In 1959, my brother, Don “Slick” Anderson (as he was known in college) brought home an album that was, at the time, No. 1 on the Billboard chart; it stayed on that chart for 177 weeks. The album was Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn. While Mancini lost that year’s Emmy for music, his triumph was that the album went on to receive the first Grammy for Album of the Year. Peter Gunn became an album that shaped my life as well. I know every note on it, and if you haven’t listened to it, recently or at all, you must. It should be a part of your jazz vocabulary. Go beyond the title track and appreciate the miniature masterpieces that lie there. You’ll find 11 classics that are three minutes or under. A few, like “Dreamsville,” have gone on to become jazz standards.
The sound of the album is effortless, natural, and doesn’t draw attention to itself. In other words, the product of good audio engineering. In other words, typical of an album engineered by Al Schmitt.
Being, like Mancini, natives of western Pennsylvania, we followed every note he penned, since he was a local hero to many of us. By following Mancini’s work, I was also following Al’s work. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Days of Wine and Roses, Charade, Mr. Lucky, Hatari!—all major works by Henry Mancini, all major recordings by Al Schmitt. I would venture to say that Al’s engineering and producing work, while perhaps invisible, is ubiquitous.
At this point, if Al were here, he would tap me on the shoulder to stop me and say, “Don’t use words like that! Nobody knows what that means!” Here’s what I mean by ubiquitous: The other day I was at a movie theater and a song came on prior to the film, a classic rock song from the late ’60s. Of course, the song was produced by Al. And then on came another classic tune from a few years later and, again, it was Al’s work.
Early in Al’s career, he moved on from being a staff engineer for RCA Victor’s Music Center of the World studio in Hollywood to being a staff producer for the RCA label and producing some of the biggest acts of the time: all household names, then and now.
The bios all say that Al was active for four decades, but by my count he was active in seven and just edged into an eighth, working continuously from the late ’50s through 2021. I loved hearing war stories from Al about sessions like the one for George Benson’s Breezin’ where Benson’s vocals were cut on a Shure SM57 [microphone]—not that there’s anything wrong with that—and Al later found out that the vocal track recorded at that session was the final vocal; there would be no re-recording later. Al made it work, but when it came to recording the follow-up album, he brought out a good German condenser for George’s vocals. I was told that Benson asked why couldn’t they use what was used the last time? The SM57. And I heard that the artist got his way, one more time.
Along with 160 gold and platinum albums, shall we just say that Al received many, many Grammys? More ubiquity. As of this writing, he’s received 36 Grammy nominations and 20 Grammy awards. One of my favorite memories of Al occurred my first time on the red carpet at the Grammys. Ahead of me, I saw Al with his wife Lisa. He had on a natty suit and tie, and he looked back and saw me. I couldn’t hear him, but I could read his lips. He said to me, “Good luck!” That’s the kind of guy Al was. Fortunately for me, that year Al didn’t have a nomination in my category. The next year, he did—and he won, of course!