Al Schmitt: On The Record

Al Schmitt, the engineer behind countless hit records, has passed away aged 91.

Headliner reflects on the time we met up with the 23-time Grammy Award-winning recording engineer and record producer in 2019 who shared his memories of working 12 hours straight with Elvis, supplying Sinatra with Tootsie Rolls, having dinner with the Mafia, and what he credits with saving his life.

“It’s not every day you get to meet a music legend,” I think as I squeeze my way through a bustling music event to sit down with Grammy Award-winning recording engineer and record producer, Al Schmitt. A 23-time Grammy Award-winner. Regarded as one of the finest record producers in the world, ironically Al was desensitised from meeting legends himself from a very early age.

“When I was a kid at my uncle’s studio I was around all these celebrities, so when I got older and was around celebrities it wasn’t really a big deal,” he begins humbly.

“They were just like normal people to me. And as I kid they were all messing my hair and joking with me. People like Orson Welles would want to know if I believed in Martians, so I was never really impressed by anybody. Not even Elvis when I worked with him. I treated them like a normal human beings, not like they’re up on some pedestal. And I think that makes a big difference because I act as if I’m on par with them, and they feel the same way.”

You know that anyone that casually drops the names Orson Welles and Elvis into a few short sentences has some cool stories, and boy Al does not disappoint.

The Brooklyn-born producer has lost no love for the craft he has been honing since his teenage years, and can still be found energetically working on new projects within the legendary Capitol Studios in California.

So where to start a conversation with a man with five decades worth of Grammy hits under his belt? A personal connection seems fitting.

Back in 1994 I was in my early 20s and working as an engineer’s assistant for Dave Grusin at GRP Records. After he retired and sold the label, MCA brought in legendary producer Tommy Lipuma to run the place and I got to hang around him while he made records with his friends, who also happened to be the best in the business.

I don’t have nearly as many names to drop as the man before me today, but people like Klaus Ogerman, David Foster, Johnny Mandel, George Benson and Dr. John each had a profound effect on me. However my fondest memories are of one of the kindest, generous and most talented engineers in the business, the very person I have come to interview today.

I want to be remembered as someone who gave his best and was kind to everyone.

As an aspiring sound engineer myself, working with Tommy and Al was an absolute dream. Not only l did I learn how to make records the right way, I also learned how to treat people. No matter if you were the the highest paid musician in the room, the receptionist, or me - the guy getting coffee and wrapping up cables.

These great men made you feel a part of what they were doing and that you were an integral part of getting it done.

To this day, Al still treats everybody on the job with the same kindness.

“My assistants are a very big part of what I do,” he nods. “My assistant now is Steve Jenolic and we’re a TEAM. We talk about sessions beforehand, drawing up diagrams, discussing the mics we’re gonna use and how we’re gonna use them. Then we make sure we get to the studio three-to-four hours beforehand to set-up and check all the phasing on the mics and to check all the other equipment out.

"I get a special pride when assistants who’ve worked for me are now outstanding engineers making big records and are considered top of the line professionals. And knowing that a lot of the things they do are things that I taught them.”

Al’s achievements and the stories he tells (fresh in the mind as if they happened yesterday, by the way) could fill a book. Very convenient, as Al recently released his autobiography, Al Schmitt on the Record: The Magic Behind the Music - a precious time capsule of memories, meetings, the highs and lows of his illustrious career so far - and a trip through music history.

A highlight from the book is a chapter that looks back at Al’s first ever Grammy win - Best Engineering Contribution – Other Than Novelty And Other Than Classical - for 1962 film Hartari! starring John Wayne.

Reflecting on attempting to record an entire orchestra all at once with no overdubs, Al was quoted as saying: “Was it tough? Damn right it was tough. That’s why I won the Grammy!”

Laughing, Al shakes his head at the memory. “Ha! Did I say that? Things changed for me then because more people got to know my work and the phone started ringing. From that moment I really started working my ass off.”

And it paid off. Awards and recognition aside, artists Al has worked with include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, Diana Krall, Henry Mancini, Norah Jones, Quincy Jones and Toto - to name but a few.

