February 5, 2024

From the Vaults: Happy Birthday, Bill


     Who is Bill?  You know, Bill Szymczyk.  Who?  Bill Szymczyk (pronounced ‘/simzik/’ if you are wondering).  Never heard of him?  Maybe not by name, but if you have listened to recorded work by B.B. King, The James Gang, Joe Walsh, Eagles, The J.Geils Band, JoJo Gunne, Jay Ferguson, The Winter brothers (Edgar and Johnny), Rick Derringer . . . (the list goes on), then you are familiar with his work.  Bill turned 81 on February 13 so I thought we could fill you in on one of the most prolific hit making producers whose hometown happens to be Muskegon, Michigan.  I had seen his name on many albums in the past and always wondered what his name sounded like.  Szymczyk hadn’t crossed my mind in quite some time until his name popped up when I was researching a recent article about Joe Walsh (FTV:  Walk Away, Joe 1-17-24).  A couple of days later, a clip of him being interviewed mysteriously popped up on my phone (hmm, how does that happen?) so I took that as an omen:  it was time to tell his story.

     Born in 1943, William Frank Szymcsyk was introduced to music via the homemade crystal radio he built from a kit.  A lot of science nerd kids got into radio building kit radios back in the 1950s.  The exotic sounds he heard on his radio coming from Nashville, Tennessee made him a blues and R&B fan at a young age.  His birthdate pretty much puts him in the Navy right out of high school, circa 1960, where he became a sonar technician.  He was still in the Navy when he took his first course in radio and television production.  With no musical training and no idea of what to do when he got out of the service in 1964, Bill matriculated to New York University’s Media Arts School.  His first job in the music biz found him working with a lot of songwriters from New York City’s fabled Brill Building.  

     As a producer of demo recordings for Screen Gems Records, he got to rub elbows with the likes of Carole King and Gerry Goffin.  His work as an assistant to Quincy Jones and Jerry Ragavoy helped him move up the ladder to become the chief engineer at Ragavoy’s Hit Factory.  A Harvey Brooks solo record gave him his first opportunity to be a primary producer.  This experience compelled him to drop out of NYU to work full time in the music industry.  Bill would take a big pay cut to move on from the Hit Factory to ABC Records but the opportunity to elevate himself from engineer to producer was hard to pass up.  

     B.B.King recorded for an ABC subsidiary label and was one of Bill’s particular favorites.  He lobbied hard to work with him arguing he could make B.B. sound better on record (and thus improve his appeal to a wider audience).  B.B. agreed to give him a chance and for his trust, Szymczyk rewarded him with his first top-100 album, 1069’s Live & Well.  The formula worked well so King had him produce a follow-up studio gem (Completely Well – released in 1969) that scored B.B. his biggest hit and signature song The Thrill Is Gone.  Bill continued to produce blues albums into the 1970s for not only King but also artists like Albert Collins.

     Szymczyk told the interviewer in the clip I saw that he felt he had earned his stripes when  approached ABC with an idea he had been pondering for a while.  Bill said, “Hey, now that you know that I know what I am doing, how about letting me find some new artists to sign?”  Having been moved to Los Angeles when ABC acquired the Dunhill Records label, he took over production for that label on the West Coast.  He eventually landed in Denver, Colorado, formed his own label (Tumbleweed Records), and worked as a DJ at radio station KFML.  All the while, Bill continued producing records in L.A. and N.Y.C. for artists like The J.Geils Band.  He was given a tip by a friend to check out a band in Cleveland, Ohio that might be worth signing.

     As Bill related the story,  “I was in Cleveland so I went to see this band my friend had told me about.  When I walked into the lobby, I heard this massive sound they were pumping out and expected to see four or five guys making all the racket.  I was totally surprised to see they were only a Trio and their name was The James Gang.”  Bill went on to produce their first three albums.  When guitarist Joe Walsh quit the James Gang and moved to Colorado in 1971, he  wanted to decompress and to be closer to Szymczyk for future collaborations.  Joe’s first record made after moving to Boulder was Barnstorm.  It also happened to be the first album recorded at the new Caribou Ranch Recording Studio.  Joe surrounded himself with great musicians (Kenny Pasarelli on bass, Joe Vitale on drums and eventually Rocky Grace on keyboards) to record Barnstorm (which was supposed to be the name of both the album and the band).

