Producer Bill Szymczyk: In It For The Long Run

  http://www.goldminemag.com/wp-content/uploads/BillSzymczyk_HomeStudio_FI.jpg

By Jeb Wright
Photo by Lisi Szymczyk.

Bill Szymczyk traded in a career working behind the scenes in radio and television for a career working with rock bands in the studio. This was before it was a glamorous job. Technology, while rapidly changing, was still in its infancy when it came to recording music. Starting on a three-track tape machine, Bill worked his way up from the bottom – we are talking sweeping floors in the studio bottom – to being the producer on landmark albums by the Eagles, Joe Walsh, Bob Seger and many others.

The interview that follows is simply riveting as Szymczyk tells the tale of working with BB King, putting up with the dysfunction of the Who and putting the ending guitar solos together on the classic “Hotel California.”


 

Jeb: How does one go from being an expert in the military in Sonar to being an iconic rock and roll producer?

Bill: When I got out of the service, I moved to New York City and I needed a temporary job before I went to study radio and television at college in the fall. The job that I got through a friend, of a friend, of a friend, was working in a studio fixing things, as I had been trained in electronic gear in the military – I was fixing things and sweeping the floors.

This was in February and by July, or August, it became apparent that being in the studio was way more fun than going to college. Over the course of a weekend, I had to make the decision to stay in the studio, or send in tuition money and get enrolled in college. I chose the right path.

Jeb: What a crossroads you were at and you really had no idea just how important it was.

Bill: You’re right, who knew?

Jeb: At what point did it become more than sweeping floors and fixing things?

Bill: At that time it had. I was starting to engineer some small projects and I was getting a lot of hands on experience. I realized just how fun this all was. This was in 1964 and the State of the Art was a three-track recording. The studio I was in was basically a demo studio. We did a lot of demos for Don Kirshner’s music company. We had two mono machines that we would make like ten generations off a recording, going overdub to overdub. The first session I was involved with was a demo session featuring Carole King; that was cool.

Jeb: Was music a passion of yours growing up?

Bill: Of course, the first time I heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was right before I got out of the service and I knew something different was going on. Back in high school, I was the deejay for all of the high school dances.

Jeb: Do you feel that because you were not a musician, and, in fact, had no musical background, that you had a unique perspective on things in the studio?

Bill: I think it provided me with the freedom to not be drawn to any one thing. I think I was different than a guitar player who made a record, or a keyboard player who made a record. There are great musicians who go into producing and do a wonderful job, but, in my case, I didn’t play an instrument, I played the board; I played console. Over the course of quite a few years, you pick up a lot of things by osmosis because you hear the terminology over and over.

At one point, when I was living in Denver, Joe Walsh actually gave me a gorgeous Martin guitar and he taught me a few chords. He said, “You need to learn how to play.” For three or four months, I tried my semi-very best, but I finally decided that these big meaty hands were not made for running around the fret board. I finally told him that he should just let me do what I do and I gave him back the guitar.

Jeb: You went from a nobody, as a producer, to being the producer for BB King, how did that happen?

Bill: I was working at the original Hit Factory for Jerry Ragovoy. I was his engineer and I was actually doing quite well as an engineer. I was able to freelance and was making a very nice living. Working under Jerry, I saw how a producer really works. I learned from him how to handle musicians and how to handle a session and so on. Sometimes, during a session, when I was engineering other people’s records, I would put my two cents in. Sometimes someone would be producing and they were out of their league and I would jump in and take over. A gentleman named Otis Smith, who worked for ABC Paramount, at the time, was the head of sales, but he was also the de facto A&R man, when it came to the R&B stuff. He saw me do some work when I needed to take over from producers who were really struggling and he offered me a job. He said, “You do really good work. Do you want to come and be a staff producer at ABC?” This led to another weekend of deep thought, as I was making about a grand a week as a freelance engineer, which was big money back in 1968. The starting pay for that job was only three hundred. I had a wife and a kid by this point and I sat around all weekend going, “Do I or don’t I?” I finally decided that this chance may never come again and I moved from Manhattan back to Queens.

http://www.goldminemag.com/wp-content/uploads/BillSzymczykWithBBKing.jpg

Jeb: Were you assigned to produce BB King?

