The Colorado Music Hall of Fame recently presented a Special Achievement award to legendary producer Bill Szymczyk. His work helped define the golden age of rock from the late ‘60s through the ‘90s. From his beginnings as a Navy SONAR operator with no musical training to his recent induction into the Hall, he’s credited with producing many of the albums that defined a generation.
Szymczyk left the Navy in 1964 with advanced knowledge of electronics and a love for music. He took a temporary job at a recording studio sweeping floors and fixing gear while working his way to an engineer’s seat. That eventually led to a series of engineering and production jobs with various recording entities before striking out on his own. The rest, as they say, is history!
If you’re a fan of classic rock you know Szymczyk’s work. He’s produced recordings for BB King, Bob Seger (Against the Wind), the Eagles (One of These Nights) (Hotel California) (The Long Run), Joe Walsh, The James Gang, J. Geils Band, Johnny Winter, Elvin Bishop, and the Who among many others.
The connection to Colorado came from discovering a unique new recording studio in the mountains above Boulder—Hall Inductee, Caribou Ranch. He was instrumental in turning the barn of a former horse ranch into a production mecca for many of the most popular artists of the era!
For a young up and coming musician or producer, the legendary career of Bill Szymczyk should serve as an inspiration. Here are some lessons to consider from his illustrious 40 plus year career.
No Job Is Too Small
According to Szymczyk, you should take any job that can get you in the door. The music business is about paying dues and learning. Just being around the artists and the process can be a learning experience. In a 2004 Sound on Sound interview he described his career as, “…an ongoing series of happy accidents.” He worked hard and earned many jobs over the course of his career, meeting each with professionalism and an openness to learn from everyone he met.
Creating Music is a Team Sport
To be a successful engineer or producer, you need to be a team player. It was always about the music. Though Szymczyk had no formal music training and never played an instrument, he considered himself a great listener. He maintained his job was to listen and determine what he could bring to every song to make it the best it could be.
As a producer, you must continually keep things moving forward. Whenever there’s a group of creative musicians in a studio together there are bound to be disagreements. He tried to keep everything light and happy in order to eliminate as much tension as possible.
Producing “Hotel California” with the Eagles was definitely challenging. Szymczyk recalled, “I was a bud, not a boss. …mostly listened and was always willing to try new stuff.” In spite of the creative friction, he and the Eagles created a huge multi-platinum album that won several Grammys!
It’s OK to start at the bottom, learn everything you can along the way, welcome all the happy accidents, work hard, and most of all—Listen!