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.

Emerman doesn't remember the circumstances of his departure. By that point he was already in the throes of depression; he was mortified that he was losing his hearing, an infirmity he regarded as the deathblow to his livelihood. (He also suffered a series of mild strokes, which have affected his memory.)

Tom Dowd, at 72 two years Emerman's junior, remembers seeing Emerman from time to time at Scotty's, a gourmet grocery in Coconut Grove, after the Levys took over but before Emerman departed. "I'd see Mack walking down an aisle, and I'd say, 'Hey, Mack, how you doing?' And it'd be like, no recognition. None, just ... a veil."

"He was in a position in his life where he should never have had to worry again," Ron Albert says. "He had reached that point in his life where he was secure and should have been very proud of his accomplishments. He created an industry that didn't exist here -- singlehandedly, really."

While economic decline of the studio and Emerman's parallel descent were gradual, the break with Criteria came abruptly. Arranger Mike Lewis remembers coming to Criteria for a session one day in 1991 and finding Emerman sitting in the parking lot, doing a near catatonic rendition of the Mack Lean. Whether he quit or was fired remains unclear, but after that day he never returned to the studio as a member of the staff. "Criteria was his life, it was his baby. When he finally lost it, it just destroyed him," Lewis says.

At this point Emerman's misery was so profound that his family put him in a psychiatric ward, where he was under suicide watch for some days. After that, he stayed with his sister and his daughter for a few weeks. Early in his collapse he and Dannie divorced. He withdrew to the studio apartment at Douglas Gardens.

It was in this room, surrounded by images of the people and things he had lost, that Emerman spent his exile. "I didn't talk to my kids, my friends," Emerman says. "If somebody called me on the phone, I'd say, 'I can't talk to you.' If somebody came to my door, I'd say, 'I can't see you.' I just holed up here. It was awful. I'm so ashamed of it."

His old friend Jerry Marshall kept the closest tabs on him. Anyone who knew anything about Emerman during his exile likely received their intelligence from Marshall. But even he didn't have real conversations with Emerman. "When nobody was looking, I got on the elevator there [at Douglas Gardens], went upstairs, and knocked on his door, and this little guy peered out with the chain on the door," Marshall says. "He said, 'Jerry, please go away, I can't see anybody.'"

"We were convinced that the next time we'd see Mack would be at his funeral," says Ron Albert.

"And not just us," brother Howard adds. "A lot of people who knew him well thought he had died."

The source of Emerman's greatest torment was his near deafness. His entire career, his entire being, was rooted in an impeccable ear for tone, pitch, and timbre. When that left him, he says, everything else deteriorated. He was inconsolable. A compact stereo system, a gift from his kids, sat unopened in his apartment for months. Why bother? he thought.

Emerman believes he would still be locked in his depression were it not for a thorough ear examination in August 1996. A physician at Douglas Gardens cleared out some nasty detritus in both ears, and he could instantly hear the difference. He returned to his apartment, hooked up the stereo, and looked for just the right CD.

"I sat right in the middle of the room, put on Pandemanium, some of the stuff I'd done with the University of Miami Jazz Band, and I started to bawl like a baby. I could hear it. I had to crank it up a bit, but I could hear it." Emerman was subsequently diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss, which he has corrected with digital hearing aids.

A few months later, simple laser surgery corrected a nagging prostate problem. "I began to feel like a human being again," Emerman says. And, last year, he began to reach out.

"Out of the clear blue sky, Mack called me up and said, 'I want to talk to you, we've got to have lunch,'" Tom Dowd recalls. "He was coherent, and it was amazing. He was about 75 to 80 percent lucid."

He was also checking in at Criteria, which for most of 1997 had been undergoing serious renovations. "I'd heard that Mack was calling up and saying, 'What are you doing to my building? What the hell are you doing over there?'" recalls Mike Lewis. "So still, as of six months ago, he hadn't let go."

Emerman himself won't discuss his return trips to Criteria, but he does allow that he wasn't made to feel welcome. What frustrates him, he says, is that most of his memories of his last years at the studio are blotted out. The loss of Criteria clearly gnaws at his pride; he is humiliated that he should have to seek permission to show his grandchildren around the facility where he once held court with Benny Goodman and James Brown.

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