Bill: I got assigned others things first, but one day I was looking at the roster. I was a big blues fan growing up in Michigan. In the 1950’s, I discovered a radio station called WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee and they were playing all of this great blues stuff like BB King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and all of the other greats. I fell in love with the blues even though very few white kids in Michigan even knew about that stuff. In Michigan, on the radio you were not getting BB King, you were getting Eddie Fisher. I started buying these albums that they advertised on the radio and I started playing those records at the high school dances.

I saw that BB King was on the roster and I started bugging the guys in charge about producing him. The guys in charge said, “You can’t do that. You’re too young and you’re way too white.” I kept on bugging them and finally, they said, “BB is coming to town for a couple of shows next week. We’ll set up a meeting with you and him and if he is alright with it then you can do it.”

I pitched BB my idea and he said, “I will try that.” My idea was to get some of the young and energetic session players that I had been working with and have BB play with them, as opposed to his big band that he took on the road with him. BB said, “I will do that, but I think we should do it half and half. “ We did Alive and Well, which Alive was his band and Well was my stuff. We had my first hit which was, “Why I Sing the Blues.” BB said, “That worked out really good. Let’s do another one.” The next album was called Completely Well, which was all of my band. The album had “The Thrill is Gone” on it and then it was game over.

Jeb: At that time a lot of British bands were heavily influenced by the blues.

Bill: I worked that into my pitch to BB. I told him to listen to Cream and to Ten Years After and all of those bands. They were recycling the blues and giving it back to us. I knew there was an audience there and there, indeed, was.”

Jeb: You produced the Cook County Jail show.

Bill: I had two prisoners who were assigned to me to help me set up the microphones and things. I asked one guy, “What are you in for?” He said, “I killed my wife. She had it coming.” There was a lot of hardcore stuff going on in there.

Jeb: What did you learn from working with an artist like BB King?

Bill: It is not so much anything you learn, as it is things you absorb. BB King was one of the most generous, kind and appreciative people in the whole world.

Jeb: You were working with Michael Stanley back then before anyone knew who he was. We are talking 1969.

Bill: When I had the hit with “The Thrill is Gone” the powers at be at ABC met with me. I told them now that I had a hit and that I knew what I was doing, that I wanted to go out and sign my own rock band. They said, “Okay.” A friend of mine had moved to Cleveland and was managing a bar called Otto’s Grotto. He told me, “Bill, there are a lot of killer bands out here. You have to come and check it out.” I went to Cleveland and one of the bands was called The Tree Stumps, which was the band that Michael Stanley was in. We changed the name to ‘Silk’ because The Tree Stumps just wasn’t going to cut it. We made an album and it appeared on the charts for one week and then it was gone. I kept in touch with Michael, years later, when I started my own record label.

I, also, at that time, signed The James Gang, who were from Cleveland. I met them through some friends of mine from being in the music scene there in Cleveland.

Jeb: Before we jump into the James Gang, I have to say that I think Michael Stanley never got the success he deserved.

Bill: You got that right. He’s probably still, to this day, my best friend in the business. We are still in constant contact. I just love his solo records he has been doing over the last ten years. I mixed his latest album. What we will do is that he will record, and record, and record, over the course of a year, or eighteen months, and then, when he is about done, he will call me. I will take a bunch of gear out of my studio and drive to Ohio. Between his gear, and my gear, we have enough to mix an album. We hang out for two weeks and have a great time.

Jeb: Did Michael and Joe Walsh know each other clear back then?

Bill: Oh yes, I had Joe play on Michael’s first solo album on Tumbleweed Records, which was the label that I started after I left ABC in 1971. In 1972, I called Michael Stanley and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Nothing.” I told him, “Come out here and bring some of your songs; we are going to sign you and make an album with you.” The band was Joe Walsh, Joe Vitale, Paul Harris, Al Perkins and Joe Walla – it was all of the guys.

Jeb: Did you sign The James Gang?

