor. Powell’s job, from 1976 to 1980, was to make the most of a minimalist set up.
“His genius was such that he took what the coffeehouse had as limited means and made everyone sound like a genius,” says fellow Main Point alum Bruce Klauber, recalling shows with Allen Ginsberg, Phil Woods and Tom Waits, and locals like Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Veasley’s Reverie and Kaminsky.
“Al’s way with sound influenced me in how he interacted with artists, their differing attitudes and egos,” says Kaminsky who got to know Powell over post-show meals at the neighboring Minella’s Diner.
When Powell and several partners bought studios at 1020 Delaware Ave. — named 1020 RPM Studios, as in “Rehearsal, Production, Management” — Main Pointers followed, but it didn’t stop there Powell steered rehearsals and recordings from Cinderella, Bon Jovi, Boyz II Men, Ben Vaughn, the Hooters, Ali Wadsworth and top-tier artists such as Stevie Wonder, Poison and the pairing of Brian Wilson and his guru/doctor Eugene Landy.
“Al brought what he learned from the Main Point to everyone — some 25,000 acts — who came through RPM, spearheading the idea of a Philly Brill Building where you could walk in with nothing and come out with a product,” says Kaminsky, who was instrumental in Powell acquiring sponsorships with Ibanez guitars, Yamaha keyboards, Tama drums and such.
Powell rented his equipment for $2 an hour (or you could buy high end stuff from TechComm downstairs, the only open-till-2 a.m. music store in the city) so anyone could afford to play a top quality instrument, whether rehearsing, running tape or both.
The infamous 1020 package had artists entering in the morning, rehearsing and recording with Powell, and leaving with an 8-track master by the next morning (or sooner). “It wasn’t about making money,” says Powell. “I wanted everybody to afford the best, to maximize their RPM experience.”
There was, and is, no other sound facility of its kind anywhere. Powell sold RPM in 2000 and stayed on — continuing to inspire musicians who came through its doors — until it closed in 2009. Since then, he’s worked on several inventions (like a cigar box amp) but hasn’t landed a solid job. “Man, I feel awkward about all this,” says Powell.
Kaminsky pooh-poohs his pal. “Look: What he did, what he was, made him Ground Zero for all Philly music from 1976 until now,” says Kaminsky. “If you’re not in this community, you’re dead meat. If you’re one of us, we’re not letting you die.”
So Al’s Pals will jam, auction equipment and hopefully find Powell a new job in sound design and a good doctor who’ll look at the ever-reluctant Powell. “Look, everyone has health issues,” says Powell, who doesn’t want to talk about specifics. “Music keeps me alive.”
“Nothing he does is about him,” says Barakka keyboardist Billy Tayoun, the prime instigator of Al’s Pals.
“For several years, Al’s had serious health concerns, he’s without steady work, yet he’s constantly supporting us — when I say us, I mean the entire musical community — asking what we need and paying to see us because he wants to pay. It’s time we paid him back.”
Al’s Pals, Mon., Aug. 26, 8 p.m., $20, Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St. undergroundarts.org.
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