From unlikely beginnings as a naval SONAR operator with no musical training, Bill Szymczyk became a legendary producer and engineer whose work with the Eagles would define the hi-fi sound of '70s rock.
"An ongoing series of happy accidents," is how Bill Szymczyk (pronounced 'Sim-zik') characterises a career that seems custom-made for a movie of its own. The stars did seem to align perfectly throughout much of his life. For instance, growing up in Muskegon, Michigan, Szymczyk built a crystal radio from a kit, as many kids did in the 1950s. You could only receive one station — if you were lucky enough to get any at all — and which one was completely a matter of chance. As it turned out, Szymczyk's windings connected him (after the antenna lead accidentally came in contact with his mattress's bed springs, amplifying the signal) with WLS in Nashville, then one of the nation's foremost outlets for blues and R&B, the kind of niche station that played the records of artists like BB King and Robert Johnson. "Of all the stations that a white kid in the middle of the Midwest would bump into..." he recalls of the moment. Fifteen years later, Szymczyk found himself producing King in New York. The bluesman hesitantly allowed him to put string parts on a track entitled 'The Thrill Is Gone', which would help King to become the most recognisable icon of blues the mainstream music world has ever had.
Szymczyk seems to have slid easily into each of the many serendipitous scenarios that fate had in store for him, and it is perhaps that ability to accept things as they are that allowed him to benefit from each new turn of events, and for the artists he worked with to reap similar advantages.
"I'm a professional listener," is how Szymczyk describes what he does as both an engineer and as a producer. "I listen and I react. I never was a musician, so I don't bring any preconceived prejudices to the table; I don't favour the guitar over the keyboard, and so forth. I just listen and try to figure out if I have anything I can bring to a song."
Szymczyk's audio career began in an offbeat manner. In 1960, the 18-year-old signed on with the US Navy. "It was the height of the Cold War at the time," he recalls. "Our arch-enemy, the Russians, supposedly had submarines everywhere, loaded with missiles ready to attack us. So the Navy had put a premium on finding recruits with very good ears, to become SONAR operators. As soon as they inducted you, they gave you an audiometer test to check your hearing. The people who scored in the top five percent they sent directly to SONAR school. They didn't ask you; they just sent you, whether you liked it or not. I guess I had pretty good ears, because in the next six months they crammed about three years' worth of college-level electronics knowledge into me."
Four years later, Sonarman Petty Officer Third Class Szymczyk was mustered out of the service having never even imagined a career in music, and never learned to play an instrument or had any particular desire to do so. "I'd always loved music," he says, "but as a listener, not a player." While in the Navy, however, his boat had been docked a few times at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, and he'd made some friends there. A course in radio and television production he'd taken in the service led him to apply to the Media Arts school at New York University, which accepted him. "Thing was, I had gotten out of the Navy in February, 1964, and classes didn't start until September, so I had to find a way to kill some time," he remembers.
A friend got him an interview at Dick Charles Recording, a studio heavily used by the new generation of songwriters that came up as the old Tin Pan Alley faded in the city. Don Kirshner was running Screen Gems Music, with staff writers like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond, who were using the studio to cut demos to acetate. "The first time I went into the studio I saw a session with Carole King and Gerry Goffin," Szymczyk says, still sounding somewhat awestruck at the memory. "I kinda got interested at that point." Interested enough that, when NYU asked for a tuition check a few months later, Szymczyk decided to stick with music for a while to see where it led him.
For 70 dollars a week, Szymczyk made the acetate copies of the demos that were being churned out on Dick Charles Recording's mono machines at a furious pace, in the days before the singer-songwriter undercut the notion of the professional pop composer. Within a year, though, he had worked his way into the engineer's seat, cutting some of the demos by ping-ponging back and forth on a pair of mono tape decks.
A songwriter, Helen Miller, referred Szymczyk to Bob Lifton, owner of Regent Sound a little further uptown and substantially further upscale. "At Dick Charles, we only had mono decks," he explains. "Regent was a full four-track facility with a Scully multitrack machine. Bob took me on and I ended up managing the place as well as doing sessions there. We did folkies in the daytime, like Phil Ochs, Tom Rush and David Blue, and we did these independent R&B records at night, like Van McCoy. I got to the point where I was working 80 hours a week."
