Bill Schnee (Pronounced Sch-Nay) has worked with some of the biggest names in music covering all genres, all styles and all walks of life. He has been nominated or won Grammy Awards for his work through the decades and has worked with artists such as Melissa Manchester, Carly Simon, Marvin Gaye, Ringo Starr, Olivia Newton-John, Pablo Cruise, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, David Sanborn, The Jackson 5, The Pointer Sisters, Steely Dan and the list goes on and on and on; a list which has paved the road for his latest endeavor, a book or as he says, "Memoir" of his illustrious career called, "Chairman At The Board Recording the Soundtrack of a Generation."
"I love telling stories," he began with a slight laugh; "I've amassed a lot of them and I have been asked a lot of times; why don't you write a book? So, it all came together when a producer took me to dinner after we had finished a session and asked how I got started and I started telling stories and he said; "You should write a book" and I said, I've heard that before. He said, "No really; the record business as we know it was born in the 50's, grew up in the 60's, peaked in the 70's and going into the 80's; it was a very short time, never to be repeated again and you were there" and when he said, "You were there," it occurred to me that I could write a book that wasn't just, I did this and then I did that and then I did this; I could talk about other great stories that I've heard. So, it's basically my memoir as it says in the intro, "I've written this book for anyone like me that likes music and records but hasn't been as fortunate as I have to go behind the curtain;" this gives the reader a chance to learn a little bit more about a lot of these big acts and their records."
"The curtain," as he says, is a place that few of us get to step behind and Schnee has not only been behind it but got his first views of it from the other side as a young musician in a band called the L.A. Teens who achieved modest but not robust success.
"We did chart in quite a few markets but you could not say we had any hits in any form," he explained. "I got in that band in my senior year in high school and we started writing songs and playing around town wherever you could in those days. We saved our pennies and went in a local studio and cut four of our original songs and one of the kids in the band, his mother knew someone who knew someone that was in the music business and that someone was a guy named Gary Usher. Gary lived near the Wilson family of Beach Boys fame; in fact, he wanted to be a Beach Boy but they ended up picking Al Jardine but he did write "409" and "In My Room" with Brian Wilson. Gary had just made a production deal for himself at Decca Records and he signed us to a singles deal, which was very common in those days; this was 1964. You would go into the studio and record four songs, they'd put out a single, maybe two and if it hit, you'd run into the studio and cut six more songs and make an album; sad to say there is no L.A. Teens Album (laughs). On that first session, he brought in a session guitarist to augment the band named Richie Podolor and Richie was and is an astounding musician but it turns out that he is also an incredible producer and engineer and he had just built a new studio when we got dropped and I went to visit him and told him our sad tale that we were dropped. He said, "You guys were great, I'll get you another record deal" and he did. We went into his studio, which was much funkier than Capitol where we had recorded for Decca and we did a track and I came into the control room to hear the playback and as it was playing, I looked up at the speakers and there was a real "Aha" moment. I heard, coming out of those speakers, something I had never heard from our band. There was an emotional content that the sound was giving it; it was still the same drummer, still the same bass player and still me on organ but there was something that was much more drawing you in. When the take was over, I pointed at all of the equipment and said; can you teach me how to do all of this? He said, "No, I'm teaching Bill Cooper here; go on out there and do another take" but that was the "Aha" moment where I knew that I wanted to be able to do that. Then as often happens, when that record deal fell through and the band basically broke up, I started in a local "Mickey Mouse" studio where I learned the basics of the basic and then I was extremely fortunate because all of my aptitude was in math and science; in fact when I started college it was in aerospace. I only lasted one semester because after all, the L.A. Teens were going to be stars; they told us that (laughs). When I had finished with the band I just kept going on the engineering thing and it came very quickly to me. Where my right brain and my left brain met made it very easy for me to learn and just about two and one half, less than three years after I had been in Richie's studio not knowing a limiter from an equalizer; I was able to talk him into hiring me because I had jumped right in at his studio. Unfortunately my father never shared my vision, he was a German-Jew and a doctor and if you're the son of a Jewish doctor; that means you are going to be either a doctor or a lawyer and I knew I couldn't become a doctor because I don't like the sight of blood. I started law school while I was working at Richie's studio to quiet him down a bit and I got through the first semester, started the second and the grades came out and they were all Cs and a B because I had been faking it; I didn't have enough time to do the reading because I was doing sessions and going to class. So, I decided to quit college for a year and a half and give music one more chance. I had quit college the first time for two and a half years to give the L.A. Teens a chance and this time, fortunately I never went back.''
Schnee's thirst for knowledge and music soon became his passion and he went head-first into all aspects of the recording process and doing what was necessary to hone his new found craft; sometimes, as he explains; wearing all of the necessary hats to get the job done.
