Legendary record producer Bill Szymczyk helped dial in sounds for The Eagles, Joe Walsh, The James Gang, The Who, Elvin Bishop, and The J. Geils Band. Many have argued that AOR [Album-Orientated Rock] radio was launched on a handful of producers' — including Szymczyk's — watch. His many hits for The Eagles only add weight to that theory.
Bill's first big break into the business as a producer would come courtesy of his late 1960's collaboration with blues legend B.B. King. "The Thrill is Gone's" title may have advertised a somber mood, but working side by side with B.B., Szymczyk remembers the studio vibe as being just the opposite. "He had a big smile on his face the first time he heard the first rundown of the mix. This was following a call I'd made to him at 2 o'clock in the morning. I'd dialed him up and said, 'I want to put strings on this.' And he said, 'What?' Then he said, 'Well, okay. I'll try it.' Because he believed in me. So I had Bert de Coteaux, who was my arranger at the time, write a nice string chart for it. The only thing I told Burt was, 'I want it to be dark. I want it to be not joyful in any way; the thrill is gone. I want it to be a dark string chart.' He brought it in and it was hypnotic. B.B. said, 'I want to come to the session,' and I said, 'Of course, come.' I was engineering the string overdubs, and glanced over at him. When he started smiling, I thought, 'Okay, I'm good now.' "
"When we started recording 'The Thrill is Gone,' the basic track for that was cut as the last tune on maybe a 7 to 11 p.m. session. I think B.B. was playing [his guitar] Lucille through a Fender amp, and he recorded vocals while he was playing guitar. I only overdubbed him vocally on one cut, and that was years later on 'Hummingbird.' On B.B.'s vocal for 'The Thrill is Gone,' and others, I tended to use some echo and some reverb; but nothing like we would do nowadays, with delays and whatnot. Ahead of the session starting, we'd sat down in the studio with the players and worked out the arrangement. He said, 'Okay, I like this.' He was all for it, and we did the whole album with my musicians. 'The Thrill is Gone' became one of his biggest hits. I was just flipping out over that. Working with B.B., I was thrilled at being able to record a legend, and have success doing it!"
Following success with B.B. King, it was the producer's kindred collaboration with lead guitarist Joe Walsh and his group The James Gang that first launched Szymczyk onto '70s rock radio. Looking back decades later on the sheer serendipity of it all, he hones in on his central role in discovering, and helping to shape, the solo career of Joe Walsh; something he counts among his proudest moments as a producer. "Once I'd had success with B.B., the record company said, 'Maybe you do know what you're doing,' I kept telling them, 'I want to sign my own band, because I'm not just a blues guy. I want to make a rock 'n' roll record.' They said, 'Okay, go out and find somebody, and sign them.' I had a friend of mine who used to be a roommate in New York, named Dick Korn, who had moved to Cleveland and was working as the manager/head bartender at this rock club called Otto's Grotto. It was in the basement of the Statler Hotel. He said, 'Man, there're a bunch of great acts coming through here. You've gotta come and check some of them out!' So I started going to Cleveland, and in the course of three or four visits, a band called The Tree Stumps — which was an awful name — came through. The lead singer was Michael Stanley, and I really liked his tunes and his voice. I signed them and changed their name to Silk. The next group I signed was a three-piece, power trio called The James Gang. I made records with both of them. Silk barely cracked the charts, but The James Gang got played a lot and that was the beginning of their career."
In the early '70s, between the James Gang's breakout hit "Funk #49," and later Joe Walsh solo smashes like...