The next serendipitous occurrence took place in 1967 when Szymczyk met Jerry Ragavoy, producer for R&B artists like Paul Butterfield, Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick, who was preparing to open the Hit Factory studio at its original location at 701, Seventh Avenue. (Ragavoy moved it twice, and operated from multiple locations, before selling the studios to the late Ed Germano in the 1970s, who consolidated them into the current huge facility.) Szymczyk became the Hit Factory's first regular engineer, and saw working closely with Ragavoy as more than worth the position: "If anyone taught me how to be a producer, it was Jerry Ragavoy. I saw how he handled musicians, how he chose songs, how he got performances out of people. The kinds of things you can only learn by being and working with someone closely for months and months on end."
It was information he'd make good use of. Szymczyk saw the careers of engineers-turned-producers like Tom Dowd and Glyn Johns taking off, and wanted to make the same transition himself. "One way would have been to keep freelance engineering and hope that bands would recognise my production potential, too," he says. But when a chance to become a staff producer at Paramount-owned ABC Records was offered to him, he didn't hesitate, even though it meant a pay cut, from the $1000 he was earning a week as busy freelancer to the $300 the label was offering. Shortly after signing on, Szymczyk began lobbying executives to let him make a record with BB King, whose label, Blues Way Records, just happened to be a subsidiary of ABC Records (more happy accidents). Reluctant at first to pair a white producer with a black artist, the A&R department relented on the condition that they could sell the idea to King himself.
King's records had recently been produced by Johnny Pate, using King's road band. Szymczyk envisioned a more energetic recording and pressed King to use certain New York session players, musicians he had met while working with Ragavoy. "The way it was, BB was basically recutting the same record over and over again," Szymczyk says. "We met at his hotel room and I outlined what I hoped to do. He said it was interesting, but he wanted to hedge his bets, so he said we won't do the whole album that way, just half of it, the other half being done the way he always made records, with his band."
Live & Well came out in early 1969 and spawned the R&B hit 'Why I Sing The Blues', which also made a dent in the pop charts. This convinced the label and King to quickly take another shot at this combination. Later that same year, Completely Well came out with 'The Thrill Is Gone', which would become King's signature song. "On that record, I used Herbie Lovelle on drums," Szymczyk says, "Gerald Jemmott on bass, Paul Harris on keyboards and Hugh McCracken on guitar. It was an evenly mixed band racially. Half black, half white, but they were all young guys. The energy was there. BB started playing the song riff in that minor key and Paul picked up on it immediately on the Wurlitzer electric piano. It fell into its groove in minutes. I was freaking out, that's how good it was. Then I got the idea to put strings on it. I called BB and he hesitated a bit. But I called in a great arranger who wrote this killer, hypnotic chart and we put it down. That was his breakthrough record."
It would be a good one for Szymczyk, as well. ABC gave him the green light to find and sign his own acts to produce. One of the first was the James Gang, fronted by the eccentric Joe Walsh. They recorded at the Record Plant and at the second incarnation of the Hit Factory, where Szymczyk worked the hand-built 10:2 console and Scully eight-track deck. The studio was outfitted with Altec 604E monitors, but Szymczyk was aware of the value of nearfield monitoring even in those days, so he asked for and got a pair of KLH 17s for the James Gang mixes.
Szymczyk's next happy accident was when ABC Records merged with Dunhill Records and those staff in New York not made redundant — both of them — were shipped to Los Angeles. Szymczyk was one of them. He, his wife and two-year-old child flew out on New Year's Eve, 1969 and landed on New Year's Day, 1970. A new year, a new decade, a new chapter.
Szymczyk's first assignment in LA was an odd one. He was designated the music supervisor for a bizarre rock-western film being shot in Mexico. Zachariah would not only feature the music of the James Gang, the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble (featuring as lead singer the late Michael Kamen), Country Joe & the Fish and Elvin Jones, but it would be their on-screen feature film debuts, as well. (Country Joe was the cinema veteran, having been in the Woodstock film the year before.) "It was all very weird, very weird," Szymczyk says. "It was the perfect way to get introduced to Hollywood."
Szymczyk lived there little more than a year before a sizeable earthquake sent him literally running for the hills. In February, 1971, he and a colleague from ABC/Dunhill decided to start a label, Tumbleweed Records, and located it in a rented house in Denver, which Szymczyk figured was far enough away from any new earthquakes. The first few months were a struggle — Szymczyk took a DJ job at a local radio station while his partner, Larry Ray, scrounged for start-up capital in New York. Finally, Famous Music came through with $1 million and both the label and a joint production company were off and running.
