Al Schmitt, Engineer-Mixer Who Won a Record 20 Grammys, Dies at 91

Chris Willman
·7-min read

Al Schmitt, one of the most revered engineers and producers in the annals of the music business, died Monday at 91, his family confirmed. No cause of death has been given.

Schmitt received more Grammys for engineering — 20, not including his separate Latin Grammys and a National Trustees Award — than anyone else in his field. In 2015, he received an even more rarefied honor for an engineer-mixer, becoming the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Among his most recent projects were Willie Nelson’s “That’s Life,” released in February, and Diana Krall’s fall 2020 release “This Dream of You,” which he and Krall put together from sessions they worked on with the late producer Tommy LiPuma.

Highlights in his discography included Steely Dan’s “Aja” and Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company,” marking just two of the 10 occasions on which he received the Grammy for best engineered recording or best engineered album (non-classical). In the case of “Genius Loves Company,” a duets album that was Charles’ swan song, Schmitt also shared in its Grammy win for album of the year, as well as sharing record of the year honors for Charles’ single, “Here We Go Again.”

Schmitt won 20 Grammys out of 36 nominations, according to the Recording Academy website. His last two Grammy wins, in 2012-13, came for working with Paul McCartney on his album of standards, “Kisses on the Bottom,” and its “Live Kisses” home-video sequel.

The more than 150 gold or platinum records that bore his name in the credits included recordings by Henry Mancini, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Josh Groban, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

Schmitt’s family posted on his Facebook page Tuesday afternoon. “Al Schmitt’s wife Lisa, his five children, eight grandchildren, and five great grandchildren would like his friends and extended recording industry family to know that he passed away Monday afternoon, April 26. The world has lost a much loved and respected extraordinary individual, who led an extraordinary life. The most honored and awarded recording producer/engineer of all time, his parting words at any speaking engagement were, ‘Please be kind to all living things.’ … He was a man who loved deeply, and the friendships, love and admiration he received in return enriched his life and truly mattered to him. A light has dimmed in the world, but we all learned so much from him in his time on earth, and are so very grateful to have known him.”

“Gonna miss you bad Al Schmitt!” tweeted Steve Lukather of Toto, whose multiply Grammy-winning “Toto IV” afforded Schmitt another of his wins for best-engineered recording. “Loved you since 1977 and there will never be another… Today sounds a lot less good.”

Journey’s Steve Perry paid tribute on Facebook, calling him “one oof my biggest heroes in my life.”

“Al Schmitt was the guy,” said Alan Elliott, a producer who had been working with Schmitt on preparing a project. “He helped define the sound of Los Angeles — the cool of Mancini and Cal Tjader, the joy of Sam Cooke, the swag of Elvis in Hollywood, the swing of Sinatra, and when Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan wanted to sound like their heroes, they worked with Al Schmitt. He was a joy to be with, always humble and ready, and we all will miss his genius as well as his decency.”

“So sorry to hear about Al Schmitt,” tweeted Greg Kurstin, one of the most successful contemporary producers. “Such an honor to get a chance to work with him. What a legend.”

Wrote songwriter Diane Warren, “Legend. Mensch. So many people and animals are devastated today. Mix in Power, Al Schmitt.”

Harvey Mason jr., the Recording Academy’s chair & interim president/CEO, called him “a true legend” who left “an indelible mark on the recording industry. We are forever grateful for his contributions as a founding member of the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing and to the art and craft of recorded music. We send our love and condolences to his family, friends and collaborators.”

Schmitt was the primary subject of a 2016 documentary, “The Art of Recording a Big Band,” recorded at Capitol Studios, where he did much of his work.

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Although most of his career was devoted to engineering and mixing, Schmitt also had a successful run as a producer. After first producing a collaboration between Paul Horn and Lalo Schifrin in 1965, he went on to produce four Jefferson Airplane albums, including “Volunteers,” and efforts for Hot Tuna and Papa John Creach. He was a producer or co-producer on Jackson Browne’s classic “Late for the Sky” and Neil Young’s cult favorite “On the Beach” as well as several albums by Al Jarreau before reverting to what became his most familiar roles.

A sampling of the other hundreds of albums he engineered, mixed or did double-duty on, in reverse chronology: Leslie Odom Jr.’s “Standards” (2020), Dylan’s “Triplicate” (2017) and “Fallen Angels” (2016), Alexandre Desplat’s “Secret Life of Pets” score (2016), Michael Buble’s “Christmas” (2011), Josh Groban’s “Illuminations” (2010), Barbra Streisand’s “The Movie Album” (2003), Krall’s “The Look of Love,” Sinatra’s “Duets” (1993), Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable: With Love” (1991), George Benson’s “In Flight” (1977), Steely Dan’s “FM” single, Streisand’s “The Way We Were” (1974), Browne’s “For Everyman” (1973), Linda Ronstadt’s “Don’t Cry Now” (1973), Sam Cooke’s “At the Copa” (1964) and a solid run of Henry Mancini score projects in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including “Peter Gunn,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Hatari” and “Mr. Lucky.”

At a 2014 Recording Academy event for the producers and engineers wing where Young was being honored, the rocker paid tribute to Schmitt, saying, “He’s the father of what’s going on here, and he’s still here. He has staying power. And he was recording the way that I want to record now.”

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Schmidt had turned 91 on April 21 and posted thanks to his friends then on a Facebook account he kept active up until the day before his death. “I want to thank everyone for you warm birthday wishes. I wish I could hug everyone of you. Much love,” he wrote.

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Said Patrick Kraus, UMG’s senior VP of recording studios and archive management: “We mourn the loss of our dear friend, Al Schmitt, and celebrate the life and legacy of one of the most accomplished engineers and producers who ever walked into a recording studio. Al worked with iconic artists on some of the biggest albums of all time. The list of his accomplishments – from Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to gold- and platinum-certified records – is long and distinguished. It’s hard to imagine Capitol Studios without Al at a console, dialing in a mix, catching up with one of his many friends or lighting the place up with his smile and laugh. He will be deeply missed.”

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