Add to that the fact that Al is reported to have won more Grammys than any other engineer in the history of music. Meanwhile the music speaks for itself: the albums he’s worked on have sold over a billion copies worldwide.

Despite his success, Al will never forget the moment that put things in perspective for him after that very first Grammy win.

“My grandson asked me to come and speak to his classmates at his elementary school and bring the Grammy to do a show and tell. So I get there and before me is this big fireman telling his story about putting out fires and saving lives and I’m thinking, ‘how am I gonna follow him,’ right?

“Anyway, I start telling my story and the kids are passing around the trophy. And then some kid in the back says to me, ‘My dad has one of those too!’ And I’m thinking, wow, that’s pretty cool, another guy in my grandkid’s class is in the business too. So I ask him what his dad won it for and the kid says, ‘Bowling!’ So yeah, it put it all right in perspective for me. His dad’s bowling trophy was just as important to his his family as my Grammy was to mine.”

Was it tough? Damn right it was tough. That’s why I won the Grammy!

Even after winning 23 of the things, Al is as grateful and humble to receive each Grammy Award as the one preceding it, keeping all of them on a (assumingly fairly cluttered, by now) shelf in his office.

“I have five of the original Grammys, which were the smaller ones they gave out made out of cast iron,” he explains.

“They wanted me to turn them in and give me new ones and I wouldn’t do it. There is one that really is special to me; getting that Lifetime Achievement Award from the academy was pretty special.”

I have to ask: what was it like when Elvis first walked into the room?

“It was really cool. He had just got out of the service,” he remembers. “I had that one day with him; he got there early and we worked 12 straight hours, which I had never done before. It was always three hours and then you set up for the next thing and then another three hours with a different artist. And everybody was there…his entourage and such.

"I remember he had a Topaz bracelet - really beautiful - and my assistant who collected topaz said to Elvis: ‘Man, that’s a beautiful bracelet’. and Elvis said: ‘You think so? Here, man you can have it.’ Elvis was just a really good guy and was an amazing presence.”

During his career, Al has been witness to moments of music history, however none come to mind more than his time spent with Frank Sinatra (although by the casual way he tosses out his name, you’d think he were speaking about his accountant). His admiration for the crooner goes way back, with Al sneaking out of school to go and see him at the Paramount Theater.

“The first time he walked into the studio, he put his arm around me and we took a picture and I gotta say, that was the only time in my career I was in awe. I mean Paul McCartney I love, and there was Dylan and of course Elvis, but there was only one Frank Sinatra and he was very special. And you know what? Frank was cool! And so much fun to work with.”

Although Al’s time with Frank wasn’t just confined to the studio, often dining at Hollywood Italian restaurant, La Dolca Vita together.

“There were six guys with us. Hank Cantanio who was Frank’s right-hand man, Pat Williams his arranger, producer Phil Ramone, me and a Mafia Don (that will go nameless) and at the head of the table was Frank. And no one else said a word. Just the Mafia Don and Frank who told stories all night. We just sat there listening with our jaws open.”

Much like the readers of Al’s autobiography, if these stories are anything to go by.

Back in the studio, Frank was a man who knew what he liked. “We built a little sound booth for him at the studio and put a new bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a carton of Camel cigarettes and a bunch of Tootsie Rolls in there for him,” Al smiles.

“Man, he loved Tootsie Rolls. But Frank wouldn’t go in the booth, he wanted to be right in front of the band!

“He asked me: ‘So where do you want me?’ And I told him that Phil Ramone had built that little booth for him. Frank just looked at me and said: ‘Uhh yeah, I’m not going in there.’ It wasn’t my problem! I said fine, and looked over at Phil and he just shrugged his shoulders. So Frank stood in front of the brass section and said ‘I’ll be here’. And right in front of the band is where he sang for the whole session.”

Ever set on having it his way (couldn’t resist), Frank didn’t want to use his normal mic, preferring a hand-held one. “We got a wireless microphone out and gave it to him and that was it,” says Al. “He stood right in front of the band and Frank did Frank.”

Another famous studio frequented by Al is London’s Abbey Road’s Studio Two, the home of landmark recordings from artists such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Oasis and Adele.

