Yesterday, the Recording Academy announced the recipients of this year’s special merit awards, which will be presented at the Grammys in Los Angeles on February 8. David Bowie, Cream, Merle Haggard, Robert Johnson, Jessye Norman, Richard Pryor, and the Weavers will receive Lifetime Achievement Awards; Chris Blackwell, Owen Bradley and Al Schmitt will be honored with the Academy’s nonperformer Trustees Award. Tom Dowd and Bell Labs /Western Electric have been named recipients of the Technical Grammy Award.
Congrats to all in this wildly diverse and meritorious bunch. Being the contrarian I am, I wanted to spotlight the career of arguably the least well-known of the bunch, ace engineer and producer Al Schmitt.
One of the most important recordists of this half-century, Al Schmitt has won fifteen Grammys for engineering pop, jazz, and rock over a still-vibrant 50-year career that has seen recording technology go from mono direct-to-disc, to today’s megatrack digital effusion. Known for his magical microphone selection and placement, Schmitt has also produced important music and great records across the musical spectrum for David Benoit, George Benson, Jackson Browne, Sam Cooke, Duane Eddy, Hot Tuna, Al Jarreau, Jefferson Airplane, Hugo Montenegro, Diane Schuur, Neil Young, culminating in Ray Charles’ ’04 Genius Loves Company Grammy extravaganza.
Brooklyn-native Al Schmitt is literally a child of the studio: his uncle owned the first independent recording studio in New York City, Harry Schmitt’s Recording, on West 46th St. Starting at the age of 6 in the late-’30s, young Al spent much of his free time observing the proceedings, cleaning patch cords, getting piano tips from Art Tatum, and meeting such notables as Bing Crosby, Orson Welles, and the Andrews Sisters.
Watching even big bands being recorded with only one microphone, Schmitt absorbed the niceties of mic balance at a time when it meant everything to the sound quality of a record. “They would move everybody around until they got the balance right, and then they made everybody take their shoes off because you could hear them stomping their feet. I would look out and see that some of the guys had holes in their socks,” Schmitt recalls with a chuckle.
Schmitt served in the Navy for a couple of years in the late-’40s; after he got out in ’50, his uncle arranged for him to apprentice at a small New York studio called Apex Recording, where Schmitt’s mentor was the great Tom Dowd. Three months into his training – “when I was qualified, maybe, to do a voice-and-piano demo” – Schmitt was waiting at the studio on a Saturday for a “Mr. Mercer” to show up to record a demo. “The elevator doors opened up and all of these musicians started coming out. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, something’s wrong here.’ I couldn’t reach Tommy, and I couldn’t reach my boss. This was no demo: it was the Duke Ellington Orchestra in to record for Mercer Records [owned by Duke’s son Mercer, and Leonard Feather].
“So I had to do it – it was my first date,” Schmitt continues. “The nice thing about it was that I didn’t have a lot of time to think. Duke Ellington couldn’t play piano for the recording because he was signed to Columbia at the time, but he sat next to me and calmed me; Billy Strayhorn played piano,” he says.
Schmitt stayed at Apex for two years, then followed Dowd to Coastal Recording Studios, where they did dates for the Atlantic, Prestige, and Sittin’ In With labels. In the late-’50s Schmitt moved to Los Angeles to work at Radio Recorders, where he became friends with Bones Howe; together they engineered Henry Mancini’s Grammy-winning The Music From Peter Gunn for RCA in ‘58. Schmitt engineered numerous sessions for Mancini and others for RCA; when RCA opened its own studio at Sunset and Vine, Schmitt was the first engineer hired. He engineered many of Hugo and Luigi’s productions of Sam Cooke, and won his first engineering Grammy for Mancini’s Hatari! (featuring “Baby Elephant Walk”) in ‘62. In ‘63 Schmitt became a staff producer at RCA.
“Producers would call me to engineer dates, and these guys would come in and they would be on the phone the whole time talking to their bookies or whoever. Or they wouldn’t show up at all. Or they would come in for one song and then leave – we would do the next song and it would be the hit. So I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m doing all of this work and these guys are getting all of the money and all of the glory for it.’ So I started doing production work at RCA in ‘63,” he says.
“In those days you were given a roster of maybe eight or ten artists to produce, and you did two or three albums a year with each. I was in the studio constantly.” While at RCA, Schmitt took over production of Sam Cooke (“always a joy to work with, really special”) after Hugo and Luigi’s contract expired, and produced his last hit, the wild “Shake” in late-’64. He produced the surf band the Astronauts, and co-produced (with Lee Hazlewood) twangy guitar great Duane Eddy.
