A Journey From Songs To Seashells

Posted: August 04, 1999

NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. — He has worked for and with people you read about or listen to: Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Aerosmith, Madonna, Rick Springfield and hundreds more.

Bonnie Raitt called recently, but most of the people he used to deal with have likely forgotten him.

Out of sight, out of mind. He has moved away from the high-pressure world of recorded music, albums, and movie soundtracks such as Hannah and Her Sisters, Beverly Hills Cop , and The Last Emperor.

His offices in Los Angeles and New York were another time. No one does lunch or works 16-hour days at his current business.

Gregory Fulginiti, 48, former music mastering engineer who has worked on 27 Grammy-winning records and 138 gold or platinum ones, listens to a different sort of sound now.

He sells seashells by the seashore.

He changes the gender of the nursery-school tongue twister from she to he and then later to I, reciting it with a self-effacing grin.

He understands the surprise. People like him are not supposed to end up selling night-lights and napkin holders decorated with shells. He should be fine-tuning CD voice levels, not polishing conch shells.

No, no, he says.

"I've been very, very lucky. I aspire to live in the present. There is no next gig. Now, I sell seashells."

* Antonio Fulginiti was one of the first Italians on the island in 1900, but his grandson, Gregory, left for New York as quickly as he could, one day after his graduation from Wildwood High School in 1969.

A surfing buddy had gotten him a job in the mailroom at Elektra Records.

In six months, he was promoted to assistant engineer. His first major credit was Judy Collins' 1970 album, Whales and Nightingales.

"I assisted Judy Collins. I assisted Daryl Hall when he was in the band Gulliver. For two years, I assisted; I schlepped."

And Fulginiti was in the middle of it. He saw Crosby, Stills & Nash perform, and visited them backstage. Same with Bob Dylan. "I was 19 and with legends. You don't forget that."

It wouldn't be too long before he would be working with those legends. In 1971, Fulginiti got a job at Stirling Sound in New York as a mastering engineer.

A mastering engineer is the final pair of creative hands touching recorded music. The engineer works in a studio, often alone, sometimes with a producer, and on occasion with the singer. Bob Dylan would come. So would Pat Benatar and Raitt and Fitzgerald. Most singers would not.

Music is often recorded with more than one arranger, different producers and in different recording studios or on location.

"The mastering engineer doesn't want the listener to know the music came from a lot of different environments," Fulginiti says. "It's an intuitive process. There's no book."

So the guitars may be brought down, the drum beats brought up. Sounds are matched, clarity sought, distortion discarded. The music is manipulated, but if the mastering engineer is good, the listener doesn't know anyone touched it.

And he was good at it, Fulginiti says. In a small world, he became a big fish. People sought him out. The hit records of one performer brought more performers and more hits. Fulginiti moved in glitzier and glitzier circles. The money got better. He moved to Los Angeles. He mastered Raitt's 1990 Album of the Year, Nick of Time.

"But I put so much emphasis on my work that my personal life languished. You have to be very selfish. I'm not proud of that. I was just so glad to do the work."

His health suffered. He took a year off in 1991, puttered in Florida, and became bored. He went back to work in 1992 in New York, but it wasn't the same.

His father died in 1993. Fulginiti quit in 1994 to return to North Wildwood and the House of Shells, the family business that his uncle had been running.

"Cutting another record, making another $100,000, these were not the most important things anymore.

"Now, I've been with a woman in a three-year-long, good relationship. I have more time. Sure, I miss the work, but I've probably worked on more than 100,000 songs in 25 years."

The store opens in mid-May and closes at the end of September. The rest of the year, Fulginiti lives in Florida, in his condominium in North Wildwood, or he travels.

"There were, maybe, 10 top mastering engineers while I was working, and I was one of them. Now, I sell seashells. I like being by the seashore."

He talks about a Whoopi Goldberg comedy album he did and a Best of the Beatles album. He also talks about a shell he sells, the Cyprea Valencia, that costs $1,000.

"If not for the records, I wouldn't have the shells," he says.

No regrets, no bitterness about his relative anonymity now. That's showbiz. Life is good.

Customers are coming into the Spruce Avenue store. There are nautical gifts and shells to sell.

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