They arrived at their gigs hours before the band, and they were the last to leave. They manned stages for thousands of musicians, yet hardly a single audience member knew their names. At their best, they were unseen, creating the perfect sound with the flip of a switch or the turn of a knob.
Memphis soundmen Tommy Dills and Steve Jacobson were unobtrusive yet ubiquitous members of the local music community. Both men died last week of unrelated causes. The 52-year-old Dills died of an apparent heart attack on Tuesday, November 8th. That same day, Jacobson, 50, was taken off life support after suffering an aneurysm earlier in the week.
Over the last 30 years, folk guitarist Sid Selvidge employed Dills on many of his gigs. In 1996, as director of the locally produced radio program Beale Street Caravan, Selvidge hired Dills to record live concerts for future airings.
As a field engineer, Dills captured performances at blues festivals from coast to coast, including the Blind Willie McTell Festival in Thomason, Georgia, and the Blues and Brews Festival in Telluride, Colorado.
"Out in the field, Tommy was the guy," Selvidge says. "I relied on him pretty heavily. He captured great live sound, and I could send him on the road without a worry. He had the best attitude, and he always handled himself with extreme professionalism. He was very well organized, and that took a big burden off me and allowed me to focus on other things."
Dills honed his talent working on the road with the late Roy Orbison. Dills was the sound engineer at the Church of the Holy Communion's Coffee House Concert Series, and also a favorite live engineer for local musicians such as Reba Russell and Jim Dickinson, and he often manned the soundboard at Newby's and the Buccaneer.
"Mixing two tracks on the fly as the performance is happening is a craft as well as an art," notes Selvidge. "We're spoiled rotten in this town. There's a level of expectation here in the quality of engineered music that we take for granted. Tommy was the perfect example of that. He was a real unsung hero."
"Everyone talks about how musicians are unappreciated, but what about sound guys?" asks Howard Stovall, co-owner of the Memphis-based talent agency Resource Entertainment Group. "Tommy and Steve were both out there every night."
Sound technician Bruce Coleman, who worked with Jacobson for the past two decades, recalls his partner as a man "totally devoid of ego."
"This was Steve's life dream. This is what he lived and breathed. It was never about him. It was always about the event," says Coleman, listing city festivals in Germantown, Bartlett, and Olive Branch, as well as the Bartlett Performing Arts Center and the music stage at the Pink Palace Crafts Fair, among Jacobson's clients.
Saturday, November 5th, was just another day of work for Jacobson and Coleman, who arrived at the Peabody hotel at the crack of dawn to begin production for Opera Memphis' annual ball, held later that night. "We finished the job at 1:30 a.m.," explains Coleman, "and everything seemed fine. Later that day, Steve told his wife that he had a headache, and within a minute, he'd lost consciousness." An ambulance rushed Jacobson to St. Francis Hospital, where he later died.
"All three of us were working at WEVL's Blues on the Bluff concert last August," Coleman recalls. "Steve and I were providing sound for the live show, and Tommy was recording it for Beale Street Caravan. It's tragic that they both died so unexpectedly."
Terry Albinger, founder of local swing band The Mercedes Knights, also died earlier this month. Bandleader and trumpet player for the group, Albinger, an alumnus of the University of Memphis' marching band, also performed with the River City Community Band and the United States Marine Corps Band. With the Mercedes Knights, a mainstay at Collierville's Sunset on the Square concert series, he played compositions by Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, and Count Basie, as well as more modern classics like "Zoot Suit Riot" by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. After a car accident on Friday, November 4th, Albinger died at The Med the next day.