In the mid-’60s he produced Eddie Fisher’s final stabs at the charts, Hugo Montenegro’s hugely successful film and TV music albums, and in ‘67 he took over production of one of San Francisco’s most important rock exports, the Jefferson Airplane.
The Airplane are perhaps the archetypal Summer of Love band: with the motto “Jefferson Airplane loves you,” trippy “feed-your-head” lyrics, a communal Haight-Ashbury lifestyle, and a musical style cobbled together from folk-rock (singer Marty Balin, guitarist/singer Paul Kantner), blues and roots-rock (legendary guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, who went on to form Hot Tuna), all doused liberally with psychedelics. When provocative, strident, ex-fashion model Grace Slick replaced a pregnant Signe Anderson on female lead vocals in late-’66, the group’s classic lineup was complete.
Schmitt produced four albums for the Airplane, starting with their third, ‘67’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. Crown Of Creation followed in ‘68; the exceptional live album Bless its Pointed Little Head came in ‘69, as did the group’s last great album, Volunteers.
Balin and Kantner’s title track for Volunteers is band’s best rocker ever; Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is a wistful last rallying cry for the disappearing ideals of the ‘60s; Slick’s “Hey Frederick” begins quietly before building into an 8-minute jam highlighted by Kaukonen’s guitar rampage; and the Airplane’s fine version of “Wooden Ships” is more organic and evocative than CSN’s.
Schmitt took the Airplane’s craziness in stride. “That was my first experience with doing complicated multitrack recording, with songs taking a week to record instead of a few hours. On top of that the band was bringing motorcycles and a tank of nitrous oxide into the studio. It was a little bit frustrating because I was used to people being prepared, on time, and in the right frame of mind, but I also learned an awful lot from them about spontaneity,” he says. “We would start at 8 pm and go all night. I’d go home, get a few hours sleep, and then go back to the studio to record Eddie Fisher in the morning.
“One night I got a call from Jack at 8, and he asked if we were working that night. I said, ‘Yes, right now.’ He said, ‘We’ll be right down.’ He was calling from San Francisco; we started at 11,” Schmitt laughs.
Schmitt became an independent producer in ‘67. “My salary at RCA was $17,500, plus I could earn up to $5,000 more in bonuses for the year if my records did well. That was it. There was no point structure. The producer was on a salary. The companies were making an awful lot of money in those days. Nowadays, a top producer can get 5 points [percent] on a record; back then the artist was getting that. Producers make a lot more money now. But on the other hand, money can be a drawback: records cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make these days, which puts a lot of pressure on everyone, and most of the labels are run by accountants, not creative people,” he says.
While Schmitt was producing in the ‘60s, he couldn’t engineer the same project due to union restrictions. He returned to engineering in the ‘70s and became a Grammy machine, picking up the engineering award for George Benson’s Breezin’ in ‘76 (“of the eight songs on the album, six were recorded on the first take”); Steely Dan’s Aja (considered by many one of the finest engineered albums ever) in ‘77, and “FM (No Static At All)” in ‘78.
In the ‘70s Schmitt produced the great first Hot Tuna album (the punch was spiked with LSD at the club where the record was recorded, and everyone got dosed), co-produced two classic platinum Jackson Browne albums: For Everyman (with “Take It Easy” and “Redneck Friend”), and Late For the Sky (with “Fountain Of Sorrow” and “For a Dancer”), in addition to a series of albums with Al Jarreau: We Got By, Glow, Look To the Rainbow: Live In Europe (Schmitt’s favorite Jarreau), and All Fly Home. He also co-produced (with Young and David Briggs) Neil Young’s quirky On the Beach.
Schmitt struck Grammy treasure again in ‘82 for engineering Toto IV (an album that sounded great but said very little), and he primarily concentrated on engineering throughout the decade, working with heavy hitters of every uniform: Michael Franks, Larry Carlton, Kenny Rogers, Kenny G, George Benson, Ruben Blades, Dr. John, and on and on.
In the ‘90s, forever young and busier than ever, Schmitt has balanced engineering with production. He has engineered for Frank Sinatra, Bob James, Shirley Horn, Michael Bolton, Diana Ross, Milt Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Diana Krall, Jon Secada, Carly Simon, Celine Dion, Brandy, and picked up two more Grammys: for Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable in ‘91, and Quincy Jones’ Q’s Jook Joint in ‘96. He has also produced for Joe Sample, Diane Schuur, and Tony Darren.
Unlike others who pine for the past, Schmitt embraces modern technology. “All of this technology allows you to go back in and tune a vocal, or punch in a part, or rearrange things after the fact, and makes the recording process more creative than it used to be.” Schmitt was elected into the engineer’s Hall of Fame in ‘97; he has now produced, engineered, or mixed over 150 gold and platinum albums. His place in history is secure.