"The producer is the guy; not a joke, who produces the record," he laughed as he elaborated on the behind the scenes process of recording. "He literally takes the artists in the studio and his duties can vary greatly from, picking songs if they don't write their own songs or helping them arrange the songs; helping them organize if they need an arranger, booking a studio or an engineer and everything it takes to facilitate the actual record making process. The record company hires him, gives him a budget and usually a time limit and he turns in the record when it's done. The engineer is the chap behind the recording console that captures all of the recordings of the various musicians and singers and puts it all together. The mixer is the guy that takes the final tracks and these days it's usually 80 to 100 and balances those all up, adds different effects between different types of tone controls and compression and delays and reverbs and so on and puts it all together into hopefully a very good aesthetic. I've been very fortunate to work and have had success in all genres and I've actually done all three of those jobs. Sometimes the engineer and the mixer are the same person, sometimes the producer and the engineer and the mixer are the same person as is the case with myself and the records that I've produced; that's how they break down."
OK but what about mastering a record? In today's industry artists can record in multiple studios; does this pose an issue for the mastering engineer whose job it is to put the final touches on the finished product?
"In the very beginning of my career, I did the tiniest amount of it; enough to know that I didn't like it at all (laughs). The mastering engineer; it's really the mixing engineer that gets to deal with all of the tracks being recorded in different locations by different qualities of engineers and in many cases; not an engineer. Many of the musicians today have some kind of set-up in their house and some of them are pretty good engineers and others; maybe not as much. That sort of puts the heavy lifting on the mixing engineer, especially if he mixes the whole album. Where the mastering engineer has his work cut out for him is if several mixing engineers have contributed to an album; they're going to have different points of view and it's his job to, somehow, do the best he can to level it out and make it sound kind of cohesive. That's a much harder job because the tools available for mastering are much more limited than they are for mixing than recording."
Getting to the level of a Bill Schnee doesn't happen overnight and like so many other things in life, sometimes all it takes is a lucky break or being in the right place at the right time; Schnee made the most of his opportunities and got a little help from some friends; some well-known friends.
"Richie Podolor, who I mentioned earlier, inspired me and who I went back to work for; I would hang on every word that he said and one of the early things he said to me was, "The credits in this business are more important than the money that you'll make from it. The money you make you'll spend and it will be gone but the credits will get you the next gig" so, yeah, every gig to me was like wow; really? When Mark Knopfler called and I ended up doing a lot with Mark, the first thing we did was the movie soundtrack for "The Princess Bride" that he had written and I mixed the soundtrack. Being a huge Dire Straits fan, that was wonderful and I went on to mix three more albums with him and then he decided to do the one last Dire Straits album and asked me to do that and I went to England to do that; he's just a phenomenal musician and a wonderful human-being. The first big name I ever worked with would be Barbara Streisand and my big break came when I had quit law school for that year and a half and I was ready to re-enroll for the fall when a friend and a client of mine got a deal from CBS Records and he told Clive Davis about me and long story short, Clive called me and said, "Hi Bill it's Clive Davis" and talk about nervous (laughs); he said, "What do you want to do with your life?" I said I think I'm going to go finish law school and he almost interrupted me and said, "No, No; you don't want to go to law school; I went to law school. If you've got music in your blood, you know that's what you're going to want to do," and I said, I'd love to but and he said, "Alright, let me get rid of the but" and he gave me my shot. The funny thing was, Columbia Records at the time was all union and they had very strange rules and one of them was that at practices they only had one assistant engineer and with three studios and two mix rooms you needed a lot and what they would do was every engineer who wasn't mixing or recording could be a second. That was kind of demoralizing, especially for a lot of the older guys who were probably 20 years younger than I am now but they were the older guys back then; one week they would be recording a major artist and the next week they'd be assisting another engineer on a demo. So, that's what happened, they threw me in to assist, run the tape machine in essence on a Barbara Streisand session and after about a week the producer says, "I want you to engineer" and I took over engineering and that was my first huge artist. One of the titles for the book that I thought about was "Best Seat In The House" because what those of us on "The other side of the glass" as we call it get, are some incredible, very personal concerts and that was certainly one for me; she was by far the best singer that I had ever put a microphone in front of at the point early in my career. I'd only been a professional for about a year and a half or two years but that was quite an experience and she was very, very sweet. The CBS Studio was in Hollywood proper and she lived in Beverly Hills and I started following her home at night to make sure she got home OK and one day I came into work and there was a box with a note that said, "Thank you, Barbara" and it was chocolate covered pretzels which doesn't sound unusual today but trust me, in 1970 I'd never heard of them. There was some specialty shop in Beverly Hills that was making these things and it was a very sweet gift. I've worked with her over the years quite a bit and I'm the only person in the industry I've ever met who never had a bad session with her. She is very demanding and very intelligent, very articulate, she knows exactly what she wants, she has a memory like a steal trap; the roughest thing I've ever had was on an orchestra session where they were playing and she was singing and she wasn't happy with her headphones and that can be psychological sometimes or it can be real. So, I just had to work that out which was a little bit of pressure with a 70 piece orchestra there but she wasn't being unreasonable; I've nothing but good things to say about her."
