By Jeb Wright
In 1964, Bill Szymczyk was an electronics expert fresh out of the military, and he needed a temporary job for a few months before heading off to college to study radio and TV. The friend of a friend of a friend helped him land a gig fixing things and sweeping the floors in a recording studio. A few months later, Szymczyk was hooked. He knew that college couldn’t hold a candle to being in the studio, so he made his choice and never looked back. Fans of classic rock are grateful Szymczyk made that choice, given the kinds of albums he went on to produce, including B.B. King’s “Live & Well” and “Completely Well;” Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind;” The Eagles’ “One Of These Nights,” “Hotel California” and “The Long Run,” and Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get” and “But Seriously Folks.”
GM: At what point did it become more than sweeping floors and fixing things?
Bill Szymczyk: 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, 10 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.
GM: 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?
BS: 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.
GM: You were working with Michael Stanley back then before anyone knew who he was. We are talking 1969.
BS: When I had the hit (with B.B. King) with “The Thrill is Gone,” the powers that 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, “OK.” 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.
GM: Did Michael and Joe Walsh know each other clear back then?
BS: 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.
GM: Did you sign The James Gang?
BS: 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 guy’s 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 $2,000. 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.
GM: Was Joe as unique as we’ve come to know him even back then?
BS: 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.
GM: On the song “The Bomber” you had to remove the “Bolero” section in it.
BS: 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 30,000 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 15 years or so, I was able to put it back in, because the statute of limitations had passed.
GM: They were a very influential band.
BS: They were. Walsh was just telling me a story about something that Dave Grohl said. He said that Nirvana was just a sh*tty James Gang — that’s a real quote. Grohl told Walsh that they wanted to be like them.
GM: Did you know “Funk 49” was going to be a hit when you first heard it?
BS: 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.
GM: Did you feel for Joe Walsh to grow as an artist that he had to leave the James Gang?
BS: 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 L.A. ABC was going to close their New York office, so they moved me to L.A. Only two guys, out of 80 people, were transferred to L.A. 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, “OK,” and a few months later, that is actually what happened.
GM: Wasn’t that a huge risk for you to move to Denver, as back then New York and L.A. were the big time?
BS: 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, Colo. 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 actual 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 16-track 3M tape machine, and he went off to make his movie. We hunkered down and made “Barnstorm.”
GM: 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.’
BS: 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.
GM: Speaking of The Eagles … For them to move more from country rock to being a mainstream rock band, did Bernie Leadon have to go?
BS: 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 Frey 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, ‘F*ck it’ and packed up and 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.
GM: Did you bring in Don Felder?
BS: 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 on board, 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.
GM: With Walsh and The Eagles connection, I always assumed you were the mastermind behind putting them together.
BS: They really did do that amongst themselves. Me, being the idiot that I was, thought that Joe should not join the band.
GM: Did the Eagles come into the studio with songs ready to go?
BS: 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 flesh 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.
GM: When you heard “Hotel California,” the song, for the first time, did you know that it was going to be huge?
BS: 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.
GM: Talk about “Hotel California” and that huge guitar ending.
BS: 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.
GM: 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?
BS: 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.”
GM: J.D. Souther was involved in the writing of several songs. Was he in the studio?
BS: 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.
GM: 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.
BS: I would agree with you. In retrospect, the whole was much better than the parts.
GM: Did Joe have “Pretty Maids All in a Row” before he came into the Eagles?
BS: 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.
GM: The album sold over 16 million copies. How did that change your life?
BS: 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 90 percent of “The Long Run.”
GM: I have heard that was a difficult album to make.
BS: It was really hard. It took 18 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.
GM: Randy Meisner was not even in the band anymore.
BS: 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.
GM: How did you handle all of animosity in the band and still make it sound cohesive?
BS: “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.
GM: How did the music come together on “The Long Run”?
BS: Every one of those songs started as riffs. We cut something like 18 or 20 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.
GM: Timothy B. Schmit came in with “I Can’t Tell You Why.”
BS: 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.
GM: I love “Those Shoes.”
BS: That song had dueling talk boxes; that was a fun song to do.
GM: When you went back and produced “Long Road Out of Eden,” was all of the bullsh*t better than they had left it with “The Long Run”?
BS: 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 16 to 18 tracks, and, over the course of those two years, they got back to hating each other again.
GM: You produced “Face Dances” by The Who, which was the first album they made without Keith Moon.
BS: “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. Kenney 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.
GM: Share one great story about Joe Walsh with me.
BS: 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 8,000 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.