Al Schmitt, a 23-time Grammy-winning producer and recording engineer, has died at age 91. Messages of condolence from numerous studios and other organizations have appeared on social media honoring Schmitt’s lifetime of work. (Variety notes that “multiple friends and associates have confirmed, [though] no official statement or cause of death has been given.”)
Over his seven-decade career, Schmitt worked alongside nearly every name in popular music over the decades, covering a wide range of styles, sounds and generations. Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, Toto, Quincy Jones, Hot Tuna, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jefferson Airplane and dozens more are included in his long resume.
For Schmitt, the world of recorded music was a part of his childhood. Born in Brooklyn in 1930, he would frequently take the subway into Manhattan to spend time at his uncle’s recording studio, Harry Smith Recording, where legends like Bing Crosby, the Andrew Sisters, Orson Welles and Les Paul would appear from time to time to cut sessions.
After serving in the Navy, the 19-year-old Schmitt started working as an apprentice at Apex Recording Studios, where he began to learn the trade. One afternoon, he found himself the only one in the studio with Duke Ellington. “I kept saying to him, ‘Mr. Ellington, I’m not qualified to do this,'” Schmitt later recalled in an interview. “He patted me on the leg, and he looked me in the eye and said, “It’s okay, sonny, we are going to get through this.” They ended up recording songs together.
Schmitt eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where got a job with RCA in 1963, but he left in 1966 to work as an independent producer (becoming one of the first engineers to go fully freelance) and spent the next six decades working alongside some of the best rock, jazz and R&B artists.
More recently, in 2014, Schmitt worked with Bob Dylan on the singer-songwriter’s series of Sinatra covers, an opportunity Schmitt had been hoping for but did not expect the notoriously selective artist to change his schedule for him.
“Unfortunately, I was busy at the time they had planned,” Schmitt remembered in 2015. “I was really disappointed, because Dylan was still on the bucket list of artists I’d love to work with but never had. The very next day I got a call back, saying that they were prepared to move their schedule to a time when I was available, because Bob really wanted to work with me. Evidently, he’d heard my work, including the Duets album I had recorded with Sinatra, and he must have figured that I was the right guy to record it.”
Schmitt was the right guy for innumerable artists. He won more Grammy Awards than any other engineer or mixer – including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 – and recorded and mixed more than 150 gold and platinum albums.
In Memoriam: 2021 Deaths