"I made sure that the agreement that we had with the production company was non-exclusive, allowing me to produce records that weren't on our label," Szymczyk explains. And it would seem he was going to be busier elsewhere than in Colorado for a while. Besides producing Joe Walsh's classic first solo record, Barnstorm, and subsequently The Player You Get, The Smoker You Drink, which had the hit 'Rocky Mountain Way' on it, Szymczyk also met with the J Geils Band, rootsy blues-rockers from Boston. Realising he'd rather be in the studio full-time, Szymczyk traded his half of the record label for Ray's half of the production company.
Szymczyk and the J Geils Band settled into the Record Plant Studios in New York. He was getting them on their second LP, The Morning After, which spawned the hit 'Looking For A Love'. "The band always recorded ensemble," he recalls. "There were really very few overdubs, occasionally a harp solo by Magic Dick. Even Peter Wolf's vocals were often cut live as the band was putting down the track. We made those records in between three and four weeks."
Eagles records were a benchmark for drum sounds in their time. Bill Szymczyk says he and Henley invested a lot of time experimenting with microphone choices and placements, but that most of the time they reverted to fairly common configurations. "There was a lot of flavour-of-the-week with microphones back then," he says. "But it would usually come back to a Shure 57 on the top of the snare, either U67 or 87s as overheads, sometimes AKG 414s. It was the usual stuff, and always on just four tracks. One of the reasons the drums sounded good was because they were a kit, not a whole bunch of separate tracks. We didn't use a lot of room sound on the drums, but we did use the EMT plates a lot. We actually used the first electronic drum on 'Heartache Tonight'. I had gone to a bar in Miami and heard this band using a SynAir and we decided we'd use it to double the snare on that track. It was groundbreaking for its time."
Szymczyk also began to use comping to get the Eagles' signature vocals. "Studio C at Criteria had this one-of-a-kind MCI console. It had LEDs that could turn channels on and off much more quickly than the usual buttons. It was instant. I'd usually do five takes of the lead vocal and then start comping my way through them, picking out lines, phrases and words. And we did it all without automation."
The Eagles's background and harmony vocals were stacked on two or three tracks, panned modestly at about eight and four o'clock. They were always recorded ensemble, around a single microphone. "The great thing about them was that they really could sing and they could connect with each other as they sang. But it was also the most tedious part, because when you have four voices on one track, that's four chances for one to make a mistake. Sometimes we'd do the same phrase for three hours to get it right."
However, it was all worth it, says Szymczyk — the madness, the pharmaceuticals, the arguing. "What stays with me now is how proud I am that those records we made have withstood the test of time," he says, with genuine emotion. "It's very gratifying to stand in a restaurant or a lobby and hear 'Hotel California' playing in the background."
But Szymczyk was still living in Colorado, which was becoming the rustic retreat for some of the LA music industry's odder citizens. It was about to become a recording centre, assuring that the flow of eccentricity from west to east would continue. Producer Jimmy Guercio had had considerable success producing the bands Chicago and the Illinois Speed Press. He had moved to nearby Nederland and was in the process of converting a barn into a recording studio. Szymczyk and Walsh, just starting on Walsh's solo record, managed to burn out the mixer at Walsh's home on the first day.
"So I drove over to Guercio's ranch," Szymczyk says. "It had a huge barn with the interior about two-thirds done, but very little gear. We talked and he said he was going to Hollywood to make a movie, Electraglide In Blue, with Robert Redford. He was originally the producer but he fired the director and was going to direct it himself, so he would be gone for a while. He had ordered an MCI 4-Series console and it was installed but the building had no plumbing and the main floor still had a dirt floor and horse stalls. But upstairs where the studio was was carpeted and it had a nice new grand piano. We could make it work." Thus, Szymczyk christened what would be dubbed the Caribou Ranch with Walsh's Barnstorm LP followed by Rick Derringer's All American Boy and the single 'Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo'. (Szymczyk had met Derringer when the former was the engineer on Edgar Winter's famous instrumental 'Frankenstein'.)
When James Guercio returned to Caribou with the Beach Boys and Chicago in tow for records, Szymczyk saw it as another sign that things were going to change for him once again. He had done a few scouting trips to Miami. "All the New Yorkers were down there," he says. "Tom Dowd had gone down there. He really sold me on the move. And there was a great studio there, Criteria."
