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Recording engineer Al Schmitt died at the age of 91 on Monday, according to the his family.
With 20 Grammy wins for his work with everyone from Ray Charles to Paul McCartney to Natalie Cole to Steely Dan, Schmitt won more Grammy Awards than any other engineer in music history. In addition to earning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, he became the first person to win a Grammy album of the year award and a Latin Grammy album of the year award; additionally, he’s recorded more than 150 gold and platinum albums.
On Schmitt’s Facebook page (which he was very active on up until his passing), the family posted the following note: “Al Schmitt’s wife Lisa, his five children, eight grandchildren, and five great grandchildren would like his friends and extended recording industry family to know that he passed away Monday afternoon, April 26. The world has lost a much loved and respected extraordinary individual, who led an extraordinary life. The most honored and awarded recording producer/engineer of all time, his parting words at any speaking engagement were, ‘Please be kind to all living things.’ Loved and admired by his recording colleagues, and by the countless artists he worked with, from Jefferson Airplane, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Dr. John, Natalie Cole and Jackson Browne to Bob Dylan — and so many more — Al will be sorely missed. He was a man who loved deeply, and the friendships, love and admiration he received in return enriched his life and truly mattered to him. A light has dimmed in the world, but we all learned so much from him in his time on earth, and are so very grateful to have known him.”
With a knack for lush, detailed productions that bring to mind the era of classic vocal jazz, Schmitt won Grammys in six consecutive decades starting in the ’60s, when he won his first award for his engineering work on Henry Mancini’s Hatari soundtrack. Most recently, he won the 2013 best surround sound album Grammy for McCartney’s Live Kisses.
Born April 17, 1930 in Brooklyn, Schmitt served in the U.S. Navy and began apprenticing at Apex Recording Studios in New York City when he was 19. It was there he began working with legendary engineer/producer Tom Dowd, eventually engineering a session for Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on his own when no one else was around.
“Duke Ellington sat next to me, and I was so nervous and it was obvious. I kept saying, ‘You know, Mr. Ellington, I’m really not qualified to do this. This was a huge mistake,'” Schmitt told Billboard in a special tribute to the engineer in 2012. “And he kept patting me on the leg and saying, `Don’t worry, son. We’re going to get through this.’ And that was it. I got thrown in, we got it done, we did four sides. The nice thing was it gave me confidence that I was able to do it. I often think that if they’d told me the night before that I was going to record Duke Ellington the next day, I probably would have called in sick.”
In the same spotlight, McCartney said of Schmitt, “If Al made furniture, it would be Chippendale. If he was a painter, he would be Monet. But Al makes music and it’s a Schmitt! He’s one of the best in the world and it is my great pleasure to work with such a superb craftsman. He’s also a great guy.”
After a 1963 move to Los Angeles to work for RCA, he began his run of classic recordings, engineering material for Cooke (“Cupid,” “Another Saturday Night”) and Mancini (including “Moon River”). When he went independent in 1966, he continued to engineer LPs and singles for a slew of legends, including Young, Browne, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Sinatra (both Duets albums), Natalie Cole (Grammy album of the year winner Unforgettable… With Love), Ray Charles (Grammy album of the year winner Genius Loves Company), Diana Krall, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Toto (“Africa”) and many more.
Schmitt’s love for music — and attention to detail — stemmed all the way back to his childhood, as he shared in a 2018 interview with Billboard. “My uncle [a record producer] bought me a little wind-up phonograph and I was listening to big bands all the time,” Schmitt told Billboard while promoting his memoir/how-to manual On the Record: The Magic Behind the Music. “I listened to where they had the strings, how the string are set up, what rhythm sections sounded like, how far in front the vocalist was. Those were things that were important to me when I was even a little kid.”
When asked if he considered himself, 88 at the time of that interview, even semi-retired, Schmitt replied, “Only when the phone doesn’t ring.”
But the phone never stopped ringing. More recently, Schmitt had worked on The Mavericks’ En Español album and Trisha Yearwood’s Sinatra tribute, Let’s Be Frank, both in 2019.
Additional reporting by Melinda Newman.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.
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