Bill: Yes, I did, back when I was scouting bands in Cleveland. I went to see them and they were playing in a high school gym, which back then they called a Hullabaloo. I was with their sort of manager at the time and we were walking into the place and it sounded like there was a five-piece band playing. I walked around the corner and I saw the band on stage and there were only three people playing. I thought, “Damn, this guys pretty good.” I watched the set and then afterwards I talked to Joe and I said, “Joe, I’d like to maybe think about producing you guys and signing you.” They had cut some demos and I took them back to New York and I studied them. I really wanted to sign them, so I talked to the bosses and they said, “Bring them out.” I signed them and they got a total advance of $2000. The entire album only cost something like seven grand. We knocked out the first album in about a week or so and we were off and running.

Jeb: Was Joe as unique as we’ve come to know him even back then?

Bill: Very much so, he was very inventive. He was still finding his way as a singer, but as a player he was pretty damn good. He has really gotten immense now. We were just working together last week and he has gotten incredibly better over the years, but back then, he was pretty damn good.

Jeb: On the song “The Bomber” you had to remove the “Bolero” section in it.

Bill: The band used to use little sections of music to warm up and one of the pieces they used to warm up was a medley of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Bolero.” I told them that we had to put a song around that, so we did with “The Bomber.” The first thirty thousand copies of The James Gang Rides Again album had it on there, but the estate of Ravel somehow heard it and shut it down. I had to go in the studio and edit it out and the rest of the copies did not have that on it, until, I think like 1996, when I went in and remastered the entire James Gang catalog. The reissues, done in the past fifteen years or so, I was able to put it back in because the statute of limitations had passed.

Jeb: They were a very influential band.

Bill: They were. Walsh was just telling me a story about something that Dave Grohl said. He said that Nirvana was just a shitty James Gang – that’s a real quote. Grohl told Walsh that they wanted to be like them.

Jeb: Did you know “Funk 49” was going to be a hit when you first heard it?

Bill: No, I had no idea. I was just happy that it happened. We were just analyzing that song the other day. That song is six lines and a killer guitar lick – that’s all it is.

Jeb: Did you feel for Joe Walsh to grow as an artist that he had to leave the James Gang?

Bill: Yes, and so did he. To me, that was the difference between the four James Gang albums that he and I were involved with and the first album we did together, which was Barnstorm; the difference was night and day. It was stuff that the other guys couldn’t play.

I had moved to Colorado at the time from LA. ABC was going to close their New York office, so they moved me to LA. Only two guys, out of 80 people, were transferred to LA. The two guys were me and the guy who hired me. This was in 1970 and during that period is when we did The James Gang Rides Again. An earthquake happened in February of 1971 and that didn’t register for me. The day the earthquake happened was the day that I became an independent producer and moved to Denver. Shortly after I moved there, the James Gang came through on a tour. Walsh and I went out and got righteously drunk. Joe said, “I really want to quit. I really want to start my solo career.” I told him, “You go ahead and quit and you come out here and we’ll do it.” He said, “Okay” and a few months later, that is actually what happened.

Jeb: Wasn’t that a huge risk for you to move to Denver as back then New York and LA were the big time.

Bill: I just assumed that we could do it anywhere. One of the great things that happened to us – it was very serendipitous at the time – was that Jimmy Guercio had relocated to Nederland, Colorado. Jimmy had produced Chicago and the Beach Boys and stuff like that. He built Caribou Ranch Studio and Joe lived like three miles from Caribou. The actually building was in a barn and the studio was on the second floor. He had just about finished the studio, as far as the flooring, and the wood in the control room, and all of that. He didn’t, however, have any gear. He was fixing to leave to go produce and direct a movie. We said, “Wait, before you leave can you just get us a little temporary board, so we can start recording?” He got us a little MCI400 series board and a sixteen track 3M tape machine and he went off to make his movie. We hunkered down and made Barnstorm.

Jeb: You said earlier that you learned how to handle a session. At this point you are on your own. Did you grow tremendously as a producer at this time, since you were now the only one?

Bill: Oh yeah, definitely, most assuredly. It is really just handling people and doing it the right way to get the best out of them. As I say, it’s not rocket surgery [laughter].

Jeb: How was Walsh in your studio?

