When I first read about the dCS Legends series, which celebrates Grammy-winning engineers, I was surprised at just how many of these classic recordings I own and how I have a personal story for almost every one. When you glance at this list, you see Al Schmitt‘s name at the top, and that always reminds me that he had a lot to do with making Steely Dan’s Aja such an iconic recording.
Over the years I’ve owned several versions of Aja–if I remember correctly, it was the second Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs LP I ever bought, right after Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. Strangely enough, I no longer own the MoFi LP. I have the MoFi CD, and an old LP that I found at a flea market that wound up being in fair condition at best. I do play that Steely Dan CD a lot, but one day I will find a killer remaster on vinyl.
When I bought the MoFi LP back in the late ’70s, I wasn’t really a Steely Dan fan. The only reason I purchased it–at the whopping cost of $17.99–was because my buddy Dan was standing next to me at Licorice Pizza when I plucked it out of the bins. He told me that I had to get it. Not only did it sound fantastic, but Dan had already heard Crime of the Century at my house (I always had the best hi-fi of all my friends back then) and he knew it would be a sonic treat as well. By that time I was familiar with the Steely Dan songs “Peg” and “Josie” due to considerable radio airplay, but the song from Aja that always gets me right here is “Deacon Blues.” It’s just so poignant, and I love how Donald Fagen’s voice cracks when he sings “I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long.”
The real magic moment, which can be credited to Al Schmitt, is the way the whole song opens up just before the four-minute mark. The whole horn section comes in, and everything sounds sparkling and dynamic for just a few seconds. I still get goosebumps every time I hear it. Al Schmitt is still around at the age of 90–just five years ago he worked on Dylan’s Shadows in the Night.
As dCS continues the Legends series, I’ll discuss a few more of the titles–and engineers–who are special to me.