Miami Story

Do the weather, Criteria Studios, and a few big names mean stardom for South Florida?

They hang there framed and encased in glass, preserved memories of Miami's occasional reach up into the stratosphere. If you crane your neck back far enough, you can read the names: Ted Nugent, the Eagles, Yngwie Malmsteen, Bob Seger. All have gold or platinum records, all a part of music history. This is not a museum in New York or L.A. This wall of rock stands in a North Miami recording studio, Criteria, that dates back 39 years. Julio Iglesias, Miami Sound Machine, and the 2 Live Crew also hang there, but it's Miami's undercurrent of rock and roll that has coursed through longest and strongest. And A with musicians such as Malmsteen, Jimmy Page, and Kip Winger now calling Miami home, and with the explosion of the local-music scene A it's time to ask that musical question: Is Miami the new haven for rock that New York and L.A. have been?

Tom Dowd A who has been in the business for 46 years, 26 of them in Miami A responds with an emphatic "yes." Having produced for acts such as the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, James Brown, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dowd has a unique perspective. "Miami is a growing new musical culture," he asserts. "Sure, the music has always been around. I recorded James Brown in a room that's now used for storage." On his last trip through, about a year ago, the Godfather of Soul cut his tracks in a plush new state-of-the-art studio, one of five now housed at Criteria.

Dowd, who was among the first employees of Atlantic Records and is now an independent producer, admits that a big draw for recording artists is the weather. "Bands would say to me, 'Let's record in Florida,'" he explains. "They could enjoy the beach, go swimming, and get their album done at the same time. It's R&R A recovering and recording." There's even a basketall hoop in the studio parking lot. Mike Mills of R.E.M. is said to possess an excellent jump shot, honed during games between his band and members of Whitesnake last year. Apparently Shaquille O'Neal dropped by, too A as of last week the backboard was dangling after too many slam dunks.

Apart from the weather, Dowd sees other, more significant, differences. "New York is predominantly jazz and blues," he says, "while L.A. is more oriented toward 'visual' music. If you live down here, you integrate with the music scene." The blending of cultures and music that can occur most readily here might be what finally brings Miami major significance as a music-business hub.

An example of Dowd's theory is his latest endeavor, Capitol/EMI recording artist Merritt Morgan. Working at Criteria, Morgan and Dowd are piecing together her new album, primarily in the high-tech, freshly renovated Studio A. They both traveled to New York and L.A. before bringing their search to South Florida. "As a singer, I need to have players with a lot of feeling, and I just didn't get that vibe anywhere else," Morgan says. "This place has the most soul and emotion."

Morgan's is hardly the biggest name drawn to sunny, soulful South Florida. Jimmy Page and David Coverdale recently recorded at Criteria, and singer Kip Winger is finishing up his band's next album there. Since July of '91, when the band Winger dropped out of the spotlight after much chart success, singer Winger decided that without a hiatus, fans might become tired of them.

Now he's ready for a comeback, and for Winger, living in Miami means he can be left alone yet stay inspired. "From the poking around that I've done in the music scene," he says, "there are a lot of good local bands. There are also some good places to play. Some clubs in L.A., because there are so many local bands, make the bands pay to play. There's a definite advantage here."

Criteria, which a decade ago was saddled with an elitist reputation, has lately begun recording a number of local bands, offering them "spec" deals and low rates. And it's no longer a rarity to find homeboy acts achieving national success A Nuclear Valdez, the Mavericks, Young Turk, and especially Saigon Kick come to mind.

Winger adds that he moved to Miami along with guitarist Reb Beach. "Reb and I picked a place in the U.S. to base the band," says Winger, who bought a house in Miami Beach, finalizing the purchase eight days before Hurricane Andrew moved in. "I didn't have that much damage, but I was literally watching the hurricane come toward my house," reports Winger, who adds that he relocated here for a different type of weather.

The list of top pop stars who now have, soon will have, or are rumored to have homes here includes Madonna, the Estefan clan, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Stephen Stills, Julio Iglesias, the Bee Gees .... If any further proof is needed that Miami's at least as happening as, say, Orlando: the Hard Rock Cafe opens a new outlet, this spring at Bayside.

Clearly the Miami music scene is surfacing, with local bands gaining recognition and national acts frequenting these parts for living, vacationing, recording. With the upcoming Spanish MTV and more of that staple, dance pop, coming out, Miami is always going to be the capital of Spanish-language music. Maybe now it's rock's turn to bring national recognition to a town where it has often been overshadowed. It's never going to be quite like L.A. or New York, but Miami is headed in the right direction to become a major player in the industry. The mix of cultures allows a style of music that won't be found anywhere but here. Even if Miami is still the unsung hero of rock, it's working its way up the ranks. "I'm waiting for the band," says Dowd, "that's going to come out in four or five years that's going to sound like Gloria Estefan and Saigon Kick.

 
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