Bill: He was a sweetheart. Remember, it was Jimmy’s studio, not mine. I didn’t have a studio until I moved to Miami, years later.

Jeb: Walsh told me in a recent interview that he joined the Eagles because, despite his solo career going well, he didn’t like being ‘the guy.’

Bill: That is when he joined the Eagles. I hate to admit this, but I was against that move. I was producing the Eagles. I said to Joe, “Why would you jeopardize your solo career to join this band?” It ended up it was a great idea for him to join the Eagles.

Jeb: Speaking of the Eagles, for them to move more from country rock to being a mainstream rock band, did Bernie Leadon have to go?

Bill: One of the reasons that I got that gig was because Glyn Johns had produced their first two albums and Glyn is somewhat of a tyrant in the studio; it’s his way or no way at all. Glenn Fry and Don Henley wanted to go in a more rock direction and Glyn said, “You can’t do that. You’re not a rock band. You’re a vocal band.” That pissed them off to the point where they just said ‘fuck it’ and packed up came back to the States. They were shopping for producers and, at this time, both the Eagles and Joe Walsh were managed by Geffen and Roberts. Irving Azoff worked for them and he was the guy for both acts. Joe played them The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get album and they said, “Who did that?” Joe said, “My friend Szymczyk.” They set up a meeting and we had dinner. They had a bunch of questions for me and I had a bunch of questions for them. When Joe said to me, “You’ve got to produce this band,” I said, “Joe, I want to rock. I don’t want to do some country band.” Come to find out, they wanted to rock too.

Jeb: Did you bring in Don Felder?

Bill: This is weird; he was a friend of Bernie’s from high school in Florida. We were finishing up On the Border, the first album I did with them, and they felt that it needed some more guitar chops. Bernie said, “I’ve got this guy I know who is playing with David Blue now.” We brought in Don and he played a couple of solos on On the Border. Later on, he became a member of the Eagles. With Don onboard, we really started to rock on One of These Nights. There is a huge difference between On the Border and One of These Nights. It was the direction that everyone wanted to go in…other than Bernie. He became disenchanted with the music at that point. When push came to shove, he left the band, but it was of his own volition.

Jeb: With Walsh and the Eagles connection, I always assumed you were the mastermind behind putting them together.

Bill: They really did do that amongst themselves. Me, being the idiot that I was, thought that Joe should not join the band.

Jeb: Where were the sessions recorded for Hotel California?

Bill: They were done, half in Los Angeles at The Record Plant, and half in Miami.

Jeb: Did the Eagles come into the studio with songs ready to go?

Bill: No, during On the Border they had all of the material written. For One of These Nights, they had three, or four, songs fully written, and a bunch of riffs, which we would flush out in the studio. We would do tracks that had no words, but either Glenn, or Don, had an inkling of what type of lyrical approach they wanted the songs to have, but the words always came last. By the time of Hotel California, they had the lyrics to one song and the rest were made up as we went along.

Jeb: When you heard “Hotel California” the song, for the first time did you know that it was going to be huge?

Bill: I think so. We had a fairly big record that we had to do better than, coming off of One of These Nights. Not just the song, “Hotel California” but all of the songs on the album really showed that we were getting better, we were getting much better. It was clear that it was going to be big.

Jeb: Talk about “Hotel California” and that huge guitar ending.

Bill: I will never ever forget that. I had a two day period of Don Felder being on my left and Joe Walsh on my right in the control room figuring out all of those guitar parts. It was put together piece by piece, bit by bit, and there was a lot of experimentation and a lot of trial and error. It took us two days just to do all of the guitars on the ending and it is one of the high points of my career.

Jeb: You produced, engineered and mixed the music. You got to hear it first. Did you ever have a moment where everyone had left he control room and you are listening to the magic unfold together for the very first time, as a recording?

Bill: Many times. It happens when I am mixing. I throw everyone out when I am mixing. I literally say, “Get out of the control room.”

Jeb: Was it like being a kid at Show and Tell when they would come back?

Bill: Exactly. I would be on pins and needles. We would sit down and listen to it. They would make some suggestions and I would, obviously, with every tune, do it again. But I would present them with what I considered a complete painting. We would then address all of their individual wants and needs.