One of the first records Szymczyk did in Criteria was Walsh's second, The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, which Walsh had started there on his own; Walsh and Szymczyk ultimately took it back to Colorado and finished it at Caribou Ranch. Walsh was managed by Irving Azoff, who also managed the Eagles. Szymczyk recalls the way he and that band would become intertwined for the next decade. "They had worked with Glyn Johns on the first record, but I was told that they didn't get along. Don [Henley] and Glenn [Frey] felt that Glyn was a tyrant in the studio. They regarded themselves as an American band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on rock. They saw Glyn as taking them more towards a slicker pop sound.
"They had already had a couple of hits from that first record — 'Take It Easy' and 'Peaceful Easy Feeling', but the second record didn't sell as well as the first. They started the third record with Glyn in London and had completed most of it when they decided to work with me. They were willing to start all over. I agreed, but on one condition: that I check with Glyn and that he was OK with it. He was one of the producers I had looked up to for a long time. I called him in London and I guess the feeling was mutual, because he said 'Better you than me, mate!'"
Szymczyk and the Eagles went into Criteria and cut On The Border in three weeks. It was a substantial change from how they had worked with Johns. "Don Henley asked me how many microphones I used on drums," Szymczyk recalls. "I said I used about eight or so. He was stunned; Glyn used to use two or three at the most. Don wanted to be a rock drummer, and he heard the sounds they were getting on rock records. That's what he wanted and he was convinced that was how you got those sounds." Their first recordings together were done on a 16-track machine, but multiple 24-track decks soon followed. (In fact, Szymczyk is not being curmudgeonly when he says that he believes younger engineers are at a disadvantage because of access to virtually unlimited tracks. "What you don't learn when you work in Pro Tools is how to make decisions," he states. "When you're running six microphones to mono, you definitely learn to make decisions right on the spot, because you can't fix it in the mix. The advent of multitracking led to the ability to defer decision-making. But at some point, somebody's gotta deal with it.")
The Eagles were no strangers to internal turmoil. Founding member Bernie Leadon had quit during the second album in a dispute that found him wanting to emphasise the 'country' part of the band's country-rock equation while the rest wanted it to stress the latter. Bassist Randy Meisner was essentially fired and replaced by Timothy B Schmidt (who had also previously replaced Meisner in Poco). Szymczyk says his production style was well-suited to this turgid environment. "I was a bud, not a boss," he says. "They would not react well to someone dictating what should happen. Mostly I just listened and was always willing to try new stuff."
What definitely got tried was Szymczyk's patience. The next album, The Long Run, took 18 months to complete, and tempers flared often. It was recorded in Studio A at Criteria. The next, One Of These Nights, was split between Criteria and Record Plant in LA, as was Hotel California. Some of the Eagles' recordings were also done in a personal studio, Bayshore Recording, that Szymczyk had put together in 1976. It had an MCI console, like virtually every other studio in the area, since MCI's founder, the late Jeep Harned, was based there.
Szymczyk's pace slowed down as his work with the Eagles began to turn into a career. "I used to make six or seven records a year," he says. "Now, the Eagles were becoming a full-time job. We were renting the studios by the month; each album was taking longer to make. On The Border, they came in with all the songs completely written. On the next record, they had maybe five or six finished songs and a bunch of ideas they developed in the studio. As things progressed, it became more like 'Let's cut some tracks and try to write songs around them later.' By the time of Hotel California, that was the norm for them. But every record was selling better than the one before it. They were minting money. So we all stayed with it. It was a life of excess, and I was right there with them in the middle of it."
There is another new Eagles record sitting in the can, but sadly, in the can it will likely stay. Szymczyk and the band began working on it nearly three years ago, but the same personality conflicts that scuttled the band the first time are preventing this career coda's completion. "We have 17 tracks — and three sets of completed lyrics," smiles Szymczyk, who retired officially in 1990 to a spacious, secluded home in North Carolina after racking up a few more hits with artists such as Bob Seger (he produced and engineered 'Against The Wind') and the Who's Face Dances. "Some things never change." (One track, 'Hole In The World', was finished and released on the Eagles' second best-of collection.) The basic tracks were done in Los Angeles between O'Henry Studios and the Henson Studios, formerly A&M Records' studios, which Szymczyk says has the best drum room he's ever heard. Overdubs get done — sporadically — at Glenn Frey's home studio. "There's some incredible tracks we have," Szymczyk laments. "I hope they get to see the light of day some day."