Over a half-century ago, Mack Emerman created Criteria Studios in North Miami.
In 1959, it was a modest single-room studio setup. But after forming a partnership with legendary Miami-bred producer Tom Dowd, Criteria became the headquarters for Atlantic Records South, blooming into a massive (and moneyed) operation that produced dozens of major international hits by Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and so many others.
By 1988, though, the Criteria Studios founder was forced to give up his business. He attempted a comeback in the late '90s. But soon, his health started slipping. And this week, Maxwell Louis Emerman died at the age of 89.
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Emerman began his career in music while attending Duke University, where he led his own big band. "I'm a really bad trumpet player," he told New Times in 1998, "but I thought I was good at that time."
Mack didn't move to South Florida until 1950, when he, his first wife Ann, and their two daughters settled in Hollywood. His father also relocated, buying a Hialeah candy manufacturing plant. And the younger Emerman went to work for dad, selling saltwater taffy and other sweets.
Admittedly, Mack said, "I hated that." So he began spending his spare time recording live sets at Miami clubs while producing jazz sessions and radio jingles in his home garage. But by 1959, Emerman, with his father's financial support, bought an empty lot at 1755 NE 149th Street and literally built Criteria from the ground up.
Through the early '60s, Mack worked with jazz and soul stars like Benny Goodman and James Brown. He expanded, building a second studio. And he discovered a pair of homegrown engineers, brothers Ron and Howard Albert, who would become instrumental in Criteria's '70s heyday.
Soon, Emerman brought in another of the studio's indispensible figures, Tom Dowd. And he expanded again, building the famed Studio C to accommodate dozens of A-list clients just waiting to record with the Criteria team. As Dowd has told New Times: "Between 1967 and 1975, you couldn't get into Criteria with a shoehorn."
The '70s hits just erupted out of the North Miami operation, from "Layla" by Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominoes to the Bee Gees' "Saturday Night Fever," Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," the Eagles' "Hotel California," and so many others.
The next decade, though, was not as kind to Mack and Criteria. As writer Ted B. Kissell wrote in his late-'90s New Times music feature, "Mack Emerman: King of the Soundboard":
A jazz lover and equipment freak, Emerman spent the studio's Seventies heyday living the life of rock and roll royalty: Porsches, Maseratis, Dom Perignon, 50-foot sailboats, a beautiful young wife. But Criteria's lean years put an abrupt end to his high life. Mired in debt and beset by a bruising depression, he lost everything during the Eighties, including the studio he had launched in 1959. The man who had once stood astride Miami's music landscape like a colossus wound up destitute and institutionalized, suffering from despair and failing health. Many of his former colleagues weren't sure he was alive, and almost no one knew where he was.
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Though Emerman attempted to relaunch his career in 'the late '90s with the help of one-time proteges Ron and Howard Albert, his comeback plans were no match for his health problems, including deafness and the aftereffects of a series of strokes.
And for the last decade, as his daughter Bebe Emerman tells the Miami Herald, the Criteria Studios founder and Miami music legend had been living at the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged, where he passed away on Tuesday morning due to complications from pneumonia.
Rest in peace. We'll miss you, Mack.