Jeb: J.D. Souther was involved in the writing of several songs. Was he in the studio?

Bill: He was around during the whole thing, not constantly, but he would pop in and pop out. He would go to Henley’s, or Frey’s house and write lyrics together, that is where most of his work came in.

Jeb: It is well known that Henley and Frey are the Kings of the Eagles, but I say without Walsh and Felder – and even you – that Hotel California could have never turned out as good as it did.

Bill: I would agree with you. In retrospect, the whole was much better than the parts.

Jeb: Did Joe have “Pretty Maids All in a Row” before he came into the Eagles?

Bill: No, he wrote that for the record. Part of the deal was that everybody got to be represented by at least one song on the album. Everybody got their spotlight moment, even though Glenn and Don split around eight of them.

Jeb: Were you involved with the arrangements of the album?

Bill: Definitely, I was all over the arrangements.

Jeb: “Life in the Fast Lane” has a great arrangement.

Bill: That is the Walsh riff.

Jeb: The album sold over sixteen million copies. How did that change your life?

Bill: I was able to build my own studio. After Hotel California we were really rocking it and I built Bayshore Recording Studios and that is where we did ninety percent of The Long Run.

Jeb: I have heard that was a difficult album to make.

Bill: It was really hard. It took eighteen months and a lot of friction had entered into the band by that point. Instead of the old “all for one, one for all’ everybody had their own car, and their own this, and their own that. Everybody even had their own handler and everybody was kind of selfish about certain things. There was a lot of animosity between certain camps in the band, itself. It really grew to a head during that 18 month period we were making that record.

Jeb: Randy Meisner was not even in the band anymore.

Bill: He made the mistake of pouring a beer over Glenn’s head one night. I was not there, as they were on the road, but I heard about it later. It was the end for him.

Jeb: How did you handle all of animosity in the band and still make it sound cohesive?

Bill: The Long Run was one of my better producing jobs. I had to make that album sound like everybody dug each other. We did it, but it was a tough one.

Jeb: How did the music come together on The Long Run?

Bill: Every one of those songs started as riffs. We cut something like eighteen or twenty tracks. There are five or six songs somewhere on the shelf that are just incredible, but for one reason, or another, lyrics were not written for them. “The Long Run,” for instance is just a basic blues slide guitar riff. Later on, when Henley wrote the lyrics I said, “Ok, now we’ve got something.” One of my favorite songs on that album is “The Disco Strangler.” It is really an odd song but is shows what a great player Don Felder is.

Jeb: I met Don Felder and interviewed him for the jumbo-tron at the festival The Moondance Jam and I said, “I used to be a huge Eagles fan.” He said, “Me too.” He tells it all in his book.

Bill: Other people that have read his book, which was pretty true, concerning the stories and the animosities – he did not exaggerate all that much. People would read that book and tell me, “You’re the only one in that book that doesn’t come off like a shit head.”

Jeb: Timothy B. Schmit came in with “I Can ‘t Tell You Why.”

Bill: Like I said before, everybody gets their moment to shine and that was his. The song sounds easy because it is so smooth, but let me promise you that nothing was easy; things were hard in different ways. Just to get that album done was really a feat.

Jeb: I love “Those Shoes.”

Bill: That song had dueling talk boxes; that was a fun song to do.

Jeb: When you went back and produced Long Road Out of Eden, was all of the bullshit better than they had left it with The Long Run?

Bill: It was initially, when they first called me. I went out in 2001 and the album seemed to have a little more of the ‘all for one, one for all’ attitude to it. But, once again, after working on it for two years, and stacking up tracks, there were only one or two finished songs. It was another case of tracking sixteen to eighteen tracks and, over the course of those two years they got back to hating each other again.

Jeb: Maybe that is what makes the magic work.

Bill: There is some of that, for sure.

Jeb: You also produced Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.

Bill: That was a really fun album to do, especially coming of an Eagles album where everybody was at each other’s throats. Bob is a sweet, Midwest guy. We are all from Michigan and we all understood that Michigan work ethic. Bob’s dad worked at Ford, so he grew up with a strong work ethic.

