King of the Soundboard

Mack Emerman founded Criteria Recording Studios, made a fortune, lost it all, then lost his mind. Now he's back from the dead and ready to work.

"I do remember running aground with him a couple of times in Biscayne Bay," Howard Albert chimes in. "He'll probably deny that, but I remember that distinctly."

And always the parties: excursions with clients on the sailboat. Holiday parties at the studio. The New Year's Eve blowouts at the Emermans'.

"The one really great party there was New Year's Eve 1979," Ron recalls. "We were all sort of kidding around and laughing because the record business had been so good to all of us. And we were passing around this story in the Wall Street Journal saying that the record business was doomed." The cast of characters included the Emermans, Tom Dowd, Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk, and Bee Gees producer Albhy Galuten. At some point, Albert recalls, someone offered a sardonic toast to the Journal. "We were all drinking Dom Perignon, and we said kiddingly that this might be the last Dom we drink for a while, so we'd better enjoy it now."

That next year the Journal proved to have been prescient.
The company Emerman keeps these days is a bit more humble. He lives in a studio apartment at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens, an assisted-living center on NE Second Avenue. His lunch today, as on most days, consists of a simple salad eaten in a drab cafeteria.

On the way back to his room, he greets a number of his fellow residents and uniformed staffers. Everyone seems to know him. ("I'm kind of a star," the 74-year-old says impishly. "I'm probably the youngest guy here.")

He enters his apartment and opens the refrigerator, stowing an apple and a plastic-wrapped grapefruit half on the top shelf for later. He shuffles through the kitchen and into the carpeted living area. His home entertainment system (TV, VCR, stereo, and CD collection) is set up on metal shelves. Although hardly staggering in size or value, it is arranged with an audiophile's fastidiousness.

Emerman selects a CD. Three months after his first recording session in years, he holds in his hands a pressing of Duffy Jackson's funked-up big band tunes. He pops the disc into a tiny player, lowers himself into one of two tan vinyl captain's chairs that face his sound system, and summons the brassy swing with a poke at the remote control. His mouth curls into a smile. "I think it sounds great."

His apartment is immaculate, decorated in a spartan fashion that manages to tastefully incorporate the color orange. The dominant features, though, are the photographs. Emerman with Chili and their two daughters. His daughters with their families. A small framed portrait of his second ex-wife Dannie. ("The love of my life," he notes ruefully.) Emerman leaning against his red Maserati in front of Criteria. And, of course, half a dozen photos of the sailboats he has owned: "I was a sail nut. I've had five sailboats. Dannie and I lived on a 52-footer down at Dinner Key for a couple of years. Dannie's Dilemma was the name of the boat."

The downturn in the music industry came at a disastrous time for Criteria. Emerman had expanded again, to a total of five studios, just as recording business was drying up. The advent of synthesizers and the home-studio boom were factors in this slump -- as was the frugality of labels that didn't want give their acts a million dollars to play basketball in Miami while making an album.

Emerman doesn't like to talk about the bad times, "but I want to be completely candid," he says. And so he lays it all down, his faded blue eyes staring straight ahead. Atlantic stopped sending the steady stream of acts in the early Eighties. Regular clients the Bee Gees built their own studio in Miami Beach. Ron and Howard Albert, along with many others from Criteria's in-house family of engineers, left the studio (though they continued to record there as outside producers). His vast facility couldn't book nearly enough time to pay for itself, and Criteria began to fall into arrears on its loans.

This information comes slowly; Emerman keeps veering into conversational cul-de-sacs about boats or recording equipment. Finally he turns down the volume on Duffy Jackson. He sags into his chair, his forearm supporting his weight on the left armrest (a pose long-time Criteria staffers called "the Mack Lean"). He begins speaking about how he lost his studio. How he nearly lost himself.

"In 1991 all this came to an end," he says wearily, gesturing at the photographs. "I was so busy with the acoustics, with the equipment end of it. The business part, I guess I didn't handle so good. I'm a little ashamed, but it's the truth. It's nobody's fault but my own."

In 1988 Hap Levy, a Fort Lauderdale real estate developer, bought Emerman's mortgage on Criteria, as well as the studio's recording equipment. He also paid off the considerable debt on the property. Levy's son Joel joined Criteria as president. Emerman stayed on with a CEO title, but Joel Levy was calling the shots. "Joel and I had a good couple of years together," Emerman says. "We went to lunch every day, and then all of a sudden it was over."

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