“Working with Paul [McCartney] was great. He told us a lot of stories about what happened there. He told me that when he first started working at Abbey Road they wouldn’t let him in the front door. He had to use the door around the back because they were told they looked too shabby to be seen coming through the front door!”

There hasn’t ever been a time that Al doubted that this was the career he always wanted. However there was a time when this decision was taken completely out of his hands when an accident left him completely deaf in one ear.

“I thought my career was over. I lost my hearing in one ear for a while and I stopped engineering for almost three years. Mo Ostin was really kind to me and he hooked me up with Dino De Laurentiis and I started working on films. And on Dune I was the liaison between Toto and the producer and director. And that’s when I really missed engineering.

"I woke up one morning and the nerves healed themselves, just like the doctor said they would. I walked outside to get the paper and all of a sudden I heard the birds and everything. It was such a relief!”

After struggling with drink and drugs for years, Al credits his sobriety with saving his life.

“I’ve been sober for 31 years. I’ve been married a few times. My first wife passed away, my second wife…divorced, my third wife…divorced. All because I was drunk all the time. At that time in my life I didn’t want to work on things. If I didn’t like the way things were going I was like, fuck it I’m out of here. Which was not a good way to be.

“So when I quit all the drugs and the alcohol and I started to go to meetings and doing the Twelve Steps, that changed my life and the way I think about things. I’m married 26 years now to my wife, Lisa, and we have our moments, but I used to walk out and now I take responsibility for things I used to put on someone else. And I no longer wake up and say ‘what the hell did I do?’ My sobriety is probably the most important thing in my life.”

Animals and environmental issues are also important to Al, who together with Lisa are involved in several non-profit organisations close to their hearts.

“If people see animals being abused they need to speak up. These animals don’t have a voice, we’re their voice. Maybe this has developed from my meditation but I think that every living thing has feelings. I say this all the time: we’ve gotta be kind to all living things. It’s so much easier to be kind than to be an asshole.”

And while he’s on the subject:

“I honestly believe that humans are the cancer of this earth,” he adds. “We are destroying this planet. When you look and see what’s been going on in the oceans, and the fact that people can’t get drinking water that’s clean. The average guy doesn’t seem to care and leaves it to someone else to worry about it.

"What are we gonna leave our kids and are grand kids? what are we gonna leave them? I spend a lot of time with Neil Young and we talk a lot about that. We just need to be good to each other and show kindness to each other.”

Technology plays such a key role in Al’s recording career, witnessing decades of changes and techniques along the way. What technology has changed the game for him?

“The biggest advance is probably Pro Tools. Going from tape to Pro Tools allowed greater flexibility with the editing process, cutting and pasting voices and guitar parts. Now you can do all that in two minutes - before you would have to splice tape! When you have to do that on tape, you gotta mark the tape, cut the tape, tape the tape. And you got people sitting around and costing more and more money as the clock is ticking.”

Al must miss something about the old school way of recording?

“The thing I miss most is having that time when you had some time to rest while rewinding tape. With Pro-Tools you just hit a button and it goes back to the spot. With that there’s never a break and we’re just working all the time. Me and other engineers talk about that all the time. We miss that welcomed pause rewinding tape gave you to take a breath and relax.”

With new technology now comes new ways to listen to music. Where once we listed to records through receivers and big speakers, now people are listening to music on small speakers on their computer, or compressed via headphones from their smartphones. Does Al take any of that into account during production?

“No, I really don’t. I try to make the best sounding record I can make so that it sounds good on anything. And once in a while I’ll listen on little speakers or on an iPhone just to see what’s going on. But it doesn’t much change what I do. I just try to make a great sounding record and let it go.

Al’s next project will see him recording Melody Gardot at Capitol Studios, a person he is excited to work with again. “Melody is an amazing talent. She’s a great singer and she writes great songs.”

If he could go back and do one last session with any of the artists he has worked with over the years, who would it be?

“That’s a tough one,” he pauses. “As I mentioned, I love Frank Sinatra, so one would definitely be him. But I’d also love to see Dr. John again; Mac and I were good friends. There were so many others, it’s really not fair for me to pick favourites…Ha! But I just did.”

With such an impressive musical legacy, how does Al want to be remembered?

“As someone who gave his best and was kind to everyone”.