David Hewitt: Road Diaries, Entry 7

This is the seventh installment in David Hewitt’s guest blog series chronicling his legendary career working with some of the biggest names in music. Today, David writes about early adventures with the Black Truck mobile recording studio. If you missed his last post, you can read it .

The Show Must Go On… Even When You Blow Up the Recording Truck!

Of the thousands of live shows I’ve been booked on to record over the years, I’ve only missed a few. This one almost got away.

In July of 1978 at the Record Plant Studios in New York, we were busy building the newest recording studio on wheels, the Black Truck, while still operating the original White Truck.

I had already started recording a live album for the hugely successful prog rock band Kansas when we launched the brand new Black Truck. We had been working on it up to the last minute before jumping in the big Peterbilt to head for Detroit to continue recording the tour.

It was too late to fly, so I rode in the sleeper until a huge banging rattle woke me up at 3 a.m. As a former race car mechanic, I knew that disastrous sound and screamed at the driver to shut off the engine. The brand new Cummins diesel engine had dropped a valve into the piston, blowing the engine in the middle of nowhere.

This was long before cellphones, so I had to hitch a ride back to a roadside pay phone and started calling the dealers in the Peterbilt owner’s manual. At dawn, I finally got a live person on the line in Nashville, who kindly found a local 24-hour road service to tow us to the venue.

Fortunately, the show venue, then called Pine Knob, allowed us to work on the engine while we were parked there for the recording. Kansas played four sold out shows, which gave us enough time to rebuild the entire engine. I was gambling that the Cummins mechanics had flushed all the metal debris out of the oil passages and that we hadn’t bent the crankshaft. They replaced the cylinders, pistons, rods and bearings and fired it up.

The band hardly noticed the ruckus and concentrated on their brilliant playing that would propel the live album (Two for the Show) to platinum sales. They were happy with my recordings and continued their tour. Our driver gingerly aimed the Black Truck back towards New York. I had enough of the road, so I took a flight back home.

After a complete engine check at our home Peterbilt dealer, we headed right back out on the road to Chicago, this time to record a live album for Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter, followed by a live radio broadcast back in New Jersey for Bruce Springsteen. We then followed Neil Young’s tour, starting in Boston and rocking all the way out to San Francisco, while recording the live album and film Rust Never Sleeps. Still one of my all-time favorites.

It was a busy début year for the Black Truck, recording Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead and many more. We even managed to record the Boston Symphony Orchestra and jazz legend Nina Simone.

That Peterbilt tractor not only survived that blowup, but the cab was rebuilt after a rollover accident in 1989 and continued on past 300,000 miles before retirement. There’s a road saying, “Old truckers never die, they just get a new Peterbilt.” I did, and never looked back.

[Photo courtesy of David Hewitt]

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