     There were some rough patches when the second album was marketed as a Joe Walsh solo project (even though it was written with contributions from the Barnstrom guys).  Walsh had told Bill they felt they knew their way around enough to self-produce the second album.  Smart guy that he is, Joe came back a few weeks later with some bits and pieces of songs and admitted they didn’t know what they were doing, They needed Szymczyk to produce once again.  One of the partial tunes constructed (from a jam by the whole band) was a blues shuffle instrumental.  With Bill’s guidance and the scenic view from the Caribou Ranch Studio, it became Walsh’s most recognized hit song up to then, Rocky Mountain Way.

     The name of the second album wasn’t settled upon until Bill remembered an incident from an earlier recording session with Michael Stanley.  Walsh had come in to add some guitar tracks and upon leaving the studio, he said something to Stanley that stuck in Szymczyk’s head.  Walsh told Stanley, “The smoker you drink, the player you get.”  No doubt the suits back in 1973 needed a little convincing that this wasn’t some kind of overt drug reference, but it did indeed become the album title and the phrase stuck with record buyers as Rocky Mountain Way climbed the charts.

     In 1974, Szymczyk boarded the Eagles’ train by taking over production of the On the Border album from another legendary producer, London based Glyn Johns.  Bill would also be at the helm for One of These Nights (1975) and Hotel California (1976).  During the recording of Hotel California, Bill suggested Joe Walsh be brought in to add more rock edge to the Eagles’ country rock sound.  Good producers can make great records but truly great ones seem to have a magical touch.  Like old time alchemists, they can add a pinch of this and a pinch of that, tweak the formula a bit, and the end result just might be a hit record.  

     Bill was often brought in to specifically change a band’s overall sound.  He credits his ability to do this because he is a professional listener.  With no training as a musician, he says it is his lack of musical knowledge that allows him to do what he does:  “I listen and react.  I never was a musician, so I don’t bring any preconceived prejudices to the table;  I don’t favor the guitar over the keyboard, and so forth.  I just listen and try to figure out if I have anything I can bring to a song.”  His work with the Eagles found him meticulously placing microphones for just the right drum sound.  Rather than record harmony vocals (an Eagles specialty) individually and then mixing them together later, Szymczyk  liked to capture the band singing together.  There were times when a phrase would have to be done over and over again, but he would keep at it until it was ‘just right’.

     Guitarist Elvin Bishop is another case where the producer pushed an artist from their signature box into a more commercialized sound.  Outside the world of guitar players, very few even knew Bishop’s name until Szymcyk suggested the song Fooled Around and Fell in Love be included on the Struttin’ My Stuff album.  The song and video showcased singer Micky Thomas’s voice but it was the gateway Elvin Bishop needed to experience a level of success he had not yet been able to find up to that point.

     Szymcyk was so good at what he did, he was financially successful enough to back away from being so busy in the mid-1980s.  He continued to work with Joe Walsh but for all intense purposes, Bill retired from the music industry in 1990.  He returned to limited action producing Dishwalla’s self-titled fourth album in 2005 , the 2007 Eagles album, The Long Run, and the debut solo album by ex-Verve Pipe singer Brian Vander Ark in 2008.  The most recent entries on his discography added his name to work by the Tide Brothers (High Water Mark – 2016), Michael Szymczyk’s Retro Magnetic (2019), and Mondays in April – Live at The Bootleg Theater by Kona (2022).

