In My Next Life …

In my next life, I want to be Al Schmitt. I didn’t know this until I read his obituary today. Schmitt, who passed away on April 26th at age 91, won more Grammys than any other recording engineer and producer – 20 – across six consecutive decades. He worked with Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, and the list goes on.

Five of Schmitt’s Grammys came in 2004 for his work on Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company, which won nine award that year, including Album of the Year. The album featured collaborations with many artists, hence the title. The duet with Norah Jones, reprising an early Charles hit, “Here We Go Again”, won Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (that’s Billy Preston playing the Hammond B3). The duet with Gladys Knight, “Heaven Help Us All”, won Best Gospel Performance. That song was first recorded by Stevie Wonder.

Schmitt collaborated with another studio engineering legend, Roger Nichols, on Steely Dan’s album Aja, a masterpiece of recording. Schmitt mixed one of the album’s hits, “Deacon Blues”. At the same sessions Schmitt and Nichols worked on the song “FM (No Static at All)”, the title theme and only original song on the soundtrack of the movie FM. The work on Aja and “FM” won Schmitt two of his Grammys.mi

“I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long”

Perhaps Schmitt’s most moving piece of engineering was the “duet” of “Unforgettable” between Natalie Cole and her late father. Schmitt mixed the vocal track from Nat King Cole’s 1951 version of the song with Natalie’s 1991 performance. Apparently, some of the musician’s in the studio for the 1991 session had played on the original, too.

Going Way Back With That Eminent Hipster, Donald Fagen

Just in time for the recent holidays, Donald Fagen published his memoir “Eminent Hipsters”.   The book’s first chapter introduces us to one of his earliest musical influences, The Boswell Sisters.   Fagen lauds them saying, “…when I became familiar with the early work of Connie and her two sisters, I discovered that the Boswells had created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington”.  High praise to say the least.

One Boswells song that Fagen discusses is “Heebie Jeebies”, a tune originally recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five in 1926 and covered by The Boswell Sisters in 1929.   Below are the original by Armstrong and the Boswells’ version, with their tight harmonies and brisk rhythms. By the way, while of questionable historical accuracy, the Armstrong version is sometimes cited as the first scat singing on record (it comes at about 1:50).

Lest you worry that Fagen’s effusive tribute to The Boswell Sisters evidences any lack of respect for Duke Ellington, Steely Dan’s third album “Pretzel Logic” included a cover of Ellington’s first record to make the charts “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”. Here is Ellington’s original from 1927 featuring the song’s co-writer, trumpeter Bubber Miley, and Steely Dan’s 1974 cover with guitar wizard Jeff Baxter’s imitation of a muted trumpet.

And here’s one more nod by Fagen to the Duke. Fagen’s most recent solo album, 2012’s “Sunken Condos”, featured the track “Weather in My Head”. When Fagen played the tune live on “Late Night with David Letterman”, what was that photo on the front of his electric piano? None other than the Duke and his orchestra!

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