Legendary Record Producer Bill Szymczyk Reflects on Five Decades of Music and Friendship with Michael Stanley
“Michael Stanley Day” in Cleveland paid tribute to the North Coast rocker who passed away earlier this month. The City of Cleveland and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored him on what would have been his 73rd birthday. Kabir Bhatia has this remembrance with Stanley’s best friend, legendary record producer Bill Szymczyk.
“A friend of mine was tending bar at a place called Otto’s Grotto, which was a club in downtown Cleveland in the late ‘60s. I was a staff producer at ABC Records in New York at the time and my friend said, ‘there's a bunch of cool bands that are playing here.’ And one of them was a band called the Tree Stumps, which we changed their name to Silk, made an album, and that was the first time that I met Michael Stanley.”
KB: That first Silk album still holds up today, but Michael Stanley went solo not long after. And I understand you helped him change his name before his first album came out.
Szymczyk: “Well, in 1971 I had moved to Denver and started a record company [Tumbleweed Records] with a business partner. My partner signed a guy named Arthur Gee. And I signed Michael Stanley, who was [still using his last name of] Gee. Same spelling; different pronunciation. Arthur Gee's album came out first and we couldn't have two artists with the same name -- especially when they were pronounced slightly differently. So we're sitting in our office and I asked Michael, ‘what's your middle name?’ And he said ‘Stanley,’ and I went ‘Michael Stanley -- that'll work.’”
KB: Those first two records have backing from Joe Walsh and Barnstorm. Did Michael and Joe know each other from Northeast Ohio, or did you put that together?
Szymczyk: “I think they might have known each other in passing from having played in bands together in Ohio, but when it was time to make Michael’s solo record, I called Joe up immediately and said, ‘you know I need some hot licks on this album.’ And he definitely had no problem with that.”
KB: “How did the relationship change over the years as you went from producing and engineering to now executive producing his albums? Did he start listening to you more as time went on or how did it evolve?”
Szymczyk: “Initially I signed him, I was producer for the first Silk album, for those first two solo records, and for the first three Michael Stanley Band Records. Then after that, I had a job that was a day job which turned into a day-and-night/24-hour-a-day job which was working with the Eagles. So I didn't have the time to work with Michael anymore and he worked with people like ‘Mutt’ Lange and Eddie Kramer and Don Gehman and he went to famous producer school and for like five albums of the Michael Stanley Band, he had a new good producer on every album. So he learned that not only for me but he learned from a whole lot of other people and when he started doing his solo albums, he was the producer. By then he'd learned enough from all of us that he knew how to do this.”
KB: I know you worked with him right through today on the new album, ‘Tough Room.’ What kept you coming back to working with him? Was it the voice? His songs? How you got along? Maybe all of those?
Szymczyk: I would say all the above. We became real good friends -- over and above producer-and-artist. And the reason I like Michael all the way through is because his songwriting. That was the main thing from the beginning, with Silk; there was a couple of songs he wrote that I went, ‘well that's got potential.’ And as the years went on, he got progressively better and better and better as a writer. And to this day – with the new album -- there are some things which are his best writing by far. He's just a wonderful writer and that that's what drew me to him. We became very close friends and I consider him my very best friend and I'm very sorry to see him go.”
Bill Szymczyk began his career in 1964, engineering sessions for Quincy Jones. He later produced classic albums for Joe Walsh, J. Geils Band, and The Eagles. In 2016, he and Joe Walsh discussed the recording of "Hotel California."