     As I mentioned previously, I was familiar with Bill Szymczyk’s name from his work with Walsh and the Eagles.  My third band, Sledgehammer, covered Walsh’s Rocky Mountain Way and tracks from the Eagles On The Border album (Already Gone (a great set opener), Ol’ 55, and Best of My Love).  I can see why he liked to record the vocal harmonies live because we rehearsed them with just an acoustic guitar until we got them ‘just right’.  With a good set of stage monitors, singing harmony parts on Eagles tunes was always a thrill.

     The more I read about Szymczyk’s work, the more I realized how much of the music I enjoyed in the past was from the mind of Bill.  One of the southern groups I listened to a lot was The Outlaws.  They were often referred to as the ‘Guitar Army’ – a term coined by none other than Szymczyk.  Edgar Winter’s mega hit Frankenstein (which Edgar plays every night on stage with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band) was produced by Rick Derringer (of Hang On Sloopy fame – a song he recorded with his band, The McCoys).  Bill worked in the studio for the Frankenstein sessions.  It isn’t surprising, then, to find out Derringer had Szymczyk produce his best known solo album All American Boy and that record’s hit single Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.  Derringer had previously played with Johnny Winter And when Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo was first recorded by that band in 1970.   When Derringer produced Johnny Winter’s Still Alive and Well LP in 1973, he brought in Bill to act as the technical director for the sessions.

     Throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, Szymczyk was still helping bands put hits on the radio.  In 1975 he oversaw albums by Derringer (Spring Fever) and REO Speedwagon (This Time We Mean It).  Bill hooked up with Elvin Bishop again in 1976 (Hometown Boy Makes Good!) and again with The Outlaws in 1977 and 1978 (Hurry Sundown and Bring It Back Alive – Live).  Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band followed in 1980 (Against the Wind) with The Who’s album and hit single (Face Dances and You Better You Bet) rounding out 1981.

     When asked how he saw his career during an interview back in 2004, Szymczyk said, “It was an ongoing series of happy accidents.”  That crystal radio he built when he was a kid?  That was one of them.  Sure, these kit radios worked but one could normally only get one channel – if there were any within reach.  Bill’s antenna lead accidentally came in contact with his metal bed frame which amplified his signal enough to bring in WLS in Nashville – a station known for featuring blues and R&B artists.  “Of all the stations that a white kid in the middle of the Midwest could bump into . . .” he said as he trailed off at the memory.  The foundation this accident laid gave Szymczyk  just what he needed when the opportunity to produce B.B.King came along years later.  

     Another ‘happy accident’ came about when he and Walsh burned out the mixer they were using at Joe’s house.  Bill knew James William Guercio had moved to a ranch in nearby Nederland, Colorado.  Guercio was the producer who put the band Chicago on the map and was turning the top floor of his barn into a studio.  Bill remembered, “Guercio was going to be in Hollywood for a while working on a movie so he let us use the space.  He had installed an MCI 4-Series console but the rest of the building had no plumbing and the main floor still had a dirt floor and horse stalls.  Upstairs where the studio was had carpeting and a nice new grand piano.  We could make it work and thus we christened what would be called ‘Caribou Ranch’ by recording Walsh’s Barnstorm album.”

     Szymczyk and his wife have lived in Little Switzerland, North Carolina since 1990.   They are active in their local community and help raise money for charities including support for a local domestic violence shelter.  They have two sons (Michael and Daniel) and Bill still works as a producer on a few projects that he wants to work on.  He no longer feels the need to invest his time waiting for a band like the Eagles to get a move on.  Recalling how long it took the band to record The Long Run (about 18 months if you are wondering), Bill said at the time, “There’s some incredible tracks we have.  I hope they get to see the light of day some day.”  The same could be said about a lot of the songs Bill Szymczyk had a hand in crafting and yes, we are glad they all got to ‘see the light of day’.


Top Piece Video:  Okay – this is the ‘still touring’ Eagles from their first show in 2018 – shot from the nosebleed seats but I like it because Vince Gill’s voice reminds me a lot of my old guitar player buddy from Sledgehammer – Barry Seymour.  I can’t say our harmonies were quite this perfect, but we sure enjoyed singing the harmony parts the Eagles and Bill Szymczyk crafted!