Jeb: As a producer, you had a knack of working with a band and the band having their breakthrough album. You did with The James Gang, Joe Walsh, the Eagles and Bob Seger. Bob had a great career but Against the Wind took it to a new level.

Bill: It was Bob’s first number one album.

Jeb: Are you a good luck charm?

Bill: I don’t know, you could ask Michael Stanley about that. It didn’t work for him. We laugh about that all the time.

Jeb: You produced Face Dances by the Who, which was the first album they made without Keith Moon.

Bill: Face Dances was the roughest album I have ever made. It was worse than The Long Run. It really was hard as hell. Pete was in really bad shape, at that point. He has long since cleaned up, but he was in really rough shape. The band couldn’t stand Roger Daltrey, at the time, and Roger couldn’t stand the band. We would do tracks without Roger and then when Roger would come in to do vocals, the band wouldn’t show up. It really was a tough album to make. Keith was gone; this was the first album after Keith died. Kenny Jones is good, but he’s not Keith Moon. I, also, could not for the life of me, make John Entwistle stop thinking that he was a lead guitar player. It got to the point, halfway through the album, he hated me and the feeling was mutual.

Jeb: You also produced Rick Derringer on his landmark album All American Boy.

Bill: There was an interim period before I quit ABC and before I had my own record label. I was doing any work I could get at the time. I took a job as an engineer for Edgar Winter on his They Only Come Out at Night album, with “Frankenstein” on it. Rick produced that album and I really helped him a lot; I kind of co-produced that. I did the same thing on the Johnny Winter album Still Alive and Well. Right after that, I got with Walsh and things really started happening for me. Derringer told me, “I’m going to do an album that is way ahead of it’s time. I am going to do two songs with six, or eight, different producers and you’re the first one.” He came out to Colorado and we did two tracks, I forget which ones they are. He, then, went away and went to England to work with so and so. After four, or five, months none of the other producers came to fruition, for whatever reason, so he called me up and said, “Screw that. I am going to come out and we’re going to make the rest of the record.” He came out and we knocked the rest of it out.

Jeb: You produced several albums by Jay Ferguson, including his landmark album Thunder Island.

Bill: I had produced the last two Jo Jo Gunne records that he was on. We didn’t have any hits and he basically left the band and started his solo career. To me, one of the best records I ever made was All Alone in the End Zone, his first solo album. I put a great, great band together for that one. Joe is a wonderful dude. Nowadays, he does all of the music for NCIS Los Angeles. After his solo career kind of petered out, he got into doing sound tracks. One day his agent called and said, “We’ve got this movie that needs a soundtrack. It might not be a big hit, in fact, it might go right to DVD.” It turned out to be The Terminator. All of a sudden, Jay’s career took off as a soundtrack guy.

Jeb: In my book, you produced the real J. Geils Band. This was before a lot of their commercial success but that band was amazing when they first started.

Bill: Thank you. That was fun; it was six comedians disguised as a rock band. They were funny as hell. They had that New York, Boston, Jewish sense of humor, which is full of one liners. It was really a lot of fun making that record.

Jeb: Final one: Share one great story about Joe Walsh with me.

Bill: When we were first starting his first solo record, he had gotten a few pieces of gear. We moved Vitale out, in the middle of winter, and he brought his drums. The van that Joe had, with all of Vitale’s stuff in it, was snowed in. We were up at 8000 feet in the mountains of Colorado and there was a snowstorm. When we were finally able to dig the van out, and get the drums out of the van, and into the house, we were going to start out recording on a four-track. I was in the house and I was wiring some stuff up and when I was done, we turned everything on. One of the mixers started to literally smoke. We both got out our screwdrivers and we are trying to, literally, unscrew it out of the rack. We finally got it out and it was still smoking, so we threw it in the snow and we looked at each other and said, “Let’s go to The Record Plant.” It was the end of the trying to do it at home experiment.

Jeb: Do you ever just sit back and think of those times and look at all of your Gold and Platinum albums and just go, “Wow.”

Bill: Many times. I am one lucky sumbitch; I will tell you that.

Comments

 

The views of the comments below are not necessarily those of Classic Rock Revisited