Al Schmitt, Who Set the Gold Standard as a Recording Engineer, Is Dead at 91
Al Schmitt, one of the most accomplished and highly regarded recording engineers in the history of the industry, died on Monday at 91. His family, which shared the news on his Facebook page, did not specify a cause of death.
With 20 Grammy awards for engineering — more than anyone else in his field, and that's not including his assortment of Latin Grammys and a 2006 Recording Academy Trustees Award — Schmitt was the personification of rare achievement in his industry. The same was true in commercial terms: he helped shape the sound of more than 150 gold and platinum albums, including George Benson's Breezin' and Steely Dan's Aja.
But along with his exquisite ear and fastidious instincts, Schmitt was known among artists for his sensitivity — a trait mentioned by many paying tribute on social media Tuesday afternoon. "Al was so warm and loving in the studio, so encouraging, just a hand on your shoulder while listening to a playback was such a blessing, assuring you that you'd played well on that take," wrote Anthony Wilson, whose guitar playing can be heard on more than half a dozen Diana Krall albums engineered by Schmitt.
Krall's This Dream of You is one of the most recent releases that Schmitt worked on, along with Willie Nelson's That's Life and the Robert Cray Band's That's What I Heard. He scored two of his most recent Grammys for his work with Paul McCartney, on the standards album Kisses on the Bottom and a follow-up, Live Kisses.
Among his most notable successes at the Grammys is Ray Charles' posthumous Album of the Year triumph for Genius Loves Company, which also won Best Pop Vocal Album — and scored Schmitt awards for both Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical and Best Surround Sound Album. Schmitt also won engineering awards for his work on Toto IV, Natalie Cole's Unforgettable... with Love, Quincy Jones' Q's Jook Joint, Chick Corea's The Ultimate Adventure and Dee Dee Bridgewater's Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee.
Albert Harry Schmitt was born on April 17, 1930 in Brooklyn. His uncle Harry, who had changed his surname to Smith, was an engineer for Brunswick Records whose credits included Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." Harry Smith Recording, the first independent studio on the east coast, would yield many historic records, including "Parker's Mood" by Charlie Parker and "Our Love," the first recording by Frank Sinatra. As a child, Schmitt would take the subway from Brooklyn into Manhattan to spend time in the studio.
"I would sit on the piano next to Art Tatum and he would show me little boogie woogie licks with my left hand," he told KPCC in 2013. "And, you know, the Andrews Sisters would come in and Orson Welles would rub my head. It was just a wonderful experience."
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Schmitt apprenticed at Apex Recording Studios in New York City, working alongside the noted producer Tom Dowd. On one memorable occasion when Dowd wasn't present, Schmitt, 19 at the time, wound up engineering several sides by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
"I kept saying, 'You know, Mr. Ellington, I'm really not qualified to do this. This was a huge mistake,'" Schmitt told Billboard. "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."
After Apex closed in the early 1950s, Schmitt worked at Nola Studios, followed by Fulton Recording. He moved to Los Angeles in 1958, becoming a staff engineer first at Radio Recorders and then at RCA. It was as an RCA engineer that he won his first Grammy, for the Henry Mancini album Hatari. He also worked on his share of motion picture soundtracks, including Elvis Presley's G.I. Blues.
Schmitt left RCA in 1966, partly to pursue his interests as a producer. He produced four albums by Jefferson Airplane, along with several by singer Al Jarreau. He also produced Neil Young's On the Beach and Hot Tuna's self-titled debut.
Many of Schmitt's projects were made at Verve in partnership with producer Tommy LiPuma, who died in 2017. Their recorded legacy will always be closely associated with the output of singers like Krall, Cole and Shirley Horn. But there are also a good many instrumental jazz releases in Schmitt's discography, by artists ranging from Chris Botti to Dominick Farinacci to the late Roy Hargrove.
Many of the fondest tributes to Schmitt on social media have come from the instrumentalists who knew him behind the board. "Al Schmitt's curriculum vitae is jaw-dropping, yet his humility almost eclipses it," wrote drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. "A History and Legacy earned of the highest skill and sensibility, yet he drove to work each day quietly, giving the same quality to everyone."
Schmitt is survived by his wife, Lisa, and their five children, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. The announcement posted to his Facebook account notes that "his parting words at any speaking engagement were, 'Please be kind to all living things.'"