Taking good and not so good memories and putting them into a book can be a daunting task for anyone be they an experienced or novice author but in Schnee's case his enthusiasm for the project carried him above and beyond his expectations.
"The way it worked out is, when I made the deal with the publisher, I asked; how long should the book be? He said, "Oh, about 100,000 words" and I said, I'm at 140, 000 and still going and he said, "That's what editors are for" (laughs) and when I finished we had gotten down to 100,000. I was bemoaning this fact to a friend one day that I had done all of this work and a third of the book was not going anywhere. My friend suggested that I get a website and put a key in the book that if they want more, they can go to the website and put in this key and read the rest of it and that's what I've done. So, if you go to Billschnee.com, there's a tab called, "Got a key?" and towards the end of the book there is a paragraph that says, if you still want more, go to Billschnee.com and touch that key, put in this phrase and go behind the scenes and read the rest. I know the book is at Barnes & Noble which is a fun thing for me because everybody said, you've written a book and you'll wait a long time for it to come out but that day is coming when the mailman will bring a box and you'll pull out a book and then it will be a reality and that day did come but what was almost a better day was when I went down to Barnes & Noble and said; where's your music books? They pointed me in a direction, I went over and pulled it out and thought, oh wow. So, yeah, it's at Books-A-Million and everywhere where books are sold and on Amazon where I'm told 65 percent of all books are sold which is kind of sad for the local book stores."
When writing a book or in this case, "Memoirs" of a career; does one question the validity of the content? Perhaps some do but some, such as Schnee reflect fondly on their past once the pages are finally pieced together. Speaking of which; how did he sum up his long list of accomplishments?
"Late at night, early in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, just whenever; I spread it out, I didn't sit down to write the book," he said as he re-visited the process. "So, between working, doing music and what-not it probably took about four years to write but if you condensed it; probably a year and a half. In those four years I went on several vacations and that was one of the best parts of the vacations; my wife likes to sleep in and I'm an early riser. So, I would inevitably go someplace where I could write and jump into it. I really enjoyed doing it, it was actually a lot of fun recounting all of the memories and wouldn't you know; I got through about three fourths of it and as I was reviewing what I had done at that point, I just went, oh my gosh. You don't sit down and think about what you've been doing for almost 50 years at that point and to start reading the chapters alone was like, wow; I amazed myself (laughs)."
When asked if he had any regrets or would change anything on his journey; if there were any failures or things he wishes he'd done differently, his response was emphatic.
"Who in life doesn't have failures? It's like Life-Savers, it's a part of living and sure they hurt; boy they hurt. A couple of people who have read the book have commented that they are happy that I've pointed out bad things that have happened to me and failures but you definitely learn from it. Unfortunately, one of the first things that happened like that was somebody stealing from me. I found a young artist and a song and I made a record on it and I knew it was a hit and I took it to the head of a major record company and he loved it; I said, can we make a deal? He said, "Sure, I'm going away for the weekend, I'll call you on Monday" and I knew that I had commissioned the songwriter to write certain lyrics for that song to make it a hit and over the weekend that songwriter called me and said, "Hurry up and make the deal on Denny's record because these other people have called wanting the new lyrics" and as soon as I hung up with him I realized that nobody knew there were new lyrics except the guy at Capitol records; it was Capitol. The head of Capitol knew because I had told him the story and so; what do you learn from that? The sad part is, you can't trust everybody and that's in all walks of life obviously but yeah; fortunately for me to have had the incredible life I've had, it would be really stupid to complain about the negative things that have happened and there have been a few ugly ones and they are in the book. Would I change anything that happened? I don't think so, you learn from the mistakes and if it's your mistake you don't make it twice and you learn to watch out for other things but no, I'm pretty darn happy with the way everything has gone. I'm a blessed man and believe me I am well aware of it."
Does he have any plans to promote the book? Book signings or perhaps some Q & A sessions and what does this "Chairman At The Board" have up his sleeve next?
"No book tours right now, COVID hasn't relaxed enough but I am doing a social media tour which I've never done but I'm doing that now with some help (laughs). Almost three years ago, I left L.A. and moved to Franklin, Tennessee which is 20 miles south of Nashville and I've done two of the best albums that I've done in the last 10 years, just really wonderful albums and I can't wait for them to come out."
To find out more about Bill Schnee and his fascinating career or to purchase his book, please visit www.billschee.com.
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